Guardians of Unity

After discussing the responsibilities and qualifications of elders, we now move on to the second office within the church: deacons. The ideas and traditions behind the roles and responsibilities of deacons are vast, diverse, and unfortunately often unbiblical. Much of this comes from the Bible’s implicit, rather than explicit, teaching on deacons; even so, the Scriptures remain clear about the deacons’ responsibilities.

COMMON, HISTORIC, BUT UNBIBLICAL BELIEFS

Before diving into the text, I think it would be helpful to briefly examine three of the most popular, yet unbiblical, roles of deacons both today and throughout church history. Like most things in life, these views on the deaconate lean toward extremes. Two of them diminish the office, while the third exalts it above the biblical presentation. We must fight extremes and walk down the narrow path to which the LORD has called us. We do an injustice to deacons and the entire church when we deviate from our biblical model.

Deacons: Elders in Training

This first false view of deacons is, to my knowledge, not as common today as it was during the early centuries of the church. Alexander Strauch gives a great history of this view in the endnotes of The New Testament Deacon. He says that “For over a thousand years the Roman Catholic Church relegated the position of deacon to an apprenticeship to the priesthood. The deaconate was an ordained position in the clerical hierarchy, but it was only a transitional step to the higher order of priesthood. Its significance was largely ceremonial” (160). Deacons, therefore, were often considered little more than elders in training. The great defender of Christ’s divinity, Athanasius, is one such example.

Deacons: Pastoral Assistants

Another prevalent view throughout history, that is still popular in some circles today, is the idea of deacons being assistants to the elders. This idea goes all the way back to Hippolytus, who wrote in the early 200s, “In the ordination of a deacon, the bishop alone shall lay on hands, because he is not being ordained to the priesthood, but to the service of the bishop, to do what is ordered by him. For he does not share in the counsel of the presbyterate but administers and informs the bishop of what is fitting” (13). Within this function, deacons both fell in authority and grew in it. In some places, the deacons were seen as almost more authoritative than even the elders because the deacons essentially functioned as their representatives. But in other places, the deacons were used for little more than serving the bread and wine during the Lord’s Supper.

Deacons: Ruling Executives

This appears to be the most prevalent view of deacons in the present day. Most often this is expressed in deacons who perform a mix of the functions between elders and deacons, both exercising oversight and serving. Unfortunately, there are also cases where “deacons have assumed the role of being supervisors of the staff and pastor” (Platt, 60-61). Platt’s assessment is that “this is not biblical” (61). Strauch agrees, “In many churches, deacons act more like corporation executives than ministering servants. In direct contradiction to the explicit teaching of the New Testament and the very meaning of the name deacon, which is “servant” (diakonos), deacons have been made the governing officials of the church” (9).

These roles are not biblical and, therefore, do not ultimately benefit the church. Having now glanced at incorrect views, let us dive into the Scripture that we might observe the correct view.

CHOOSING THE FIRST SEVEN DEACONS // ACTS 6:1-6

In studying these verses, we will first do an exegetical walk-through in order to get the overall message and intent of the passage. Then we will step back and create a biblical portrait of the responsibilities of deacons from what we see presented in these verses.

In verse 1, we find the setting of the scene for our text. In these days references back to everything that has been occurring in Acts thus far. These includes the receiving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (2:1-4), the salvation of three thousand people (2:41), public healings (3:1-10), persecution (4:1-22), signs and wonders that led to multitudes coming to the faith (5:12-17), and even more persecution (5:17-42). Indeed the disciples were increasing in number and doing so quite rapidly.

But with this rapid and supernatural growth also came conflict. Hellenistic Jews (that is, Jews that spoke Greek instead of Hebrew) began to complain that the Hebrews’ widows were being favored in the distribution of food, while their widows were being neglected. Thus, a crack begins to form in the newfound community, a crack that if not dealt with would destroy the early church’s unity. Unfortunately, this pattern is still true today. Most church conflicts and divisions are rarely doctrinal; they are ministerial and practical. We fail to serve people as they are meant to be served, and division is the result. How then are the apostles going to resolve the problem and keep the church united?

Verse 2 reveals the apostles’ plan. They gather together the full number of disciples, meaning every believer in Jesus as Christ was gathered to hear the plan of the Twelve. They begin by guarding their main responsibility: the preaching of the Word. Of course, overseeing the food distribution would not have kept them from preaching entirely, but it would have severely cut into their time to preach. Therefore, they knew from Jesus the danger of neglecting what is best in order to do what is good.

Verse 3 begins their solution to the problem. They tell the church to choose seven men to be appointed to this duty. There are many thoughts to point out in this verse.

First, the word duty is elsewhere used in the New Testament to mean a need or a necessity. The apostles, therefore, are not denying the necessity of having a food distribution plan. They just know that they cannot give their time to doing that work.

Second, they tell the church to pick seven men to meet this need. Because these men are the first deacons, we can conclude that deacons should be both chosen and approved by the congregation. Elders, on the other hand, were chosen by apostles and other elders (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5) and then approved by the congregation.

Third, the men must be of good repute and full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will return to these two qualifications next week.

Verse 4 reestablishes the apostles’ priorities: prayer and the ministry of the Word. Just to reiterate, their commitment to these two tasks was not a belittlement of the food distribution ministry. The apostles simply understood the responsibilities given to them. Wiersbe sums up this thought well:

The Apostles studied the situation and concluded that they were to blame: they were so busy serving tables that they were neglecting prayer and the ministry of the Word of God. They had created their own problem because they were trying to do too much. Even today, some pastors are so busy with secondary tasks that they fail to spend adequate time in study and in prayer. This creates a “spiritual deficiency” in the church that makes it easy for problems to develop. (429)

Verses 5-6 tells us the seven men who were appointed to lead the food distribution needs of the church. Little is known about most of these men, but Acts 7 describes Stephen’s arrest, only recorded sermon, and martyrdom. Acts 8 also describes the missionary activities of Philip. They are chosen by the congregation, set before the apostles, prayed over, and laid hands upon, thus commissioning them into the ministry. The authoritative appointing was necessary because these seven men could not meet the needs alone. They were commissioned to lead and organize the distribution ministry, not simply do the work themselves.

Beyond the exploits of Stephen and Philip, we also know that these men came to be called the Seven in a similar manner to the apostles being called the Twelve (21:8). This is significant language because within this text we have the prototype for the two offices of the church. In Acts 6, the church had yet to spread beyond the walls of Jerusalem; therefore, the apostles acted as elders of the fledgling congregation. As the church spread from city to city, it became clear that the apostles could not directly lead every congregation, so they created the office of elders to continue the shepherding work of prayer and the ministry of the Word (14:23). Therefore, in a sense, elders are the successors to the apostles in responsibility but not authority. Today, the authority of the church comes from the Scriptures, which were written by the apostles, but the responsibility of the apostles to shepherd the church was transferred to elders even in their day. This transition is seen in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. In the meeting to decide whether Gentile Christians needed to be circumcised, we are told that “the apostles and elders were gathered together to consider this matter” (15:6). Furthermore, both Peter and John, although apostles, call themselves elders within their letters (1 Peter 5:1; 2 John 1:1; 3 John 1:1).

Since the apostles here are acting as the prototype for church elders, it also stands to reason that the Seven are the prototype for deacons. A few theologians (though I have not found many) argue that these men cannot be considered deacons because the title of deacon is not used. Yet the duty given to these men of serving tables is the verb form of deacon (diakoneo). Therefore, most theologians agree that these seven men were the first deacons appointed in the church.

THE BIBLICAL PORTRAIT

Since we have now walk-through the passage of Scripture before us and we know the historical appointing of the first deacons, let us now take a step back to ask the question: What are deacons responsible for the church? We know that elders are responsible for exercising oversight of the church, primarily through prayer and the ministry of the Word. But what about the deacons? What functions are they biblically supposed to play in the church? Below are insights that we can glean from our passage of study.

Deacons are servants.

This one should go without saying because the term deacon means servant. But clarification is required. Another word commonly translated as servant is doulos, which Paul is fond of calling himself at the beginning of his letters. Doulos, however, might better be translated as slave because it referred to servants who were the property of another person. Diakonos, on the other hand, is a servant for hire. Jesus’ statement that He came not to be served but to serve uses the verb of deacon (Mark 10:45). In John 12:26, Jesus uses the same word as both a noun and verb to describe following Him: “If any man serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.” Jesus, therefore, came to deacon us, and now calls to be His deacons by following Him. All Christian, then, are deacons in a general sense, but what about those in the office of deacon.

In general, the deacons are examples and leaders in serving to the congregation. They are appointed to lead and meet the physical needs of the church, allowing elders to focus on spiritual needs. Alexander Strauch fittingly calls deacons “ministers of mercy.” Elders are called to ensure that sound doctrine is fed to the church, while deacons are called to ensure that church members do not go hungry for lack of food. Strauch has this to say about the importance of deacons as servants:

The laying on of hands, along with the early appearance of this account in Acts, indicates the significance and necessity of the Seven’s task. Some people might find it hard to believe that appointing men to care for poor widows and handle money would require the laying on of the apostles’ hands. Those who don’t understand why the apostles took this matter so seriously don’t understand how important the care of the poor is in God’s eyes. (40)

Deacons are ministers.

Minister is a common title for pastors. In fact, when doing my taxes, I find much “ministerial” language being used. While the title is not incorrect since elders are ministers of the Word, minister as an official title is better placed upon deacons, especially since the word is often translated as minister.

From these verses, we see that deacons are given leadership authority within the church. However, unlike elders, deacons have ministry-specific authority, not church-wide authority. Deacons are church officers, but they are not elders. Therefore, they should not function as elders. They must function as deacons, ministers who are tasked with areas of focus and responsibility. Gregg Allison provides a small list of these areas of ministry:

Practically speaking, deacons and deaconesses engage in men’s ministries, women’s ministries, youth ministries, children’s ministries, worship ministries, evangelism and missions, bereavement ministries, seniors ministries, singles ministries, sports ministries, fine arts ministries, mercy ministries (e.g., food, clothing, tutoring, medical aid), and the like. Because these ministries flow out of the office of deacon, those who serve in that office as deacons and deaconesses must possess and exercise the requisite authority to carry out their ministries. (247)

This authority to lead and organize ministries also makes deacons key disciple-makers within the church. As noted earlier, the seven original deacons could not meet the needs of the food distribution ministry alone. By necessity, they must have led others to serve the widows and orphans of the church. Likewise, deacons need not, and should not, fulfill their responsibilities alone; rather, they should train and disciple others to do the work as well. The work of discipleship is for every Christian, but elders and deacons as leaders must lead in discipleship. 1 Peter 4:10-11 tells us that we should use our varied gifts to the glory of God, speaking the oracles of God and serving by God’s strength. Elders are charged to disciple how to speak the oracles of God, and deacons are charged to disciple how to serve “by the strength that God supplies.”

Deacons are guardians of church unity.

This is an overlooked aspect of the deaconate, but the preservation of church unity was the very reason that these first seven deacons were chosen. Physical need led to cracks in the church’s unity, and the deacons were appointed to mend those needs. Anyabwile says that “Deacons were the early church’s “shock absorbers.” They absorbed complaints and concerns, resolved them in godliness, and so preserved the unity and witness of the saints” (21). Just as elders are guardians of the church’s doctrine, deacons are guardians of the church’s unity, which Paul describes as a primary characteristic of being the church (Ephesians 4).

What are the responsibilities and functions of deacons then?

Deacons are servants, modeling for the entire congregation how we all should serve one another.

Deacons are ministers, leading and guiding certain ministries within the church and discipling others in the process.

Deacons are also guardians of church unity, cutting off potential divisions at the source.

THE FRUIT OF BIBLICAL POLITY // ACTS 6:7

To close, we return to the final verse of our text, which reveals the outcome of the situation: God’s Word continued to increase, the disciples multiplied, and even the Jewish priests began to follow Christ. These descriptions are the opposite of the initial problem. An argument had threatened the foundation of the church, but the apostles’ Spirit-led structuring of the church resolved the disagreement. That is the fruit of biblical polity, a church structure where elders and deacons lead and serve together. While deacons may not be directly responsible for the ministry of the Word, their service to the congregation’s physical needs sowed the ground for the Word to flourish. Their lives display the Word proclaimed by the elders.

