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.

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The End of the Matter | Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13–14 (ESV)

 

Throughout Ecclesiastes, as the Preacher has systematically stripped the hope out of various avenues for pursuing joy, meaning, and purpose, he has also repeatedly given us a glimpse above the sun to the only real and lasting hope for humanity. This hope is that truly enjoying life can only come as a gift from God. The LORD alone is beyond vanity. He alone is joy, meaning, and purpose. And while this refrain has popped up throughout the book, here in these final two verses Solomon concludes by fixing our eyes squarely upon Him who is above the sun.

THE END OF THE MATTER // VERSE 13

In no uncertain terms, Ecclesiastes now draws to a close with the end of the matter. The book has, in many ways, been a winding journey through the Preacher’s collected thoughts on life. No one can argue that the adventure is not beautiful and poetic, but it is also difficult to decipher. And often the pieces of Ecclesiastes that are easiest to understand are also the hardest to swallow. Throughout the book, the fragmented pleading of the refrains to enjoy life in contentment have been lights at the end of the tunnel. Indeed, the point of Ecclesiastes, so far, can seem to be that there is no point to life so you might as well just enjoy the life given to you by God. But within these final two verses, we definitively learn what the overall message of the Preacher is for us. He now finally presents his barebones conclusion, the end of the matter, after all has been heard. After reflecting upon relationships, work, finances, possessions, children, wisdom, folly, knowledge, ignorance, anger, enjoyment, contentment, pleasure, legacy, eternity, oppression, justice, laughter, mourning, prosperity, adversity, time, life under the sun, and, of course, death, Ecclesiastes now offers at its conclusion the purpose behind all of human existence: fear God and keep His commandments.

THE WHOLE DUTY OF MAN // VERSE 13

If saying that the purpose of humanity is to fear God and keep His commandments seems like a slight hyperbole, note the final phrase of verse 13: for this is the whole duty of man. Since man is, of course, referring to all of mankind or humanity, the author is blatantly ascribing these two items as our reason for existing. If this sounds a bit shocking to you, it should. The very idea of having and/or discovering the grand purpose for being alive is an innately human experience. No person can live into adulthood without wrestling with this thought. James K. A. Smith, in You Are What You Love, (commenting on Augustine’s famous prayer: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”) says it like this:

To be human is to be for something, directed toward something, oriented toward something. To be human is to be on the move, pursuing something, after something. We are like existential sharks: we have to move to live. We are not just static containers for ideas; we are dynamic creatures directed toward some end. In philosophy we have a shorthand term for this: something that is oriented toward an end or telos (a “goal”) is described as “teleological.” Augustine rightly recognizes that human beings are teleological creatures. (8)

Second-century Roman emperor and Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, agrees with Smith’s conclusion: “People who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse toward are wasting their time—even when hard at work” (19). If modern and ancient, Christian and pagan, agree that we are teleological beings, then what’s the point of emphasizing this point?

Unfortunately, the postmodern thought of today seems to be snuggling a bit too close to nihilism. Either outlook is frightening enough on its own, but together the result can be horrific. When postmodernism’s perpetual skepticism meets nihilism’s cynical declaration that nothing matters, the question is no longer “What is humanity’s purpose?” but instead “What should I do without purpose?” The closing song of the musical Avenue Q sums up this mentality quite well. Throughout the play, one of the main characters searches for his purpose in life, and when his quest proves futile, the cast sings about the comfort that, for all of its hardships, at least life is only temporary. It’s a repackaging of the nihilistic refrain: let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. Which, to be fair, is a soundly logical assertion if we are merely products of darwinian evolution, just lumps of cells that formed by chance with an accidental consciousness that will cease to be after death. Without a Designer, searching for a design is a waste of time. We might as well enjoy life to the fullest because it’s all we have.

This may sound similar to the refrain of Ecclesiastes to eat and drink, for there is nothing better than to enjoy the toil that God has given us, but these two philosophies could not be more diametrically opposed. For all of the Preacher’s talk about the futility of life, he has never concluded that nothing matters so we just need to grit our teeth through life and enjoy as much of it as we can. No! The Preacher has repeatedly commanded us to enjoy life as God’s gift. We don’t try to enjoy food and drink because there’s nothing better to do; we eat and drink with joy because flavors and full-bellies are the Creator’s blessings upon His creation. For all the vanities under the sun, we know that the Creator of even the sun itself is governing all things for His glory. In the midst of adversities and evils, we are called to, even then, rejoice in the blessings all around us.

And we can do this. Even though the world is broken and so are we, God’s creation and image have not been marred to the uttermost. Now please don’t report me to John Calvin. I wholeheartedly believe in the depravity of man, especially since it is the one doctrine of Scripture that can be empirically confirmed (as I believe Chesterton noted). But even though the damage is beyond our ability to repair, by His common grace, we are not as sinful as we could be. God still preserves glimpses of His goodness, even among those who actively blaspheme Him. There is, therefore, always grace to enjoy around us because God has preserved it.

All of this emphasizes the fact that Ecclesiastes gloriously proclaims that we do have a God-designed purpose. There is a meaning behind all of life’s futilities and adversities. And now that very purpose is being stated explicitly: the whole duty of mankind is to fear God and keep His commandments.

This duty of humanity is, in reality, one action, which is why he says duty is singular instead of plural. Fearing God and obeying God are so interwoven to one another that separation sabotages both.

Let us think this through.

To fear God is to see God as God. A true glimpse of God’s holiness must result in fear. He is too great and too beyond us for us not to quake at His presence. Fear is the proper reaction to seeing God for who He is. Being afraid during an earthquake is a justified reaction, and taking shelter from a tornado is the wise response. We fear elemental forces such as those because we rightly recognize them to be beyond our control. We become afraid because we are of no consequence to their raw power. To stand defiantly in the midst of a tornado is not bravery but foolishness of the highest order.

But what does this have to do with God? Nahum writes of God that “His way is in whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet. He rebukes the sea and makes it dry; he dries up all the rivers; Bashan and Carmel wither; the bloom of Lebanon withers. The mountains quake before him; the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who dwell in it” (1:3-5).

Just as we flee in fear of the natural elements so do they flee from the LORD. It is wise to fear whatever puts fear into our fears. The LORD formed and created all things. He is utterly above and beyond all things. Nothing in existence is His equal, and nothing can even begin to rival His glory. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom because nothing is more foolish than not fearing God. Anyone who does not fear God does not know Him.

But how does fearing God intertwine with obeying His commands? Simply put, why would we not follow to the letter each command of the Being who authored all of reality? Fearing God without also obeying Him is an impossibility. The fear of God will always lead to obedience, and disobedience is evidence of the denial of God. We cannot fear Him without obeying Him, but we also cannot obey Him without fearing Him. Why is this? Could we not, at least, superficially obey His commandments? Could we not just go through the motions and it still count? No, the greatest commandment in the Bible is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” We cannot love God without first knowing Him, and as stated previously, we cannot know God without fearing Him. No one, therefore, can love God without also fearing Him. Obedience to the greatest commandment requires the fear of the LORD. Thus, we cannot obey Him without fearing Him.

I pray that we now see clearly that the duty to fear God and obey His commands is only one duty, one great responsibility and purpose for all of humanity.

THE CERTAINTY OF JUDGMENT // VERSES 14

The final verse of Ecclesiastes is very much a warning. Primarily, it acts as motivation for fearing God and keeping His commandments, just like the phrase for this is the whole duty of man. Thus, if duty alone will not motivate you to serve God, perhaps impending judgment will. If the fearsome Creator that we have been discussing is promising a judgment day, we should rightly shudder at the very thought. God’s final judgment is not a topic to be treated lightly or frivolously but with reverential fear and trembling. Four questions will guide our study of this verse.

What will God judge?

If the omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient God is promising judgment, knowing what exactly He will judge should be our top priority. The author provides one answer with two modifiers: every deed, even those done in secret, whether good or evil. In other words, nothing we do will escape the judicial verdict of Almighty God. Nothing is secretive enough to hide from the all-seeing eyes of the LORD. Sadly, many will write off this statement as being referring to the vindictive God of the Old Testament. Jesus, they would argue, is different; the primary message of Jesus is love, not judgment. First, the primary message of Jesus was the arrival of the kingdom of heaven, which should be met with repentance. Second, Jesus actually takes this thought one step further beyond deeds. In Matthew 12:36-37, Jesus declares, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Jesus, thus, affirms a coming day of God’s ultimate judgment and adds that our words will be judged along with our deeds.

Further in Matthew, Jesus takes the judgment even further by noting that sinful words derive from a sinful heart. “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (15:18-19). God’s judgment will not only come upon what we do but what we say and even think.

Why is this good news?

Now that we know what exactly God will judge, why is this verse good news? Because God’s law is etched onto our hearts (Romans 2:15), we long to see evil brought to justice. Just this week on the local news was a report of a woman who pleaded no contest to fleeing the scene of a fatality after hitting a man with her car. The court gave her thirty days in prison with three years’ probation, to which the man’s family claimed that justice was not served. In those types of moment, we inherently long for justice. We ache to see wrongs being made right. We yearn for retribution and vengeance to come upon the head of evildoers. If you do not think this is true, read stories from Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps, the lynching of Jesse Washington, the “population transfers” in the Soviet Union, or countless other atrocities committed throughout history. Even though, as I said, God has gracious prevented humanity from being depraved to the uttermost, we certainly have made plenty attempts to prove our depravity beyond a doubt. No one with an even semi-functioning conscience can deny longing for evil to be judged.

Why is this bad news?

So God will judge everything that we do, say, or think and that is good because evil deserves to be punished. Unfortunately, this is also bad news for us. Why is God’s judgment bad news to us? Sadly, we desire to see evil punished, as long as it’s not our evil, but if God will judge everything, we clearly have evil deeds, words, and thoughts that require justice as well. Of course, someone might argue that their deeds, words, and thoughts haven’t been too evil, at least compared to the exploits of Nazis and the like. Surely, then, God’s judgment will be less severe upon us, right? How could God send regular people to an eternal hell alongside committers of genocide, serial rapists, child molesters, and mass shooters? The problem with these kinds of questions is that they fundamentally misunderstand the sinfulness of sin. All sin is primarily an offense against God Himself. Every murder is first and foremost an attack upon the God whose image the murdered person bore. Every theft is robbing from God who gives to all as He sees fit. Ultimately, the breaking of God’s law is cosmic treason, a declaration that we know and are greater than the Creator of all things. Assuming that we are not bad enough to earn God’s eternal judgment is a fundamental lack of understanding who God is. R. C. Sproul points out this error powerfully at a Q&A session from the 2014 Ligonier National Conference, where he answered the question of why God was so severe against Adam and Eve when they sinned. Here is his answer:

This creature from the dirt defied the everlasting, holy God after that God had said that the day that you shall eat of it you shall surely die. And instead of dying that day, he lived another day. And was clothed in his nakedness by pure grace. And had the consequence of a curse applied for quite some time that the worst curse would come upon the one who seduced him, whose head would be crushed by the seed of the woman. And the punishment was too severe? What’s wrong with you people? I’m serious. I mean this is what’s wrong with the Christian church today. We don’t know who God is. We don’t know who we are. The question is: why wasn’t it infinitely more severe? If we have any understanding of our sin and any understanding of who God is that’s the question, isn’t it?

Indeed, each sin, no matter how small we think it is, is a transgression against the eternal God; therefore, the justice served against such a crime must also be eternal. Since God knows all things that we do, say, and think, we have no hope of disguising ourselves as slight sinners either. Each sin earns us God’s full judgment and not one of them escapes His sight. This is bad news for us.

What hope do we have? 

Our final question to ask in light of these two verses and the truths that we have seen in them is: What hope do we then have? Calling our circumstance bleak is sugar-coating it. Some claim that God could simply forgive sin, waving it away as if it never happened. But such an action would fly in the face of justice. A judge who refuses to deal punishments for crimes is an unjust judge. Neither could God draw a line between more and less serious sins, forgiving the small ones and punishing the large ones. Doing so would fail to properly uphold His eternal glory. Besides, even if God did so, we would then simply argue about why God drew the line wherever He drew it.

So the question then becomes: how can God remain just, while upholding His infinite glory and granting us forgiveness? The sheer impossibility of each of these elements being fulfilled should cause everyone to cry out, “Who then can be saved?”

Such is the magnitude of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Upon the God-man, as He hung from the cross, came the coalescence of God’s justice, glory, and love. Jesus satisfied God’s justice by offering His own undeserved death as payment for our sins. This was possible because of the deity of Christ. He was able to pay our everlasting debt because He is from everlasting to everlasting. Thus, God’s justice was served and His glory honored. With God’s justice met and glory exalted, His love is then displayed. Having entirely absorbed our punishment in Christ, God then imputes upon us the righteousness of Christ. We are, thus, more than forgiven; we are adopted as children of God, coheirs with Christ. This is the gospel, the good news. The entirety of Scripture points to this message: God rescues rebellious sinners at the cost of His own blood.

THE END OF THE MATTER

The grand purpose, design, and duty of humanity is to fear God and obey His commandments, which we fail time and time again. Frighteningly for us, God will bring each and every thing into judgment, and that very judgment would consume us entirely if it were not the grace of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

For all of its poetic beauty, Ecclesiastes, like all Old Testament books, ultimately points beyond itself to Christ.

In Christ alone are we able to fear God and obey His commandments, for it is God who works in us, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

In Christ alone are we able to go to the house of God, drawing near because for us Jesus was obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

In Christ alone are we able to eat and drink and do all things with joy as He strengthens us in contentment of the life graciously given to us by God.

In Christ alone are we able to find, in the midst of the adversities of life, the peace that surpasses all understanding.

In Christ alone are we able to rejoice in our toil under the sun, knowing that for us, to live is Christ.

In Christ alone are we able to meet our inevitable and looming death with confidence that to die is, in fact, gain.

In Christ alone are we able to find gain in this life under the sun, counting everything as vanity for the sake of Christ.

Vanity of vanities. All is vanity without Christ.

Beware of Anything Beyond Scripture | Ecclesiastes 12:9-12

Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.

The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

Ecclesiastes 12:9–12 (ESV)

 

With verse 8 of this final chapter repeating verse 2 of the first chapter, the body of Ecclesiastes came to its conclusion. The remaining six verses compose the epilogue to this biblical work of philosophy. Throughout the entirety of the book, the under the sun perspective has been predominant, with glimpses beyond scattered throughout. If in our previous study the Preacher lifted our eyes toward the sun itself, he continues to raise our heads further in these verses. Verses 13-14 will entirely point us to the God who is above the sun, but verses 9-12 direct us to His means of reaching out to us under the sun: the Scriptures.

We now enter the epilogue of Ecclesiastes, which is the subject of much debate among theologians. One of the most common views is that the epilogue was authored by someone other than the Preacher himself. This seems accurate enough at first glance since whoever wrote these verses appears to be introducing the Preacher in 1:1 and is reflecting upon the Preacher’s words in the epilogue. The other primary argument is these verses are not nearly as bleak as the main body and generally do not have the same feel or aim. A prevailing theory is that if Solomon is indeed the Preacher then perhaps Hezekiah (who compiled many proverbs of Solomon, as seen in Proverbs 25:1) composed the epilogue and first verse of the book. This view certainly has its merits and may very well be true; however, I find no problem with the Preacher also being the author of the epilogue. First, writing about oneself in the third person was far from uncommon in the ancient world. Second, the epilogue is not a shift in style from the rest of the book; it is its conclusion. Verse 13-14 get explicitly targeted as being too God-focused for the rest of Ecclesiastes, but the entire book builds toward those closing statements. And like a skilled writer, the Preacher sowed the seeds for his conclusion throughout the book. For instance, he is not instructing us to fear God for the first time (5:7). In fact, recall that 5:1-7 is a miniature replica of Ecclesiastes’ structure, complete with a refrain and an epilogue that sheds new light on the previous verses as well. God’s judgment is also not new to the Preacher (11:9). Indeed, the bleak outlook of the entire book, the constant refrain for us to enjoy the life given to us, and the exploration of living under the sun have all been leading us to these final remarks.

As I said in the study of 5:1-7, I strongly considered opening Ecclesiastes with a discussion of its epilogue, and the Preacher (or whoever authored these verses) indeed intends for us to reread Ecclesiastes in light of its conclusion. But the necessity of rereading the book is the entire point. These words come at the end of the book for a reason. The author wants to us feel the beauty of lifting our face above the sun after having spent so much time under it. They are a breath of fresh air after swimming in the vanities of this life. But they also should impact how we reread Ecclesiastes. Or I should say, they necessitate that we reread Ecclesiastes. As a blatant member of the Bible’s wisdom literature, Ecclesiastes is meant to be meditated over as we mine it for the wisdom that God has spoken through it. Providing the epilogue as a new lens through which to read the book serves as an incentive to return to its words. I would go so far as to say that a failure to reread Ecclesiastes in light of the epilogue is a failure to understand the overall message of the book.

TEACHING KNOWLEDGE // VERSE 9

The epilogue begins by panning the camera back until the director is brought into the frame. Information on the Preacher has been scant throughout the book, and the end of the book does little to change that status. The Preacher has reminded us frequently of his wisdom, but now he points us beyond that wisdom. Besides being wise (or beyond being wise), the Preacher taught knowledge to the people, primarily through the use of Proverbs, which we have seen included in this book. There are two aspects of this verse that I want to comment on.

First, this is not saying that the Preacher went beyond wisdom into a higher level of some sort, nor that he left wisdom behind to move onto bigger and better things. Instead, Solomon not only accumulated wisdom; he also did something with it. Specifically, he taught knowledge and wisdom to others. This is important for two reasons: 1) knowledge is worth teaching, and 2) teaching is a form of loving.

Knowledge is worth teaching because knowledge is worth knowing. Christianity is a religion that gladly admits that we are ignorant of many details and contours of God because He is infinite and we are finite. Our knowledge is limited; therefore, we will always be ignorant of something. However, the Bible continuously rebels against the notion of willful ignorance, while wholeheartedly promoting the pursuit of knowledge. We see this in the cornerstone verse of Proverbs: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (1:7). Whoever fears God is ready and willing to learn, but fools openly reject being taught wisdom and knowledge. Fools fight at the notion that someone may know something that they do not.

Similarly, the LORD brings His condemnation against Israel in Hosea 4:6 stating, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.” Israel became willfully ignorant of God in favor of pursuing sin. In verse 10, the LORD warns that sin destroys understanding: “They shall eat, but not be satisfied; they shall play the whore, but not multiply, because they have forsaken the LORD to cherish whoredom, wine, and new wine, which take away the understanding.”

Now compare that despair of ignorance with Peter’s view of knowledge: “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3). God’s divine power places life and godliness in our hands through the knowledge of Him. Knowing God is how we experience the power of God, but willful ignorance of God is a foolish sin that ends in damnation. Eternity, therefore, hangs upon the knowledge or ignorance of God. Is knowledge not worth teaching!

If knowledge of God is the means of receiving God’s powerful gifts of life and godliness, then such knowledge must be taught. And beyond the bare necessity of teaching the knowledge of God, such teaching is also a supremely loving act. If, as we studied in the previous text, God is the being of the greatest worth and value, then the act of introducing someone to God and His character is an act of great worth and value. If the greatest commandment is to love God with the second being to love our neighbors, then teaching our neighbors the God who is altogether lovely is a display of love of the highest order.

Unfortunately, we tend to place the meeting the physical needs of others on a higher plain than their spiritual needs. The Apostles, in Acts 6, did not fall into that trap. They rightly delegated the distribution of food to the church’s widows in order to focus on the ministry of the Word and prayer. Of course, none of this is to say that physical needs are of no value. They certainly are! But feeding upon the Scripture is eternally more important than feeding upon bread. Often it is said that people do not care how much you know until they know how much you care, but, as Christians, we ultimately long to show how much we care by showing people the God we know. Along these lines, the Preacher was too loving to keep his wisdom and knowledge of God to himself, so he taught others.

Seconds, notice how Solomon taught others: weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. The Preacher poured himself into the work of collecting words of wisdom. With great care, he weighed proverbs, scrutinizing them in order to be sure of their wisdom. He studied them, reading them backward and forward, meditating on them day and night, taking them to heart, and applying them to his own life. He arranged them, gathering them together so that others might be able to study them as well. The emphasis of these three verbs is the great care with which he compiled his words of wisdom. There was nothing frivolous or half-hearted about his task. He poured heart and soul into his work, for the purpose of teaching others. To the weariness of his own flesh, he studied for the sake of others.

Why did he put so much work into words that many people will dismiss before they ever even read? The next two verses give us that answer.

WORDS OF WISDOM, TRUTH, & DELIGHT // VERSES 10-11

Within these two verses, Ecclesiastes explicitly places itself into the category of biblical wisdom literature. The word uniting 10 and 11 is words. Verse 10 states that the Preacher sought (a great summary word for the great care taken in verse 9) to find words of delight and that he accurately wrote words of truth. Verse 11 then gives us two functions of these words of the wise, as well as their ultimate source.

Let us begin by noting that the words of delight, words of truth, and words of the wise are all the same words, the collected sayings. But which words are these exactly? There is a triple layer of application here. First, these words refer to the book of Ecclesiastes directly. Second, they are also, broadly, the collected wisdom literature of the Bible. Third, they are, in the most general sense, the full text of Scripture. These three concentric circles must be understood and remembered as we look at how they are described, applied, and given, but for greatest scope, we will primarily speak of them as all of Scripture.

Scripture Is Wise, Truthful, & Delightful

Three descriptions are then given of the Scriptural writings.

They are the words of the wise. Since true wisdom comes from the fear of God, these are the words of God-fearers who are teaching us about the God whom we must fear.

They are words of truth. If is truly the Creator of all things, He is also, then, truth. If He authored reality, then all truth derives from Him because He is the greater Reality behind all of reality. Words are true indeed that direct us to He who is truth.

They are words of delight. Since the immediate application is upon Ecclesiastes, this might be a tough pill to swallow. Delight is not likely the first word that comes to mind when thinking about this book, which has repeatedly reminded us of death’s inevitable arrival. Of course, we shouldn’t exclude other books and passages of Scripture from this thought either. We do not often read the Bible’s genealogies while praising God that they are “more to be desired than gold, even much fine gold” (Psalm 19:10). Nor do we read passages like, “And these you shall detest among the birds; they shall not be eaten; they are detestable: the eagle, the bearded vulture, the black vulture, the kite, the falcon of any kind, every raven of any kind, the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull, the hawk of any kind, the little owl, the cormorant, the short-eared owl, the barn owl, the tawny owl, the carrion vulture, the stork, the heron of any kind, the hoopoe, and the bat” (Leviticus 11:13-19), and rejoice that those words are “sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honey comb” (Psalm 19:10). Yet if Scripture is the written Word of God (as verse 11 will affirm), they are delightful because the Creator Himself has spoken to us! Especially as Christians, who now call God our Father because of the cross and resurrection of Christ, we should delight in the words of our Father.

Two functions of Scripture are then described in verse 11.

Scripture Goads Us

They are like goads, which resemble fire pokers and are used to goad (which is where that verb derives from, by the way) oxen into continuing the work of plowing. The words of Scripture, therefore, prod and guide us. They are pointed and sharp to move us into action. Like a goad, they hook and pull us toward one direction or the other in order to keep us along the right path. Truly the Word “is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). If the gate is narrow and the way hard that leads to life, it cannot be traveled except by the guidance of God’s Word. Put simply, a Christianity that is not guided by the Bible is not Christianity.

