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The Meaning of Life

We are a forgetful people. The Bible uses a lot of repetition and reminders because God knows our tendency to forget; to forget warnings that would spare us from harm, or to forget truths that offer joy and peace in the midst of trying times.

At too many points in life, and especially when we’re young, we’re also prone to forget that the years are racing by and our time is short.

Perhaps it’s that tendency to forget, especially among the young, that prompts the command which begins the last chapter of Ecclesiastes.

Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth,
before the evil days come and the years draw near of
which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them.”
Ecclesiastes 12:1

Much of Ecclesiastes hinges on the words, “under the sun,” a phrase that depicts how most of the world looks at life. They are focused on the here and now, grasping for meaning and significance in things like work, pleasure, accomplishments, and knowledge; none of which offers real and lasting substance. They’re all fleeting - here for a moment like the smoke from a fire, appearing and then vanishing.

But, Ecclesiastes 12:1 urges us to remember our Creator. The Hebrew word for remember is not merely recalling facts, like don’t forget where you left your keys. It also implies thinking about something or meditating on it. So, it’s not merely remembering the fact of who God is or that He exists. It is meditating on who God is, as He has revealed Himself in His Word.

One writer put it this way: “It is best that we reflect upon these realities when we are young so that there will be fewer regrets and fewer missed opportunities… Wisdom helps us avoid later lamenting the times we were given but did not receive with thankfulness.” Jeffrey Meyers

Meditate on God now; avoid regrets years later, when physical challenges and limitations may creep in and distract us from meditating on Him.
At that point, the writer of Ecclesiastes uses a variety of illustrations to lament the physical effects of aging in a fallen world. Our eyesight starts to fail. Our body breaks down. Our strength diminishes. Our hearing grows weaker.

These are simply the harsh realities of growing old. Balance begins to fade. The fear of falling increases. Activities that once seemed normal now have an element of terror.

Ecclesiastes 12:5 says we are moving ever closer to that day of passing from here to our eternal home. It may seem like a harsh reality, but it is God’s kind way of warning us that our lives are fleeting. And we must remember our Creator…

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

That final illustration compares our bodies to earthen vessels. There’s a beautiful golden lamp in the house that’s suspended by a silver chain, and a pitcher attached to a pulley that is dropped into a well. When the chain snaps or the wheel of the pulley breaks, the lamp and the pitcher fall. They are shattered, and no longer useful. The oil in the lamp and the water in the pitcher pour out on the ground, in a picture of life ebbing away and leaving the body.

“…the pictures of verse 6 capture the beauty and
fragility of the human frame; a masterpiece as
delicately wrought as any work of art, yet as breakable
as a piece of earthenware, and as useless in the end as
a broken wheel.”  -- Derek Kidner

With the closing act of life under the sun, each and every person will stand accountable before the Creator. With that, the writer of Ecclesiastes repeats a familiar phrase:

Vanity of vanities, says the preacher; all is vanity.
Ecclesiastes 12:8

The teacher ends exactly where he began. But, he’s not throwing his hands up at the end to say, “It’s all just meaningless.”

Instead, he’s once again using the Hebrew word Hebel to reinforce his fundamental message that our lives are fleeting. If you put all of your chips into finding peace and pleasure solely in this life, you’ll be disappointed. All of this will end, so clinging to it will prove futile.

As science has affirmed, matter is deteriorating. It’s falling apart. Material things are not eternal.

We cannot stop that slide or postpone the inevitability of death. Our bodies and the world around us that is under the sun, are all wearing out and fleeting, so it’s futile to stake your meaning and hope and joy in them.

It may be tempting to see the madness and futility and fleeting nature of life, and to conclude, “What’s the point? Stuff happens to me that I can’t control. It’s like I’m running on a hamster wheel. So, why bother?

Here’s the answer:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and
keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of
man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with
every secret thing, whether good or evil.
Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

In the end, everything does matter. Our lives, our thoughts, our actions, our inactions all happen in the presence of the God who made us and sustains us, so there are no throw-away moments that are utterly meaningless. Even when you feel like no one is watching and no one cares, God is watching, and He cares.

Ecclesiastes is meant to teach you how to live in the valley of the shadow of death, even when you don’t think you’re in that valley. You are closer to standing before God than you think.

