A few of you may have heard of John Baillie. His most popular book is called A Diary of Private Prayer. I have been using it since 1993, almost every morning. It’s a very rich devotional tool that, no matter how often I use it, still draws me closer to the Lord.
I have not read many things by Baillie, but a few years ago I stumbled upon a collection of various sermons he had preached over the years. They made up a little book entitled, Christian Devotion. I enjoyed reading it, but the best part of the book, for me, was a short biographical chapter written by his cousin. She beautifully revealed the man behind the devotional I have been using for years.
My favorite part of the chapter was the following description of his study – not just a few facts about what it looked like – but the life that took place in that study. I know coveting is a sin, so let me say in the most sanctified way I can... I wouldn’t resist the opportunity, should God provide it, to have a similar study (as well as a similar ministry that took place in it!). Here’s his cousin’s description of his study…
But for those who knew him in his own home in Edinburgh, the most vivid memories of John are set in his study there, that grave book-lined room, with windows shadowed in summer by the trees of the big garden. It was a quiet room, with the noises of our modern world kept outside - no telephone, no radio, no typewriter. And it was a room with three clear focal points. There was the big uncluttered desk by the window where John sat for many hours of the day writing, in his clear beautiful handwriting, sermons, lectures, and articles, and dealing punctiliously and courteously with the endless steam of letters which came, asking him to preach, to lecture, to advise…
Today, David and I are continuing our study in the Book of James. We are looking at our need for wisdom to help us persevere through the trials of life. God wants us to pray for this wisdom with humble expectation.
Empires and Pigpens: Solomon and the Meaning of Life
Selected verses from Ecclesiastes
What Does God Have to Do with It?
Over twenty years ago I watched a television talk show that had a discussion I remember to this day. I don’t remember which of the world’s problems was being solved, but I do remember an exchange between the host and one of the guests. The host asked, “Don’t you believe in God?” to which the guest replied, “Yes, but what does that have to do with the way I live my life?”.
That may sound alarming for some, but the idea expressed by the guest is not all that unfamiliar – throughout history or in our own day.
George Barna, whose research group surveys the religious beliefs and attitudes of the American people, has written extensively on such topics and continues to discover that the beliefs a person professes does not necessarily impact the behaviors of that person.
In one of his books, Barna discovered that while 74% of those polled strongly affirmed that there is only one true God, who is holy and perfect, and who created and rules the world, only 47% strongly agreed that their faith in that same God was relevant to the way in which they lived their daily lives.
Rembrandt and Warhol
That attitude moved one writer to observe that in the 1660s, Rembrandt placed himself in one of his paintings of Jesus being raised on the cross, in an effort to show that he contributed to the need for Christ’s death. And in the 1960s, Andy Warhol painted Campbell’s Soup cans. In the writer’s opinion, the contrast in paintings reflected what he called, “the curious emptiness and meaninglessness of our modern culture.”
I’ll let art critics hammer out the merits of that writer’s interpretation of the paintings, but there has certainly been a lasting struggle in our world to find meaning for our lives. Some throw themselves into their families, pursue upward advancement at work, seek better health and social status, or fill their time watching sports and enjoying more and more leisure, just to name a few.
None of these pursuits is inherently wrong, but for many, they do point to what may be considered a bothersome emptiness that nothing seems to fill. This is the message of Solomon in the Book of Ecclesiastes. In it, he testifies to his life’s pursuit to find real and lasting meaning in his life.
He writes in Ecclesiastes 1:12-13,
"I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens."
He had been searching for truth, wisdom, and meaning in the many activities that filled his days, but his conclusion to these reflects only pessimism and discouragement. Verse 14 is Solomon’s summary to these pursuits. He concludes,
"I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind."
His feelings express the plight of poor Sisyphus of Greek mythology. You may remember that Sisyphus was condemned by the gods. His punishment? He was sentenced to roll an enormous boulder to the top of a hill, only to watch it roll down the other side, and then to repeat the task again and again and again, without end.
His grueling labor did not solve a problem, create anything good, or enable him to grow as a person. Nothing beyond the task was accomplished by his effort. It was truly meaningless. It was the very definition of futility.
Solomon felt the same way Sisyphus must have felt. Solomon sensed an emptiness in the pit of his stomach. Throughout Ecclesiastes he continually asked, “is this all there is?”.
An Unlikely Candidate
Let’s remember who Solomon was. He was the wisest, richest, and most powerful man of his day. Therefore, when a person like him asks the sorts of questions we find in Ecclesiastes, we need to tune in and hear what he has to say.
Dismayed and discouraged, Solomon found himself unable to discover any real and ultimate point to all his effort. There didn’t seem to be anything that contributed lasting value to his life. Instead, he seemed to think that none of his accomplishments would even be remembered.
