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

Taking God’s Name in Vain

Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain (Exodus 20:7).

Perhaps you have always wondered why the name of God in the Old Testament is often rendered as LORD in capital letters, or how some concluded that His name is “Jehovah,” or why to this day some among the Jews will only write “G-d.” It all goes back to a very strict interpretation of the third commandment: the Israelites were not to take the name of YHWH their God in vain (Exodus 20:7).

Long after the Ten Commandments were given, it was reasoned that if you never spoke the name of God, you would not take it in vain. Therefore, the Jews stopped saying “Yahweh” and would always substitute some other divine title– Adonai (Lord), Elohim (God), Ha-Shem (the Name). The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, consistently renders Yahweh as Kurios (Lord). Later on, as the Masoretes, the Jewish scribes who copied the Hebrew Bible texts in the first millennium CE, developed the vowel pointing system, they would always put the vowels for Ha-Shem, Adonai, or Elohim under the Divine Name YHWH so that even if a Jew thoughtlessly began uttering God’s name without providing an alternative substitute, what would come out of his mouth would be meaningless. This is how we got “Jehovah,” which is meaningless in Hebrew– it is the consonants of the Divine Name (YHWH) with the vowels for Adonai. To this day, many translations avoid transliterating God’s name as Yahweh and continue to use LORD in capital letters.

We mention all of this, partly in way of explanation, but also partly to show how some people have taken God’s commandment to not take His name in vain rather seriously. Yes, in many respects, this devotion was terribly misguided. It was not at all God’s intention to mean that His name should never be uttered– we have evidence from early Israelite history showing that people spoke of YHWH and sought His blessings for one another (cf. Ruth 2:4). God also did not intend for His unique name Yahweh to be upheld while other terms used to refer to Him, like God, Lord, etc., could be used more flippantly. We should also hasten to mention that this is not evidence of some conspiracy to remove God’s name from Scripture, as if we sin if we never refer to God as Yahweh, as some would allege. God, the Lord, Yahweh, even “Jehovah”– YHWH the Creator God knows when people speak to Him and about Him, whether in using His personal name or by referring to one of His divine titles and functions in the speaker’s native language.

Yet all of this ultimately serves as a distraction from what God was seeking in the third commandment. What is the big deal with taking God’s name in vain?

Some might suggest that this is yet another example of God’s insecurities and despotic behavior, as if God must absolutely be upheld and treated differently or else He finds Himself in difficulty. Yet there is no reason to even suggest this. God is all-powerful and Sovereign whether we uphold His name as holy or we do not (cf. Hebrews 1:3, Ephesians 1:21). No– the command to not take God’s name in vain was for Israel’s sake.

One of the great declarations of the Old Testament involves God’s holiness– God is holy, and Israel is to be holy because of it (Leviticus 11:44, 19:2). To be holy is to be separate and distinct.

Taking God’s name in vain is to show disrespect to God’s holiness, indeed. Far too many people only seem to get religious in their speech when they find themselves in compromising or compromised positions. Too many people speak of God only in vulgar speech, insults, or in various exclamations and interjections. Euphemisms for the names of God and Christ remain popular, even though the same spirit is there, but in our increasingly crude society, fewer people find the need for alternatives and just keep with the “real thing.”

Yet the challenge is not just in the disrespect demonstrated– the real difficulty is in how God is made mundane in the process. Israel was to show respect and reverence for God’s name in order to remember how holy and separate God really is (Isaiah 55:8-9). To utter God’s name in the common events of life– when one hurts oneself, as an unthinking response to some circumstance, and so on and so forth– is really to empty God’s name of its power, holiness, and importance. It is truly taking God’s name “in vain”– using God’s name in a throwaway sense, and in so doing, we nullify and make vain for us the power and holiness present in God. God, and Christ in our own day, is made too common and unthought of when God’s name is used in such trifling circumstances.

This is not an aspect of God that changes in the new covenant, as it is written:

Let no corrupt speech proceed out of your mouth, but such as is good for edifying as the need may be, that it may give grace to them that hear (Ephesians 4:29).

As believers we must give thought to what we say. We will be brought into judgment for every careless word uttered (Matthew 12:36). While it is popular in our society to invoke God’s name for swearing in all kinds of senses, in all kinds of casual, trivial circumstances that have no bearing on God’s great holiness and work in Jesus Christ, we must make sure that our speech is different. If we revere God as holy, we will speak about God as holy. We will understand that we should not trivialize or make common God’s name through frivolous and vain usage. We also will understand that euphemisms are no better; the same spirit is at work, and we are not giving grace through speaking them.

God wants us to speak about Him and to use His name to glorify Him, praise Him, and serve Him. But His name must be kept holy– separate and distinct– if we are going to truly revere Him as holy. Let us therefore consider our speech and strive to not take God’s name in vain!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Zealous For Good

And who is he that will harm you, if ye be zealous of that which is good? (1 Peter 3:13).