Thus, the call to “remember your Creator.” Everything is fleeting, except for God and your soul. The one eternal rock we can cling to who is not wearing out is the God who made you. And, we are His creatures. So, think about Him. Regard Him in all you do. Believe in His Son, Jesus Christ, who gave His life to die on the cross to save sinners and to give them abundant new life.

The chief duty of man in the short time we have in this life under the sun is to know God and to trust in Him. It is to recognize that our lives are a gift from the Creator, and our greatest joy is living in awe of Him and joyfully following Him.

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Getting Rid of Legalism & Standing Firm in Christ

Galatians 4:28-5:1

4:28 Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. 30 But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” 31 So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.

5:1 For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Galatians: A Letter for Recovering Legalists

Galatians is a letter for recovering legalists. John Stott well said, “There are many such [legalists] today. They are not, of course, the Jews or Judaizers to whom Paul was writing [about], but people whose religion is legalistic, who imagine that the way to God is by the observance of certain rules.” (Stott. 121-122) Galatians is written for folks like us. If you’ve trusted in Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins, God has declared you to be “not guilty” before Him—He justified you by faith—but, we still wrestle with our old sinful habits and tendencies, one of which is legalism.

Legalism is any attempt to gain acceptance or forgiveness from God through one’s own efforts or merits. To say it another way, a legalist believes that what God does for them is dependent on what they do for God. It’s a meritorious system and a graceless religion. It’s a useless and cruel system. It’s like a treadmill: you can run as hard and fast as you want to, but in the end, it gets you nowhere.

The standards that’re set up to earn acceptance or forgiveness with God are human standards, to be met in human strength. These standards are always subjective, different from person to person, and no legalist can truly be assured that they’re living up to the standards. And, these standards always miss the mark of God’s standard, His holiness. And we know this, and yet we all can be tempted to sneakily smuggle in our practices, our preferences, and our performance, into the “faith alone” equation in order to earn—or even maintain—God’s favor, blessing, acceptance, or forgiveness.

The passage that we’ll look at (Gal. 4:28-5:1), fits into the larger passage of Gal. 4:21-5:1 where the main point is – children of God, born by faith in the promise and power of God, are called to get rid of legalism and stand firm in their freedom obtained by Jesus.

There’s strategic logic to this passage that we should see. Paul lays out an argument in verses 21-27 and then he provides a bunch of application in verses 28-5:1. Paul’s argument is that in order to be a child of Abraham—a free child of God—we must trust only in the promise and power of God to save us in Christ Jesus. In this post we'll zero in on Paul's application.

Grace Before Obedience

Paul believes the Galatians, like Isaac, are “children of promise” (Gal 4:28). And, flowing out from that reality of who God has made them to be (His children), Paul gives application for them to live in the good of it. There’s a principle here that we need to see. First God saves us and then He calls us to live in the good of it. It’s never the other way around. We never obey in order to get God to save us. No, first God saves us and then, as a result, we obey. Let’s say it like this, grace always precedes and empowers obedience. This is the way it always works.

Paul’s been desperately arguing for the gospel of grace, so that they would come to their senses, and then live in the good of the gospel. Paul’s got 3 applications for living like a child of God.

Application #1—Children of God Should Expect Persecution

Verse 29 says, “But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now.”

The persecution that the Galatians are experiencing from the false teachers is likened to what Isaac (the child according to promise) experienced from Ishmael (the child according to flesh).

And listen, as children of God we too should expect persecution, even from those who might seem to be Christian, but are actually just religious legalists. And why? As one author puts it, “the gospel is…threatening to religious [legalists]. Religious people are very touchy and nervous about their standing with God. Their insecurity makes them hostile to the gospel, which insists that their best deeds are useless before God.” (Keller. 128.)

Listen, the gospel is especially offensive to those who are trusting in their own perceived righteousness because the gospel tells them that even at their best, they’re not good enough to be accepted by God. Legalists want to feel like they deserve God’s blessing. And if you’re not living by their rules, or if you’re trying to tell them both the bad news of the gospel (we’re actually *not* good enough) and the good news of the gospel (Jesus came to do what we could not and came to set us free from legalism) -  brothers and sisters do not be surprised by persecution, condemnation, or legalistic judgmentalism, expect it.

Application #2—Children of God Are Called to Toss Out Legalism

Verse 30 says, “But what does the Scripture say? “‘Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.’” Paul is looking back to the Abrahamic account where after Isaac was persecuted by Ishmael, Sarah told Abraham exactly what we just read. What’s more, God also told Abraham to do the same because Isaac was the son of promise. Well, Paul captures a principle and commands the Galatians as children of God to do the same: toss out legalism. And, as children of God, we too are called to toss out legalism in our lives. What’s more, like Paul is with the Galatians, we’re also to graciously help others toss out their legalism.

