Spiritual Ambition 

 

The Hope of the Gospel is described as a " high" or " Heavenly calling" (Phil. 3:14;  Heb. 3:1).    As high as Heaven is above earth, so high above our natural life is the Hope of the Kingdom.   Any who believe this Gospel must have a degree of spiritual ambition within them;  an awareness and belief that although we are earth-bound mortals, only dust and ashes with extremely limited horizons, yet one day we will share God's nature.   Thousands hear the Gospel but have no desire to realize the personal bearing of it;  the wonder of it all when applied to them personally is lost on them.   Yet we who have believed are prepared to rise up to grasp the reality of God's offer, we have " respect unto the recompense of the reward" (Heb. 11:26);  we have spiritual ambition.

In the humdrum of daily life, the flame of spiritual ambition burns dim.   Yet the art of spiritual life is to keep that ambition burning brightly.  

When we read that humanity is the "image and glory of God" (1 Cor. 11:7), it seems to me that Paul is stating something which is only potentially true- for he elsewhere says that we must be transformed into the image of God (2 Cor. 3:18), speaking of a progressive renewal in knowledge until we come to the image of our creator (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10; 2 Cor. 3:18). This kind of approach is common in Paul- he speaks of a state of being which we should rise up to, as if we already have it. He's surely inspiring us to rise up to our potential.

There is a Greek word which basically means 'to be ambitious', although it is poorly translated in most versions.   Its three occurrences are instructive.

" In this (body) we groan...we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened...we are always confident...we are confident, I say...Wherefore we labour (are ambitious), that...we may be accepted of Him.   For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ" (2 Cor. 5:1-10).   Notice the designed repetition of the words " groan" and " confident" .   The humdrum groaning of this life is related to our ambitious confidence that we really will be accepted at the day of judgment.   The very thought of acceptance on that day requires real ambition, an ambition that will lift us right up out of the 'groaning' of this life.

Paul prays that “every desire of goodness” which there is in the Thessalonians will be fulfilled (2 Thess. 1:11 RV). He assumed they had such spiritual ambition, and wanted to see it realized. Spiritual ambition means that we will desire to do some things which we can’t physically fulfil- and yet they will be counted to us. Abraham is spoken of as having offered up Isaac- his intention was counted as the act. And Prov. 19:22 RV appropriately comments: “The desire of a man is the measure of his kindness”. It is all accepted according to what a man has, not what he has not.

Ambition In Preaching

Preaching, on whatever scale, involves a certain spirit of spiritual ambition;  for example, the hope and faith that a leaflet, a mere piece of paper, might be the means of directing someone on to the Kingdom road.   That a scrappy piece of paper, a passing comment at a bus stop should really lead a small mortal towards the eternal glory of God's nature...without spiritual ambition the preacher just wouldn't bother to start.   Paul was the supreme model of ambition in preaching:  " I have fully preached the gospel of Christ.   Yea, so have I strived (been ambitious, RV mg.) to preach the gospel" (Rom. 15:19,20).   In his last days (or hours?) Paul's mind returned to these words.   His swansong in 2 Tim. 4:17 is a direct allusion to Rom. 15:19:  " The Lord stood with me, and strengthened me;  that by me the preaching might be fully known, and that all the Gentiles might hear" (1) Paul's reference here to 'completing the Gospel from Jerusalem and in a circle as far as Illyricum' is a window into his ambition in preaching. He speaks of his ambition to preach in Spain; and so we get the impression of him planning a circle starting in Jerusalem, curving north-west, then further west to Rome, and then south-west to Spain. To complete the circle to Jerusalem would have involved him preaching in North Africa- where there were major Jewish centers, e.g. Alexandria. Perhaps he implies that his ambition was to preach there too, in order to 'complete the circle of the gospel'. .

It seems that Paul on his own initiative developed this ambition to spread the Gospel as far as he could. The Lord knew this before, but this does not mean that Paul was explicitly ordered to spread the Gospel as far as possible.   Paul was no puppet, otherwise the account of his personal ambition in this area is meaningless.   Of course, we do not all share Paul's abilities.   Educationally, socially, linguistically, family-wise Paul had such gifts and opportunities.   He used them to fuel his ambition to spread the word as far as he could.   There are many in our community today who have what it takes to spread the word worldwide.   If only we could treat our careers as Paul did his tent-making, and capture the spirit of his ambition to spread the word!   But for every one of us the idea of being ambitious to preach the Gospel is still valid.   Swinging conversations round to the Truth, leaving a tract in a bus...the spirit of ambition will fire us up to more urgent efforts. There is reason to think that the early believers could strive to possess certain gifts. Paul seems to be teaching in 1 Cor. 12 and 14 that they ought to be ambitious to possess the gifts which would lead to the wider spreading of God's word, both in the world and in the ecclesia. Again, he is advocating some kind of spiritual ambition.