May God give us grace to obey the Scriptures, that the Word of God would continue to increase and the number of our disciples be multiplied!

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Praying Like Paul | Philippians 1:9-11

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

Philippians 1:9–11 (ESV)

So far we’ve studied Paul’s opening words to the Philippians, considering how he praised God for their partnership in the gospel, how he was confident that God would keep them rooted in the gospel until the end, and how he yearned for the Philippians with the affections of Christ.

We now conclude this introductory paragraph with Paul’s prayer for his brothers and sisters at Philippi. The central request of the prayer is that their love would continue to flourish, as they also grow in knowledge, discernment, and are filled with righteousness. In short, Paul prayed for spiritual growth that would bear fruit in every aspect of their lives.

Tony Merida and Francis Chan make this important observation about Paul’s prayer here:

The details of this prayer serve as a table of contents or a preview of coming attractions for the rest of the letter. “Love” is addressed in a number of places in the letter (e.g., 1:16; 2:1-4; 4:1). Paul later speaks of being pure and blameless (2:14-15), of fruitfulness and righteousness (1:22; 3:6-9), about power through Christ (3:10), of the coming day of Christ (3:20), and of the glory of God (2:11). Further, the prayer for insight and discernment probably alludes to the need to handle the conflict mentioned in chapter 4 in an appropriately loving way. The request to approve the things that are superior may relate to his instruction in Philippians 3:8 to gain “the surpassing value of knowing Christ.” (36-37)

ABOUNDING LOVE // VERSE 9

The central theme of Paul’s prayer for the Philippians is found here: that your love may abound more and more. Every other phrase and clause within these verses builds upon this one idea. If Paul’s central aim is that the Philippians’ love might continue to grow, then the first question that we must consider before continuing onward is: what is love?

Even though love is universally felt and almost constantly referenced, love is notoriously difficult to define. As Tozer said, “We do not know, and we may never know, what love is, but we can know how it manifests itself, and that is enough for us here” (170). But how does love manifest itself?

Love is often referred to as an emotion, but it must also be understood as an action. Love is partly what we feel, but it is also what we do. Love is both an affection and an exercise. This dual nature of love can be witnessed in our present text. In verse 8, Paul described his affection for the Philippians, and in verses 10-11, his prayer is that their love would be manifested in good works. Paul’s prayer is that both the affections and good works of love would abound more and more. To this end, he prayed for the Philippians’ love to flourish.

Of course, Jesus is the greatest example of such boundless love. The Gospels give us many glimpses at the affections of Christ. While speaking to the rich, young ruler, we are told that Jesus loved him (Mark 10:21). As Jesus preached to the crowds, He had compassion on them because they were “like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). And perhaps the most famous example is Jesus’ weeping at the death of Lazarus (John 11:35).

But Jesus did not merely feel the affection of love; He also displayed love. His love for the rich, young ruler manifested in His revealing the ruler’s idolatry of wealth. His love for the crowds manifested in His teaching them (Mark 6:34). His love for Lazarus manifested in His raising him back to life.

Yet all of these examples are dwarfed by the cross. Christ told His disciples, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:12-14).

On the cross, Jesus displayed the epitome of this love by laying down His life for us, even while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). Jesus calls us His friends and reveals the greatest form of love by dying on our behalf, even though we are continuous rebels against God. In Romans 5:7, Paul admits that someone might be willing to die for a good person. But we are not good people, and Jesus still chose to die for us. Our marvel at the cross, in many ways, directly correlates to the depth of our understanding of our sinfulness. In his eye-opening article, The Utter Horror of the Smallest Sins, Tim Challies explains the deepness of our depravity as evidenced by our “little” sins:

Our sinfulness is expressed not only in our desire to break God’s greatest rules but in our willingness to break even his smallest ones. And this is the utter horror of the smallest sins. They prove our hearts are so desperately wicked that there’s no area of life in which we won’t express our rebellion against God.

The indescribable love of God displayed on the cross comes to us in the midst of this blatant rebellion against Him.

Yet in these verses from John 15, Jesus also commands us to love one another. In fact, He goes so far as to claim that our friendship with Him is evidenced by our love for each other. The very heart of the Christian faith, therefore, revolves around love. God so loved that He died to save us (John 3:16), and we respond by loving God and each other (Matthew 22:36-40). Because love is so central to the faith, we cannot grow into maturity without growing in love. To abound more and more in love is to further and further walk in imitation of Christ (Ephesians 5:1-2).

With Knowledge & Discernment

Yet, as previously noted, love is more than simply an emotion; thus, Paul fittingly provides qualifying phrase onto his prayer: with knowledge and all discernment. The apostle wanted the Philippians’ love to affect the mind as well as the heart. For some, the pairing of love and knowledge may seem slightly odd. Remember, however, what kind of love and affection Paul expressed for the Philippians in verse 8: the affection of Christ Jesus. And this is the same love and affection that Paul is now praying for the Philippians here. But in order to love with the affections of Christ, we must first understand who Jesus is and how He loves. Therefore, knowledge is the key to loving properly. Without a proper knowledge of Christ, we cannot be certain that our love is actually imitating Him. Love without knowledge is like a car without a road. The knowledge of Christ forms the pathways by which the Spirit enables us to love like Christ. Love must always, therefore, be an exercise of both the heart and mind.

The concept of discernment is so tied to the first phrase of verse 10 that would be best to discuss them together.

DISCERNING & PURE // VERSES 10-11

In verse 9, we observed Paul’s prayer for abounding love in the Philippians, as well as his qualification that their love be jointly connected to knowledge and discernment. In verses 10-11, Paul declares what he prays will be the outcomes (or the fruits) of their abounding, knowledgeable, and discerning love.

Approve What Is Excellent

The first outcome for which Paul prays is that you may approve what is excellent. Approving what is excellent is the fruit of discernment. If knowledge is the possession of information, discernment is the ability to form wise decisions with said knowledge. Discernment, therefore, can be understood in two broad categories: being able to discern what is good from what is evil and being able to discern what is better or best from what is good. When Paul prays for the Philippians to approve what is excellent, both of these kinds of discernment can be easily applied.

The discernment of the Holy Spirit is needed to know whether or not an action that is not inherently sinful might be sinful for you. Drinking alcohol is one of the classic examples of this. The Bible clearly makes no prohibition on alcohol in general, only on drunkenness. Yet there are many factors that may lead a Christian to see drinking alcohol as going against their conscience, whether it is a familial history of alcoholism, past experiences, or simply personal conviction against drinking. Areas of personal conviction, such as this, require the ability to discern whether we are acting in faith: “for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).

This form of discernment may also apply to our ability to discern sound doctrine from false doctrine. John Chrysostom believed this to be Paul’s primary usage here: “He prays that they will not receive any corrupted doctrine under the pretense of love” (ACCS, 221). Such a tendency is no less present today than in days of Paul or Chrysostom. Especially over the issue of homosexuality, we have witnessed a multitude of churches abandon the clear teachings of Scripture on the pretense of love. Because doctrine shapes our understanding of who God is, we can never claim to adopt love at the expense of proper doctrine. Our love must be filtered through the lens of knowledge and discernment, approving what is excellent and disapproving what is corrupted.

Our ability to discern between what is good and what is better or best can be witnessed in Jesus. In Mark 1:35-39, Jesus is told by His disciples that everyone in Capernaum was looking for him, but Jesus replied that He needed to continue preaching in the other towns of Galilee. His healings were good, but they were only intended to authenticate His preaching, which was better. We must fervently pray for this kind of discernment as well, lest be like Martha, choosing temporal, lesser things over eternal, necessary things.

Pure, Blameless, & Filled

Yet approving what is excellent is only one piece of the puzzle. Because the temptation of sin is great, we can all too easily relate with Ovid’s confession: “I see the better and approve it, but I do not cease to follow the worse” (VII.20-21). Aware of this, Paul also prays for a second outcome to flow from their abounding love: purity, blamelessness, and being filled with the fruit of righteousness. In other words, Paul does not merely want us to choose what is right but to also do what is right. Each of these phrases here strike at the same core idea of living in a godly manner.

The fruit of righteousness could easily be linked with fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” Each of these virtues reflect the attributes, nature, and character of God; therefore, we live godly lives by embodying (or living out) these fruits. The righteous, or godly, life is a life lived in imitation of God, fulfilling our duty of being the bearers of His image. Paul rightfully then prays for a life filled with these fruits of righteousness.

The words Paul uses for purity and blamelessness here, however, are not his usual choices. Purity normally denotes the idea of untainted or without corruption. The purity of gold and other precious metals is measured by how free they are of other elements. Purity here, however, conveys the idea of being tested and judged genuine or, we might say, sincere. Paul has in mind someone who is not two-faced or acting out of ulterior motives. Gordon Fee comments on Paul’s word choice of blameless as follows: “Likewise, aproskopos is not Paul’s regular word for the idea of “blameless.” Ordinarily, as in 2:15 and 3:6, he uses a form of amemptos, a word denoting behavior that is without observable fault. But aproskopos has to do with being “blameless” in the sense of “not offending” or not causing someone else to stumble” (102). These word choices only further emphasize the communal aspect of verses 3-11. Our being filled with the fruit of righteousness is not simply an individual matter. We must make decisions in love, with knowledge and discernment, righteously avoiding ulterior motives and doing our best not to be a stumbling block for our brothers and sisters in Christ.

But also notice that Paul grounds this purity, blamelessness, and righteousness in a destination: the day of Christ. As in verse 6 the apostle expressed his confidence that God would complete the Philippians’ partnership in the gospel at the day of Jesus Christ, he now urges them to continue living godly lives in light of that Day. As we briefly discussed in our first study (and will continue to discuss in more depth), we are generally not in danger of being too heavenly-minded but of being to earthly-minded. Many fear that fixing our eyes on eternity will cause us to be absent from the present, yet the opposite is often true. Greater desires for heaven tend to create godlier lives on earth. Like Abraham or Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress, we are each “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10). Without our destination before our eyes, we risk living our entire lives as aimless. This is poignantly displayed in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Alice’s question to the Cheshire Cat: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’ ‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat. ‘I don’t much care where–’ said Alice. ‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat” (57). The coming of the Day of Christ orients both where and how we walk through this life. Everything we do must be done in the light of eternity.

To the Glory & Praise of God

Finally, Paul concludes his prayer with two clauses: that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. Why does the apostle end by emphasizing that our righteousness, discernment, knowledge, and love must come through Christ and to the glory and praise of God? I believe it is because each of these virtues can be falsified and counterfeited.

Let’s examine righteousness first. Most people may think that righteousness always equals godliness; therefore, if someone is living a moral life, they must also be living a life approved by God. This belief is often a core tenant of nominal Christianity in the West, which is sometimes called moralistic, therapeutic deism. In this religion, morality and Christianity are nearly synonymous terms. Paul, however, did not promote this theology. In 2 Timothy 3:5, Paul warns his disciple to avoid those who have “the appearance of godliness, but” deny its power. Morality is not the same as godliness. Godliness certainly intersects morality, but ultimately, godliness is rooted in God, while morality can be rooted in anything. Most often, however, morality flows from self. We do good deeds in order to feel better about ourselves or to look better in the sight of others. These motivations may produce morality, but they cannot produce godliness. Thus, a righteousness that does not come through Jesus to the glory and praise of God is not true, biblical righteousness.

Likewise, love can be very easily counterfeited when God taken out of the equation. This is important to understand because I would argue that no biblical virtue is more imitated by culture than love. Songs repeatedly tell us that love is the highest virtue. Movements continually declare that spreading love is their ultimate goal. Indeed, love is often exalted to the status of divine. But this supreme exaltation of love is quite different from the biblical exaltation of love (1 Corinthians 13) because they derive from different sources.

