Asaph & the Wicked

For, lo, they that are far from thee shall perish: Thou hast destroyed all them that play the harlot, departing from thee. But it is good for me to draw near unto God: I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all thy works” (Psalms 73:27-28).

Psalm 73 describes Asaph’s meditations on one of the more challenging realities of this world: the wicked oftentimes prosper while the righteous do not.

At first, Asaph is led to envy and distress. He sees the condition of the wicked: they are strong, without trouble or plague, proud, violent, fat, with abundance of possessions, scoffers, blasphemers, and at ease (Psalm 73:1-12). Asaph begins to envy them and wonders why he bothers living a righteous life, trying to do the right thing, while all these others who cut corners and do wickedness prosper (Psalm 73:13-14)!

Asaph understands that such thoughts are treachery against himself and against his descendants, and he recognizes that dwelling on the whole matter causes pain (Psalm 73:15-16). And then he enters the sanctuary of God and receives comfort (Psalm 73:17).

Yes, the wicked may prosper now, but the day is coming when they will get caught in their wickedness. It may be during this life, or it may be in the life to come, but desolation comes upon them all (Psalm 73:18-20, Romans 2:5-10).

Asaph then recognizes how brutish he was, and foolish in his thinking (Psalm 73:21-22). He recognizes that his trust is in the LORD, and that God will guide him with His counsel (Psalm 73:23-25). Even though the flesh fails, God will be strong (Psalm 73:26). And, in conclusion, Asaph sets forth the two paths: the one that is far from God, and those therein will perish, and the one drawing near to God, where there is true strength and value (Psalm 73:27-28).

Three thousand years later things have not changed significantly. There are still plenty of people who make a very good living through sinful behaviors. It seems that those people who are trying to be responsible and who do the right thing are the ones being punished, and many wonder if it is worth it to do what is right and to follow God.

We can learn much from Asaph and his meditations. Yes, the wicked prosper. But their prosperity will not last forever. Times of distress will come upon them and there will be no Refuge in which they can trust. They may mock and deride God in their words and deeds, but all of that will come upon them one day (cf. Romans 2:5-10, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9)!

Those who attempt to serve God and do His will may look at the wicked and get envious at how “well” they are doing, but they must never forget what they have. As believers in God they are able to call upon God as their trust and refuge. Believers in God are guided by His counsel and enjoy the opportunity to be in the presence of God (cf. Matthew 28:20, Hebrews 4:16). And, ultimately, God will redeem those who are His and they will spend eternity with Him in glory (cf. Psalm 73:24, 2 Thessalonians 1:10-11, Revelation 21:1-22:6).

Why do the wicked prosper? We do not know, cannot know, and it would be too painful to really know. But let us not envy the temporal prosperity of the wicked when we have the opportunity to have the true riches indeed – to call upon the One True God, to be guided and sustained by Him, and, ultimately, to receive glory from Him. Let us draw near to God and make Him our refuge!

lesson by Ethan R. Longhenry

Futility in Effort

Vanity of vanities,” saith the Preacher; “vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What profit hath man of all his labor wherein he laboreth under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3).

There is nothing quite as futile as shoveling snow.

It does not matter how much snow has fallen. It does not matter how elaborately the mounds of snow are piled up. It may snow again, and then you have to shovel all that snow onto all the previous snow. And then, after a few months or days, it is all gone – melted and drained away.

Then again, mowing the lawn feels a lot like shoveling snow. One goes and mows the lawn and it looks nice and fresh. Then, after a week or a month, depending on location and weather factors, the lawn looks just like it did before mowing. And thus it must be mowed again. And the cycle repeats itself.

When you stop and think about it, pretty much everything seems futile. Clothes are washed only to get dirty again and require washing. Dishes are cleaned only to be dirtied again. Meals are cooked and eaten, and those who ate hunger again.

Sports teams play their seasons. Most teams never make it to the playoffs, and the fans are left believing, “maybe next year.” Some teams make it to the playoffs only to lose then. And then there is the championship game. A winner is crowned. The team and fans exult. And then everyone gets ready for the next year and the next season and the next set of playoffs and the next championship.

