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Fathers, I have a confession: I get “the feels” around all things Christmas. Listening to nonstop holiday music (after Thanksgiving, of course), the sight of a tree on a car, exterior illumination that would make Clark Griswold proud, the smell of evergreen — I love it all. I don’t need Andy Williams to tell me, “it’s the most wonderful time of the year,” but I sure can’t wait until he does!
If you don’t relate to this confession, though, don’t worry. I’ve got another one: on multiple occasions, I’ve arrived at Christmas morning feeling that it snuck up on me. This moment of recognition usually happens in the middle of our Christmas Eve service, when I glance around and see my wife and our five kids joyfully singing praises to “Christ, the newborn King,” or listening intently to the story of Jesus’s birth. On a number of years, this joyful moment has been accompanied in my heart with a twinge of sadness. Another Christmas has almost passed, and yet again, it snuck up on me.
I’m aware that these two confessions may sound contradictory. On the one hand, as a man who’s a kid at heart, I eagerly anticipate and count down the arrival of the holiday season. On the other hand, as a father who’s a steward of hearts, I have a tendency to arrive at the end of the holiday season and feel like I wasn’t ready for it — and now it’s gone.
I’ve heard quite a few fathers say that their daughter’s wedding day snuck up on them. They don’t mean they didn’t see it coming or were surprised by its arrival. No, it snuck up because the many things they needed to do (host family, write toasts, pay invoices, and much more) distracted them from the one thing they were honored to be: “Daddy.” In short, the significance of what they were a part of was lost on them until it had passed. Even if they were present in the moment, they were not prepared to win the moment.
This illustration has helped put words to the sadness that I’ve felt at the end of too many holiday seasons (and I don’t think I’m alone). If we are not mindful on the front end, the many things we “need” to do this December will distract us from the one thing we need to be: children of our good and generous God. And if we fathers personally neglect the significance of the Advent season, it’s unlikely we will lead our families any differently.
Fathers, let’s do more this year than be physically present; let’s get spiritually prepared to lead our family to win the moments. If you’re inspired to join me but don’t know where to begin, I’d like to offer three practices that have consistently enabled our family to win the holiday season, moment by moment.
The first practice is to create devotional moments. By “devotional moments,” I’m talking specifically about creating time for the family to gather and hear God’s word together.
Before I share what my wife and I have found helpful, let me make sure you are picturing our family correctly. Imagine a quiet and orderly group of serious, scholarly believers, gathered together to eagerly learn from the Scriptures. Got those people in mind? Now picture the opposite of that group. That’s our family. There are seven of us, and for some reason just saying the words “family devotion” produces an effect like drinking a Red Bull, where everyone “gets wings.” Even the dogs get in on the madness.
But while family devotions aren’t always easy and can go south quickly, we’ve discovered that a little planning and perspective can set us up for success. Years ago, we set it as our goal to create family devotional times that were fun, engaging, and memorable. We observed that many kids leave Christian homes feeling that the Scriptures are boring, irrelevant, and hard to understand. Not only do our three goals counter these, but they can create a learning environment that kids might even look forward to. As a father, I consider it a huge win anytime I can spark in my children an eagerness, or even an openness, for the living and active word of God (Hebrews 4:12).
During the holidays, we try to gather at least two times a week for family devotions. For us, family-devotion topics typically emerge as my wife and I share with each other what we are learning in our respective Advent devotionals. If we have any “secret sauce” to share, however, it’s what we do next. Julia and I then spend a few minutes brainstorming about three things: teaser, takeaway, and treasure hunt. (The more you do this, the better you get at it.)
The teaser starts our family devotions. We tee up our time with a fun question that gets everyone talking and points toward the message. The takeaway is the one big idea from Scripture that we want the family to walk away with. A concise takeaway focuses the devotion and gives the family language to rally around. Last, the treasure hunt is when things really get fun. Prior to the family devotion, we secure some sort of holiday treat (like a family game, a dessert to make, a holiday movie) and hide it somewhere in the house. Here’s the catch: the treat is hidden somewhere that is connected to something from the devotional. The one rule about the treasure hunt is that all the kids have to discuss and hunt together.