The final reference to ambition brings us back to the daily grind:  " ...that ye study (be ambitious) to be quiet, and to do your own business...that ye may walk honestly toward them that are without" (1 Thess. 4:11,12).   " That ye study (be ambitious) to be quiet" presents a powerful opposition of ideas;  to have heroic ambition to be quiet;  to be self-controlled, living a blameless spiritual life in everyday things (this is what the idiom of " walk" refers to). In 2 Thess. 3:12,13, Paul returns to this idea: He tells them once again to live a quiet  life, and says in that context: " Be not weary in (such) well doing" . Yet he asks them in 1 Thess. 4:11 to be ambitious to be quiet. Surely he is encouraging them not to be weary in living a life of such ambition. And this is not the only reference to ambition in Thessalonians. Paul praises them for the brotherly love which they undoubtedly had. But he doesn't just say 'Keep it up!'. He exhorts them to increase in it, more and more (1 Thess. 4:10).

There are other suggestions of spiritual ambition which don't directly use this Greek word. Consider how the Lord taught ambition in prayer- He put before His men the real possibility of moving a mountain into the sea, if that was what was required (Mk. 11:23). This example wasn't off the top of His head; He was consciously alluding to Job 9:5, where Job says that God alone, but not man, can do something like moving a mountain into the sea. And the Lord is saying: 'Yes, God alone can do it; but such is the potential power of prayer, that He will hearken to your requests to do such things- and do them'. The whole process of Nazariteship was to encourage the normal Israelite to have the ambition to rise up to the spirit of the High Priest himself; the restrictions governing Nazariteship were a purposeful echo of those regarding the High Priest. The way God describes Himself as depriving Israel of " wine or strong drink" (Dt. 29:6) throughout the wilderness journey is Nazarite language: as if in all their weakness and profligacy, God still sought to inspire them to rise up to the heights.

The Ambition Of Christ

The Lord Jesus was the supreme example of spiritual ambition in daily life.   When the disciples debated about who would be greatest in the Kingdom, Christ said that " If any man desire to be first, the same shall be...servant of all" (Mk. 9:34,35).   Christ was the " servant of all" because He desired to be the greatest in the Kingdom.   It was this ambition which motivated His endurance of the daily cross of His life:  " Whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant:  even as the Son of man came...to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mt. 20:27,28). He was drawing on the ideas of Hos. 13:1, where Ephraim exalted himself when he humbled himself to speak to God with the trembling of a true humility. The Lord Jesus was not esteemed by men in His death (Is. 53:3); the same word occurs in Dan. 4:17, concerning how Yahweh will exalt the basest, the least esteemed, to be King over the kingdoms of this world. That made-basest man was a reference to the Lord Jesus. He humbled Himself on the cross, that He might be exalted. Peter had his eye on this fact when he asks us to humble ourselves, after the pattern of the Lord, that we might be exalted in due time (1 Pet. 5:6).  Christ desired greatness in the Kingdom, and so can we;  for the brighter stars only reflect more glory of the Sun (1 Cor. 15:41).   This very thought alone should lift us up on the eagle wings of Spirit above whatever monotony or grief we now endure.

The thought of the Lord Himself being spiritually ambitious may explain a problem which has been in my mind for some time. God promised Abraham a very specific inheritance in Canaan. And yet this promise seems to be interpreted in later Scripture as referring to the world-wide Kingdom which will be established at the second coming (e.g. Rom. 4:13 speaks of how Abraham was promised that he would inherit the world; Ps. 72 and other familiar prophecies speak of a world-wide Messianic Kingdom, based on the promises to Abraham). One possible explanation is found in Psalm 2, where the Father seems to encourage the Son to ask of Him " the heathen [i.e., not just the Jews] for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth [not just the land of promise] for thy possession" (Ps. 2:8). Could it be that due to the Lord's spiritual ambition, the inheritance was extended from the Jewish people to all nations, and from literal Canaan to all the earth? This is not to say, of course, that fundamentally the promises to Abraham have been changed. No. The promise of eternal inheritance of Canaan still stands as the basis of the Gospel of the Kingdom (Gal. 3:8), but that promise has been considerably extended, thanks to the Lord's spiritual ambition.