There seems to be futility even in the area of spiritual matters. A preacher preaches lessons on one Sunday only to have to work to preach new lessons the next Sunday. The Lord’s Supper is taken one week, and then is taken the next week. The same things are done over and over again, only to need to be done over and over again.

It is very easy to take a step back and ask yourself, “what is the point of it all?” After all, everything seems so pointless! “Why bother?,” one may ask!

The reason that everything seems so “worthless” in this perspective is because we have been raised to expect there to be some great overarching purpose and meaning in life that makes every single event seem important. Ever since the Tower of Babel man has attempted to invest his deeds with great earthly significance (cf. Genesis 11:4). We are raised to go out and “make a difference” in society. We are strengthened and encouraged to believe that our participation in various efforts – employment, volunteerism, politics, etc. – will have lasting value.

Yet, ultimately, the Preacher is correct. All is vanity – futility – emptiness. We may like to think a lot of our efforts have lasting worldly significance, but such is not really true. One of these days everything around us will be thoroughly destroyed by fire and the memory of them will entirely fade (cf. 2 Peter 3:9-12)!

Does this mean that all is lost? Should we all despair of life? Hardly! The problem is not in the activities of snow shoveling, lawn mowing, household chores, and the like, but our perspective on them. We must recognize that everything we do should be means to an end, and not the end in and of itself. We have many functions that are just functions of life, and we should learn to be content with the fact that they will come and go.

As Jesus indicates, there is only one place where moth does not eat and rust does not destroy, and that is Heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). The spiritual realm is the only realm of any permanence. That is why all of our effort, ultimately, must be to the glory of God and to the promotion of His purposes (Matthew 5:13-16, 6:33). The functions of life must be done as a means to the end of glorifying God. Shoveling snow, mowing the lawn, and household chores are the means by which we serve our family members and others, and in so doing, we serve God (Ephesians 5:23-6:4). Doing the best work we can for an employer is as serving the Lord (cf. Ephesians 6:5-9). Our assemblies and the actions therein are accomplished for encouragement and edification, and thus promote God’s purposes (1 Corinthians 14:26, Hebrews 10:24-25).

The Preacher indicates that all things done for their own benefit in their own name are vanity. Paul indicates that all things done “in the Lord” are not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). Let us not allow ourselves to be distracted or to invest our energies in things that lead to no profit, but instead to serve God and promote His purposes on earth!

lesson by Ethan R. Longhenry

Righteousness, Peace, and Joy

Let not then your good be evil spoken of: for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:16-17).

God desires for all who believe in the name of Jesus to be one (John 17:20-23) and to have the same mind and the same judgment (1 Corinthians 1:10). In order even to begin this process we must all submit ourselves under God’s mighty hand and to be instructed by Him and not the world around us (1 Peter 5:6, Colossians 2:1-9, Romans 12:1-2). And yet, even though we are to be of the same mind and the same judgment, there are matters concerning which God has provided liberty and are not of significant concern. In matters relating to the faith, we must hold firm and not compromise (Galatians 1:6-9). In matters of liberty, we must consider the interests of others and resolve to not put a stumbling block in a fellow Christian’s way (Philippians 2:1-4, Romans 14:13).

This is why the message of Romans 14:17 is so essential: we must use proper judgment to discern the matters of “eating and drinking” so as to not violate or grieve the “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

“Eating and drinking” are the matters of liberty – in context, the eating of meats (Romans 14:2). Observing days is a similar issue that is mentioned, demonstrating that we should not interpret “eating and drinking” exclusively literally (cf. Romans 14:5). These liberties involve practices or means of accomplishing practices that are within the realm of Biblical authority (Colossians 3:17) and yet for which God has not made specific provision.

“Eating and drinking” is contrasted with “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” The Kingdom of God is not about the former, but it certainly is about the latter.

