DashHouse.com

The Blog of Darryl Dash

This blog is about how Jesus changes everything. He changes:

Our relationship with God

Our relationship with others

Our vocations - how we live and work in this world

Our ministries

This blog exists to explore some of the ways that Jesus changes everything. It provides resources and articles that will help you think about the ways that Jesus can change every part of your life.

The Lord himself invites you to a conference concerning your immediate and endless happiness, and He would not have done this if He did not mean well toward you. Do not refuse the Lord Jesus who knocks at your door; for He knocks with a hand which was nailed to the tree for such as you are. Since His only and sole object is your good, incline your ear and come to Him. Hearken diligently, and let the good word sink into your soul. (C.H. Spurgeon, All of Grace)

What’s the Big Deal? (Jude 5-16)

I woke up a couple of weeks ago with tingling in my left arm. I was thinking that it was probably nothing. I slept on it funny or something. But I’ve heard of people who ignore signs like this. I quickly checked Google, that source of reliable medical knowledge. It said:

Is your left arm tingling? Do not neglect the sign! Tingling in left arm may be a warning sign of something serious, therefore, is not worth neglecting…

Following are some possible causes for tingling in left arm and hand.

When the left arm or hand tingles, and at the same time if you experience pain in your jaw as well as chest, it is a major indication of an oncoming heart attack. You are advised to immediately rush to the doctor.

Left arm tingling can also be a stroke symptom. Stroke is a medical condition in which the brain activity ceases due to insufficient supply of blood to the brain.

Just to be safe, I called my doctor. My doctor told me to get to the hospital emergency room immediately. So, I spent the rest of the day waiting to find out that the tingling in my arm was not caused by anything serious. But I was told that it’s very good that I took the warning signs seriously.

It is very easy to ignore warning signs like a tingling arm, and not realize that the tingling could be a sign that something very dangerous is happening. Tingling may only be tingling, but it could also be a sign of something much worse.

This morning we’re looking at a book in the Bible called Jude. It’s the second-last book in the Bible, located right before the book of Revelation. And Jude has told us that there’s something tingling, something that’s a problem that needs to be addressed. Jude says:

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 3-4)

Here’s the problem. Just like I’m tempted to say, “What’s wrong with a little tingling?” the church was tempted to say “What’s wrong with a little false teaching?” Picture that somebody you know and like starts teaching something that you think is wrong. It would be easy to ignore. You could say:

  • She’s really nice. I mean, how can you criticize someone who does so much and who has such a good heart?
  • Who am I to judge? I’m sure that my theology is off at some points. It would be arrogant to suggest that their position is wrong.
  • Why waste time arguing over theology? There are much more important things we should be worried about, like the poor and the victims of tornados.

But Jude writes to say: Don’t ignore the tingling! The implied question he’s answering in this passage is, “What’s wrong with a little false teaching?” I mean, who really cares about fighting over what we believe? And Jude answers with three reasons why we can’t ignore false teaching. He’s not talking about minor differences, by the way. He’s talking about major departures from “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” And he says that there are three reasons that we should care about this.

He’s writing this because we are tempted to say it doesn’t matter. We’re tempted to turn a blind eye to this issue and pretend that nothing is wrong. Jude gives us three reasons why it matters.

Here’s the first reason:

False teachers are rebels against God.

Why should we care about false teaching? We should care about false teachers because of who they are. And who are the false teachers? The answer is surprising. I want to answer that the false teachers are really nice people who are just a little bit wrong. But Jude answers by showing us that the false teachers are the latest in a string of rebels against God.

Let me give you some examples. In verses 5 to 7 he gives three examples from the Old Testament of evildoers:

  • The Israelites God rescued out of Egypt. God saved them out of Egypt, but they never got to enjoy the delights of the Promised Land because they refused to believe God.
  • The angels - probably a reference to a puzzling passage from Genesis 6 - who rebelled against God and were condemned by him.
  • The rebels in Sodom and Gomorrah, who were guilty of sinning against God, and who were completely destroyed by God.

You don’t get any better examples of God’s judgment than these three. This is serious! But notice what Jude does. He’s not giving a history lesson. He’s attaching these three events to the false teaching taking place in Jude’s day. In verse 8 he says, “Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones.” Do you see what he’s saying? In verse 10 he again identifies these people with the rebels against God, except he gives three more examples and pronounces a woe to them:

He says they’re like Cain, who thought he could get away with it (verse 11). Cain was the son of Adam and Eve, the one who committed the first murder when he killed his brother Abel. It’s not a compliment to be compared to Cain. In what way are false teachers like Cain? One Jewish commentary says that Cain believed he could get away with whatever he liked because:

There is no judgment, no judge, no reward to come; no reward will be given to the righteous, and no destruction for the wicked.

In other words, these false teachers think they can teach whatever they’d like and get away with it.

Then he says they’re like Balaam the self-indulgent. Balaam was an Old Testament prophet for hire. He’d say anything you’d like if you paid the right money. He was guilty of laying aside God’s Word and teaching something else for his own personal benefit.

And then he says they’re like Korah the rebel. Korah was a leader of a mutiny against Moses. He was a teacher who rejected what God had said about authority. God judged him by swallowing him alive. We read in Numbers 16:

And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods. So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. (Numbers 16:32-33)

Has anyone ever told you, “You remind me of…?” You are waiting to hear how they finish the sentence. You want them to say the name of someone wonderful, someone handsome or beautiful, someone accomplished and appreciated. You don’t want to hear that you remind them of their cousin who’s in jail, or some rogue character who never amounted to much.

That’s what Jude is saying in this passage. These false teachers remind him a lot of some of the worst rebels in Old Testament history. David Helm writes:

So in the body of this letter we find Jude stepping through layers of time, grabbing hold of historical events and examples in groups of three, and pulling them into the present day and applying them in the first person - and all of this under divine authority…These guys are those guys! Ancient archetypes are walking in our world. They have come to life again - only they go by different names.

We need to think about this for a minute. Jude is telling us that these guys that he’s pointed to are still probably around today. This is sobering. “What’s the big deal about false teachers?” we ask. Jude takes us through a rogue’s gallery of false teachers and says that this line of rebels lives on, and it’s a big deal to God.

But then he gives us a second reason why false teaching is a big deal:

False teachers will be judged.

I remember being in a park at the end of my street as a kid. There were some older kids there. I should have been afraid of them, but I wasn’t, because my older brother was a lifeguard at the pool. I provoked them thinking I could get away with it because my big brother would come to my defense. I still remember when he didn’t step in. I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted and that there would be no consequences.

You get the impression that the false teachers Jude writes about were doing the same thing. Let me give you one example. It’s a puzzling one. Verses 9 and 10 say:

But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you.” But these people blaspheme all that they do not understand, and they are destroyed by all that they, like unreasoning animals, understand instinctively.

