Elihu Speaks

             I.      Introduction

We’ve been in the book of Job; we’ve studied Job’s loss, his suffering, then speech after speech from Job’s friends.  Today we’re going to study Elihu, or as I first asked when I started studying for this lesson – Eli Who?  I know everybody has been faithfully reading your scripture in preparation for today’s lesson, so here’s a pop quiz – which of Job’s friends is Elihu?  Is Elihu the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd of Job’s friends to speak?

The answer is d), none of the above.  Elihu often gets lumped in with Job’s 3 friends, but after spending a lot of time with Elihu during this study, I don’t think Elihu is like the three friends at all.  In fact, I think Elihu is a foreshadow to the Lord’s appearance to Job.

Biblical commentaries I studied both praised and condemned Elihu’s speech.  I think if you read it quickly and make Elihu the 4th friend, then you conclude Elihu to be a brash, young kid, speaking up to his elders.  Young whippersnappers should learn their place.

If you’re studying along with the bible study guide provided by the church, it generally says Elihu says the right things, but he applies it incorrectly to Job.  I’m not as sure; that’s not my conclusion after I completed my studies.  So let’s study together, and then decide.  First, let’s talk about who Elihu is not: Elihu is not one of Job’s three friends.

          II.      Job’s Three Friends

Job’s three friends were Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, and they’re well known for giving incredibly long and theologically inept speeches.  The three friends begin talking in Job 2 and don’t shut up for like 300 pages.  And if you’re trying to live the good Christian life, don’t use their speeches as advice.  Not to say their words should be discarded; I used to joke that my mother would tell me, “Son, if you can’t be a good example, then do your best to be a horrible warning.”  Job’s friends give crooked theologically advice that trip up every Christian at some point in their walk, so their words are instructive on what we should not do.

Eliphaz spoke first.  Eliphaz spoke of God’s perfect justice.  Therefore, if Job is suffering, it must be because of Job’s sin.  Is that true?  Well, maybe sometimes.  I can think of sin in my life that had really bad results, so I can see sin leading directly to punishment.  But Jesus specifically addresses this theological error in John 9:2-3,

And His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?”  Jesus answered, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.

We can spend the entire lesson studying Jesus’ response; I think it even supports a sanctity of life argument.  But let’s just stop there and say that Eliphaz was wrong, Jesus said so.

Job’s 2nd friend, Bildad, spoke next.  Bildad’s position is that sinners can only expect death and suffering.  In fact, it was because Job’s children had sinned that they were killed.  Is that true?  Well, it is true that unrepentant sinners can expect death and suffering.  But not necessarily in this life.  Jesus says in Matthew 5:44-45,

But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

I know there are some awful people that have prosperity and long life, but God will provide perfect justice according to His will someday.  Revelation 20:12-13 has a scary verse for unrepentant sinners,

And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds.

Eeek.  But this verse does not apply to Job who was righteous and still alive.  Also, it’s New Testament and hadn’t been written yet.

The third friend, Zophar, then piled more judgement onto Job.  Zophar said Job deserved to have lost his wealth and his entire family.  In fact, Job deserved even more suffering, and whatever sins Job was hiding, he should confess and repent.  Is that true?  Well, it is true that we deserve punishment for our sins, but it’s not true that all punishment is for our sins.  God gives us difficulties in this life that we cannot overcome on our own.  Paul had his thorn.  You have yours, and so do I.  And we keep that thorn as a reminder that we are not in control and cannot solve all of our own problems and we should continually turn to God for guidance and healing.  But it is not true that Job’s punishment was deserved.  We cannot see the mind of God, except for what He has revealed to us in His Word.

These were Job’s closest friends, giving Job really bad advice and telling Job he deserved it.  Sure they got a great many things right – when Job was suffering in Job 2, his friends came to sit with him quietly, and to mourn with Job.  They wept with him, they tore their clothes, they sprinkled dust on their heads.  And they sat with Job in empathetic silence for 7 days before they spoke.

But then they made a mistake by opening their mouths.  Not that you or I have ever done that, have we?  They opened their mouths and started their incredibly lengthy speeches that last nearly to the New Testament.  And they went on and on and on.  At one point, in Job 16:2, Job says

With friends like you, who needs enemies?

Actually, that’s a paraphrase.  Job actually said,

You are miserable comforters, all of you!

We can gain wisdom by studying what Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar said, both the correct things and the incorrect thing.  If we have a friend that is suffering, encourage our friend to endure faithfully, knowing that God sees all and has a purpose for our pain.  Romans 12:15 says,

Mourn with those who mourn.

But let’s not be judgmental and tell our friend that they must have some hidden sin and they’re being punished for it.  With friends like that, who needs enemies?

       III.      Who is Elihu

And then there is Elihu who doesn’t show up until Job 32:2 –

Then Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, burned with anger.

Elihu says a few words and disappears for a while.  Most people don’t even notice Elihu.  They’ve been reading poetic criticism of Job for 32 chapters already, verses that can be summed up like

  • You’re a sinner.  Repent.
  • You’re a sinner.  You deserve this.
  • You’re a sinner.  Repent.
  • You’re a sinner.  You deserve this.
  • You’re a sinner.  Repent.
  • You’re a sinner.  You deserve this.

You get the idea.  Your eyes have glazed over after reading 300 verses of bad theology.  You’re looking at the words over and over and they no longer make sense.  Perhaps you pause in the middle and take a nap.  I think the long drawn out speeches of Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar are some of the most sleep-inducing verses, just behind all those “begat” statements most of us never get all the way through.  And so when Elihu arrives, we don’t even notice he’s not even one of Job’s friends.

Besides a little of Elihu’s genealogy, we know  –

  • Elihu is young (Job 32:4, 6)
  • Elihu is raving mad (Job 32:2,3, & 5)
  • Elihu is full of criticism for Job (Job 33:12, 34:7-8, Job 34:35-37, etc)

So here’s where understanding of Elihu goes sideways and leads to differences of opinions among theologians.  The source of the confusion is that in many ways, Elihu is just like the three friends.  Here –

  • Eliphaz: “Job has sinned” (Job 4:7, 15:4-6, 22:5)
  • Bildad: “Job has sinned” (Job 8:5-6, 18:4)
  • Zophar: “Job has sinned” (Job 11:6, 20:29)
  • Elihu: “Job has sinned” (Job 34:7, 37; 35:16)

So Elihu is just like the other three, right? 

