Not in Vain

Wherefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not vain in the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Jesus’ resurrection is the ultimate game-changer.

Some among the Corinthian Christians declared that the dead were not raised (1 Corinthians 15:12). Paul writes strenuously in 1 Corinthians 15:1-57 to affirm the historical reality of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the centrality of the bodily resurrection of Jesus to the legitimacy of Christianity, and the nature of the bodily resurrection of believers rooted in Jesus as the first-fruits of the resurrection. He speaks of the day of resurrection to come when all the dead will rise and the corruptible will put on incorruptibility and the mortal will put on immortality (1 Corinthians 15:42-54). This, Paul declares, will be the ultimate victory over sin and death; this is the moment we have all been waiting for and for which we continue to wait (1 Corinthians 15:55-57).

But what does Jesus’ resurrection and the hope of our future resurrection mean for us now? In 1 Corinthians 15:58 Paul derives some present applications from the resurrection: be steadfast, immovable, and abound in the Lord’s work.

Why steadfastness and immovability? The Corinthian Christians had every reason to ground themselves in Jesus and His truth on account of His life, death, and resurrection, and they would face constant temptations from the world around them to compromise some of that truth. Paul says what he does to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16 for good reason: in the eyes of the world the belief that Jesus has been made King because He was executed by the Romans as an insurrectionist but God brought Him back to life, transformed Him for immortality, and He now rules over everything from Heaven sounds nuts. The world remains convicted of what is generally a truth: once you’re dead, you’re dead. The notion that someone could be brought back to life from the dead never to die again (Romans 6:1-11), in worldly logic, is positively ridiculous. Those Corinthians who denied the resurrection were just maintaining the worldview they had obtained from their ancestors. Many Jews believed in resurrection but could not conceive of God coming in the flesh and dying. Yet, as Paul said, Christ crucified and raised grounds our confidence for living (1 Corinthians 1:18, 15:20-28). To deny those central truths would mean departure from Christ and from the hope of life in the resurrection in Him (2 John 1:6-9); so Paul exhorts the Corinthian Christians, and by extension all Christians throughout time, to remain steadfast and immovable, ever affirming Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and lordship no matter how insane such a view is to the world!

Paul also declares that the Corinthian Christians, and by extension all Christians, are to abound in the work of the Lord on account of His resurrection and the hope of our own, and that we can maintain confidence that our labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). In this way Paul shows how the resurrection has changed everything. King Solomon, a millennium before the Incarnation of his Descendant Jesus, proclaimed that everything “under the sun” was vain (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12:8). Everything was vain, a breath or vapor, because of the universality of death: you lived only to die and everything you ever did or were would be forgotten (Ecclesiastes 1:4-11). All the labor you worked would perish or its benefit given to a descendant who would squander it (Ecclesiastes 2:18-26). It is good to be wise, but the wise man dies just as the fool (Ecclesiastes 2:15-16). The oppressor and oppressed both die (Ecclesiastes 4:1). Solomon as the Preacher saw the futility of life subject to decay and corruption because the positive joy of it all was as ephemeral as the activities that spawned it.

To this day the Preacher is right about all things “under the sun” in their own terms: if we trust in this world only we will be frustrated and forgotten. Yet, as Paul makes clear, the resurrection changes everything. Hope in the resurrection gives meaning where the Preacher could only see vanity. “Under the sun” all things might be forgotten, but they are not forgotten by God; labor under the sun may seem futile, but on the day of resurrection, when all are raised and stand before God, all will be judged and will obtain what is coming to them on the basis of what they have done in the body (2 Corinthians 5:10). All things may seem futile when seen only in terms of this life but maintain some meaning when seen in light of the life to come in the resurrection: the oppressor will have to pay for what they have done to the oppressed, the wicked will obtain their comeuppance, the righteous will see their reward, and what was formerly a breath or vapor will remain forevermore (1 Corinthians 15:1-57, Revelation 21:1-22:6).

Ever since Babel humans have been making monuments to their own greatness in their fear of death (Genesis 11:1-9); those remain futile endeavors, as vanity and striving after wind, lasting only for a moment before being forgotten, and the world moves on (Ecclesiastes 1:2-12:8). Yet all the labor expended in the name of God in Christ endures, for such efforts will not prove futile, a breath or a vapor, since our God is a God of resurrection. Our bodies may presently be subject to corruption, decay, and death; the day is coming when this corruptible will put on incorruption, and this mortal will put on immortality, death will be fully defeated, and righteousness shall reign (1 Corinthians 15:1-58, 2 Peter 3:10-13, Revelation 21:1-22:6). Yet how can we know? God is presently building that new creation through the resurrection of Jesus and those who have put their trust in Him as their Lord, living in the “now” despite the “not yet” of resurrection and salvation (2 Corinthians 4:1-5:21, 1 Peter 1:3-9). In Christ we become a new creation, having obtained reconciliation with God, and our efforts expended for His Kingdom will remain eternally with that Kingdom (Matthew 6:19-21, 2 Corinthians 5:17-20). Let us therefore, as with the Corinthian Christians before us, remain steadfast and immovable in our confidence and conviction in Jesus’ Incarnation, life, death, bodily resurrection, ascension, lordship, and the expectation of the day of judgment and resurrection to come, and always abound in the work of the Lord, knowing that through Him and His resurrection all will not be in vain!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Tower of Babel and Human Religion

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4).

Humans like to build, and the bigger, the better.

At some point between the Flood and Abraham, all humanity came together on the plain of Shinar, in modern-day Iraq, and decided to build a city and a large tower. The endeavor did not end well: God confused the language of humanity, and they stopped building their tower. The place would be known as Babel, or Confusion, because of these events (Genesis 11:1-9).

Even though the Tower of Babel was not a completely fulfilled project, it still stood there, a monument to human endeavor in Mesopotamia. Meanwhile, those scattered in Mesopotamia built cities: Babel, Erech, Akkad, Calneh, among others (cf. Genesis 10:8-12). Those cities would feature a large building in the middle which we today call ziggurats: large step pyramids which were used, as far as we can tell, as temples and as a high place upon which to make offerings to the gods of Sumer and Akkad. Meanwhile, in Egypt, kings would soon begin to build larger and larger pyramids as tombs for themselves and their families, believing that these large structures would help the soul of the king to reach the heavens.

The ziggurats of Mesopotamia and the pyramids of Egypt would become famous monuments. Everyone in the Bible from Abraham to Malachi would have at least heard of the ziggurats and pyramids, and many saw them. We can only imagine how impressive these monuments would have seemed in their younger days; the pyramids are still magnificent despite the ravages of time. They certainly would have projected strength and an air of magnificence. Surely these nations were mighty; surely their gods were strong.

And yet, how many of the Israelites, when hearing about and/or seeing these monuments, thought of the story of the Tower of Babel, and of its ultimate end?

ziggurats and pyramids were influenced by the Tower of Babel; perhaps the Tower of Babel was even considered the first ziggurat. Understood in this way, we can see how the Tower of Babel both explains and is a critique of human religion.

As Paul explains in Romans 1:18-25, when humans no longer give God the Creator the glory due Him, they become futile in their thinking and their hearts are darkened. They turn and give the creation the honor due the Creator. This mentality is on full display on the plain of Shinar. Humans find themselves in a big, lonely world, and do not want to be scattered over its face. Meanwhile, they still search for meaning and value in life. As opposed to honoring God by fulfilling His commandments and giving Him the honor, they instead stay together contrary to His command and work to build a city and a tower to make a name for themselves, not for God. Even after their original plan was frustrated, they kept at it in their new locations, building towers and other large structures.

These structures took on religious meaning and significance. The logic is the same as the use of the high place: the higher the altitude we reach, we imagine, the closer to the divine we get. The Canaanites would imagine that their gods lived on top of the large mountains in their land; the Greeks believed their gods lived on Mount Olympus. Therefore, it was necessary to get up high to present offerings to them or to reach them. And how better to climb up than to build a structure that climbs high into the heavens?

While these structures had religious significance, the glory and honor still went to the nations who built them. To this day we remember the pyramids more as an astonishing feat of engineering accomplished by the “god-like” kings of Egypt than as anything relating to their religion. The ziggurats of Mesopotamia would have made quite the impression on people as well; we can only imagine how the Israelites in exile would have reacted to see such large buildings and the power being projected by the empires which built them. It suddenly becomes clearer why so many started following after those gods: it certainly seemed as if they and the people who built those structures had all the power.

Therefore, human religion seems so powerful, wonderful, and glorious. But it cannot save and is ultimately futile. All such effort is in vain!

The power of God receives testimony from man’s search for meaning and value in life, but it is vain and futile to imagine that we can discover God “out there.” Paul demolished all such thinking when he declared that God is actually not very far from us at all, for in Him we live, move, and exist (Acts 17:26-28). We reach out in vain, trying to please the divine the best we think we know how, but ultimately that can never be enough: we cannot be justified or made righteous on our own by our own effort (Romans 3:20). Even if God is as close as He is far away, we cannot bridge the divide separating us, no matter how much human religion would like to think it can (Isaiah 59:1-2).

Instead, God bridged the gap in Himself. Man, according to his religion, tries to build up to reach the heavens; God, in humility, came to earth as a man, lived as a man, and died as a man (Philippians 2:5-11). Through the God-man Jesus humans can find true religion through reconciliation with God (Romans 5:6-11); it does not involve any elevation, any building, any attempt to reach up by our own unaided efforts to find what we are seeking. We grope and grasp for truth and discover that it has always been here the whole time, reaching out to us (cf. Revelation 3:20-21).

