George Whitefield’s Delight in Scripture and Prayer

When I was a child, I heard a pastor read this section from George Whitefield’s diary. It still stirs me to greater discipline and delight in Scripture and prayer.

My mind being now more open and enlarged, I began to read the Holy Scriptures on my knees, laying aside all other books and praying, if possible, every line and word. This proved meat indeed and drink indeed to my soul. I daily received fresh life, light and power from above. I got more true knowledge from reading the Book of God in one month than I could ever have acquired from all the writings of men.

And in prayer . . .

Oh, what sweet communion had I daily vouchsafed with God in prayer, after my coming again to Gloucester! How often have I been carried out beyond myself when sweetly meditating in the fields! How assuredly have I felt that Christ dwelt in my and I in Him! And how did I daily walk in the comforts of the Holy Ghost and was edified and refreshed in the multitude of peace!

-Taken from volume 1 of Arnold Dallimore’s George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the 18th Century Revival

Why We Need a Prophet, Priest, and King

I recently finished preaching a three-part sermon series on Christ as our Prophet, Priest, and King. While researching for these sermons, I came across this helpful paragraph in Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics.

He had to be a prophet to know and disclose the truth of God; a priest, to devote himself to God and, in our place, to offer himself up to God; a king, to govern and protect us according to God’s will. To teach, to reconcile, to lead; to instruct, to acquire, and to apply salvation; wisdom, righteousness, and redemption, truth, love, and power—all three are essential to the completeness of our salvation.

Bavinck’s explanation provided the springboard for this three-fold schema I used when preaching:

  • My view of God is distorted, so I need a PROPHET.
  • My relationship with God is disrupted, so I need a PRIEST.
  • Our world is disordered, so we need a KING.

Closer to Bavinck’s wording, here’s another way to think about it:

  • TRUTH. I need someone with truth. As Prophet, Jesus tells me the truth about God, myself, and the way to God.
  • LOVE. I need someone with love. The truth he tells me is that God is holy, and I am sinful. As Priest, Jesus stands in my place before God—taking my punishment, and presenting me as righteous.
  • POWER. I need someone with power. As King, he has the power to make everything as it should be.

In the Old Testament, these roles of prophet, priest, and king were so important that they required the special help of God’s Spirit. Since oil was a symbol of God’s Spirit (1 Samuel 16:13; Luke 4:18), a leader would pour oil over the head of the one who was being commissioned as a prophet, priest or king,  who would then be called an anointed one (see Psalm 105:15; Exodus 30:30; 1 Samuel 16:13; 24:6).

The English words “Messiah” and “Christ” come from the Hebrew and Greek words meaning “anointed one.” So when the writers of the New Testament refer to Jesus as the Christ they are saying that he is the ultimate Spirit-anointed one—the Prophet, Priest, and King, all wrapped up in one divine person (see Acts 10:38; 1 Samuel 24:6; 1 Samuel 16:13).

True Love, Genuine Faith

True love springs from genuine faith.

That is, in part, what Paul teaches in 1 Timothy 1:5, when he describes the goal of his gospel proclamation. “The aim of our charge,” he insists, “is love that issues from sincere faith.”

Does that mean that I must have sincere faith in order to truly love someone? Yes, because loving people is really, really hard. It is agonizing to be longsuffering with an irritating or irresponsible person. It is difficult to show kindness to someone who has a critical spirit. It takes enormous self-denial to avoid envying someone who gets what I wanted, or boasting over someone wants what I got. It is always easier to insist on my own way and to be irritable and resentful when I don’t get it. It is always easier to rejoice when people do wrong than when they do right. It is hard to bear all things, to believe all things, to hope all things, to endure all things.

Love is hard. It is, in fact, the toughest thing a person must do because it requires self-denial. So, who can truly love? Only those with genuine faith. Why? Because only an unshakable confidence in God who loves me unconditionally can sustain my love for others. Love for others can thrive only in a heart overwhelmed by God’s grace, assured of God’s justice, and resting in God’s purposes.

Yes, true love must spring from faith that is sincere.

That word translated sincere means unfeigned, unhypocritical. Sure, someone can fake his faith for a while. He can go along with the Christian crowd and learn to say the right things and act a certain way. But not when he is called on to love—truly love. Tough, gritty, never-quitting love cannot come from a person who wears a flimsy faith-mask. Sooner or later the faker will give up trying to love God and others because he does not believe it is worth it. His faith is not genuine.