It’s not clear to most of us what he’s talking about. He’s quoting here from a story that would have been well-known to his readers, but that isn’t from the Bible. We do this all the time; we quote from a story that’s well-known in order to make a point. In this story, Michael, the archangel, tried to bury Moses’ body. The devil opposed the burial on the grounds that Moses was a murderer. Even Michael, an archangel, did not dare go toe to toe against the devil on his own authority. There’s a word for you if you take on the devil on your own strength: stupid. Even Michael the archangel, who is way more powerful than us, would not dare to do anything except by God’s authority. Michael knew his place. He knew that if he attempted anything but by God’s power he was sunk. Yet these false teachers didn’t know their place. They somehow thought that they had authority and power apart from Jesus Christ. The minute we think that we have a leg to stand on apart from Jesus, we are in very serious trouble.

So Jude is being very clear. These false teachers are rebels just like the ones we read about in the Old Testament. And God will judge, just as he did the desert generation, the angels who sinned, and Sodom and Gomorrah.

If we believe in judgment, it changes everything. Charlie Peace, a notorious thief and murderer in England in the 1800s, listened to a sermon on the day that he was going to be executed. The preacher was talking about heaven and hell. He said, "Sir, if I believed what you and the church of God say, and even if England were covered with broken glass from coast to coast, I would walk over it on hands and knees and think it worthwhile living just to save one soul from an eternal hell like that." You may not believe what Jude is saying about judgment, but if you do, it changes everything.

I want to be honest. I don’t want to believe in hell. But as Mike Wittmer writes, “Jettisoning hell also demands that we reassess the sinfulness of humanity.” In order to believe that we don’t face judgment, we have to believe that we’re not so bad or that God isn’t so holy. And once we believe that we’re not so bad or that God isn’t that holy, then we start to think that maybe Jesus didn’t have to pay the penalty for our sins at the cross. Pretty soon we’re just like the false teachers Jude talks about. Pretty soon we think we can handle Satan on our own strength. The minute we think we can stand on our own without Jesus, we’ve joined these people that Jude is warning against.

Jude is answering the question, “What’s so bad about false teaching?” And he’s saying that false teachers are rebels, and that false teachers will be judged. There’s one more thing.

False teachers are a danger.

Jude writes in verses 12 and 13:

These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.

Jude is saying two things here. First, he’s saying that these people aren’t helping the church at all. They’re waterless clouds. They’re fruitless trees. They’re like stars that keep changing their course so that you can’t navigate according to them. These people promise a lot, but they don’t deliver.

But it gets worse. These false teachers actually do harm. “These are hidden reefs at your love feasts.” We’re having a potluck after our service today. Back then the church held the communion service in the middle of a potluck-type meal. Jude says that these false teachers are dangers to the community. Hidden reefs under water sink ships; you don’t want to go anywhere near them. These teachers are dangerous to have around.

This is hard. I’m sure that the people who got this letter were surprised. These false teachers were probably very nice guys. What’s so bad about a little false teaching? Jude says it’s a serious problem. These false teachers are rebels; they’re going to be judged; they’re dangerous. False teaching is a very big deal.

This past week one of the most wanted war criminals in the world was arrested. He was living in plain sight in a tiny Serbian village. I’m betting that few people would have guessed that the person living next door is accused of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.

Jude is telling us that false teachers don’t look evil. They’re probably really nice. We’re going to be tempted to think, “What’s the big deal?” But Jude says that false teachers are the rebels we read about in Scripture. They’re going to be judged. And they’re dangerous to us as well.

One of our greatest needs as a church is to see that what we believe matters. It is a dangerous thing to lose our grip on the gospel.

That’s why Jude writes:

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jude 3)

So see the dangers of false teaching. Don’t say it’s not a big deal. It is a clear and present danger. But also: See what Jesus has done. Grasp the good news of the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. Delight in it. Even today remind yourself of what Jesus Christ has done in offering his life for sinners, and being raised again so that we can live. Contend for the gospel.

Worth Fighting For (Jude 1:1-4)

A few years ago we went on vacation. We crammed everything into our little car and traveled to a cabin in upstate New York. We had a great time until one particularly bad day. First, someone stole our dog. Second, we visited a gorge, and I looked over and saw my son walking on the wall that’s supposed to separate us from the gorge. He didn’t fall, but it was too close for comfort. That was not a pleasant day.

We went on vacation with four people and a dog. We came home with four people and no dog. I was sad to lose a dog - we did get him back in the end. But there’s no question that we came home with what mattered most. You could give me a million dogs and it wouldn’t make up for my son. There are some things that simply matter more than others. Some things are really worth fighting for.

This morning we’re beginning a brief look at a book in the Bible. It’s one of the shortest and most overlooked books in all of the New Testament. It’s actually an important book, because it tells us two things. First, it tells us what matters most. You can lose some things, it’s going to say, but you had better not lose the central thing. You can lose a dog, so to speak, but you’d better not lose a son. Second, it tells us what we have to do to keep what matters most.

Today what I want to do is to introduce this book to you, and then I want to look at the first four verses. The first four verses are going to tell us to delight in, and contend for, the gospel. Then I want to think for a few minutes about how this applies to us today.

About Jude

So first, let me tell you about Jude. It’s one of the shortest books in the Bible. It’s tucked away right between the epistles of John and the book of Revelation. Somebody’s said that it’s a book that’s been treated with “benign neglect.” “Rarely the text for a sermon, even in the university or seminary classroom it is often given only brief treatment at the end of a course on the General Epistles, perhaps as part of the last lecture on the final day of the course” (P.H. Davids). But it’s a very important book for us to consider, not the least because it tells us what matters most and what’s worth fighting for.

So look at the first two verses with me to get an idea of the book:

Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James,
To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ:
May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.
(Jude 1:1-2)

At first glance, this looks like any of the hundreds of letters that would have been passed around back in that day. Except you’ll notice a couple of things that are significant. First: the author is Jude, a servant of Christ and the brother of James. He identifies himself with someone who must have been well known to the recipients of this letter, probably James, who was the leader of the church in Jerusalem. James was not only a leader in the church, but the apostle Paul refers to him as “James the Lord's brother” (Galatians 1:19). We read in Mark 6:3 that Jesus had brothers named James and Jude. So it’s possible - some would say probable - that this book was written by Jude, the younger brother of Jesus Christ. If so, he doesn’t begin by bragging about his blood relation to Jesus. He begins by identifying himself as everyone else - as a servant of Jesus Christ.

He’s writing to a particular audience: “to those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ.” In other words, he’s writing to a group of people who have experienced the saving power of Jesus Christ, who have been called by God into a relationship with him, and who are being preserved for Jesus. They’re being kept spiritually intact for Christ.

