WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
The bible is a book fraught with the problems of human suffering that results as the consequences of sin. Once you complete a study of the creation account, you are confronted with the serpent in the garden of Eden - and from that point onward, the rest of the bible is replete with human suffering, dread, doom and - hope.
Those who read the bible and pass it off as so much "fantasy" have failed to consider that last point - hope. A failure to see beyond the present, results in the same outlook that Solomon had as expressed in the book of Ecclesiastes. "'Vanity of vanities,' says the preacher; 'Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.'" (Eccl. 1:2) His initial view of life was that of hopelessness and therefore uselessness. - an aimless wandering through time with nothing toward which to aim ourselves.
Therefore, he said, "...I set my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven, this burdensome task God has given to the sons of man, by which they may be exercised." (Eccl. 1:13) Even the effort to search out the meaning of life is described as a "burdensome task" and as being our mission in life to discover. Yet, without a view toward the end of life's journey - and beyond - the answer deludes all of mankind. Why? Because we view life while in the midst of the present. Therefore, because our perspective is limited by our poor vantage point, we, of ourselves, cannot see the purpose beyond the moment. Isn't this the point expressed by Solomon? "What profit has the worker from that in which he labors? I have seen the God-given task with which the sons of men are to be occupied. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end." (Eccl. 3:9-11)
Man's earthbound, limited vantage point does not allow him to see beyond the boundaries of his five physical senses. If all of life, and what limited purpose it may appear to serve, is limited only to this physical realm, then we must come to the same conclusion as Solomon did; "I said in my heart, 'Concerning the condition of the sons of men, God tests them, that they may see that they themselves are like animals.' For what happens to the sons of men also happens to animals; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over animals, for all is vanity. All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust. Who knows the spirit of men, which goes upward, and the spirit of the animal, which goes down to the earth? So I perceived that nothing is better than that a man should rejoice in his own works, for that is his heritage. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?" (Eccl. 3:18-22)
As long as our knowledge of life is limited only by our physical senses, we will conclude that we are nothing more than animals, seeing only those physical similarities that connect us to them. Jude spoke of those having this mentality, describing them as "...ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ." (Jude 4) Of those who are such, he says that "...these speak evil of whatever they do not know; and whatever they know naturally, like brute beasts, in these things they corrupt themselves." (Jude 10) In short, they become like animals.
As Solomon questioned, "Who knows the spirit of men, which goes upward, and the spirit of the animal, which goes down to the earth" (Eccl. 3:21), he was stating a mystery that can only be understood with the help of our Creator. Without the revelation of God that tells us of our beginning, we could not otherwise know that "...God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." (Gen. 1:27) We could not understand that we are distinct from all of the animals unless our Creator had revealed to us through His word the distinction of man from the animals in Adam's search for a "comparable" companion. "Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. And whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name. So Adam gave names to all cattle, to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper comparable to him." (Gen. 2:19-20) Therefore God had to take a rib out of Adam's side to make another human being (made in the image of God) to become "...a helper comparable to him." (Gen. 2:18)
The answer to Solomon's question of, "...who can bring him (man, gvw) to see what will happen after him?" (Eccl. 3:22) is - God! And the reason this is so is because only God, from His heavenly perspective and eternal nature, has from the beginning of time been, "Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, I will do all My pleasure." (Isa. 46:10)
Notice that He does not declare the beginning from the end, but rather "the end from the beginning." God doesn't just give an accounting of history as it unfolds itself, but rather, He tells what the end or purpose is for everything that precedes it. He has pointed us in the direction of that which is beyond the present moment and has called upon us to look ahead with eyes of faith. "So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." (Rom. 10:17)
A reading of the eleventh chapter of Hebrews challenges us to look beyond the moment and our limited vantage point, to see the end toward which we are to be pointed and progressing. The writer calls upon a people - Christians - who are suffering, and he urges them to look beyond the moment. He encourages them to look past their present suffering and the dark clouds that loom ominously before them. He uses the examples of this great "cloud of witnesses" (Heb. 13:1) to spur them on toward an end that their physical eyes cannot see.
The planting of the seed of God's word in a new location is not always a simple effort. The outcome of such work depends in large upon the kind of soil you are working in. Jesus made this clear in His parable of the sower. "A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trampled down, and the birds of the air devoured it. Some fell on rock; and as soon as it sprang up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it." (Lk. 8:5-7) Were this the end of the parable, it might seem prudent to go home and not waste any more seed. But the parable doesn't end on such a sad note. He concludes by saying, "But others fell on good ground, sprang up, and yielded a crop a hundredfold." (vs. 8)
In spite of the seed that went to waste or never came to maturity so as to produce a crop, some seed reached its purpose by producing a crop - a hundred times its own amount. The farmer understands the significance of this law of nature. Seed does not only produce the fruit to be consumed - it also produces more seed that is to be saved for planting the next crop. This is the thought expressed by Isaiah. "For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and do not return there, but water the earth, and make it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it." (Isa. 55:10-11)
`As sowers of God's word, we reap the immediate benefits of a crop in the form of new brethren brought into the fold. As the number of our brethren increase, we enjoy the fellowship that we sustain among the tender plants that we watch grow in the faith. As a result, we are encouraged. But that growth in numbers is only the initial blessing that we enjoy. Each young plant has more seed within itself that is intended to be used to plant the next season's crop with a view toward reproducing itself again.
Each of us was planted with a view toward our continued fruitfulness. If we fail in that purpose, we become a liability and our true purpose is not realized. Jesus illustrated this fact in the following parable. "A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, 'Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?' But he answered and said to him, 'Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down.' " (Lk. 13:6-9) This is a sobering parable and should make us take a serious look at our fruitfulness and how faithful we are at fulfilling our purpose for living in His field.