Scripture Secures Us

They are also like nails firmly fixed. Securely fixed nails accomplish their purpose of holding the nailed item in place; likewise, the words of the Bible secure us to the God who spoke them. Psalm 119:9-11 declares that the young man is able to keep his way pure by guarding it with the Word of God, storing it in his heart so that he might not sin against the LORD. With the Scriptures, we could not know and follow Jesus, who is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).

Scripture Comes from One Shepherd

Finally, all Scripture comes from one Shepherd, God. Philip Ryken comments on this phrase:

This makes Ecclesiastes 12:11 an important verse for the Biblical doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture (see also 2 Peter 1:21). Ecclesiastes is the very Word of God. The Preacher’s words are not merely the musings of some skeptical philosopher; they are part of the inspired, infallible, and inerrant revelation of Almighty God. Therefore, it is not enough merely to admire their artistry and respect their integrity—we must also submit to their authority. As the Shepherd of our souls, God uses this book—as he uses everything written in the Bible—to prod us into spiritual action. (278)

The Bible contains wisdom because it is the Word of God. The Bible is true because it is the Word of God. The Bible is delightful because it is the Word of God. The Bible is able to guide us because it is the Word of God. The Bible is able to secure us because it is the Word of God. If the Scriptures are not breathed out by God, they are simply another book to read, but if they are God speaking to us, there is nothing more important for us to read, study, memorize, and meditate upon.

BEWARE OF ANYTHING BEYOND SCRIPTURE // VERSE 12

Verse 12 begins with the phrase, my son, which should immediately bring to mind the first nine chapters of Proverbs. The introductory chapters of Proverbs were written by Solomon to us, the readers, as if we were his son to whom he was imparting fatherly wisdom and warnings. If Solomon did write this verse, then it is a very fitting return to style. If it was written by another author, then it is purposely connecting itself to the rest of the wisdom literature and Scripture.

His warning to us, as though we were his child, is to beware of anything beyond the Scriptures. He explains that the making of books will not end until the world does and study requires a physical tax upon the body, so focus your reading and studying upon the Book. This is not to say that other books do not contain truth. They often most certainly do! Many books outside of Scripture are worth reading, but even among the valuable books, too many exist for anyone to read. And the list only continues to grow. We cannot allow ourselves to be caught in the current of studying and reading other things more than Scripture.

Sadly, few today are in danger of over-reading or excessive studying, at least in the traditional sense. Even with the information of the ages available at our fingertips, most of us seem content to outsource our thoughts onto various screens, while we watch upon those screens frivolous entertainments that do nothing to benefit us. The author is warning us against the dangers of reading and studying to find eternal truth outside of Scripture, but one of the most dangerous lies in circulation is that entertainment doesn’t influence us with teachings that contradict the Bible. Every book, film, television series, or any other media teaches something as truth. Discovering whether or not that truth aligns with the Bible is our responsibility as Christians. Philosophies are often hidden, and the same empty deceits that the Colossians fought against still abound today (Colossians 2:8). I don’t argue that we should become Amish and shun entertainment, but we must become more media literate that we may be able to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

One of my favorite television series is The Office. Watching the entire series is a 100-hour commitment while reading the entire Bible takes around 70 hours. Could our deep cultural literacy be a primary factor in why so many Christians are biblically illiterate? Entertainment itself is not a sin, but O how easily it distracts us from the eternal warfare that we walk in day by day!

Ultimately, to turn away from Scripture is to declare self-sufficiency. Whether we turn to another religious philosophy or whether we hide our thoughts in a mindless Netflix binge, the outcome is still the same: we claim our independence from God. The Word of God alone is our guide and our security. The Scripture alone reveals to us the knowledge of God. To reject God and His Word is to reject the fountain of living water, the bread of life, good shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep.

Does your vision of Scripture align with the vision found here in Ecclesiastes?

Do you come to the Scriptures for wisdom and knowledge, or do you seek other counsel?

Is the Bible the final and supreme truth to which you hold, or do you blatantly or subtly follow other ideas and philosophies?

Do you delight in the Word, or do you view reading it as a lifeless chore?

Do you allow the Scripture to goad you, or do you careful interpret it to only say what you want it to say?

Is the Bible your security, or do you turn to other things to anchor you?

Do you study the Word in order to know the God who spoke it, or do you read it as a self-help or therapeutic book?

In what things do you saturate yourself? What do you “study”? What do you give your time to more than Scripture?

How to Waste Your Life

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.
Ecclesiastes 1:2-11 ESV

Ten years ago, I graduated high school. With aspirations for studying the Scriptures and writing books, poems, stories, or really anything of significance, I instead spent much of my time becoming moderately proficient at Halo 3 and Rock Band. Don’t get me wrong, the LORD was merciful on me in high school to keep me from many activities that could have done me a great deal of harm. But still I wasted so much of my time, so today I would like to give you the message that I would give eighteen-year-old me.

THE VANITY OF LIFE

The primary message of Ecclesiastes can be summarized as follows: everything under the sun is vanity. Once we understand what Solomon means by vanity, we will begin to understand why some consider Ecclesiastes to the be the most depressing book of the Bible. Other English translations of vanity include meaningless, futility, a vapor, or the merest of breaths. Hopefully, those words capture the idea. Vanity in Ecclesiastes is meaningless, futile, empty, pointless, worthless, fleeting, here-today-gone-tomorrow, transient, and momentary. To say then that the connotation is negative is an understatement.

So what does Solomon describe as being vanity?

Everything. Solomon says, “All is vanity.” Life is futile. Work is meaningless. Sex is a vapor. Laughter is momentary. Everything is pointless, like chasing after the wind.

Come on, Solomon. Why don’t you tell us how you really feel?

The remainder of these verses give a brief summary of Solomon’s reasoning behind his conclusion: why is everything vanity?

First of all, the sun has been rising and setting since the world began, but we humans can barely manage to live to be 100-years-old. Even the greatest of us cannot beat these inanimate objects. Alexander the Great accomplished enough for history to permanently remember him as being great, but despite the vastness of his empire and the brilliance of his leadership, his body is now nothing more than dust, just like the poorest of peasants under his rule. But the sun that beamed upon his head over the Persian desert is still the same more than 2000 years later.