So this is an important book. It’s important because it’s written by a leader in the early church, the blood brother of Jesus. It’s important because it’s written to the church, to those who have experienced salvation in Jesus Christ. It’s been recognized throughout history as the authoritative Word of God to his people. And it’s also important for what it doesn’t say. Letters usually identify the author and the recipients, and then move into a thanksgiving and prayer. But Jude skips this. It’s like he’s in a rush to get to the heart of the matter.

Specifically, in verses 3 and 4, he’s going to tell us two things: what matters most, and why it’s worth fighting for.

Delight in the Gospel

Jude writes in verse 3:

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.

Do you ever hang around people who always talk about the same things? You know before you start talking to them that it’s only a matter of time before the conversation gets to the same topic. Why? Because you know that the topic has gripped their heart. Because it’s gripped their heart it comes out in their speech. You can’t have a conversation with them without talking about their favorite topic.

In verse 3 you get a sense of what Jude would love to talk about if he could. “I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation.” As someone’s said, this is the letter that Jude wanted to write, rather than the letter he actually wrote, which we have before us. In verse 3 he also refers to this as “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” So what we see here are three things:

He delights in the gospel. He is eager to talk about it. Jude has got a favorite topic, and it’s what Jesus Christ has done to save us. If Jude could talk about anything, then this is what he would choose to discuss. It’s like Jude has a one-track mind, and if you let him talk for any length of time he would quickly come to his favorite topic, which is what Jesus Christ has done for us.

He delights in the gospel that is once and for all delivered. It’s not this nebulous thing that nobody can pin down. It’s not a message that’s evolving and that could mean anything. There is a completeness and finality to the gospel. It is the good news of Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection, the announcement that God has reconciled sinners to himself through the saving work of Jesus Christ.

He delights in the gospel that has once and for all been entrusted to us. He says that it’s been delivered to the saints. A few years ago we stopped at Webers on Highway 11 in Orillia. We got our food and ate at a picnic table. Josiah needed to go to the bathroom near the end of the meal, so he entrusted his french fries to our care. We got a little distracted, and when Josiah got back he discovered that some seagulls had taken an interest in his french fries. To this day he reminds us that he entrusted something to us, and that we failed to guard it carefully for him.

Jude says that the gospel has been entrusted to us. It’s much more valuable than anything else that’s been entrusted to us. We’d better guard it. Paul writes to Timothy, “By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (2 Timothy 1:14). It’s something that has been given to us for protection, for cherishing, and we are called to hold it and guard it and treasure it. Jude delights in the gospel. It’s what matters most. He shows us what it means to delight in the gospel.

Contend for the Gospel

Delight in the gospel; but he also calls us to contend for the gospel. He says:

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 1:3-4)

Jude is saying that he would love nothing better than to share his delight in the gospel with us. But there’s a problem. He instead needs to write to appeal to his readers to contend for the gospel. The word contend was used back then of athletes who, in an effort to win, put all of their effort, struggling and fighting for the desired result toward the desired end. It’s a strong word. We don’t just delight in the gospel. We don’t even delight in the gospel and sort of put up with it getting a little muddled and confused here and there. We are called to put all of our energies into fighting for, struggling for, contending for the gospel.

I was in a hospital the other day. You know that in a hospital they always have announcements running through the loudspeaker. I heard doctors being paged and patients being called. After a while you’re only half listening to what’s being said. All of a sudden I heard a “white alert” and then a location for the incident. I don’t know what a white alert is, and that’s the whole point. I don’t think they want me to know. But I could tell by the way that it was said that it was something important.

Here, in Jude, we’re asked to contend.

...Our mind is forced to go on red alert. We are being asked to read standing in readiness. Jude is finished with pleasantries; some required action is at hand. Urgency and immediacy move him. He wants contenders, and he wants them now. And with this letter he means to raise them up. (David Helm)

I’ll put it this way. When we lost our dog, we didn’t really content. We looked around. I came home and sent a bunch of flyers to vets all over the area. We put in a reasonable effort to get him back. But we never really contended. We drove back and thought that we had probably seen the last of Buddy.

If we had lost one of our children instead of our dog, we would have contended. We would have not come home until we returned with that child. We would have stopped at nothing. We would have struggled, put in all of our effort, and fought until we had the desired result we were looking for. That’s what Jude is telling us. Don’t treat the loss of the gospel like you would a lost dog. Don’t sort of try to get it back. Put all your energy into it. Delight in the gospel, but also contend for the gospel.

The reason we need to do this is because there’s a danger. The reason for the danger is found in the end of verse 3: “For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” We’re going to look more at who these people were next week, and what they were teaching. But I want you to notice the danger. These people were within the church. They weren’t out there teaching false doctrines. There were people within the church who were perverting the grace of God, and somehow denying Christ through what they were teaching. It reminds me of what Paul said to the Ephesian elders in the book of Acts:

I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears. (Acts 20:29-31)

All throughout the New Testament we’re told that there will be people who distort the gospel. So the need is serious. We need to contend for the gospel because it is what we delight in. We need to contend for the gospel because it is the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. And we need to contend for the gospel because we continually face the danger of losing the gospel. The gospel, Jude says, is worth fighting for.

John Piper summarizes the message that Jude is communicating:

  1. There is a faith once for all delivered to the saints.
  2. This faith is worth contending for.
  3. This faith is repeatedly threatened from within the church.
  4. Every genuine believer should contend for the faith.

Jude tells us to delight in the gospel, but he also tells us to contend for the gospel. If we lose the gospel, we’ve lost everything.

So What?

So let me close here this morning by applying this sermon in three ways.

First: do you know the gospel? I realize this morning that we’ve been talking about the gospel as if it’s clear that everyone knows what we’re talking about. We can never assume this. Actually, I think that pastors have to take some responsibility here. My preaching professor, Haddon Robinson, says that a lot of pastors talk about the gospel, but they’re never very clear what they’re talking about. So let me be clear what I’m saying. 1 Corinthians 15 gives us the core of the gospel:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures... (1 Corinthians 15:1-4)

From this passage we see three things about the gospel:

  • It’s what saves us. The gospel is what we’ve received; it’s the thing by which we’re being saved. The gospel saves.
  • The gospel is about Jesus: his death, burial, and resurrection. The gospel centers on the cross and the empty tomb.
  • Christ died for our sins. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God…” (1 Peter 3:18)

That’s it. “The gospel has been described as a pool in which a toddler can wade and yet an elephant can swim. It is both simple enough to tell to a child and profound enough for the greatest minds to explore. Indeed, even angels never tire of looking into it” (Tim Keller). That’s not all there is to the gospel, but it’s the essence. We need the gospel.

