Required reading for businessmen in past decades has been a book called In Search of Excellence by Thomas Peters and Roger Waterman (Harper & Row, 1982). And business writers tell us that if a business is going to survive these difficult times, it had better make excellence its number one goal.
I believe that God’s church is just the same. There is no shortage of churches, but there is a shortage of people willing to make the commitment and effort to excel in their Christian faith.
In I Corinthians 14:12 we read, “Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church” (NIV). Then in II Corinthians 8:7, “But just as you excel in everything — in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us — see that you also excel in this grace of giving.” Those are powerful verses! And both use the key word “excel”.
These verses were written to a Pentecostal or Charismatic church. Look at I Corinthians chapters 8-14 where the Pentecostal experience is mentioned constantly. Yet one year later, when II Corinthians was written, there is no mention of the Pentecostal manifestations of speaking in tongues, interpretation, prophecy, word of knowledge, word of wisdom, discerning of spirits, faith, gifts of healing and working of miracles. The emphasis in II Corinthians, just one year later, was on excellence “in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness… in your love for us… in this grace of giving”.
What is excellence?
The word “excel” is translated as “super-abundance” in some translations. It is the same word used for life “more abundantly” in John 10:10, “I am come that they might have life… more abundantly”. It is also used in the story of the prodigal son, “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!’ ” (Luke 15:17). “To spare” is the translation of this same Greek word, meaning to excel, to abound, to go above and beyond.
I was watching men’s gymnastics and particularly the vault exercise. There is a long runway, and at the other end is a large wooden horse. I watched a Russian gymnast charge up the runway, do a somersault, hit the high part of the take-off board perfectly, go up in the air, stand on his hands on the vault, then do a double somersault and twist, and come down to a perfect landing, with no step, no movement at all, facing in the direction from which he came. The judges gave him 10 marks out of 10, and he deserved it. That was excellence! Just think about what that gymnast did to achieve excellence. In a similar way, hand a trumpet to James Morrison or Phil Driscoll, and you will hear excellence. Excellence is available to everyone who will supply the commitment and effort.
I do not want to spend time on excellence in spiritual things, which in the context of I Corinthians 14:12 refers to the Pentecostal manifestations, because since the first major expression in modern times at Azusa Street, Los Angeles in 1906, we have had over 90 years of excellence in the operation of these spiritual manifestations. I believe in them, and they should be in use within the church. But it seems to me that since they do not receive a mention in II Corinthians 8:7, it is obvious that such manifestations are not the be all and end all of the Christian faith. The omission of these manifestations is saying to us that while this special equipment is given to the church that it might grow and develop, there are other parts of the Christian life that must be addressed.
Excellence in faith
The first item in II Corinthians 8:7 is excellence in faith, and that is a good place to start. The old spiritual says, “Everybody talking about heaven ain’t going there.” And not everybody talking about faith necessarily excels in faith. Yet this verse states that Christians can excel in faith.
In Romans 12:3 we read about “…the measure of faith God has given you.” Everyone has faith. I have faith when I put the key in the ignition of my car and turn it. I have faith when I come into a building and sit down on a chair — faith that the chair will hold me up. Faith is a gift that everyone has. God wants us to excel, to be superabundant, to have more than enough and spare, to be over and above in the operation of our faith for His glory.
Then the Bible encourages us in Hebrews 12:2 to “…fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” The impact of the words “fix our eyes” is to look away from all else unto Jesus. It is having tunnel vision on Jesus. “Fix our eyes on Jesus…” Why? Because, as Moffatt translates it, He is “the pioneer and perfecter of the faith”.
Since Jesus has pioneered and perfected how faith works (and I’m glad he did), then we can follow in His steps. We have the record of many actions that Jesus took. Enough has been recorded in the Gospels for us to see how faith works. We also have the book of Acts, recording how the apostles made faith work. Then we have the church epistles, teaching us about faith and how it operates. Since Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of faith, we can follow in His footsteps. I think we can all agree that Jesus excelled in the operation of faith. And if He excelled, we can excel too.
Galatians 2:20 takes this matter a step further, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” The King James version states, “I live by the faith of the Son of God.” We can excel in faith because Jesus pioneered it and perfected it, and since Christ is living in us, the life we are living is on the basis of that kind of faith.