“Righteousness in the Holy Spirit” involves that which God has established – doing what God has determined is right, and avoiding that which God has determined is wrong (Romans 12:9). There can be no room for compromising these standards– those who approve what God condemns or condemns what God approves are considered accursed (Galatians 1:6-9, 5:19-21). To believe that Romans 14 can provide “flexibility” in God’s standards of righteousness is misguided and certainly not Paul’s intent. The matters concerning which Paul speaks in Romans 14 are the matters of “food and drink” which are not to hinder the Kingdom of God. If God says we must do something, we must do it. if God says we must avoid something, we must avoid it.

Paul does not stop there. He also speaks of the “peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Peace is not merely the absence of hostility or strife – it involves killing hostility (cf. Ephesians 2:15-17). To have peace requires each person to seek the best interest of others and not themselves, and to work to build up– even if one’s personal preference must be sacrificed (Philippians 2:1-4, Romans 14:19). We must remember that in order for us to have the peace that surpasses understanding and to be reconciled to God, Jesus needed to kill the enmity through suffering and enduring the cross (Ephesians 2:11-18). If we will have peace in the Kingdom, we are going to have to suffer and endure (cf. Romans 8:17-18, 15:1)!

“Joy in the Holy Spirit” is based in our great salvation that God is accomplishing (cf. 1 Peter 1:3-9). There is joy when people repent and do what is right (Luke 15:7). There is joy when we walk in the truth (3 John 1:4). We are to take joy and happiness in one another and the encouragement we derive from one another in our walk of faith (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:19, Hebrews 10:24-25). In Philippians 2:2-4, Paul tells us exactly how we can make the joy of God complete: to be of the same mind, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind, doing nothing out of rivalry, considering everyone better than themselves, looking toward the interests of others. This is the happiness we can have in the Spirit!

While we have examined righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit separately, it only works when all three are present. The Kingdom requires not just the righteousness of the Holy Spirit – peace and joy in the Spirit must also be present.

“Eating and drinking” may not violate the righteousness in the Holy Spirit, but if people insist on their liberties to the detriment of the consciences of their fellow Christians, or if Christians vigorously condemn fellow Christians for matters of liberty and not on the basis of revealed truth, the peace and joy of the Holy Spirit is violated, no matter how “right” or “legitimate” the doctrinal position.

God is not merely concerned about truth – He is also concerned about people (1 Timothy 2:4). We are to be known as Jesus’ disciples by our love for one another (John 13:35), and biting and devouring one another on the basis of liberties does not reflect that love (cf. Galatians 5:15).

We must hold firm to the truth and proclaim it to all men, embodying the righteousness of the Holy Spirit. But we must also work to kill any hostility that may exist among us and to seek the best interest of one another and to share in the peace and joy in the Spirit – and that is going to mean that we are going to have to sacrifice some personal opinions, desires, and liberties for the sake of one another. Let us seek to uphold the righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, building up the Kingdom, and glorify God!

lesson by Ethan R. Longhenry

Reprogramming Ourselves

In early December, I went through a seminar called Breaking Through, and one lesson from the lectures was that we have a great deal of extra content in our minds. We operate consciously about 10% of the time and subconsciously about 90% of the time, and the speaker emphasized that we have to reprogram our subconscious thoughts to influence our conscious actions.

The first principle to reprogram is that we do, in fact, have the ability to change. James 1:19-26 affirms that we have the ability to look into God’s perfect law and become a doer of that word. Do we truly believe this? Do we believe God’s word is powerful, and do we believe we are capable of following it? When we are indecisive about our goals, we seldom get far. Romans 12:1-2 encourages to renew our minds and focus on God’s plan, but we have to overcome our self-limiting thoughts if we are to attain this goal.

Being Versus Having

We have a Have-Do-Be culture. The condition upon us being happy is us doing what we want and having want we want in this world, but the mark is always moving in this approach. There are always better opportunities and better things toward which to reach. I Corinthians 4:11-13 speaks of being content in all economic conditions because of his trust in God. Instead of looking for having things and doing things that lead to peace. Paul finds peace independent of his situations. He sets his mind on peace, then pursues his life. In Colossians 1:1-3, Paul reminds us to set our minds on things above first. Contentment and peace is with God, and through Him, Paul could remain at peace despite any other challenges.

