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“What does [mankind] gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (Eccl. 1:3)
Philosophers and those who seek wisdom are in a constant pursuit of answers to the biggest questions of existence and reality. “What is the origin and purpose of mankind?” “Are we just animals? If not, what makes us something more than them?” “What is the highest and best state of existence for a person, a community, or a society?”
The Bible offers us a comprehensive set of answers to those questions, and one core element of that is the above quote from Solomon. In one simple and probing question, he reminds us that while humanity is special, there is still so much that eludes us. Namely, he asks us to consider: What ultimate good does mankind, as a collective, accomplish? What qualitative, documentable advancements have we made in the overall state of humanity down through the centuries? Have we stopped wasting time, hurting others, falling prey to sickness and death, or repeating our mistakes? Have we achieved international peace thru technological advancements, multi-national pacts, or worldwide educational systems? Have we learned to speed up or slow down time, stop the aging process, and remove the threat of death? No. We go around and around the sun, year after decade after century after millennium… and so much of humanity stays the same. It’s rather depressing to realize that we have not permanently fixed so many of the common challenges that humanity has faced for centuries.
So should we resign ourselves to hopelessness, a belief that nothing good will ever happen to humans? No. Because we have been told that thru the power of God—not our own power, but his—Christians can make positive, enduring impact on humanity. As Christ said, “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.” (Mt. 5:13, 14) Our job is to be faithful to God and believe that he will bring about the good that all humanity needs.
- Dan Lankford, minister
A familiar Christian hymn says, “This is my Father's world: He shines in all that's fair; In the rustling grass I hear Him pass, He speaks to me everywhere.” And a familiar psalm says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.” (Psa. 19:1-2) The earth and its fullness all demonstrate part of the glory of the God who created them.
But this is an important distinction that right-minded Christians must retain: that even while it speaks volumes, creation “speaks” only part of God’s glory. Truly, even the apostle Paul noted that the natural world demonstrates God’s eternal power and his divine nature (Rom. 1:20), but this knowledge barely scratches the surface of what can be known about him. The natural world tells us that there is a transcendent creator God, but it leaves us wondering as to his nature, his personality, and the nature of his relationship to humanity.
So how can we come to know him further? Is it only through the observations we make about the natural world? No. To know him more fully (though never exhaustively on this side of eternity), we look to the sacred texts in which he has revealed himself—the inspired writings contained in the Bible. And if we want to see him fully, we listen, not just to hear him pass in the rustling grass, but to his son, of whom he said, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3).
All creation speaks to the glory of God, but only the word and The Word that became flesh speak in all fullness of the God whose handiwork surrounds us every day.
- Dan Lankford, minister
It’s been noted by psychologists at both the intellectuals’ level and the layman’s level that the modern West is defined by an extremely high level of individualism. Each person is considered sovereign over himself. “Personal rights” are considered inviolable whether they are legally protected or not. And disagreement with a principle has become synonymous with attack on a person. Some writers have cleverly defined our cultural moment as “the iWorld” in tribute to Steve Jobs’ branding of a whole line of devices like iPhone, iPad, etc.
While the manifestations of the issues are new, the problem is not. Humans’ self-centered way of thinking always presents a strong challenge to The Gospel, in which Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Mt. 16:24-25) It’s understandable why some struggle with these words from the Lord. It sounds like the Gospel would take away all individual expression from those who follow it. Is that right?
No, the Gospel does not take away all individuality. It does not make us into robotic, mindless drones all cut to the exact same pattern. Rather, it is in Christ that we find real individual freedom. And the promise of this is found even in his words quoted above: “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” The Gospel doesn’t take away who we are; it asks us to forfeit ourselves and to receive the gift of a whole new and better personhood—one that is made holy and right-eous by faith in Jesus Christ. We will not be individualistic any more, but we will be transformed into the individual and free and holy image of God that we were created for in the first place!
- Dan Lankford, minister
Occasionally, I hear preachers and religious teachers talk about the importance of keeping the message that we teach simple. And there is a sense in which that’s right. Paul apparently thought it necessary to keep the truth simple enough that it could be clearly understood, and so he said that Christ had sent him into the world, “to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” (1 Cor. 1:17) Just a few paragraphs later, he continued the same thought, noting how his speech and the concepts in it were not the lofty, esoteric discussions that one would expect from the philosophers of his time: He just taught Jesus and all that comes with knowing him (cf. 1 Cor. 2:1-5).