I hope you can envision how powerful it can be to create family devotional moments that are fun, engaging, and memorable.
The second practice is to capitalize on seasonal moments. Unless you live on Mount Crumpit, others in your area have already put together holiday events that can provide your family with memorable moments. If setting aside time to pray and think creatively is the key to the first practice, this second one hinges on the willingness to do a little calendar coordination. In all likelihood, your area schools will have holiday programs, churches will host Christmas concerts, community theaters will produce shows, and the city at large will plan a slew of seasonal events. It’s all there, simply waiting to be leveraged by those who will take some time now to look ahead and make a few decisions.
For years, we had the same experience over and over: I would find the greatest holiday events for the family to enjoy — and we wouldn’t ever go. Before you think I live with a bunch of hermits, I should add that I would find these events the day of the show, and either the tickets would be sold out or someone in the family had other plans. Bah humbug!
My wife had been telling me about this thing called “planning” that adults sometimes do, and when I finally applied it to the holiday season it was a game changer. At the start of the Christmas season, we take some time to identify important moments for each family member (so we can all plan to attend), as well as a few special holiday events. (By the way, news of a special seasonal event makes a great treasure hunt discovery after an enjoyable family devotion!)
Last, I would encourage you to copy memorable moments year after year. It doesn’t take long in life to realize that change is inevitable — and navigating through a world of constant change can lead to a feeling of instability, especially among children. As a father, I long for my children to know they have a God who is “the stability of your times” (Isaiah 33:6) and one who is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). As we teach these truths, we can also seek to create a home environment that models it. We have leaned on our family traditions as a way to provide a sense of constancy in an ever-changing world.
What are your family traditions that you copy year after year? Our holiday season is full of memorable and repeatable moments that provide an anchor for our family. We have traditions that are unique to us (“elf knock,” holiday game night after devotions, ham-and-steak holiday meal, stockings hid on Christmas morning, sibling gift exchange before Christmas) as well as some that I imagine many families do (family pajamas on Christmas Eve, birthday cake for Jesus, reading Luke 2 and praying together before opening gifts). To quote my good friend Cousin Eddie, a meaningful family tradition is “a gift that keeps on giving” year after year.
The prophet Isaiah provides much-needed wisdom for what it’s going to take to see these ideas become a reality: “He who is noble plans noble things, and on noble things he stands” (Isaiah 32:8). Fathers, do what it takes to carve out some planning time on the front end of the holidays (now!). Get a plan for creating devotional moments, coordinate how you will capitalize on seasonal moments, and identify the memorable moments to copy year after year.
For those who apply these three simple practices, I am confident that you will look at your family on Christmas Eve with a whole lot of gladness and very little sadness. For this holiday season came, and you were ready for it.
If we naturally twist God’s truth, where can we find hope? In this episode of Light + Truth, John Piper turns to Romans 1:28–32 to answer that question.
How can normal Christians learn to study the Bible on a topic? Pastor John models his own approach as he prepares answers for ‘Ask Pastor John.’
What do we learn from David’s unusual friendship with Jonathan? What about from his repentance after Bathsheba? Conference speakers address questions about the great (and complicated) king.
Only a justified sinner, convinced of God’s love, can overcome sexual sins. In this episode of Light + Truth, John Piper turns to Romans 1:24–28 to explain why.
ABSTRACT: While distinct and written to address different original audiences and situations, the letters of the New Testament express a united and consistent message about God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Just as the theological continuity and pairing of various letters is explicit, so too the authors who penned the letters knew one another and openly acknowledged the validity and usefulness of each other’s writings. These letters were meant to be read as a whole. By reading each one in light of the others, new riches and depths of understanding may be discovered.
The apostles did not leave a legacy of essays and treatises that explain the teaching of Jesus; they left behind a corpus of letters. These letters were written by a variety of people and differ from one another in their setting, first audience, and occasion. Though there is much we do not know about how and why each of the individual letters was written, the New Testament is not silent on this matter. By looking at the historical information the letters themselves give, we can gain some valuable insights.