Creative Versus Reactive

When we choose contentment and peace, we will seek after things that promote those conditions. It is having a creative mind rather than a reactive mind. When we are reactive to our lives, we seek to place the responsibility for our actions and attitudes upon others. Someone else is to always to blame. Accepting responsibility, however, is ultimately liberating. We stop worrying about how others impact our lives, and we become the driving forces in our lives. We can live as God wants us to live, and Acts 5:41-42 records Jesus’ disciples doing just that – living a godly life despite persecution that could have led them away. When we react to situations, our choices immediately become limited, but the creative mind is unlimited and free. In Ephesians 3:14-21, Paul writes that we can be filled with God’s fulness.

When we are reactive, we see things from the middle of problems and circumstances we are unable to control. When we create, we take control of the opportunities and possibilities before us. It takes commitment to be creative, though. Are we committed to being the example we should be? Are we committed to being the Bible students we should be? Are we committed to having the character we should have? When it comes to commitment, we may fall under one of five categories.

When we commit ourselves to a goal, we often convince ourselves we do all we can by simply wishing to do better or trying to improve without making any real progress. Other times, we let other factors come between us and our commitment, showing that those interferences are actually more important to us than our goal. Instead, we should let nothing stand in our way. Paul writes of his peace and contentment despite all odds. He is a godly person no matter the cost. We should be so committed to God’s work that we will pursue it whatever it takes.

Conclusion

Where are your commitments, and how committed are you to those goals? What if Christ showed as much commitment to my salvation as I show to His service. Romans 5:8 makes it clear that Jesus would fulfill His mission regardless of the cost. II Corinthians 11:20-33 records the measures to which Paul goes to fulfill his ministry. At what point in his story would we have simply given up? Our church family depends on our commitment to better themselves. We are all here to edify each other. We are here to encourage one another. We cannot, however, be the example we should be if we are letting the world dictate our attitudes and actions. We should commit ourselves to being the Christians we should be, and we have to decide first that we will possess God’s peace and contentment despite all around us. We can do all things in Him.

lesson by Donn Koonce

Giving Thanks

In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus to you-ward (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

We are soon approaching the time when our country observes Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving was intended to be a time to reflect and give thanks for all the wonderful blessings we share. Unfortunately, in the eyes of many, it has just turned into an opportunity to eat one or more over-sized meals.

Bible believers recognize that God has never set aside one day for us to give thanks – He intends for believers to be people constantly marked by thankfulness. As Paul indicates, God’s will for us in Christ is to give thanks in everything (1 Thessalonians 5:18)!

Giving thanks is a humbling experience, for it teaches us how indebted we are to God. If it were not for God’s blessings toward us, we would not have the heavens or the earth (Genesis 1:1-2:4), the opportunity to have association with God through Christ (Romans 5:1-11), the love and comfort of our spiritual family (1 Corinthians 12:12-28), or the hope of eternity beyond this life (John 3:16). If it were not for God, we would not exist (Acts 17:28); without Christ, we would be hopeless, lost entirely in sin, and waiting for condemnation (Romans 6:23, Ephesians 2:11-12)!

Therefore, when we give thanks, it is hard to be proud or to believe that we are “self-made” people. When we give thanks, we learn again how we are weak and God is strong and how we need to trust Him and lean on Him, and not trust in ourselves (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:9, 12:9-10)!