Biblically, we are told that love comes from God because God is love (1 John 4:8), which is one of the most butchered phrase in all the Bible. This does not mean that God is exclusively love or that God is the same as love. Instead, it means that one of God’s chief characteristics and attributes is love. God defines love, and He perfectly embodies love because all love emanates from Him. All love is, therefore, to the praise and glory of God because true love can only come through Him.

Contrast this with the source of the worldly idea of love, which is most often self. Cultural love is defined by self, since there is no greater source of appeal. Because of this, elevating love as supreme is really a sly way of making the self supreme. If love is ultimate and I define love, what does that make me?

Let me emphasize that I am not denying the sincerity of this kind of love’s affections and actions. They may indeed be genuine and even sacrificial, but if the source is bad, then everything is corrupted. If God, being love, was represented as a person, then our display of biblical love would be like a portrait of Him, His image, but the worldly counterfeit would be a caricature of God. Neither a portrait nor a caricature is the object, but a portrait faithfully portrays the subject, while a caricature is a falsification. Even worldly love displays something of God’s character, but the image is ultimately twisted. The Source cannot be corrupted, but the image can. If our love does not flow from God as its acknowledged source, we will very likely display a broken and distorted image of His endless and steadfast love. Our love, therefore, must flow through Christ, to the glory and praise of God. Only then is will it truly be love.

A FINAL WORD ON PRAYER

Now that we’ve walked through Paul’s prayer for the Philippians, I want to take a few steps back in order to address the topic of prayer. Particularly, I would like to ask this question: Do you pray like this for your brothers and sisters in Christ?

Indeed, since the Philippians were likely undergoing persecution in some form or fashion, we might have expected Paul to pray for their endurance in Christ. Or because there were arguments and rivalries in the Philippian church, Paul could have prayed for their unity in Christ as His Body. Yet Paul prays for their love to abound more and more. This is a prayer of fundamental importance because it cuts to the heart of the Christian faith. If love is how we grow in maturity, then by praying for a deepening of love he also prays for growth in every way.

Of course, this isn’t to say that praying for other things is unimportant. Currently, my father-in-law is battling Stage-4 gastric cancer. We long for prayers for his strength and for his healing; however, the state of his soul is more important than the state of his un-resurrected body. Even if the LORD is gracious enough to heal his body, he will still see God face-to-face within a few decades. Praying that he would love the LORD with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength and love his neighbor as himself is far more critical than praying for his physical ailments. And the same is true of us.

Throughout Paul’s letters, we see that the apostle consistently prayed prayers like this one. Ephesians 3:14-19 is one of my favorites:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Could not our lack of love for one another stem from our failure to pray like this? Will you, therefore, pray like Paul? Will you pray that the love of God would, by the Spirit, flow through ourselves and our brothers and sisters?

And may we do this continually. Paul prayed for it to abound more and more because the love of God has no limit. We must fight to never grow stagnant in our love, for there is always room for us to love more and more in light of the One who has loved us endlessly.

God Will Finish His Work | Philippians 1:6-8

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.

Philippians 1:6-8 (ESV)

 

So far, we have seen Paul’s heart of thanks for his partnership with the Philippians in the spread of the gospel. He expressed this gratitude to God who worked through them, and he claimed to thank God for the Philippians every time he remembered them.

We now continue Paul’s opening remarks to his beloved brothers and sisters. In these three verses, Paul expresses his confidence that because of their strong display of faith God would ultimately complete the Philippians salvation at the day of Jesus Christ. He also emphasizes for them how strongly he yearns for all of them with the affections of Jesus Christ. Let us draw comfort and challenge from this text. May we grow in love for one another as we make ready for Christ’s return.

BLESSED ASSURANCE // VERSE 6

We now come to verse 6, which is one of Philippians’ most frequently cited verses. Dr. Thomas Constable gives us a glimpse as to why this verse is so popular:

This is one of the most comforting verses in the Bible for Christians. Our getting to heaven safely does not depend on us, on our ability to hold on and to persevere faithfully to the end of our lives. The Lord will see to it that we reach heaven safely in spite of our failures and shortcomings. Salvation is God’s work, not man’s (Jon. 2:9). As surely as He has already delivered us from the penalty of sin (Rom. 5:1), He will one day deliver us from the presence of sin (cf. Rom. 8:31-39). (13)

The doctrines and applications of this small sentence are tremendous, so we will eat the elephant piece by piece.

The first question that we must seek to answer is: what good work was begun in the Philippians? Of course, to answer this question, we must remember that our verse is directly tied to verses 3-5 from our previous study. In those three verses, Paul expressed his thanksgiving through prayer to God because of the Philippians partnership with him in the gospel. The present expression of Paul’s confidence in the completion of the Philippians salvation must be understood within this context, especially since Paul refers to their partnership as beginning from the first day until now (v. 5). The good work, therefore, that was begun in the Philippians is their partnership in the gospel.

The next question for understanding this verse must be: what does being brought to completion at the day of Jesus Christ mean? The opening expression of thanks in 1 Corinthians, which parallels Philippians to a great degree, provides a clearer understanding of what exactly is meant by the day of Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 1:4–9 | I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

What then is the day of Jesus Christ?

It is His revealing.

It is the day when “the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!” (2 Peter 3:12).

It is the day when Christ, who first came “to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28).

It is the final day of vengeance falling upon “those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 1:8), while granting relief to all who are afflict for the sake of Christ (1 Thessalonians 1:6).

In short, the day of Jesus Christ will either be our supreme joy and pleasure or our utter horror and terror.

The final preparatory question we need answered is: who is completing the good work? Paul claims confidence that he will complete the good work that he began in the Philippians, but to whom is Paul referring? The answer is found in verse 3. God, who was the recipient of Paul’s thanks for the Philippians, is now being proclaimed as one who will bring their partnership in the gospel to its completion as they stand before Christ.

God, therefore, is the one who began the good work of their partnership in the gospel in the Philippians, and God will also be the one who completes that work so that they will find joy and peace at the day of Jesus Christ. We now have the clarified mechanics for analyzing and applying the verse more fully.

Understanding this verse in context, enables us to avoid one of the most common errors when quoting our text since it is often cited as a general proclamation that God will complete the salvation process. It has, therefore, contributed to the overused adage, “Once saved, always saved.” Unfortunately, this thought, while deriving from biblical truth, is a severe over-simplification. Indeed, Paul is not speaking of the completion of our salvation as if it were a law of nature: if an apple falls from a tree, it hits the ground; if a person asks Jesus to forgive their sins, he or she will go to heaven when they die. Remember that the good work began in the Philippians is not exactly their moment of justification; rather, the good work is their partnership in the gospel that began at the moment of their justification. As we learned last week, God saved the Philippians and brought them into a fellowship centered upon the message of the gospel and a partnership dedicated to the mission of the gospel. This fellowship/partnership was what caused Paul to constantly thank God for them in joyful prayer because through the gospel, God brought them together in the gospel to the send them into the world for the gospel. It is this partnership that God will complete at the day of Jesus Christ.

Allow me to make clear what I am NOT saying. Salvation is not dependent upon being in community with other Christians. We are saved solely by the death and resurrection of Christ. Even baptism for all its importance, weight, and significance is not necessary for salvation. But like baptism, community is necessary for our assurance of salvation. God designed it to be so.

We can view this at work in church membership. Upon affirming someone as a church member, we declare our sincere belief that they are genuine follower of Jesus, while excommunicating a church member through discipline is a declaration that we can no longer affirm his or her salvation since there is no sign of repentance. Biblical community, therefore, builds the assurance that our salvation is genuine by affirming and safeguarding our faith.

On the converse, this is also why a decay in our walk with the LORD is almost always followed by a withdrawal from community. Just as going for a walk in the sun is both the best thing for someone experiencing depression and often the last thing they want to do, so being around other brothers and sisters is best thing for our sin-filled, joyless souls, while also being the last thing we want to do in those moments. We create all kinds of excuses for avoiding community. Exhaustion seems to be one of the most common ones today for avoiding corporate worship. After a heavy and draining week, the idea of going to church on Sunday is simply too much work, too much hassle. Tragically, this kind of thinking ignores both Jesus’ command to come to Him for rest (Matthew 11:28) and His promised presence among those who gather in His name (Matthew 18:20).

Going beyond the occasional withdrawal from community, what about Christians who blatantly refuse to participate in worship among other believers? Such people often appear to be entirely certain of their salvation when conversing with them. However, based upon texts such as this one, assurance of that kind can be deadly. Apart from community to encourage and correct us, we can easily form our own idea of who God is, either avoiding any Scriptures that contradict it or simply avoiding the Scriptures altogether. As I said before, a failure to participate in Christian community does not necessarily mean that he or she isn’t saved. It does, however, mean that they can have no biblical assurance of their salvation, and indeed, it certainly is an indication of a possible false conversion.

If this describes you, repent.

If you consider yourself to be a Christian, but you avoid being a part of Christ’s Bride and Body, the Church, then this is great evidence that you do not truly know Christ.

Repent of self-assurance, and join the partnership in the gospel.

Having now discussed what this verse is not teaching, let us take note of what it is saying. For all who are partnering together in the gospel, God both started that work and will finish it. Referenced here are all three stages of salvation. Our partnership in the gospel began, as noted last week, because God reconciled us both to Himself and to one another by the blood of the cross. We call this one-time work justification. Our sin is forgiven, and we are legally declared righteous before God. But from this comes the ongoing work of sanctification. In sanctification, we partner with one another in the gospel to kill our indwelling sin and to fulfill the Great Commission. All of this points toward the day when we will be glorified, when our salvation will be complete and we will no longer be capable of sin.

We know that justification and glorification are the works of God on our behalf, but what of sanctification? Once again, consider the verses that we will be studying within a few more weeks:

Philippians 2:12-13 |Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Are we called to do good works for God? Certainly. Do those good works require a willful contribution on our part? Absolutely! Yet even as we participate in our sanctification (which differs from justification and glorification because in them we are simply recipients), God alone gets the glory because our will and works are the result of Him working in us. Therefore, just as we trust God to forgive our sins and save us, we can also trust that He will ultimately save us from our sins because He is currently empowering us to overcome sin and walk in obedience day after day.

The good work of our partnership in the gospel, therefore, is an evidence of salvation, but it does not contribute to our salvation. Walking in obedience to God cannot cleanse previous sins, but it can indicate a heart that has been transformed by the LORD. The beginning, middle, and ending of Christian life is overseen by God; thus, He alone is our hope of heaven and all its joys, a hope that is our “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Hebrews 6:19). In this hope, we have a certainty, a surety along with Paul, that God will complete whatever work He begins.

Christian, are you trusting that God alone can bring you safely into His kingdom, or have you, perhaps subtly, begun to rely upon your own good works?

In what ways do you willingly embrace the safeguards of Christian community to provide assurance of your salvation?

AFFECTIONS OF GRACE // VERSES 7-8

After expressing his deep thanks for the Philippians and his confidence in their perseverance in the faith, Paul now expresses his affection for them. Notice the intimate expressions being used: I hold you in my heart and how I year for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. This “feeling” that Paul has for the Philippians is a key word that is found in nineteen verses in the New Testament, and seven of them are from Philippians. Gordon Fee lauds the NIV’s translation of as “feel” (which is true of the ESV as well) instead of the more common “mind” or “mindset” because it incorporates affections as well as thoughts (89). Thus, as we see Paul continue to urge us throughout the letter to conform our minds to Christ, this verse must be a reminder that doing so is no mere intellectual exercise. God desires our thoughts and affections.

But why is Paul so affectionate for the Philippians? He holds the Philippians in his heart, meaning he keeps his thoughts of them in the very core of who he is. They are in his heart because of their partaking of grace alongside him. Partakers here is another form of the word koinonia or partnership that Paul used in verse 5. He is, therefore, rooting his affection toward them, like his thanksgiving for them, in their gospel-formed community. Not only did they continue to do the work of defending and confirming the gospel in evangelism, preaching, and their daily lives; they also continued to minister to Paul during his imprisonment. Ancient prison systems were far from being as humane as they are today. Often, if a prisoner was not given supplies by family or friends, the prisoner would be left to die, making room for a new prisoner. Over the first couple of centuries in church history, this was often exploited during times of persecution as a form of luring Christians into the open. Officials would arrest and imprison one Christian and then arrest more whenever others came to support and encourage them. Ministering to someone prisoned for the gospel would be done in great seriousness. For these reasons, great was Paul’s affection for the Philippians.