But all Bible teachers need to be aware that there is a difference between Paul’s ideal of simplicity and the ideal that we repeat regularly. I have heard many modern preachers and teachers advise that, “You need to preach down at the kids level,” or “Y’know, people can’t process as much as you think they can; you should simplify everything as much as you can,” or “I have one very important philosophy about how to preach and teach from God’s word: ‘Keep it simple!’”
Yet that isn’t what Paul was saying. Paul’s priority wasn’t just to simplify the message at all costs. Paul’s priority was 1) to preach the truth in all of its power and 2) to do that in such a way that people could understand it (cf. “power” in 1 Cor. 1:17 & 2:5). When our first priority in teaching is simplicity, truth necessarily gets moved to a lower priority. And we know this is possible because we’ve probably all heard sermons or classes in which the truth was so simplified that it was no longer true.
So our goal is teach the truth with clarity. Often, the simplest explanation of that will be the most helpful, but only when it retains all of the truth. If God has revealed a complex truth, then we dare not simplify it to the point of corrupting it. And yet, if there is a way to communicate complexity clearly, then let’s try our best to not overcomplicate it. In both cases, our first priority and our “one very important philosophy about how to preach and teach from God’s word” should be: Teach the truth.
- Dan Lankford, minister
On Sunday, we talked about the importance of following the divinely-spoken words of the Bible as the authority for all things, both in our personal lives and our church practices. We said in that message that we must be careful to do things God’s way and not our own. But tradition, philosophy, and personal preference are all sources that we sometimes look to for authority alongside or above the objective truth of God’s word. Here, I’d like to add one more channel thru which we often receive guidance contrary to God’s way: tribal knowledge.
Tribal knowledge, in one sense of the term, refers to the way that some principles, policies, and procedures get passed by word-of-mouth through an organization and inevitably get corrupted in the passing. In the restaurant where I work, it’s things like how sick pay functions, what to do in order to get shift coverage, and the specifics of our uniform policy. But the specifics aren’t the issue: the mentality is. Over time, like in a group of people playing a game of Telephone, legitimate elements of our work get passed from team member to team member and gradually become corrupted with each verbal transmission until they are flat-out wrong and a wholesale correction has to be made by the leaders. When we leaders become aware that it’s needed, we typically just open up the company handbook and point straight to the actual words that describe the requirements and remind everyone that they are going to be held to that standard. It’s simple and effective: an appeal back to the authority of a written standard that is accessible and knowable to all involved. And even though it must happen fairly often, it’s typically the only correction needed to the tribal knowledge that has led us astray.
As God’s people, we must have a clear and correct understanding of what the Bible says: not just the tribal knowledge of a community of believers. In Ezekiel 18, Israel had begun to use a proverb to explain why they were in Babylonian captivity. The proverb blamed the current misfortunes of God’s people on the generation that came before them (cf. Ezk. 18:1-2). But God told them, “As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel” (Ezk. 18:3), and he went on to explain that he is righteous and holds each generation responsible for their own sins. The tribal knowledge that they had was wrong, and the authority of God’s prophetic word corrected it. The same thing is at play in the passage where Jesus condemns The Jews for “teaching as doctrine the commandments of men” (Mt. 15:9, Mk. 7:7). It’s a problem common to all humanity: when the amassed and embedded knowledge of a culture guides us more than the truth from the Holy Word.
The takeaway for us is simple and weighty: The general senses of Christianity and the verbiage that we accumulate from church services, YouTube videos, commentaries, and podcasts are not enough to compensate for a lack of thorough Bible knowledge. This warning applies to our general conversations with other believers: we may pick up phrases and figures of speech common among believers in our time, but we should have ears that are trained by the word of God to be discerning as to whether these things are objectively true or they are just tribal knowledge. This warning also applies to the guidance that we often hear from the realm of psychology: some beliefs that are accepted among the psych community aren’t biblical (for example: that our decisions are not actually ours—all is determined by external factors of our upbringing, experiences, etc.), but some are right and biblical, and we need to be able to tell the difference. And there could be more places where we heed the tribal, cultural voices. We just need to have our hearts trained to hear to the words of God above all of them.