Faith is defined in Hebrews 11:1 in this way, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” “Faith is an assumption”, is my preferred translation. When I travel by plane I make an assumption that there is a pilot up the front of the plane. I rarely see one, but I assume that there is at least one in the cockpit. That is faith, because if there was any doubt about whether that plane has a pilot, I would not get on. I make the assumption, and I get on the plane. Faith is an assumption, and faith makes an affirmation. Faith declares, “I’m going to get on this plane, and I’m going to get to my destination.” Faith is an assumption, makes an affirmation, and takes an action. I must get out of my house, get in the car, drive to the airport, show my ticket at the counter, and walk up the ramp on to the plane. There has to be action.
Since different people apply faith with different results, we could say that there is a kindergarten level of faith, a grade-school level, a high-school level, a college level and so on. It is the same faith, but being exercised on a different level.
Let’s excel in faith. And how do we do that? The same way as the gymnast excelled in his vaulting. We practise faith. We use it every day, every moment of the day. We do it the same way as James Morrison became a leading trumpet player. He picked up his trumpet and blew into the mouthpiece every day. He fiddled with it, he had fun with it, he tried out this, he tried out that, but he used it day in and day out. Excel in faith — the believers at Corinth did, and we can too!.
Excellence in speech
The second encouragement is to excellence “in speech”. Now I know that most folk are good at this. I do not have to encourage you to speak every day in the same way as to use faith every day. Almost everyone is good at talking, and some people are excellent at it.
There are three major areas we should consider in our speech (see my book Four Keys to Daily Positive Living). We should first be excelling in our speech as we talk to God. That is our first line of communication. “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1). “And not faint” or “lose heart”, as some translations have it.
If you are having trouble with prayer, the best advice I ever read was to talk to God about it. That is what prayer is all about: talking to God. We need to develop and excel in our talking to our Father. The Christian life is a love relationship between a Father and His children. Talking to God is as easy as talking to someone you love. I know how to talk to my wife in kind tones, because I love her. And prayer to God should be no different from that — having a conversation with the one we love. We talk about things in which we have a common interest.
Another area in which we need to excel in our speech is as we talk to others. People are not going to come to faith in God unless you speak to them. Remember the man out of whom Jesus cast a demon? He said in effect, “Let me stay with you, Lord. Let me join the party and travel with you.” The record states that “Jesus did not let him, but said, ‘Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you’.” (Mark 5:19). God has planted us where we are so that we can reach our relatives, our street, our workplace with the good news about God. Excel in speech to others!.
The third area in which I suggest we excel in speech is to talk to ourselves. Twenty or thirty years ago, people would have said that you were mad if they caught you talking to yourself. If they had found out that a golfer sat in his hotel room and talked to himself about his game, and visualized that little white ball dropping into the hole, they would have classed that man as weird. But now it is an accepted psychological fact that you can benefit by talking to yourself.
Note this truth from Hebrews 13:5 and 6: “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you’. So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?'” We must excel in our speech by saying what the Word says. The Greek word for “confess” is homologeo — saying the same word. We must excel in saying the same as the Word says.
“Because he has said… we may boldly say” (King James Version). We should be saying, “I am more than a conqueror in him that loved me”. We should be saying, “I am blessed with heaven’s best.” We should be saying, “God is my instant, constant, and abundant source of supply.” I am a strong believer in affirmations. I say them not to make things happen, but because they are the truth. I say what God says about me.
“Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears. Let the weakling say, ‘I am strong!'” (Joel 3:10). Say what the Word says. People often tell me they cannot say they are well when they have a cold. They say it is telling a lie. No, it’s not. It’s saying what God says about the situation. Let’s start talking God language. Let’s excel in talking to God, in talking to others, and talking to ourselves.
Excellence in knowledge
We are to excel in knowledge. Thirty years ago experts were talking about a knowledge explosion in the world. They really had no idea of just how quickly knowledge would increase. There is so much knowledge around now that we are almost drowning in a sea of knowledge! “Information overload” has become an accepted phrase in our vocabulary. Is this what God is talking about? Well, not specifically. Jesus said we should be as wise as serpents (Matthew 10:16), so there is no premium on ignorance.
I believe II Corinthians 8:7 is talking, first of all, about a knowledge of God. The Christian’s greatest need is to know God. Not to know about Him, although we certainly should do that as we study His Word, but to know Him on a personal, experiential level. Our greatest need is to excel in our knowledge of God. What is God like? What does He think about us?
We must stop seeing God as the big policeman in the sky, ready to hit us over the head when we step out of line. God loves us. God has only the best for us. In fact, I teach that God has nothing better to do all day than to look after us. You say, “That’s a bit selfish, isn’t it?” No, it is what the Word says. Psalm 91:7 states that “A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.” Is that selfish? No, that is what God says. That is how God looks after His children. Burn this one thought into your mind: God has nothing better to do than to take care of me. That’s true! So let’s excel in our personal knowledge of God.