Although it doesn’t presently benefit him, Alexander is at least remembered today. Solomon reminds us in verse 11 that the same cannot be said for the majority of people. Even though we often live as though we are the center of the universe, the harsh reality is that within a hundred and fifty years hardly anyone will remember that we ever existed, while even fewer will know or care anything about us. This is difficult for most of us to hear because we want to believe that our name and legacy will live beyond us, but while I am thankful for my great, great grandfather, I know nothing about this essential limb of my family tree except that his name was Floyd.

With such a harsh reality attempting to stare us in the face, we shouldn’t be surprised at humanity’s obsession with heroes. Superheroes, for example, allow us to imagine the fantasy of being great, of being more than human, of having a clear sense of meaning and worth. Driving home from the latest film, we don’t immediately begin talking about what we would do as a regular person living in a super-powered world. No, we identify first with the heroes, the larger-than-life characters, the ones who have left normalcy in the dust.

Ecclesiastes feels depressing because its goal is to destroy the fantasy world that we have made for ourselves. We cover ourselves with an onslaught of entertainment in order to hide from the terror of silence, that sinking feeling in our gut whenever we get a momentary glimpse at our own mortality. The looming inevitability of death can keep us grounded in reality like nothing else can. It reminds us that because our days are short, they should not be wasted. Because we are not promised tomorrow, we should make the most of today. Truly Moses was right when he prayed, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). Unfortunately, the thought of death is also unpleasant. It reminds us that we are finite instead of infinite, that we are creatures instead of gods. So we hide ourselves from the inevitable, and often waste the precious amount of time that we have been given.

HOW TO WASTE YOUR LIFE

Throughout Ecclesiastes, Solomon describes how he chased lasting purpose and meaning under the sun. He does this by pursuing many things that we often make the supreme goal of our lives. His conclusion after each is that nothing but vanity can come ultimately from living for (fill in the blank). Allow me then to describe three of these pursuits and why they lead to a wasted life. We will then conclude by looking upon the one goal of life that will never result in a vain and wasted life.

Self

First, and probably most often, people pursue their own self-interests as the supreme goal of their life. Self-esteem, self-worth, and self-actualization are the gods we serve. Decisions and plans are made with self primarily in mind. To be fair, within a post-modern and materialist frame, self-interest makes sense. If life doesn’t have a Creator or an ultimate purpose, then I don’t have a purpose. I only know that I am here now and that I might not be tomorrow, so why should I not try to do and get everything that I want? Let’s eat and drink, for tomorrow we die, right?

Unfortunately, simply from a practical standpoint, we tend to be terrible judges of what is actually good for us. For instance, much debate has raged around a study that suggested that there are three steps for avoiding poverty: graduate high school, get a full-time job, and get married and have a family. The study found that of all the people surveyed who completed those three steps (in that order) only two percent lived in poverty. The debate surrounding the study is whether the relationship between the steps and avoiding poverty is of causation or correlation, and of course, even if it is causal, there are plenty of exceptions to the rule. Nevertheless, the statistics indicate a clear benefit from doing hard things like holding a job and maintaining a family. Yet selfishness can very easily whisper in our ear that graduating high school isn’t worth the hassle, that working a job that you might not enjoy isn’t a valuable use of time, or that settling down with a spouse and kids is too much work. The point is that we rarely understand what is truly good for us.

A subcategory of self-interest is the pursuit of pleasure. Solomon’s pursuit of pleasure is found in chapter two, where he claims that he did not deny himself anything that his eye wanted. Do you want a good home? Solomon built a palace. Want a nice garden? He planted entire forests and designed whole parks. Want to avoid physical labor? He had 35,000 servants. How about sex? Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Does music make you happy? His personal singers would act as his ancient iPod. Since this is the Bible, you might expect Solomon to claim that none it gave him the pleasure that he was looking for, but instead he says, “I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil” (2:10). He sought pleasure and found it. The problem was that pleasure alone didn’t last. Pleasure is a momentary vanity; therefore, it fails royally whenever we make it our lifelong goal.

Another route of self-interest might be the pursuit of self-actualization. This is the general path of many philosophies and religions. The overall goal is to keep improving yourself, to continue mastering yourself, your desires, and your passions. While this sounds great in theory (and the Bible certainly calls us to be self-controlled and disciplined), it too is vanity as the main goal of life. The sobering fact is that you will never fully become the person that you aim to be. Illustrative of this point is the title of a blog post I read a couple of months ago that was something along these lines: “If the you from 5 and 10 years ago was an idiot, what does that say about present-day you?”

Wealth

Second, many are tempted to pursue wealth as the driving force of their life. Money, possessions, and the power that surrounds them are quite appealing. If anyone had the right to speak about the effects of money, it is Solomon. If the accounts of 1 Kings are correct (and since they are within the Bible, let’s go away and make that assumption), then some have estimated Solomon’s networth to be around $2.1 trillion, making him the richest man to ever live. To put this in perspective, Rockefeller comes in at number two with a networth of $600 billion.

So what does the richest man to ever live say about money? “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity” (5:10). Notice that Solomon isn’t calling wealth or money evil. In fact, he goes on to say in verse 19 of the same chapter that it is a gift of God whenever anyone is able to enjoy the wealth and possessions given to him by God. But sadly, not everyone is able to enjoy the wealth that they acquire, and in verses 1-6 of chapter six, Solomon claims that it is better to be miscarried in your mother’s womb than to have blessings and not be able to enjoy them. But that is how the love of money works. You become so obsessed with having more that you cannot enjoy what you already have.

Family 

Finally, we might try to our family the goal of our lives. This is a particularly difficult one to grasp because it feels like the right thing to do and Hollywood seems hell-bent on teaching this valuable lesson (at times…). And of course, the Bible calls us to love our families well. Paul tells us that “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). Clearly, family is serious business, but still it is not ultimate. If this sounds wrong, just consider the clear reality. If your spouse is the center of your life, what happens when he or she passes away, or worse if they betrayed you and left you alone? If your kids become your reason for living, what if they die, or what happens when they get married and have families of their own? As much as I love my wife and daughter, they are not God. If I make them my gods, they will be crushed under the weight of my expectations for them. Family is not eternal and will eventually fail, so family cannot replace God.