I would now like to focus our attention on Paul’s yearning and affectionate feeling or mindset toward the Philippians, and why it is so important. In his book, You Are What You Love, James K. A. Smith makes the argument that what want, desire, or yearn for is what you truly love. Such a thought may sound simple, but it has many weighty ramifications. For instance, he cites the idea’s presented in Tarkovsky’s 1979 film, Stalker, as an example. In the film, two men are being led by a third man to a place called the Room, where the desires of those who enter are made reality. Unfortunately, the Room grants desires of the heart, not of the mind. When the men arrive, they ultimately refuse to enter after learning of a man killed himself who entered the Room with the desire to bring his brother back to life but was given money instead. Why is it so significant that they didn’t enter the Room? As Smith explains:

What if they don’t want what they think? What if the desires they are conscious of—the one’s they’ve “chosen,” as it were—are not their innermost longings, their deepest wish? What if, in some sense, their deepest longings are humming under their consciousness unawares? What if, in effect, they are not who they think they are? (29)

To learn that we do not want what we think we want means learning that we are not who we think we are. Our wants, desires, and yearnings reveal our true loves. And Paul’s yearning for the Philippians reveals the truth of his love for them and for the God who saved them.

But how can we know that our affections are rooted in the gospel like Paul’s?

Or if we find ourselves with improper longings, how can we stir our affections toward God Himself and our brothers and sisters in the faith?

Smith argues that our affections are shaped by our habits, routines, and liturgies. He gives the example of how shopping in the mall can act as a sort of “cultural liturgy” that stirs up our love for consumerism. He then provides a few more examples:

We could repeat such “liturgical” readings of cultural practices for an entire array of everyday rituals. When you put on these liturgical lenses, you’ll see the stadium in a whole new way, as a temple nationalism and militarism. When you look at the university with liturgical eyes, you’ll start to realize that the “ideas” and “messages” of the university are often less significant than the rituals of frat parties and campus athletics. When we stop worrying about smartphones just in terms of content (what we’re looking at) and start to consider the rituals that tether us to them throughout the day, we’ll notice that the very form of the practice comes loaded with an egocentric vision that makes me the center of the universe. (46)

Our habits and routines act as religious programs that guide what our heart loves, which is why so much of the Christian life seeks to become a rhythm in our lives. In particular, the routines of private spiritual disciplines and corporate worship reshape our desires and loves toward the things of God.

We can see the fruit of private disciplines in last week’s text: Paul’s love for the Philippians is stirred and enlarged by his constant prayer of thanksgiving for the Philippians being made to God. Of course, like justification, we could argue that God alone must form a heart of affection within us, but prayer, like the other spiritual disciplines, is a tool of sanctification that God has graciously given to mold our hearts toward conformity with His.

This is also true of corporate worship. In many places today, weekly worship is attacked as being non-essential to the Christian walk. The argument is typically that faith is an individual matter, so as long as I read the Bible and pray, I can have a healthy relationship with Jesus all by myself. Right?

We could very easily simply refer back to verse 6 showing that true assurance of salvation can only come through partnering with other believers in the gospel, but let’s dismantle this mentality from another passage:

Hebrews 10:24–25 | And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

The author of Hebrews is commanding us to stir up each other into love and good works (quite like what God will one day complete in us). This selfless focus on others is the Christian mentality because it is Christ’s mentality (Philippians 2:5). Regularly meeting together for corporate worship must be our habit for continuing to encourage one another. Just as daily prayer fosters our love of God to whom we pray and for the people for whom we pray, so corporate worship guides our love for our fellow members of Christ’s Body.

The shift of focus upon self as the consumer of worship is one of the gravest evils of the seeker-sensitive movement. Now, don’t get me wrong. Worship should absolutely be done with excellence, and we should make every effort to call sinners to repentance and minimize any unintentional and distracting awkwardness. Yes, and amen! But weekly worship is not at all about what we want; rather, it is, first, about adoring God together and, second, about encouraging God’s saints.

Notice also how the author of Hebrews urges us to do this all the more as you see the Day drawing near. He is, of course, referring to the day of Jesus Christ. As we see the final judgment of all mankind approaching, let us not neglect meeting together to encourage one another to continue partnering the gospel. As we ingrain these habits of grace, we will continue to draw near to Christ and to each other, growing in sanctification and our certainty that God will finish His good work in us on the Day of Jesus Christ.

Can you relate to Paul’s yearning affection for the Philippians to your affection for fellow believers in your life?

How do spiritual disciplines and corporate worship grow our affections for God and His people?

What do your own daily and weekly habits and routines reveal about your yearnings and affections?

Guardians of Doctrine

In the previous study, we observed the biblical precedent and imperative for churches being led by a plurality of elders. We briefly addressed the three titles given to a pastor in the New Testament: shepherd, elder, and overseer, which over time have formally become pastor, presbyter, and bishop. Ultimately, each of the title refers to the same office, but they each represent different aspects of the elder’s roles and responsibilities. Those functions will be the focus of our study today.

THREE COMMANDS // 1 PETER 5:1-5

In his magnificent book, Sojourners and Strangers, Gregg Allison argues that there are four biblical responsibilities for church elders: leading, teaching, praying, and shepherding. While I do agree with his assessment, I would like to structure it differently. Instead of saying that an elder has the four responsibilities above, it seems better to say that an elder has one responsibility (lead) that is displayed in three primary ways (shepherd, oversee, and model), which then practically functions within two primary tasks (teach and pray). Leading is, I believe, the one overall responsibility to which every elder is called, and I will argue that shepherding and leading are two sides of the same coin. Following the example of Jesus, a Christian leader is called to be a servant and a shepherd. Pastors lead by shepherding, and they shepherd by leading. You cannot divorce the two concepts from one another.

Pastor: Shepherd the Flock of God

Within the fifth chapter of 1 Peter, the apostle begins an exhortation to church elders. He writes to them as a fellow elder and gives them one big command that he explains and qualifies in verses two and three: shepherd the flock of God. Of course, pastor is one of the three titles used for elders within the Bible, and it means a shepherd. A pastor is a shepherd, so the primary command to a pastor is to shepherd the flock, the congregation. But notice the wording of that phrase: shepherd the flock of God. A pastor’s congregation is not his congregation but God’s. The church is God’s flock, His people.

But what does it mean then to shepherd?

Psalm 23 is likely the passage that first springs to mind.

Psalm 23:1-4 | The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.  Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

The same imagery being used by David in Psalm 23 is the imagery being used by Peter here. A shepherd takes care of sheep. A shepherd guards and protects sheep. David is the archetypal shepherd in the Bible, who slew bears and lions to defend his flock. Pastors likewise must defend, care for, and nourish God’s people.

In order to shepherd well, a pastor must possess two qualities: a love for God and a love for God’s people. That may sound incredibly simple, but do we truly live that way? Because the congregation is God’s flock, a pastor cannot properly love them without first having a love of God. He cannot love what is God’s without first loving God. Of course, these qualities are not exclusive to elders; rather, the pastor is intended to model them before the congregation. After all, Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40). Each Christian is called to love God and love people. Pastors, therefore, are called to model loving God and loving people.

In an article titled Two Indispensable Requirements for Pastoral Ministry, Kevin DeYoung takes those two qualities one step further. He says that a pastor must like to study the Bible and must like his people. He uses the word like with purpose. A pastor must not only love God, but he must like studying His Word. Why? God reveals Himself through His Word. How can anyone truly love God but not enjoy studying His Word! And a pastor should not just love God’s people, he should like them. Shepherds like being around sheep, and a pastor should like being around God’s flock.

Overseer: Exercising Oversight

If shepherding the flock of God is the big overall command, the next phrase is a further explanation of that command: exercising oversight. A pastor, as an overseer, must exercise oversight over the church. Just as a pastor and an overseer are different titles for the same office, so exercising oversight is, at its core, the same command as shepherding the flock of God. They are each the same responsibility of leading God’s people, but they emphasize a different aspect of that leadership. A shepherd’s duty is to care and provide for the flock, while an overseer manages and guides God’s people.

What does this oversight look like?

First, exercising oversight means watching over souls. Hebrews 13:17 commands: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” While this verse very purposely does not target pastors specifically (instead applying to everyone is a position of leadership), it should bear tremendous weight upon the heart of all pastors. He must view this verse with joyful fear because every pastor will give an account to God for the congregation they shepherd.

This is also why a proper understanding of membership is important. Pastors must know who they are watching over, which people they are responsible for overseeing, because they will answer to God on behalf of each soul. James 3:1 is sage advice: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” As an elder, I will not merely give an account of my own soul to God (which is burdensome task indeed!), but I will answer to God on behalf of each soul within my congregation.

Second, exercising oversight means equipping the saints for the work of ministry. Ephesians 4:11-14 teaches us this principle:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

An overseer must equip the saints for the work of ministry. As a pastor, I am not a minister who has been called into the ministry. Instead, I was called into the ministry as a Christian, just as every Christian is called into the ministry as well. We all have ministries, areas of life where we are called by God to serve one another.

To discover those areas of ministry, we only need to ask a few questions. Are you a spouse? If yes, that’s an area of ministry for you. Are you a parent? Another ministry. Are you child? Are you employed? We have been placed in each realm of life by God for a purpose. And the role of an overseer is to equip the congregation for their ministries. We do not hire a pastor to do the ministry for us, but to lead us in how to minister throughout our lives.

Elder: Being an Example to the Flock

The third command that Peter gives is to be an example to the flock. Once more, this is not an independent command. Just as shepherding and overseeing are the same command viewed from different angles, so is being an example to the flock. Modeling maturity and godliness is the task of an elder, just as shepherding is for a pastor and overseeing is for an overseer.

When considering maturity, we should note that age is not the primary factor for being an elder; spiritual maturity is. Paul gave this famous instruction to his young disciple, Timothy: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). The first half of that verse is too often cited without the latter portion. Young pastors, because of their youth, have all the more reason to set an example for the flock in their speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity. In short, an elder must model godliness to the congregation. He must give an example of a life that is fully surrendered over to God’s will.

But elders must also model repentance for the congregation. No pastor is perfect and without sin; therefore, pastors will always have sin to repent of. Yes, they are shepherding God’s people, but they are also a part of God’s people, being shepherded by the chief Shepherd. Like all Christians, elders will fail and fall into sin. But the mark of a Christian is not sinless perfection; it is repentance. Christians are a people who repeatedly cling to the hope of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Elders, therefore, must model that hope via repentance.

TWO TASKS // ACTS 6:4

In 1 Peter 5:2-3, pastors are given three commands which correspond to the three titles: shepherd the flock, exercise oversight, and be an example to the flock. Each command is a different aspect of leading God’s people. Pastors lead by shepherding, overseers lead by overseeing, and elders lead by modeling. These are great overall ideas, but how does that look in the everyday? What are the primarily tasks by which a pastor shepherds, an elder models, and an overseer oversees? Acts 6:4 gives us the two most important tasks required of a pastor: prayer and the ministry of the Word.

As we will see when we study the responsibility of deacons, the apostles within Acts 6 are acting as prototype elders of the church in Jerusalem, and within that text, they also establish the first seven prototype deacons. Therefore, the apostles’ resolve to commit themselves primarily to prayer and the ministry of the Word must also be the heart of every pastor. The entire purpose behind establishing deacons was to defend pastors’ ability to focus upon praying and ministering the Word.

Above all things, pastors must devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. That’s not to say that an elder does not have other tasks that must be done, but being devoted means giving unremitted attention to these two things. If he can do only two things, they are prayer and the ministry of the Word. People often have a multitude of expectations for what a pastor ought to do, but the Bible is clear that these two tasks must be above everything else.

