Is It Vain To Serve God?

“Your words have been stout against me,” saith the LORD.

Yet ye say, “What have we spoken against thee?”

Ye have said, “It is vain to serve God; and what profit is it that we have kept his charge, and that we have walked mournfully before the LORD of hosts?” (Malachi 3:13-14).

People tend to prefer and value instant gratification. Sure, there are some things for which people are willing to wait for a little time, but on the whole, we want results, and we want them now. We do not want to wait in line, we do not want to wait to buy things later, and we certainly do not like being held in suspension.

If humans cannot stand waiting, then it stands to reason that humans have an even harder time tolerating seemingly constant failure. In the minds of many, insanity is defined as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” In many facets of life, that statement is reasonable and accurate.

But what happens when it comes to waiting on God?

Human beings want things right now. They want change to have happened already. Yet God operates in His good time, for He is not bound to time like we are (cf. 2 Peter 3:8). We want everything right now, but God is patiently transforming those who seek to be His obedient servants (cf. Romans 8:29, 12:1-2). It does not happen overnight – but it does happen!

But how do we feel when we look out in the world and think that nothing is going right? What happens when it seems like things are worse for us because we try to serve God? How should we then respond?

We can see how the post-exilic Jews responded to this situation. By all accounts they were less sinful than their fathers, and yet while their fathers lived in a free and independent Judah, they remained under the hand of the Persians. It seemed to them that the wicked and arrogant prospered while the righteous were distressed and humbled (cf. Malachi 2:17, 3:15). Their response was natural: why bother serving God? In their eyes, it was vanity to serve God – they were no better off for it!

This response is as entirely understandable as it is misguided. It is the result of the myopic tunnel vision that we humans often experience– we focus on all of our challenges and difficulties and the oppression and the injustice in the world and declare God unjust, or believe that since we prayed fervently for some noble cause and yet still have failed that God has abandoned us, while all around us the blessings of God in life, both physical and spiritual, abounds (cf. Genesis 1:1-2:4, John 3:16, Ephesians 1:3). If we understand that God is the Author and Sustainer of Life, how could we even begin to think that it is vain to serve Him?

It is important for us to remember that our work in the Lord is never in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). It may not lead to the immediate results we desire, either in terms of our own growth and development or the encouragement of other souls, but its long-term impact may be vast indeed. Even if it has little impact on ourselves or others, it works within God’s greater plan and His great will (Ephesians 1:3-11), and that is glorious. As Jesus indicates in Luke 18:1-8, there is great value in persistence in prayer, and we should not assume that our prayers fail because we do not immediately see changes.

We may find that things seem to go worse for us once we have turned to righteousness and seek the will of God. But we must remember in such circumstances that it is only a reversal on the surface. Consider the image we see in Revelation – if you just read Revelation 13, for instance, you would have good reason to despair if you were one of the members of the seven churches of Asia. The world of Revelation 13 was the “real world” in which you would have inhabited. Nevertheless, the picture is given in Revelation 12, 14-19, of what else is going on, and that perspective changes everything: Satan’s hold on the powers of earth is his desperate last stand, and it too will fail in the end. No matter how bleak it might have seemed on the earth, God was still ruling in heaven.

And so it is with us today. It is easy to get lost in the surface matters and the temporary setbacks, get frustrated and discouraged, and wonder if there is any value in serving God. Yet let us remember that God is still ruler in heaven, that He is accomplishing many great things, and that our work in the Lord is never in vain. Let us be patient and faithful servants of God, knowing that He does all things well (cf. Mark 7:37)!

lesson by Ethan R. Longhenry

Is God Real To You?

Is God real to you? This might seem like an easy question to anyone who pursues Biblical knowledge or who come together to worship Him every week. The question, however, is not one of belief in existence. Rather, is God real to you? There is a difference between acknowledgement of theoretical existence and application of reality. We are a culture of the virtual – things that look real but are not. Has God been reduced to a theoretical exercise among those who would claim to be His followers?

Why and How God Becomes Theoretical

Why does God become less real to us? Why has He become virtually real instead of actually real? In everyday life, we learn to rely on ourselves, and, ultimately, we feel accountable to ourselves and ourselves alone. Our money goes to our priorities, and our actions have no consequences beyond the immediate ones we can see. We wrestle with these realities of our life that make God seem less and less real to us – reducing Him to the theoretical.

  • Selfishness. In Romans 1, Paul makes the argument that all need God and the gospel. He claims, in verse 21, that all knew God at one time, but their own selfishness drives them away from God. Verse 28 sums up that they refused God, so God gave them up. He will not force us to follow His will, and our self-centeredness can lead us away from His reality. We can look to what we have accomplished, relying on our own selves rather than on God.
  • Worldly Interests. I John 2:15-17 reminds us of the dangers involved in loving the things of this world. God ceases to be real to us when we begin believing that our happiness and our fulfillment come from this life. Things in this world can indeed make us happy for a while, but those joys are fleeting. They are replaced when new things come along. We wear ourselves out pursuing the temporary while neglecting the eternal.
  • Priorities & Time. We grow too busy for God, pushing Him further and further down our list of priorities, and we spend less and less time looking for Him and praying to Him. When is the last time you or I honestly and sincerely prayed? When was the time before that.