Giving thanks should also be an encouraging and uplifting experience that should assist us in keeping a proper perspective. It is easy to get discouraged and distressed in our lives, and it is easy to fall into the trap of letting our discouragement distort our perspective in life. But when we give thanks, we are forced to no longer focus on what is going wrong and what we do not have but instead to focus on all the things that God has done for us in this creation and through Christ (cf. Ephesians 1:3). When we consider the great cost of our salvation which God freely paid, it is much easier to trust that God will also be faithful and helpful in the comparatively minor challenges we experience in life (cf. Romans 8:32). When we consider all that God has promised and accomplished, and see what God is doing, we can look with hopeful eyes toward that which God has promised for our future (cf. Romans 8:18). When we stop and realize all of these wonderful things that God has done, is doing, and will do, the “light momentary affliction” we are experiencing will be put into its proper perspective (2 Corinthians 4:17)! When we truly recognize how God loves us, how can we but rejoice in the Lord always (cf. Philippians 4:4)?

It is good and right for us to give thanks during this holiday season – and after this holiday season, and at every opportunity. It is good for us to give thanks lest we begin to take God’s current blessings for granted and succumb to the travails and distress of life. Let us always give thanks for the wonderful blessings of God and strive toward the goal of eternal life!

lesson by Ethan R. Longhenry

Are We Having Fun Yet?

There are times in this life when sorrow rolls over us and peace is far away. There are times when our sin is ever before us. The phrase, “Are we having fun yet?” is a sarcastic remark that permeates pop culture. Usually, when we ask this question, we are feeling the exact opposite. “Are we having fun yet?” may have, in fact, made a good title to some of the chapters in the book of Ecclesiastes. Many of the issues we find in the wisdom literature still exist today.

Solomon recognizes times of trouble, times of sin, times of conflict. He sees much around him that is without endurance and without foundation. He sees that we live in a broken world where bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. We see twisting of justice. We see a lack of fairness. It is not life itself that is unprofitable or vanity. Rather, vanity comes from living to the world’s standards of success and happiness. Successful jobs, praise from others, material possessions, pushing boundaries – none of these things fulfill man’s purpose nor provide enduring contentment.

Seeking the Next Fix

We grow dull and desensitized to those things that give us joy and excitement. Solomon begins looking for pleasure in chapter 2, but that is not enough. He then moves on to building great works – houses, gardens, parks, pools, etc. Verse 7 then transitions to material possessions. He has servants, flocks, silver and gold. It begins with him seeking pleasure, and he moves on time and again to the next fix. By verses 10-12, Solomon indulges in any and every joy he sees – whether wise or foolish.

By chapter 2:17-20, all of this brings him despair and dissatisfaction. He seeks pleasure in this life, regardless of the source. Hebrews 11:24-25, in the context of Moses’ life, speaks of the pleasures of sin, yet the writer calls these pleasures seasonal. They are temporary and transient. Moses recognizes this and chooses God. While we acknowledge the ability of sin to deliver pleasure and satisfaction, but what long-term gains come from it. Romans 6:20 calls sin freedom from righteousness, but verse 21 asks what the point it, though, when the end of that freedom is destruction.

Discovering True Contentment

Can respect, honor, dignity, and love come from living in sin? Paul says no – shame and death come from sin. Are we having fun yet, while we continue to distance ourselves from God? Returning to Ecclesiastes 2, however, Solomon sees hope. In verses 22-24, he sees that one can enjoy life in this broken world while acknowledging God and keeping Him in perspective. Chapter 5:18 reinforces this idea of enjoying our possessions and labors in gratitude to God. Chapter 8:12 reminds us that those who do good will do well before God. He concludes in chapter 12 by admonishing us all to remember our Creator and to live our lives for Him.

Solomon recognizes that striving after fulfillment in this life ultimately results in vanity. No matter how we try to ignore it or run from it, we know eternity awaits us. Many aspects of life lose meaning without God. Without Him, all these pleasures and achievements are mere distractions that will leave voids needing to be filled again and again. Are we having fun yet? Perhaps that is the wrong question altogether. Paul asks of the fruits of sin, but he offers hope in Romans 6:22-23. We are free from sin in Christ’s sacrifice, and he concludes where Solomon concludes: serve God. We can enjoy the things of this life, but we have meaning and contentment when we acknowledge the temporary nature of this world. In serving God and obeying Him, we can enjoy life and find peace in a broken world.

lesson by Tim Smelser