Second: do you delight in the gospel? I had a conversation with someone on Thursday who reminded me that our actions communicate what we’re excited about. It’s possible to believe the gospel but not to delight in it. I’ll never forget what I heard Don Carson say:

If I have learned anything in 35 or 40 years of teaching, it is that students don’t learn everything I teach them. What they learn is what I am excited about, the kinds of things I emphasize again and again and again and again. That had better be the gospel.

If the gospel—even when you are orthodox—becomes something which you primarily assume, but what you are excited about is what you are doing in some sort of social reconstruction, you will be teaching the people that you influence that the gospel really isn’t all that important. You won’t be saying that—you won’t even mean that—but that’s what you will be teaching. And then you are only half a generation away from losing the gospel.

Make sure that in your own practice and excitement, what you talk about, what you think about, what you pray over, what you exude confidence over, joy over, what you are enthusiastic about is Jesus, the gospel, the cross. And out of that framework, by all means, let the transformed life flow.

I want people to know that I’m excited about the gospel. As the hymn says, “Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die.”

Finally: are you ready to contend for the gospel? Here’s how easy it is to lose the gospel: “The first generation has the gospel, the second generation assumes the gospel, and the third generation loses the Gospel” (Carson). We need to contend for the gospel. This means that we delight in the gospel, but it also means that we ‘re clear what we’re not about. A pastor (Justin Buzzard) talked about his struggle in this area:

While I think it is important to be known more for what you are for than what you are against, just a cursory reading of the Bible shows that it also calls us to deal with false teaching. Why? Because false teaching is dangerous and destructive; it hurts people.

About ten years ago I heard Ben Patterson say something that I will never forget. Ben told the story of a retired pastor who began noticing that his former congregation was sliding away from orthodoxy. The pastor saw this as his fault, noting the one thing he thought he did most poorly as a pastor. The pastor stated, in two sentences, his great failure as a pastor: "I always told people what to believe. My great mistake is that I never clearly taught my people what NOT to believe."

We need to be positive about the gospel. We also need to contend for the gospel when the gospel is being lost.

That’s what Jude is about. Delight in the gospel and contend for the gospel. If you have this, you have everything. If you lose this, you lose everything.

The End of the Matter (Ecclesiastes 12:9-14)

For months now we’ve been looking at one of the most interesting books ever written. I mentioned last week what Bono of U2 thinks of this book:

Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite books. It’s about a character who wants to find out why he’s alive, why he was created. He tries knowledge. He tries wealth. He tries experience. He tries everything.

He is not alone in his admiration for this book. Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, called Ecclesiastes “the truest of all books.” Thomas Wolfe described it as “the highest flower of poetry, eloquence and truth” and “the greatest single piece of writing I have known.” If you’ve been here these past few months, I hope you’ve had glimpses of why this is such an important book.

But we need to be honest. It’s not an easy book. It seems depressing at times. Other times it’s peppy. There’s lots of controversy about how to interpret the book and how it’s written. One of the reasons I wanted to tackle Ecclesiastes is because it has a lot to say to us. But one of the reasons I wanted to tackle this book is because I’ve preached through it before, and I wasn’t happy. I wanted to do better. I wanted to really understand the message of this book and what it means for us today.

So this morning we come to the end. And as we get to the end, a couple of things are going to happen. First: we’re going to see why we need to listen to Ecclesiastes; why we shouldn’t skip over this book. Second: we’re going to see the core message of this book, and how our lives should change as a result.

First: why should we pay attention to this book?

As we get to the end of chapter 12, the tone shifts. It looks like verses 9 to the end are written by an editor, or by the Teacher himself as he steps out of his role and reflects on what he’s doing. At first glance it looks a little self-congratulatory, but it really isn’t. Verses 9 to 12 give us insight into what the author has been doing in this book and how we should interpret it.

Verses 9 to 12 say:

Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.

The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

Here’s why we need to pay attention to this book. The comments here put the entire book into perspective and help us understand what the Teacher has been trying to do. We’re told that this book has five qualities that make it important for us to consider.

It’s written with logical clarity. The Teacher, we read, considered all the wise sayings that he had heard with great care. He weighed them and considered which ones were useful and important. Not only that, but he then arranged them in this book logically. This book hasn’t been thrown together at random, but carefully constructed as a piece of literature. This is a book that is clear, logical, and carefully arranged.

It’s also written with literary artistry. It’s not just logical; its put together with artistry. As someone’s put it, whether you agree with the Teacher’s message or not, nobody criticizes his writing style. This guy knows how to write. It’s a work of literary beauty. It’s designed to “please the ear, inspire the imagination, fascinate the mind, and delight the soul” (Phil Ryken).

So it’s written with logical clarity and literary artistry; it’s also written in alignment with reality. Verse 10 says “he wrote words of truth.” You’ll have noticed that the Teacher doesn’t sugarcoat things. Some of us like to be a little careful in how we say things. I heard of a Christian leader who fired someone. He did it so nicely that the guy showed up for work the next day. He fired the guy so gently that the guy didn’t even know that he had been fired. The Teacher doesn’t do this. He tells it like it is. We can always count on the Teacher to tell us the truth.

It’s also written with a practical purpose. Verse 11 says they’re like goads, like firmly fixed nails. Goads are one of the tools that shepherds use to drive oxen down a road. A goad is a long, pointed stick used to prod and poke oxen so that they go in the right direction. I think we can all agree that Ecclesiastes has somewhat of a poky feel to it. It certainly feels like a long pointed stick poking us in places we’d rather not be poked, but we need it. If we pay attention to this book, it will save us from going down some roads we may take if there wasn’t somebody standing there with a sharp stick telling us not to go that way.

Ultimately one of the most important reasons we need to pay attention to this book is because it’s given to us by one Shepherd, according to verse 11. It’s the first time that the word shepherd has been used in this book. It could be a reference to the Teacher who wrote this book. But it’s not usually used this way. It’s most often used of God in Scripture. The only other times the term “one shepherd” is used in the Old Testament, it refers to the promised descendent of David who will come one day. It seems likely that the “shepherd” mentioned here is none other than God himself, which is why it’s capitalized in most versions. This means that Ecclesiastes are not just the musings of some skeptical philosopher; they’re part of God’s revelation to us. As our Shepherd, God uses this book to prod us in the right direction with our lives.

This is why verse 12 says:

My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of books come out. You can’t keep up. You can’t even try. I’m an avid reader, but even the really committed readers I know only read about 100 books a year. That means they’re reading only a fraction of a percent of what comes out. You can’t even keep up with the book reviews!