We have again come to the time of the year known as “March Madness,” when the eyes of many in the nation are focused on the NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Tournament. Even people who have not really followed the teams so far this season fill out their brackets, and millions tune in to see who will be upset and who will be able to win it all.

The passion that people bring to sporting events is, of course, legendary. In America, baseball and basketball are cherished sports, but nothing seems to inspire more passion than college and professional football. In most other countries it is soccer that inspires fanatic devotion. Untold amounts of money, energy, and time are expended in following and cheering on these sports teams.

And for what? Most of the teams, by necessity, lose. The focus then goes to the next season. But what happens when your team wins? You may go and get an honorary t-shrirt or hat or the like, but even here, the focus goes to next year. And then the year after that.

As the Preacher indicates, all is vanity, or emptiness (Ecclesiastes 1:1). So it is with fanatical passion regarding sports– teams win, teams lose, and the world goes on, and nothing is really gained in the end. But this goes beyond mere sports– it is true with almost everything in life. Politics– actions are done, actions get reversed. Elections are won and elections are lost. The world moves on. Business corporations succeed. They stagnate. They fall. Others begin to succeed. The world moves on. All remains vanity!

How much human effort, energy, and resources are expended toward that which is ultimately futile? How many people devote all the energy they’ve been given in this short life to things that do not ultimately profit?

Believers in God, on the other hand, are invited to invest their time and energy into something that will endure forever– the Kingdom of God (Daniel 2:36-44). We are invited to lay up treasures in Heaven, where thieves cannot steal and moth cannot consume (cf. Matthew 6:19-20). We are able to participate in God’s eternal plan, promoting His purposes to those in His creation (cf. Ephesians 3:10-11). And then, when everything that humans have expended their effort to obtain is burned up into nothing, we have the opportunity to experience the eternal weight of glory with the Father forever (2 Peter 3:9-12, Romans 8:18, 2 Corinthians 4:17).

Therefore, we have been given the greatest encouragement, incentive, and purpose that could ever be. Whereas any effort we direct toward any other purpose or cause will not endure, our effort in the Lord is never in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). All the gold in the universe will melt, but treasure in Heaven will be perpetual. When all is destroyed, it will not matter who won the Final Four, the Super Bowl, or the World Cup. All that will matter is whether we were found to be obedient servants of the Lord Jesus Christ and that we were zealous for His purposes (cf. Matthew 25:14-46)!

It is easy to become zealous for sports, zealous for politics, zealous for business, or zealous for thousands of things “under the sun.” Yet our overreaching passion and zeal should be directed for the good– for the promotion of God’s message of salvation in this world, reflecting Jesus Christ to everyone in our lives. Let us be zealous for good, and not allow our energies to be misdirected!

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

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)!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Work and Effort

For what hath a man of all his labor, and of the striving of his heart, wherein he laboreth under the sun? For all his days are but sorrows, and his travail is grief; yea, even in the night his heart taketh no rest. This also is vanity. There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy good in his labor. This also I saw, that it is from the hand of God (Ecclesiastes 2:22-24).

For better or worse, man was made to work (Genesis 2:15). The world is full of the evidence of the “business” of mankind, and the work cycle will continue until the Lord returns.

It is within the heart of man to work. Not working– and not wanting to work– is an aberration (1 Timothy 5:8, 2 Thessalonians 3:10). Work provides people with a level of purpose and meaning along with the paycheck to pay for life’s necessities.

Unfortunately, too many labor under many false pretenses about human effort. From a young age we are told that we can make something of ourselves and that we should find work that empowers us or helps us find meaning. We should try to find some job with lasting value. Every employer tries to find some way to make the effort of their employees fit these bills.

The difficulty is, as the Preacher indicates, that human effort is ultimately vain. Things that people make break or perish. Accumulated wealth goes to children or others. You can work at a job for years, retire, and eventually be forgotten. In the end, it will all burn up (2 Peter 3:9-10).

Meanwhile, how many find themselves at 25 or 35 in the job of their dreams as a young child? Not many. Instead, cold, hard reality has set in, and how many suffer great distress and discouragement because of broken promises or failed dreams?

This is why the Preacher’s message, while disconcerting, needs to be heard. We are not promised that our work will be ultimately meaningful. Instead, we must find value in our work. We must find some way to enjoy what we do. We spend far too much of our time and effort in our short lives at work to do otherwise!

We must also realize that work is the means to an end, and is not the end all and be all of existence. Serving God serves that purpose (Galatians 2:20, Ephesians 2:1-10, Titus 3:3-8). We must find enjoyment in work and enjoyment in the rest of life. Does this mean that we might have to change jobs? Perhaps. But most times it has less to do with the job and more to do with our perspective on the job. Let us lay aside our pretensions about our effort, find value in our effort, and do all things to the glory of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry