In the waning games of a professional sports season, there are often teams who have been “mathematically eliminated”. This means that there is no way that they can earn first place, even if they win all of their remaining games by many points. As one might imagine, the motivation for these teams to keep playing is different from those who still have a chance to win the championship. I suspect that some players keep going because they are paid to do so or because they enjoy the sport that they play. Others want to still notch a win against a rival, or to prove their merit for being kept on the team in the next season.
Sometimes, cynics will claim that these games “don’t mean anything”, but for players who have found other inspiration, that simply isn’t true.
Paul, in his letter to the Colossian believers, identified the role of Jesus in the church:
He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything.
Colossians 1:18 NASB
No matter how great your accomplishments have been, no matter what you may have achieved, Jesus is still in first place. He is the head of the Body of Christ (which bears His name), and was the first to be raised from the dead under the new covenant, where His sacrifice fully paid for the sins of all people who accept and follow Him. Not only was He the first person to live out the righteousness of God perfectly (since He was and is God), but He is also the only human being who remained sinless while living out adulthood in a fallen world.
So, no matter how hard we strive to elevate ourselves, we are not going to displace Him. We may become more like Him with the Holy Spirit’s help. We may be blessed to serve in a ministry where God is drawing people to Himself. We might even get a role in the local congregation with a fancy title, or a chance to speak at the podium or on stage. Still, despite our track record and any praise that we receive from others, we’re not going to move Jesus from His position in first place. Period.
While this might be demotivating if we are focused on ourselves, it is actually liberating to realize that we aren’t going to be in charge. While we still work to live according to Jesus’ example, we can let go of the fruitless quest to make ourselves somehow “more important” in the church. We can stop counting how many people look up to us, how many followers we have on social media, and who gets the lead role in a ministry where we serve. We can even worry less about whether we’re doing a “good enough job” as we serve, and just live for Jesus one day at a time.
I think that this is freeing, because with one less thing to worry about (our status), we can put more of our energy into serving God. However, like those teams who aren’t going to win a prize at the end of the season, what is our motivation to keep going, especially if our goal was becoming well-liked in the church, or having people think of us as “super-righteous”?
Part of our persistence comes because we love Jesus. Once we realize the depth of His love for us, and the grace of His blessings, we realize that loving Him in return is the only logical response. By doing so, we give Him the respect of accepting His offer of adoption back into the family of God, and we show Him gratitude – not just for His works, but for who He is. To go back to the sports metaphor, we may not stand at the top of the awards podium, but we are really excited that Jesus does, so we cheer for His plan and we celebrate His successes.
The other driver for our ongoing investment into the Kingdom of God is that we are actually on the same team! We aren’t in charge, but when we sign up to live for Jesus, His victory becomes our own. So, when He won, we win. Yes, His death paid for our salvation (if we will accept it), but since He also restores our relationship with the holy, loving, and perfect God, we benefit when we are part of His family, and when our work (guided by God’s direction) helps the larger plan succeed. In fact, there’s no roster limit on this team, so we celebrate when others join in the joyful journey as well.
Let us set aside our own image, and our own attempts to be first. Instead, let’s root for the success of Jesus Christ, whose victory belongs to all who will join His team.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation.