The road to heaven is flanked with dangers — and not always the dangers we expect.
Many of us set out on this journey expecting threats to come from the world: its comforts and pleasures, its false stories and faux moralities. Many of us also anticipate danger to come from suffering: sudden losses, broken dreams, persecution in its various forms. But perhaps fewer of us are aware of another threat, less familiar but just as dangerous: the slowness of our sanctification.
John Piper once said in an interview,
I have dealt with more people — I’m not sure if this is true, but it is close — who are ready to give up their Christian faith precisely because of the slowness of their sanctification, rather than because of physical harm that’s been brought to them or hurt that’s come into their life. They’re just tired.
Some of us consider leaving the road to heaven not mainly because we are tempted by the world, nor because we are tried by suffering, but because we are just plain tired. Tired of daily self-denial. Tired of taking two steps forward and one step back. Tired of walking on a road that feels endless, toward a city we cannot see.
Disillusioned and exhausted, many sit down on the path, not sure if they will get back up again.Ten Million Steps
Why does the slowness of our sanctification come as a surprise to so many of us (myself included)? Where did we get the idea that holiness would come swiftly?
From any number of places. Perhaps our high-speed culture has shaped our expectations more than we realize. Perhaps our own pride has caused us to misjudge our powers of endurance, much like Peter’s did long ago: “All these may grow tired, Lord, but not I!” (see Matthew 26:33). Or perhaps we have heard a few too many Christians talk about “the secret” or “the key” to overcoming some sin — suggestions that, nine times out of ten, oversimplify our complex struggles.
Wherever we got the idea that the path of discipleship would be faster, we did not get it from the Bible. In Scripture, we see that mature Christlikeness does not happen in a month, a year, or a decade, but over a whole lifetime. Holiness has no ten-step plan — only a plan with ten million steps, a plan that ends only when we die.Take the Long View
The pictures of growth that God gives us in his word bid us to take the long view of sanctification. They shift our expectations from the fast to the slow, from the immediate to the gradual.
We are farmers planting crops (Galatians 6:7). Grace grows in our souls much like God’s kingdom grows in the world: the seed slowly sprouts to the sky, the crops slowly fill the field (Mark 4:28). We plow and sow, water and watch, and bear fruit only “with patience” (Luke 8:15).
We are children growing up (Ephesians 4:14–15). Like all children, our bones grow slowly. We move from milk to solid food on our way to looking like our elder brother (1 Peter 2:2; Romans 8:29). One day we will be like him, but only “when he appears . . . because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
We are runners in a race (1 Corinthians 9:24). The race is not a sprint, nor even a marathon, but a lifelong jog. Only when we reach the end of our lives can we say, “I have finished the race” (2 Timothy 4:7). Until then, we “run with endurance” (Hebrews 12:1), not wasting our legs in the first one hundred meters, but pacing ourselves to the end.
We are travelers beneath the rising sun (2 Peter 1:19). Light is scattering our darkness, but only a shade at a time; our path is “like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day” (Proverbs 4:18). Christ’s glory rises over us “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
We are farmers, children, runners, travelers. Each of these images reminds us that deep, pervasive holiness happens over a lifetime: God’s word slowly reframes our perspective on ourselves and the world. Jesus gradually extends his lordship over even the most ordinary of tasks. The Spirit steadily makes obedience in certain areas habitual. God renews us not at once, but “day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16).Spiritual Realism
Two clarifications are needed at this point.
First, not all progress in righteousness happens slowly; many of us can testify to overnight deliverances from particular sins, even ones that once enslaved us. When we take the long view of sanctification, then, we should not cease praying for God to do “far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20).
Second, woe to us if we use the long view of sanctification to justify spiritual negligence. “Slow and steady now” has been the watchword for many a nominal Christian. “Tomorrow, tomorrow,” they tell themselves. But tomorrow always looks much like today, as they go on comforting themselves with God’s promises while refusing to hear his warnings. Like the sluggard, who “does not plow in the autumn” and “will seek at harvest and have nothing” (Proverbs 20:4), those who settle in with sin now will have no refuge on judgment day.
Scripture gives us the long view of sanctification not so we would stop praying big prayers, nor so we would grow spiritually complacent, but rather so we would possess spiritual realism. Spiritual realists believe, on the one hand, that God has “granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3), and so they strive. But spiritual realists also feel, down deep, that they will never pass through a single day without requiring the cleansing power of Jesus’s blood.
As long as we are on the road to Mount Zion, repentance will be our daily habit. As long as we have indwelling sin, “forgive us our debts” will be a fitting prayer (Matthew 6:12). As long as we are in this body, we will have cause to say (to paraphrase John Newton), “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am” (Newton on the Christian Life, 268).Daily Littles
The long view of sanctification, received rightly, refashions our perspective on today. On the one hand, we will adopt humble expectations of today’s progress. The farmer plowing his fields does not expect to harvest a crop by evening; nor does the cross-country traveler expect to reach his home. The rhythms of the seasons and the breadth of the country have chastened their expectations.
The Christian seeking God should likewise not grow unduly discouraged when today’s efforts fail to yield immediate fruit. Scripture reading, prayer, fasting, and fellowship are less like the crank of a lever and more like the sowing of a seed. We plant, we water, and then we keep our eyes on the harvest.
On the other hand, however, the long view reminds us that today’s small acts of obedience are of the utmost importance. The steps we take today may not take us all the way to glory — true. But we will never reach glory unless we keep stepping.
We need to give ourselves to what Horatius Bonar calls “daily littles.” He writes, “The Christian life is a great thing, one of the greatest things on earth. Made up of daily littles, it is yet in itself not a little thing, but in so far as it is truly lived . . . is noble throughout” (God’s Way of Holiness, 127). If we want to persevere to the end, we need to maintain this dual perspective: (1) the Christian life is “a great thing,” and (2) the Christian life is made up of “daily littles.” Holiness happens one step at a time.
The acts of obedience in front of you today may not be grand. But if you do them in faith, relying on the grace of Jesus and the power of his Spirit, they will not be in vain. Today’s Scripture reading and praying, today’s confessing and repenting, today’s serving and evangelizing will all drop into the soil of your soul. You will sow the seeds of your future self.
Christians are called to love God and others. Love manifests itself in practical deeds of service. That means our call to love God and others is a call to serve.
The problem is, service is hard. It’s difficult to deny ourselves, consider the needs of others, and place their preferences above our own. It’s often painful to give time, money, and energy to friends, family, neighbors, and fellow church members. Service can be draining, time-consuming, costly. So we need all the help we can get to serve cheerfully and consistently.
Thankfully, God intends to make his people into Christlike servants, which means the Bible is full of the help we need. One potent source of instruction and motivation for service is Colossians 3.The Paradoxical Secret of Service
Colossians 3:23 is the apostle Paul’s intriguing command to Christian slaves: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” Not for men. That’s intriguing, because just one verse earlier Paul instructs slaves, “obey in everything those who are your earthly masters” (Colossians 3:22). Which is it, Paul? How do these back-to-back commands fit together?
Somehow, even when we’re serving another person (Colossians 3:22), we’re not to be working for them (Colossians 3:23). So, what does it mean to work for someone? The context helps us here. Verse 22 instructs slaves not to be motivated by a desire to please other people, but rather to fear the Lord. Verses 24–25 remind slaves that their reward for service will come from the Lord, and that punishment for wrongdoing will also come from the Lord:
. . . knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. (Colossians 3:24–25)
It seems that to work for someone means to serve them in order to secure their praise or avoid their punishment. Paul says we’re to serve others, but not because we hope for their reward or fear their wrath. It’s the Lord we’re looking to as we serve them.When We Need People Less
We might express Paul’s teaching this way: Christians are to serve others more (Colossians 3:22) and need others less (Colossians 3:23–25). That brings us to a paradoxical truth that can liberate us for sacrificial service: the less we need others (whether it’s securing their praise or avoiding their censure), the more and better we will serve them.
Think about it: People let us down. They often fail to appreciate or thank us. They often criticize. What’s to keep us active in service to them? The answer is: rather than expecting (or fearing) something from them, we look to the Lord Jesus, who always keeps his promises and who already accepts us as his own.
By working for Christ (rather than other people), we become better (not worse) servants of other people. It’s paradoxical, but true. We don’t need their good opinion. We’re unafraid of their bad opinion. We’re freed to serve them better.Landing the Plane
I recently traveled on an uneventful seven-hour flight with two hundred other passengers. Imagine if the pilot of my flight, as we approached the landing, had become deeply, obsessively concerned about how each of the two hundred passengers was evaluating his piloting. Imagine if he had begun to worry about a too-bumpy landing and the displeasure this would cause in first class and economy.
We’ve all seen little kids on sports teams trying so hard to please their competitive dads that they can’t help but fail. I suspect that an obsessive, passenger-pleasing anxiety in the pilot of my plane might have led to a crash. Thankfully, that didn’t happen! Instead of attempting to please two hundred passengers, our pilot focused on satisfying just one person: the air traffic controller in Providence, Rhode Island. Because the controller was his singular focus, he was able to serve all two hundred passengers much better (by getting us safely on the ground).
When we need others less, we serve them more.Eight Ways and More
Some time ago, my wife and I spoke at a conference in the American Midwest. We were told that when we arrived at the airport, we should look for a guy named Craig, who would chauffeur us around during our stay.
After meeting Craig, we realized quickly that he was a highly accomplished and successful man. The task of driving us around for three days might well have seemed (to someone of his intellectual caliber and impressive résumé) just a bit too humble. But that thought seems never to have crossed Craig’s mind. He served us with his whole heart. Here are just some of the many ways he took good care of us:
- Craig got to the airport on time to pick us up (very important!).
- As we entered his car, we saw he had brought bottles of chilled water for us. In fact, every time he picked us up over the next three days, there were fresh bottles of water (they seemed to multiply like rabbits).
- Craig drove us from the conference venue to our hotel using a new route each time so that we could get to know the area better (he had thought about this beforehand).
- Craig was genuinely interested in getting to know my wife and me. He also shared things about himself, including some trials he and his wife have endured.
- Craig’s wife came along in the car several times so that she too could spend time with us, which made us feel even more welcomed and valued.
- Craig repeatedly told us that he would drop whatever else he was doing and give us a ride anywhere we wanted, at any time. We knew he meant it.
- When Craig left us at the airport on the last day, he and his wife got out of the car, stood on the sidewalk beside us, and prayed for us. It was deeply meaningful.
- Throughout our time, Craig seemed very happy to serve us, as though it was a treat for him — as though we were doing him a favor. The flavor of his service was joy.
Why did Craig serve us so well? I think it was because he wasn’t ultimately working for us. He certainly wasn’t desperate for our good opinion. Nor was he terrified of our bad opinion. After all, he barely knew us. Craig was working for the Lord Jesus. He didn’t need us. And because of that, he served us better.