No wonder so many people openly claim to love God—and sincerely think they do—but show utter contempt for others. It is a common self-deception that our sentimental thoughts about God prove that we have love for God. In fact, however, the acid test of our love for God is whether we love others. John put it this way: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).

You cannot love unless you have sincere faith. True love must spring from faith that is genuine.

We Judge Others Strictly. Ourselves? Not So Much.

We are usually better judges of others than of ourselves. In fact, it is probably impossible to have an unbiased evaluation of the person whose teeth you brush, whose bills you pay, whose car you drive, whose body you inhabit—your own self.

We are simply too heavily vested in ourselves to be impartial judges of our motives, actions, and attitudes.

But what if I’m wrong about myself and need to know the truth? Maybe a close friend could tell me. But suppose everyone around me is afraid to tell me the truth. Or suppose I am so entrenched in self-deceit that others have given up on trying to convince me that I’m wrong. What then?

A glimmer of hope remains. For even when we fail to judge ourselves properly, our ability to judge others usually remains strong. Presumably, this is what Nathan the prophet knew when he told King David a story in which the villain was David himself. This detail, however, Nathan left hidden until David had pronounced judgment on his own character. David had not lost his ability to be enraged by theft, murder, and cruelty–he perfectly perceived it in other men.

To get David to see the truth about himself, it took Nathan’s holding a “portrait” up to David’s face, allowing David to condemn it, then telling him this “portrait” was actually a mirror. Here’s Nathan’s story:

There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”

Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

Nathan said to David, “You are the man!” . . .

David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.”

Of course, this account of David’s failure and repentance points to our need for a perfect King—a need which is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. But it also highlights the universal human tendency for self-deception and need for an outside source of truth. In light of this tendency, here are four truths I must keep in mind:

  1. I have a tendency to deceive myself (Jeremiah 17:9).
  2. Therefore, I need people who are loving and honest enough to tell me when I am wrong (Hebrews 3:13).
  3. If I want these people to tell me when I am wrong, I must prove to them that I am teachable and will not retaliate (James 1:19)
  4. I must filter my thinking and the feedback of friends through the only source of infallible truth—the Word of God (Psalm 19:11-12).

The Pillar and Support of the Truth

Imagine Timothy–the Apostle Paul’s son in the faith, and young pastor of the church in Ephesus–walking through his city on an errand. Maybe he’s paying a tax, or getting supplies to a widow. Wherever he’s going, there’s a sight in Ephesus he couldn’t possibly overlook.

Dominating the view of the Ephesus is a massive temple—the Artemision. Otherwise known as the Temple or Artemis (or Diana), its massive size and architectural splendor made it one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. By Timothy’s time, the temple was over half a millennia old, having been built in 550 BC.

About this marvel Antipater of Sidon exclaimed:

“I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, “Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on [anything] so grand.”[1]

When Timothy walks past this building, he is looking at a structure that is 450 feet long, 225 feet wide (that’s a good bit larger than a football field), and 60 feet high—a towering six stories tall. Around this breath-taking edifice are at least 127 columns that supported the massive, ornately decorated roof. It was these sturdy columns that probably flashed into Timothy’s mind when he read his first letter from Paul, in which Paul wrote: “The church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).

How trite and insignificant Timothy might have felt the church to be, compared to the tradition of Artemis worship—which besides being both ancient, exciting, and culturally important, supported the lucrative idol-making industry. Yet Paul’s Spirit-inspired words were intended to diffuse any feelings of intimidation: it is the church—not the awe-inspiring Artemision— that is the household of the living God. And it is the church—not the ancient traditions of Artemis worship—that upholds the liberating truth of the gospel.

God could have built huge skyscrapers to support signs that told his truth. But he didn’t. God could have written the gospel in clouds in the sky. But he didn’t. God could have etched the news of salvation in Grand Canyons all across the face of the earth. But he didn’t. Instead he made people the pillars of his truth.

God wants us, as his church, to live out and proclaim his truth. What does that mean for us? Simply what Paul has been emphasizing throughout this letter—that if we grasp the gospel, we will live by the gospel.

[1] Antipater, Greek Anthology IX.58

The God of Ecclesiastes

It is deeply ingrained in our intuition that there is some kind of deity out there—a higher power that is responsible for much of what we see and experience. Recently, a study at the University of Oxford concluded that “human thought processes were ‘rooted’ to religious concepts.” (This study came with a price tag of £1.9 million in research money.)

Since our thought processes are “rooted to religious concepts,” what concept governs our thoughts about God?

To put it differently, if we had only our observations about the universe, our consciences, and human history, what kind of God would we conceive of?

Would this god be distant or intimate? Angry or loving? Would there be one? two? or many? It is understandable why humans—reasoning apart from any kind of divine revelation—have conceived of a pantheon or a dualistic conception of the divine, since our universe is a perplexing mix of good and evil, beauty and ugliness, order and chaos.[1] These bizarre alloys are reflected in the unrestrained and fractious gods of the Greek and Roman pantheon, in the dualist cosmology of Manichaeism, and in the virtually countless gods and goddesses of Hinduism. People tend to conceive of deities that best account for the bewilderments of their lives.

How Ecclesiastes depicts God

The God depicted in Ecclesiastes is certainly the God of the Bible—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. But Solomon contemplates him without much regard to previous revelation. Unlike most of the rest of the Old Testament, which often refers to God’s self-revealing words and acts in the Pentateuch, Ecclesiastes is almost completely silent about these things. That is why some people have suggested that Ecclesiastes was intended to be a kind of “gospel tract” for foreign dignitaries unfamiliar with the God of the Hebrews. To understand Ecclesiastes, no prior knowledge of Israel’s history or sacred writings (the Pentateuch) would be necessary.

The fact that Ecclesiastes does not assume prior knowledge about Israel or Israel’s God makes it particularly useful for reaching those who do not believe in such a god, or any god at all. Anyone who has reflected on the apparent meaninglessness of life, the frustration of unfulfilling pleasures, and the agony of injustice can instantly relate to the message of this book. They will find that the book gently tugs at their own hearts—laying bare an aching hole that only God—the God of the Bible—can fill.

How Ecclesiastes points to Christ

Of course, for those of us who believe the Bible understand that God is not silent. He has revealed himself, and Jesus Christ is the culmination of his self-revelation. The question that Solomon asks near the beginning of the book—“Is there anything whereof it may be said, See, this is new?” (1:10)—has been answered in Jesus Christ. His living a sinless life was new. His rising from the dead was new. And anyone who believes in him will become new as well (2 Corinthians 5:17). Since Jesus, by his death and resurrection, has broken the death spiral of humanity, we can know the truth of Solomon’s words: Life under the sun is not all there is. God will bring every deed into judgment. He will make everything beautiful in his time.

The God of Ecclesiastes appears to be silent and shrouded. But Ecclesiastes also holds out the hope that this now-silent God will shatter the silence, tear the shroud, and render his final judgment on everything. With the coming of Christ, the final rending of this silent mystery has begun. Even now, the sunbeams and echoes from that future world of righteousness have begun to pierce and reverberate into our world—even if ever-so faintly.

Maranatha!

[1] In some ways, the most sophisticated advances of modern science (cosmology, in particular) have only thickened the fog, showing how our universe is even more complex and obscure than we could have ever imagined. If you doubt this, just read John Brockman’s book The Universe.

 

What We Can Learn from “Vanity” in Ecclesiastes

When interpreting this “vanity of vanities” mantra, it is important to keep in mind both the scope of “vanity” (everything “under the sun”) as well as the final point of the whole book: “fear God and keep his commandments.” By relentlessly emphasizing that nothing in life will yield certain meaning or ultimate satisfaction (“all is vanity”), Ecclesiastes forces us to see our need to engage in something that transcends this world—that is, fearing and obeying God. With the final reminder that “God will bring every deed into judgment,” we realize that everything is not ultimately pointless to God. He will evaluate some things and say, “That’s good!” He will evaluate other things and say, “That’s bad!” It is only life “under the sun” that does not contain the key to its own meaning. Meaning enters only with God.

Here are six take-aways from the theme of vanity in Ecclesiastes:

1. Life makes no sense apart from God.

With this understanding of Solomon’s theme of vanity, it becomes clear why it is appropriate for us as Christians to also affirm, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” It is another way of saying, “Life makes no sense apart from God.” We find a parallel to this idea in 1 John 2:17: “And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever.” The first part of that verse any atheist will also affirm; but with it, they must also confess that life is ultimately absurd, that there is no such thing as right and wrong, that life is no better than death. But the second part of that verse is the hope of every believer, and the assurance that while life “under the sun” does not provide the key to its own meaning, there is meaning in the fact that people who live “under the sun,” can enjoy eternal fellowship with God: “he that doeth the will of God abideth forever.”
I like the way J. Stafford Wright explains it:

