Plutarch Got It Right!

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Plutarch Got It Right!

“A mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be ignited.”

The opening quote is from Plutarch, a Greek biographer, essayist, and historian. He lived and wrote at the end of the first and beginning of the second century A.D. A granite marker in the heart of campus at Middle Tennessee State University bears this inscription from Plutarch’s writings. I walked by that slab of granite dozens of times over the years while serving in the campus ministry at MTSU. It always stirred my thinking. Still does.

Let the quote marinate for a while.

Whether Plutarch ever became a Christian is mostly uncertain. Regardless, however, his statement resonates with implications for would-be disciples of Jesus Christ. Here’s why. God didn’t send His Son to fill our noggins with information. Jesus’ mission was to transform hearts and turn people to His Father. He came to “ignite a rebellion” of change, to start a revolution of love, and to usher people into the Kingdom of God!

The religionists of Jesus’ day weren’t impressed. To the contrary, they were so focused on religious rituals and rules that they totally missed the “Author of salvation.” Their heads were filled with knowledge about the Law but their hearts empty (and obstinate) of understanding it!

“These men honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.” (Isaiah 29:13 and Matthew 15:8)

You and I can fall victim to the same thing!

If we follow Plutarch’s logic, being a disciple of Jesus involves a lot more than gaining head-knowledge about the Bible. Authentic discipleship means we’ll be changed in heart, mind, soul, and behavior. His teachings will travel from head to heart – from informing us to transforming us. Our lives will exhibit a “righteousness from the inside out,” as Mike Cope puts it.

Our behavior will be changed (ignited) by the One we know – not just what we know.

That’s what I think, anyway. What about you?

Looking forward to hearing from you,


By | 2010-08-09T19:15:51+00:00 August 9th, 2010|Uncategorized|12 Comments

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  1. John K. King August 9, 2010 at 11:18 pm - Reply

    Great quote, Mike. Thanks for this thought-provoking article.

  2. Wade August 10, 2010 at 12:03 am - Reply

    good stuff here bro!

  3. Milton August 10, 2010 at 3:10 am - Reply

    You know, I used to see that all the time myself. I didn’t really like it, because higher education so often does just seek to fill up the student mind. Kind of like an attic – what good is that, really? It’s just where you put stuff you don’t really need, but have convinced yourself you might at some future point tba. We fill our minds for the sole purpose of regurgitating that information later to imitate growth and learning – maybe even to trick God into letting us into heaven.
    Which is part of why I love Timothy Network – it stresses that ignition. The constant focus on not being another bible study, not just another place to fill up, look holy, get our heaven ticket stamped.
    But with a fire – discipleship needs that fire. Fire grows, it consumes that attic stuff, yes, but only because that’s food. It starts other fires – the real point of discipleship. Creating what Greg Ogden calls, “self-initiating, reproducing, fully-devoted followers of Christ.”

    Thanks for the blog, Mike. I wish I’d found it sooner!

  4. Beth Flores August 10, 2010 at 5:18 am - Reply

    I have never heard the quote from plutarch but I think he had it right! I have been praying fervantly tonight for those that will join our church here in Sherwood, that God will prepare their minds and hearts, and ignite a fire in them to serve alongside us. I am excited to see what God will do. I am growing so much more as I am out living my faith, trying to encourage people to turn to God in a way I never had before. This is living!

    • Mike Stroud August 11, 2010 at 3:42 pm - Reply

      Beth, I’ve been excited from the get-go that you and Chris and part of the Sherwood church plant! I’m confident God is using you. Persevere!

  5. Darrell Turney August 10, 2010 at 12:02 pm - Reply

    It makes me sad when disciples of Christ quote man instead of his teacher Jesus Christ and His Word. There is a truth to the quote but what the full implications are, are left undone.

    The problem with the quote is with what knowledge and whom will ignite it? This is where the Word of God exceeds man’s philosophy because He provides the answer! If my mind is only filled with man’s knowledge and ignited by me and my power the only “fire” it produces is God’s indignation and wrath. If filled and renewed with the Word of God and His righteousness by receiving a new heart (can never change the old man’s heart) and becoming a new creature by the power of the Holy Ghost, because the old man is crucified with all it’s “fire” (affections and lusts) then acceptance as God ignites it and consumes my living sacrifice with His “fire” (the Holy Ghost) unto the praise of His glory in the day of Christ.