Making God Real Again

Philippians 4:19 records Paul calling God his own. He refers to “my God.” In redeeming us from our sins, God has made us His, and He is ours. Paul, in Romans 5, appeals to God’s love for that close relationship, understanding in verses 6-10 that God’s love for him is gracious and unmerited by him. God was neither virtual or theoretical to Paul. God knew Paul, and Paul knew God. God knows us as well, and we should strive to be as close to Him as Paul. God loves each one of us without reservation. In Galatians 2:20, Paul knows the love of God through the sacrifice of Christ, a sacrifice through which he gives himself up in love.

In Philippians, Paul says “my God will supply.” He demonstrates a belief that God is active and interested in his life. Philippians 4:5 records Paul writing that the Lord is at hand, and we often apply this to the Second Coming, but the context points instead to a nearness of God, a readiness to help. Romans 8:28, Colossians 1:16-17 – these show a confidence by Paul in God’s interest in his life. God has a direction for my life, and He is an active God. When we say, “If the Lord wills,” we sometimes treat it as a concession. When Paul speaks of God’s will, He expresses confidence in God’s providential control.

II Corinthians 9:10, Acts 14:17, Matthew 7:26 – these verses and more express God’s interest in His creation. Philippians 4:6 reminds us to take everything to God, and I Peter 5:6-7 tells us to humble ourselves before God, casting all of our anxiety upon our caring God. Look at the life of Christ – what did He do that was not for the benefit of others? He prays for others’ needs; He heals others; He relieves others’ burdens. Each time Jesus intercedes for others, His intervention is specific and necessary. We can hope for as much from a God that is real to us and active in our lives.

lesson by Tim Smelser

Praying As the Psalmists Prayed

Usually, when we study the Psalms, we study them as poetry and songs, as passages of comfort and praise. There is nothing wrong with this approach, but two-thirds of these psalms are laments. They are petitions to God, and one aspect we can appreciate from these poetic verses is that we can approach God in prayer the same way these psalmists appealed to God. They are open and honest about their feelings and frustrations where we today feel compelled to bury our feelings. We are often uncomfortable with open and emotional interaction with God, but these psalmists serve as an example to us.

At times, the writers of Psalms feel that God is distant from them, had ceased keeping His promises. In Psalm 10:1, the psalmist asks why God is hiding from Him. In chapter 13:1-2, David feels forgotten and expresses sorrow in God’s absence. Psalm 22 asks why “has God has forsaken me.” Why does He not answer David’s cries? Psalm 42:9 asks again about God forgetting the author. Psalm 69:1-3 expresses weariness with sorrow, waiting for a silent God. In Psalm 74:1, the author asks why God has cast His people off, and verses 9-11 entreats: “How long?” Finally, Psalm 77:4 expresses a troubled mind to the point of silence. The author asks if God’s lovingkindness and promises have failed. Are God’s mercies closed forever?

What Holds Us Back?

Have we ever felt like these passages? Chances are, most of us have. We wonder what we have done to deserve our misfortunes. We wonder if God has stopped caring. Do we appeal to God the same way these psalmists do?

  • Do we think having these feelings is wrong? After all, Romans 5:3-5 speaks of rejoicing in tribulation, so we feel we are sinning if we are discouraged. Philippians 4:4 again tells us to rejoice in all things. James 1:2-4 reiterates seeing trials as joy. We look at these passages, and we decide feeling sorrowful is somehow wrong.
  • We teach and practice a feel-good religion. We look to our spirituality for comfort, and rightly so. What we miss, though, is taking our emotions to God. Our religion becomes a mask for our feelings rather than an avenue for comfort and unburdening ourselves.

Enabling Emotional Honesty

The psalmists are not inhibited in these ways. They are sincere, open, and emotionally honest with God. We can have boldness as theirs if we can learn from the examples they set for us. They see God as the source for all things. While they seem accusatory at times, the psalmists do not place blame. They express their fears and discouragements, and they view God as the source for relief and deliverance. In Psalms 10:14, after expressing fear of God’s distance, the psalmist expresses confidence in God’s compassion, nearness, and empathy. Psalm 13:5-6 expresses trust in God’s salvation. David, in Psalm 22:19-31, recognizes that God will help in his trials. Psalm 42:5 records the author recognizing his hope in God, and Psalm 69:29-30 expresses confidence in God’s ability to lift us up and deliver us. Then, Psalm 74:12-17 recognizes God’s power to deliver the oppressed, and Psalm 77:10-19 is an appeal to God’s ability to deliver. Though all of these psalms contain fears, distress, and sorrow, each contains acknowledgement of God’s deliverance.

