I love Merriam-Webster’s definition of the word ‘pithy’ – “having substance and point: tersely cogent.” Four words that get funneled down to two. The definition pretty much affirms itself, doesn’t it?
I freely admit that I am quite the opposite of pithy when it comes to preaching and writing. I believe the word that best describes that is: verbose.
Being verbose is good if you (and the intended audience) have both the time and stamina. You get to flesh things out that might not be readily apparent and delve into common misconceptions about the subject matter which can also be quite revealing. But if you (or your audience) have neither the time nor the will for circumlocutions, then a pithy statement is necessary, along with the faith that underlying and foundational themes which are only implied will work their way into the consciousness of the listener. And that depends entirely upon those few words.
When it comes to the Word of God, it is best shared in the context of an ongoing relationship. That is what “discipleship” means. Explicating and demonstrating God’s Word over the course of time. Saying and showing. But what if you are not afforded the luxury of a relationship but sense the urgency of sharing something with that person who desperately needs God but rebuffs the notion of being discipled?
If you were only afforded the opportunity to share one sentence in the Bible to attempt to convey the entire biblical message and theme, which one would you choose? There is too much riding on it to go with a personal favorite. You have to go with “tersely cogent.”
Here are a few that I’m sure many would think fit the bill:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope (Jeremiah 29:11).
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Those are great (and I’m sure there are many more). But I believe there is one statement that cuts to the chase quicker and better. Its shorter (just seven words). On the surface, it is pretty straightforward. Yet, it implies far more than what is said and almost demands further inquiry. Let me set the table before bringing in the food. Try not to cheat and scroll down to find the verse. Permit me to talk about some of those implications before I reveal the words.
The first thing these seven potentially life-changing words do is to extol God’s greatness. While you would expect that to be lacking in the secular and humanistic realm it is shockingly diminished in and among Christian circles today. We hear a lot about how loving God is. We hear much about how accepting He is. You’ll hear how wonderful, kind, forgiving, accommodating, merciful, and marvelous God is in many a sermon or Sunday school lesson. But when you think about it, all those attributes are things we can find and admire in other people (though seldom all at once). Yet, we rarely hear how unique and “other” God is. That is to say, how vastly different from us God really is.
In truth, God is more than just a flawless version of humanity in general or any individual in particular (no matter how admired or beloved by the masses). The best description of God I’ve ever heard or read was the one given by St. Anselm in his ontological argument: “God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” You have to really let that soak and think that through for a moment. Stretch your mind and imagination to the limit on perfection, holiness, power, justice, grace, knowledge, and wisdom…and know that God is infinitely more and greater than that! You will never be able to fully comprehend either the totality or majesty of God. Even (perhaps especially) on the day you stand before Him.
I don’t know about you but I am rarely confronted with the God from whose “presence earth and sky fled away…” (Revelation 20:11). I don’t hear very much about a God who responded to Moses when asked if His glory could be seen directly warned, “[Y]ou cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). Just think about that! The face of God is so perfect, holy, and pure it cannot be seen by mortal man without disastrous consequence. I find that even in the church, God’s majesty and greatness are either ignored or taken for granted. There is little fear of or awe for God in today’s Christianity.
God is often viewed and treated more like a figurehead or an honorary Chair or a Pastor Emeritus than the One to whom the highest order of angels sing eternally, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Revelation 4:8). A veiled glimpse of the majesty of God in the heavenly temple elicited a wail of despair from the prophet Isaiah: “Woe is me! For I am lost…for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5)! When the resurrected and glorified Jesus Christ appeared to His beloved friend and disciple on the prison island Patmos, John wrote, “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (Revelation 1:17).
The first phrase of the sentence I will share with you below encapsulates quite well the urgency that is always associated with being in the presence of infinite power and glory that seems taken for granted today by so many, even those who should know better.
That brings me to the second part of the short sentence below. It involves the most difficult concept of Christianity. It’s the only true way to begin to fathom the enormity of God’s love, mercy, and grace. I write of the hard reality that “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5...no those aren't the seven words although they are pretty good). That is to say, our value will never be determined by what we accomplish in life and/or how many people revere us and hold us in high esteem. Rather, it is defined by our obedience to Jesus Christ and His embrace of our insignificant but humble servitude to Him.
It is only when we recognize our own devastating inadequacies before a perfect, righteous, and holy God that we even begin to comprehend the enormity of His love for both the human race and each individual. What I am trying to point out is probably best summed up (apart from the actual verse below) by the first sentence of what is probably the most beloved and recognized Christian hymn of all time (written by John Newton):
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
Far too many a churchgoer has the attitude that God should be grateful for their profession of faith, their regular church attendance, their financial support, and their service to the local church in particular and the cause of Christ in general. We know full well Jesus admonishes each follower to “deny himself and take up his cross” (Matthew 16:24) but we cannot help but advocate ourselves and reach for the ladder. It is not surprising that when Jesus told the apostles that it was extraordinarily difficult for a rich man to enter heaven they cried out “Who then can be saved?” (Matthew 19:23-25). Everyone strives for a better life that they imagine is available through wealth and the accompanying power and status that go with it.
The second phrase of this extremely powerful sentence reminds us that eternal life with God is not a goal to attain, a victory to accomplish, or a status to achieve. Perhaps the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount shed the brightest light on the phrase when He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).
So, if you haven’t cheated and scanned ahead to the end you are wondering what seven words imply the entire biblical narrative. What short sentence points to the magnitude of God’s glory, grace, and love and yet intones both a sense of the gravity of mankind’s dire situation but includes an implication of hope beyond measure?
They were uttered by John the Baptist when his disciples expressed both concern and alarm that people were beginning to migrate from John to Jesus. Here they are. Seven words that can change everything because they are saturated with God’s will, wisdom, and Spirit:
He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:30).
Those seven words say it all without unloading it all. Search them. Inquire of them. Heed them. Treasure them. But most of all, share them. Together, they are game and life changers.