Of course, we also need a knowledge of the Word of God. I am a teacher of the Word. I have nothing to say apart from the Word. To me it’s always the Word, the whole Word, nothing but the Word. We all need a daily dose of God’s positive Word. As we do, we will excel in knowledge. “A verse a day keeps the devil away” is a slogan I picked up somewhere. Meditate on just one verse a day — that is 365 verses a year!
We should also excel in our knowledge about ourselves. Psalm 139:14 says, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” We should increase our knowledge about our physical bodies. We should also increase our knowledge about how God wants us to see ourselves. When you look in the mirror every morning, say to yourself, “I am God’s workmanship, His masterpiece, and God doesn’t produce any flops!”
Excellence in complete earnestness
“Complete earnestness or diligence” is how some other translations render the phrase in II Corinthians 8:7. The Christian church needs committed people. We need people who excel in “complete earnestness” about living the Christian life Monday through Sunday, people with a complete earnestness about putting their weight behind the life of the fellowship. Nothing but complete earnestness fits the Biblical pattern.
I’ll give you an example of complete earnestness. I was staying with a minister friend one time who is completely earnest about a certain football team who wear brown and yellow uniforms. He and his son and some friends left home at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning, drove over four hours to see the football match, and arrived home about 11 p.m. that night. That is complete earnestness. Are we willing to demonstrate that same earnestness for the Lord? Are we willing to do that to come to fellowship? We need to excel in diligence and complete earnestness in our Christian life.
Excellence in your love for teachers
The next area in which we can excel is in our love for those who teach us God’s positive Word. The text says to excel “in your love for us”, and Paul was the one who was teaching them the Word of God. We, as believers need to find ways to excel in love for our teachers. It can be a very lonely life to be the teacher, the leader of a fellowship. Let’s love our teachers to life! They are human and they are in the same family as we are. Let’s excel in our love for them.
Excellence in the grace of giving
Finally it says in II Corinthians 8:7, “See that you also excel in this grace of giving.” I find it very interesting that having gone through excelling in spiritual matters in I Corinthians 14:12, and excelling in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness, in your love for your teacher, there was still one area where the Corinthians very much needed to exercise excellence — the area of giving. You are not a well-rounded Christian until you have learned to give.
Giving is not an optional extra. I believe the principle of giving and receiving is perhaps the foundational principle on which the whole universe is based. Nature gives to us, the Son gives to us, God gives to us. And what do we do? Grasp, grasp, grasp. There are two choices — we either give or we grasp. “One man gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty” (Proverbs 11:24).
The context of the key verse is II Corinthians 8. In verse 2 it speaks about the churches in Macedonia, “Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.” From poverty to plenty. Why? Because they gave. From rags to riches, “extreme poverty” to “rich generosity”. They excelled in the grace of giving. Notice the basis on which they gave. “And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will” (II Corinthians 8:5).
Then verse 8, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” Poverty to plenty yet again, this time provided for us by the work of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary.
Paul goes on in the rest of chapter 8 and then chapter 9 to tell the believers how much he appreciated the gift they sent him last year. So they had already given! Now Paul was saying to them that they needed to excel in the grace of giving. It was not and is not a case of giving one gift, no matter how large it might be.
Some people just give for a specific need but they have not yet excelled in the grace of giving. Some delight in making a large gift to some special project, but other folk, who give week in and week out, outgive the folk who give the large gift. The grace of giving is to give consistently and proportionately. Then, when a need does come, we have already made our deposits in the Bank of Heaven, and we can call upon them whenever we have a need. Make a quality commitment to excel in the grace of giving also.
Let’s return to I Corinthians 14:12, “Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church.” Why do we want the church built up? Not so that we can go to the next church growth conference and talk about how many people are attending. Not because we want a mega church, but because we want God’s kingdom to be built up, not just in church growth but in church health.
We want it to be a healthy church, a church without spot or blemish. We want it to be a place where people’s needs are met — where we can rub shoulders with brothers and sisters who are likeminded, who can encourage us when we are feeling down. We want it to be a place where we can hear the positive Word of God, where we can learn about faith and other positive truths.
That is why we are to excel, because we want to build up God’s church for God’s glory.
Copyright © 1991 Peter Wade. The Bible text in this publication, except where otherwise indicated,is from the New International Version (NIV), Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. This article appears on the site: https://www.peterwade.com/
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