There are some strong commentaries that support this, including the study guides we have for the book of Job.  In these commentaries, they focus on these similarities, and toss even more criticism on Elihu – they say that Elihu at first seems humble and willing to defer to the wisdom of his elders, then his youthful arrogance takes hold, and Elihu repeats all the same errors that Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar made.  They say Elihu is unteachable, thinks he’s smarter than his elders, thinks he has all the answers.  He’s just a summary of what the other 3 said, but with the additional error of youthful arrogance.

Is that true?  The more I studied Elihu, the more I disagreed with that conclusion.  I think Elihu is more complex than that.  I think Elihu uses many of the same arguments the same friends did, but applies them to Job truthfully and in line with God’s wisdom.

So we see how Elihu is the same as the three friends, but let’s look at another comparison.  Later in the book of Job, God talks directly to Job.  During Job’s conversation with his 3 friends, Job says God is being unfair.  Job says God isn’t paying attention to His faithful servant.  Job says because Job is so faithful, he wants to appear in the Court of God and present his case, and God will surely find Job innocent.

To understand Elihu, we have to say something about Job first.  He begins in Job 1:1 –

There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job; and that man was blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil.

But by Job 38,

  • God call Job a faultfinder (Job 40:2)
  • God says Job speaks without knowledge (Job 38:2)
  • God says Job has put God in the wrong (Job 34:5-6)

In Job 42:6, Job repents in dust and ashes, and in response,

  • God clears Job of all charges (Job 42:7-8)

So it’s clear that, although Job begins the book blameless and upright, by Job 38, Job has revealed himself as a sinner.  Job then repents, and the Lord forgives.  Let’s look at Elihu’s statements –

  • Elihu accuses Job of finding fault with God (Job 33:9-11)
  • Elihu says Job speaks without knowledge (Job 34:35)
  • Elihu says Job has put God in the wrong (Job 34:5-6)
  • Elihu desires to justify Job of all charges (Job 33:32)

Whoa.  Elihu opened in Job 36 by saying that Elihu will be speaking on God’s behalf.  I think there is merit to that – Elihu makes the exact same points God does.

But that’s not really enough evidence to support Elihu – after all, we noted earlier that Elihu accused Job of sin, just like the three friends did.  So why would Elihu’s speech be any different?

We know that Elihu was a younger man who waited for all the speeches to end.   When Elihu spoke, Elihu was angry at Job because Job claimed his own righteousness before God.  Elihu was also angry at the three friends because they condemned Job unfairly.  Who gets to condemn Job fairly?  That is reserved for God Himself.

Though Elihu makes the same conclusion that Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar make, Elihu’s argument is very different.  Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar argue over and over again, “You must have sinned, that’s why you suffer.  Repent!” 

Elihu makes a different case: “After your suffering began, then you began sinning.

The three friends are convinced Job is doing something secret and sinful.  They don’t know what it is, but Job’s suffering must be evidence of that sin, right?

But Elihu doesn’t make that accusation.  Elihu is listening to Job’s words, and saying it’s the words Job is speaking now that demonstrate sin.  Job’s arrogance, pride, anger.  Elihu is right.  By demanding his own justification before God, Job is displaying his own sin.

When we dig deeper into the speeches, there’s a lot of difference.  Sure, each speech is like 500 pages each, but each speech is different.  Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar give like 3 speeches each, and Job refutes each speech with a speech of his own.  I think Job gives a total of 8 speeches.

Elihu gets 4 speeches, and these lines are very illustrative in Job 33:31-33,

Pay attention, Job, listen to me;

Keep silent, and let me speak.

Then if you have anything to say, answer me;

Speak, for I would take pleasure in justifying you.

If not, listen to me;

Keep silent, and I will teach you wisdom.”

What does Job say?  Nothing.  Job has no response to Elihu.  I believe Job recognizes the wisdom of Elihu.  To the three friends, Job says, “You’re wrong!” but to Elihu, Job stands convicted.

We can also look at the evidence of Job’s sins.  Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar have no evidence, only accusations, though Job challenges to provide any evidence in the early chapters, in Job 6:28-30.   Elihu, on the other hand, brings specific charges:

  • You say … (Job 33:8-11)
  • You say … ( Job 33:13)
  • You say … (Job 34:5-6)
  • You say … (Job 35:2-3)
  • You say … (Job 36:23)

Elihu himself says his words are different.  Elihu is angry at the three friends and Job – furious at the three friends for accusing Job without evidence, and furious at Job for his prideful and arrogant responses.  Elihu has something different to say, Job 32:14 –

“[Job] has not directed his words against me, and I will not answer him with your speeches.”

Job 32:3 says Elihu

“burned with anger also at Job’s three friends because they had found no answer, although they had declared Job to be in the wrong.”

          IV.      Elihu’s Declaration

 Elihu argued that there is a purpose, a greater meaning to Job’s sufferings.  They are designed to teach Job, to bring Job into a deeper understanding of God.   And Elihu admonishes Job in Job 36:19-21,

Will your cry for help keep you from distress,

Or all the exertions of your strength?

Do not long for the night,

When people vanish in their places.

Be careful, do not turn to evil,

For you preferred this to misery.

There is wisdom here.  When afflictions come, when pain and suffering arrives, when death is knocking at your door or has taken a loved one away, Each one of us will try to find comfort.  Some turn to evil.  Their misery makes them bitter, and they want to take their own revenge on somebody, anybody.  Sometimes they blame God for being uncaring or unknowing.  They go through this logic I mentioned back in our study of Job 1 and the purpose of a trainwreck in our lives –

  • If God is truly all-loving, then He would not allow evil and suffering.
  • If God is truly all-powerful, then He would have the power to stop evil and suffering.
  • But evil and suffering exist, maybe God isn’t all loving?  Or maybe not all-powerful?  Or maybe He doesn’t even exist?

And in their misery, the weak in faith turn to evil, revenge, bitterness, hate.  The godless become angry and accuse God.  The righteous who suffer, on the other hand, turn to God, submit to His instructions, and learn from it.  Elihu cautions Job not to turn to evil in his misery.

Where should Job turn?  Elihu continues in Job 36:22-26,

Behold, God is exalted in His power;

Who is a teacher like Him?