Should I stay and send, or should I go to the mission field? Pastor John gives seven factors to keep in mind when weighing a calling to missions.
God does not call us to learn just from Paul’s teaching but also from his emotions. Do you weep over the lost like the apostle Paul?
On a steamy Saturday in July, I dropped off our son at a local community college to take the ACT. Earlier that morning, before leaving the house, we paused for prayer. I knew how nervous he was, how much he hates a timed test. I remembered my own anxiety and apprehension as a high schooler, realizing that part of your future rests on a few hours in a room full of strangers. So, I prayed for him not to be afraid.
Fear is a curious and powerful emotion. It can debilitate. Fear can stop our mind, shut our mouth, and stay our hand. Yet fear can also set us into action. As much as fear keeps us from taking risks and being effective, fear can also be an incredible motivator. In a way, fear is what’s made our son an excellent student thus far. It’s what kept him up studying late at night, and it’s why he willingly walked into that testing room.
The right kind of fear is also one of the best motivators for our evangelism.Fear That Freezes Evangelism
When it comes to evangelism, Christians tend to view fear as purely negative. Many of us have come to believe that fear is the primary factor that keeps us from speaking the gospel to others. Fear freezes us. When we sense the Spirit leading us to talk with our neighbor, friend, or family member, we get the same feeling that many of us experienced on a Friday algebra exam. We struggle to focus. Our hands perspire. We don’t even know where to begin.
Some of that physical response comes from a fear of failure. Like when taking a test, we don’t want to mess up. We don’t want to give someone the wrong answer. So, churches often respond by providing evangelism training. Education is the solution. We help people prepare, supply them with resources, and even give them, as it were, the opportunity for practice tests. And this information is truly important. We must be able to proclaim the gospel clearly and truthfully.
Such an approach in evangelism training, however, might assume that the way we address fear in evangelism is primarily through increasing our accuracy and ability. But I’m not convinced, because I believe the fear that freezes us would more accurately be labeled as shame (Luke 12:8–9; 2 Timothy 1:8–12).The Fear of Rejection
I suspect the greatest hindrance to bold witness is not the fear of getting it wrong; it’s the fear of being rejected. We don’t want to be ostracized or shunned. We don’t want our friends to think we’re narrow-minded, unscientific, bigoted, intolerant, or just uncool. If we’re honest, we’re often too embarrassed to evangelize. We’re ashamed of Christ.
Education will never overcome that kind of fear. Instead, we need to encourage bold witness by dealing with the emotional and social dynamics of shame. Shame’s power is its ability to disgrace and divide. Shame humiliates and separates from others. Which means the antidote to shame is glory and community — and we find those in the gospel.
The good news of Jesus promises us both honor and a home (Matthew 10:32; John 14:1–3). Only when Christians recognize this will they be able to overcome the shame that silences their witness. Because they’ll be more confident in the praise and glory that God himself promises them on the final day (1 Peter 1:7; Romans 2:7). They’ll fear rejection less, because they’ll have experienced the welcome of Christian fellowship, the earthly foretaste of the heavenly home that God gives his chosen exiles.Fear That Fuels Evangelism
Realizing the social and emotional dynamics of fear can also help us see how it can be a positive motivator for mission. In recent years, there’s been such an experiential increase in a particular kind of fear that the phenomenon has been given a pop-culture label: FOMO — the fear of missing out.
FOMO is understood as people’s anxiety, largely fueled by viewing social media, that they’ll miss out on some exciting event, important relationship, or salacious news. But this particular fear doesn’t generally stifle people. It drives them to constantly check their phones. It leads them to follow more people, make more friends, be more active.
Now, I’m not suggesting that FOMO leads to positive or healthy behavior. What is helpful to see, though, is how fear can powerfully move us into action. If we experience a fear similar to FOMO with regard to evangelism, we can see how it could lead us to pursue our neighbors and open our mouths with the gospel. Once we have tasted of God’s goodness in the gospel, we will want others to experience the same. We will fear them missing out on the glories of heaven, the wonders of Christ, and the most spectacular news of all. Such fear is not antithetical to love; it’s a demonstration of Christ’s compassion for them (2 Corinthians 5:14).
But there’s more to understanding how fear should fuel our evangelism. Jesus said, “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels” (Luke 9:26). There it is. The solution to the shame that silences our witness is our fear of missing out on glory and honor with the heavenly host. If we are embarrassed of Christ and his gospel, if we avoid evangelism as a way to protect our reputation and maintain our relationships, we will lose the honor he promises. We will miss out on the community of glory, with the Father and all his holy angels.More Fear, Not Less
This means that fear is not the greatest hindrance to evangelism. Our lack of fear is. Instead of being ashamed before others, we need to be concerned about being ashamed before Christ at his coming (1 John 2:28). Instead of fearing what others will say about us or do to us, we need to fear God, the one “who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Shame isn’t purely negative. “Knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others” (2 Corinthians 5:11). Fear can be a positive force.
My son realized that taking the ACT is the means to college admission, a potential scholarship, and a future career. The results also have a profound emotional and social dimension — just wait until the scores come back! He knows the stakes are high. But recognizing the weight can be a motivating factor, and not necessarily a debilitating one.
So it can be for us. As we grow in an appropriate fear of God and for others’ eternal well-being, we will be moved to speak the gospel with more urgency and care. And as we sense the honor and home that God promises us in Christ, we will fear less the humiliation and rejection of others. We will not be ashamed of the gospel.
Another shooting, another city, another community grieving and learning how to pick up the pieces — except this time, the community is ours, the one in which we’re raising our four young children, all seven and under.
The crime scene was a Walmart that we have been to frequently. This is our community, our neighbors, our backyard that was ruthlessly attacked. Our first responders, our hospitals, our law enforcement, our police officers are now on the front lines. In one short morning, twenty people lost their lives and twenty-six more were injured, some critically who are still fighting for their lives.
Completely ambushed and unexpected, precious and innocent lives — from small children to the elderly — were violently overturned, with loved ones suddenly gone. Another ordinary Saturday turned into a crime scene that was fueled by hate. A dark cloud hangs over the city of El Paso.‘The Safest City in America’
I grew up in the safest city in America. This past weekend that title, which we have worn so proudly for so long, was ripped out of our hands. Reading about shootings in America is tragically common, but when the terror strikes your own city, you breathe a different breath of tragedy. It becomes real to you — no longer just a news story.
Although we live and grieve in a very broken land, in Christ we are citizens of a better country (Philippians 3:20). So, what do we tell our young kids watching, the next generation who is now learning the horrors of sin’s consequences firsthand, some of them for the first time?
As a child, I never had to fathom something like what happened on Saturday. We practiced fire drills as kids, not active shooter drills. When my kids hear the stories and see the images, as they try to piece together the tragedy of this massacre and understand, I want to point them back to a hope that is not found in government or laws or policies or ideas and plans of “safety.” Although important, all of that will ultimately leave us empty and searching again. Our hope comes from knowing who God is — that he “is our refuge and strength” (Psalm 46:1) — and what he has done to save sinners like us.1. Murder begins in hearts like ours.
Murder and hate start in the heart. James writes, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder” (James 4:1–2). The anger that is uncontrolled and acted upon first begins deep inside of us. Our problem with our culture, with our world, is in our hearts. Sin is the problem. From the very first murder, a brother became jealous, hated, and then acted on his anger, shedding his own brother’s blood. Murder begins in broken hearts like ours. The Lord warned Cain (and all of us after him), “Sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:7).2. God saw every single bullet.
God is not absent in the face of tragedy. King David, writing from a Philistine prison, says, “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle” (Psalm 56:8). If you are in Christ, your God hears every cry and catches every tear. Every bullet that was fired, every ounce of blood that was lost, every last breath, God was there. In our deepest sorrow and pain, the God of the universe is in the center of the chaos. David writes elsewhere, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).3. This world is not our home.
In the ocean of despair, we have “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul,” Jesus Christ (Hebrews 6:19). This world will never make sense, because it is so horribly shattered, fractured, and hurting. Mass shootings of innocent lives is just one example of the brokenness. Families who were planning to send students back to school are now having to plan for funerals.
Creation itself groans for now (Romans 8:22), while Satan has his day, wreaking pain and suffering in every direction. But we can always find refuge in Jesus. We have hope, eternal hope, to share with those who are wounded emotionally, mentally, and physically from such heinous acts. When tragedy strikes, we know “we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14).4. God himself will judge the shooter.
Saturday’s shooting was not the end. The murderer will not have the victory or the glory that he tried to steal. Sin ends in death. Judgment will be served, and every act of violence will be accounted for on the day of judgment (Psalm 10:14–15). God is holy and just and righteous, and for his name’s sake, complete justice will be served (Hebrews 10:30).5. Every life is immeasurably valuable.
The victims are more than victims. All the people who lost their lives were made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). They all have eternal souls. Despite their sin, they were innocent of this man’s bullets.
I want my children to know that they are made in the image of God, and that their neighbor is too. We value each and every human life because of what each and every life says about God — no matter their language, ethnicity, worldview, or religion. Every life matters to God, and therefore to us.6. We hope in what we cannot see.
For now, and for many days to come in our town, we grieve with those who grieve (Romans 12:15). We look for the light to shine through in these dark moments, and we put our hope and trust not in our safety or in our security or in our laws, but in our Jesus. As we cry, we remember,
This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:17–18)
From the heartbroken neighborhoods of El Paso, we look beyond the horror we have been forced to see to the hope of what we cannot see yet.
James Denney (1856–1917), Scottish theologian and preacher, made a statement that haunts me as a preacher. Whether we are talking about the more highbrow eloquence of oratory or the more lowbrow, laid-back, cool eloquence of anti-oratory, Denney’s statement cuts through to the ultimate issue. He said, “No man can give the impression that he himself is clever and that Christ is mighty to save.” This has been one of the most influential sentences I have ever read regarding how to preach.
Does this mean that any conscious craft or art in writing or speaking elevates self and obscures the truth that Christ is mighty to save? Should we even talk about eloquence in Christian preaching?
The question is urgent first and foremost because the apostle Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, says in 1 Corinthians 1:17, “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” Christ sent Paul to preach, not with eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be gutted. That makes this an urgent issue.
There is a way to preach — a way of eloquence or cleverness or human wisdom — that nullifies the cross. We should dread nullifying the cross. We need to know what this eloquence-cleverness-wisdom of words is — and avoid it.Not with Lofty Speech
Consider a similar statement from Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:1: “I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.” Or the NIV: “I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom.” Or the NASB: “I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom.” Or the KJV: “I . . . came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom.”
These passages are ominous for preachers. Most of us try to choose words and say them in a way that will have greatest impact. Should we?
Should I choose words, or ways of putting words together, or ways of delivering them, with a view to increasing their life-giving, pride-humbling, God-exalting, Christ-magnifying, joy-intensifying, love-awakening, missions-mobilizing, justice-advancing impact? Am I usurping the role of the cross and the Spirit when I do that? Is Paul saying that the pursuit of impact on others through word selection, word arrangement, and word delivery preempts Christ’s power, and belittles the glory of the cross?Two Criteria for Eloquence
Consider with me Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians to see if he gives us enough clues to show what sort of eloquence he is rejecting and what sort he is not only not rejecting but using. Paul gives us a two-prong strategy for avoiding the wrong kind of eloquence in preaching.
Consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:26–29)First Prong: Self-Humiliation
God’s design both in the cross and in election is “that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” That is the first prong of our criterion to distinguish good and bad eloquence: Does it feed boasting? Does it come from an ego in search of exaltation through clever speech? If so, Paul rejects it. Then he continues, “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Corinthians 1:30–31).Second Prong: Christ-Exaltation
The second design of God, not only in the cross and in election, but also in the sovereign grace of regeneration (verse 30, “Because of him you are in Christ Jesus”), is that all boasting be boasting in the Lord Jesus — the one who was crucified and raised. “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31).
Therefore, the second prong of our criterion for distinguishing good and bad eloquence is: Does it exalt Christ — especially the crucified Christ?
The point of both prongs is this: pride-sustaining, self-exalting use of words for a show of human wisdom is incompatible with finding your life and your glory in the cross of Christ. So, let your use of words be governed by this double criteria: self-humiliation and Christ-exaltation.
If we put these two criteria in front of all our efforts to make an impact through word selection and word arrangement and word delivery — that is, if we put them in front of our attempts at eloquence — we will be guarded from the misuse of eloquence that Paul rejected. And now I see more clearly what was behind James Denney’s dictum; precisely, these two criteria: “No man can give the impression that he himself is clever and that Christ is mighty to save.” Self-exaltation and Christ-exaltation can’t go together.God Commends Eloquence
Having warned us about the wrong kind of eloquence, God invites us to join him in the creativity of eloquence. He beckons us with words such as:
- “To make an apt answer is a joy to a man,
and a word in season, how good it is!” (Proverbs 15:23).
- “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11).
- “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6).
In other words, give thought to the aptness and seasonableness and fitness and timing and appropriateness of your words. And make all of them honor the name of the Lord Jesus.Four Hopes for Preaching
If we are permitted to pursue eloquence (powerful verbal impact) — indeed if we are invited to, and if we are guided in our pursuit of this impact by the double criteria of self-humiliation and Christ-exaltation — what would be our hope for our preaching if we succeed? Here is a starter list of four hopes, which we apply knowing that anywhere along the way, God may step in and make our preaching instruments of salvation with or without eloquence. On any given Sunday, God may take the message we felt worst about and make it the means of a miracle. If so, why give any attention to maximizing the impact of our language?1. Keep Interest
Artistic, surprising, provocative, or aesthetically pleasing language choices (that is, eloquence) may keep people awake and focused because they find it interesting or unusual or pleasing for reasons they cannot articulate. When the disciples fell asleep in Gethsemane, Jesus said, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). We need to help people’s weaknesses.
This is not conversion or even conviction or sanctification, but it is a serious means to those ends. Sleeping people or distracted people do not hear the word, and faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word. Therefore, eloquence is like a good night’s sleep. It won’t save your soul, but it might keep you awake to hear the word, which can save your soul. So a preacher’s style may keep you interested and awake to the same end.2. Gain Sympathy
Artistic, surprising, provocative, or aesthetically pleasing language may bring an adversarial mind into greater sympathy with the speaker. If the language is interesting and fresh enough, obstacles may be overcome — boredom, anger, resentment, suspicion — and replaced with respect and attraction and interest and concentration. These are not conversion, or conviction or sanctification, but they don’t drive a person away like boredom does. In fact, they may draw a person so close to the light that Jesus says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).
C.S. Lewis once wrote a letter to a child who had asked for advice on how to write well. Lewis’s answer is so relevant for how preaching gains a sympathetic hearing that I am going to include his five suggestions here:
- Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
- Always prefer the clean, direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
- Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”
- In writing, don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us the thing is “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please, will you do my job for me.”
- Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
I think those pieces of advice for writing are exactly applicable to preaching.3. Awaken Sensitivity
Fresh, surprising, provocative, aesthetically pleasing speech may have an awakening effect on a person’s mind and heart that is short of regeneration but still important as an awakening of emotional and intellectual sensitivity for more serious and beautiful things. If a poetic turn of phrase can cause people to notice the magnificence of the sun, their next step might be to see that the heavens are telling the glory of God (Psalm 19:1), and then they might confess Christ as the great sun of righteousness (Malachi 4:2).
Is that not why David, the great poet of Israel, first says, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1), and then, more poetically, says, “In them he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy” (Psalm 19:4–5)? Why compare the rising sun to a bridegroom and a runner? To help the dull mind awaken to the joyful beauty of the rising sun in the hopes that this natural kind of awakening might lead to the spiritual sight that nature is all about the glory of God.4. Increase Power
The attempt to craft striking and beautiful language makes it possible that the beauty of eloquence can join with the beauty of truth and increase the power of your words. When we take care to create a beautiful way of speaking or writing about something beautiful, the eloquence — the beauty of the form — reflects and honors the beauty of the subject, and so honors the truth.
The method and the matter become one, and the totality of both becomes a witness to the truth and beauty of the message. If the glory of Christ is always ultimately our subject, and if he created all things, and upholds all things, then bringing the beauty of form into harmony with the beauty of truth is the fullest way to honor him in the crafting of our preaching.
Another way to think about this unity of truth and form is this: if a person sees and delights in the beauty of your language but does not yet see the beauty of the Lord Jesus, you have given the person not only a witness to Christ’s beauty but an invitation. You have said, “It’s like this, only better. The beauty of my words is the shadow. Christ, who created and sustains and mercifully accepts imperfect beauty, is the substance. Turn to him. Go to him.” Of course, my assumption is that your prayerful, heartfelt aim is that your language will exalt not you but Christ. That motive matters to God. And people will discern what’s behind your use of language.Create Eloquence for His Name’s Sake
Yes, Christian preaching may be eloquent. It is not the decisive factor in salvation or sanctification; God is. But faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word. That word in the Bible is pervasively eloquent — words are put together in a way to give great impact. And God invites us to create our own eloquent phrases for his name’s sake, not ours.
In the mystery of his sovereign grace, he will glorify himself in the hearts of others sometimes in spite of, and sometimes because of, the words we have chosen. In that way, he will keep us humble and get all the glory for himself.
Many Christians say, “God will never give us more than we can handle.” But the truth of that statement depends on two key words.
“Sorry to cut you off!” I’d just started connecting with a close friend at church. I was eager to catch up. But as she talked, I noticed a woman sitting alone, thumbing through her service sheet.
Honestly, I wished I hadn’t seen her. Interrupting my friend would be rude. It’s good for me to invest in friends! Someone else will likely spot that woman. These were some of the excuses that ran through my head. But the woman was clearly new, and for all I knew, not a believer. So, reluctantly, I interrupted my friend.
As soon as I sat down with the newcomer, I thanked God I had. Raised Catholic, she hadn’t been to church in over a decade. Her fiancé had just broken up with her right before their wedding, and she needed something else in life. I took a risk and asked if she’d like to come to our community group. She said yes. She’s been coming to church and Bible study ever since.
This was one of many opportunities my husband Bryan and I have had to connect with not-yet-Christians inside our church building. We have very little else in common. I’m an extrovert; he’s an introvert. I’m from England; he’s from Oklahoma. I’m into literature; he’s an engineer. But God drew us together around a shared sense of mission, and Bryan recently expressed that mission in three rules of engagement at church. These rules make our Sundays less comfortable, but more rewarding. If you’re tired of comfortable, you might want to give them a try!1. An Alone Person in Our Gatherings Is an Emergency
In times of crisis, we do strange things. We interrupt conversations. We set aside social conventions. If someone collapsed in your church building, everyone would mobilize. But every week, people walk into our gatherings for the first time and get effectively ignored. They may not know Jesus, or they may have spent years wandering from him. Their spiritual health is on the line, and a simple conversation could be the IV fluid God uses to prepare them for life-saving surgery. Eternal lives are at stake.
What if it’s a regular church member who is alone? An isolated believer is an emergency too. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples,” said Jesus, “if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Of course, we all enjoy solitude at times, but loneliness in church is as much an indictment on our gatherings as prayerlessness or lack of generosity. How can we claim to be “one body” (1 Corinthians 12:12) when we can’t even sit together and engage one another in church?
I come to church with a family of five. But the primary family unit in the New Testament is not the nuclear family: it’s the church. In fact, Jesus promised that anyone who left family to follow him would receive far more family among his people (Mark 10:29–30). There are tangible ways we can express this in church. Those of us who come with nuclear families can invite others to sit with us, or even separate to sit with others.
Last Sunday, for instance, I chose to sit between two sisters in Christ — one from Nigeria, one from Ghana — and to enjoy worshiping Jesus with them. Being one body with our spiritual siblings means more than sitting with others in church, but it certainly doesn’t mean less.
This call is not just for married people. If you come to church by yourself, don’t underestimate what God could do through you to bless others. A while ago, a single friend shared her sadness about sitting by herself at church. She is a delightful, socially agile extrovert, and I told her she had no right to sit alone when she could be blessing others with her company! My guess is that we have all, at one time or another, walked into a gathering and wondered, “Who will love me?” What if we asked ourselves instead, “Whom can I love?”2. Friends Can Wait
Did I miss out on intimacy with the friend I interrupted to greet the woman sitting alone? Yes and no. The Bible calls us fellow soldiers (Philippians 2:25; Philemon 2), and few bonds are stronger than those forged in battle. Soldiers seldom turn to face each other. Rather, they look outward, standing shoulder to shoulder, or in extreme situations, back to back. Combat increases their closeness.
“Do you recognize that woman?” I asked another friend a few Sundays ago, as we started to talk. “No. I should go and talk to her, shouldn’t I?” she replied. As I saw my friend walk off to greet a newcomer, I felt a closeness I would not have known without our shared endeavor.
Friends can wait for our attention on a Sunday. Better still, they can mobilize in mission too. Spurring each other on to welcome strangers in Christ’s name won’t weaken our friendships; it will deepen them.3. Introduce Newcomers to Someone Else
A few years ago, I met a woman in the checkout line at Target. She had recently arrived from China and was a visiting scholar at Harvard. We got talking and I took the risk to invite her to church. She said yes. Her English was far better than my nonexistent Mandarin, but we were nonetheless relating across a language barrier, so after the service I introduced her to a Chinese-speaking friend. Minutes later, my sister in Christ was exchanging numbers with this newcomer. I hadn’t been able to explain the situation, but my friend immediately recognized the gospel opportunity before her.
Even without a language barrier, newcomers benefit from multiple connections. When possible, I seek someone with an overlap: same country of origin, home state, school, profession, or stage of life. But our gatherings should cut across all demographic lines, and we must commit to connecting with those unlike us.
In fact, if some of our Sunday conversations aren’t difficult — pushing us beyond our usual conversational topics to reach across differences — we’re likely not conducting fellowship right. Calling out the racial, cultural, and social divides of his time, Paul reminded the Colossians that in Christ, “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).Take the Risk
So, this Sunday, let’s take a risk. Let’s reach across the small divides to others as we imitate the one who spanned the great divide for us. And let’s urge our friends to do the same, because the harvest in our gatherings is plentiful.
We may never know what difference a small act of welcome made. But sometimes God lets us see how he has weaved our little acts into his much greater plan. Last month, I asked our Bible study group to share a time when God had brought blessing to them through hardship. The most moving response for me was from the woman for whom I had left my friend that Sunday: “I’m so grateful my fiancé broke up with me. If that hadn’t happened, I would not have found God.”
The question is not if you are imitating, but who. We either imitate those who walk toward heaven or those who walk toward hell.
God is sovereign and good, and yet life is hard. It is filled with bruises and brokenness, trials and hardships, sorrows and tears. Yet, in Christ, nothing we walk through is wasted or worthless. For the believer, no tear is wastefully shed, no cry is worthlessly expressed, and no pain is futilely suffered. God is always working in our affliction. Always.
The past twelve years have been an extended season of trials and sorrows for my family and me. I never imagined my college years would include helping care for my ailing mother, and then sitting at her bedside as God took her home.
I never imagined my wife and I would celebrate our first anniversary in the hospital at the bedside of our son who was born prematurely with Down syndrome and complex heart disease. I never imagined caring for a son who walked through over twenty surgeries including five open-heart procedures. I never imagined I could feel so much sorrow and pain as a father watching my precious son struggle on a ventilator, struggle with a trach, struggle to be around people, struggle to communicate, struggle to eat, struggle to play, struggle to sleep, and struggle to process the world around him.
I never imagined that life as a husband and now a father of four would so constantly bring me to the end of my own strength and resources. I never imagined that the Lord would bring so many tears.
Yet I also never imagined that life could be this beautiful, this full, this filled with joy, and this blessed. Grace lavishes (Ephesians 1:7–8). Hope abounds (Romans 15:13). My refuge and salvation are sure (Psalm 18:2), for mine is “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). God truly is faithful.Why Do God’s Children Suffer?
As Job asks, “shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). Ultimately, God ordains and brings affliction into a believer’s life (Ruth 1:20–21). He is sovereign over all our suffering, though he uses means to accomplish his purposes (Luke 23:25; Galatians 1:4). Each affliction always flows from a good God working for his good purposes (Psalm 119:67–68; Romans 8:28). God ordains bitter suffering in order to bring about sweet redemption, just as he did at the cross (Acts 4:27–28). Ultimately, God causes what grieves him for greater purposes that glorify his name and strengthen his people (John 12:27–28).
Richard Baxter, a 17th century Puritan, wrote a magnificent book entitled The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, Or a Treatise of the Blessed State of the Saints, in Their Enjoyment of God in Glory. At one point he asks, “Why do the people of God suffer so much in this life?”
I dare not pretend to know the depths of God’s purposes and reasons for afflicting his children. Nevertheless, we can conclude some purposes on this side of final redemption. Here are five Baxter-inspired reasons that God graciously afflicts his saints.1. To prepare us to fully enjoy rest.
Life is a vapor (James 4:14). It is here today and gone today. The day is coming for every believer when God will call us to depart from this sin-soaked world into the ravishing delights of a paradise with him (Psalm 16:11). But until we see him face to face, this everlasting rest is built upon the foundation of earthly suffering and affliction (Acts 14:22).
Laying a head on the pillow after a hard day of work, reaching asylum away from the ravages of war, finally sitting down after a lengthened day of corralling kids — these are all foretastes of heavenly rest after worldly weariness. It will be in heaven as it is on earth. Our weariness will one day give way to unthinkable refreshment precisely because this life is filled with such deep suffering and pain.
As it is now, our weariness readies us for a deeper enjoyment of eternal rest (2 Corinthians 4:17).2. To keep us from mistaking earth for heaven.
Life is nomadic (1 Peter 2:11). We are all sojourners on our way home — but we are not home yet (Hebrews 13:14). When an earthly journey grows weary and treacherous, a traveler unmistakably feels his absence from home. The hardship often kindles his desire to return to his home. He longs for it, dreams of it, and anticipates the moment of arrival. As Baxter says, “The most dangerous mistake that our souls are capable of is, to take the creature for God, and earth for heaven.”
It would have been ludicrous for an Israelite to stake his claim on a portion of land in the wandering wasteland. It is similarly foolish to build bigger barns — to place our affections primarily on things of this earth (Luke 12:18). It is a misstep in our affections, attentions, and energies. This earthly land is not our heavenly dwelling. Affliction focuses our gaze beyond this earthly horizon and helps us see that this land is not our ultimate end.3. To draw us nearer to God.
Life is a battle (Ephesians 6:10–18; Romans 8:13). A believer’s affliction can at times reveal the idols of the heart. It forces us to see the lackluster shimmer of the priorities and possessions we strap to our back as we try to journey through this life. Concerns weigh us down rather than quicken our pace onward toward him.
Yet like a shot of adrenaline to the soldier on the front lines who begins to doze but then hears the snap of a twig, so affliction seizes our hearts with such effect that we startle awake to see God and then fly to him. Baxter contends, “If our dear Lord did not put those thorns into our bed, we should sleep out our lives, and lose our glory” (156).
While the devil and earth lull us away from Christ, affliction courses through our soul, making us feel more alive than ever, and then pushes us back to the straight and narrow in order to find life in the fountain of life itself.4. To quicken our pace toward God.
Life is labor (Colossians 3:1–2). How true it is that we have a tendency to grow lethargic in our responsibilities, callings, and heavenly pursuits. That which we begin with haste and zeal easily downshifts to a slothful crawl and, many times, an altogether abandonment. Even the Christian, whom God promises to keep as his child and bring safely into his heavenly kingdom, can slow his pace in pursuit of God.
Many good, God-given gifts in life can become impediments that slow pursuit and zap our energy and zeal. But there are some realities that simply make you run faster at the end of a grueling race. Sometimes it’s a dog at your heels; other times it’s a cleared vision of the prize beyond the finish line.
We are all in need of supernatural gusts in the winds of our affections and desires and efforts (2 Thessalonians 3:5). Affliction thrusts us onward more quickly as we long to be free from its clutches and burst forth into perfected newness of life.5. To give us sweeter tastes of him.
Life is a feast (Psalm 34:8). Cool water tastes most refreshing after long hours of hard work in the scorching heat. Delicious food tastes most satisfying after a period of going without. When much of life leaves a bitter taste in our mouth, affliction warms the tongue and readies the taste buds to find true satisfaction in God alone (2 Corinthians 1:5–10).
As Baxter says, “He keeps his most precious cordials for the time of our greatest faintings and dangers.” Though it cannot be proven, I have seen it among the saints and experienced it myself: the deeper your affliction, the more desperate your craving and the more satisfying your fellowship with God (Psalm 119:67).
It is a pattern of the human heart and life. God has a way of delighting the soul when all else is stripped away and the mountaintop sunshine turns into the shadow of the valley of death. It is the moments of deepest need and desperation in which God provides himself as healing balm. Affliction is the dark backdrop from which the saints most clearly see and savor the gleaming glory of God which satisfies the heart and warms the soul.
Affliction will come. Evil is truly evil. Our world is truly broken. Yet God is truly sovereign, wise, and good. And in God’s gracious providence the afflictions of the saints are not a means of death but rather a path to more satisfaction in God alone. Trust the giver of your afflictions to woo you closer to himself in the midst of your sufferings (1 Peter 4:19).
Many of us fight and lose against temptation because we fail to bring a specific promise from God to the battle. Our shield of faith against Satan will be small if it is only a vague hopefulness about God, and not a firm hold on what he has actually said — if his specific, living, and active words do not abide in our hearts.
John Piper writes, “A nebulous sense that God is somehow working to help us is not such a clear channel for the Holy Spirit’s power as when we have a clear, sharp sight of a specific promise” (Reading the Bible Supernaturally, 287). A nebulous sense that God is for us may feel warm enough on good days, but it feels painfully thin when trials come — and they will come.
We need a clearer, sharper, more vivid sight of God in the daily wars we fight, and his promises paint with that kind of detail and life.The Power of a Specific Promise
Realizing that God has given us specific promises for particular sorrows and struggles was a massive discovery for me in the fight to kill my sin and walk well with Jesus.
Has anxiety crawled into our minds — about life, about family, about work, about ministry? We can remember Jesus said, “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26). Has lust vied for our attention? We can rehearse the wonder of this reward: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). Are we tempted to withhold forgiveness from someone who has hurt us? We can call to mind the inconceivable mercy (and serious warning) in Jesus’s promise, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14–15).
If you’ve fought temptation without having committed at least a few verses like these to memory, you have probably felt like you parachuted into war with only a hope and a prayer (and a parachute). From experience, I can tell you that even one specific word from God can make you far more dangerous on the battlefield for your soul.
You will eventually need more than one, but I want to plant at least one that has felt like a fresh layer of armor over the last several months. Charles Spurgeon says of these five words, “This is the masterpiece of all the promises; its enjoyment makes a heaven below and will make a heaven above.” Come and commit a masterpiece to memory.Our Heaven Below
What promise makes a heaven wherever it goes? Spurgeon goes on to say, “Here is a deep sea of bliss, a shoreless ocean of delight; come, bathe your spirit in it; swim an age, and you shall find no shore; dive throughout eternity, and you shall find no bottom: ‘I will be their God.’”
If you’re like me, this was not the first verse that came to mind when I first read “the masterpiece of all promises.” But the longer we think over this promise — the more we wade out into the waves of this mercy — the more stunning it becomes. The words are short and familiar enough for a two-year-old, and yet no one dies having reached the bottom of this ocean or the height of this heaven. Even when we have spent ten thousand years wandering the new creation with God himself, we will still wonder that he is ours and that we are his.
If we have lost the ability to swim in this promise, it’s likely because we have been thinking too much on ourselves and not enough on God. We have not let ourselves be lost enough in “the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God” (Romans 11:33). Again, likely because we have thought too long and too hard about ourselves — our needs, our trials, our work, our desires, our relationships, us. In our desperate search for clarity, comfort, and control, we forget how awesomely unsearchable our God is — the God who works for those who wait for him (Isaiah 64:4).
