Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Living Life to the Full

Part 12 of a series through the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes

Text: 9:1-12


What if you knew you were going to die in 30 days? How would your life change? The truth is that each day could be our last, so we should live life to the full.

But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him (v. 1).

We don’t know how long we will live, but God knows. Our lives are "in the hand of God."

Remember that the Preacher is making observations about "life under the sun." From the human perspective, we can't tell if God loves us or hates us based on our circumstances since bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. Of course, when we read the New Testament, we discover that God proved His love for the world by sending Christ to die on the cross and will accept all who put their faith in Him.

The Preacher makes two observations about life:

1. Life is short.

It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all (vv. 2-3a).

Over and over again in Ecclesiastes, the Preacher says that life is "vanity." The Hebrew word for "vanity" (hebel) literally means "vapor." In this passage, "vanity" means "brief" (v. 9). Vapor rising from a tea kettle appears and vanishes quickly. Life is like that. James writes, “What is your life? For you are a mist [vapor] that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). According to one death clock website, I will die on Tuesday, May 16th, 2051. Of course, I could die before that date or after. No one knows, but God. One bumper sticker says, “Eat well, stay fit, die anyway.”

2. Life is unpredictable.

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and life birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them (vv. 11-12).

Human ability is not a guarantee of success in life. For example, the winner of the race is not always the most “swift.” We see this in the Olympics. The fastest runner doesn’t always win the gold medal. Sometimes he pulls a muscle or falls down or is disqualified.

Disaster and death often arrive unexpectantly. Here is an example. Bob Cartwright was disappointed when he was unable to accept an invitation to fly to New York with his friend Tyler Stanger and MLB pitcher Cory Lidle for a playoff game between the Yankees and the Tigers. He felt differently when he saw the news that Stanger and Lidle had crashed into an apartment building and died. “I was supposed to be on that plane,” Cartwright said. Yet just one month later Cartwright died in another plane crash, near his mountain home in California (Philip Ryken, Why Everything Matters, pp. 221-222).


In light of life’s brevity and unpredictability, how should you live?

1. Enjoy your life!

Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun (vv. 7-9).

God wants us to enjoy our food and drink (v. 7). “God has already approved of what you do.” In the Garden of Eden, God gave Adam and Eve a variety of fruit to eat (Genesis 1:29). We don’t necessarily need to drink wine, but whatever you drink (coffee, tea, etc.), enjoy it. (Once a week I enjoy a cafĂ© mocha at Starbucks.)

God also wants us to enjoy our spouse (v.9). God did not create us to be loners. It was “not good” for Adam to be alone (Genesis 2:18). (While not all of us are married, we all need companionship.) “An excellent wife is the crown of her husband, but she who brings shame is like rottenness in his bones” (Proverbs 12:4). A wife (or husband) can be a crown or a cancer. To those who are single but looking, choose your husband or wife wisely. Choose someone you can enjoy for a lifetime. However, if your husband or wife is not enjoyable, you are to love him or her (“the wife whom you love”).

Enjoy life’s simple pleasures, not just life’s big events. “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24).

White garments and oil are symbols of joy (v. 8). (Black garments and ashes are symbols of sorrow.) God made us to not only need these things (food, drink, marriage), but to also enjoy them. The good things of life are not guilty pleasures, but godly pleasures.

Jesus was criticized for enjoying life. He once said, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard’” (Matthew 11:19). Jesus attended the wedding at Cana and even turned the water into wine (John 2:1-11). When Jesus knew that “His time was at hand,” He made preparations to share a final meal with His closest friends. The eating and drinking of the Last Supper anticipates the eating and drinking of a future meal with Jesus: the “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9) when the bride of Christ (the church) will be clothed in white and eat and drink with Jesus.

If we don’t enjoy God’s gifts, we dishonor the Giver.

Imagine giving your friend an expensive watch and they never use it. You would probably be very disappointed. God wants us to enjoy the blessings He gives us. The Bible doesn’t teach spirituality by abstention.

2. Don’t waste your life!

Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going (v. 10).

We can apply this verse to our service as believers. We need to avoid three enemies of Christian service: (1) Excuses – “Whatever your hand finds to do.” Do “whatever” you have the opportunity to do, even things you would rather not do. For example, don’t waste opportunities to share your faith with others (pray, prepare, look for opportunities). (2) Procrastination – “Do it.” Turn intentions into actions. Charles Spurgeon, in his sermon on the verse, said, “No man ever served God by doing things tomorrow.” (3) Apathy – “With all your might.” Over time, we often become apathetic. “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Romans 12:11). Jesus said, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work” (John 9:4). Death is coming, and then our earthly work will be finished. Work now with your whole heart!