So how do you keep up? Verse 12 tells us we don’t have to. There’s room for other books, but Ecclesiastes warns us to be careful. Beware of going beyond the “collected sayings” that God has provided. What God has revealed in his Word is enough. There is no need to go beyond what he’s provided. By far the most important book we have is the Bible, including the book of Ecclesiastes. We need to pay attention to this book more than all the others.

That’s why this book is so important. This book has logical clarity. It has literary artistry. It’s aligned with reality. It’s practical and it can prod us in the right direction. It’s God-breathed Scripture. We need to pay attention to this book. That’s the first thing that this passage tells us.

Secondly, we discover the core message of the book.

In case you’re confused about what the Teacher’s been saying - and then a summary of the conclusions of the book.

Let me briefly summarize what the book has said. His basic message has been about meaninglessness. He keeps saying things like:

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
(Ecclesiastes 1:2)

The word vain or vanity or meaningless, depending on your transition, appears some 35 times in this book. It doesn’t mean that everything is worthless. It means that everything is like a breath or a vapor: it’s temporary and passing. Throughout the book he’s examined our lives and concluded that everything in this life is vanity. The surprising thing is that he doesn’t just say that bad things are meaningless. He says that good things like pleasure, popularity, youth, work, wealth, and achievement are all meaningless. Everything is fleeting, and it will soon be forgotten. Ultimately, death makes everything meaningless if it wasn’t meaningless already.

It reminds me of the news story:

JACKSONVILLE, FL-- “Aladdin,” a greyhound that races at the Jacksonville Dogtrack in Jacksonville, Florida, was bitterly disappointed when he finally caught the rabbit he’s been chasing all these years and discovered it was mechanical. 

“Boy do I feel stupid,” said the greyhound. “I feel like such a fool. I’ve completely wasted my life chasing around this... mechanical rabbit.”

Aladdin had been running at the Jacksonville track for many years and chasing various mechanical animals along the way. The notion that they all may have been fake was a huge blow to him and the other dogs. Many of them paused to ponder the meanings of their lives, and wondered what the future would be like with no animals to chase.

“All my life I’ve been chasing this rabbit around thinking someday I’d be able to catch it and have a...good meal,” Alladin said. “I became obsessed with it. I admit it. It was unhealthy, but that rabbit represented something to me. And now, to find out it wasn’t even a real rabbit after all, well that’s just devastating.”

That’s the main message of Ecclesiastes, and it’s an important one for us to hear. Thousands of years later we’re still tempted to try to find meaning in all the things that the Teacher says are meaningless. It won’t work. One Christmas all the children in a family gathered around in great anticipation of opening the gifts. The gifts had been voluptuously wrapped with ribbons, and the kids were excited. Paper began to fly everywhere as they hurriedly unwrapped all of their gifts. The gifts had cost a lot and they had been well packaged. With great vim and vitality, the children began the process of unwrapping them. However, when all the gifts had been unwrapped, one of the children ask, “Is this all there is?” Evidently, some of you have experienced that. Many of us have unwrapped life and we want to know if this is all there is. The Teacher wants us to know that you can unwrap all that you can find in life, and that indeed is all that there is.

But he doesn’t leave us hopeless. He says in verses 13-14:

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.

When you consider everything that the Teacher has written, you get down to the essence of living. That’s actually what “the whole duty of man” means - it’s the essence of life. It’s taking away everything that’s extraneous and boiling it down to what’s at the core. Two things.

First: Fear God. It’s something that he’s said all throughout the book. To fear God isn’t to cower. Fearing God means that we know who he is and where we stand in relation to him. It means taking him seriously, acknowledging him in our lives as the highest good. It means revering him, honoring him, and worshiping him. Tony Evans puts it best:

The old belief, centuries ago, was that the sun revolved around the earth. As we now know, this belief was wrong. The earth revolves around the sun. Many of us have got it wrong in our spiritual lives. God doesn’t revolve around us. We revolve around Him. We know that we fear God when we have made Him the centerpiece of our lives.

Second: Keep his commandments. This is what life is about. The most important thing for anyone to do is to worship God and obey his commandments. According to Charles Bridges it is “his whole happiness and business - the total sum of all that concerns him - all that God requires of him - all that the Savior enjoins - all that the Holy Spirit teaches and works in him.” We were made to worship and obey.

Verse 14 gives us a reason, but it also gives us meaning. “For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” If what Ecclesiastes says is true, and there is no God, then life really is mad, and nothing does matter. If everything is meaningless and this life is all that there is, then life would be completely absurd. But at the end of this book we’re reminded that this is not all that there is, and that life does matter. Because we will stand before God our judge, everything matters. This isn’t all there is. As someone’s said, “The final message of Ecclesiastes is not that nothing matters but that everything does” (Phil Ryken).

So here’s the point of the whole book. Life is a series of dead ends apart from God. So, fear God, and show it by keeping his commandments.

So let me ask you three questions.

One: are you taking any of the dead ends that the Teacher talks about? Do you need to be poked with any of his prods so that you don’t go down the wrong road in your search for meaning? There’s nothing wrong with work or pleasure or money or accomplishment, but they make terrible idols. Don’t take the dead ends. Learn from what the Teacher has taught us.

Two: have you experienced the Copernican revolution and oriented your life around God? That’s what it means to fear God. God does not revolve around our puny lives. The best discovery you can make is that we exist for God’s glory, and that we need to orient our lives around him and make his glory our priority. Our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Finally: are you demonstrating your love for him by obeying his commandments? Better yet, have you discovered the one who loved God perfectly and obeyed his commandments on your behalf? Jesus is the only one who has obeyed verses 13 and 14 perfectly. He came and offered his life for us. Graeme Goldsworthy says:

The gospel is saying that, what man cannot do in order to be accepted with God, this God himself has done for us in the person of Jesus Christ. To be acceptable to God we must present to God a life of perfect and unceasing obedience to his will. The gospel declares that Jesus has done this for us. For God to be righteous he must deal with our sin. This also he has done for us in Jesus. The holy law of God was lived out perfectly for us by Christ, and its penalty was paid perfectly for us by Christ. The living and dying of Christ for us, and this alone is the basis of our acceptance with God.

Our obedience is then a response to what he’s done for us rather than an attempt to get something from him.

Life is a series of dead ends apart from God. So, fear God, and show it by keeping his commandments. Put your trust in Christ, worship, and obey.

Enjoy Life, Fear God (Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:8)

For 11 years, Mary Leonard of Louisville, Kentucky, has dealt with polymyositis, a rare inflammatory tissue disease that invades the muscles. There is no known cause or cure.

Mary's case turned deadly when the disease invaded her heart. In fact, in March of 2010, Mary was told by doctors that she had 24-48 hours to live. But after 20 days in a hospice center, another 51 days in rehab, and a number of days at home, Mary is still alive. She's now reflecting on the changes that take place when you learn your time is short.