Who has appointed Him His way,

And who has said, ‘You have done wrong’?

“Remember that you are to exalt His work,

Of which people have sung.

All people have seen it;

Mankind looks at it from afar.

Behold, God is exalted, and we do not know Him;

The number of His years is unsearchable.

We cannot truly fathom all that God it.  All we see is what God has revealed to us through His Word, and that allows us only to see through the glass darkly.

            V.      Conclusion

I believe Elihu paves the way for God’s declarations in the latter chapters of Job.  Elihu says to the three friends that, despite their age, they are not wise, and true wisdom comes from the spirit of God.  And then Elihu goes straight to the heart of Job’s problem.  Elihu accuses Job in 34:23 that Job is setting himself up as an equal of God, demanding that God be accountable, and that is Job’s arrogance and sin.  Elihu observes correctly that Job, instead of bringing his misery to the Lord, Job had turned to evil and accused the Lord of being unfair and unavailable.

Amazingly, God speaks immediately after Elihu.  God says in Job 42:7, clearly condemning their advice –

“I am angry with you [Eliphaz] and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me.”

Whose name is missing?  Elihu.  God is angry at the three friends, and then elaborates on the same themes that Elihu made. 

I believe there is a lot of confusion about Elihu because he sounds just like Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar.  All four draw the same conclusion: Job has sinned.  But as we dig deeper into the verses, we see that what Elihu means is not what they mean.  Elihu’s speeches ring with truth desperately needed by any innocent sufferer:

  • God has not been silent; he speaks through your pain (Job 32-33).
  • God is not unjust; he will eventually strike the wicked (Job 34).
  • Righteous living is not pointless, though we are insignificant next to God (Job 35).
  • You’re in no place to criticize God; remember to fear him (Job 36-37).

Elihu then launches into one of the most-profound declarations of praise of the Lord God in all of the Bible, and then God reinforces Elihu’s fourth point with some of his most aggressive and fear-inducing words in all the Bible, declaring the awe-inducing, almighty power and wisdom of the creator of the universe in Job 38-41, which Tony and Koren will happily tell you about over the next two weeks.

May we all repent of our pride before the Lord and humble ourselves before Him.  Let us learn from our sufferings, turning to the only true source of comfort.  Let us always remember to fear Him, for fear is the beginning of all wisdom

To God be the Glory.  Amen.

Faith Tested

             I.      Introduction

A guy named Pete gets a job as a switchman with the railroad, and undergoes weeks of training. The supervisor then takes him into the switch booth to test his readiness. The following exchange takes place:

Supervisor: “Imagine you were sitting here alone and you learned there was a train coming from the North on that track, and another coming from the South on the same track. What would you do?”

Pete: “I’d throw this switch right here and put one train on the other track.”

Supervisor: And what if that switch didn’t work?”

Pete: “I’d go down to the track and throw that big switchlever there, putting one train on the other track.”

Supervisor: “And what if that switchlever didn’t work?”

Pete: “Then I’d come back here and call the dispatcher to stop both trains.”

Supervisor: “And what if the phone didn’t work?”

Pete: “Then I’d go to that gas station across the street and use their phone.”

Supervisor: “And what if their phone didn’t work?”

Pete: “Then I’d go get Uncle Joe.”

Supervisor: “Uncle Joe??? What would he do?”

Pete: “Nothing, but he ain’t never seen a train wreck.”

Is there a trainwreck in your life?  Many of us have been through life’s trainwrecks, either in our own lives or the life of somebody close to us.    Something terrible, something awful, that left us with a feeling of “why me?”  When I was young, and I’m fortunate that I don’t remember this traumatic event, I’m was told that a man in a mask burst into my room, grabbed me by my ankles, lifted me up, and while I hung there naked, he smacked me on the bottom.  They told me he was the doctor, I certainly hope so.  As a newborn, I was already having a hard time maintaining my dignity.  I mean, really, what did I do to deserve THAT?  And it seems sometimes that, just life in general, has been trying to smack me around ever since.

Perhaps you’ve been smacked around, too.  My mother passed last year.  Last time I taught, I shared about my divorce.  Maybe you have a marriage that failed, or perhaps one that’s currently failing.  Maybe you or a loved one lost a job, maybe you have a mother or father that died.  I have a friend up in Conroe who has a granddaughter that’s permanently brain damaged since the age of 8 months because of a tragic home accident.  When calamity happens, we want to ask why, we want to question God.  Some may want to step away from their faith in anger at God; they say, how could God allow this?  They say, why do bad things happen to good people?

Perhaps one of the most significant tensions for Christians is the difficult question, “If God is all-loving

and all-powerful, then why is there evil and suffering in the world?”  The logic goes,

  • If God is truly all-loving, then He would not allow evil and suffering.
  • If God is truly all-powerful, then He would have the power to stop evil and suffering.
  • But evil and suffering exist, maybe God isn’t all loving?  Or maybe not all-powerful?  Or maybe He doesn’t even exist?

We have all wrestled with this question, especially when we are witnessing one of life’s many trainwrecks.  The logic is sound, except for one consideration:  God’s wisdom.

Look at the above questions.  Each logical step begins with “If God [this], then God [that].”  We have replaced God’s infinite wisdom with our limited understanding.  Our assumptions are flawed.

What God does or what God wills or what God should not or what God should not do is not subject to our own personal limited beliefs and understanding.  And because we make these assumptions about God, then our conclusions can be wrong.  We believe God should do somethings, then we are disappointed when God does not behave according to our wishes, then we are disappointed in God, in life, in others, and in ourselves.

From the very first chapter, the book of Job wages war against this distorted, prideful type of thinking.  It shows us that our incorrect, naïve views of God and the complexity of life is what disappoints us, not God.

As we will see in our studies of Job, just because we’re blessed, doesn’t mean we cannot be broken.  And if we’re broken, it doesn’t mean we’re cursed.  We confused being blessed with having things go our way.  We confuse blessings and cursings with our emotions, how we feel about what’s happening. 

God is more loving than we can imagine and more involved than our suffering suggests. His power is greater than our “if this, then that” conditions, and His wisdom is far beyond our “then He would” pettiness. The book of Job tells us that God is at work in thousands of ways outside of our experience of suffering. The question is not whether we will suffer, but when. And when we do, we need to ask ourselves if we will consider, like Job, that His thoughts may be higher and His ways much greater than we can even imagine.