Each of us are the product of the seed of God's word that was planted in our heart. When you "...receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls" (Jas. 1:21), you become a living plant with the ability to "produce after your own kind." That godly seed is what perpetuates the continued growth of God's vineyard. It is the means by which His kingdom is brought from generation to generation. When every "plant" is doing its part, the outcome is destined to become a fruitful field and a testimony to the glory of God's purpose.
But as any farmer knows, a bumper crop doesn't just happen by accident. It is a cooperation with God's providence and our effort in preparing the ground, planting, and watering. But as Paul makes clear, the ultimate outcome of our work is to God's credit. "Who then is Paul, and who is Akpollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Appollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then, neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase." (1 Cor. 3:5-7)
Luke gives ample testimony in the accounting of Paul's ministry to the fact that the work of seed planting is not always an easy one. It is fraught with troubles along the way. One example of this is seen in his first missionary journey at the city of Lystra. Trouble followed him and those who traveled with him when "...Jews from Antioch and Iconium came there, and having persuaded the multitudes, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead." (Acts 14:19) Yet, in the face of such trial, Paul did not give up. But rather, "...he rose up and went into the city. And the next day he departed with Barnabas to Derbe. And when they had preached the gospel to that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, 'We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.' " (vss. 20-22)
On Paul's third missionary journey, he came to Ephesus and encountered what seemed to be a setback in the work. It was there that "...he went into the synagogue and spoke boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God. But when some were hardened and did not believe, but spoke evil of the Way before the multitude, he departed from them and withdrew the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus." (Acts 19:8-9)
Their place of meeting was lost in the aftermath of an ugly situation that seemed destined to hinder the work that they had come to that city to accomplish. But once again, they did not give up. In spite of evil influence of divisiveness, those who remained faithful rallied around the gospel of truth, separated themselves from the evil influence, and assembled in a school.
Their new location did not hinder that work. In fact, it turned out that in their new location that work "...continued for two years, so that all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks." (vs. 10)
As we find ourselves meeting in a new, temporary location, this is not a hindrance to the work, but a steppingstone to greater things as the gospel continues to do its work when planted in the hearts of men.
Some years after the challenging experiences of his three year stay in Ephesus, Paul writes from a Roman prison the letter to the Ephesians, admonishing them to "...not lose heart at my tribulations for you, which is your glory." (Eph. 3:13) In that letter he made known to them that they were remembered by him in his prayers for them. He prayed that "...according to the riches of His glory" they might "...be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height - to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God." (vss. 16-19)
The last time Paul had seen these brethren was on a brief layover at Myletus en route to Jerusalem (Acts 20:15-16). It was at that time that he had delivered some troubling warnings to them of impending troubles that lay on the horizon of their future, not to mention his own. As for Paul, he said that "chains and tribulations await me" in Jerusalem. (The fact that he was writing this letter from prison was testimony to the accuracy of his prophecy) And as for the church at Ephesus, he warned that "...savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears." (vss. 29-31)
Paul's concern for these brethren with whom he had labored is evident. These were members of his spiritual family that he had worked among, cried with, and patiently encouraged during difficult times. No doubt there were memories of a group of saints who suffered the growing pains of a new work in the midst of troublesome times - such as had forced them to meet together in the school of Tyrannus rather than where they had originally met (Acts 19:8-9).
That concern, fueled by the reminder of more troubles that he knew was coming, prompted the message of steadfastness that he wrote into the words of this letter. "I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." (Eph. 4:1-3)
He called upon them to remember their roots - where they had come from, and the purpose for which they had submitted to the will of the Father. He admonished them to insure the future of that work by their drawing closely together in the "unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace." This was to be their part in protecting themselves from the deadly influence of the "savage wolves" that were certain to come in among them, seeking to scatter them and to undo the work that had been done so far.
Paul called upon them to grow by accepting individual responsibility to perform their part for the good of the whole; "...that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head - Christ - from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causing growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love." (Eph. 4:14-16)
Their greatest effort in fighting against the coming trouble was their faithfulness to God and to one another in the perfect example of Christ. "Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma." (Eph. 5:1-2)
Finally, he called upon them to "...be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places." (Eph. 6:10-12)
It was this church (and perhaps some of these very ones who heard the words of Paul's letter read in their hearing), that was sent another letter, written by the hand of John and dictated by Christ. In this final letter the Lord rebuked them, in spite of the fact that He could say, "...you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name's sake and have not become weary. Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love." (Rev. 2:3-4)
Without our love for Christ - our first love - nothing that we do will have any real meaning. We can do all the right things in the right way and still not accomplish the purpose for which we were called in Christ. Jesus said, "If you love Me, keep My commandments." (Jn. 14:15) This is our greatest motivation and our only hope.
Brethren, where do we go from here? Can we relate to the example of those who have gone before us and learn from their experience? Can we look beyond the present and its challenges to the end toward which love points us? Are we willing to commit ourselves to the work that has been set before us? Will the growing community of San Antonio see the glory of God's hand in the love and faithfulness of His children?
Our brethren in Ephesus knew the meaning of trial and faced great obstacles in the pathway toward the goal. Let us not forget our purpose for being where we are. And let us always be mindful of the fact that the outcome of our efforts in this work do not solely rest upon our shoulders. Remember, it is Christ "...who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen." (Eph. 3:20-21)
- Gary V. Womack - August 2005