This essay will focus on one insight: the historical background to the unity of the apostolic teaching found in these letters. We will see how the authors related to one another, how they affirmed a universal message they taught everywhere, and why we are justified in reading the letters not just as individual writings but also as a complete unity. While many already read the letters in light of one another for canonical and theological reasons (which are valid), the historical case for reading the letters together is not always clearly stated. This essay aims to offer insight on what the New Testament itself says about how the letters came into being and why they hang together.
Let me offer one disclaimer at the outset: we will ignore the letter to the Hebrews almost completely. It is clear from Hebrews 13 that the author was familiar to the first readers, and the manuscript tradition normally incorporates Hebrews in the Pauline letters. Yet the long discussions surrounding its authorship need not distract us here.
Every letter has a writer, and it is important for recipients to know whom the letter is from. Most of the letters start off by mentioning the author’s identity. The apostle Paul always names himself at the start of his letters, the whole section from Romans to Philemon. Sometimes he mentions a coworker: Sosthenes in 1 Corinthians; Timothy in 2 Corinthians, Philippians, and Colossians; and Timothy and Silvanus in 1 and 2 Thessalonians. In each of these letters, however, the authorial voice reverts back to an individual “I,” and this singular voice is always that of Paul.
The apostle Peter also names himself in the two letters that carry his name (1 Peter 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1). Of course, Peter’s name was Simon before Jesus called him (Mark 3:16), and the Aramaic version of Peter is Cephas (John 1:42), the only designation Paul uses for Peter in 1 Corinthians (in Galatians, Paul uses both Peter and Cephas). To add to these three names, Peter introduces himself as Simeon Peter in 2 Peter, the exact form James uses in Acts 15:14.
The third apostle to write letters is John, though he never names himself in either the Gospel or any of the three letters that bear his name. Only in Revelation do we find his name (assuming it is the same author), and there not just once at the beginning of the book, but three times in the opening of the book and once towards its closing (Revelation 1:1, 4, 9; 22:8). In Revelation, it is not his own testimony he declares (John 1:14; 1 John 1:1–3); he serves as a mere servant passing on the direct words that he is told to write.
This leaves us with two final authors: James and Jude. There are two apostles called James: James the son of Zebedee and brother of John, and James the son of Alphaeus (Mark 3:16–18). The first of these was killed by Herod Antipas in Acts 12:2. From then on, another James continues to play a prominent role in Acts. This James is never disambiguated by the addition of an expression such as “son of X.” So, who is he? Galatians 1:19 teaches us explicitly that James the brother of the Lord was a prominent leader in the early church. Subsequently, this James did not need further introduction.
Therefore, it is reasonable to accept that the letter of James was written by the James who needed no more introduction than simply “James” — namely, the brother of Jesus. (Technically, James is of course a half-brother of Jesus, but since Scripture uses the term brother of Jesus for James, there is no need for us to be more precise.)
This also helps us identify the author of Jude. The names Jude and Judas, though distinguished in English translations, are identical in the underlying Greek. So, who is this Jude/Judas? In Jude 1, he calls himself “a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James.” This latter designation helps us identify the author. If it is sufficient to simply say that one is a brother of James, it must be the same James who needs no further introduction. Therefore, Jude modestly introduces himself as brother of James, though he could have mentioned that he is a brother of Jesus!
Of the five known authors of the New Testament letters, two turn out to be brothers of Jesus (named in Matthew 13:55), demonstrating how markedly different their attitude had become after the resurrection. Apart from James’s prominent role in Acts and in Galatians 1:19 (and also 2:9), the brothers of Jesus show up as a group somewhat unexpectedly in 1 Corinthians 9:3–5.
This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?
That Paul can mention “the brothers of the Lord” without the need to introduce them any further shows that they were well-known throughout the churches. This wide recognition of the brothers as followers of Jesus adds something to the stories in the Gospels that speak of their earlier rejection of him. Their initial unbelief (John 7:5) had been completely overturned, and the readers must have known this.
One meeting between Jesus and James is in fact mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:7, where Paul mentions that the risen Lord “appeared to James.” Why this meeting of Jesus and his brother? We can only speculate what took place and what was said. It may have had something to do with James being next in line as an heir of the promises to Abraham and David, which rested on Jesus who had died but then rose from the dead (but Scripture does not disclose anything about this).
Three of these five authors refer to at least one of the others. Paul mentions having met James, Peter, and John on more than one occasion. He expects his audience to know about the brothers of the Lord. Peter talks about Paul’s letters and also mentions the teaching of the apostles (2 Peter 3:2), as does Jude (Jude 17). Since 1 John and the Gospel of John are so tightly related, the references in John’s Gospel to the other apostles may count as well. Only James does not mention other apostles.
Two of the authors are brothers; Peter and John had been partners even before they were called by Jesus; Paul was a regular visitor to Jerusalem. Therefore, the New Testament letters were written by people who knew one another and who, despite their diverse writings, shared a common cause.
Of all Paul’s letters, 1 Corinthians may be the most specific, addressing situations and questions found in the church of Corinth. The letter also gives us a fascinating glimpse into the historical situations surrounding the writing of letters. For example, when we compare the movements of Paul, Apollos, Prisca and Aquila, and Timothy, it becomes clear that 1 Corinthians was written at the time described in Acts 19:22. Paul wants to return through Macedonia and Achaia and sends Timothy (1 Corinthians 4:17; 16:10) and Erastus to prepare. But rather than waiting to address the various issues in person, Paul decides to write a letter with his apostolic teaching.
So, why did Paul not wait? First of all, he had received disturbing news about the church. People from the household of Chloe had told Paul about the divisions in the church (1 Corinthians 1:11). Paul uses the first four chapters to address these divisions. In 1 Corinthians 5:1, Paul addresses another problem he had heard about, but here he does not mention who brought the report. It may well be that Paul had learned about the divisions around the Lord’s Supper from Chloe’s people as well (1 Corinthians 11:18), but the text is silent about his exact source.
Second, not only had Paul received a report about the church, but he had also received a letter from the church (1 Corinthians 7:1). In this letter, the Corinthians asked Paul about his teaching on marriage and divorce, and possibly about other issues that Paul introduces with the phrase “now concerning X . . .” (see 1 Corinthians 7:25; 8:1). Paul repeats the phrase again in 1 Corinthians 12:1, but the ensuing discussion of the spiritual gifts may not have been one of the issues asked about in the letter. The close of the previous chapter suggests that at that point Paul had finished writing on the subjects he thought most necessary. “About the other things I will give directions when I come” (1 Corinthians 11:34).
The letter from Corinth to Paul must have been delivered by someone, and at the time of writing the letter three members of the Corinthian church were with Paul (1 Corinthians 16:17). This suggests that Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus were the ones who had made the trip from Corinth to Ephesus to deliver the letter and possibly even return with the answer.
Putting this all together indicates that the early church was in close contact with one another. Letters were sent; people brought reports on how the churches were doing; Christians visited one another. Churches did not live in isolation; rather, there were contacts and people traveled.
Despite the specificity of 1 Corinthians in dealing with contextually determined problems, Paul goes to great lengths to emphasize that he is not telling the Corinthians something he does not teach elsewhere. That is, Paul wants the Corinthians to know that his instructions are the universal teaching.
He starts emphasizing this point in the opening of the letter by including the phrase “together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Corinthians 1:2). The Corinthian church is connected with the believers everywhere. Paul also presents the sending of Timothy in this light; Timothy is to remind the Corinthians of Paul’s ways in Christ, “as I teach them everywhere in every church” (1 Corinthians 4:17). Then in chapter 7, Paul mentions, “This is my rule in all the churches” (1 Corinthians 7:17). On not being contentious, Paul adds, “We have no such practice, nor do the churches of God” (1 Corinthians 11:16). In 1 Corinthians 14:33, Paul again emphasizes that what he teaches is the practice everywhere. Finally, Paul explains that he also told the churches in Galatia about “the collection for the saints” (1 Corinthians 16:1; Galatians 2:10).
Paul clearly presents his teaching as universal. This in itself provides the justification to read Paul’s letters in light of one another. If Paul thinks about his teaching as one, then it follows that one can learn about this teaching from all his letters. However, although in 1 Corinthians Paul and Timothy tell us about the unity of teaching in all the churches, there is no sense yet that the various letters would be used as a unit, and Paul does not refer explicitly to other letters he wrote.
The first encouragement to read letters written to other churches appears in Colossians 4:16, written five to ten years after 1 Corinthians. In this Prison Letter, Paul actively encourages the Colossians to read the letter to the Laodiceans and vice versa. Though this second letter has not been preserved, Paul assumes the unity of teaching and the usefulness of reading a different explanation of the same doctrine. However, part of Paul’s intention in encouraging the exchange of letters is to foster fellowship between the two churches. After all, he could have included a copy of the Laodicean letter with the one to Colossae.
Interestingly, it is in Colossians that Paul mentions the struggle he has for those who have not seen him face to face (Colossians 2:1). This struggle, combined with Paul’s imprisonment and expectation of a possible execution, may have combined in Paul’s mind to think about his letters, and perhaps even a letter collection, as a way to encourage hearts and foster rich understanding of Christ for the many people he would never visit (Colossians 2:2–3).
What Paul only suggested to the Colossians comes to full realization by the time Peter writes his second letter. Peter is aware that he will soon pass away (2 Peter 1:13–14), and like Paul in Colossians, he has a burden that the believers will have full access to the truth after his death (2 Peter 1:15). And of course, this letter itself is part of the means by which Peter accomplishes this goal.
Toward the end of the letter, Peter makes a remark about the apparent delay of the return of Jesus. He encourages the church not to see this as a delay but rather as a sign of God’s patience, and this for salvation, which, he says, is exactly what “our beloved brother Paul also wrote” (2 Peter 3:15).
It is worthwhile to pay close attention to what Peter says in this passage.
Count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. (2 Peter 3:15–16)
God entrusted Peter with opening the gospel of the kingdom to the Gentiles (Acts 15:7). This area of ministry would become Paul’s calling. From Paul’s account of his Jerusalem visit in Galatians 2:7–9, it is clear that Peter extended “the right hand of fellowship” to Paul. In 2 Peter 3, Peter makes exactly the same point. He publicly affirms Paul as an apostle and teacher of the church, as can be learned from Paul’s letters.
In addition, Peter recognizes that Paul received specific wisdom with regard to the present time between the first and second coming of the Lord. That is, Paul teaches “according to the wisdom given him,” but the message is not different from what Peter teaches. Peter uses the words “just as” (kathōs) deliberately.
Third, note the little phrase “to you” in verse 15. Peter knew that Paul had written to the same people. But who are they? The introduction to 2 Peter is not helpful in geographical terms: “To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1). However, Peter says in 2 Peter 3:1 that this is the second letter he is writing “to you.” And that means that the addressees are the same as those of the first letter — namely, “those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Peter 1:1).
Paul had written to at least three churches in this wide area: the Galatians, Ephesians, and Colossians (also the Laodiceans, but that letter did not become part of the corpus of Paul’s preserved letters). Among other topics, these letters cover the doctrine of justification, the teaching of the church as the body of Christ, and how the life of the believer is now hidden with Christ in God. All these topics are relevant to understanding why the ongoing patience of the Lord is to be regarded as salvation.
Fourth, in verse 16, Peter widens the scope of Paul’s letters beyond those written to his audience by saying, “as he does in all his letters.” Peter endorses Paul, wherever Paul speaks about these matters, as teaching the same message. Peter knew about these letters and clearly had access to them. Apparently, they had become a collection that could be distributed, and Peter recommends them to his audience. (Whether or not his audience already had access to all Paul’s letters is not clear.)