"I call myself an average Christian," Mary says. "I don't know exactly why God has done this for me, but I do know that life looks different now." She says she’s learned five life lessons as she’s grasped the brevity of life:

  • Know that prayer is powerful.
  • Mend fences now.
  • Release the reins of life to God.
  • Know that God is able—more than able.
  • Put your focus on what really matters.

We’re coming to the end of the book of Ecclesiastes, a wonderful Old Testament book. As we get to the end, we’re also getting to the climax. In the passage we have before us, the Teacher is laying his cards on the table. You’ll remember that the Teacher has been exploring life and trying to find its meaning.

In the passage we have before us, the Teacher is saying to us what the doctors said to Mary: You only have a short time to live. He makes the case for this in this passage, because he knows he’s speaking to some of us who are young and who don’t believe it. Then he tells us how we should live in light of this reality.

Here’s the message of this passage: Life is short. Enjoy life while you can, and remember God. So let’s look at how he explains this. One: Life is short. Two: Enjoy life while you can. Three: remember God.

One: Life is short.

On Wednesday, June 29, elementary school kids are going to get out of school for the summer. They are going to enjoy 68 glorious days of no more pencils, no more books, no more teachers giving them the well-deserved dirty looks they’ve come to expect. You know that many of our kids live in dog years. For them the 68 days is the equivalent of years!

Many of us suffer from the reverse problem. At some point you reach the age in which you are living in reverse dog years. The summer for you is going to be the equivalent of about a week.

The issue that the Teacher is addressing in this passage is that many of us have not grasped that life is very short. We only have a very limited time. When you’re young, you don’t realize this. So he says in verses 7 and 8:

Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.

So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.

You may be surprised by verse 7. Most people think the Teacher is a pessimist. In verse 7 he uses light as an image for life and says that life is good. It’s sweet! You want to enjoy life the way that you enjoy the sweetness of honey. You want to enjoy life as much as you can.

In verse 8 he continues: “So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all.” Sometimes we begin to take life for granted. We can go through entire years in which we’re not really living. We’re waiting. We’re in a holding pattern. The Teacher tells us not to do this. Really live. Really engage in life.

But then he says: “let him remember that the days of darkness will be many.” This is the sobering part. He’s writing to young people who have all of life in front of them and who may be tempted to waste some years of their life because they have so many. He’s telling them that life is sweet, but is it ever short. It’s going to be over before you know it. We are mortal. Our days are few. Soon this life that we have will be over, and all of our works will fade away. Life is very short; death is long, according to verse 8. We must remember this if we are to live life wisely now.

Just in case we don’t get his point, the Teacher includes a poignant and moving description of what it’s like to get older in 12:1-8. Remember that he’s writing to young people. He even says, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth.” Here’s the reason why. The Teacher says that there’s going to come a time when we’re not young anymore. “Die early or grow old; there is no other alternative. And yet, as Goethe said, ‘Age takes hold of us by surprise’” (Simone de Beauvoir). Here’s the problem: I want to live 90 years and die as a 30-year-old. The Teacher tells us that it isn’t going to happen. He says that one day:

  • we’ll stop taking pleasure in life (12:2)
  • our eyesight will diminish and we’ll long for the days when we only needed bifocals (12:3)
  • Our bodies will be like a decaying old house that trembles and is weak (12:3)
  • Our teeth will decay (12:3)
  • Our hearing will diminish (12:4)
  • We’ll be much more fearful of falling or of dangers (12:5)
  • Our hair will change color if we have any (12:5)
  • Our sexual desire will diminish (12:5)
  • We’ll become less agile, and eventually we’ll die (12:5-7)

You try telling someone who’s young that all of this is true. The Teacher says: it is true. And when you’re young, it’s very important to understand that life is sweet, but it is also very short.

A woman went to a new doctor. She realized she had gone to school with this doctor. He was the cute guy in class that he had a crush on. She said, “I think I remember you from this school.” He looked at her and said, “You were at that school? What did you teach?” Like this doctor, the Teacher is reminding us that time is going much quicker than we think. When we are young we had better realize that life is sweet, but our time is short, much shorter than we could ever think when we’re young.

So what should we do?

Life is short. So enjoy life while you can.

How do we respond to the brevity of life? The Teacher says:

Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.

Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.

This is confusing at first. On one hand, you can look at death and allow yourself to be depressed. Or, on the other hand, you can deny death and be happy. These are the two options that we normally hold out before people. Pretend you’re ageless and really live, or acknowledge the reality of death and hate everything about it. Our culture is all about this. We spend $88 billion a year trying to look younger and trying to prevent aging so that we don’t have to look at the fact that our lives are short, and that we’re farther alone than many of us would like.

But here the Teacher gives us another alternative: Look at the brevity of life and allow it to drive you to make the most of every moment. He refuses to embrace denial or cynicism and calls us to realistic joy, knowing that we have limited time and so we’d better make it count.

He commands us to rejoice; to let our hearts be glad. He calls us to “let your heart be glad in the days of your youth.” If you are young, you have a unique opportunity to put this into practice. You aren’t yet facing the problems of aging that he describes in the next chapter. Your body is strong. The future is full of possibilities. You have the freedom to take risks and to chose your direction in life. You can dream about the difference you’ll make with your life.

So he advises you to take advantage of your youth, because your youth will not last. Chase after your hopes. He even says in verse 10 that you should eliminate the things in your life that trouble your body and soul. When you’re young, again, you have the opportunity to deal with things at their early stages. We planted a little willow twig in our backyard when we moved in 20 years ago. The first little while I could have just walked up to that twig and yanked it out of the ground. Today it’s a huge tree, and it’s not going anywhere. When you’re young, deal with things and take advantage of the unique opportunities you have in life, because youth is fleeting. You won’t have a chance to do this forever.

He’s not telling us to be self-indulgent and to live as we please. But he is telling us to live joyfully in the world that God has created, knowing that we don’t have unlimited time to do so. When we’re young, it looks like we have countless days ahead of us. So the Teacher tells us to realize the opportunities aren’t unlimited. Don’t postpone the opportunities God has given you. Don’t postpone enjoyment to a future time when you, say, have your own car, finish university, are married, or have a great job. Enjoy the present!

This is a theme that comes up a lot in Scripture. Psalm 90:12 says, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” Paul says, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16).

What we don’t want is to look back at life one day and wish we lived differently when we had the chance. In his book Don't Waste Your Life, John Piper recounts a story his father often told in his days as a fiery Baptist evangelist. It is the story of a man who came to saving faith in Jesus Christ near the end of his earthly existence. Piper writes:

The church had prayed for this man for decades. He was hard and resistant. But this time, for some reason, he showed up when my father was preaching. At the end of the service, during a hymn, to everyone's amazement he came and took my father's hand. They sat down together on the front pew of the church as the people were dismissed. God opened his heart to the Gospel of Christ, and he was saved from his sins and given eternal life. But that did not stop him from sobbing and saying, as the tears ran down his wrinkled face, "I've wasted it! I've wasted it!"