The Spirit Of Heroism

There is a certain heroism in our spiritual lives.   " We poor weak ones, we poor sinners" trapped within the moral and intellectual limits of our own very natures, only dust and ashes, are struggling to throw away our chains, to rise up to heavenly things, things altogether above our grasp - and somehow we are succeeding.  The very fact that we want to rise up to the heights commends us to God. When the rich young man, in his zeal for righteousness, claimed: " Master, all these have I observed from my youth" , the Lord didn't rebuke him for self-righteousness; instead, He beheld Him (with His head cocked to one side?), He took a long wistful look at Him,  and loved him (Mk. 10:21). The Lord had a wave of warmth come over Him for that arrogant young man, simply because He appreciated the evident spiritual ambition which was within him. It was for this reason that the Father so loved the Son. God caused the Lord Jesus to approach unto Him; " for who would dare of himself to approach unto me?" (Jer. 30:21 RSV). The Father confirmed the Son in His spiritual ambition, recognizing that very few men would rise up to the honour of truly approaching unto God. The whole way of life of the righteous man is described as seeking God, knowing we will eventually find Him when the Lord returns to change our natures (2 Chron. 15:2). So many times does David parallel those who seek God with those who keep His word (e.g. Ps. 119:2). We will never achieve perfect obedience; but seeking it is paralleled with it. We are coming to know the love of Christ which passes our natural knowledge (Eph. 3:19), to experience the peace of God that passes our natural understanding (Phil. 4:7).   We are asked to be perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect (Mt. 5:48); to have the faith of God (Mk. 11:22 AVmg.). By faith in the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, we can attain these heights; but not in our own strength. In our every spiritual struggle and victory against the flesh throughout the day, we are playing out the finest and highest heroism that any playwright could conceive:  the absolute underdog, the outsider without a chance, winning, at the end, the ultimate victory against impossible odds.

Our very nature is inclined against spiritual ambition: " There is none (not one) that seeketh after God" (Rom. 3:11). But somehow we are " always" , time and again, caused to triumph in Christ (2 Cor. 2:14), participating day by day (and hour by hour at times) in His triumphant victory procession (so the allusion to the Roman 'triumph' implies). The spirit of ambition shouldn't just be an occasional flare in our lives; it should characterize our whole way of living and thinking. And at the very, glorious end, we will in fact be granted something well beyond the highest spiritual ambition we may now have; a salvation exceeding abundant above all we ask or think (Eph. 3:20- this is a description of salvation rather than present blessings). When the Lord Jesus promised those who overcome that they would sit down with Him in His throne (Rev. 3:21), He was surely casting a glance back at the way His men had asked to sit at His right and left hand, in His glory (Mk. 10:37). He knew He was promising a future glory far above what to them must have been the heights of their spiritual ambition. It seems to me that we undervalue our sins of omission. A lack of spiritual ambition is in fact a sin. When Asa was threatened by his enemies, he hired the Syrians to drive them away- and he was condemned for this, being told that he should instead have had the ambition to ask God to deliver the mighty Syrians into his hand, as well as his enemies (2 Chron. 16:7). He was reminded that the Angelic eyes of the Lord are running to and fro in our support (2 Chron. 16:9), as Asa would have theoretically acknowledged. But his sin of omission, his lack of an ambitious vision, incited the Father’s anger. We need to meditate carefully upon this, because it surely has many similarities with 21st century life, where money and ‘hiring’ worldly help is so easy…

Ruth seems to me to be a wonderful example of a spiritually ambitious person. It was unheard of in those times for a woman to propose to a man; yet by coming to him, uncovering his feet and laying under his mantle, she was stating that she wished to see him as a manifestation of God to her (Ruth 3:7,9 = Ruth 2:12). She went  after him, following him (Ruth 3:10); the poor, landless Gentile aspired to be a part of a wealthy Jewish family, in order to fulfil the spirit of the Law. And she attained this.

Such examples of spiritual ambition are inspirational; just as soldiers inspire each other by their acts of bravery. Achsah followed her father Caleb’s spiritual ambition in specifically asking for an inheritance in the Kingdom (Josh. 14:12; 15:18); and this in turn inspired another woman to ask for an inheritance soon afterwards (Josh. 17:4). And so it ought to be in any healthy congregation of believers. Ponder the parallel between Is. 51:1 and 7: “Hearken to me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the Lord…hearken unto me, ye that know righteousness”. To know God’s righteousness is to seek / follow it; of itself, it inspires us to ambitiously seeking to attain it.

As husbands struggle to show the peerless love of Christ to their wives, to reflect His sublime patience, as brethren from different cultures and backgrounds strive to get on with each other, as we each try to reflect the supreme love of God to the world around us, as we fight the continual promptings of our inner natures - in these humdrum things of daily life in Christ we should sense this spirit of heroism, - almost of adventure - of struggle towards a realistic end: true spiritual ambition.


Notes

(1) Paul seems to want to inculcate the spirit of ambition in preaching when he told Corinth that they should be ambitious to gain those Spirit gifts which would be most useful in public rather than private teaching of the word (1 Cor. 14:1,12). In similar vein Paul commends those who were ambitious (from the right motives) to be bishops (1 Tim. 3:1). Perhaps men like Jephthah (Jud. 11:9) and Samson (14:4) were not wrong to seek to be the judges who delivered Israel from the Philistines.