    Quote the Word of God it is “quick and powerful and able to divide between the bone and marrow” and just simply reject man’s philosophy as we are instructed in Colossians, for man’s philosophy never weighs all of the implications as the Word of God does.

    • Mike Stroud August 11, 2010 at 11:58 am - Reply

      Agreed that we need to be careful about quoting man’s opinions, Darrell, so thanks for your concern. That said, it strikes me we can use the ideas of fallen man to highlight God’s eternal truth. In his best moments man recognizes the difference between knowledge and practice. In my thinking, Plutarch’s point parallels scripture.

  6. clark August 10, 2010 at 4:29 pm - Reply

    This post reminds me of the fictional bishop in C.S. Lewis’ book “The Great Divorce.” While this learned man (the Episcopal Ghost) certainly knows much about theology, he fails to truly know God. When the Bright Spirit asks him if he will now repent and believe, the man responds by remembering a prior commitment he has back in “grey town” (i.e. hell). Ironically, this commitment is to read a paper to a Theological Society in hell about how Christ’s views might have matured if he’d been more tactful and avoided the crucifixion. As Paul said, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1, NRSV).

    Saying that, however, I’d be weary of removing all orthodoxy from the conversation. I truly believe our orthodoxy shapes our orthopraxy. In other words, the way we think and what we believe will define how we behave (i.e. our ethic). The writers of the New Testament, especially Paul and James, state this very notion in their correspondence to the early churches. Reexamining the idea of catechism in our churches would be a healthy way to approach this link, in my opinion. Clearly knowledge can puff us up and lead us to think we are more “enlightened” or “spiritual” than our brother or sister sitting next to us in the pew (or even the preacher in the pulpit). Therefore, it is imperative that our orthodoxy must be hammered out communally instead of individually. If we can understand what we believe as a community, then that curbs the danger of pride as well as factions within the Body. Remember, it is not the accumulation of what we know; rather, it is Godhead we seek to commune with.

    One more thought, Mike. The relationship between heart and rules is an interesting discussion. Is heart more important than the rules? Are rules more important than the heart? Can we have one without the other? N.T. Wright handles these questions and more like it in his new book “After You Believe.” Check it out.

  7. Mike Stroud August 11, 2010 at 1:24 am - Reply

    Thanks, Prof. Clark 🙂 Not my intent to say orthodoxy isn’t important, and I don’t mean to promote touchy, feely spiritualism. I just believe “head-only religion” is a common and dangerous trap. Plutarch’s statement fires me up because it seems to really capture an important truism.

  8. Bob Mize August 12, 2010 at 8:59 am - Reply

    Excellent article, Mike. No more comment needed on what you say. I trust it is appropriate on this blog to comment (reply to) Darrell, another respondent. My reason is related to your Plutarch article, so maybe it is okay. One reason we aren’t being ignited for Jesus is the kind of reasoning you are doing, Darrel. It is plain silly to suggest we never quote anything but the Bible. Your comments themselves demonstrate that. Besides, Mike did quote Isaiah 29 and Matthew 15. My main frustration is that you missed the point of the article because you put this irrational filter on it first. Nobody quotes only the Bible, nothing else. By following this reasoning, there would be no sermons, no hymns, no Christian magazines, no Christian media of any kind…just Bible words flying around (and we’d never agree on what translation to use). C’mon, get real.

  9. Kevin Kopsa August 14, 2010 at 5:22 pm - Reply

    Nor would there be language, Bob. In a sense, isn’t language just quoting other people? It starts out with “momma” and “Dada” but becomes more sophisticated as we grow. We are all a bunch of plagiarists if you think about it. Thanks for the comment, Bob. I just finished a wonderful discussion an hour before I read this article. The men of the church here were discussing the books that have helped them follow Jesus. I was in awe at how God’s Spirit had used mostly secular literature to help these men be faithful disciples of Christ. In addition to what Bob said, we should note that the New Testament has quotations from all over the place, not just from the Old Testament. Further, much of it is in dialogue with other things that people are writing. Darrel, may your sadness turn into joy. Thank you for your thoughts, both of you. And Mike, thanks for starting the conversation.

  10. BD November 6, 2016 at 12:46 am - Reply

    Excellent analogy.

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