There are lots of answers to the question of suffering.  For the unbeliever, God will use pain and suffering to turn the unbeliever away from evil ways.  Repent, turn from sin, and face God. 

For one who professes Christ but leans on men or perhaps lean on their own understanding, God sometimes uses calamity to strengthen faith.  Whatever we are leaning on in this world, if it isn’t God, God will help the believer remove that worldly source of strength.  If a Christian leans on money, God sometimes takes that crutch away through a family emergency, perhaps loss of a job.  If a Christian leans on his own works, God may allow health issues to make him dependent on God.  There are many things we might lean on – our family, our friends, our stuff.  For a strong, upright and faithful Christian, God uses calamity to sanctify the believer, to bring the believer closer to God. 

And then sometimes, we don’t have any idea why we suffer.  We look at ourselves for unrepentant sin, something we’re doing wrong, we think God’s trying to tell us something, and we just can’t figure it out.  It’s undeserved.  We’ve been smacked on the bottom and been through a trainwreck, and we don’t know why.

And all the while, completely ignoring the suffering our Savior endured in order to save us.

          II.      The Book of Job

We’ve begun our study into the book of Job this week.  Job is considered the oldest book in the bible, though that’s not certain since we don’t know who the author is.  It’s possibly written by Moses, or by Job, but also possible by Elihu or Solomon.  Depending on the author, Job was written sometime between 1440 BC and 950 BC.

The beginning of the book of Job is an illustration of undeserved suffering.  Job is a prominent and wealthy servant of God, and in a matter of minutes, Job loses everything.  If you think you’re having a bad day, it’s nothing like Job’s day.  Financially, emotionally, physically, spiritually, devastating loss in every category, all at the same time.  To Job, it might appear that God had deserted him.  It might appear that God is angry with him.  God offered him no comfort or explanation.  Yet through all of his suffering, Job remained faithful to God and even stopped to worship Him in the midst of suffering.  That’s inspirational, a perfect example of how God wants us to respond in everything.

Let’s walk through Job’s life and see what happens.  If you have your bibles, let’s turn to Job 1:1 –

In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.

Job was “blameless and upright.”  He was morally sound, mature, full of integrity.  The Hebrew word for “blameless” is “תָּם tâm” and also means “perfect.”  Job walked the straight and narrow path.  God himself says He finds no fault in Job.

Job “feared God and shunned evil.”  Many misunderstand the phrase “fear God;” it does not mean to be afraid of God.  To fear God doesn’t make one a  coward; it means to recognize God’s power and authority.  To have a healthy fear and respect of the power of God is necessary for good spiritual discipline.  It teaches us to say things like, “God is God, and I am not.”  Proverbs 1:7 says

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.”  

I think the phrase “feared God and shunned evil” together are interesting – “feared God” meant Job always did the right thing, but more than that he shunned evil, or also avoided the wrong thing.  He was a complete man of God, not one who did good when people were watching and evil when people were not.  Job was not a hypocrite who said one thing and did another, he was a man of perfect integrity, doing what was right and avoiding what was wrong.

He was also a very wealthy, prosperous man.  Let’s look at his tax return –

  • seven sons, 3 daughters.  Excellent, so he had a lot of deductions for dependents
  • 7000 sheep.  Enough wool to make something good.  Or at least something baaaad
  • 3000 camels
  • 500 oxen
  • 500 donkeys.  I’m sure there’s a purpose for owning 500 donkeys, I just know what that would be.  True story: my brother once gave his wife a donkey for Mother’s Day.  He’s a country boy, and his life is very different than mine.
  • and a large number of servants.

Job was like sort of a cross between Billy Graham and Warren Buffett.  In verse 4 through 5, we also learn that Job was blessed not only with material wealth and public prestige, but also a loving family.  Seven sons and three daughters that regularly broke bread together and Job would pray for them and offer sacrifices on their behalf.

Now, in verse 6, we step away from the human world and into the spiritual world where there is some sort of conference going on in Heaven.  The angels of the Lord are presenting themselves before the Almighty, and Satan also arrives in heaven.  Verse 7-8

The Lord said to Satan, “From where do you come?” Satan answered the Lord and said, “From roaming about on the earth and walking around on it.”  The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.”

There’s a lot about these two verses that disturb me.  I always imagine Satan dwelling in Hell, sending out his little minions to do his bidding.  But Satan is here in heaven. 

But you know what disturbs me more?  I’d like to avoid the devil and stay as far away from him as I can.  Yet here God is saying to Satan, “Dude, are you bored?  Check out my man Job.”  Why would God do this? 

The short answer is, we don’t really know.  No one can truly know the mind of God.  Here’s a few things we do know, however – we know that Romans 8:28 says

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

All things, including what’s about to happen to Job.  How could calamity be considered good?  Well, Job wouldn’t know this of course, but he turned out to be an example for thousands of years of God’s power and absolute control.  That’s good for us to know, even if Job didn’t. 

We also know that God promises not to give us more than we can handle.  In 1 Corinthians 10:13,

No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

God will not permit anything to come into our lives that we are not capable of withstanding.  That doesn’t mean tragedy won’t come our way – only that when it does, we’ll either be able to stand up under it or provide a way out.

Job 1:9-11,

“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied.  “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land.  But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”

I’m not surprised Satan cops an attitude with God.  Satan says that the only reason Job fears the Lord and is a man of perfect integrity is because God pays Job to be a great guy.  God has built a hedge of protection around Job and blessed Job abundantly.

Have you ever prayed for a hedge of protection?  It’s a good prayer, to protect ourselves from evil.  But this verse shows that the hedge of protection is taken down as easily as it is put up, either by God or by a very aggressive landscaping company, but more importantly, if the hedge of protection is taken down, it may not have anything whatsoever to do with our morality.

Are we shallow Christians that believe that if we are doing God’s will, God will bless us?  That’s what the heresy of the Prosperity Gospel teaches, a “name it and claim it” attitude.  Are we making some sort of bartering agreement with God?  OK God, I mowed my neighbor’s yard this week.  I helped a little old lady across the street.  I said, “God bless you” when somebody sneezed.  Now listen God: you owe me. 