Furthermore, Peter was fully aware of the controversies around Paul’s teaching — “the ignorant and unstable twist” his writings and misrepresent his words. For Peter, this is not a reason to avoid Paul’s letters. Yes, Paul’s teaching is at times difficult, but Peter still endorses it because those who twist Paul’s teaching also twist the other Scriptures. Does Peter have the Old Testament in mind with the term “other Scriptures” (or “other writings”)? Possibly so. But we cannot exclude the fact that by the time Peter wrote this, other written parts of the New Testament had come into being that were regarded as falling under the category of “Scriptures.” The apostolic letters carry the authority of Jesus Christ and are therefore truly the word of God.
Second Peter is most explicit in referring to diverse sources of divine teaching. Peter refers to the Old Testament, to the words spoken beforehand by the holy prophets, and to the commandment of Jesus that came by means of the apostles (2 Peter 3:2). He mentions his first letter (2 Peter 3:1) and the letters of Paul, both to Peter’s audience and to others. He refers to events that we find recorded in the four Gospels: the transfiguration (2 Peter 1:16–18; see, e.g., Mark 9:2–8) and the announcement regarding the manner of Peter’s death (2 Peter 1:14; John 21:18–19).
Of course, Peter did not need the Gospel accounts to refer to these events as he was himself present at the time. Yet he could refer to these occasions expecting that his audience had been taught about them. In 2 Peter, we find references to a large amount of the teaching of the New Testament and a sense that this teaching is now being entrusted to writing.
There is one remaining conundrum in 2 Peter, and that is the relationship between this letter and the letter of Jude. Second Peter 2 has close parallels with Jude, citing the same illustrations in the same order. Though differences exist, the similarities suggest some sort of relationship between the two. Scholars differ as to the direction of influence (did Jude influence Peter or the other way around?). It suffices here to say that, once again, 2 Peter demonstrates how closely this letter ties in to the other apostolic writings.
The apostles clearly knew about one another and one another’s letters. At no point do we get a denial of the fundamental unity of their teaching. Among the earliest letters, we find Paul placing emphasis on the unity he has with the apostles in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:9) and on the unity of his teaching in all the churches, as we saw above in 1 Corinthians. In 2 Peter, one of the final letters, we see a conscious writing down and gathering together of the apostles’ teaching so that, after their death, believers would have access to the apostolic words. How then does this help us read the various letters of the New Testament in light of one another?
It is hardly necessary to explain that if we have two letters to the same church, it is good to read the second in light of what was said in the first (1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, 1 and 2 Peter). But these are not the only “paired” letters. For example, Romans and Galatians cover similar ground. In many ways, Romans expands the doctrine explained in Galatians. Even the general order of topics in Galatians 2:15–5:26 resembles that of Romans 1–8. For example, the single thought of Galatians 5:17, “to keep you from doing the things you want to do,” receives fuller expression in Romans 7:15–25.
A similar relationship exists between other letters. Though Ephesians reads as if it is less prompted by an external situation than Colossians, both frequently use similar phraseology. Colossians also has a link with the small letter to Philemon, which is still best seen as the commendation of a converted runaway slave back to his master. It is illuminating to read the private letter to Philemon in light of what Paul says about slaves and masters in the letter to the whole church at Colossae, and vice versa. We will learn more once we see and ponder the connections.
On a smaller scale, Peter teaches us to link the themes he has discussed with the teaching of Paul on the same subject. We are encouraged to compare Scripture with Scripture.
Scripture is ultimately the word of God, and because of the divine author behind the human authors, we should expect to find a deep underlying unity. Nothing of what we discussed above aims to take anything away from this. Yet, as he so often does, God worked out his plans and intentions through traceable historical situations. The bringing together of the correspondence of the apostles into the New Testament is an example of this. This process did not happen in some mysterious way in the long years after the death of the apostles. On the contrary, as we have seen, it was a topic clearly on their minds toward the end of their ministry.