The Ministry of the Word

A pastor must be rooted in God’s Word. As an overseer, he oversees through the Word of God. As a pastor, he shepherds with the Word of God. As an elder, he models submission to the Word of God. As intimidating as being a young pastor can be, it also forces me to depend only upon the Scripture. I simply do not have the life experience or the time-hardened wisdom to say many things that must be said. Fortunately, I have God’s Word, which is the only authority worth asserting.

For the importance of ministering the Word to others, we only need to turn to the life of Jesus. The primary focus of Jesus’ earthly ministry was preaching the gospel. This, of course, runs against what we tend to assume. Our minds first go to Jesus’ miracles, but He performed those miracles in order to demonstrate the authority of His preaching. Mark 1:35-39 tells of Jesus’ disciples informing Him of people in need of healing, but He says to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out” (v. 38).

Furthermore in Mark 6 we find the account of Jesus feeding the five thousand. Verse 34 gives provides the background to that miracle: “When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep with a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.” It is tempting to link Jesus’ compassion upon the crowd immediately to His feeding them; however, Jesus’ love for them was first displayed in His teaching them. They were lost sheep, so He shepherded them by teaching them the good news of the kingdom. Jesus, therefore, saw teaching as shepherding. This is even further enforced by Jesus command for Peter to feed His sheep in John 21:15-19.

The mark of teaching God’s Word is so important for a pastor that it is listed in the office’s qualifications (1 Timothy 3:2). Although there will almost always be teachers in the church who are not elders, the ability to teach God’s Word is a requirement for elders. Not all teachers are elders, but all elders are teachers.

Titus 1:9 reiterates this necessity while providing a twofold look at its practice: “He [an overseer] must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” Three points must be made from this verse. First, the ministry of the Word means holding firm to the Word as trustworthy. Second, he must be able to give instruction in sound doctrine. Third, he must be able to refute those who contradict it. Instructing and refuting are the two arms of ministering the Word. In shepherding terms, instruction is feeding the sheep, while refutation is protecting them. All pastors must feed the sheep by teaching the Scripture and drive away the wolves by rebuking false doctrine.

Prayer

The second task of an elder is prayer. Why is prayer a job requirement for an elder? Aren’t all Christians supposed to pray? The quick answer is yes. All Christians are certainly called to pray. Remember, elders are models of Christian maturity; therefore, a pastor should desire for all those in his church to pray like him. If this does not humble a pastor, he should probably examine his heart. Few Christians, pastors included, are strong enough in their prayer to confidently tell a new Christian to pray like they pray. Elders, nevertheless, must model prayer.

This does not mean, however, that elders are the only models of prayer in a church. Specific ministries of intercession are sorely missing in most churches today. In fact, I would urge each Christian to grow in intercessory prayer throughout their life. Too many older believers become disheartened in their old age that they cannot do the ministries they once did due to physical constraints. Aging, of course, cannot be stopped; therefore, we should prepare for becoming warriors of intercessory prayer in the years where our bodies can no longer perform many of their former tasks.

Elders, though, should not only model prayer for the congregation; they should also pray for the flock of God. Personally, I use either physical notecards or the app, PrayerMate, to pray for every member of the church. Placing each family unit on a card, I pray for three to five cards each morning. While that system is not required of each elder, it does ensure that each member is being prayed for by his or her pastor on a regular basis. Without this system, I tend to only pray for those who I know are in present need of prayer, but as a follower of Christ, I do not want people to only pray for me whenever I am in visible need. I want to be prayed for at all times because I need prayer at all times! How then can I not do the same for the congregation?

The danger of prayer is that it is so easy to neglect. Since most prayer happens behind the scenes, a pastor can be readily convinced of the need to focus on more “important” or showy things.

In terms of importance, seemingly random needs will always come to the surface at the moment of prayer. Unfulfilled to-do lists come to mind with a renewed resolved to see them accomplished whenever one becomes ready to pray. But there is no work more important than prayer.

As for showy things, it is all to easy, as a pastor, for me to neglect prayer in favor of doing things that will be seen by others. For me at least, it’s rarely a means of boasting; instead, I often fear that I will be seen as lazy. Time spent in prayer, after all, is time not spent elsewhere. By working prayer into my schedule, I must set aside more “productive” tasks. The heart is ultimately at stake here. I prefer the hands-on work because it can be recognized and affirmed by others; prayer, however, is between God and I. Prayer is work, but it is work without recognition and affirmation of others. Since pastors live before the watching eyes of the congregation, God was certainly wise in pairing the public work of teaching with the private work of prayer. When I teach well, I risk taking the glory for myself, but knelt in true prayer, I can do nothing but give glory to God.

Prayer forces a pastor to remember that only the Holy Spirit can change hearts. Pastors need to always be reminded that God shepherds His people through them. They cannot do the work of shepherding alone; they need the empowerment of the Spirit.

ONE PURPOSE // TITUS 1:7

To conclude our study on the responsibilities of an elder, I would like to journey into Titus 1:7 where we will confront the ultimate purpose of a pastor that has been undergirding the other two passages: “For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach.” Notice how the overseer is described as being God’s steward. A pastor must lead by shepherding, overseeing, and modeling through prayer and the ministry of the Word; however, he is called to do these things as a steward of God.

A steward is one who enacts authority on someone else’s behalf, to be a manager. Although a manager might have near total control of a store, he or she is ultimately acting in place of the owner. Thus, in calling the overseer God’s steward, Paul is establishing the pastors as the managers of His church. This ought to be a weighty statement. It is a reminder that pastors are watching over the souls of the congregation, “as those who will have to give an account” (Heb. 13:17). This burden is too great for one man alone to bear, which is why elder plurality is so crucial.

Though the nature of being a steward is heavy for the pastors, there is also a responsibility for the church to submit to their leadership. Within many churches where all decisions are finalized via congregational vote, the tendency is to provide the leadership with a set of boundaries and guidelines rather than obeying and submitting as Hebrews 13:17 commands (for proper usage of voting, read Members’ Responsibilities). In general, this seems to stem from the importation of the democratic ideology into the church. While in theory democracy looks just as helpful for the church as the government, the reality is that church and state are entirely different beasts. Democracy means “people-ruled,” and this idea works well for governments where people of various ideologies must work cohesively together.

The church, however, was always meant to be a theocracy (God-ruled). God, not people, must govern, rule, and lead the church. Democracy often leads to a people-centered mind, but the church must be God-centered. This causes many churches, under the best of intentions, to attempt to market themselves primarily toward reaching people, which is done out of love for others. However, the most loving action we can ever do is point people to God. Making churches that center around people in the end fails to love those people fully. Instead, let us attend and organize our churches for God, and as we point people to Him, they will behold the deepest spring of love. And it is the pastor’s role as God’s steward, therefore, is to turn the congregation’s gaze toward God, leading them under the sole authority of God’s Word.

Partners in the Gospel | Philippians 1:3-5

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. 

Philippians 1:3–5 (ESV)

 

Paul’s letter to the church of Philippi is quite unique from most of his other letters. In Philippians, Paul is not writing to correct rampant sin or false teaching, as with the Corinthian letters and Galatians. Nor is he writing primarily to teach major doctrines or even the basics of the faith, like his letters to the Romans and Thessalonians. Instead, Paul writes to Philippi (a church that he planted) in response to a gift that they sent to him through a man named Epaphraditus. Philippians then is part ‘thank you’ letter and part encouragement to distant friends. From what can be gathered in the letter itself, the Philippians appear to be quite doctrinally sound and growing in love, but Paul still encourages them to continue growing more and more into Christ, which will enable them to rejoice in Christ even in the midst of suffering and persecution.

Last week, we studied the greeting of Philippians, reintroducing ourselves to Paul and Timothy and learning about Philippi. Now we move into the body of Paul’s letter where he begins by expressing his thankfulness for the Philippians and their partnership with Paul in the gospel. We should learn much by the example of thanksgiving, prayer, and gospel partnerships found within these verses and the rest of the letter to come.

THANKS TO GOD // VERSES 3

Leaving the greeting, Paul begins the body of his letter by expressing his thankfulness for the Philippians. Notice that I said for the Philippians instead of to the Philippians. Since Paul is writing this letter in response to the Philippians sending him a gift via Epaphroditus (4:18), we might naturally assume that his thanksgiving would be rightfully directed toward them. Paul, however, has other plans. His thankfulness for the Philippians is given to God.

Why is this?

Why does Paul give God credit for the generous giving of the Philippians?

As we will soon see in verse 6 and later in verse 13 of chapter two, Paul understands that behind every act of love and obedience that we perform lies the grace, will, and power of God to enable those very works. Paul is also merely applying the words of Jesus from John 15:5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” Without the powerful working of Christ in the Philippians, they could have done nothing.

We also see this in Ephesians 2:8-10:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Notice that two kinds of works exist here. First, there are works toward salvation, which cannot save. Second, there are good works for which we were created to walk in. Paul explicitly tells us that we cannot boast in any work toward our salvation since we can only be saved by grace through faith. Justification is a gift of God; therefore, all of our boasting can only be in Him. Since we contributed zero effort and ability, we get zero glory.

And while the good works that we do in our daily sanctification require effort and work on our part, the prohibition on boasting applies to these as well. Paul clarifies this working in 1 Corinthians 15:10, saying: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” Paul’s hard work was only possible by the grace of God within him. All of our good works are performed by God’s gracious working in us. Paul knew that to be true of himself, and he knew it to be true of the Philippians. Rightly then was Paul thankful for the Philippians to God.

Do you find this line of thought fair? Do you agree that God deserves the thanksgiving for your good works? In expressing your thankfulness to other believers, do you give thanks to them or to God for them? The implications of this thought may prove quite awkward to act out at first, but is it not worth it to give God the glory that is due to Him?

JOYFUL PRAYER // VERSE 4

As Paul’s thought moves forward, he explains the avenue through which he expresses his thanksgiving to God for the Philippians: prayer. Notice how Paul connects his remembrance of the Philippians to his prayer for them. The apostle makes this connection to emphasize to the Philippians that he prayed for them as often as he remembered them. For Paul, prayer was not merely a routine to be completed in the morning and/or at night, nor was prayer a to-do item that earns us bonus points with God. Instead, prayer infiltrated his daily life. He likewise commands us to pray at all times (Ephesians 6:18) and without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). And because prayer so saturated his life, Paul gave a prayer of thanks to God each time he remembered the Philippians.

For many Christians, this kind of prayer may seem extreme or simply unachievable, but Paul will later in the letter urge the Philippians to imitate him and his example (3:17). This must be the type of life that we long to live: a life of constant communion with our God. If this sounds like a great burden, note that Paul made these prayers with joy. The apostle was able to pray without ceasing because he was not constantly battling against himself to pray. Prayer was for him a joy. He enjoyed and delighted in prayer.

Unfortunately, believers today often seem to want to find joy in prayer, but doing so is difficult because prayer to us is often more of a duty than a delight. We know we need to pray more, but the task can be incredibly daunting. Questions race through the mind. What is the best time to prayer? Where should I pray? Does posture matter in praying? What do I say? What happens if I say the wrong thing? Do I pray to the Father only, or can I pray to the Jesus and the Spirit as well? What’s the minimum time I should spend in prayer? Do I need to spend more time praying for others than I do myself? Soon they cease being questions, morphing instead into excuses.

How then should we pray?

And just as importantly, how do we learn to enjoy praying?

First, we must note that deliberate and private times of prayer are absolutely necessary for the Christian walk. While the Bible sets no strict time or time-limit for these times of prayer, it offers plenty of guides and content to help us shape these times. The most famous is, of course, the Lord’s Prayer, which is a wonderful, structured outline to pray through each day. Verses 9-11 also provide powerful direction for how we might pray. In fact, with a robust knowledge of the Scriptures, all of God’s Word may serve a guide for our times of focused and private prayer.

But, as have already suggested, prayer can and must leave the closet. In order to pray without ceasing, prayer must continue beyond times of focused, private prayer. We ought to pray these prayers whenever other believers come to mind (like Paul did with the Philippians), whenever we are stressed or anxious, whenever non-believing loved ones come to mind, or really anything else that can be brought to the LORD. Please don’t let this kind of praying intimidate you. They need not be long and lengthy. They can be as short and simple as, “Father, give me wisdom for making this decision” or “LORD, thank you for the fellowship within my community group.” This type of praying simply keeps dialogue with God throughout the day, acknowledging that He sees and controls everything and submitting ourselves to His will and kingdom again and again.