Now hear me: if we see this as only a problem that’s “out there” and not also still “in here”, we’re blind and we won’t receive God’s grace in repentance and forgiveness for our own lapses in legalism.

Legalism is a terrible task master. There’s no righteousness found within it, only pride when we believe we’re doing well, or shame and despair when we’re not.

None of us normally set out to pursue legalism. None of wake up in the morning declaring, "I'm going to be a legalists today!" Nope. What makes it tricky is that our legalism is usually not overt. No, you see, most of our legalism subtly occurs when we put our personal practices and preferences over and against the biblical principles and then judge others for not doing what we do. Does that make sense?

There are many biblical principles where there is freedom for personal practice to be expressed and for the principle to still be obeyed. Here are 4: bible reading, financial stewardship, parenting, and taking care of our bodies. There are basic Biblical principles to be obeyed, but no direct command on specifically how it’s to be done. Therefore, there’s freedom for personal practice.

In other words, “Be regularly hearing from God in His Word.” (Psalm 1 an Acts 17:11 are just two examples of the wisdom of our need to be in God's Word) , but there’s freedom for personal conviction for how we live that in our personal practice. Maybe for you that’s 20 minutes every morning, or 10 minutes during your lunch or maybe it’s listening to your bible while you drive to work for however long that may be. Here’s where legalism comes in: if I take my personal practice and say that you’re not obeying God’s word—you’re sinning—because you’re not doing it the "Stuart way", I’m being legalistic. I’m taking my personal practice and putting it over the biblical principle and making my practice law. I’m saying, “If you want to obey God and live in a way pleasing to Him, you gotta do it my way.” Or maybe it’s a little more subtle. Maybe I look down on you a little bit for “making a lesser choice”, while I pat myself on the back and imagine how pleased God is with me for following my own practice. Now, no one outright says that, but it’s those little comments of disapproval or condescension or shaming that reveal our legalism and the extra biblical burden we can put on others.

Here's one more: parenting. God provides much wisdom for parents, but doesn't provide many explicit commands or instructions about the parent-child dynamic. We're told things like, instruct your children in the ways of the Lord (Eph 6:4; Deut 6; Prov 1-9), discipline them when they disobey (Prov 23:13-14; Heb 12:7-8), and refrain from provoking them (Col 3:21; Eph 6:4) just to name few. But we do not read much on the nuances of disciple or of instruction. Therefore, parents have some freedom here for personal conviction to set in. Legalism sets in when we set ourselves up as superior parents compared to others, not because of mutual biblical faithfulness, but because we believe we have superior practices and preferences when it comes to parenting. We look down our noses at parents who do not use the same sleep schedules that we deem as best, or who do not use the same children's books that we use, or who do not discipline their children with the exact specifications that we do. Or we can assume that since our practices "worked for us", they must be what should automatically work for every parent everywhere. We can place more emphasis on our achievements or insight than on the truth that anything good (including wisdom in parenting or obedience in children) comes from God and not ourselves. Yes, share what seemed to be helpful for you. But do so in humility, recognizing that God was the One who brought about that result. And recognize that God may be working in a different way, in a different family, as they also seek to obey God's commands through the freedom they have in the gospel. Again, no one outright says that (although, I think it can happen here more than it can in other areas), but, again, it’s those little comments of disapproval and condescension that reveal our legalism and the extra biblical burden we can put on others.

So, we’re called to toss out legalism. We’re not to keep this thing around and play with it like a pet. It’d be like having lion as a pet, at some point it will devour you. How do we do it? 2 things, briefly:

First) With the Spirit’s help within us and in the community of believers, we need to identify legalism and then graciously and winsomely confront it. Guys we need to call it what it is – sin – and then we must remind ourselves and our fellow brothers and sisters of the gospel of grace and forgiveness. We need faithful brothers and sisters to come alongside us and help us and we need to come alongside them as well. This is both a precarious and yet glorious task that God has given us grace to do together. And to have those conversations with people, that means we need to be involved in each other’s lives, being open and humble with each other. These aren’t the conversations you have in the 5 minutes after church lets out. We need to be cultivating meaningful relationships with each other where we share our struggles with one another and where we give each other an “open door” to gently, humbly warn us if they see us straying into legalism.