That is a shallow Christian that misunderstands the will of God.  We do not do God’s will in order to receive blessings.  We do God’s will so that God may do His will.  We may or may not receive blessings on this earth.  In my experience, we all receive an abundance of blessings that we take for granted – the air we breathe, the food we eat, the homes we live in – but earthly blessings are fleeting.  God’s blessing to us is His son Jesus, sacrificed for our sins and shortcomings so that we may have life everlasting with our Savior.  That’s our blessing.

And yet, on this earth, God *is* a God of blessings, but He is not *only* a God of blessings.  He’s not some magician we produce at parties to pull a rabbit out of a hat for us.  I’ve heard some people give an excuse for their behavior by saying, “God just wants me to be happy.”  That is not God’s primary desire.  The gift of joy comes from the Lord, but God’s primary goal is for us to bring glory Him, to worship He who created us and to point others to the good news.  We cannot excuse our behavior by saying, “God wants me to be happy.”  When you read about the disaster about to befall Job, can you still say God wants Job to be happy?  No, God wants Job to glorify God.

We also know here that Satan badly misjudges Job, and God is perfectly right and accurate.  Satan believes that if Satan is allowed to wreak havoc in Job’s life that Job will renounce God and curse God to His face.  God knows Job, though, just as He knows you and me.  God will be able to use Job’s calamities for God’s purposes.

Job 1:12,

“The LORD said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your hands, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”  Then Satan went out from the presence of the LORD.”

What would happened if this exchange was about you?  What if God and Satan were talking about you in heaven?  “Have you considered my servant Michael?  Have you considered my servant Tony?  Have you considered my servant Koren?  Put your own name in the blank.  God knows where you are spiritually, and He promises not to give us more than we can handle, but how would you feel about God talking about you with Satan?

God is sovereign, all powerful.  We like to believe that God is all good and nothing evil comes from Him, but that’s an incomplete picture.  God *is* all good, but He is also sovereign, in charge of everything.  Notice Satan must ask God’s permission before he is allowed to mess with Job. 

The humans in us would like to say God’s answer should be, “Nope, don’t mess with Job, he’s mine.”  We like to think of God and Satan as being the great generals of a massive battle between good and evil, battling it out in the heavens and on earth.  Obi Wan Kanobe versus Darth Vader.  Professor X versus Magneto.  Captain America verses Thanos.  Aslan versus the White Witch. 

We think Satan is reeking his havoc on Earth from Hell, but that’s not quite right.  From the book of Job and in 1 Peter 5:8, we know that the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour, and Revelation 20:10 tells us that Satan will not be cast into the Lake of Fire before Judgment Day.  God isn’t battling Satan, God is sovereign.  God is referred to as “The Almighty” in the book of Job 31 times.  When Satan wants to do evil, he must ask God’s permission.  This is true in the New Testament, too, by the way.  In Luke 22, the disciples are squabbling over which one of them will be considered the greatest in Heaven, and Jesus rebukes them and tells them to be more concerned about serving.  Then he says in Luke 22:31: 

“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat.”

Look, Satan is asking for permission again.

Does it bother you that God gives permission for suffering?  A big mistake in our Christian walk is to misunderstand what “God is in control” means.  We think that since God is in control, we have a right to expect Him to keep bad things from happening to us.  We want to think that because we want to keep bad things from happening to our friends and family, and if we think that, God should think that.  We are children of God, are we not?  How could God let something bad happen to us or our loved ones if He is in control?

But let me ask you some blunt questions.  Did God have a son?  And did that son suffer?  And did that suffering work for God’s glory?  God does have a plan, God is in control, and it is human folly to think that God’s plan does not include suffering.  As Christians, we know that our suffering will be used by God for His purposes.  We know that it is our response to disappointments in life that makes us stronger in our faith to our almighty God.  The sinner doesn’t have this comfort.  To the sinner, suffering is pointless.  Suffering makes a sinner bitter.  Suffering makes a Christian better.

Let’s see what sort of things we’ve learned so far about God.

Lessons Learned about God

–         God is sovereign over all, good and evil.

–         God provides hedges and removes them according to His will.

We’ve learned a few things about Satan during this exchange. 

Lessons Learned About Satan

–         Satan has access to God’s throne in Heaven.

–         Satan has to ask God’s permission before he can touch God’s people

What happens to Job after this?  Satan may not lay a finger on Job – God set that boundary and Satan must obey – but Satan sends destruction.  Job 13-19, the Sabeans steal the ox and donkeys, then kill all the servants.  Then lightning strikes and kills the sheep, then the Chaldeans steal all the camels, and then a mighty wind collapses his son’s house and kills all of his children.  In a matter of minutes, Job loses everything.  First his wealth, then possessions, then his children.  Everything. 

Now I know that in this room, we all have tragedies in our lives.  Death.  Divorce.  Pain.  Unemployment.  Why do we have to suffer?  When we’re facing a calamity, the first thing as Christians that we must do is self-reflection.  We must look inside ourselves for unrepentant sin.  The Old Testament is replete with examples of God sending His perfect wrath in order to turn His people away from evil and toward Him.  We’ll never be 100% righteous, but we know when we are sinning and it feels too good to stop.  God will get our attention one way or another. 

But what if we’ve examined ourselves for unrepentant sin and find none?  God did not allow Satan to bring harm to Job just to say to Satan, See, I told you.  God’s not trying to prove a point.  God knew Job’s faith was real, and God knew this before he allowed Satan to do what he did.  God’s purposes in allowing suffering are complex and it is not possible to reduce the purpose of suffering to some simple explanation.  But our response to that suffering illustrates our faith.

I know how I have reacted to suffering in my life.  Anger.  Depression.  A mix of both.  Sometimes it’s been directed at God, how could you do this?  How could you let something like this happen?  But let’s see how a faithful man of God reacts, see what he does and does not do.  Job 1:20,

At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head.  Then he fell to the ground in worship.

Instead of tearing robes we wear black, but ancient signs of grief included tearing his robe and shaving his head.  It is ok to grieve.  It is ok to cry.  We are commanded to love one another, and I’ve discovered that love means emotional risk.  The loss of love is most certainly a time for grief.  God gave us emotions, and it’s ok to have those emotions.  But Job didn’t stop at the crying and wailing about his calamities.  Job said,

Naked I came from my mother’s womb,

and naked I will depart.