To use an imperfect analogy that nearly each of us can relate to: if prayer was a phone, established times of private prayer would be like phone calls and in-the-moment prayers would be like text messaging. In the same way that text-messaging cannot replace the depth of hearing one another’s voice, so in-the-moment prayers cannot replace deliberate times of prayer. But also just as texts can be sent in times when phone calls aren’t possible, so these quick prayers can be made in any circumstance.

But still none of this answer the question of how we can come to enjoy praying.

Unfortunately, there is no quick answer to this question. No multi-step program can increase our joy in communing with God; enjoyment of prayer can only come through knowing God more. And of course, we only come to know more of God through praying and reading the Scriptures. So we learn to enjoy praying by praying. Ultimately, when we begin both to practice and understand the beauty of having constant access to the Creator as our Father, we will also realize the joy of prayer. Little by little, we will come to have the same mentality of Thomas Brooks when he claims that “a man whose soul is conversant with God in a closet, in a hole, behind a door, or in a desert, a den, a dungeon, shall find more real pleasure, more choice delight, and more full content, than in the palace of a prince” (11).

What does your prayer life look like? Do you practice both private and constant prayer, and what does that look like? Do you enjoy praying? Is it a duty or a delight?

PARTNERSHIP IN THE GOSPEL // VERSE 5

In verse 5, however, Paul cites a more specified reason for rejoicing in his prayers for the Philippians: their partnership in the gospel. The Greek word that is translated partnership here is frequently translated as fellowship or community. This word has tremendous theological implications throughout the New Testament.

It refers to the close communion among God’s people, the community that Jesus is forming by His own blood.

It is the fellowship that united church in Jerusalem after Pentecost (Acts 2:42).

It is the fellowship that marks us a being children of God: “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7).

It is the same kind of communion that we now have with the Spirit (2:1).

It is the same participation that causes us to share in the sufferings of Christ that we might also be glorified with Him (3:10).

This partnership, fellowship, and community is, therefore, horizontal and vertical. It is our communion with Christ and with one another. It is the embodiment of the call to obey the Great Commandment, loving God and loving our neighbors.

But why exactly is this partnership so intrinsically rooted in the gospel?

Without a communion first with Christ, we cannot fully have community with each other. Why, you might ask? Being a community is hard work. In fact, because of sin’s dominance in the world, true community should be little more than a daydream. God designed us to need other people, but as we studied in Ecclesiastes 4, we repeatedly hurt and scar one another. Sin doesn’t just separate us from God; it also alienates us from our fellow humans. This, therefore, gives us another depth to the beauty of the gospel.

As we discussed in the previous text, the gospel (or good news) is that God forgives sins and makes us His children because of the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. Although our sin alienated us from God and made us hostile in mind toward Him, Jesus reconciled us to God, making peace by the blood of His cross. By His death and resurrection, Christ bore the complete wrath of God in our place, while also freely giving us His perfect righteousness and obedience. By the cross and the cross alone are we reconciled to God our Father and now have communion with Him by the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. Such truth is enough to meditate on the goodness of God for all eternity.

However, the power of the gospel extends even beyond our relationship to God; it also repairs the damages of sin amongst each other. In the second chapter of Ephesians, Paul describes how the gospel destroys the “dividing wall of hostility” between the Jews and Gentiles (2:14). The strained relationship between these two groups is meant to essentially serve as an example of “if God can help these two, He can help everyone.” Or as Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Also in Colossians 3:11, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”

Other than Paul (a Jew) and the Philippians (predominately Gentiles) being united in the gospel’s message, they were also united in its mission. For all believers, as with Paul and the Philippians, our partnership in the gospel is centered upon this mission: to spread the gospel to every nation. Such a mission unfolds from the reality that the gospel itself is a rescue mission. Jesus came to save us; now He sends us out to spread that message. Paul’s journey to plant churches was a literal mission to accomplish that goal. The establishment of a church in Philippi was a fruit of Paul’s mission. We are then told that the Philippians shared in Paul’s mission through some form of a gift (4:18). The gospel united them together in fellowship and then scattered them in partnership to spread the good news. These are the two essential and inseparable marks of Christian community.

On a church-wide level, how is a fellowship within our own congregation? Is it healthy or in need of growth? But how are we also partnering with other congregations (both near to us and abroad) to spread the gospel?

On a personal level, how are partners in the gospel? Which of your friends pray not just for your physical needs but for your walk with the LORD to deepen each day? Who is challenging you to be missional with your neighbors, your job, and your family?

Above Reproach

In the previous study, we observed the responsibilities of elders, namely, that they are commanded to lead (shepherd, oversee, and model) by devoting themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. Biblically, prayer and teaching are the two tasks from which elders cannot deviate. We know now what elders do, but how do we identify them? Within these seven verses of 1 Timothy, Paul provides for us the qualifications necessary for becoming a church elder.

BE MALE // 1 TIMOTHY 2:12

Before launching into Paul’s list of qualifications we must cover one that is implied here, elders must be male. While the implication is found in these verses, the justification is found in the previous chapter, 1 Timothy 2:12-14, which read, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”

In this text, Paul lists two prohibitions for women: teaching and exercising authority over a man. Far more debate has gone into these verses than we will have time to cover here, and I will not even approach the debate over to what extent women are able to teach in church. Instead, let us focus on the issue of authority. Clearly, the point of these verses is that Paul is forbidding women from exercising authority over men, particularly through teaching. It stands to reason that if elders’ are responsible for leading (aka exercising authority) primarily through teaching and if women are prohibited from doing just that, then women are not eligible to be elders.

This thought obviously runs directly against the mindset of our present societal circumstances, but Scripture is our authority, not society. Furthermore, God through His Word always desires for women to flourish. The same cannot be said of society. We must, therefore, resist the impulse to believe that God desires to keep women in subjugation. This prohibition is not a matter of subjugation but of structure. The same God to who ordered the act of creation by days is the same God who established His church with two offices of leadership: elders and deacons. And that same God ordered Christ as the head of His church and placed husbands as the head of their household. This God-designed structure is the reasoning Paul appeals to in verses 13-14, by saying that Adam was created first and Eve was deceived first. Because elders are the spiritual fathers of the congregation, women are excluded from this office.

ASPIRE TO THE OFFICE // VERSE 1

Paul opens up his discussion of the qualifications for overseers by stating that it is noble to desire that office of leadership. We have already discussed the significance of the office of an overseer, or elder; therefore, let us address three other words here are crucial to understand: aspires, noble, and task. First, the words noble and task are placed together. Task, of course, is a duty or a job. It is a work that needs to be done. Tasks tend to feel quite menial and boring, if not difficult and laborious. Few people enjoy receiving tasks and managing to-do lists, but Paul says that this task is noble. It is beautiful, honorable, and good task, a work that is beautiful to God. Aspiring pastors, then, should note that the office of overseer is both glorious and arduous, wonderful and backbreaking.

The beautiful nobility of this task should also keep at a distance anyone who thinks little or lightly of it. Anyone who thinks eldership is no big deal is like someone who says that maintaining a healthy marriage or being a good parent is no big deal. Those who are married would respond with something like, “Then you’ve obviously never had a fight with your spouse over whether to watch Shrek in English or Spanish!” And parents might response with, “And you’ve certainly never tried putting pajamas on a sick 7-month-old who thinks that the clothing is killing her!” Like the weight of two sinners joining their lives together or those same sinners being responsible for shepherding the most immature yet formative years of their children’s lives, being an elder is filled with challenge and danger. As guardians of doctrine within the church, they will have to give account before God for both their teaching and the teaching that occurs under their watch. If that isn’t scary enough, keep in mind that the New Testament’s harshest words are reserved for those who promote false teaching.

If the work is difficult but noble, what does it mean to aspire for the office of a church elder? Phil Newton answers this question well:

With our legitimate concern about egotism and pride, it is easy to shrink from the idea of someone aspiring to the office of overseer. Yet Paul’s word for aspiring points to the idea of someone stretching out their hand to the office with a genuine desire to serve the people of God. Lest someone aspire to the office for the sake of a title, a quick look at the character qualifications should squash impure motives. (114)

But how should an aspiring elder seek eldership? What characteristics should he be striving for in desiring the office of overseer? Thabitit Anyabwile suggests four traits to look for in potential elders: 1) Men who are regularly attending the church’s services. 2) Men who already appear to be shepherding members of the church even though they don’t have the title “elder” or “pastor.” 3) Men who show respect and trust in existing leadership. 4) Men who show a desire over time.

HAVE GODLY CHARACTER // VERSE 2-3

Next, Paul introduces a number of qualities that we will tie together with the term godly character. Each of these characteristics is meant to identify the elder as a man who is walking in God’s holiness. It is also important to note that these are qualities that every Christian is striving to attain, but elders are called particularly, and imperfectly, to model them for the congregation.

First, elders must be above reproach. Literally, this means that he is not open to blame and is above criticism. The Greek word here is different than the one used in verses 6 and 7 of Titus’ first chapter, but the meaning is essentially the same: blamelessness. But can elders truly be without blame, with no reason for reproach? Obviously, this cannot be fulfilled entirely in this life because Christ alone is one who makes us blameless and above reproach (Colossians 1:22). Elders, therefore, should model growth in sanctification, leaving behind sin, but when they sin, elders still model being above reproach by exemplifying repentance for the congregation. Elders above all must model what it means to cling to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Elders must also be sober-minded, which means that he is watchful and restrained. Anyabwile says that they “are free from the excessive influence of passion, lust, or emotion. The Lord calls his under-shepherds to be sober in their desires, feelings, and attitudes” (67-68).

Similarly, elders are self-controlled. Pastors must be able to moderate themselves, not giving free-reign to their desires and wants. They should model self-control because it is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23). Rinne sums this thought well: “In short, a Spirit-filled man is a self-controlled man” (21).

Elders must also be respectable, which means being appropriate, modest, and proper. Respectable is also used in 1 Timothy 2:9 to describe how women should dress. Just as clothing should be appropriate and modest, so should the elder’s words and actions.

Elders are also commanded not to be drunkards. This characteristic ties directly into being sober-minded, but by rebuking drunkenness, Paul is particularly emphasizing the need for elders to be sober from alcohol. Drunkenness is explicitly condemned for elders (and all Christians) because it leads to violence, quarreling, and a lack of self-control. Of course, we should also be careful not to draw lines that Scripture has not drawn. Paul is not forbidding elders from drinking alcohol completely, only from being intoxicated by alcohol.

Elder must not be violent, but gentle. Violent could also easily be translated as being a bully, a person who hurts others in order to have his own way. Gentleness is presented as the opposite of violence. A gentle person is kind, considerate, and reasonable. He does not bully others to get his way; rather, he is ready to graciously hear what others have to say.

Elders must not be quarrelsome. Pastors should not walk around looking for conflict (there’s enough unavoidable conflict as it is!). They should be peaceable rather than divisive. Remember that Jesus blessed the peacemakers as those who would be called sons of God (Matthew 5:9), while Paul calls unnecessary divisiveness grounds for church discipline (Titus 1:10-11).

Finally, elders must not be lovers of money. Greediness has no place in shepherding God’s people. Unfortunately, to witness “pastoral” greed, we only need to tune into the latest television evangelists. Jude calls these kinds of false teachers “shepherds feeding themselves” (Jude 12). Instead of pouring out their lives to make the gospel known, they twist the Scriptures to support their own gain.

BE ABLE TO TEACH // VERSE 2

Of course, I passed over a few characteristics that we will give their own section now. The first that deserves its own placement is at the end of verse 2: able to teach. This is a significant qualification because it is what makes the office of an elder unique. All Christians should seek to known by the godly characteristics listed above. All Christians should long to have godly families, as we will see next. And all Christians should strive to grow in maturity and remain well thought of by non-Christians. All Christians are called toward those standards, but not all Christians are called to teach. Elders, though, must be able to teach.

