By Franklin L. Kirksey, Pastor, First Baptist Church of Spanish Fort, Alabama, and author of Sound Biblical Preaching: Giving the Bible a Voice.
These expositions by Dr. Kirksey are offered to suggest sermon or Bible study ideas for pastors and other church leaders, both from the exposition and from the illustrative material, or simply for personal devotion.
People love to read success stories, for example, the Horatio Alger “rags to riches” variety. Former Louisiana Governor, James Houston “Jimmie” Davis (1902-2000), was such a man. Dr. R. G. Lee (1886-1978), former pastor of First Baptist Church, New Orleans, Louisiana, shares the following, “Never have I read a book that has given me as much pleasure and profit as You Are My Sunshine. To read how Jimmie Davis climbed from poverty to plenty, from obscurity as a share-crop country boy to prominence, from being a farm boy to steering the Ship of State in a wise and successful way is wonderful!
I have known this great and good man personally. All who read this story will enrich their lives as they are made to think of a man who experienced the biblical truth: ‘No good thing will God withhold from them who walk uprightly’ (Ps. 84:10).”
Ironically, people equally enjoy reading accounts about the failure of others. Success stories allow people to enjoy the thrill of victory in the life of another with a secret hope that it might happen to them. Accounts of failure in the lives of others often make people think; at least I am not as bad as he or she. Paul warns in 2 Corinthians 10:12, “For we dare not class ourselves or compare ourselves with those who commend themselves. But they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.”
The Bible records numerous biographical accounts of both success and failure. God’s purpose is not to be sensational. From Romans 15:4 we read, “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.”
We read in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
From Scripture we learn the blessings of trust and obedience and the curse of distrust and disobedience. Solomon writes in Proverbs 3:1-6,
“My son, do not forget my law,
But let your heart keep my commands;
For length of days and long life
And peace they will add to you. Let not mercy and truth forsake you;
Bind them around your neck,
Write them on the tablet of your heart,
And so find favor and high esteem [good success]
In the sight of God and man. Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
And lean not on your own understanding;
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He shall direct your paths.”
Dr. Joseph E. McCabe shares in Handel’s Messiah: A Devotional Commentary, “There is a familiar caricature that gathers up the modern view of the divine absence. ‘Darwin banished God from life. Newton banished God from the universe. Freud banished God from the soul.’” Paul the apostle issues a serious warning to those who “[do] not like to retain God in their knowledge” in Romans 1:18-32. Beware of attempting to be successful without God.
We will look at success and failure under God.
I. God’s Determination of Success and Failure is Unbendable.
John warns in 1 John 2:15-17, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.” God sets the criterion of what is success and what is failure.
Paul recalls in 2 Timothy 4:10, “for Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world, and has departed for Thessalonica. . .”
Paul exhorts in Romans 12:1-2,
“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”
Isaiah recounts his commission in Isaiah 6:1-13, where we read,
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
The whole earth is full of His glory!’ And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke. So I said: ‘Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King, / The Lord of hosts.’ Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth with it, and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips;
Your iniquity is taken away,
And your sin purged.’ Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: ‘Whom shall I send,
And who will go for Us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me.’ And He said, ‘Go, and tell this people: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
Keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ ‘Make the heart of this people dull,
And their ears heavy,
And shut their eyes;
Lest they see with their eyes,
And hear with their ears,
And understand with their heart,
And return and be healed.’ Then I said, ‘Lord, how long?’ And He answered: ‘Until the cities are laid waste and without inhabitant,
The houses are without a man,
The land is utterly desolate,
The Lord has removed men far away,
And the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. But yet a tenth will be in it,
And will return and be for consuming,
As a terebinth tree or as an oak,
Whose stump remains when it is cut down. So the holy seed shall be its stump.”
Most people would not want to receive such an unpromising commission. As man sees it, Isaiah’s ministry was not successful, but Dr. Henrietta Mears (1890-1963) founder of Gospel Light Publications, explains, “When God gives a command or a vision of truth, it is never a question of what He will do but of what we will do. To be successful in God’s work is to fall in line with His will and do it His way. All that is pleasing to Him is a success.”