Second) The fundamental way that we toss out legalism is through repentance. We turn away from our self-righteousness and turn to Jesus, trusting in His blood and righteousness, and once again receive forgiveness for our sin. We must preach the gospel to ourselves and repent of our legalism when it’s revealed in our hearts. And that often requires us to do some serious self-reflection. Do you compare yourself to others (and then either condemn or praise yourself)? Do you look down on others who do things differently than you? Do you fear that you are missing out on God’s favor (or bringing down his curse) because of how well (or poorly) you are living? Are you much more aware of other’s sin than your own?

As children of God, we’re called to get rid of legalism and to stand firm in our freedom obtained by Jesus.

Application #3—Children of God Are Called to Stand Firm in Their Freedom Obtained by Jesus

Chapter 5 verse 1 says, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” The gospel of grace is the good news of freedom! It’s the liberating news that captives, who were once held in bondage to sin, are set free in Christ to now live as they ought. Friends, we’ve been liberated from sin’s power and now through the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit that lives within us, we can live in ways pleasing to God. Oh, there may be times where it may feel like a long standing pattern of sin still has you in chains, but the objective truth is that, because of Jesus, you have been set free and can say “no” to sin and “yes” to God and righteousness. Brothers and sisters, we don’t have to live like a slave to sin, because we have been set free in Christ!

Now, as a result of our freedom to live as we ought by the Spirit’s help, Paul commands freed people in Christ to stand firm in their freedom and to not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Well, what does that look like?

First and foremost, to stand firm in our freedom, we must never lose sight of the gospel. We’re prone to wander away from it and so we must, as it were, continually dig our roots down deep into the soil of the gospel, so that we will not be moved away from it. To do so we must celebrate what Christ has done for us and preach the gospel to ourselves and to each other.

Second, to stand in our freedom means we’re able and willing to be suspicious of ourselves and so be willing to humbly receive input and correction. You see, as free people in Jesus, we shouldn’t be touchy, or afraid, or crushed to learn that we’ve fallen short of the glory of God and are in need of once again repenting and receiving forgiveness. As freed people in Jesus, we are both confident in our right standing before God through Jesus and confident that we’re not perfect yet and that we’ll need to receive God’s grace of ongoing repentance and forgiveness.

Finally, to stand in our freedom means to activity toss out the legalism that remains in our hearts. Paul says, “stand firm and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” We must, with the Spirit’s help, intentionally refuse to give into legalism.

Guys, there is grace for these things. God wants to help us to toss out legalism and to live in the freedom that He has obtained for us in Jesus.

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Learning Contentment | Part 2

Discontentment can settle in my heart with such ease. The grass really does seem greener in my neighbor’s yard. No matter what model car I drive or phone I own, there’s a glitzy ad for something better and faster. Even the favorable circumstances that I see in someone else’s life can cause me to lose my contentment.

As we read last time, when we looked at Philippians 4:11, contentment is a heart attitude that must be learned. It doesn’t come naturally.

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.

But now, look at verse 12…

I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.

We’re tempted to assume that verse 12 must be an exaggeration. Paul couldn’t possibly have experienced contentment “in any and every circumstance,” could he? That means even in prison, when he was stripped down to nothing, Paul still was able to possess contentment.

But that’s what it says. God’s Word is teaching that contentment is durable.

The attitude of contentment accompanied Paul no matter where he was in life: Up, down, high, low, with plenty, with nothing, full, or hungry, in any and every circumstance.

I know what it is to be humbled, to be broken down. I know the experience of excelling and possessing riches, but I’ve also been in poverty. My stomach has ached with hunger, and I know what it’s like to leave the table full.

Through it all, Paul wrote, the contentment I feel is just as real through the good as it is in the bad.

There’s an interesting word in verse 12, where Paul wrote, “I have learned the secret.” This is different from the kind of learning he spoke of back in verse 11. This phrase in verse 12 is actually a single word in the Greek – it’s a verb that means to be initiated into a mystery.

Paul was using language of the day to illustrate what he meant when he said that he had learned to be content in whatever situation he faced. Verse 12 is saying, “I mean anysituation. This attitude that God graciously taught me, has accompanied me as I’ve faced plenty, hunger, abundance and need.”

Here’s the point: Circumstances will change; but contentment doesn’t have to.