Paul uses the image in Ephesians 2:20 of the church being “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” He includes his fellow workers in the plural noun “apostles.” John echoes this image in Revelation 21:14, where he links the foundation of the new Jerusalem with “the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” Since the apostles were aware of the role and responsibility they had and acknowledge one another in their writings, we would do well to accept their combined teaching, reading each letter not just in isolation but also in light of all the teaching we have received.
What does it mean to have your speech seasoned with salt? Salt-seasoned words reveal the gospel of grace to those who have not yet tasted it.
How does the glory of God restore order to our disordered sexual passions? In this episode of Light + Truth, John Piper answers that critical question from Romans 1:24–28.
All the shine of a thousand spotlights,
All the stars we steal from the night sky,
Will never be enough,
Never be enough.
Towers of gold are still too little;
These hands could hold the world but it’ll
Never be enough,
Never be enough.
—Loren Allred, The Greatest Showman
The world is too small to fill your heart. The best things that time can give you will leave unfathomed depths in your soul. It is a beautiful truth that you were made for eternity.
This is the perspective of “the Preacher” in Ecclesiastes, who spoke these famous words: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
In a nutshell, I think the Preacher is saying this: The longing we each possess for a coherence to our own story — and, indeed, the story of the world — has been graciously gifted to us by God. And part of the grace is the surprise that this longing takes the form of a pained looking, a perplexed pondering, as we try to — and then realize we cannot — join up all the dots of our own and the world’s stories. We long for more than we have, we long for what is transient to last, and we long for people and relationships that are temporal to abide forever.
This God-given desire for an uninterrupted, big-picture understanding of everything rubs against the piecemeal, fragmented nature of our grasp on reality. We have a sense that we were made for a grander and more perfect story than the one being played out in our brutal experience of the world.
This interpretation of Ecclesiastes 3:11 emerges when we attend to the verse’s parts, reading them in the context of the chapter in which they are embedded. Observe how the poetic phrase about eternity in the middle is bracketed on either side by references to time: the beauty of things in their right time and the language of beginning and end.
The juxtaposition of time and eternity is more than a difference; it is a tension, as seen in the words “yet so that he cannot.” There is something about the interplay of temporal affairs and eternity that creates a jagged edge in human experience.
This tension is borne out when we consider the whole chapter. Ecclesiastes 3 is famous for the lyrical tilt of its poetry: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die” (verses 1–2). There is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh” (verse 4). There is “a time to love, and a time to hate” (verse 8).
We’re meant to realize that there is no predictability to the arrival of these events, and often, their presence takes us by surprise. We live with life’s ugliness and pain as much as its beauty and delight, and we are not in charge of when, where, and to what extent each enters our lives.
These seasons are also nearly all relational. They involve the people whom we love and lose, those whom we wrong and forgive, our companions and our enemies. The ebb and flow of our lives is largely taken up with piloting the different seasons of these relationships and the effects they have on us.
The point about time is this: we cannot control it. We cannot control events, and we cannot control relationships. The rest of Ecclesiastes 3 makes clear that we also cannot control ultimate outcomes: “Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness” (verse 16).
This is why we “cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (verse 11). We simply do not know the end from the beginning of anything. We are bit-part players on the sprawling epic of world history, stumbling over our own lines, never mind understanding how this scene on Tuesday morning coheres with a chapter three years ago or the episode that will take place twelve years from now.
The absence of that big picture — particularly if there is injustice and wickedness to be endured or suffering to be stewarded in the meantime — can be one of the most bewildering features of our pilgrimage.
But now observe the rose among the thorns, the middle of verse 11: “[God] has put eternity into man’s heart.” The idea that God has placed something more than this world (eternity) inside an object in this world (man’s heart) is amazing and powerfully poetic. In The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis has Tirian, the last king of Narnia, and his party enter a stable, which is the threshold of death itself. On entering, they discover that all is not as it seems.
“It seems, then,” said Tirian, smiling to himself, “that the Stable seen from within and the Stable seen from without are two different places.”
