We continue our series The Fruit of the Spirit by considering the eighth virtue that Paul mentions, goodness.
Earlier in the service Carrie asked the question, “What does it mean to be good?” We talk about good weather, good news, good deals, and good luck. We say that coffee is “good to the last drop” and that fried chicken is “finger-licking good.” What does it mean to say that a person is good? Maybe almost nothing. A person can be a good comedian or a good cook, even a good liar. We talk about our children as being a good girl or good boy but often describe our dogs in the same manner.
What does goodness mean as a Christian trait? The Greek word translated for goodness is a jaw-breaker, agathosune. William Barkley suggests that one way we can understand this particular fruit of the Spirit is by comparing it with the virtue of justice, that quality which gives to another person what is right, what is fair, what is legal. Goodness goes far beyond justice, however. Goodness offers more than is required and desires to give everything that a person needs. Barkley explains that goodness is genuine generosity.
You may ask, “Kirk, are you going to step on my toes today?” When we broach the topic of generosity, I may very well step on your toes. Dr. John Slaughter used to say that the most sensitive nerve in the human body is the one that runs from the brain to the pocketbook. He is probably right.
A Sunday School class wanted to help a family that had lost everything to a house fire. After a fundraiser, the members discussed ways to use the money. The class considered making a down payment on three appliances: a stove, a refrigerator, and a washing machine. That plan would have actually put the family in the difficult situation of trying to meet the monthly payments.
The voice of reason prevailed, and someone suggested, “If we really want to help the family, let’s purchase a refrigerator and encourage other classes to donate the other two appliances.”
That case illustrates a definition of true goodness. Goodness goes beyond what seems to be right, what seems to be fair, and looks for the very best way to help another person.
Barkley suggests that another way to understand the virtue of goodness is to hold it in sharp contrast to what we call evil. He cites a parable Jesus told about laborers in the vineyard. There, goodness describes generosity while evil describes envy or greed. In Matthew 6:19-21, which is part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says,
“Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, where thieves break in and steal. But store for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
Then Jesus immediately seems to shift topics in Verse 22 when he speaks of the eye. The passage seems out of context for us. Jesus says, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are evil, your whole body will be full of darkness.” You have heard the phrase “an evil eye.” The contrast is that if a person is full of goodness, if a person is truly helpful, he becomes a person of light. If the person is full of evil, he becomes a person of darkness.
Turn with me to I Timothy 6:5-6, a very important passage for all of us. Paul, in describing the use of money, gives a warning to those who think that godliness is a means to financial gain. He is addressing preachers, evangelists, people who have been called into the ministry, saying,
These are the things you are to teach and insist on. 3 If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, 4 they are conceited and understand nothing. They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions 5 and constant friction between people of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.
Paul then adds in Verse 6: “But godliness with contentment is great gain.”
Think about the many abuses of financial gain. My friend Bruce Foster used to say that no one should go into ministry unless he can make more money doing something else. Ministry should not be the last resort as a career. If a person’s goal is to make money, there ought to be a better way than entering the ministry. A hard point to remember is that when a person is called into ministry, financial gain is not the goal.
Consider Verse 7: “For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.”
A young minister, Dave Hopkins, flew in from Mexico this past week to assist me in a funeral Thursday. When I spoke with him just before the service, he told me, “The airline lost my luggage. The only clothing I had was the pair of khaki pants and an orange Greg Norman shirt I had worn on the flight.”
I told him, “That probably would have been alright.”
He added, “I thought I needed a suit for this funeral, and on my way to buy one, I saw a Good Will store. A sign in the window advertised ‘Suits for $1.’ I stopped and bought one my size. I tried to pay $5 for it, but the cashier would only take $1.”
Reverend Hopkins was wearing a nice looking suit. Who would have ever known?
His tale brought to mind a story about a preacher who needed to purchase a black suit on the occasions when he preached funerals. Looking for a deal, he went to a pawn shop and saw a suit his size.
When he told the pawn dealer he wanted to buy the suit, the dealer said, “It’s $10. I need to tell you that it is not new. It has been used before by a funeral home to dress cadavers when the person did not have a suit to wear. The home dressed the body in the suit just for the showing and then removed it before the burial.”
Regardless, the man bought the suit. The first time he wore that suit for a funeral, he reached to put his hand in his pocket and discovered that the suit did not have pockets. He thought, Of course! A cadaver doesn’t need pockets!
Verse 7: “For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing with us.”
You have heard the story about the guy who said he was going to test this theory. He told three of his buddies, “When I die, each of you put $100 bill in my casket. Let’s see if I can take it with me.”
When he died, the first friend came to view his body and placed $100 in the casket. The second friend did likewise. The third friend also put something in the casket, but no one could tell what it was.
Following the service, the other two men said, “We saw you put something in the casket. What was it?”
The fellow answered, “I didn’t have the right change, so I just wrote a check for $300 and took out the other $200.”
Paul gives a warning: the love of money, not money, is the root of all kinds of evil.
9 Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
In Verse 17, Paul talks about those who have money.
17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19 In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.
Goodness means having that kind of generosity. You see that Paul used the same statement that Jesus used in the Sermon on the Mount: “They will lay up for themselves treasures as a firm foundation for the coming age so that they may take hold of life which is truly life indeed” (Matthew 6:19-21).