Many of us have heard the quip, purportedly uttered by a successful CEO, “You better enjoy your position while you have it, because after you retire, they don’t return your calls anymore.” That’s what Solomon was afraid of. His outlook in Ecclesiastes revealed a life that was highly invested in temporal attainment and fame, and not a life that cared much about God’s eternal perspective.
He mourned over the meaninglessness of his existence and he had reason to, because for Solomon, his “great accomplishments” had been built on sand. And after several decades, Solomon began to discover that his foundations were beginning to crumble. But he was honest. He admitted this. And he asked the hard and honest questions.
Many in our day, perhaps even you, shy away from the tough questions - large, overarching world-and-life-view questions, such as: Who am I? Why am I here? What’s the meaning of life? How should I live my life? What’s my ultimate destiny?
As one writer put it,
“To be utterly lost in the woods is unfortunate. To be absolutely unconcerned about it is unreasonable.”
It is indeed unreasonable for us to walk aimlessly through the woods of life without knowing why we’re there or where we’re headed.
Encounter with a Pigpen
The parable of the prodigal son sheds light on this for us.
In the parable, the younger of two sons takes his inheritance and leaves his family and responsibilities to go off to a “far away country.” Why did he want to leave? Adventure? To find himself? Independence? Pure pleasure? Perhaps a little of each. Whatever the reason, it seems he didn’t believe he could pursue those things while he lived under his father’s roof. Perhaps he believed that the freedom of living on his own would enable to him to become who he wanted to be.
Yet it was the result of that pursuit in which he lost his inheritance and found himself living and eating with the pigs, no better off than those who served his father. Worse in fact. His experiment failed miserably. His quest for freedom resulted in enslavement. He was imprisoned by his unbridled desires, passions, and ambitions. In a peculiar reversal of fortune, he became the least free person he knew. He completely lost himself. I can only imagine that, as he sat in the pigpen, eating leftover pig food, he must have asked, “How did I get here?”
Perhaps that’s what Solomon was asking himself? He had been given unequalled wisdom, wealth, fame, and power, and he squandered it on building an empire to himself. Solomon must have been asking similar questions as the prodigal son: “How did I get here?” “What’s life all about?”
The prodigal son found himself not only in the position of a hired hand, but now treated worse than those who served his father’s family. Thus, it was as he sat there in his misery among the pigs, that he realized what he had given up when he left his father’s house. He came to understand how good he had it when he lived at home. Perhaps he even came to appreciate that true freedom is not the absence of responsibility but fulfilling it. To live according to one’s true identity and calling.
The Good Father
When the young man decided to return home, he did so with the hope of becoming like one of his father’s hired hands, for he knew how well they were treated by his good father. What the prodigal son would soon learn was that his good father is much like our good Father. He doesn’t merely accept us a servant, but restores us as his sons and daughters, with all the inheritance he graciously promises and provides for his children.
It’s only as we gain this understanding of what true meaning is, and where it comes from, that we can begin moving toward becoming all God created us to be. Our quest for self-fulfillment and personal freedom, detached from our identity in God and his calling in our lives, leads to meaninglessness and pigpens. Solomon confessed at the end of Ecclesiastes that it is only as we return to the Father that we truly find ourselves. He summarizes his findings in Ecclesiastes 12:13-14,
Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.
We are able to live the lives we were created for only when we are in a right relationship with God and align our lives with his will and character. And that kind of relationship and life come only through faith in Jesus Christ, the very Son of God.
That is our response to the guest’s question on the talk show: “Yes, I believe in God but what does that have to do with how I live my life?”
Our response: Everything!
Life is genuinely meaningful and significant only when we find true, abundant, and eternal life in Jesus Christ. As one author concluded,
“If we fail to see find it, we miss the whole point of our existence. We might make a great name for ourselves in the world, we might lack nothing in material goods, and people might bow before us. Yet we will have failed to find the true meaning that God desires for our lives.”
When the father embraced his son, the young man had not only found his way home, he had finally found himself.
Thanks be to God.
Join David Preston and me as we discuss how to live wisely in turbulent times with the help of the book of James. This is part 1, in which we introduce the series and focus on James 1:1-4, which looks at trials, perseverance, character, and joy.
You’ve heard the questions and maybe even asked them yourself. At the very least you’ve thought about them…
Below is a helpful bibliography to serve you in addressing these topics. To be sure, such questions require more thought and time than is usually offered on a television talk show. Perhaps a few of the books below will inform you for your own edification as well as equip you to share what you learn with others.
1 Corinthians 15:1-19
In his book, Knowing the Truth About the Resurrection, Christian philosopher and theologian, William Lane Craig, recounts a conversation he once had with a former student of his.
“There ain’t gonna be no Easter this year,” the student remarked to Craig. “What’s that?” Craig asked, just to make sure he heard his student correctly. The student repeated the same line, “There ain’t gonna be no Easter this year.” “And why is that?” Craig asked. “Because they found the body,” the student replied.
Craig commented on this exchange by saying,
“Despite his irreverent humor, my friend displayed a measure of insight often not shared by modern theologians.”
Craig’s student understood that the Christian claim is not that Jesus was “resurrected” figuratively or metaphorically in the hearts of his followers, but that he was raised bodily from the dead. And if his actual body had been found, there would have been no resurrection from the dead. Nothing to celebrate. No Easter.
This is the Apostle Paul’s testimony in our Scripture from 1 Corinthians 15.
Various and Spurious Denials
Throughout my ministry, I have observed a variety of ways the resurrection of Jesus has been denied, sadly sometimes, even from those who profess faith in Christ.
One of the earliest denials of Jesus’ resurrection goes back to the New Testament itself. It is what’s called, the “Conspiracy Theory.” In Matthew’s Gospel we find the Jews explaining away the resurrection. There we discover the chief priests bribing the guards who were stationed at Jesus’ tomb. In Matthew 28:11-15, we read,
When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.
Other ways it has been denied has been to say that everything that happened can be explained naturally, not supernaturally. Some say Jesus didn’t really die, but that he took medicine to make him appear to be dead. Then, when he was placed in the tomb, he woke up and went on his way. Others say the disciples went to the wrong tomb. If you kept up with the Jesus Seminar in the early 90s, you may remember that their conclusion was,
“After the crucifixion, Jesus’ corpse was probably laid in a shallow grave, barely covered with dirt, and subsequently eaten by wild dogs.”
Finally, there’s even one philosopher who suggested that Jesus had a long-lost twin brother who came to town and fooled all the disciples.
As you can tell from just these examples, there are great lengths people will go to in order to avoid dealing with the risen Lord.
The examples just mentioned represent complete rejections of the bodily resurrection of Jesus by unbelievers, or perhaps those on the fringe of Christianity.
The Problem in the Church
The problem inside the church, however, is another way in which the resurrection of Jesus is denied. It’s a subtle form we have to pay close attention to or else it may sneak by us. It can best be illustrated by the sentiment of one theologian who wrote in a newspaper column,
“If the bones of Jesus Christ were found tomorrow, it would make no great difference to me. I would go on going to church as would a majority of Christians.”
For this particular theologian, the important thing is not what happened to the body of Jesus, but what happened to the spirits of the apostles. A similar view was raised a number of years ago in a Methodist newspaper. The author couldn’t understand what the big deal was concerning whether or not Jesus was actually, bodily, raised from the dead. “The important thing is that we come together like the early church and love one another,” he claimed. I had a classmate in seminary once tell me the same thing.
Of course, that response ignores the issue of “why” the early disciples came together and loved one another in the first place. Perhaps we should take them at their word when they tell us they actually saw the body of the risen Lord. In our Scripture from 1 Corinthians 15, the Apostle Paul makes clear that whether or not Jesus really came back from the grave, is a very big deal.
If Christ is Dead
Paul is very logical in his response to doubts about the actual (bodily) resurrection of Jesus. Paul begins in verses 13-14,
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.
Paul was smart enough to know that if Christ was still in the tomb, then he was still dead. And if Christ is dead, then the Christian message a useless lie, a religion that declares a lot of things that just aren’t true. If Christ is dead, then the Christian faith is futile.
He continues in verses 17-19,
And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
In other words, if Christ is not risen from the dead, then there’s nothing behind the faith we proclaim. It’s powerless. There’s no Spirit of Christ who dwells in you. All that talk about the forgiveness of your sins is worthless. There’s no use talking about salvation. God has not honored Christ’s words, life, or death.
If Jesus remains dead, then the death of Jesus was just one of thousands of deaths on Roman crosses. Tragic perhaps, but nothing more.
And if Christ is dead, Paul says, then those of us who believe in him now “are of all people most to be pitied.” We’re no better off than the person who is dying of an incurable disease who puts all their eggs in the power of positive thinking.
But Christ is Risen
But the good news, Paul declares, is that “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead (verse 20).” That’s the greatest fact in all of history! That’s the fact that changes everything and everyone who believes and trusts it and gives their very lives to it.
All we have to do is look at Paul himself. As Saul of Tarsus, he was a living nightmare to the early Christians. But then he personally encountered the risen Christ. Paul went from one of the greatest enemies of the Christian faith to one of its greatest missionaries.
He was dramatically transformed from an intolerant, bitter, and proud persecutor of the church to a humble servant of the Lord Jesus. Not only did his relationship with Christ change, but so did his relationship with followers of Christ. He came to love them, helped them grow in their faith, and spent his life making more of them.