Obviously, there needs to be a balance between enjoying life’s pleasures and fulfilling life’s responsibilities. We are not to be gluttons or drunkards, but we are also not to be workaholics.

On my parents’ kitchen wall, there used to hang a picture containing a poem called “Life’s Clock.”
The clock of life is wound but once,
And on man has the power
To tell just where the hands will stop—
At late or early hour.

To lose one’s wealth is sad indeed,
To lose one’s health is more,
To lose one’s soul is such a loss
As no man can restore.

The present only is our own;
Live, love, toil with a will.
Place no faith in tomorrow,
For the clock may then be still.
Life is short and unpredictable. So enjoy your life. But don’t waste your life. Live as if you only have 30 days to live. Live your life to the full.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

All's Well That Ends Well

Part 11 of a series through the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes

Text: 8:1-17


In Ecclesiastes chapter 8, we find the word "vanity" three times (vv. 10, 14). The Hebrew word for "vanity" (hebel) literally means "vapor." Vapor is something that cannot be grasped with our hands. And many things that happen "under the sun" cannot be grasped with our minds. Life is full of mysteries. One big mystery: Why is life unfair?

Who is like the wise? And who knows the interpretation of a thing? A man's wisdom makes his face shine, and the hardness of his face is changed (v. 1).

True wisdom comes from God. "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 9:10).

"Wisdom lights up a person's face" (NLT). How can our faces "shine" when we know that this world is filled with injustice? "There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing" (7:15).

I'm a big fan of the Boston Red Sox. Back in 2004, the Red Sox were trailing the New York Yankees 3-0 in the American League Championship Series. It looked like Boston would once again lose to New York. Red Sox fans were depressed. No team had ever come back to win a seven-game series after losing the first three.

Amazingly, the Red Sox went on to win games 4, 5, 6, and 7 to beat the Yankees. They then swept the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, which was Boston's first World Series title since 1918.

Recalling the dramatic comeback in that series always brings a smile to my face. I have always wanted to re-watch that series because now I could really enjoy it. When I watched game 6, I was so tense that I couldn’t even watch the game while the Yankees were batting. I had to change the channel. Since I now know the end of the story, I could watch with joy, not stress.

The wise person smiles because he/she knows the end of the story.


Verses 2-9 deal with the need for wisdom when interacting with the king. In ancient Israel, the king had absolute power over the people. There was no democracy. "He does whatever he pleases" (v. 3).

Even though "our citizenship is in heaven" (Philippians 3:20), we have been commanded by God to obey our government. When asked about paying taxes to the Roman government, Jesus answered, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Luke 20:25).

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Romans 13:1-2; cf. vv. 3-7). Our obedience to government is part of our obedience to God.

But there are limits to our obedience to government. If obedience to government causes us to disobey God, “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).


When life is unfair, remember these three truths:

1. Justice delayed is not justice denied.

Then I saw the wicked buried. They used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity. Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil. Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God (vv. 10-13).

Delayed justice leads people to think there are no consequences to sin.

When MLB didn't have testing and suspensions for steroid use, players like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens thought they were getting away with their cheating. But now that most fans believe Bonds and Clemens took steroids during their careers, their accomplishments have become tainted. There are always consequences to unrepented sin—if not in the life, then in the afterlife.

Delayed justice is caused by the patience and kindness of God.

Many people scoff at the promise of future judgment, but, as Peter wrote (concerning the prophecy of the second coming), "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Peter 3:9; cf. vv. 3-8). The Bible says that God is "merciful and gracious, slow to anger" (Exodus 34:6).

Delayed justice is intended to lead people to repentance.

In this life, there often seems to be a reversal of retribution and reward. But the story doesn’t end in this life. "It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment" (Hebrews 9:27). "The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side" (Luke 16:22-23). Paul asks, "Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?" (Romans 2:4).

When I was a child (perhaps seven-years-old), two of my friends climbed a tree and grabbed a power line. They said to me, "Jonathan, climb up and touch it. Nothing will happen." Thankfully, I had enough sense to say no. Probably nothing would have happened to me on that occasion, but we all know that if we touch enough power lines, eventually we will die.

Just because judgment hasn't come to the world yet, doesn't mean it's never coming. Jesus declared, "The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father" (Matthew 13:41-43).