Of course, there are plenty more things that people make the goal of their lives, but we don’t have time to even attempt addressing such a never-ending list.

TO LIVE IS CHRIST

Take a moment to notice that self-interest, wealth, and family are not evil things. Each is a good gift given by a good God. The problem comes whenever we make them our gods, whenever the gifts usurp the Giver. While they are good to have, they are not eternal and, therefore, cannot truly satisfy us. Given enough time, they will each eventually fail us. God, however, cannot fail us. Augustine describes this trading of the Giver for His gifts as being like a hungry man who keeps licking a painting of bread instead of asking a baker for a loaf. Or we could say it is as ridiculous as writing and giving a thank you card to the gift itself instead of the giver. Doing so is foolish, as insane as trying to catch the wind in your hand.

This is why Solomon repeats throughout Ecclesiastes that true and lasting enjoyment of life is a gift from God. Enjoyment cannot be earned or bought. It is a gift that can only come from the hand of the Giver. Therefore, Solomon is constantly trying to force us to fix our hope above the sun, beyond this life, and onto the Author of life. All is vanity under the sun. A life lived exclusively under the sun is a wasted life, but a life given over to God is a life of true and lasting joy.

The Apostle Paul famously expresses a similar message in Philippians 1:21, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Often it is the second part of that verse that sticks out in our minds. We quote it as a reminder whenever we start to cringe at the thought of leaving this world. It comes with a lump in our throat as we hear stories of martyrs for Christ throughout history. Indeed, the blessed hope of the Christian faith is that Christ will return to resurrect our bodies so that we will live forever in His presence. Yes! Let “death is gain” be the Christian’s dying words! But the first phrase is just as important: “to live is Christ.”

What does Paul mean by saying “to live is Christ?” He means that all of life belongs to Christ. Our very state of existing is now the property of Christ. As Christians, we have been bought by God with a price, so we are called to glorify God with our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). That price was the very death of God upon a cross as a substitute for us. Because of the crucifixion of Jesus, Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God” (Galatians 2:20).

As a Christian, your life is not your own; it belongs to God. This is why Paul tells us twice to glorify God in everything that we do, in our eating or drinking (1 Corinthians 10:31) and in our words and deeds (Colossians 3:17).

And why would we not want to do so?

He is Author of life (Acts 3:15).

“In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

All of creation was created by Him, through Him, and for Him, so that He is preeminent in all things (Colossians 1:15-20).

The universe itself is upheld by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:3).

And one day, every creature in heaven, on earth, and under the earth will proclaim Jesus as Lord and bow before Him to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).

If living for the gifts of God is utter foolishness, then living for the Giver Himself is the wisest action we can take. But having God be the great purpose of our lives is for our good as well as His glory. After all, if we long to live for something greater than ourselves, who fits that category better than God! If we want to live lives that matter and have a real purpose, where else can we turn except to Him who formed all of existence?

But practically, how can we live for God’s glory?

If you are not a Christian, then the path toward living for God’s glory begins with repenting and believing the gospel (Mark 1:15). First, repentance is far more than simply apologizing for sin. Repentance is the heart-broken confession of sin, followed by turning away from it. Repentance is the renouncing of sin. Second, believing the gospel means understanding the good news that Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection saves us from our sins. The gospel is that even though we deserved the full and just wrath of God for our sins, the death of Jesus paid that penalty completely and gives to us the righteousness of Christ in its place. The good news is that we who were once objects of God’s wrath are now His children (Ephesians 2:1-10).

If you already a follower of Christ, other than continuing to repent and believe the gospel, here are some basic actions for being a disciple of Jesus. These basics are pray, know the Scripture, love the church, and obey Scripture.

Relationships cannot exist without communication, so how can we have a relationship with God without speaking to Him in prayer?

With God’s self-revelation in Scripture, we can quickly find ourselves praying to a god fashioned within our minds if we are not rooted and grounded in the Bible.

Many claim to love Jesus but can’t stand the church. The church, however, is the body and bride of Jesus. You can’t love Jesus and not love His church.

Finally, Jesus Himself said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). This does not mean that you will ever perfectly obey in this life, but it does mean that you should want to obey the commands of God.

Of course, living a life for God’s glory does not mean that you must be called to full-time ministry; instead, serve God wherever He places you in life. If you are a nurse, then be a nurse to the glory of God by working as though you are working for Christ (Colossians 3:23) and proclaiming the gospel whenever a door is opened to do so (Colossians 4:3). If you are a mechanic, then be a mechanic to the glory of God by working as though you are working for Christ and proclaiming the gospel whenever a door is opened to do so. In other words, be missional where you are and with what you are doing.

If that sounds like a boring and inconsequential life, consider the first 300 years of Christianity. Throughout that time, Christians faced some of the worst and most intense persecution found throughout history, and yet by the early 300s Rome had its first Christian emperor and in 380 Christianity was the official religion. How did Christianity become so powerful even in the midst of persecution? Church historian Justo Gonzalez notes that Christianity spread on the backs of ordinary and long-forgotten Christians, slaves and business-people alike, who took the good news with them wherever they went. Of course, Acts also tells us this fact as well: “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word” (8:4). After Stephen’s death and Christians became persecuted in Jerusalem, many fled the city, but they did not stop sharing the gospel.

The world’s greatest empire was overcome by normal and ordinary believers living their common and seemingly un-noteworthy lives for God’s glory. May we too give our lives to that one focus. After all, nothing else comes close to the value, meaning, purpose, and worth of exalting the name of Jesus Christ.