The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away;

may the name of the LORD be praised.”

Job fell to the ground and worshipped God.  An amazing response.  A teachable lesson to me.

As Christians, we can recognize that everything in this life is a gift from God.  Our possessions, sure, but our relationships, our children, our very breath of life.  We came into this world naked, slapped on the bottom by a strange man in a mask.  We come into this world with nothing.  And when we leave, we take nothing with us.  The Lord gives it all to us, and the Lord takes it all away again.  “May the name of the Lord be praised.”  It is easy to praise the name of the Lord when he gives.  When he takes away, can we still praise the name of the Lord?  Are we only thankful for things he gives?  He may have many reasons for taking away, all according to His purpose.  Can we give thanks to God for taking it away?

How do we remain thankful while suffering?  Rather than blame God for what he doesn’t have, Job thanks God for what he does have.  In 1 Thessalonians 16:18, Paul tells us,

“Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

We recognize that it is God’s will for us to be thankful in all circumstances.  Job could thank God because Job realized that everything Job had didn’t belong to Job; it all belonged to God.  God owns everything.  Job had the privilege of managing it for a little while.  And in Job’s careful stewardship and praise, we learn one more thing about God: When Satan attacks, God uses it for His own good and His glory.  Job 1:22,

“In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.”

It’s ok to be angry.  It’s ok to be depressed.  Our emotions are something God gives us.  Job certainly had intense feelings of grief.  But Job did not sin because he didn’t say God was wrong.  He didn’t say God was neglectful.  He didn’t say God has bad intentions.  Through all Job’s grief, he said, “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Job stayed strong.  He didn’t whine, “Why meeeee?”  His character remained that which God approved, even in the midst of suffering.  Job was strong, patient, even resigned.  And Satan must have been disappointed.  Here was a man who loved God more than money, more than his earthly possessions, more than his family.  Job’s relationship with God was not dependent on his circumstances, his position in society, or his stuff.

In Chapter 2, Satan goes back to God and says, “well, ok, so that didn’t work, but you didn’t let me touch him.  He’s still a healthy person.  Let me take away his health.”  I don’t know what this illness was, maybe he had more than one thing.  In chapter 2, we know he has boils from the sole of his foot to the top of his head, and they itch.  In Chapter 7 through 30, we learn that it also includes a haggard appearance, running sores, loss of sleep, depression, severe weight loss, acute pain, darkened and peeling skin, and fever.  Oh, and bad breath.  In chapter 2 verse 8, Job sits down in the ashes of his life and scrapes himself with a piece of broken pottery.  Sort of symbolic, like his life had now become a piece of broken pottery.

His wife was less than helpful. 

“Are you still holding on to your integrity?  Curse God and die already.”

I think it’s illustrative that Satan killed Job’s entire family and destroyed all of his wealth, but left Job his wife who could provide helpful cursing to Job during his grief. 

Before we pick on Job’s wife too harshly, let’s remember that she, too, was intensely affected by all of this.  She, too, had lost all of her children, she’s lost any importance she thought she had in the eyes of the community, and her husband is some foul-smelling creature sitting in a garbage dump scraping sores with a piece of pottery.  So Job’s wife was certainly under a lot of stress.   It’s easy to pick on her, but she’s in pain.  Perhaps she thought her own pain would end if Job would just die.  Perhaps she just loved Job and wanted his suffering to end.

Job still didn’t sin; sometimes it’s easier to remain faithful to God when you’re alone, but remaining faithful to God when you’re with others is harder.   Job tells her that she’s talking foolishly, that her faith is not wise enough.

“Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?”

We do not always have a choice in our circumstances, but we do have a choice in how we respond.  Job’s wife responded first with her emotions.  Job responded with his faith.

Job’s closest friends were more helpful.  What did they say when Job first lost everything?  Nothing.  When they came to visit, they were shocked, they cried with him, then sat on the ground with him for 7 days and said nothing.  Nothing.  Just sat and grieved.  Sometimes there’s nothing you can say, so there’s no need to try.  Just be there.

       III.      Conclusion

I want to close with a few examples.  How many here saw the movie “United 93” about the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania because of the terrorist attack of 9/11?  It’s a powerful movie, mostly for what it doesn’t say.  There’s no commentary explaining people’s motives, just a real-time account of people’s actions.  We see the confusion of the people at the FAA, the hysteria of the passengers, the evil of the terrorists bound on killing as many people as they can.

Many of us have heard of Todd Beamer, who uttered the famous, “Let’s roll” during the passenger’s revolt against the terrorists in an attempt to regain control of the airplane.  What a lot of us may not know is Todd Beamer’s family were devoted followers of Christ.  Can you identify with Todd’s wife, Lisa, the grief she must have suffered?  She turned her faith in God into a powerful testimony and wrote a book that encourages people to build their lives on a firm foundation of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  Here’s what she wrote about 9/11:

We all have the choice to look at the things we’ve lost or to look at the things we have, to become bitter or to become better, to live in fear or to live in hope.  I’ve chosen to live in hope, not because I’m a strong person but because of the heavenly, eternal perspective that God has given me.  Lately I’ve been trying to look at the bigger picture, to discover what I’m supposed to learn from all this.  Probably the most important truth is that my security must be in God rather than in anything or anyone in this world.

Think about it: the World Trade Center represented economic power, success, and security; yet it was shaken and destroyed in less than an hour. The Pentagon is the symbol of our nation’s military might; yet it, too, proved vulnerable. Where can we find true security these days?

I have found safety and security in a loving heavenly Father, who cannot be shaken, who will never leave me or forsake me, and in whom I can trust completely. For those looking for hope, I recommend grabbing the hand of your heavenly Father as tightly as possible, like a little child does with his parent. God is a hero who will always be there when you need him.

2 Corinthians 12:7-10,

And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.       

Thank you, Jesus, for your sacrifice for me.  Your life for me gives me a desire to truly worship you and bring you glory.    

To God be the Glory.  Amen.

The Purpose of Community

 

Introduction

Ecclesiastes is a unique book.  Most think it was written by Solomon near the end of his life, and it’s a book of perspectives and of insights about the purpose of life.  It’s a book of depression as Solomon tries to find pleasure in this world, only to find that eternal pleasure in this temporary, human world is not possible.  Nothing gives him meaning, everything is like chasing after the wind.