Tribal knowledge creates a lot of inconsistency in a restaurant environment. It creates confusion. It even causes conflict as some who know the real policies butt heads with those who operate on the tribal knowledge. And the same sort of things can happen in a church family. If our knowledge of spiritual things is only tribal—not carefully aligned with the actual words of Scripture—we’ll face many of the same problems. So let’s go back to the authoritative written standard and agree to uphold that as our first commitment. As the Hebrews writer said, “We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard” (Heb. 2:1) as God has spoken through his angels, his prophets, and especially his Son.
- Dan Lankford, minister
The word “harm” gets used with more variety of meaning than most of us are likely to realize. Some examples: “I don’t see any harm in it.” “This could harm his/her prospects of advancement.” “The crash didn’t do any harm to the vehicle’s frame.” “He suffered no physical harm from the incident.”
For Christians, though, a new usage of the word in recent years has probably piqued our interest more than any of those examples. In the last several years, it’s become common to hear any disagreement with a person’s beliefs as “harm” to that person, particularly those living out any lifestyle described in the LBGTQ+ acronym. When some express conviction that those activities and ideologies are wrong, they are said to do “harm” to those who embrace them.
But wise and honest people are able to know the difference between something that is done maliciously and harm that must be inflicted in order to bring about good outcome. Like a surgeon who cuts into the body’s tissues in order for it to heal back to how things should be, truth cuts us so that we will grow better when the cuts heal. Small wonder Luke said that the audience were “cut to the heart” when they heard Peter preach about their sins in Acts 2:37.
So there is value in the “harm” that’s done by the truth, and we need to see that. And that ought to teach Christians two lessons:
1) When we speak the truth that cuts, let’s remember to do it with the proper blend of conviction and gentleness, speaking the truth in love.
2) If the preaching and teaching of God’s word ever feel like an attack to us, we’d better take a hard, honest look at how we need to change to be more of what God has called us to be in his grace.
The harm that the truth does is for our ultimate good. And maybe some believers need to learn the lessons that we would like our enemies to learn: That when the truth from God feels like a personal attack, we're doing something wrong.
- Dan Lankford, minister
Last Sunday, a submersible with five people aboard set out to visit the Titanic wreckage at the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean. It was a tourism trip—an opportunity for people who had paid very large amounts of money to visit something that only a few others have seen. But when the tour group didn’t return on schedule, a global search initiative was started, which lasted for days. But, on Friday morning, the U.S. Coast Guard announced that pieces of the vessel had been found on the ocean floor and evidence had been brought forward from U.S. Navy sonar monitoring that caused them to believe the vessel had succumbed to the deep ocean’s extreme pressure and suffered a catastrophic implosion sometime Sunday, undoubtedly killing all five people aboard.
Tragic stories like these are a regular part of human societies. From cave explorers to high-altitude test pilots to small ships out on the ocean to extreme mountain climbers… the library of humanity is full of stories of people who tested the limits and were overtaken by the natural forces of the world.
How should Christians think about these things? First, we should grieve with those who’ve lost loved ones, being willing to vicariously experience the emotions that they must surely feel now. And we should pray for God to comfort them in this time of grief. It can be tempting to keep ourselves distant from hurt, thinking that others somehow do not merit such authentic concern from us. But that is hardly the attitude of Jesus who looked down with compassion on our broken world and came to comfort and heal us. We would do well to “weep with those who weep,” even with those who are outside the family of faith.
Second, it should remind us just how small and limited we are in power. For all that humans have done, we have still failed to build a tower to the heavens and to accomplish all the things that we propose to (cf. Genesis 11:1-9). We are severely limited by time, space, the natural forces of God’s created world, and the power that he still has over us. Even the power of the world’s greatest kingdoms is still governed by the far greater power of God who sits on the throne of Heaven (cf. Dan. 4:17, 25, 32). How much more, then, should we expect to be subject to the power of the massive natural world when we are so small in comparison to it and to its Creator?
Should all these things make us afraid? No, I don’t think so. But I do think they compel us to recognize our weakness and to glorify the one who rules over all it. We live in a reality that contains threats to us from every direction—both the infinitesimally small and inestimably huge. And we know a God who is both grander and more intricate than all of it.
The world occasionally reminds us of our own insignificance. Let’s let that lesson have its due effect on us as we consider this past week’s tragedy at the bottom of the sea. May we remember that we are not worthy “to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev. 5:12), but he is!
- Dan Lankford, minister
The following words from Genesis 1 are familiar to most Bible believers. But read them here, and take note of how often God talks about humans in plural terms.