Also, the psalmists can approach God in these ways because of the relationship they have with Him. Like close spouses or close friends can speak sharply with one another while maintaining love and trust, so too could these psalmists do with God. When we read these appeals to God, we see a level of trust and love we should also have. Psalm 5:3, 54:6, 56:13-15, Psalm 1:2, Psalm 19:7-11 – these passages and more express the level of study and sacrifice these psalmists have invested in their relationship with God. In Psalm 40:8, the psalmist recognizes that God hears him because of his knowledge in God’s word. In contrast, Psalmist 66:18 records understanding that God would turn away if he had turned away from God.

Finally, these psalmists surrender to God in all things. Psalm 31:5 records David entrusting his whole life to God’s hands; Psalm 119:2 and verse 10 bless those who seek God with their whole heart. Our prayers are only useful if we trust God with our entire being. These psalmists could pray as they did because of the relationship they had with their Lord.

Conclusion

We will experience emotions besides joy in our lives. To claim otherwise is fooling ourselves, but God is capable of taking on our anxieties. We should never try to cover our true feelings from God. After all, we are praying to one who already knows our hearts. It may take us a while to turn our discouragements into praise, but we are still in a relationship with Him so long as we continue to turn to Him. Psalm 88, for example, ends on a dissonant note, never returning to praise as did those other psalms. Still, this psalm begins with trust in God. The psalmist in this chapter has not yet worked through his troubles, and we will have times like that as well.

As long as we are the children He would want us to be, we can know He will be the Father we need. We need to love and trust Him in faith. We can know He will not abandon us and that we can come to Him in all our troubles. He is our divine Father, and we can come to Him as children who need guidance and deliverance, open and honest with our God who cares for us.

lesson by Tim Smelser

John’s Picture of the Messiah

Each of the gospel writers have a slightly different representation of the Messiah. Matthew, Mark, and Luke bear several similarities in their presentations and focus, but the Gospel of John stands out from the others. John records only seven miracles in his gospel, and five of those are unique to John. He portrays Jesus in a very specific way, but, unlike Matthew, he does not continually refer to Levitical scripture to reinforce his points. Rather, he focuses on Jesus’ words describing Himself.

Imagery from John

  • In John 2, we see Jesus driving the merchants and money changers from the temple, condemning them for corrupting His father’s house. When asked for a sigh, He said He would rebuild this temple in three days once destroyed, but He has changed subjects. He is not speaking of the physical temple so much as His own body. Jesus here is pictured as God’s true temple.
  • John 3 records Nicodemus and Jesus conversing about the meaning of being born again. In verses 14-15, Jesus draws a parallel between Himself and the serpent in the wilderness, lifted up to save people. Where the serpent’s salvation would be physical and temporary, Jesus’ would be spiritual and eternal.
  • In John 6:29, after Jesus has fed several thousand from meager portions, the people ask Jesus for another sign once He retreats from them. He speaks to them of a bread from Heaven – to them, a reference to manna. Jesus, however, applies this personally and calls Himself the Bread of Life. He is the true manna.

John 7:37 has Jesus calling those who thirst for life-giving water to come to Him as Moses brought water from a rock in the wilderness. John 8:12 records Jesus calling Himself the light of the world, possibly referring to the pillar of fire the children of Israel followed through the wilderness. In John 15:1, Jesus calls Himself the true vine that bears fruit, and this compares to the vineyard song of Isaiah 5. Finally, John 19 records the events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion, and, starting in verse 31, John describes how Jesus’ bones would remain unbroken as a Passover lamb was to remain unbroken.

Conclusion

John paints a picture of Jesus as a fulfillment of many Old Testament objects and events. He sends a message that there is more to Jesus than what they thought they saw, and He could be more to us if we open our eyes and hearts. When we begin to comprehend the extent of Jesus’ ministry and sacrifice, how can we not love Him and obey Him?

lesson by Tim Smelser

A Blessing in Prayer

Sometimes we want to reach out and seek some confirmation that God is indeed still here. In the Old and New Testament, God interacts directly with people and individuals, but there has been a silence for the past couple thousand years. Like the saints in Revelation, we want some evidence that God still is in control, that He does care. One way we can reach out to God is in prayer.

In Philippians 4:4-7, Paul writes that we should rejoice in the Lord, putting off things that are out of our control through our prayers to God. Paul advocates that a life of prayer results in an inner peace that is unmatched by anything else. I Thessalonians 5:16-18 and Hebrews 4:14-16 both assure us we have a God who does understand, who wants us to come to Him. Also, I Peter 5:6-7 calls upon us to cast our cares upon our God who cares for us.