That word — God — gives the other four words in this promise their grandeur. His sovereign power and infinite wisdom and unrivaled creativity and scandalous love and unrelenting justice and inexhaustible compassion and mercy — his God-ness — make any of his promises beautiful and trustworthy, but especially this one: “I will be their God.” Your God.‘I Will Be Their God’
God first made this promise to Abraham and his offspring.
I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God. (Genesis 17:7–8)
And if you believe in Christ, you are Abraham’s offspring, an heir of all God’s promises (Galatians 3:7, 29). “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Corinthians 1:20). God now says to you, in Christ, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).
When God announced the new covenant, the one he would purchase for us with the blood of Christ, he repaints the masterpiece, with even more color and detail:
They shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul. (Jeremiah 32:38–41; see also Jeremiah 31:31–34; Ezekiel 37:21–28)
I will make a covenant with them. I will only ever do good to them. I will renew their dead and lifeless hearts with holy fear. I will rejoice in loving them. I will plant them where I am — forever secure, well-fed, and fruitful — “with all my heart and all my soul.” Jesus bled and died to bring you to this God (Luke 22:20; 1 Peter 3:18). In him, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9).
Every good we receive has its roots in one extravagant promise: “I will be their God” — and in Christ, your God.The Heaven Ahead
When God knit together this great promise and gave it to Abraham in the very beginning, he knew it would also be the final and never-ending note of history. When every fiber of anxiety, lust, and pride finally falls away from us, and God makes all things new, we will wade into an ever wider and deeper ocean:
Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Revelation 21:3–4)
If we fail to see the wonder in “I will be their God,” we will not hunger for heaven. We will put off thoughts of the paradise to come, suspecting it will be something less than what we’ve had. But all that we have now is only a refreshing pitcher of cold water compared to that deep sea of bliss. God is now our God, but not in the way he will be (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Heaven is not heaven because our loved ones are there, or because tears are wiped away, or because all is made new — glorious as these things are. Heaven is heaven because of these five words: “I will be your God.”Live Up to Your Privileges
Spurgeon marries the wonder of the promise with the weight of urgency when he writes,
This is the masterpiece of all the promises; its enjoyment makes a heaven below and will make a heaven above. Dwell in the light of your Lord, and let your soul be always ravished with His love. Get out the marrow and fatness that this portion yields you. Live up to your privileges, and rejoice with unspeakable joy.
If God is with you and for you, though you did nothing to deserve or earn his promises, do everything you can to live up to their privileges. “Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27).
The apostle Paul sounds the same note when he rehearses the promise “I will be your God.” After quoting Leviticus 26:12, he writes, “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). Those who are saved by grace alone and given priceless, blood-bought promises by God confront every defilement and strive for complete holiness. We make every effort, by the Spirit and strength and help of God, to be found worthy.
When you hear and remember the masterpiece “I will be their God,” let your heart soar on the winds of his glory, put to death whatever might hinder your communion with him, and so live up to the privilege of being his.
The five points tease out the differences between Calvinists and Arminians, but how can parents teach them to their kids simply and clearly?
A lack of watchfulness is perilous to our souls — I mean very real peril, not metaphorical or virtual or poetical peril.
The apostle Paul knew the perils we would face while following Christ:
Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love. (1 Corinthians 16:13–14)
The exhortation may seem somewhat out of place in a long list of personal updates (1 Corinthians 16:1–24), but the “out of place” lines in Scripture can be especially revealing. Paul clearly carries a serious burden that his readers be watchful and courageous, especially the men leading and shepherding the church and their households: “act like men.” The call to vigilance and courage, however, is a common one in Paul’s letters — one he makes to men and women alike. The Spirit, through the apostle, wants all Christians to act with courage, no matter where their Lord has placed them on the spiritual line of battle.
Through Paul’s burden for the Corinthians, the Holy Spirit is now calling us to courage — a call we in the West increasingly need to hear, because it is becoming increasingly costly — and therefore difficult — for us to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering” (Hebrews 10:23).Be Watchful
In the New Testament, “watchful” (1 Peter 5:8) or “awake” (Mark 13:37) or “alert” (Acts 20:31) are terms writers frequently use to urge us not to neglect the significant danger surrounding us.
I saw this in a rabbit feeding early this morning just outside my office window. This rabbit was the epitome of watchfulness. It never let down its guard, no matter what it did; it was constantly on the alert. And for good reason. Dogs pass by regularly. A rabbit is vulnerable to dogs; a lack of watchfulness can end its life.
That’s the kind of watchfulness the Holy Spirit, through Paul, is telling us to maintain. “Look out for the dogs” (Philippians 3:2). Beware the “fierce wolves [who] will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29). A Christian, like a sheep, is vulnerable to the “dogs” and “wolves” of the evil one. Paul is using a metaphor for the embodiment of the threat, but not of the threat itself. These spiritual threats are greater to us than wolves are to sheep.
Therefore, the Spirit wants us to be sober-mindedly watchful of the devil’s activity (1 Peter 5:8). Do you really know what hunts you? Do you know where he is in relation to you (Galatians 6:1)? Do you know where he is in relation to your family and your Christian brothers and sisters (Ephesians 6:18)?
Our call is to protect one another, and part of that involves remaining steadfastly watchful in prayer (Colossians 4:2). We all know what that means, because any time we feel in real danger, our prayers get real earnest, real quick. A lack of watchfulness in us indicates we don’t believe danger is imminent. And that is a dangerous mindset for the vulnerable to have.Stand Firm, Be Strong
“Stand firm in the faith.” This kind of resolve is no mere good intention or the flimsy New Year’s kind. This is true resolve: a holy, stubborn determination. It is drawing the line in the sand and not backing down. It is a will to hold the ground, come what may.
Paul uses this phrase frequently (2 Corinthians 1:24; Galatians 5:1; Philippians 1:27; 2 Thessalonians 2:15). It is warrior language: “Take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm” (Ephesians 6:13).
Spiritual warfare is not a metaphor. It is very real and very dangerous. It is not for the faint of heart, though in the rage of battle every warrior feels the temptation to faint from the fight. Soldiers have to be reminded to stand firm. They must remember that there is a cause and comrades that need defending and an enemy that must be vanquished.
We must steel ourselves against whatever fear the threat provokes and resolve to stand our ground. That is what spiritual strength looks like on the ground. In Paul’s mind, to “be strong” is to choose courageous action in the face of danger only in the strength and with the weaponry God supplies (Ephesians 6:10, 14–17). Faithless strength or weapons are of no use in this battle (2 Corinthians 10:4–5).Let All Be Done in Love
At first read, we might wonder what the vigilant, and almost violent, admonitions to “be watchful,” “stand firm,” and “be strong” have to do with the exhortation to “let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:13–14). But there is no inconsistency whatsoever.
Love is the greatest power at work between God and man, and between man and man (1 Corinthians 13:13). Love is also the most destructive power against the domain of darkness. Jesus came “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). He did this primarily when “he laid down his life for us” as a propitiation for our sins, and then instructed us to “lay down our lives” for one another in the spirit of gracious, patient, sacrificial kindness (1 John 3:16).
Nothing demonstrates and communicates the gospel as clearly as love (John 13:35). Nothing is as relationally healing as love (1 Peter 4:8). And when love is lacking, it is the evidence of the influence of the devil (1 John 3:10).
So, “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24). For words and deeds of love, while being the most healing to the human soul, are the most spiritually destructive acts we can commit against our spiritual adversary. Love is the greatest spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 13:13), and love is the most powerful spiritual weapon (Romans 12:20–21).Our Need for Watchfulness
We need this word from Paul right now — this almost offhanded admonition slipped into a list of logistical details. Because we need vigilant, courageous love. We always need it, of course, but we will feel our need of it increasingly as our society grows increasingly hostile to Christianity.
We need a holy watchfulness so that we don’t allow the wolves of false teaching to graze on the flock of God. We need courage, not to fight as culture warriors, but as New Testament spiritual warriors. We need a holy, stubborn determination not to give an inch of true gospel ground, regardless of changes in societal values and government policy. And to ensure that our watchfulness and courage remain Christlike, we must let all we do be done in love.
Will God do what he said? That is the sound of a spiritual crisis — when it seems like the very ground beneath your feet is shaking. If you haven’t yet experienced one, to some degree, while following Jesus, likely you will.
In such times of crisis, one of God’s great means of grace to us is his people. While we are in crisis, others in our lives are often steady, and ready to help. We feel like we’re free-falling, but they are tethered and so can gently, prayerfully, and patiently help us get our bearings again. But what if the bottom fell out, all at once, for you and every Christian you knew? The disorientation would multiply. The crisis would be all the more severe; the pain all the more acute.
The destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, the geographical heart and center of God’s first-covenant people, precipitated that kind of widespread crisis. They already had been run down and dominated by foreign armies from Babylon, the ascending power in the east. Wave after wave of their best and brightest had been carted off to exile. Then at long last, the final hammer blows came. To Jerusalem itself. The holy city. Pagans poured in through breached walls, burned the city, and tore down God’s temple, the place where his glory had dwelled, brick by precious brick.
This was the Great Trauma, the greatest crisis moment thus far in the long and convoluted history of God’s people. And at the heart of the collective freefall was this question, and fear: Has God’s word failed? Was he unable to keep his promises?Into the Crisis
Into this crisis, God inspired 1 and 2 Kings to retell the history of his people and remind them of his promises, assure them that his promises had not failed, and declare that his word remained as sure as ever. Indeed, the exile itself did not thwart his word and plan. He himself had warned his people, centuries before, that such would come.
How would the inspired theological historian(s) of 1 and 2 Kings go about the task? We have much to learn from the approach. The way God restores and bolsters the confidence of his people is not simply through general summary statements, but with specific examples. He feeds the faith of his people with concrete, particular details and stories. We need to be confronted with the stark realities of how God’s mouthpieces spoke, and how God acted to fulfill his word.According to His Word
In Solomon’s benediction after the dedication of the temple, he says, “Blessed be the Lord who has given rest to his people Israel, according to all that he promised. Not one word has failed of all his good promise, which he spoke by Moses his servant” (1 Kings 8:56). Not one word has failed. Twice Joshua had made the same declaration for the ears of God’s people (Joshua 21:45; 23:14). Now, in the dark days of exile, 1 and 2 Kings declares it over and over again.
Some of God’s promises, and their fulfillment, stretched over long periods of time, acting as sinews holding together the history of his covenant people over centuries. Others came to pass much more quickly, within hours or even minutes. Both long-term and short-term fulfillments of God’s word serve to build and renew the confidence of his people.
