At year’s end, it’s a good time to reflect on this truth: it is part of God’s character to complete what he has begun. “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). As we follow him, we are meant to become like him. We also are meant to complete what we have begun. That is why that little verse at the end of Colossians is so important: “And say to Archippus, ‘See that you complete the ministry that you have received in the Lord’” (Colossians 4:17). There might even be a pun here, for the first four letters of Archippus’ name are similar to the Greek word for “beginning.” Paul is saying to Archippus: are you a beginner, or a finisher? Lots of people start, but not all finish. Many drop out along the way.
What is it that hinders us from finishing what we have begun? What causes us to give up, to turn back, to lose the ground we have gained? Jesus said it would happen. Read the parable of the sower in Matthew 13. Jesus lists four categories of people. The first group don’t even get to first base. The second group receive the seed, but it soon dies. The third group lasts a little longer, but their life is choked out by thorns. For all three groups, what the world offers is more attractive than the cost of a life following Christ. These people hardly make a beginning, let alone cross the finish line.
And let’s stop for a moment to note that Jesus does not allow people to blame problems in the church for their own spiritual failures. People who fall away from the Lord and whose spiritual commitment dries up have only their own sin to blame. Please do not blame your sin on someone else. Churches are imperfect, and God will deal with them, but no one is let off the hook of their own disobedience.
But there is a fourth group in the parable. Jesus describes them as those who hear the word and understand it. In their case, the seed falls on good soil. That’s hopefully us! But even here, some lives produce far more than others -- more than three times, in fact. What happens even in the lives of sincere believers to diminish their effectiveness and reduce the fruit that comes from their lives?
Sometimes people who really want to follow the Lord get tragically derailed by the circumstances of life. Adversity causes them to give up, or falter for a season.
If we could go back in history, we could learn some lessons from the experience of one such person, Mary Magdalene. We find her at Jesus’ tomb (John 20:11-18). The tomb is empty, but as first the angels and then Jesus himself appear to her, she is so overcome by grief that she doesn’t realize what has happened. She is immobilized at the exact moment she should have been launched into orbit. She was about to give up at the exact moment of breakthrough. Every single one of us can relate to Mary. We all have moments where we feel like giving up, and sometimes we make decisions based on disappointment which cost us and cost the kingdom dearly.
What caused Mary nearly to miss her destiny? Let me list three factors, and let me suggest they are the same things which will come against us.
She saw the circumstances as insurmountable. Jesus was dead. Yes, Jesus had raised at least three people from the dead, but who was there who could raise him? All of us can lose hope in the face of impossible situations. Yet Mary had forgotten that nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37). Don’t evaluate the promises of God by your circumstances. Evaluate your circumstances by the Word of God.
She was overcome by a disappointment caused by false expectations. Mary’s hopes were crushed because she had based them on false expectations. Along with the disciples and everyone else, she thought the Messiah would inaugurate a revolution which would drive the Romans out, not die on a Roman cross. God will often fail to meet our expectations, but he will never fail to fulfill his promises. Go back to his promises when your expectations are not met.
She lost sight of the power of God. Mary had forgotten things she should not have forgotten. She knew Jesus had taken five loaves and multiplied them into thousands. She knew Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. She knew Jesus had walked on the water and calmed the seas. She knew he had given sight to the blind and raised the crippled to their feet. She knew he had restored speech to the mute, opened the ears of the deaf and cleansed the lepers. Most of all she knew the miracle of forgiveness -- the day Jesus met her, cast seven demons out of her, set her free from the power of darkness, and gave her eternal life. We may not have seen the things Mary did, but all of us have seen enough. We have all witnessed his faithfulness, his provision, his forgiveness and his love. Even if we may not see how God can move us forward, we should still know that he can.
The walk of faith sometimes seems like its all uphill. But when the circumstances seem impossible, our expectations are not met and we lose sight of God’s power, we need to go back to what God has said. Our words mean nothing, but God’s Word never fails. The fulfillment of God’s word is built into its foundations. For God, speaking is doing. God created the entire universe simply by speaking. How much easier is it for him to fulfill his plan for our lives? To Jeremiah, preparing him for a lifetime of testing and trial, he made this firm promise: “I am watching over my word to perform it” (Jeremiah 1:12). And so God did, for both Jeremiah and Mary Magdalene.
In the midst of your battles of faith, go back to what God has said. Don’t walk away from God; dig yourself into God. And don’t ever give up. Remember there is an end to every valley, and your breakthrough is probably right around the corner. He’ll finish what he began in you -- if you allow him to do it!