Maybe the best way to understand goodness is by looking at a few characters from the Bible. Acts 9 tells about a woman called Tabitha or Dorcas who lived in the seaport town of Joppa. She was known for her generosity and assistance to the poor. Upon her death, her friends, fellow women in the community, showed Simon Peter the clothing that Dorcas had sewn to distribute to the poor. She was called a good woman because she gave what she could.
Another character named Joseph serves as an example of goodness is an Old Testament. He started out being a smart aleck, flaunting his special-favored position with his father, Jacob. Joseph wore a robe of many colors, given to him by his father, as a way of saying to his brothers, “I am not a field hand. I am going to be in the house, not in the field working.” His brothers resented his attitude. As if to add insult to injury, Joseph had the poor taste to tell his dreams before breakfast. In his account he related how his brothers and even his mother and father bowed down to him.
Joseph’s brothers took revenge, putting him in a cistern. They killed an animal and covered that coat of many colors with blood to convince their father that he was dead. They then sold him into slavery. He was taken to Egypt where he became a slave in the household of Potiphar. Joseph, one of those people who are like cream, always rose to the top. He became Potiphar’s trusted chief servant, put in charge of everything in his household.
Potiphar’s wife, however, was up to no good. She seduced young Joseph and grabbed his coat when he tried to pull away from her. She lied to her husband, saying, “That slave of yours tried to accost me. I have his clothes.” Joseph’s clothes once again got him in trouble.
Potiphar could have had Joseph executed. Instead, he had Joseph thrown in jail, an indication that Potiphar questioned his wife’s story. In prison, Joseph again rose to the top. The prison guards made him the head of all the prisoners. Other prisoners also trusted Joseph. When an imprisoned baker and a cupbearer to Pharaoh both had dreams, Joseph gave an accurate interpretation.
Joseph had told the cupbearer, “Remember me when you are free,” but the cupbearer did not immediately remember Joseph. It was only when Pharaoh himself began having dreams that the cupbearer remembered Joseph’s ability. After hearing Joseph’s interpretation, Pharaoh made him the secretary of agriculture. Pharaoh’s trust allowed Joseph to again rise to the top.
Joseph created a storehouse and stored plenty of grain during the seven prosperous years, so that when the land experienced seven years of famine, food would be available. You read in the Scripture that Joseph was very glad to see his own brothers come from the land of Israel to purchase food. On a number of instances he contrived to get his younger brother and father down to Egypt. Finally the whole family was reunited because of Joseph’s goodness.
Maybe the greatest evidence of his goodness comes at the end of the book of Genesis. When Old Jacob died and his brothers were afraid that Joseph was finally going to take revenge, Joseph assured them, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). One of the greatest expressions of goodness is being able to forgive as we have been forgiven.
Another fellow named Joseph appears in the book of Acts in the New Testament. You know him best as Barnabas, called “The Son of Encouragement.” His very name is an example of his goodness. It is interesting to note that until Acts 11, Barnabas’s name always appears before Paul’s name when the two are mentioned together.
Can you give me any quote from Barnabas? No. We do not have one single word recorded from him. In this case, actions speak louder than words when it comes to goodness. Barnabas acted with goodness in so many situations, always behind the scenes. He introduced Paul to the disciples in Jerusalem. He was generous with his possessions, giving a piece of land to help the early church when it was struggling. He was happy to see the success of others. He was not envious at all.
When Paul and Barnabas finished their mission to Jerusalem, they returned and took a young man named John Mark with them. Later when Paul and Barnabas are ready for a second missionary journey to visit the churches, Barnabas wanted John Mark to accompany them. Paul said no and the two went their separate ways. Paul took Silas on that journey, and Barnabas returned to Cyprus with John Mark. No word is recorded about Barnabas after that separation.
You are familiar with the third man named Joseph, whose story appears in Matthew 1. This simple carpenter from a place called Nazareth is engaged to be married to a young woman named Mary. When he found out that she was pregnant out-of-wedlock, his very first thought was to put her aside. In a dream, however, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and directed, “Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. The child has been conceived by the Holy Spirit.”
Do you believe in the virgin birth? Joseph did. Though really a foster-father to Jesus, he was a good man who took care of his wife and his entire family. He protected his oldest child, Jesus, by taking him to Egypt to avoid the infanticide of Herod in Bethlehem.
When it comes to goodness, it is not so much what we say or how we define it; goodness is the way we live. Our example is God himself. We say that God is great. He is. We say that God is good. What do we mean? We mean that God is merciful, that God is benevolent. We mean that God constantly provides for us. We can never out-give God. Our motivation for goodness is to be to God what God is to us. We are to be good to God and to God’s people. God expresses His generosity in Christ Jesus.
One statement about the goodness of God is unparalleled in all of Scripture. I want us to read Psalm 23 in unison.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
God is great. God is good. He calls us to a life of goodness, to a life of generosity. That life begins when we accept Jesus Christ, when we acknowledge him as the Lord of our lives. Could I please invite you to acknowledge Christ Jesus as your Savior? Some of you have other decisions to make. You know what they are. You respond.Kirk H. Neely © August 2012