The Tower of Babel was a monument to human pretension, man’s attempt to make a name for himself. Human religion, in its own way, has the same goal: seeking the divine on man’s terms, creating gods in his own image and according to his own fancy, and it all ultimately is designed to glorify himself. Yet such pursuits are in vain. The Tower of Babel no longer exists. The ruins of the ziggurats were discovered by European archaeologists who believed in the God of Israel, the glory of those empires long faded. The pyramids sit in Egypt as ruins, pillaged for stone in medieval days in order to build the old city in Cairo. Few honor the gods of Egypt and Mesopotamia.

We should not imagine that times are altogether different now. We still have human religion with gods made according to man’s fancy. We have large buildings which stand as testimonies to the gods of today: money, power, fame, and so on. Nations build ever larger buildings, attempting to get greater glory and to seem important, a projection of strength. And it will happen to all these nations, buildings, and gods as it happened to the Mesopotamians and the Egyptians. They will pass away, Their religion will not satisfy and will fail.

Meanwhile, the name of Jesus is still on the lips of untold thousands, heard everywhere. The Gospel remains powerful, the only antidote to human religion. Human religion projects strength; God came as Christ in weakness. Human religion vaunts itself; Jesus was humble (Matthew 20:25-28). Human religion seeks its own end; Jesus gave up all things to glorify His Father and accomplish His purposes (John 5:19-24, 30-47, Philippians 2:5-11). According to human religion, man seeks to use his power to save himself; in Christ, we learn that we cannot do anything to save ourselves, and so we must yield and submit ourselves to God so that we can work in Him according to all that He has prepared for us (Philippians 2:12-13).

We have a choice: the Tower of Babel or the Temple of Jesus. The former seems glorious but fades and collapses; the latter seems weak but is truly strong and will endure. Let us choose to follow Jesus and become part of His body, His temple, and honor and glorify God in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Work

And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it (Genesis 2:15).

In the midst of our lives of toil, one of the great fantasies providing comfort to many is the prospect of never having to work again. People dream about the never-ending vacation; many people count down the days to retirement.

But is a lack of having to work really so wonderful? Sure, for a few days, perhaps even weeks, doing nothing might be great. Yet, after awhile, people get antsy; they want to do something. Sadly, too many find out how their lives were sustained by their work or the stress levels accompanying that work; how many die of heart attacks within a couple of years after retirement?

It is interesting to see how people who really do not have to work still find ways to occupy their time and engage in various tasks and effort. Rich people rarely just sit around; they go out and do things. Many retired people end up being more busy and active in retirement than they ever were while working. Many who are disabled and unable to work find it a hard pill to swallow. No matter what, it seems that humans feel compelled to work, some way, some how.

This tendency should not surprise us, for man was made to work. When God created the world and created man, He took Adam and put him in the Garden of Eden to tend and keep it (Genesis 2:15). We do not know how much effort this would take, but it is important to note. Man was not created for leisure, nor was he created for hard bondage; the first man was created to tend God’s garden.

This work was not a curse; the curse would not come until sin entered the picture in Genesis 3. The curse took work as a beautiful thing and made it an onerous burden (Genesis 3:17-18). God’s curse upon man explains why so much of his work is expended just to survive with no lasting merit. The curse cannot entirely rob work of its dignity.

Work and effort provides many benefits for mankind. Our identities are wrapped up in our careers, our families, the organizations in which we participate, and other such things; all of them require work to some degree or another. We can find great enjoyment and comfort through creating things, making things, helping others, and such like, either through careers or in our personal time. There is a satisfaction in finishing a project or putting in good effort that can never come through slacking off or from a lack of achievement.

But we must be careful to not make an idol of work. Humans prove easily enamored with their own creative abilities and the things which they create; how many have turned away from serving the God of Heaven and have instead put their trust into the efforts and abilities of man? Many others make work the most important thing in their lives, sacrificing their own identities, their families, and perhaps even their happiness on the altar of work; no wonder such people are called “workaholics”! One of the greatest dangers man faces is believing that God will only be satisfied with us if we have worked hard enough or expended enough effort to please Him: while we are to work for God and strive to obey Him, we can never be saved by how well we have worked (Romans 3:20). We can only be saved through our trust in the Lord Jesus; our relationship with God is never something we can earn (Romans 4:1-12).

It is good for us to work and to keep our various efforts in their proper perspective. We are made to work and we will expend effort doing something in life, but will our efforts have any lasting significance? If we expend all of our energy toward the pursuits of this life alone, we will likely find that it will all perish when the present universe does (1 John 2:15-17). Instead, we must seek to promote the message of Jesus and serve God and our fellow man as He did; only by investing in people, encouraging them in the faith of Jesus, will our efforts ever find lasting benefit (Matthew 6:19-20). Let us work to advance the Kingdom of God and glorify Him!

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!

Ethan R. Longhenry