Contentment is a heart attitude that God designed, and He’s teaching us to experience and enjoy it as a constant throughout all of life, in every circumstance. It is durable.

At this point, we desperately need verse 13. God’s Word has described to us a learned attitude of sufficiency, of feeling complete and not in need, that can be present in any and every circumstance. So, where do we find this attitude? How is it acquired?

I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Biblical contentment is learned. It is a heart attitude. It is durable through life’s circumstance, and finally, real contentment is sufficiency in Christ.

Here’s what all of this is getting at: Jesus Christ must be your sufficiency. Jesus Christ must become the center of your joy and peace and satisfaction and contentment. Knowing Christ must be enough in any and every circumstance. So, when things aren’t going well, and you don’t feel like you’re being treated well, contentment is being able to say, “But I have Christ. What more do I really need?”

Most of us have either quoted Philippians 4:13 or heard it quoted at some point, apart from its context. “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” When lifted out of the larger message of Philippians, it sounds like magic.

But, what defines “all things”? In the Greek, all is the first word in this phrase, because Paul is using all to connect back to the same Greek word for all that he just used in verse 12 when he spoke of any and every kind of circumstance. In other words, in every moment, high and low. Through the best and worst circumstances of life, the joys and heartbreaks, believers in Jesus Christ are being uniquely trained to experience a heart attitude of contentment.

And the Greek verb at the start of v. 13 is not just “I do,” as in I do all things. It speaks of ability or strength or competency to do something. And it’s present tense. It’s not just the promise of a future experience of contentment, as if I, potentially, may find sufficiency in Christ. No. Paul is saying that as a result of Him who is empowering, he was constantly being enabled for all of these different circumstances. That ability is being ministered to me through all of the different situations I face, by the one who strengthens me.

To put it another way, Paul’s sufficiency was entirely due to the abundant sufficiency of Jesus Christ. And so is ours.

It is God’s design that our union with Jesus Christ provide the sufficient source of contentment in any and every circumstance.

Think about it this way: The king over creation, existing as God in heaven, gave up His place in heaven to become a servant in order to die for my sin. I deserve nothing but the judgment and wrath of God, but instead, I have been delivered from that forever, into a new kingdom, by Jesus dying in my place, rising over death, and now joining my life to His.

Contentment rests on who Jesus Christ is and what He’s done. The Son of God demonstrated the exact opposite of circumstance-based contentment, when He emptied himself, took the form of a servant, was born in the likeness of men, and humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. That’s the message of the book of Philippians.

That’s why, in chapter 1, Paul wrote, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” If my mood and my behavior rest on how I feel about my looks, or my job, or my spouse, or where I live, or my paycheck, or any of the circumstances of my day… if those things are determining my contentment, I will never be content. Because my heart will be like Adam and Eve in the garden thinking, “I still need one more thing.”

But if my heart comes to grip with the fact that I have nothing of any eternal value apart from Christ, and that I have everything I need for this life and the one to come in Christ, then God, by His grace, is teaching me to be content. He’s empowering me to trust that Jesus is sufficient.

Think about Paul, writing this letter. He had preached in so many cities and planted so many churches, now sitting in prison, his only audience being the handful of guards who watched him.

He must’ve been tempted to think, “God, why have you left me here? I could be out preaching. Instead I’m stuck here.” But, the truth Paul had learned, that God’s Spirit longs to teach you and I, is that Paul, like you and I, didn’t deserve any more than He had. God had been abundantly gracious, and, even in prison, Paul was being fully strengthened from within by His union with Christ.

And, as if to prove Paul’s point, God was using Paul, while he was in prison, to communicate truth that is still serving and teaching us more than 2,000 years later. What looked like the worst of circumstances, was actually being used by God to teach generations to come for thousands of years.

We must see our circumstances as ordained by a loving and gracious God, and then we must rest in His goodness and power, and trust that He knows best, and give thanks for exactly where He has us. We don’t deserve abundance and full bellies. We don’t have a right to live comfortably.

One lesson of Philippians is to hold what we have loosely, and to know that if and when God takes it all away, we will still have Christ.

Hebrews 13:5 says, "Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, 'I will never leave you nor forsake you.'"

There it is again. Don’t get dragged into discontentment. Whatever you have is a gift from the kindness of God. Thank Him for it. Praise Him for His grace.

And whatever you don’t have is a reminder that Jesus will never leave you or forsake you. And He is enough.

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