Solomon pondered many questions from his own perspective, and Solomon’s thoughts and actions were not always based on God’s principles.  From Solomon’s laments, we learn from his mistakes so we don’t spend our lives chasing after the wind.  Here are some key verses that sum up this book –

      • Ecclesiastes 1:2, “’Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher, ‘vanity of vanities, all is vanity’”.
      • Ecclesiastes 1:18, “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”
      • Ecclesiastes 2:11, “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.”
      • Ecclesiastes 12:1, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them.'”
      • Ecclesiastes 12:13, “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”

Two phrases, “vanity” and “under the sun,” are repeated often in Ecclesiastes. The word “vanity” (your version may say “meaningless”) is used to emphasize the temporary nature of worldly things.  In the end, all of our achievements and accomplishment will be left behind. And the phrase, “under the sun” occurs 28 times, and refers to our human world.  Everything under the sun is meaningless, the Preacher says.

Maybe the Preacher didn’t try everything, you may be thinking.  Solomon was the wisest and richest man who ever lived, and here is what he tried –

      • Scientific discovery (Ecc 1:10-11)
      • Wisdom and philosophy (Ecc 1:13-18)
      • Amusement / entertainment (Ecc 2:1)
      • Alcohol (Ecc 2:3)
      • Architecture (Ecc 2:4)
      • Property (Ecc 2:7-8)
      • Luxury (Ecc 2:8).
      • Materialism (Ecc 2:19-20)
      • And even different moral codes (Ecc chapters 8-9).

Everything was meaningless, a temporary diversion.  Without God, nothing had purpose or longevity.  The remaining chapters 8-12 of Ecclesiastes discuss the conclusion about how a worthwhile life should be lived.  Without God, there is no truth.  Without God, there is no meaning to life.  There are many evils in this world, and even the best of man’s achievements are worth nothing when compared to eternity.  So what should we do?

      • Acknowledge God from our youth (Ecc 12:1)
      • Follow God’s will (Ecc 12:13-14).

Slide4For all of the vanities described in the Book of Ecclesiastes, the answer is Christ.  Here are some examples –

Before After
Ecc 3:17 God judges the righteous and the wicked, 2 Cor 5:21 Only those who are in Christ are judged righteous.
Ecc 3:11 God has placed the desire for eternity in our hearts. John 3:16 God has provided the Way to eternal life through Christ.
Ecc 5:10 Striving after wealth is vanity and does not satisfy. Mark 8:36 if we could gain the whole world, what good is it if we do not have Christ and lose our souls.

Ultimately, every disappointment and vanity described in Ecclesiastes has its solution in Christ, the wisdom of God and the only true meaning to be found in life.

The Greeks gave this book the name ‘Ekklesiastes’ which means “assembly.” In essence, the writings of this book are based on community, an assembly of people.  In the New Testament, this same word is used to mean “church.”  The writings in this book are meant to teach and preach to the church, to teach us how to live in our community, and we’ll spend the rest of today’s lesson in Chapter 4 of Ecclesiastes and what it means to be in a community.

Our worldly culture is weird when it comes to history.  On one hand, we are pulling down statues left and right.  The original excuse may have had racial overtones, but now we are pulling down statues of Abraham Lincoln and the Virgin Mary.  Seems there are many people that want to eliminate the past and pretend it never existed.  At the same time, Ancestory.com and 23AndMe.com have surged in popularity, DNA testing is more available than ever before.  People want to know their heritage, their background, and their cultural makeup.  They want to know who they really are.

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And then we are weird when it comes to being categorized.  Have you taken a personality test like Myer’s Briggs or Strengths Finders?  We want to know our strengths and our uniqueness and how we best connect with others.

Whether it is ancestry or personality, people want to know who they are.  Our worldly culture begins the exploration of self-discovery by starting with ourselves.  That seems natural.  If we want to know ourselves, we should study ourselves, right?

But the Bible begins the exploration of self-discovery by starting not with us, but with God.  And the better we know and understand God, the more we understand who God made us to be.  And much of the purpose that God has for us can be found in the community God has placed us, to bloom where we are planted.

 

God in Community

What is the purpose for community?  It’s obviously related to people, but not all people are, well, people persons.  Some are extroverts or naturally ‘social butterflies’ or those who are exuberant extroverts.  Others are more introverted, preferring quiet time or very small groups.  Is one better than the other?

Whether extrovert or introvert, our personality type does not depend on community.  If community determined who we are, then how we relate to our community would either boost our pride or deepen our despair, based on wherever we fell on the personality spectrum.

The purpose for community is not some sort of competition that God has set before us.  Community is his demonstration to us on how to experience more of Him and how we are to experience the life we were meant to live.  Our ideal community doesn’t have to be large or small or deep or wide or every day or twice a week.  There’s no formula except the book of Hebrews says it ought to be frequently.  Hebrews 10:24-25,

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

We mentioned earlier that the Greek root word for Ecclesiastes means “assembly or “church.”  What “Ecclesiastes” doesn’t mean is music.  Or tithes.  Or a sermon.  Or even a mid-week bible study.  What makes church “church,” our “ecclesiates,” is the people, the gathering of the body of Christ, to make a covenant with one another, and meet together frequently.

Meeting together as a church and maintaining a level of biblical community is for our soul.  But perhaps the greatest of all reasons is that God models community, and we are made in His image.  Community helps reveal who God is.  God exists in community, and He has done so for eternity.  Even before time, space, and matter were created, God existed as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  God exists as one in three, and three in one.

In other words, if God exists in community Himself, and if we are designed in His image, this means that God wired the need for community deep within our souls.

When we neglect community, we become less of what God designed us to be.  To be made in the image of a triune God means fundamentally to be in community.  Jesus Himself surrounded Himself with the larger community of His twelve disciples and we would be foolish to think that fullness of life can happen without the Christian community.

 

Purpose in Community

Since creation started with a triune God who exists in community past, present and future, and since God created us in His image and all of life, this means the purpose of community is woven throughout the very purpose of our lives.  To really live, and to really experience the life God designed us to have, we weave our lives into the lives of others, reflecting the perfect, good, and communal nature of God Himself.  Let’s look at Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 for the purpose of this community –

Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor.   For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion.  But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up.  Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone?  And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart.