The Christian answer is that the universe does make sense. There is a plan and a purpose that has its center and its climax in Christ. We as Christians have been predestinated to be an integral part of that plan. We have been “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God afore prepared that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). But not even to Christians has it been given to comprehend the plan. Not even a Christian can explain how everything that comes into his life takes its place in the plan. But, none the less, all the time he is trying to catch a glimpse of a certain wholeness that will link together all his individual experiences. But again and again he is driven back to the position of Romans 8:28: “We know that to them that love God all things work together for good, even to them that are called according to his purpose.” . . . . The Christian attitude then is one of faith and confidence. The Christian says, “I know that all these things must play their part in God’s total plan. I long to know what the plan is and to see it as a whole, and I shall always go on trying to see it. But in the meantime I will live my life one day at a time, believing that in the common round of life I am doing the will of God. I will be content with what God gives me and take my life from the hand of God.

2. Since sin is the ultimate cause of our misery, the conquering of sin will be the only cause for our joy (1 Corinthians 15:56).

Sin brought misery into this world, and happiness will not be restored where sin continues.

3. To say, “I can’t see where this is going,” is to admit our finiteness but to say, “This isn’t going anywhere” is to assert our faithlessness (Ecc. 12:15; Romans 8:28; 1 Corinthians 4:16-18).

As Christians, we feel a subtle lure to be God’s Public Relations Liaison—the unfortunate person whose job it is to explain and defend the blunders of some dignitary. It works this way: God allows something bad to happen to one of his children—such as a car accident, a difficult breakup, a financial hardship. Convinced that God can do no wrong, we begin looking for and guessing at the greater good behind the tragedy. Maybe we got into that accident to avoid some greater catastrophe. Maybe we broke up with that person because God has someone better for us. Maybe God is disciplining us for some sin we have committed.

Let’s keep in mind that each of these explanations are valid possibilities, and that it is good to be alert to and grateful for God’s gracious orchestration of events. But what if nothing apparently good and gracious comes from the difficulty? Will that shake our confidence in God? Here’s the point: we must be careful not to expect there to be some self-evident explanation for a difficult circumstance that will justify God’s choice to allow it. In other words, God is allowed to do things that make no sense to us. And that’s OK. He’s still good. We must still trust him.

Ecclesiastes teaches that pain and perplexity are part and parcel of what it means to live in a fallen world. It’s OK to say, “I simply can’t see where this is going, or how this fits in with God’s overall purpose.” That’s simply admitting our finite, human perspective.

But to say “there’s no point in this” is to assert our lack of faith. While Ecclesiastes insists on our inability to figure everything out, it also insists that God makes “everything beautiful in his time” (3:11). Our response to God’s mysterious ways should compel us to cling to him in faith (see Romans 8:28; 1 Corinthians 4:16-18).

Two verses from William Cowper’s hymn, “God Works in Mysterious Ways,” express how the believer should handle unexplained challenges God brings our way.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.

4. We must never seek for ultimate satisfaction in anything “under the sun.”

Another obvious application of the theme of vanity in Ecclesiastes is the danger of seeking ultimate satisfaction in anything in this life. The pursuits that Solomon catalogued in 2:1-17 continue to allure believers and unbelievers alike. We sometimes approach our careers as if that were the end-all of life. We run after our hobbies as if they contained the golden key to satisfaction. These things have satisfaction, but the satisfaction only comes through them, not from them. In other words, they can be enjoyed only as gifts from God, but not as the source of joy: “For apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (2:25, ESV).

Paul had in mind the transience of this life in mind when he wrote “for the fashion of this world passeth away” (1 Corinthians 7:31). By this he meant that the world as we know it (life “under the sun”) is coming to an end. The temporary nature of this world means that our priorities and concerns will be vastly different from those who believe (or act as if they believe) that this world is all there is.

Paul referred to the transience of earthly life when he wrote these words in 2 Corinthians 4:15-18:

Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.

5. We may compassionately help unbelievers to see the despair and pointlessness of life without God.

We may also use the theme of vanity to help unbelievers see the logical conclusion of life without God. Unless there is a God who will “bring every deed into judgment,” there is no reason to think that kind words are better than angry words, that caring for people is better than abandoning them, or even that living is better than dying. The world itself does not contain the key to the difference between good and evil. If all that exists is blind chance, then nothing matters.

6. Only Christ can break us free from the “pointlessness” of life by his death and resurrection.

In contrast to the pointless death spiral of life “under the sun,” Christ’s death and resurrection has brought about something genuinely new (compare Ecclesiastes 1:10 with 2 Corinthians 5:17, Romans 6:4 and Revelation 21:5).