"The fact that there will be a final judgment assures us that ultimately God’s universe is fair, for God is in control, and he keeps accurate records and renders just judgment" (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 1147). This is one reason why we can endure mistreatment in this life. Paul wrote, "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord'" (Romans 12:19).

"Those who fear God" (v. 12) are those who put their faith in Him. "By grace you have been saved through faith" (Ephesians 2:8). Our works condemn us, but God’s grace saves us. It will not be well with us unless we turn from our sin (repentance) and turn to Christ (faith).

2. There is joy in the confidence of faith.

There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. And I commend joy, for man has no good thing under the sun but eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun (vv. 14-15).

This is not the “eat, drink, and be merry” of arrogance (Luke 12:19). This is not the “eat, drink, and be merry” of despair (1 Corinthians 15:32). This is the “eat, drink, and be merry” of faith.

How can we be joyful when life is unfair? The wise person of faith says, “I am going to trust God. I know He is in control, and I believe in the end there will be justice. So right now I will ‘eat and drink and be joyful.’”

3. It’s OK that you don’t understand everything.

When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that I done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep, then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out (vv. 16-17).

We know the end of the story, but we don’t know all the details before the end. God works in mysterious ways. (The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know as much as you thought you did!)

We must be humble enough to admit that there are some things that we can’t know. "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever" (Deuteronomy 29:29). "Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!" (Romans 11:33 NIV). As someone has said, "When you can’t trace His hand, trust His heart."


Jesus was perfectly righteous, but He was hated, betrayed, abandoned, and crucified. (By the way, this disproves "prosperity theology.") "One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, 'Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!' But the other rebuked him, saying, 'Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for war are receiving the due reward for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong'" (Luke 23:39-41). Nothing changed for Jesus until after His death and resurrection. "...who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 13:2; cf. Philippians 2:5-11).

He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:22-23).

Jesus endured the cross because He knew the end of the story.

We can endure the injustices of life because we know the end of the story—in the end there will be justice.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Sacrifice of Praise

A Thanksgiving Sermon

Text: Psalm 100; Hebrews 13:15-16


Have you noticed that many people now refer to Thanksgiving Day as "Turkey Day"? Why?

Maybe Romans 1 gives us the answer. "Although they knew God [through creation], they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him" (Romans 1:21). Mankind refused to give thanks to God for earthly blessings, such as sunshine, rain, and harvest. Instead, they "worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator" (v. 25).

Sadly, Thanksgiving has become a day when people worship a created thing (a turkey) rather than the Creator.

Many people don't want to give thanks to God for the good things in their lives. They’re like Bart Simpson, who prayed, "Dear God, we paid for this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing."

Before the Israelites entered the promised land, they were warned, "Beware lest you say in your heart, 'My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.' You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth" (Deuteronomy 8:17-18). We sometimes need to be reminded that "every good gift and every perfect gift is from above" (James 1:17). "Always give credit where credit is due."

Governor William Bradford of Massachusetts is believed to have made the first Thanksgiving proclamation three years after the Pilgrims settled at Plymouth:
Inasmuch as the Great Father has given us this year of an abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, peas, beans, squashes, and garden vegetables, and has made the forest to abound with game and the sea with fish and clams, and inasmuch as He has spared us from pestilence and disease, has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience. Now I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and ye little ones, do gather at ye meeting house, on ye hill, between the hours of nine and twelve in the daytime, on Thursday, November 29th, in the year of our Lord One Thousand Six Hundred and Twenty-Three, and the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Pilgrim Rock, there to listen to ye pastor and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings.
On January 31, 1957, the Canadian Parliament proclaimed: "A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed ... is to be observed on the second Monday in October."

The tradition of Thanksgiving was born out of the realization that all good things come from God and that He deserves our gratitude.


Psalm 100 is "A Psalm for Giving Thanks."

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come before his presence with singing! (vv. 1-2). WHY?

1. The Lord is God.

Know that the LORD, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture (v. 3).

The Lord is (1) the Creator to whom we belong and (2) the shepherd on whom we rely.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name! (v. 4). WHY?

2. The Lord is good.

For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations (v. 5).

How is the Lord good? (1) He has proved His love for us and (2) He has promised His faithfulness to us.

How did God prove His love for us? By the cross of Christ. "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). We are not entitled to the goodness of God. It is only by grace that God pours out blessings upon us. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 1:3).


Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name. But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased (Hebrews 13:15-16).

In the days of the Old Covenant, priests offered sacrifices in the temple. In the days of the New Covenant, Christians are:
  • Priests – "You are ... a royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2:9).
  • Temples – "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you" (1 Corinthians 6:19).
  • Sacrifices – "Present your bodies as a living sacrifice" (Romans 12:1).
Leviticus 7 gives instructions about the "thanksgiving sacrifice" (v. 12). This sacrifice was a voluntary sacrifice given after a sacrifice for sins had been offered. Today, Christ has offered the only sacrifice that truly washes away our sin. Filled with gratitude for this sacrifice made on our behalf, we then offer our sacrifice of praise.

Sacrifices of praise are to be offered "continually." "Give thanks in all circumstances" (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Sacrifices of praise should be accompanied by sacrifices of good works. God isn't satisfied with our words alone. He also desires our works. Thankfulness begins in the head ("know that the Lord, he is God"). Then thankfulness works its way into the heart ("sacrifice of praise"). Finally, thankfulness affects the lifestyle ("do not forget to do good and to share").

Both kinds of sacrifices are pleasing to God. Paul wrote that the gift that the Philippians sent his was "a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God" (Philippians 4:18).

In light of the sacrifice of Christ, we must not deny God our sacrifices of praise and good works.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Making Sense of Life's Perplexities

Part 10 of a series through the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes

Text: 7:15-29


In my vain [brief] life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing (v. 15).

The Preacher says in verse 14 that God has made both "the day of prosperity" and "the day of adversity." In a world ruled by God, shouldn’t we expect a "righteous man" to experience only days of prosperity and a "wicked man" only days of adversity? Isn't this what God promised? "You shall walk in all the way that the LORD your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess" (Deuteronomy 5:33). "My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart, for they will prolong your life many years and bring you prosperity" (Proverbs 3:1-2 NIV).

But what about Abel? He was the first person to die, murdered by his older brother Cain. He was righteous, yet he died at an early age. And Cain, who was wicked, lived many more years. How is that fair?

Consider the suffering of Job. Job didn't suffer because he was a wicked man. "Job was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil" (Job 1:1). However, Job's "friends" assumed that his suffering was caused by personal sin. Eliphaz said to Job, "Remember: who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same" (Job 4:7-8). In the end, we will reap what we sow (Galatians 6:7), but, in this life, that’s not always true.

Suffering is not always directly related to wickedness, and prosperity is not always directly related to righteousness. Sometimes wicked people prosper, and righteous people suffer.

So we are faced with two perplexing questions:
  • Why do bad things happen to good people?
  • Why do good things happen to bad people?
Even the authors of Scripture struggled with these questions. "Righteous are you, O LORD, when I complain to you; yet I would plead my case before you. Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?" (Jeremiah 12:1). "You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallow up the man more righteous than he?" (Habakkuk 1:13). "Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches. All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning" (Psalm 73:12-14).


Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? ...the one who fears God shall come out from both of them (vv. 16-18).

As we struggle with the perplexing questions of suffering and prosperity, we are danger of falling into one of two extremes: (1) trying harder in an attempt to force God's hand ("super righteousness") or (2) giving up and pursuing wickedness. "The man who fears God will avoid all extremes" (NIV).
  • Don’t be arrogant in your righteousness.
  • Don’t be deliberate in your wickedness.

Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins (v. 20).

See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes (v. 29).
  • God’s sovereignty is not the problem.
  • Our sinfulness is the problem.
Adam and Eve were created "upright." But they believed Satan's scheme to disobey God's command, so that they could become "like God." Satan said to Eve, "For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (Genesis 3:5). This scheme failed miserably. Adam and Eve's sin brought pain, suffering, and death into the world. "All we like sheep have gone astray" (Isaiah 53:6).

God is not to blame for the wickedness in the world. However, this does not solve the problem of v. 15. When a righteous person dies, it's not because he was a worse sinner than others.


All this I have tested by wisdom. I said, "I will be wise," but it was far from me [beyond my grasp]. That which has been is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out? (vv. 23-24).
  • We can’t know the mind of God. Wisdom is powerful (v. 19), but wisdom can't give us all the answers. Some of life's mysteries can’t be solved. Life is "crooked" (v. 13). It is puzzling. We can only see a few pieces of the puzzle.
  • But we can know the heart of God through the cross. Blaise Pascal said, "Knowing God without knowing our own wretchedness makes for pride. Knowing our own wretchedness without knowing God makes for despair. Knowing Jesus Christ strikes a balance because he shows us both God and our own wretchedness." God straightened the crookedness (perplexity: Christ, the sinless One, was executed) of the cross and showed us His love and the way of salvation.
"If, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s disobedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 5:17-21).