Don’t be that man! But even if you are, another pastor comments on this story:

By the grace of God, even a life that is almost totally wasted can still be redeemed. As the Scottish theologian Thomas Boston once said, our present existence is only "a short preface to a long eternity." If that is true, then the man's life was not wasted after all; he was only just beginning an eternal life of endless praise. But why wait even a moment longer before starting to serve Jesus? You have only one life to live. Don't waste it by living for yourself when you can use it instead for the glory of God. (Phil Ryken)

Life is short. So enjoy life while you can. But there’s one more thing the Teacher tells us.

Life is short. Enjoy life while you can, and remember God.

11:9 says, “But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.” This doesn’t put a damper on our pursuit of joy. This isn’t a downer. Seize every moment and enjoy the gifts God has given you, but remember God in your joy. Don’t give in to irresponsible self-indulgence. See enjoyment as a gift from God. Remember God so that you can enjoy your life.

Again, 12:1 says: “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth.” The Teacher reminds us that God is our Creator. He is the one who has given us everything that we have. He gave us life. He is the one who’s given us our family and friends. He’s created everything we have that we get to enjoy.

The problem is that it is so easy to forget the one who made us, especially when we’re young. It’s so easy to simply live for ourselves. It’s easy to forget. One of the reasons we celebrate communion so regularly is because we need to be reminded on a regular basis what Christ has done for us. We are far too quick to forget.

Life is short, so enjoy it while you can. But while you’re enjoying it, don’t forget the one who created you. The one who created you is not only your Maker but your Judge. The only way to live in light of someone who is both your Creator and Judge and who’s given you everything is to live your life in orbit around him. Center your life on him. Give your life to God now, while you still have enough passion to make a difference in the world. How much more is this true when we realize that God is not just our Maker and our Judge but also our Savior. We come to remember this morning that the one who made us and the one who will judge us is also revealed as the Triune God. God sent his Son to die for our sins, and the Son willingly came. The one who made us became the one who died for us. He’s given us this brief life in which we can enjoy the strength he’s given us to really live, knowing that our Creator and Judge is also our Savior.

Bono from U2 has written:

Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite books. It’s about a character who wants to find out why he’s alive, why he was created. He tries knowledge. He tries wealth. He tries experience. He tries everything. You hurry to the end of the book to find out why, and it says, “Remember your Creator.” In a way, it’s such a letdown. Yet it isn’t.

Bono’s right. It’s not a letdown. Getting to know your Creator, Judge, and Savior before we grow old and die is one of the most important things we can ever do. No matter how old you are, you have the opportunity to use the rest of your life beginning now, resolving to waste no more time, but to live every moment for the glory of the one who is your Creator, Judge, and Savior.

Let’s pray.

Years ago, Jonathan Edwards made these resolutions.

  • Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can.
  • Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live.
  • Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life.
  • Resolved, to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.
  • Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God's glory, and my own good, profit and pleasure.

Father, may we resolve today to know that life is short. And may we resolve to make the most of every moment you’ve given us. Most of all, may we resolve to live every day in light of the one who not only created us, and who will not only judge us, but who has also saved us. In the name of Jesus our Savior we pray. Amen.

Be Bold and Wise (Ecclesiastes 11:1-6)

If you travel to Cairo, Egypt, you can visit an abandoned graveyard at the end of a garbage-lined alley. And if you look carefully at that graveyard, you’ll come across one tombstone in particular. The tombstone is for William Borden (1887-1913). You wouldn’t expect this grave to belong to anyone important, but you’d be wrong. William Borden was educated at Yale and Princeton. He became a Christian under the ministry of the great evangelist D.L. Moody. He was heir to the Borden dairy estate, which was a fortune. But William Borden gave it all away out of a desire to share the gospel with those who had never heard it.

So Borden decided to become a missionary to the Muslims of China. He was a millionaire by the time he was 21, but he gave it all away to missions. His father told him he would never work in the company again. Borden traveled to Egypt for his missionary training, but while he was there he contracted spinal meningitis and died at the age of 25, before he had even reached his mission field. And really all that’s left of his life is this gravestone in an abandoned cemetery at the end of a garbage-lined alley. Borden risked everything, and he lost everything as a result.

We’re looking today at the book of Ecclesiastes, and the story I just told really seems to belong with this book. It’s depressing! The story that I just told could be used as an incentive to play it safe. See what happens when you take a risk? Look at what happened to William Borden! That’s what happens if you go into missions! I could tell you all kinds of stories that would make you retreat from life and play things completely safe and never take any risks at all.

When our kids were young, Charlene told them a story about a lady who was eating chicken. I’m not quite sure about all the details of the story, but I think the story involved choking on a chicken bone and almost dying. To this day our kids are cautious when eating chicken that contains any bones. Who knew that eating at Swiss Chalet could be so dangerous? It’s easy to conclude that we should just retreat to safety and never take any risks at all.

In 1927, a small fire took place at a theatre in Montreal. 800 children were watching a movie. When smoke began to fill the theatre, the kids panicked. 78 children died. The next year they passed a law that children under 16 would be forbidden from attending theaters screenings. The law stayed on the books for 33 years.

Life is uncertain. Missionaries die. People choke on bones. Kids die in theaters. Maybe we should agree right here and now that nobody should ever be a missionary, we should never eat chicken, and no more movies for our kids!

That’s what we’re looking at in the passage we have before us. Multiple times in this passage, the Teacher tells us that we don’t know what’s going to happen in life. Because we don’t know what’s going to happen, how then should we live? Should we play it safe, or take risks?

That’s the question the Teacher answers. And he says two things.

First, he says, take wise risks.

In the light of the risks of life, should we take risks or play it safe? The Teacher answers in verse 1:

Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

What does this mean? It obviously doesn’t mean getting soggy pieces of bread back that you’ve thrown into the waves. The new edition of the NIV puts it this way:

Ship your grain across the sea;
after many days you may receive a return.

You see what the Teacher is saying here? Life is risky. The world is uncertain. There are all kinds of ways that we can take risks and end up losing everything. When Ecclesiastes was written, Israel had been transformed from a small agricultural nation to one that was right on the trading route between Egypt and Asia/Europe. Some Israelites had already lost fortunes. In chapter 5, the Teacher had already talked about someone who had lost everything in a bad venture. So what should we do? In verse 1, the Teacher tells us to take a risk. Engage in international trade, and wait for the goods to sell, and the ships to return with fine goods from foreign lands. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. To “find it after many days” is to receive the reward that comes after risking a wise investment. Get out there and make something happen, the Teacher says.