In the last study, we saw that elders are biblically called to devote themselves to two tasks: prayer and the ministry of the Word. Pastors are commanded by the Scriptures to preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:2)! Teaching is a critical and primary function of how they lead. Rinne says, “God rules his people by his Word, so the leaders of God’s people have always been entrusted with communicating God’s Word” (46).

Practically, what does this mean?

First, all elders must be teachers, but not all teachers are elders. In a healthy, discipleship-rich church, there should be many more teachers outside of the elders, so we should never classify teaching as an elder-exclusive activity. But as the guardians of doctrine within the church, elders actively disciple teachers and vigilantly watch their teachings.

Second, not all elders will be called to preach before the entire congregation, but I believe that all elders must be able and ready to do so. Presbyterians, particularly, distinguish between two kinds of elders: ruling elders and teaching elders. They take this thought from 1 Timothy 5:17, which says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” While this verse does seem to indicate a pattern of churches appointing one of the elders to do the majority of the preaching, I do not think it is presenting two different types of elders. All elders are called to lead (or rule), and all elders are called to teach. In this way, the distinction between vocational and lay elders is not a distinct of type of responsibility but of responsibility amount.

SHEPHERD HIS FAMILY // VERSE 2, 4-5

I have grouped the next characteristics together under the title of an elder being a family shepherd. Elders are called to shepherd the flock of God, but more immediately they are also called to shepherd their own families. Paul is very clear about why this is important: “if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” The ability of an elder to lead shepherd his family is directly tied to his ability to lead the church. Paul gives three characteristics of how that shepherding should be.

First, an elder must be the husband of one wife. This is a tremendously controversial and much debated statement. Most theologians agree that this verse is clearly demanding that elders be faithful to their own wives. Polygamy, adultery, and pornography are out of the question; he must be devoted to his wife. Controversy arises over the issues of singleness and divorce.

On singleness, some argue that Paul is demanding that elders must be married; therefore, single men are unable to become elders. This is poor interpretations since both Jesus and Paul were single, and Paul urged people to remain single in order to leverage their time for the kingdom (1 Corinthians 7:8).

In regards to divorce and remarriage, much prayer and wisdom is required. Many men who were divorced before they came to Christ have been needlessly excluded from leading. Grace should stand in those circumstances. But if a man has a pattern of divorce and remarriage, he should probably be withheld from eldership. Divorce and remarriage are messy circumstances in the first place and, when it comes to being an elder, they should be slowly and prayerfully considered.

Second, an elder must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive. Keeping children submissive does not mean ruling over them with an iron fist. That would be contradicting Paul’s command to fathers in Ephesians 6:4. Submission refers to the proper ordering or structuring of the household. Children are called to obey and submit to their parents, honoring them in the Lord. Does this mean that children are inferior to their parents? No, it simply means that God has ordained parents to be His representative authority to them. Parents guide their children as stewards of God; therefore, the only lasting authority that parents have is the Word of God, raising them in the instruction and discipline of the Lord (Ephesian 6:4). Likewise, elders are in authority to the congregation only through the Word of God. Mark Lauderbach says, “An elder with no Bible is an elder with no authority.” And the same could be said for parents.

Third, the elder must be hospitable. I placed this one under family shepherding because hospitality is a whole family effort. Hospitality literally means showing love to strangers. Hospitality is an act of love; therefore, it is a distinctively Christian characteristic. I read an online article last week in which a former Christian discussed what she missed about being a Christian and being a part of a church. One thing she pointed out was the meals that she received when she was very sick, which her non-Christian friends have never done. Christians are marked by hospitality, so an elder should model that hospitality.

BE A MATURE BELIEVER // VERSE 6

Next, Paul declares that an elder must not be a recent convert. Or conversely, he must be a mature believer. The Apostle’s reasoning for this qualification is to avoid save the man from developing a puffed up ego, falling into the sin of pride. That fear certainly makes sense. A young, immature Christian who is thrust into being in authority of the church is easy prey for pride.

The question, then, is what is a recent convert? What does it mean to be a mature believer? Truthfully, these questions need to be answer subjectively by necessity. In cultures where the gospel is just spreading and being a Christian is incredibly dangerous, men may become elders faster than in cultures where Christianity is the cultural norm. The main difference in those scenarios would be urgency. When becoming a pastor means placing a bounty on your head, most people will not see the office of an overseer as a place to power grab. Therefore, every culture must be wise and prayerful in defining a recent convert and mature believer.

How, then, might we define a mature believer in our present circumstances? Since Paul lists the primary danger here as pride, we can also conclude that mature believers are humble. Anyabwile lists six questions to ask:

Is the potential elder a new Christian?

If a man has been converted for some time, how spiritually mature is he?

To what extent is the man given to pride?

Is he gripped with a sense of his own inadequacy and need for God’s spiritual protection?

Is the man sensitive to criticism?

Is he able to submit to others (especially other elders) even when he holds a different opinion?

BE RESPECTED BY NON-CHRISTIANS // VERSE 7

Paul’s final qualification for the pastoral office is probably the most forgotten as well. Elders “must be well thought of by outsiders”. What does that mean exactly? First, outsiders here is referring to those outside the church, to non-Christians. Second, well thought of could also be translated as bearing a beautiful witness or testimony. Placing these ideas together, we see that elders must properly represent Christ to non-Christians. They must live out their witness well, so that they do not fall into disgrace. Knowing the main idea of this qualification, let’s address a few thoughts.

First, one implication of this command is that elders will have relationships with non-Christians. They are regularly engaging with outsiders. This can be with family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, etc. Pastors must be connected to non-Christians.

Second, an elder should be respected by non-Christians. Is he respected by his neighbors? By his non-believing family members? By his coworkers? He should be.

Third, elders should display Christ to non-Christians. The prospective elder should constantly strive to make the grace, mercy, and love of God evident in his life and communicate the glorious truths of the gospel whenever the Spirit’s wisdom reveals an open door.

Fourth, elders should display Christ even when hated. Respectable character is, unfortunately, not always going to be met with respect. Jesus warned that the world has a tendency to hate Christians: “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19). Elders, therefore, must be ready to stand with Christ, come what may. The respect of the world should never trump our standing with Christ.

THE REWARD OF BEING AN ELDER  // 1 PETER 5:4

Let us conclude our discussion of elders by returning to verse 4 of 1 Peter 5, which describes the reward for being a faithful pastor. In this verse, Jesus is called the chief Shepherd, the supreme Pastor, and when He returns, elders who have been faithful stewards will receive the unfading crown of glory.

What exactly is this unfading crown of glory?

First, we should note that Peter does not mean the kind of golden crown of royalty that likely springs to mind; instead, he is referring to a wreath that would be placed on the head of triumphing generals and winners of sporting competitions. 1 Corinthians 9:25 makes this clear: “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.”

A crown, therefore, signifies victory, triumph, and honor. It symbolizes the race well run and the fight well fought. It is the hope of celebration following the exertion. And like a race, a competition, or a war, the pastoral ministry is strenuous. To intercede for others in prayer is to willful pour oneself out like a drink offering. To ascend to the pulpit and proclaim the Word of God is to apply a heavier standard of judgment upon oneself. To shepherd God’s people as God’s steward is to suffer rejection as we so often reject God. The work of an elder is heart-breaking labor. But the reward for faithfulness is participation in the glory of Christ that will be revealed to us. In other words, we are rewarded by experiencing the radiance of Jesus’ glory.

Brothers, that is a treasure that no moth or rust can destroy nor any thief break in and steal (Matthew 6:19-20)! The unfading crown of glory is worth every pain, suffering, and heart-ache that this life can throw at us.

All Is Vanity | Ecclesiastes 1

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.

I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.

What is crooked cannot be made straight,
and what is lacking cannot be counted.

I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.

For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

Ecclesiastes 1 (ESV)

 

If we are honest with ourselves, life can often make us feel like hamsters running on a wheel. We run as hard as we can but never make any real progress; everything is just a repetitive cycle. Laundry and dishes are two supreme examples of this. We clean and organize, temporarily banishing the chaos, only for disorder to lash out again tomorrow. Similarly, we go to work, make a paycheck, give that paycheck to expenses, and continue working for the next check so we can pay the next round of expenses. Life is a hamster wheel, a steady cycle of monotony that only ends with death.

If all of that sounds a little too real, welcome to the beauty of Ecclesiastes. In this first chapter, Solomon introduces us to the key themes that he will continue to present throughout the book. The vanity (or meaninglessness) of life under the sun is driving force here. Solomon is a scholar who has observed all that life has to offer, and Ecclesiastes is his written verdict upon weighing out the evidence. But even though his verdict is rather gloomy, we must remember that Solomon’s ultimate aim to get us to fix our eyes above the sun.

ALL IS VANITY // VERSES 1-11

The titles that the Preacher lists in verse 1 (“son of David, king in Jerusalem”) point toward Solomon as the author of Ecclesiastes. See the background for more about Solomon’s authorship. For this book, he refers to himself under the alias of the Preacher. The Hebrew title (Qoheleth) has been translated to mean various things, such as Teacher. Either title seems to work for Solomon since he is both teaching (presenting instructive information) and preaching (urging his readers to follow his counsel).

Vanity Under the Sun

In verse 2, Solomon opens the book, and this introductory poem (verses 1-11), with a most depressing verse. Pick up any given translation of the Bible, read this verse, and I am certain that you will notice that almost all of them translate this verse differently. The word for vanity in Hebrew is hebel, and it has been translated into many different English words. The ESV uses vanity. Many others use meaningless. Some suggest vapor or a mere breath, as the best translations. Some commentators even offer the word absurd as the best translation for hebel. We even find hebel in 1 Kings referring to the idols that Solomon’s heart chases (1 Kings 11:4). Regardless of what word is used, it is clear that Solomon is attempting to communicate (from the very beginning) a sense of futility, of fleeting emptiness.

But what is he describing as vanity?

Everything. Solomon says, “All is vanity.” Life is futile. Work is futile. Sex is futile. Laughter is futile. It’s all nothing more than vanity, meaningless. If this is true, then Ecclesiastes is shaping up to be one massive downer. Yet we must be careful in how we interpret this verse. We must accept Solomon’s pessimism in relation to the rest of the book and, in particular, to verse 3.

If verse 2 provides the tone for the rest of the book, then verse 3 supplies the lens through which the book must be viewed. Pessimism seems to continue as Solomon laments that all of mankind’s work is for nothing permanent, nothing lasting. Solomon’s question is rhetorical, and he expects a negative response. However, it is not this pessimism that is our lens; instead, it is the phrase under the sun. Solomon will use this particular phrase 29 times in this book, and it is found nowhere else in the Bible. It must be, therefore, of significant importance to Ecclesiastes. Under the sun should be understood as referring to only things that are on earth, things that are within human grasp. The immanent, physical, natural, material world is the that which is under the sun. Ecclesiastes is, thus, attempting to force us to imagine the futility of an existence without transcendence, without divine interference. Of course, such a view is not difficult today.

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor argues that an immanent frame undergirds modern Western society. This means that most people no longer look to God (or even gods) to find their meaning and purpose in life. They believe that life has given them everything they need to build a meaningful life. It’s as if the secular motto is: “I’ve got this. No need get God involved, thank you very much.”

But the problem isn’t just outside of Christianity. We who follow Christ can just as easily slip into this mode of thinking. Jen Pollock Michel summarizes this well:

Secularism is not the problem “out there.” Instead, every Sunday morning, it is “secular” people filling our pews. They attest to loving Jesus—but accept “no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing.” They pray for God’s kingdom to come—and image the advent of their own happiness. In the secular age, God becomes a guarantor of our best life now. (117-18)

Or to say it in other words, Michael Horton claims that “even those of us who do affirm orthodox Christianity divide inwardly between praying for our daily bread and knowing that it’s always there at the grocery store. It’s not merely that our beliefs have changed, but that our way of believing has shifted away from assuming a world “with devils filled” but where God is our “mighty fortress.” Now we must become masters of our own destiny, keeping dangers at bay by our own collective and calculative reasoning. Even if God plays a role, it is a supporting one, helping us to achieve “our best life now” (23-24).