Three ideas here –

  • When we fall, community can pull us up

King Solomon also wrote in Proverbs 24:16,

“For the righteous falls seven times and rises again, but the wicked stumble in times of calamity.”

In the times of the Old Testament, the number seven represented the number of completion.  Solomon is saying that the righteous person falls completely, the righteous person falls frequently.  But righteousness is not determined by whether we fall, but what we do after.  We get up, we rise again.

So how can a righteous person get up and rise again after falling?  Ecclesiastes 4 says it is by living in a community where others can help them back onto their feet.

Living life in community is a safeguard from calamity, from being broken by our circumstances or by our own sin. The Bible does not promise that living in community means that we will not stumble or fall; in fact, we know that everyone stumbles and falls at some time, and Christians are not spared.  But living in a community will provide help from others around us.  If we cannot help ourselves, others can.

  • When you are spiritually cold, community can warm you up.

Ecclesiastes 4:11 says, “Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone?”

Did you know over 600 people in the US die from hypothermia each year.  Stuck in the cold, the body begins to shut down.  Decades ago, might have been in the early 1800’s when I was in the Boy Scouts – when they were still the Boy Scouts – I remember taking my First Air merit badge courses.  In mild hypothermia, one can warm themselves back up.  But as hypothermia progresses, the body loses it’s ability to warm itself.  One of the solutions was to crawl into a sleeping bag with another person and use the heat of somebody else.

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When we face the coldness of life through pain or grief or hardship, it is a temptation to isolate.  We think that we do not want to be a burden to other people.  Somebody offers to help, and we say no.

But when we reverse the roles, and somebody else is in pain, we offer to help.  And then we’re disappointed when they don’t take us up on our offer.  As a community, we want to help.  It’s receiving help we often struggle with.  And if we’re not helping one another, we become indifferent.  Callous.  Even cold.

It is easy to slip into a pattern of callousness towards the person of God, the Word of God, and the mission of God when we are not a community of helping hands.  Hebrews 3:13 says –

But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.

I’ve always loved that line, because it is always called “Today.”  The key is that the people of God and the Word of God move and act together in encouragement.  We stay warm when we are together; we grow cold when we keep each other distant.

  • When you are weak, community can strengthen you.

Next, our scripture says, “And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him.”  A third truth about the purpose of community is that in our weakness, community will make us strong.  We may try to go it alone, but going it alone isn’t a sign of strength.  It’s a sign of weakness.

Our pride hides our own weakness from us and deludes us with overconfidence in our own abilities.  This is the nature of sin in our lives: underestimating our weaknesses, overestimating our strengths.  And the solution isn’t, “Memorize more Scripture!” Even though that is important.  The solution isn’t, “Pray more!” or “Get more sleep!” or “Listen to more sermons!”  Although all those things are beneficial, but alone, we are still weak.  We have strength in community.

I think it’s because when we live in community and get to know one another, others will truly see us, know us, and can help us where we need it most.  Darkness of sin loses its hold over us.  When we live in community, things that are hidden are brought into the light, and it cleans us up.

Community can pull us up when we fall; it can warm us up when we grow spiritually cold, and it strengthens us against the power of sin.

 

Three in Community

Then the last phrase in our scripture always seems peculiar to me.  It begins with “Two are better than one” and then describes what you do better when there is a second person.  But then, the end of verse 12 says, “A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart.”

Maybe it’s a typo.  Maybe the author meant to say, “A twofold cord is not quickly broken?”  Or maybe it is because in a biblical community, there are never only two parties involved, but three.  God is also present.

Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew, 18:20 –

For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.

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There are always three parties involved in the body of Christ: you, your community, and God.  If it is your spouse and you, your cord is not quickly broken with God in the middle.  If it is an accountability partner and you, your cord is not quickly broken with God in the middle.  If it is your church community, Bible study class, small group and you, your cord is not quickly broken with God in the middle.

In a biblical community, there are always three parties at work. The Apostle Paul gives us a picture of how this works in 1 Corinthians 12 –

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.  For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.  Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.  And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be?  If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?  But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.  If they were all one part, where would the body be?  As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

Paul writes that God has given each of us unique passions and abilities so that we work with one another, minister to one another, and be nourished by one another.

If we cut ourselves off from the community of the church, we are fundamentally cutting ourselves off from the primary method God uses to minister to us through others.  And it also means the reverse.  If we cut ourselves off from the community of the church, we are also cutting ourselves off from the main means through which God is trying to minister through us to others.

In other words, whenever we think we are reducing our threefold cord down to two strands, we actually reduce our threefold cord down to one strand. Because when we remove one strand from the equation (such as God or community), we actually lose both strands in the process. God ministers to us through community.

Biblical community, therefore, always happens in three.  Even in the Gospel, you see all three persons of the Godhead working together, ministering together, and accomplishing together. The Father planned our salvation, the Son accomplished our salvation, and the Spirit applies our salvation.  And now, we have access to the Father because of the Son and through the Spirit.

Truly, a threefold cord is not easily broken. It is modeled in our salvation and also in our community.

 

Conclusion

This year, 2020, is certainly one for the history books.  The impact on our lives has been staggering.  And the effects are almost entirely negative.  And quarantined, we feel isolated, depressed, angry.  We aren’t meant to live like this.  From the time of Adam and Eve until now, God has wanted us to be part of community.

Community is not our idea, it is God’s idea.  Christian community is simply sharing a common life in Christ.  It moves us beyond the self-interested isolation of private lives and beyond the superficial social contacts that pass for “Christian fellowship.”  The biblical ideal of community challenges us instead to commit ourselves to life together as the people of God.

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We need each other.  We need to be connected to the body of Christ – not just for our own sake, but for the sake of others as well.  So that we can be a blessing to them, and so that they can be a blessing to us.  It is God’s plan for us, to live in community with one another.

Ecclesiastes offers Christians an opportunity to understand the emptiness and despair that those who do not know God grapple with. Those who do not know Christ are faced with a life that will ultimately end and become irrelevant.  If there is no salvation, and no God, then not only is there no point to life, but no purpose or direction to it, either. The world “under the sun,” apart from God, is frustrating, cruel, unfair, brief, and “utterly meaningless.”

But with Christ, life is but a shadow of the glories to come in a heaven that is only accessible through Him.  We need each other, so let us meet one another, talk to one another, encourage one another in our community, as long as it is called today.

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To God be the glory.