Elsewhere we could rehearse the long-term lightning bolts of fulfillment, but here let’s consider the most striking flashes of God speaking and then quickly performing his word. Let’s marvel at the power of God, through his word, and let the specific details fill the tank of our confidence in him to immediately accomplish what he promises when he chooses — and every bit as much today, in Christ, as he did 2,500 years ago.Sovereign over National Decline
The reigns of David and his son Solomon proved to be the high point of God’s people as an earthly nation. Solomon began well, but the first downward turn happened during his reign. He loved many foreign women, taking 700 wives and 300 concubines, and “his wives turned away his heart” (1 Kings 11:3). God was angry with Solomon (1 Kings 11:9) and said to him,
Since this has been your practice and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and will give it to your servant. Yet for the sake of David your father I will not do it in your days, but I will tear it out of the hand of your son. (1 Kings 11:11–12)
Not only is this word fulfilled swiftly in the next chapter, after Solomon’s death, but even before Solomon’s death, God sends a prophet named Ahijah to one of Solomon’s servants, Jeroboam (1 Kings 11:28). Speaking for God, Ahijah announces to Jeroboam, “Behold, I am about to tear the kingdom from the hand of Solomon [through his son Rehoboam] and will give you ten tribes” (1 Kings 11:31).
Then, in short order, following Solomon’s death, Rehoboam comes to the throne, and instead of trusting his father’s aged counselors, he opts for the advice of the young men with whom he grew up. He increases the burdens of the nation, and when Jeroboam and the people ask him to reconsider, he declines. The narrator comments,
So the king did not listen to the people, for it was a turn of affairs brought about by the Lord that he might fulfill his word, which the Lord spoke by Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam the son of Nebat. (1 Kings 12:15)
Not only had God sovereignly worked to plant his people in the land, establish and expand the kingdom, and bring it into glory under David and Solomon, but even now, as the kingdom begins to decline, it happens according to his word. God is not less sovereign in the waning than the waxing — and he has his good and wise purposes in the decline, and discipline, and refining of his people.Sovereign over the Fall of Leaders
The prophet Ahijah strikes again in 1 Kings 14. Just as God had orchestrated the tearing apart of the kingdom through Jeroboam’s unexpected rise over the ten tribes, so now the same prophet speaks again on God’s behalf to announce, at once, both the death of Jeroboam’s ailing son and the end of his dynasty:
Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: . . . “Behold, I will bring harm upon the house of Jeroboam and will cut off from Jeroboam every male, both bond and free in Israel, and will burn up the house of Jeroboam, as a man burns up dung until it is all gone. Anyone belonging to Jeroboam who dies in the city the dogs shall eat, and anyone who dies in the open country the birds of the heavens shall eat, for the Lord has spoken it.” Arise therefore, go to your house. When your feet enter the city, the child shall die. And all Israel shall mourn for him and bury him. . . . Moreover, the Lord will raise up for himself a king over Israel who shall cut off the house of Jeroboam today. (1 Kings 14:7, 10–14)
One is fulfilled immediately: “Then Jeroboam’s wife arose and departed and came to Tirzah. And as she came to the threshold of the house, the child died. And all Israel buried him and mourned for him, according to the word of the Lord, which he spoke by his servant Ahijah the prophet” (1 Kings 14:17–18).
The other comes to pass soon enough, in the next chapter. An insurgent named Baasha arises and kills another son of Jeroboam, Nadab, who had taken the throne after his father. He then cleans the rest of Jeroboam’s house: “As soon as [Baasha] was king, he killed all the house of Jeroboam. He left to the house of Jeroboam not one that breathed, until he had destroyed it, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by his servant Ahijah the Shilonite” (1 Kings 15:29). Not only was God not taken off guard; he spoke it ahead of time by his prophet.
So also with Baasha. Like Jeroboam, he came into the throne in fulfillment of God’s word and, like Jeroboam, he also died in fulfillment of God’s word. At the end of his wicked 24-year reign, God raised up a prophet named Jehu, who spoke against Baasha,
Since I exalted you out of the dust and made you leader over my people Israel, and you have walked in the way of Jeroboam and have made my people Israel to sin, provoking me to anger with their sins, behold, I will utterly sweep away Baasha and his house, and I will make your house like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat. (1 Kings 16:2–3)
The fulfillment didn’t take long. Baasha’s son Elah succeeded his father, and reigned only two years, because “his servant Zimri, commander of half his chariots, conspired against him” (1 Kings 16:9). Not only did he strike down the king, but “Zimri destroyed all the house of Baasha, according to the word of the Lord, which he spoke against Baasha by Jehu the prophet” (1 Kings 16:12).Sovereign over Everyday Needs
The prophetic ministries of Eljiah and (especially) Elisha were filled with everyday miracles and immediate fulfillments of God’s word.
God fed Elijah by directing him to a particular widow in a particular town (1 Kings 17:8–9), and provided miraculously, according to his promise, for her (1 Kings 17:14–16). Elijah told the king, Ahaziah, because he had dishonored God and his word, that he would “not come down from the bed to which you have gone up, but you shall surely die” (2 Kings 1:16). Sure enough, in the very next verse: “So he died according to the word of the Lord that Elijah had spoken” (2 Kings 1:17). God also spoke ahead of time, through Elijah, the specific place where king Ahab would die, and the shameful fate that would accompany his death (1 Kings 21:19; 22:37–38).
So also, and more, for Elisha, who prayed for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit (2 Kings 2:9). God spoke through him and immediately cleansed poisoned water (2 Kings 2:21–22), multiplied loaves to feed a hundred men with some left over (2 Kings 4:42–44), and even healed a leper (2 Kings 5:10, 14). But Elisha’s “everyday” miracles — which now we see so presciently anticipated the miracles of the Christ who was to come — didn’t preclude him from being the spokesman for one of the most shocking, overnight turn of events in all the Bible.Sovereign over Shocking Turns
To feed the faith of God’s people, 2 Kings tells of two particularly spectacular overnight providences.‘Famine Ends Tomorrow’
In 2 Kings 7, the entire Syrian army has besieged Samaria. Supply lines are cut off, and there is no food. The famine is so bad that women are eating their own children (2 Kings 6:28–29).
The king blames Elisha and sends his captain to kill him. Elisha knows he is coming and secures the door, through which the king’s captain speaks, “This trouble is from the Lord! Why should I wait for the Lord any longer?” (2 Kings 6:33). Elisha replies with a word from God that seems utterly unbelievable:
Hear the word of the Lord: thus says the Lord, Tomorrow about this time a seah of fine flour shall be sold for a shekel, and two seahs of barley for a shekel, at the gate of Samaria. (2 Kings 7:1)
In other words, not only will the siege and the famine be over — in less than a day’s time! — but somehow the city will be overflowing with supplies. This sounds preposterous. The captain replies in cynical disbelief, “If the Lord himself should make windows in heaven, could this thing be?” To which Elisha adds a second prophecy: “You shall see it with your own eyes, but you shall not eat of it” (2 Kings 7:2).
That night God does the miracle through four lepers. About to starve, they go to the Syrian camp, to give themselves up, and find the camp abandoned.
Behold, there was no one there. For the Lord had made the army of the Syrians hear the sound of chariots and of horses, the sound of a great army, so that they said to one another, “Behold, the king of Israel has hired against us the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Egypt to come against us.” So they fled away in the twilight and abandoned their tents, their horses, and their donkeys, leaving the camp as it was, and fled for their lives. (2 Kings 7:5–7)
The lepers report the good news to Israel’s king, and the stunning (double) word of God through Elisha blossoms into fulfillment: an abundance of food for the people — and the death of the unbelieving captain, who is trampled in the gate as the people storm out to the feast (2 Kings 7:16–20).‘I Will Defend This City’
Amazing as the first overnight deliverance is, a second surpasses it. Jerusalem and King Hezekiah are surrounded by an army of 185,000 Assyrians. Humanly speaking, they are goners. It is only a matter of time, and time is running short. The Assyrian commander has mocked Hezekiah, and his God, and within earshot of the people on the wall. And yet into this impossible situation, God speaks through Isaiah,
Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have reviled me. Behold, I will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land, and I will make him fall by the sword in his own land. (2 Kings 19:6–7)
As improbable as such a turn would be, Isaiah doesn’t back down. When a letter arrives from the king of Assyria promising to destroy Jerusalem, Isaiah adds another seemingly impossible promise:
Thus says the Lord concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city or shoot an arrow there, or come before it with a shield or cast up a siege mound against it. By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, declares the Lord. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David. (2 Kings 19:32–34)
Then, overnight, while his people sleep, God does the miraculous:
That night the angel of the Lord went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies. Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and went home and lived at Nineveh. And as he was worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god, Adrammelech and Sharezer, his sons, struck him down with the sword. (2 Kings 19:35–37)
God does not always bring about such shocking, overnight turns in the outward circumstances of his people, but he is able. He has done it before, and will do it again. And when he does not, he has even greater designs in order than our outward relief.‘Do as You Have Said!’
God doesn’t mean for our rehearsing of such concrete, specific, and rare deliverances in the history of his people to discourage us that such fireworks aren’t happening regularly in our lives. The fireworks weren’t happening regularly for the original readers either. Rather, God’s purpose in acting in these unusual, pull-back-the-curtain moments is to show his people in all times and places the kind of God he is behind the curtain that veils our eyes in our very usual lives.
God feeds our faith with such details. He said it and it happened — not just in general, large-scale, and extended terms, but specifically, in the small details, and often immediately. These lightning strikes are tastes of how God is running the world all the time, for his glory and the enduring joy of his people. They show us his intimate, attentive, deliberate heavenly hand in the granular details of earth.
God means for us not only to observe the power of his sovereign care throughout history, and in our lives, but to plead his own promises to him — because he keeps his word. As Charles Spurgeon celebrates,
Our heavenly Banker delights to cash his own notes. Never let the promise rust. Draw the word of promise out of its sheath and use it with holy violence. Think not that God will be troubled by your importunately reminding him of his promises. He loves to hear the loud outcries of needy souls. It is his delight to bestow favors. He is more ready to hear than you are to ask. The sun is not weary of shining, nor the fountain of flowing. It is God’s nature to keep his promises; therefore go at once to the throne with, “Do as you have said.”
Checking our phones first thing in the morning won’t prepare us for the day ahead. Our routine should set our eyes on, and strengthen us in, God alone.
God has given you life to honor him, display him, and summon others to follow him.
ABSTRACT: The apparent bleakness and pessimism in Ecclesiastes has long baffled interpreters of Scripture. Some even argue that book’s epilogue corrects the “unorthodox” theology in the middle. But Christians need not discard the body of Ecclesiastes as the musings of a cynic. The book’s shocking and intentionally provocative realism reframes our perspective on this world in the light of eternity, and invites us to prepare now for the surprising hope of judgment.
For our ongoing series of feature articles by scholars for pastors, leaders, and teachers, we asked David Gibson, minister of Trinity Church in Aberdeen, Scotland, to explain the message of Ecclesiastes. You can also download and print a PDF of the article.
God the protector of all that trust in thee,
without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy;
increase and multiply upon us thy mercy;
that thou being our ruler and guide,
we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal:
Grant this heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake our Lord.
—The Collect, Fourth Sunday after Trinity
In his famous sermon “Learning in War-Time,” C.S. Lewis wrestled profoundly with the relationship between things temporal and things eternal. The particular pressure point in his context was the advent of the Second World War. How should his students make sense of the pursuit of academic pleasures — what Lewis called “placid occupations” — while Europe was poised on the precipice of so great a conflict? Lewis engaged the question by widening its lens, dramatically broadening the scope from the immediate danger to the more remote but greatest reality of all: judgment by the living God. If learning in wartime may be compared to Nero fiddling while Rome burned, then “to a Christian the true tragedy of Nero must be not that he fiddled while the city was on fire but that he fiddled on the brink of hell.”1 In other words, Lewis suggested, the real question is this: How should we make sense of anything at all in our present, bodily, earthly lives while the yawning chasm of eternity waits for us beyond the grave?
Widening the lens often changes everything. It’s not that our questions and challenges disappear; rather, they come into sharper focus. When we’re asking about the meaning of life, about whether anything matters, about why we should love and be loved if one day we will die, and about how we can continue to put one step in front of another when grief and pain threaten to suffocate our very lives, then the need for a big picture that is both true and beautiful is very urgent indeed.
I want to suggest that Lewis’s technique follows the skillful Teacher in Ecclesiastes, who helps us pass through things temporal with wisdom and wit, precisely because he has seen the weight of things eternal. Ecclesiastes is the book in the Bible that asks some of the biggest questions in life but perplexes us with its seemingly unorthodox and impenetrable answers. “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?” (Ecclesiastes 1:2–3). The key to answering this question is seeing how the Teacher helps us to pass through things temporal (“under the sun”) that we finally lose not things eternal (“[God] has put eternity into man’s heart,” Ecclesiastes 3:11).Interpretive Missteps
Following the Teacher’s message is not an easy task in a book as foreign to us as Ecclesiastes. Many Christian interpreters go astray in coming to terms with the unusual voice with which this devout Teacher of wisdom speaks. Let me suggest three common mistakes that deafen us to the sermon about reality that Ecclesiastes is preaching. I then will outline four key emphases from the book’s big picture that both widen the lens and sharpen the focus of the book’s message.Shape of the Book
The first misstep has to do with the shape of the whole book. Tremper Longman III, for instance, observes that the prologue (Ecclesiastes 1:1–11) and the epilogue (Ecclesiastes 12:8–14) are both written in the third person, marking a clear stylistic difference from the main body of the book made up of autobiographical reflections (1:12–12:7). For Longman, this main section contains stark observations about God, life, and death that are in explicit conflict with the wisdom traditions of Israel, so much so that the Teacher’s God “is distant, occasionally indifferent, and sometimes cruel.”2 This unorthodox perspective is countered and corrected by the epilogue, which, together with the prologue, provides a frame around the book that shapes how we should read the whole. The normative teaching of the book is Ecclesiastes 12:9–14, and this frame narration is there to correct and redeem the autobiographical narration.
Longman’s view should not be quickly dismissed. For one thing, there is precedent for the presence of unorthodox views within individual books of the Bible, such as Job’s comforters (an example Longman himself uses in support of his position). Longman’s viewpoint arises from trying to take very seriously indeed the bleakness of several parts of Ecclesiastes.
There are serious problems, however, with his overall reading of the book. We should note that the prologue (Ecclesiastes 1:1–11) is only awkwardly subsumed within a schema which sets the main body in contrast to the frame narrator sections; although the opening verses may be poetically beautiful, taken on their own they are as bleak and negative as much else in the book and hardly “correct” the autobiographical section. Furthermore, as Longman himself accepts, his view requires a strong reinterpretation of the epilogue as damning the Teacher with only faint praise and strong criticism, a view which is rather hard to sustain on a straightforward reading of the epilogue, where the Teacher’s words are described as delightful and embodying the wisdom of a shepherd (Ecclesiastes 12:10–11).
The main flaw in Longman’s proposal, however, is his own admission that many positive passages in the main body appear right alongside the most negative passages (Ecclesiastes 2:24–26; 3:12–14, 22; 5:18–20; 8:15; 9:7–10). For Longman, these offer only “a limited type of joy,” connected as they are to eating, drinking, and work3 — and it is precisely this evaluation of joy that, I suggest, says more about our modern location than the biblical worldview of the wisdom literature. For Longman’s Teacher, temporal pleasures only lighten the burden of a meaningless existence. But might the Teacher have some kind of wide-angle lens that allows him to hold together the kind of things we think are irreconcilable? I think he does.“Under the Sun”
A second wrong turn with Ecclesiastes is to misunderstand one of its key phrases: “under the sun.” We read the words “under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:3, 14) and we think spatially: we split the world into below and above. We take the meaning to be that under the sun everything is a certain way, but above the sun it’s different; below is the world lived without God and without the Lord Jesus, above the sun is life lived with him. This way of reading Ecclesiastes can be linked to a very wooden Christology, the kind of worldview that says life without Jesus is awful (under the sun) but life with Jesus is wonderful (above the sun). If we live the way God intends, and if we see the world from his vantage point, then we can be spared the nihilism of the under-the-sun perspective.
I think this is to misread this key phrase. Rather than thinking spatially, we should think chronologically. In the ancient world, and in Scripture, the sun marked time more than space. “The phrase ‘under the sun’ . . . refers to a now rather than a there.”4 “Under the sun” points to these days, now — as long as the earth lasts, in this period of time, this is just how things are. One day the sun will be no more; we will live in a new creation, a new world order. But for now, the Teacher is simply commenting on what this temporal life is like. Pastorally, it’s so important to realize this is true. Coming to Christ as Savior and Lord doesn’t change the under-the-sun existence. Many embrace Christ in difficulty and walk the way of the cross to increased suffering and heartache this side of eternity. We live under the sun today, but we will live in glory tomorrow.Vanity of Vanities?
The third misstep happens when we move from the big picture and crucial phrases to key words, and none is more open to misunderstanding in Ecclesiastes than the word “vanity,” or “meaningless.” This word recurs throughout and is the main cry of the Teacher as he looks at life: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” In my own reading, I have followed interpreters such as Iain D. Provan, who challenges the idea that the Hebrew word hebel carries the main meaning in Ecclesiastes of existential meaninglessness. With that connotation, the book becomes a bleak discourse on the emptiness of life.
In contrast to this, however, Provan (and others) point out that elsewhere in the Old Testament, hebel means “breath,” “breeze,” “mist,” or “vapour,” and thus the metaphorical application is to things that are insubstantial and fleeting rather than to actions that are in vain or have no purpose.5 “O Lord, what is man that you regard him, or the son of man that you think of him? Man is like a breath [hebel]; his days are like a passing shadow” (Psalm 144:3–4). This means that in using this word, nearly always, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes is pointing to how life comes and goes in the blink of an eye, and he is exploring what that feels like when one considers both all the beauty and all the brokenness of the world. He is musing, deeply and disturbingly, on life’s repetitiveness, life’s brevity, life’s elusiveness, the quickness of things to slip through our fingers, and all in the light of an eternity belonging to a God who will judge the living and the dead. “The book of Ecclesiastes is a meditation on what it means for our lives to be like a whisper spoken in the wind: here one minute, and carried away forever the next.”6
If this perspective is right, then Ecclesiastes becomes a jolt to our spiritual systems, a cleaning of our damaged spectacles for looking at the world. We get a new and maybe entirely unexpected perspective on ourselves, our joys, and our sorrows, and the way God has made the world to work. In Anthony Thiselton’s lovely phrase, God gave us the wisdom literature to “wound from behind.”7 We are left blinking in surprise, and, as we get our bearings, the world looks different. On the other hand, if the missteps outlined above are pursued with vigor — as they often are, in the pulpit or the classroom — the result is a view of the created order that sees it all as vanity, temporal things as mere weightless distractions from the truly spiritual reality of life in Christ.Painful, Delightful Words
So what might it look like to read Ecclesiastes differently? In a similar way to Longman, I believe the epilogue does indeed function as a hermeneutical key to the book because of the way the closing verses explicitly comment on what has gone before. In contrast to Longman, however, I suggest that these verses do not correct the autobiography so much as give us a theological framework through which to hold together things temporal and things eternal. There is a way of looking at what joy is and of looking at what God does in pain, and a way of looking at today in the light of tomorrow, that helps us to see that the wisdom of the wise is found in the most unexpected of places. Note how Ecclesiastes is able to say that the Teacher’s words are both delightful (Ecclesiastes 12:10) and painful (Ecclesiastes 12:11) — our task is to inhabit the world in such a way that we can comprehend how one book is both these things.
Here are four emphases in the epilogue that give us this big picture.Pleasure
“The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth” (Ecclesiastes 12:10). This is an invitation to take up a hermeneutical lens for the whole book: it contains words of truth and beauty. Ecclesiastes should delight us. God is not a killjoy in the way he made the world, nor is he puritanical (in the common use of that word) in the words he gave us to read that tell us about himself. It’s one thing to say you need to remember God before the day of trouble and old age, but it’s quite another thing to tell us so in the words of beautiful poetry in chapter 12: remember him “before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern” (Ecclesiastes 12:6). The poetry presses the poignancy. Old age is like a once-great house, now given over to disrepair. In a powerful collection of metaphors and allusions, we are treated to a picture of sad degeneration and decline from what once was, the very point being to show us that “in the brave struggle to survive there is almost a more pointed reminder of decay than in a total ruin.”8
This description of old age comes at the end of the book and is introduced with creation imagery that echoes Genesis 1, but now in reverse: the light-givers of the universe are going dark (Ecclesiastes 12:2). It is “the unmaking of creation” to portray how, just as God made everyone, so in death every person is unmade.9 This is the climax to a book that opens so powerfully with creation imagery, where the earth, sun, wind, and streams all feature in a beautiful lyrical tilt intended by its very form to evoke the seasons and rhythms of the world, the stage on which human beings take their place for such a short space of time (Ecclesiastes 1:2–7). In this world, humanity comes to learn, often the hard way, that there are seasons for everything, and we ignore this part of our createdness at our peril (Ecclesiastes 3:1–8). I suggest that the writer is working on a thesis about the goods of created matter and created time, which can be received as gifts even by fallen human beings precisely because they delimit our idolatrous attempts to be like God in living forever. It is a blessing to learn that we will come and go but the earth will remain, and we learn this in poetry.