“Yes,” said the Lord Digory. “Its inside is bigger than its outside.”
“Yes,” said Queen Lucy. “In our world too, a Stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.” (744)
That something finite could hold something infinite — this is in keeping with who God is and what he gives. From the fullness of his own immensity, he sought to bestow vastness on small creatures. He intended an experience of infinite bliss to be savored by finite beings. Eternal life for humankind, in the unending Sabbath-rest of the Creator God, was possible from the very beginning of creation.
Our first parents squandered it in an attempted coup, their vandalism of shalom (Genesis 3:22). Yet its loss does not mean its impossibility; rather, it means that we, in our fallen human nature, experience the echoes of who and what we were made to be. This capacity for eternity and its infinite depths keeps sounding in our hearts, in both major and minor keys.
In minor key, consider the horror of death. Eternity echoes in our grief. Why is it that we find the idea of the total and absolute nonbeing of our loved ones intolerable, such sorrow unbearable? Christian and non-Christian alike have a sense of, and a yearning for, the person’s existence to continue in some form, in some way, however vague and uncertain. This longing for uninterrupted and durable relationships, for reunion, for wholeness, for completeness and perfection — ultimately, for a share in the life of God — is what it feels like for God to set eternity in our hearts.
God has placed it there as an invitation to humility. As John Jarick puts it, “The human being . . . wants to pass beyond his fragmentary knowledge and discern the fuller meaning of the whole pattern — but the Creator will not let the creature be his equal” (quoted in Tremper Longman, Ecclesiastes, 121). Instead of trying to rise above our station and know what only God can know (the beginning and the end), Ecclesiastes 3:11 reminds us that God is not bound by the changing times in the ways that we are.
The times happen to us, but God happens to the times. He sees and knows what we cannot; he is the one in charge of the ultimate coherence of all things. It is part of the Preacher’s invitation, as Derek Kidner comments, “to see perpetual change not as something unsettling but as an unfolding pattern, scintillating and God-given. The trouble for us is not that life refuses to keep still, but that we see only a fraction of its movement and of its subtle, intricate design” (Message of Ecclesiastes, 38–39).
No one would open The Lord of the Rings to a random page two-thirds of the way through and conclude, after a few minutes of reading, that it had no point, that it was incoherent. Why do we feel so confident interpreting our own times in this way, when in fact the story is still being written by the divine Author?
We are actors, not the Playwright. We are not his equal.
The eternity in our hearts breaks through in other ways. There is a major key as well. The world we recognize so well in Ecclesiastes 3:16 is followed by a depiction of the world we long for so passionately: “I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work” (verse 17).
Judgment is a divine promise. All the events of human history that have slipped through the hourglass of time into the past might be lost to us, but they are never lost to God. One day he will pull the past into his present to bring it to account. Every sorrow, every injustice, every unanswered grievance will have its day in court.
Even more, such longing for the beauty of coherence, or for the rightness of justice exactly meted out for wickedness, is a pointer to the eternal perfection of life with God. Lewis expresses this powerfully:
If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. (Mere Christianity, 136–37)
Perhaps his most beautiful expression of this idea comes from “The Weight of Glory,” where he manages the rare feat of analyzing an emotion (nostalgia) in a way that makes the emotion more beautiful after the analysis than it was before. He describes nostalgia as the bittersweet, special emotion of longing, observing that only the emotionally immature believe that what they are longing for is actually what they are longing for.
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; for it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things — the beauty, the memory of our own past — are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a far country we have not yet visited. (30–31)
Is it not true that we often treat the best and most beautiful things we have as ends in themselves? In fact, they are messengers, servants of eternity in time-bound form, sent to us from God with an invitation to see through them to the One who gave them and who made us for him. They are images, shadows, and dreams. They are too small to satisfy us. They are passing. We were made for eternity.
What is the relationship between worship and sexual disorder? In this episode of Light + Truth, John Piper reveals the profound link between the two from Romans 1:24–28.
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