Verse 2 continues the thought, but adds a condition:

Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight;
you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.

Here again you have the element of risk. You probably follow what he’s teaching here: don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. Diversify your investments. Don’t withdraw from investing, because then you’ll lose out on any potential gain. Don’t just invest in one or two ventures, because they could fail, and if they fail you lose everything. Invest in seven or eight ventures. Some of them are bound to fail, but some of them may do well, and may be more than enough to make up for what you could lose. Take risks, but take them wisely.

He’s emphasizing how risky all of this is, but he gives us some perspective in the next verse:

If clouds are full of water,
they pour rain on the earth.
Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north,
in the place where it falls, there it will lie.

Here’s what he’s saying. We know some things. If the clouds are full of water, it’s going to rain at some point. If a tree falls, you may not know which way it’s going to fall, but once it’s fallen it’s not getting back up. There are some things we can know for sure. This makes it even more important for us to make wise investments, because if we carefully study how things should work, then we should know that some things work better than others.

We’re going to apply this in a minute, but let’s look first at the second thing that he tells us. He’s told us to invest boldly and wisely. Now he tells us what not to do.

Second, don’t wait for perfect conditions.

This is what he tells us in verse 4:

Whoever watches the wind will not plant;
whoever looks at the clouds will not reap.

Some people don’t struggle with taking too many risks. Some people are so risk-averse that they wait for conditions to be perfect before they try anything.

The picture the Teacher gives us is of a farmer waiting for perfect conditions in which to plant. It’s important to pay attention to conditions. Even today farmers will study clouds or watch the weather channel. Back when this was written, the ideal conditions for sowing would be when there was minimal wind. That way you could scatter the seeds evenly over the field. But you could get carried away and never scatter the seed because the conditions were never good enough. At some point, you have to take the risk. At some point, you just have to scatter the seed.

Do you see the picture that the Teacher is developing here? Take risks, but take them wisely. Don’t wait for perfect conditions. If you wait for perfect conditions then you’ll never do anything, because the perfect conditions may never materialize. Take a chance, not just in business but in life. If you don’t take a risk, you won’t ever do anything with what God has given you.

Here’s the conclusion, in verses 5 and 6:

As you do not know the path of the wind,
or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb,
so you cannot understand the work of God,
the Maker of all things.
Sow your seed in the morning,
and at evening let your hands not be idle,
for you do not know which will succeed,
whether this or that,
or whether both will do equally well.

We don’t know a lot, the Teacher says. We don’t know what God will prosper, or what will fail. So don’t let that stop you from doing something. Let that be the very reason that you get out there and make things happen. Sow your seed in the morning. Get to work in the evening. Take a risk. God is sovereign, and it just may be that he uses something that you do.

This is so important that Jesus said a similar thing. In Matthew 25, Jesus told a story about servants who were given money to invest on behalf of their master. Some invested very well and were commended by the master. But one servant played it safe because he didn’t want to take any risks. The master was incredibly harsh. He squandered the opportunity he had to do something with what his master had given him.

So What?

This may be one of the easiest passages in Ecclesiastes to explain, but one of the hardest to apply.

Life and ministry are risky. There are risks everyday. There are risks in using the gifts that God has given us. There’s a risk to sharing our faith. There’s a risk in having children. There’s a risk in giving financially to support ministries. There’s risk in going to the mission field. There’s risk in almost everything that we do.

We are prone to play it safe. Whenever we look at Scripture, it’s good to ask what part of our fallen natures this particular passage addresses. In this case, I think this passage is confronting our fears. We are prone to fear. I don’t think of myself as a fearful person. Last year, through a series of events, God revealed to me that I am much more fearful than I had ever imagined myself to be. It was a revelation that I didn’t welcome at first, but I’m glad that God revealed some of my fears to me. We can spend our entire lives running scared, more fearful of events and people than we are of God.

God calls us to live lives of holy boldness. If you look at Matthew 25, Jesus is calling us to wisely risk what God has given us to profit our master - God. God is calling us to wisely invest our lives to his glory. One day we will give account to God for what we’ve done with what he’s given us. Jesus makes it clear that we won’t be able to say that we just played it safe. So let me ask you: what has God called you to do that you haven’t done because of fear?

Finally, we need to see that the results are in his hands. We are not in charge of results. We are in charge of being faithful with what God has given us. The rest is up to God.

I began with the story of William Borden. He risked, and it looked like he lost. After his death, Borden's Bible was found and given to his parents. In it they found in one place the words "No Reserve" and a date placing the note shortly after he renounced his fortune in favor of missions. At a later point, he had written "No Retreat", dated shortly after his father told he would never let him work in the company ever again. Shortly before he died in Egypt, he added the phrase "No Regrets." Borden risked, but he risked appropriately.

I could speak of other missionaries. Missionary Karen Watson was killed in Iraq. She wrote this letter in 2003, almost a year to the day before she was killed.

Dear Pastor Phil and Pastor Roger:

You should only be opening this letter in the event of my death.

When God calls there are no regrets. I tried to share my heart with you as much as possible, my heart for the nations. I wasn't called to a place. I was called to him. To obey was my objective, to suffer was expected, his glory my reward, his glory my reward.

One of the most important things to remember right now is to preserve the work….I am writing this as if I am still working with my people group.

I thank you all so much for your prayers and support. Surely your reward in heaven will be great. Thank you for investing in my life and spiritual well-being. Keep sending missionaries out. Keep raising up fine young pastors.

In regards to any service, keep it small and simple. Yes, simply, just preach the gospel….Be bold and preach the life-saving, life-changing, forever-eternal gospel. Give glory and honor to our Father.

The Missionary Heart:
Care more than some think is wise.
Risk more than some think is safe.
Dream more than some think is practical.
Expect more than some think is possible.

I was called not to comfort or success but to obedience….There is no joy outside of knowing Jesus and serving him. I love you two and my church family.

In his care,
Salaam,
Karen

I could even remind you that nobody really knows the impact of the actions they’ve taken. Luke Short was 103 when he thought of a sermon that he once heard. Sitting in Virginia, he asked God to forgive his sins through Jesus Christ. He died three years later at 106. His tombstone read, “Here lies a babe in grace, aged three years, who died according to nature, aged 106.” But here’s the remarkable part: the sermon that he remembered that caused him to become a Christian that day was one that he had heard 85 years earlier across the ocean in England. Nearly a century had passed between the preaching of his sermon and the conversion; between the sowing and the reaping. You never know what God might do.

Because we don’t know what God will prosper, use every opportunity to live wisely and boldly. Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let your hands not be idle, because you never know what God may prosper.

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)