It is a delight to discover the Bible is like this: the truth of the words’ content is bound up in the beauty of the words’ form. It is one thing to be told what marriage is as the union of a man and a woman, but another altogether to be given a ballad that expresses what it is like to be in love and to make love (Song of Songs). It is one thing to be told that we will soon die, but another altogether to learn through Ecclesiastes that “the lot we’ve been given cannot flourish without attention to the seasons that roll through.”10Pain
But in Ecclesiastes, pleasure is mingled with pain. “The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd” (Ecclesiastes 12:11). Goads were used by drivers in the ancient world to keep animals on a straight path: if the animal went to the left, there’s pain; if it went to the right, there’s pain. The only way to not have pain is to walk the direction the Shepherd dictates.
Some of the words in Ecclesiastes come to us with sharp tips. It’s as if the writer is saying that if we really do want to remember our Creator in the days of our youth (Ecclesiastes 12:1), then our hearts and minds will need to throb a little. So he gives us some words to make us sit up and take notice — words to stop us in our tracks, turn us around, and get us going in the right direction.
Consider Ecclesiastes 7:1: “A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth.” What? Can that really be right? We wince as the goad pierces. God has set death as the limit on our days, the punishment for our proud rebellion. We know we will die, but we live as if we will not. So the Teacher sets about his task of bringing right up close and personal our own death, which we prefer to keep at arm’s length and pretend will one day happen to someone else. In Ecclesiastes, we learn that all our disappointments in life are reminders of death, all our sorrows are echoes of the one great specter that fills the earth with futility. Death stalks and claims its prey without discretion. Our tears are real. Our grief can be unending.
This much we know is true — but what the Teacher sees is that death has a positive power if we accept this certain presence long in advance of its arrival. Death can be the very thing that stops us expecting too much from the things that turn out only to disappoint us. Death can be the very thing that makes us stop and savor a moment that would otherwise have passed us by — a moment at a table spread with food, in the presence of our spouse (Ecclesiastes 9:7–10), in the company of our family (Ecclesiastes 4:8), in the blessedness of work that satisfies both mind and body and creates wealth for the good of others (Ecclesiastes 4:9). All is vanity only when we think all is all there is. If all is there because God put it there for now, for today, for me to use for others and for him, then in fact things eternal are shaping how we hold things temporal.11Perspective
This is all, clearly, a change of perspective on these days under the sun. We grieve, as all grieve, but not as those without hope. We groan, like the Lord Jesus himself (Mark 7:31–37; 8:12) and like the apostle Paul (Romans 8:22–23), but we groan in hope. For our perspective is this: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
This doesn’t come naturally to us. We have hopes and dreams and aims and ambitions, and in the midst of that we think of our responsibilities to others: to spouses, children, parents, work colleagues, friends. But the Teacher tells us that every single duty or responsibility I have toward anyone else I have toward God first and foremost. Far from being nihilistic throughout the whole book, the Teacher is rather endorsing the same worldview espoused by Moses and the Lord Jesus himself that what God requires is love and obedience toward him and love for neighbor as ourselves — this is simply what it means to be a created being. We think it means having all the answers and knowing why we hurt and why we lose, but in fact I was made to fear God, not to be God.
And what gives us our true perspective on time is not time itself but eternity.Preparation
In Ecclesiastes, eternity invades the present with the hope of judgment. “God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:14). Judgment can be a promise or a predicament, a hope or a fear, all depending on how we approach it. It seems to me that Ecclesiastes harmonizes with the biblical theme of judgment as a reason for jubilation, the hope of a world restored, causing that world itself to break out beyond its physical restraints in exultant praise (Psalm 98).
This is because — as Ecclesiastes shows us so pointedly — some things simply have no answer in this life. One of the hardest things about Ecclesiastes is learning to accept its thesis that silence is the only available response to certain traumas. Some terror exceeds our capacities to bear. “Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! . . . And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been” (Ecclesiastes 4:1–3). We moderns are so poor at staring long and hard at brokenness that when a believer does, and tells us how he feels, other Christians say he mustn’t be a believer! In reality, however, he simply may be expressing the shattering awfulness of life east of Eden.
Yet by telling us these things — and we should never forget this all the way through the book — the Teacher is teaching us to prepare for judgment and to long for it with every fiber of our beings. We cannot put an end to evil, or explain why natural disasters arrive unannounced, or rationalize the terrorism that blights our globe with cruelty that seems to belong to a bygone age despite our best efforts at peace and reconciliation. But all is not vanity. For judgment is coming.
Judgment is coming.
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it!
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the Lord, for he comes,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness,
and the peoples in his faithfulness. (Psalm 96:11–13)
David Gibson, Living Life Backward: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 20. ↩
Anthony C. Thiselton, “Wisdom in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures: The Hebrew Bible and Judaism,” Theology 114.3 (May/June 2011): 163–72 (165). ↩
Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden: The Gospel According to Ecclesiastes (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2014), 118. ↩
See Matthew McCullough, Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope (Wheaton, IL: Crossway 2018). ↩
Several years ago I wrote an article suggesting seven things we parents can pray for our children. I still personally find them helpful. However, in making these suggestions, I included a qualifier:
Of course, prayers are not magic spells. It’s not a matter of just saying the right things and our children will be blessed with success. Some parents earnestly pray and their children become gifted leaders or scholars or musicians or athletes. Others earnestly pray and their children develop a serious disability or disease or wander through a prodigal wilderness or just struggle more than others socially or academically or athletically. And the truth is, God is answering all these parents’ prayers, but for very different purposes.
The more time passes, the more crucial this qualifier becomes for me. The more accumulated time I spend in Scripture, the more I read history, and the more I observe as I grow older, the less confidence I place in my perceptions of how things appear at any given point.Trusting God, Not My Perceptions
I’ve lived long enough now to have watched a number of movements within evangelicalism surge and decline. I’ve seen numerous leaders rise and fall. I’ve seen spiritually zealous twentysomethings who got off to a strong, solid start become spiritually disillusioned thirty- or forty-somethings and falter, some abandoning the faith altogether. And I’ve seen spiritually disinterested, and in some cases dissolute, youth become spiritually vibrant, mature adults.
I’ve also been in close proximity to many parents who have raised children to adulthood. I’ve seen children of faithful, prayerful parents reject their parents’ faith, and I’ve seen children of unfaithful parents embrace Christ and follow him in spite of the profound pain they have experienced. This hasn’t made me skeptical of parental faithfulness, but it has made me less given to formulas.
And perhaps more than all that, I’ve also observed myself pass through various seasons of my own life. I’ve had seasons when I was full of faith and enthusiasm, and seasons of discouragement when I was a man of “little faith” (Matthew 6:30). I’ve endured seasons of dark depression and even faith crises. Well into middle age, one thing I know about myself is that I am “beset with weakness” (Hebrews 5:2). I can bear witness that God has been unfailingly faithful to me with regard to his word, even though I have frequently not been faithful in trusting him.
Yes, I’ve learned that God is trustworthy, but my perceptions regularly are not. I’ve learned — or more accurately, I’m learning — not to assume too much when it comes to human beings, myself included. Jesus set the example, for he “on his part did not entrust himself to [people] . . . for he himself knew what was in man” (John 2:24–25).
This is an invaluable lesson when it comes to praying for my children.Parenting Pushed Me to Prayer
I am the father of five wonderful human beings. They are wonderful to me, not because they are prodigies I can boast in, but because they are human beings, “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God himself through the inscrutable historic process and genetic legacy of countless generations of fearful and wonderful humans — of which my wife and I are only the most recent contributors (Psalm 139:14). Sometimes I just stop and observe them, in awe of what and who they are, quite apart from what they do.
They are very much their own persons, very different from each other and their parents. They have unique temperaments, unique strengths and weaknesses, unique interests, and unique proclivities.
Like most young parents, my wife and I began our parenting journey with an almost unconscious assumption that if we did parenting “right,” our kids would embrace all we embrace without all the wrestling and pain and questioning we went through to embrace it. Though if you would have asked me that specifically back then, I would have denied it, theoretically knowing better. It’s just hard to avoid that early optimism.
But parenting has humbled me significantly. My weaknesses and limitations, I think, are most clearly exposed in fathering. The net effect this has had is to make me less confident in my abilities and efforts, and more dependent on, feeling more desperation for, the power of God to do for my children what he has done for me — a work of grace that I know my own parents would say occurred in spite of their weaknesses and limitations.
Two of my children have launched into independent adulthood, and three are in their teenage years. Over the years, I have watched many different kinds of spiritual ebbs and flows. They have lived in the same home with the same parents, who live out their faith before them in essentially the same way. They have attended the same churches. Yet they are each walking unique spiritual paths at their own unique speeds.Ask, Seek, Knock
And here is where a parent’s faith is tested. We of course want our children to truly love the Lord Jesus, the true Pearl of great price, with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love their neighbor as themselves (Matthew 13:45–46; Luke 10:27). We very much want them to experience this as early as possible.
But we don’t know what the best way is for each of them to learn this. We don’t know God’s purposes or his timetable for revealing himself to our children. Nor are we allowed to peer into the mystery of God’s sovereignty in election as it relates to our children (Romans 8:29–30).
But all I have observed and experienced in Scripture and in life teaches me two things: God is trustworthy, and what I think I see at any given time is not. Which means what looks encouraging to me now could very well change in the future, and what looks discouraging to me now could very well change in the future. Therefore, I stand by what I wrote in that article more than ever:
So, pray for your children. Jesus promises us that if we ask, seek, and knock, the Father will give us good in return (Luke 11:9–13), even if the good isn’t apparent for forty years.
That last phrase reminds me of Peter Hitchens’s story of his conversion (Peter is the late Christopher Hitchens’s brother). He recounts how, as a 15-year-old, he cast off what he saw as the bonds of religious faith and zealously embraced atheism, publicly burning his Bible to announce his liberation. Then came the slow, unexpected realization well into mature adulthood that what he once thought bondage was true freedom, what he once thought liberation was, in fact, bondage, and what he once thought ignorant darkness was actually light. I doubt anyone who knew the young-adult Peter Hitchens saw that coming.Do Not Lose Heart
So, let us not give up praying for our children. This ministry of intercession is a lifelong calling. We must not assume too much when it comes to human beings. If our children are living and doing well spiritually, they are not out of the woods. If they are living and not doing well spiritually, their story is not over. Therefore, let us “always . . . pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).
God is faithful. He will never default on his word. Let us be faithful to his call on us, and let us be faithful to our children by continually petitioning God on their behalf. He will not allow such a labor, no matter what the result is that he determines in his wisdom, to be in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).
Left to ourselves, we cannot discern or remove the flaws in our thoughts. But God’s word and the Holy Spirit can renew our minds.