Could our lives be described as vain?
A working definition of vain is that which is worthless or futile.
Peanut shells seem to be vain. Without the nut in the middle, of what use are they to mankind? They deserve to be broken, thrown on the floor of a Logan’s Steak House, trampled upon for a bit, until they are ultimately swept away and discarded.
The same could be said for cigarette butts. It is estimated that 1.69 billion pounds of non-biodegradable cigarette butts are discarded annually. They are unsightly. They are empty. They are useless. They are worthless and vain.
The writer of Ecclesiastes uses this word — vain — to describe much of man’s life. Without God, as man lives “under the sun,” most of his accomplishments are empty and meaningless. He lives, he works, he suffers, he dies, he passes on his goods to another, and he is ultimately forgotten. Perhaps he is remembered for a couple generations, but what good does this do him as he experiences eternal separation from God.
Could our religion be described as vain?
As one looks about at the religious passion and practice of many, this too appears to be vain. Some, with Jihadist passion, sacrifice themselves and slaughter others in service to a deity who does not exist. Sadly, they do so with hopes of enjoying a paradise which they tragically will never find. Many others supplicate to Mother Mary hoping she can obtain her Son’s ear. This too is meaningless as the Great High Priest is bypassed and the Queen Mother is neither listening to such false prayer or able to assist those who petition her help. And the list of vain religious endeavors could go on and on; it could include those who cut their bodies, wear holy underwear, worship Mother Earth, sit in reading rooms, spin prayer wheels, and moan at wailing walls while dismissing Jesus. All around us, religious passion is practiced with zeal, and most of it is vanity.
But what about us? What about us who are Christians or Christ followers? Could it be that our religious passion is equally vain? The Apostle Paul addresses this possibility in his first letter to his Corinthian brothers and sisters:
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:12-19)
Some of Paul’s former congregants had begun doubting the resurrection. Some doubted the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Others doubted their own bodily resurrection still to come. Paul addressed his friends with this truth — if there is no bodily resurrection of Christ and Christians, then their religious passion and practice was indeed in vain. Like other false religious systems, it was worthless or futile, for without a resurrected Christ:
- Their preaching and faith were in vain; it was a false belief system.
- Their worship was in vain; it was idolatrous and concerned a false god.
- Their Christ and Savior was in vain; he was errant, evil, and dead.
- Their pardon was in vain; a dead man could not be a living savior.
- Their future hope was in vain; their deceased friends were perishing.
- Their religious passion and practice was totally in vain; it was pitiful.
However, there was one fact many overlooked. The grave was empty, the body could not be found, and Jesus had been seen. Paul knew he and his Corinthian friends served a risen and validated Savior:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:1-8; 20)
He, Peter, James, the Twelve, other apostles, and hundreds of other eyewitnesses had encountered the resurrected Son of God. Therefore, none of the aforementioned possibilities were possible:
- Their preaching and faith were not vain; it was true truth.
- Their worship was not in vain; Jesus was the One, True God.
- Their Christ and Savior was not in vain; he was the Resurrection and the Life.
- Their pardon was not in vain; he was the Great High Priest and constant Intercessor.
- Their future hope was not in vain; their deceased friends were in the heavenly choir. Christ was the firstfruits of those who had fallen asleep.
- Their religious passion and practice was not in vain; it was valuable.
Could our ministry be described as vain?
Paul and others had not believed in vain.
They had also not received the grace and calling of God in vain.
Therefore, affected by the Gospel, they spent themselves preaching the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. (1 Corinthians 15:9-11)
Passionately they spent themselves seeking to rescue sinners from hell and bring them into communion with Jesus. They were greatly committed to the Great Commission, and this was seen in their labor. They were determined not to be vain disciples. Instead, they would be incredibly valuable to the King and his Kingdom.
Paul then addressed his readers. Based upon the proper understanding of the Gospel and the bodily resurrection of Christ and Christians:
Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)
The same Christ who called and commissioned Paul, the Apostles, and other apostles, was in the process of calling and commissioning Corinthian saints. The Son had worked hard for them. The Spirit had worked hard for and in them. The Apostle had worked hard for them, and now it was their turn to work hard for the King and his Kingdom:
- They were to be steady and not wishy-washy.
- They word to be busy and not passive.
- They were to be confident knowing their labors would bring forth both temporal and eternal fruit.
Friends, Paul’s Gospel is our Gospel, and Paul’s commission is our commission. Therefore the questions must be asked, “How are we doing? Have we forgotten the ramifications of the Resurrected Christ? Have we forgotten the glorious service to which we have been called? Would Christ consider us passive or passionate? Would he consider us to be amongst those who have zero-impact or would he label us zealous?” Christians, we work hard to be excellent athletes. As musicians and artists, we expend much effort pursuing excellence. Dozens of hours are spent each week by us and ours pursuing education or financial profit. We will wear ourselves out for clothes and toys; bigger barns are always an allurement for us. But what about Christ? What about the Gospel? What about his Church? What about the lost who need to be found? Will we get to the end of another week and see “all is vanity,” or will this week be different? Wouldn’t it be fantastic to add our voice to Paul’s and say, “… I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle … But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
Let’s repent and recommit, for the Gospel encourages us to do so. Jesus died for all our sins of commission; he also died for all our sins of omission. Our vain week has been covered by his blood, but let’s not give him another. This week, let’s be steady, busy, and confident. Let’s tell others about the Good News. Let’s enlarge the heavenly choir. Let’s go to work, for the Holy Spirit dwells within, the Holy Son intercedes above, and our labors are not in vain. We serve a risen Savior, and he plans on accomplishing much through his formerly-vain disciples.
Application: For those who wish to work harder than anyone else, here are some action points to consider:
- Write a handwritten letter to an unbelieving loved one expressing the Gospel and your concern.
- Purchase a book and have it shipped to their home.
- Send an email with a link to an article or audio sermon which impacted you.
- Setup a coffee with a troubled friend, a pastor, and yourself.
- Develop a prayer list where specific names are listed.
- Look for ways to do publicly seen good deeds and then use the acknowledgment as an opportunity to glorify your Father in heaven.
- Like Jesus who ate with tax collectors and sinners, engage in appropriate social gatherings to increase your number of lost friends to whom you might someday be of great eternal benefit.
- Work very hard, make a great deal of money, and give it away to church planters, missionaries, ministers, and ministries who are on the front line.
- Watch your external testimony; great harm can be done to good words through bad actions.
- Invite someone to church and eat lunch with them following the worship service. Imagine, what if everyone in your church brought a needy soul to worship once a month?