“Let us make man[kind] in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion… So God created man[kind] in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion…” (Gen. 1:26-28)
It’s important to see in this passage that when God created humanity, he imbued both men and women with his divine life and image. It was not good that the man should be alone, because without the helper whom God gave to him, he was unable to fully bear the divine image. Mankind is made in the image of God, meaning that both man and woman are made to shine with his glory.
One of the most important ways that this truth can be observed in creation is in the different abilities of male and female parents in raising kids. A father’s firm guidance and discipline are demonstrations of God’s nature, and a caring mother’s gentle provision for a child is also a powerful demonstration of God’s nature.
I’m reminding us of these truths today because it’s Mother’s Day, and it’s important that moms are occasionally reminded that the work you do is a demonstration of God’s own love for his children! Mothers, I hope it’s encouraging to you to remember that your lovingkindness to your kids matters a great deal in the scheme of eternity. God bless you, moms!
- Dan Lankford, minister
Understanding the nature of God ought to be one of a Christian’s most important goals. To that end, consider this phrase from Hebrews 4:16. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace.” This is the only place in the Bible where the phrase “throne of grace” is used, and it shows us two complimentary sides to who he is.
The fact that God sits on a throne shows his kingship. He is sovereign. He has sole reign of all that he has created. He gets to make the rules, and not only because he demands to be in charge, but simply because he IS in charge. Simply by pointing out that he is on a throne, the Holy Spirit reminds us that God will always does and always will have supreme authority in the universe.
And the fact that God’s throne is one of grace illustrates one of the balancing aspects of his kingship. He is not just a king who demands to be respected: He is a king who deserves to be respected because of his kindness and generosity. And while, under normal circumstances, a king can only be approached by certain people with the sufficient clout or power, King YHWH approaches his people. He has descended to our level with all of his infinite blessings. He does not remain aloof from his subjects. He is graciously willing to come and be close to us.
This simple phrase reminds us that our God is the perfect ruler: a truly benevolent monarch with naught but our best interests on his heart. So when we come to worship him today, let us draw near with confidence to his throne of grace!
- Dan Lankford, minister
“You turn things upside down!” (Isa. 29:16)
When Isaiah wrote that, he was criticizing Israel for thing God was like the idols they worshiped. They thought that he could and would conform to human desires, and consequently, they saw themselves as the gods who define reality. They thought what was best was already inside them and that God must be conformed to that.
A modern manifestation of this same underlying mindset is the belief that most problems with humans originate outside of us. Things like societal pressures, systemic injustices, oppression, philosophical errors in education, or the oppressive teachings of religion are to blame when human beings do evil things. They believe that human individuals are actually good, but evil behaviors and thoughts have been forced upon them from outside themselves.
And consequently, the world believes that the solutions must reside within themselves. And so the usual tack is to encourage people to, “Look inside yourself. You do you. You've got to find out who you really are. Look deep into your heart to find the problems that have been imposed upon you so that you can be free to be your true, good self.” This is the prevailing mentality of so much non-religious psychological and therapeutic thought, and so it has a firm hold on our cultural thought.
But what’s the overall problem with that mentality? Plainly and simply: It’s upside-down. Just as Isaiah said.
Here’s the truth that scripture teaches: Our wickedness is actually not imposed upon us from outside; each of us chooses it. Christ said, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.” (Mt. 15:19-20) And the apostle James said, “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin.” (Jas. 1:14-15) Together, they tell us that humanity’s problems actually originate within us. And so, since the problems are intrinsic rather than extrinsic, the solutions which we need cannot to be found by searching deeper within ourselves. In fact, we can only be transformed from our wicked ways when put the self to death and seek salvation from another. The Lord promised rest not to those who sought it within themselves, but to those who sought to receive it from him (Mt. 11:28-30). And all the way back to the prophet Jeremiah, God spoke these familiar, yet convicting, words: “I know, O LORD, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps.” (Jer. 10:23)
The world will never be my ally in rightly understanding that I am the problem and only Christ can offer the solutions which I need. But God will remind me constantly that if I really want to be transformed so that I have peace and so that I can offer peace and righteousness to others, then I must look to one supreme, outside source for those things. “It is not in man who walks to direct his steps.” It is only by God’s grace that we are made right and become the good in the world that he and we wish to be.
- Dan Lankford, minister