Effective Prayers

There are times when we draw near to God, perhaps in times of difficulty or stress. Jesus teachers His disciples to pray on various occasions. He goes to God several times during His ministry, and if He needed that reassurance during His work, then we do as well. Elijah’s prayer on Mount Carmel in I Kings 18:37, Hezekiah’s prayer when besieged by Assyrians, Daniel’s prayer in the den of lions – in each of these examples, the supplicant looks for assurance and deliverance from God.

In Genesis 18:24, Abraham begins to petition God on behalf of Sodom, and God acquiesces to Abraham’s requests to seek fewer and fewer righteous in the city. Exodus 32:8 records God growing angry with Israel to the point of destroying the people, and Moses interceded on their behalf. In II Kings 20, Hezekiah pleads for a longer life, and God grants his an additional fifteen years. In each of these cases, prayer changes God’s mind.

In Luke 18:1, Jesus tells a parable regarding prayer, speaking of an unjust judge who relents to the requests of a widow. Jesus rhetorically asks his audience how much more God will care about their petitions than this worldly judge. James 5:15 uses the illustration of Elijah praying that it will not rain. Not only did it not rain for three years, but it was his prayer that brought rain back. Verse 16 reminds us that Elijah was no different than us. God answered prayers before, and He continues to do so.

Conclusion

We demonstrate faith and confidence in our God and His plan for salvation. Why, then, do we find prayer so hard? Is it that we are afraid He has no time for us, or do we have difficulties making time for Him? Jesus led a life of prayer, and we should do the same. We have to pray in humility and pray in faith, but, like our Savior, we also have to acknowledge that God’s will may not always be our own.

Prayer to God is a sacred privilege. It is our avenue to His throne, and it is our reassurance that God is in control. Let us never take such a blessing for granted.

lesson by Tim Smelser

Joseph’s Three Coats

In our last lesson, we looked at some individuals whose lives took some unexpected turns, and one of those individuals was Joseph. God’s dealing with Joseph and the experiences he had could have an impact on the way we live our lives. Joseph’s life is filled with events and themes that seem to repeat themselves, and we can take lessons out of those themes and events.

The Trials of Joseph

In Genesis 37, we meet Joseph as one of twelve sons of Jacob. He serves his father faithfully and prospers as a result – he becomes a favorite of his father’s. He is bestowed distinction in his many-colored coat, but verses 3-4 reveal envy in his brother’s minds. These hateful feelings lead them to conspire against Joseph, planing to kill him. However, Reuben talks them out of murder, and the brothers sell him as a slave instead, and the brothers deceive Jacob into believing Joseph is dead after stripping Joseph’s coat from him.

In chapter 39, Joseph serves Potiphar, and, again, Joseph finds favor with this master. He serves his master well. He becomes a favorite, and he is granted honor by Potiphar. Joseph is put in a position of overseer within the household. However, Potiphar’s wife is angered when Joseph rejects her constant advances. Again, his coat is stripped from him when he flees from her, but she accuses him of being the aggressor and turned Potiphar against him. As a result, Joseph is imprisoned.

In Genesis 40:15, Joseph sees that he is thrown into a pit again for no good reason. Twice now he has been betrayed by those close to him after being honored and given distinction. His own garments have twice been used to deceive others, and twice he has been cast out from his household into captivity.

However, events begin to turn in Genesis 41:37, and Pharaoh honors Joseph, giving him a third coat of honor. He is brought into Pharaoh’s inner circle, and Joseph ends up where he needs to be to save his family and be a part of God’s plan for the lineage of the Messiah.

Lessons from Joseph

Joseph recognized God’s providence in his life. When his family comes to him for help – not initially knowing who he is – he sees God’s hand in the events of his life. It’s not easy to see God’s plan when we are in the middle of it, but Joseph could not have worn his third coat had he not worn and had been stripped of the first two. There are personal tragedies that we may wonder at the reason while we are going through them, but God might be preparing us to be in a better position to help others or further His cause later.

Humility also played a role in Joseph’s life. What would any of us do if Pharaoh had bestowed such honor on ourselves? Would we have wanted revenge on any of the individuals who we felt had wronged us prior this? Would we have gloated over those who had set us up for failure? We do not read about any of this with Joseph. Instead, he simply serves Pharaoh as he should have, and he helps those traitorous brothers when he has the opportunity.

Finally, we can learn trust through Joseph’s relationship with God. Again, in Genesis 45:5-8 acknowledges God’s role in his life. He realizes that God has delivered him and preserved him through those trials that could have consumed him. Things may not have gone how Joseph would have wanted at the time, but, at the end of the journey, he could look at how God brought him to this point. Likewise, we may not understand God’s plan for our own lives, but we can maintain that relationship and lean on Him through whatever troubles we encounter.

lesson by Tim Smelser