Rev. Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) said of Rev. Matthew Poole’s (1624-1679) commentary: “If I must have only one commentary, and had read Matthew Henry as I have, I do not know but what I should choose Poole. He is a very prudent and judicious commentator… not so pithy and witty by far as Matthew Henry [1662-1714], but he is perhaps more accurate, less a commentator, and more an expositor.”
Rev. Matthew Poole shares the following about Isaiah, “The Jews tell us that he was of the blood royal of Judah, which is uncertain. But undoubtedly he was the prince of all the prophets, whether we consider the great extent and variety of his prophecies, the excellency and sublimity of those mysteries which were revealed to him and by him, the majesty and elegancy of his style, or the incomparable liveliness and power of his sermons. He doth so evidently and fully describe the person and offices, and sufferings, and kingdom of Christ, that some of the ancients called him the fifth evangelist. And it is observed, that there are more testimonies and quotations in the New Testament taken out of Isaiah than out of all the other prophets.”
God sets the criterion of what is success and what is failure.
II. God’s Revelation of Success and Failure is Unchangeable.
We read in Joshua 1:8-9, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”
Often when I read Joshua 1:9, I remember a pleasant encounter almost a decade ago.
“While returning some books written by Dr. R.G. Lee to the pastor who baptized me as a young boy, Rev. Alvin [C.] Sullivan [1928-2011], his wife, Dolores, who was my sixth grade teacher at Greystone Christian School in Mobile, Alabama, came out to greet me. After a hug she said a verse came to her mind, which she began to quote from memory, ‘… Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.’ As Solomon exclaims, ‘A word spoken in due season, how good is it!’ (Proverbs 15:23) After making my way to the car, I quickly found the verse was Joshua 1:9, which I read several times and meditated on it all the way home.”
John writes to Gaius in 3 John, verse 2, “Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers.” Remember, the Bible is not a magic book. John is not promoting the popular message of “Health, Wealth, and Prosperity”, he is simply saying, “Best Wishes!”
Many years ago, Dr. Adrian P. Rogers (1931-2005) autographed and inscribed a copy of his book titled, God’s Way to Health, Wealth, and Wisdom. Dr. Rogers forthrightly explains in the Introduction, “Here is a book on health, wealth, and wisdom. This subject will be greeted with mixed response. Doubtless, there will be those who hope it holds the key to Fort Knox and the Fountain of Youth rolled into one. I am sorry about that—it doesn’t!
There are others who may sneer, ‘Here comes another of the false profits. It’s the health and wealth Gospel of cash, Cadillacs, and comfort. He is going to tell us how to be a Christian with no sorrow or sickness in sight.’
No, that is not the theme of this book. . . . But remember that God loves you. He takes pleasure in the prosperity of His servants. He really does.”
If your prosperity is not according to the Word of God, the will of God, and the ways of God, you are not truly successful, regardless of your net worth.
From John 4:34 we read,
“Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work.’” God shows in Christ what success is and what failure is. We read in Hebrews 10:5-7, “Therefore, when He came into the world, He said: ‘Sacrifice and offering You did not desire,
But a body You have prepared for Me. In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin
You had no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come—In the volume of the book it is written of Me—To do Your will, O God.’”
As He died on the cross, Jesus appeared to be a failure, but after His resurrection from the grave, we see His success.
God shows in Christ what success is and what failure is.
III. God’s Evaluation of Success and Failure is Unavoidable.
We read Hebrews 9:27, “And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment.” God scans His creatures for success or failure. Paul the apostle writes in 1 Corinthians 3:5-17,
“Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are.”
Douglas Connelly writes, “The judgment seat of Christ will also reveal a Christian’s faithfulness and obedience to God. Some pastors or church leaders who have been wrongly treated will be shown to be faithful servants of Christ. Christians who have suffered persecution will be honored. Missionaries who have worked in remote areas with little response for their sacrifice and ministry will hear praise and acclaim from Jesus himself.”
We read in Hebrews 11:13-16, 35-40, and 12:1-17,
“These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them. . . . Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us. . . . Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin. And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons:
‘My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord,
Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him;
For whom the Lord loves He chastens,
And scourges every son whom He receives.’
If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons. Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness. Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated, but rather be healed. Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled; lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears.”
If Esau could speak to us today, he would encourage us to persevere on the path of the will of God. Don’t sell out for success! If you do, you will live to regret it.