Call it an immanent frame. Or call it life under the sun. Same message, different titles. Life under the sun is a life without God, a life exclusive to immanence and exclusive of transcendence.

But while modern exclusive humanists argue that life under the sun can be meaningful, Solomon has reached a very different conclusion. He claims that everything we can achieve or obtain in this world is fleeting, temporal, and vain. Humanity, left to our own devices and without Divine interference, will find nothing but meaningless futility. That is Solomon’s message. That is the lens through which we must view this entire book: this is a study of the vanity of life without God.

The Endless Cycles of Life

In verse 4, Solomon lists another universal truth: human generations keep passing, but the earth seems to remain steadfast. We can conclude from these verses that they represent the aftereffects of the Fall. Originally, God created humanity to be immortal and to enjoy eternity with Him, but the effects of mankind’s first sin destroyed our physical eternal nature. Solomon will say elsewhere in this book that God has placed eternity within man’s heart, and we can all feel that it is true. Each of us knows that we will die; science does not need to tell us this. Yet how often do we live as though we are finite creatures? Very rarely do we ever pause to consider our own mortality. This is because we were made for eternity. We can all feel it, especially whenever we are actually confronted with death. Anytime we attend a funeral and find ourselves lamenting that the world will be a dimmer place without so-and-so, we are experiencing the truth of Solomon’s words in this verse. There is a deep part of our souls that cries out against the death of our loved ones, and nature’s steady continuation only accents our mortality. Jerome speaks of this accented vanity by commenting: “What’s more vain than this vanity: that the earth, which was made for humans stays—but humans themselves, the lords of the earth suddenly dissolve into the dust” (Akin, 10).

Solomon continues his poem with three examples of nature’s repetition and persistence. First, he turns our attention to the sun’s rising and setting. Each day the sun rises and sets, only to do the exact same thing tomorrow. Then he describes the wind moving along its circuits in a cycle. The wind blows around and around, never ceasing its course. This verse is particularly interesting because we have no other record that any ancient person understood that winds followed certain circular currents. Finally, he looks to how the rivers flow into the oceans. Even though the rivers are continuously flowing into the seas, the seas are never full. The water cycle has no end. These continuous cycles of the earth also resemble the endless cycles in our everyday lives. As the sun rises again, we brush our teeth once more. As the sun sets, we do it again. The process repeats tomorrow. Cleaning, organizing, washing dishes, doing laundry, we get things done today only to do them again tomorrow. The cycle is endless. If this makes you feel a bit weary, Solomon is one step ahead of you.

“All things are full of weariness.” When considering the repetitive drudgery of life, few statements are as true as this one. Everything in life is full of weariness because it never stops. The myth of happily coasting carefree through life is just that, a myth. Retirement cannot fix the grind of life because work is not the problem. Getting more stuff can help us ignore the weariness of life, but it only works for so long. This life is the problem. All of life becomes wearisome to the flesh sooner or later. It’s only a matter of time, and you can’t escape it. The weariness of life is inevitable because they were sealed by the events of Genesis 3.

But verse 8 also contains one of my favorite phrases within Ecclesiastes: “a man cannot utter it.” There are timeless truths within this book that everyone can relate to, that everyone knows and feels, but they’re still difficult to express into words (sometimes even impossible). With all of his God-granted wisdom, Solomon attempts to capture the essence of the human experience as much as he can. So many of the topics and so much of the philosophical weight of this book are too great for utterances. Nevertheless, with the utmost solemnity and reliance upon God’s grace, we will strive toward it just as Solomon has done. I think this is the great appeal of Ecclesiastes: it gives brief utterance to things that are ultimately beyond verbal expression.

The current application of the second half of this three-thousand-year-old verse is astounding! Our eyes and ears can never get enough. Access to the visual and auditory has never been as rapid as it is today. YouTube and iTunes provide us video and music with the click of a button or the touch of a finger. A new iPhone is released like clockwork every year. We are constantly jumping through hoops for the latest gadget or to share the next big viral video. We never have enough seeing and hearing, but at the same time, there is weariness that sets in. The fast-paced rat race only leaves our souls weary and none the more satisfied once we actually pause for a breather. We see these implications played out in large and growing cities today where most in the business world are content to never stop, never slow down, because then they will never have to face the weariness that Solomon describes. They are always trying to make themselves better, to make better money, to do better things. In a sense, this is also what Solomon does. He built. He partied. He gave. He took. He destroyed. He was constantly on the move, but here, at the end of his life, he had to pause and face the drain of it all. He had to look at his life and all of his accomplishments and ask himself what good they were to him. Likewise, our nonstop consumption of entertainment is often used (whether consciously or subconsciously) to numb us from having to face the weariness of life.

The second of twenty-nine uses of the phrase under the sun is located in verse 9. Expanding upon his idea of the earth moving in cycles, Solomon claims that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Certainly, that seems a bit extreme. Perhaps Solomon is exaggerating while being so close to death. Yet if we give these verses a few moments of pondering, we can find them significantly more accurate than first expected. William D. Barrick mentions in his commentary on Ecclesiastes that there are many medical discoveries that we claim as credit for modern humanity, but in fact, they were discovered long ago and lost. For example, he cites that the creation of modern pregnancy testing, which uses the woman’s urine, was actually discovered thousands of years ago by the Egyptians. The knowledge and practice were there, but they were lost (Barrick, 40). Another example is Greek fire, a flame-throwing weapon used by the Byzantine Empire. This powerful weapon is credited for being the deciding factor in numerous battles; however, the formula for its creation is lost. Our version, the modern flamethrower, was first used in the First World War. One thousand years after Greek fire was last used, we still do not know how to recreate it because “there is no remembrance of former things.” We simply recreated the same concept the best that we could.

Of course, someone will present an argument for cellphones, televisions, and various forms of computers. Yet, are not these things all attempting to satisfy the hearing of the ears and seeing of the eyes, as mentioned in the previous verse? Obviously, humanity made tremendous discoveries and inventions, particularly, in the last couple hundred years, but isn’t the human condition exactly the same as in Solomon’s day? The more things change, the more they stay the same. There are still wars, murder, theft, and random acts of kindness. For all of the new devices that we create, they still become nothing more than that: devices. With all of our advancements, we tend to develop what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” That is, we tend think of ourselves as more intelligent and more enlightened than previous generations. However, our devices make us no better than our fathers and grandfathers because Solomon’s argument is that even our devices and knowledge are not new but recycled. Our “new” devices are nothing more than distractions created to quench the emptiness, to satisfy our eyes and ears. Humanity and the human condition have not changed. Every verse of Solomon’s swan song will show us that fact. Instead, we look to the New Testament to find the source of true newness. 2 Corinthians 5:17 tells us that anyone in Christ is a “new creation.” Even though under the sun there is nothing but recycled attempts to find satisfaction, in Christ we find ourselves truly new. He is the only escape from the weariness and the only source of true change.

THE VANITY OF WISDOM // VERSES 12-18

Leaving the introductory poem, Solomon begins to inform us of himself and his quest to find meaning and fulfillment. After restating his title as king of Israel in Jerusalem, he defines the scope of this book and the goal of his life: to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a task! Solomon’s main concern in life was to conduct an investigation “by wisdom” of everything that is done “under heaven.” He wanted to use his God-given, supernatural wisdom to find meaning to a life apart from God. What can become of a life that does not consider the heavenly things? What purpose can be found in life without turning toward God? Can we carve out meaning for ourselves within an immanent frame? Solomon seeks to answer these types of questions.

In the second half of these verses 12-14, we read Solomon’s short answer. He says that a purely earthly life, even though God also gives it, is hppy business.” He describes it in the same manner as in the introductory poem: busy, vain, and a chasing after the wind. What a great metaphor! Looking for meaning without looking to God is like trying to catch the wind, a pointless and foolish endeavor. That is the kind of vanity and meaninglessness that Solomon is describing in Ecclesiastes.

Verse 15’s proverb is one of Solomon’s primary building blocks for Ecclesiastes. We are told in the history books of the Bible that Solomon was a great writer of proverbs and also collected them from others (1 Kings 4:32). The book of Proverbs is one such collection. Here, Solomon uses a proverb to accent his previous statements and lead into his next point.

The essential meaning of this proverb is that we are not capable of changing things that God has done. If God makes something crooked, we cannot make it straight. We cannot count the things that God has not given us the ability to count. Despite our strongest efforts, we will never be able to alter what God has designed. His ways are higher than our ways. The LORD has created us in such a way that we can only find fulfillment in Him; therefore, Solomon’s quest to find purpose outside of God was doomed from the beginning. Yet, this too was God’s design because if Solomon (the fulfilled American dream) could not find meaning outside of God, then our thoughts of “if only I had a little more ____, then I would be happy” are moot point. Solomon had it all, but without God, it was still not enough.

Solomon admits in verse 16 to himself that he had “great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me.” And with his great gift of wisdom, he set out to explore wisdom as well as wisdom’s opposite: folly. Solomon’s goal was to find out which, if either, could lead to a fulfilled life. But once again, he arrived upon the conclusion that doing so without the aid of God was like chasing after the wind.

The chapter ends with another proverb describing the futility of wisdom and knowledge. Wait a second. Doesn’t Proverbs teach us that wisdom is worth pursuing above all else? How can Proverbs proclaim the great blessings of acquiring wisdom and knowledge, while Ecclesiastes claims that they lead to vexation and sorrow? Ray Stedman answers these questions by saying: “For students in school, that last statement is a great verse to memorize! ‘Those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.’ That is true—sad, but true. It is no argument for not increasing knowledge, because the alternative is even worse; ignorance is foolishness” (20).

Ultimately, Solomon’s search for meaning leads him to “much vexation” and increased sorrow because wisdom and knowledge unveil the reality of life after the Fall. Every piece of information that he discovers about the human experience not only opens his eyes to see our sinful depravity more fully, but also reveals just how hopeless mankind is to pull ourselves out of that depravity.

Everything confirms his humanity, his sinfulness, his accountability, and his inevitable death. With an increasingly heavy heart, Solomon’s research is driving him to a heart-wrenching conclusion: he cannot save himself. No person can.(Barrick, 47)

THE MEANING WITHIN THE VANITY // VERSES 2-3

After studying the entirety of this chapter, it seems only fitting to return briefly to verses 2-3. Therein Solomon proclaimed that all is vanity. Or using other words, everything is meaningless. That statement is true, but there is a problem. Saying that everything is meaningless is unavoidably a meaningful statement. It’s like making the claim that there is no objective truth. It is a self-defeating proposition. By being true, it would prove itself false. Likewise, Solomon says something of meaning, even while he claims that nothing has meaning. How do we reconcile this?

Once again, the key is the phrase under the sun. Everything under the sun is meaningless. The things of this life, including us, are fleeting vanities, little more than blips on the radar of eternity. If this is true (and it is), Solomon is able to utter this meaningful statement only because meaning exists somewhere beyond the sun.

We know, of course, that all meaning flows from the Author of life, Jesus Christ. Paul describes Jesus like this:

Colossians 1:16-17 | For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him and he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Take a moment to allow the sweeping magnitude of those verses sink in. All things were created through and for Jesus, and He holds everything together. In other words, the atoms that form my keyboard as I type this are held in place by Jesus. Things exist (us included) because Jesus keeps them existing. This means that there is no reality outside of Jesus. If all things are held together in Jesus, then nothing exists away from Him. Everything, therefore, is meaningless without Christ because without Christ there is nothing.

With this understanding, Ecclesiastes’ life under the sun is a myth. It is a fantasy, nothing more than a day dream. We cannot actually live outside of God because He is the giver of life. Life without God is a fool’s quest since “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Attempting to avoid God is a striving after wind.

Ecclesiastes, therefore, does not need to be a depressing book. The Bible reveals to us the God who created the sun and gives meaning to all existence. He is the only source of true purpose, meaning, and satisfaction. We do not have to embrace the meaninglessness of life, the abyss that stares back; we can follow and serve the Creator. We can exchange the vanity under the sun for the joy in Christ.