Prayer | Ephesians 6:18-20

Sermon | Week 3

SUGGESTED VERSES FOR MEMORIZATION & MEDITATION

Praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak. (Ephesians 6:18-20)

Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. (Colossians 4:2)

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)

OPENING THOUGHT

The purpose of the Western Meadows Values Series is to articulate the primary values that we hold at Western Meadows Baptist Church. Our study began with the Great Commission, which is Jesus’ final command for His disciples to make disciples. This call toward perpetual discipleship is the mission and purpose of each Christian as individuals and of each church as a community. Because making disciples fills the earth with the glory of God, the Great Commission is not optional for Christ’s followers.

The command, of course, means little to us unless we know how to obey it. Like our walk of faith, discipleship happens at both an individual and communal level. As individuals, we make disciples by witnessing (adorning the gospel with our lives), evangelism (the verbal proclamation of the gospel), and teaching other believers how the gospel applies to their lives. Likewise, there are three broad ways discipleship occurs at the community level: through the preaching of the Scriptures and the devotion to prayer and community.

Last week, we studied the importance of the Scriptures and how the preaching of them is an essential component toward making disciples. Today we will discuss the importance of prayer. Because making disciples is the expansion of God’s kingdom, discipleship is essentially an act of spiritual warfare. In Ephesians 6, Paul carefully illustrates this truth by urging us to equip ourselves with the armor of God. He then closes the section by reminding us of the importance of prayer in expanding God’s kingdom, especially prayer for the bold and faithful proclamation of the Scriptures.

GROUP DISCUSSION

Read verses 10-17 and discuss the following.

  1. In these verses, Paul describes the Christian life as being encompassed within spiritual warfare. Do you regularly consider yourself to be a part of spiritual warfare? How should this knowledge impact our daily lives?

Read verses 18-20 and discuss the following.

  1. How does Paul expect a Christian to pray at all time?
  2. What might be the all forms of prayer that Paul encourages us to pray?
  3. Why does Paul call us to pray with alertness and all perseverance?
  4. Why is it necessary for us to pray for all saints? How does Paul’s prayer for boldness display the importance of prayer in making disciples?

PERSONAL REFLECTION

Because all Scripture profits us through teaching, reproving, correcting, and training us, reflect upon the studied text, and ask yourself the following questions.

  • What has God taught you through this text (about Himself, sin, humanity, etc.)?
  • What sin has God convicted or reproved you of through this text?
  • How has God corrected you (i.e. your theology, thinking, lifestyle, etc.) through this text?
  • Pray through the text, asking God to train you toward righteousness by conforming you to His Word.

Exhaustion, Sermon Prep, & Leviticus (Jan. 13, 2017)

I’m Exhausted- How Do I Recharge My Body Without Neglecting My Soul

This episode of Ask Pastor John deals with how we spend our leisure time to the glory of God.

The Necessity of Prayer in Sermon Prep

Do we give our study proportional prayer? I often hear ministers ask for prayer for their preaching, but rarely do I hear requests for their study. I am guilty of doing this very thing. Furthermore, we tend to weight our own prayer for the sermon towards the delivery of it.

No More Channel-Flipping Sermons

So pick a section of scripture, and stick to it. Put down the clicker. Maybe change the channel once, from Old Testament to New, or vice versa. But hunker down. Tell the story, make the argument, sing the song. If I had to make a rule of thumb, I’d say three different texts is plenty, but two is ideal.

Read Scripture: Leviticus

This video is certainly not new, but as I recently began reading Leviticus in my personal time in the Scriptures, I found it very helpful and worth sharing.

Do Not Be Anxious | Matthew 6:25-34

Week 11 | Sermon

SUGGESTED VERSES FOR MEMORIZATION & MEDITATION

But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. (Matthew 6:30-34)

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  (Philippians 4:6-7)

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. (James 4:13-16)

OPENING THOUGHT

The Sermon on the Mount contains some of the most popular portions of Jesus’ earthly teachings, but its primary purpose is teaching His followers about living within the kingdom of heaven. So far we have studied the characteristics that ought to define a citizen of God’s kingdom as described within the Beatitudes, Jesus proclaimed the purpose of His disciples as being the salt of the earth and the light of the world, Christ established how the Old Testament commandments fit into His kingdom, and He informed us of the right and wrong ways of giving to the poor, praying, and fasting.

Last week, Jesus taught on storing earthly treasures or heavenly treasures. This picked up His thought on seeking a reward for our good works from the Father, not from other people. If we seek any kind of treasure on earth, we know that it is temporal, since we and everything on earth will pass away. Thus, Jesus encouraged us to make an investment toward heavenly treasure, which is eternal. For Christ’s followers, it is black and white: we will either serve God and gain an eternal treasure, or we will serve lesser gods and gain a temporary treasure.

Today’s text is immediately tied into the previous one through the word therefore. If our treasure is eternally secure in God Himself, we will truly be able to live a life without anxiety. Or perhaps I should more accurately say, ONLY if our treasure is eternally secure in God will we ever be able to obey Jesus’ command: do not be anxious about your life. Ultimately, Jesus is inviting us to surrender our worries about life over to the Father. Since we know that God upholds the universe by the word of His power, this should be an easy decision, but these verses are just as challenging as they are encouraging. Will we truly surrender control of our life to the sovereign God?

Read verses 25-33 and discuss the following.

  1. After telling His followers to store up treasures in heaven, Jesus then states, “THEREFORE, do not be anxious about your life.” How does last week’s text (verses 19-24) provide the groundwork for conquering anxiety?
  2. Jesus gives two examples, birds and lilies, to illustrate God’s provision and providence. How do these examples point to the futility of worrying?
  3. Verse 33 is a very well-known verse, but what are some ways that we might seek God’s kingdom first? What does “and all things will be added to you” mean?

Read verse 34 and discuss the following.

  1. Here Jesus tells us not to be anxious about tomorrow because each day has its own trouble. In what ways can we practically live this verse? How does it relate to James 4:13-16?

ACTIONS TO CONSIDER

  • Obey. Make a list of things that tend to cause you to be anxious. Recalling Jesus’ statement in verse 27, does your worry over those things ever help?
  • Pray. Following Paul’s instructions in Philippians 4:6-7, bring your anxieties before God in prayer and supplication and ask that God would grant you peace in Christ that surpasses understanding.