Was this radical change in Paul’s life the result of nothing more than a psychological warm feeling or was it something more? Paul tells us over and over again that this change was the result of meeting the risen and living Christ! He was so convinced of this that he gave his life as a martyr for his faith in Jesus.
What was true of Paul’s life was true for all the disciples. They went from frightened lambs to bold lions of the faith, traveling the Roman Empire, bearing witness to the risen Christ. The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is the only things that makes sense of this change in their lives.
Our heavenly Father vindicated our Lord Jesus by raising him from the dead. The resurrection revealed that death was not the winner, for Christ defeated even death itself. It was this belief in the resurrection that enabled the disciples to proclaim their crucified Lord as God’s Messiah.
If they didn’t really meet the risen Christ – if they really didn’t believe he was raised from the dead, is it likely they each would have kept up their delusion or charade, all the way to their own persecutions, and ultimately, their deaths? One historian commented that if the disciples didn’t truly believe Jesus was raised from the dead, then the Christian faith would be nothing more than a dead folk religion of the first century.
He Can Transform Us, Too
But he lives! And just as the disciples believed, and just as our hymn proclaims, “We serve a risen Savior, he’s in the world today.”
The resurrection of Jesus Christ means that those of us who live two thousand years after the fact can still be in a relationship with him today. It means he’s not dead, but alive! The same risen Christ who transformed Paul and the other disciples can transform us today.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ means we can have hope in the midst of trials, suffering, sorrow, despair, and pain.
A figurative, metaphorical resurrection can do none of that.
Alister McGrath tells the story that in Soviet Russia, right after the Communist Revolution in 1917, a government official was tasked with crushing the spirits of the remaining Christians and, ultimately, ridding their country of Christianity altogether.
So, he gathered the people of a particular town so he could discredit and disprove Christianity using all the clever arguments he could muster. He ranted for hours as he sought to show the people just how ridiculous their faith in Christ was.
After he finished, feeling quite satisfied he had done his job well, he offered the platform to anyone who dared to respond to him. A young priest took him up on his offer and came forward. The official told the priest he had two minutes. “I won’t need that long,” the priest replied.
And in a very meek and humble way, the priest approached the podium. After looking at the people for just a few seconds, the priest threw his hands high into the air and shouted, “Christ is risen!”
To which the people responded as one, “Christ is risen indeed!”
And so he is.
Thanks be to God.
To grow strong, we have to go deep.
So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. (Colossians 2:6-7)
The Root of the Righteous
There is an old saying that suggests if something is to grow tall it must first grow deep. These underground foundations matter, whether we are talking about wise and foolish builders (Matthew 7:24-27) or branches attached to a deeply rooted vine (John 15:1-11). Tozer’s words, written over 60 years ago, still ring true. Many in the church today seem impatient with the hard, ordinary, and often behind-the-scenes work required to grow our roots deep in the fertile soil of communion with and knowledge of God.
In our day of activism and activity we are often, as Tozer put it, preoccupied with appearances. But when a seed is planted in rocky and shallow soil, the root can’t go deep, which causes what growth there may be to soon wither away. (Matthew 13:5-6, 20-21). The impressive appearance of today’s rootless activity can quickly fade into impotent irrelevance tomorrow. We were created for good works (Ephesians 2:8-10). God’s Word not only makes us wise for salvation but also equips us for every good work (2 Timothy 3:15-17). Therefore, let’s sink our roots deeply into Christ and his Word so our good works will bear much, good, and lasting fruit.
God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, you have not only raised our Lord from the dead, but you have raised me as well. Therefore, you have called me to seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at your right hand. Thank you for such a glorious, yet humbling command. You have also called me to set my mind on things above. Please help me in this endeavor as I am inclined to set my mind on the temporal and fallen things of this world. But when you remind me that I have died to such things and that my life is now hidden with Christ, I can’t help but rejoice and give you glory. For Christ is my very life and when he appears, I too will appear with him in glory. Father, this is more than I can comprehend, but I am joyfully overwhelmed by what I do understand of it. For all of this and more, I give you thanks. Amen. (based on Colossians 3:1-4)
Blessed Redeemer, according to your great mercy, you have caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of your Son from the dead. You have given to us an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for us. That very salvation is being guarded by your power. We rejoice in this good news, even when we find ourselves in the midst of trials and sorrows. We know that such times of testing refine our faith and draw us ever closer to you. Heavenly Father, we love Christ, believe in him, and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory. We praise you for that which you have promised us, the salvation of our souls. In the name of Christ we pray. Amen. (based on 1 Peter 1:3-9)
Every Sphere Blog