We read about God’s dealings with His people in 1 Corinthians 10:1-13,
“Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted. And do not become idolaters as were some of them. As it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.’ Nor let us commit sexual immorality, as some of them did, and in one day twenty-three thousand fell; nor let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed by serpents; nor complain, as some of them also complained, and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”
We read in Hebrews 4:11-13,
“Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience. For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.”
God scans His creatures for success or failure.
At the 1985 Moody Bible Institute Missions Conference, David M. Howard, Sr., preached a message titled, “The Forward Faith of the Modern Church” based on Hebrews 11. The following sermon summary appears on the Proclaim website: “Looks at 3 types, or results of faith of those in the ‘gallery of faith,’ found in Heb. 11.” Howard uses the following outline, “Triumphant faith, overcoming faith, and faith in tragedy.” He “spends much time with a touching story of an unknown martyr friend.” In his message Howard tells, “All of his work was trashed, covered with ink,” [Ernest L.] Ernie Fowler [1907-1966], missionary to Columbia, South America, suddenly murdered after many years of service. You can read more about this unknown martyr friend, named, Ernie Fowler, in The Costly Harvest (1975, originally titled Hammered as Gold ) by David M. Howard, Sr., and from a message titled, “Ernest Fowler: Faithful Unto Death and Making a Difference”.
Allow me to ask, “Was Ernie Fowler a success or a failure?”
David M. Howard, Sr. is the brother of Elisabeth Elliot, brother-in-law of the late Jim Elliot (1927-1956). This is the Jim Elliot, who attempted to reach the Waodani people of Ecuador, who became one of five missionary martyrs in 1956.
Allow me to ask, “Was Jim Elliot a success or a failure?”
Dr. Peter Marshall (1902-1949), former Chaplain of the United States Senate, said, “It is better to fail in a cause that will ultimately succeed than to succeed in a cause that will ultimately fail.”
Beware of attempting to be successful without God. Regrettably, man’s judgment before God will reveal that bad success is actually failure with eternal consequences. One day everyone will come to see success and failure under God.
 Gus Weill, You Are My Sunshine: The Jimmie Davis Story (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1977), from back cover
 Joseph E. McCabe, Handel’s Messiah: A Devotional Commentary (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1977), p. 84
 Henrietta Mears, quoted in “Dream Big: The Henrietta Mears Story,” quoted in Christianity Today, June 21, 1993, p. 41
 Available from: http://www.theopedia.com/Matthew_Poole Accessed: 05/06/12
 Matthew Poole, Annotations Upon the Holy Bible, Wherein the Sacred Text is Inserted, and Various Readings Annex’d . . . by the Late Reverend and Learned Divine Mr. Matthew Poole in Three Volumes, Vol. II, (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, MDCCCLIII , [orig. pub. (London: Parkhust,1700)] , p. 326
 Franklin L. Kirksey, “A Serious Call to Spiritual Leadership”, Sermon Notes, (Joshua 1:9), Available from: http://sermons.pastorlife.com/members/UploadedSermons/sermon_1103.pdf Accessed: 05/06/12
 Adrian P. Rogers, God’s Way to Health, Wealth, and Wisdom, (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1987), p. iii, vi
 Douglas Connelly, The Promise of Heaven: Discovering Our Eternal Home (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 89
 David M. Howard, “The Forward Faith of the Modern Church”, Sermon Notes (Hebrews 11), Available from: http://inetradio.moody.edu/songinfo.php?songid=6447 Accessed: 04/25/12
 David M. Howard, Sr., “Report on Death of Ernest L. Fowler”, Available from: http://people.bethel.edu/~dhoward/personal/ReportDeath.htm Accessed: 05/06/12
 David M. Howard, Sr., “Ernest Fowler: Faithful Unto Death and Making a Difference”, A sermon preached at Camp-of-the-Woods in Speculator, New York, August 26, 1994, Available from: http://people.bethel.edu/~dhoward/personal/efFaithfulUntoDeath.htm Accessed: 05/06/12
 Gregg Matte, Finding God’s Will: Seek Him, Know Him, Take the Next Step (Ventura, CA: Gospel Light Publications, 2010), p. 250