Life Is A Vapor: Meditations on Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

Fiction is one of my favorite genres to read. I love the experience of transporting to another world. Reading fiction is great therapy for a tired and weary soul. It helps you to get outside yourself and your world as you consider the life and movements in a fictional world. Fiction is an escape. Sometimes, after a long week, traveling to Narnia or Middle Earth is the best rest.

While reading fiction can be a healthy form of escape, there are other more dangerous versions. Escape from reality is sometimes found in more dubious sources, like drugs, alcohol, or pornography. Others find escape in Twitter, Netflix, or a host of hobbies. We escape because we are dissatisfied with life as we know it. Ecclesiastes is for all those who lament the world as it is and long for a better one. Ecclesiastes is for those looking for escape.

Ecclesiastes forces us to see the world as it is. It opens our eyes to the raw fallen world. You won’t find a sugar-coated message in Ecclesiastes. Some of us will be deeply encouraged as we find a friend in the Preacher who “gets it.” Some of us will be appalled by his honesty. All of us must deal with the Preacher’s sobering observations about life “under the sun.” Brace yourself, because you may not like what he sees.

The main thrust of the book is stated in verse 2. “Vanity of vanities…vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” The author used a Hebrew word that is often translated “breath” or “vapor.” Everything is a vapor. Everything is a breath. In verses 2-11, the author utilizes this picture to discern the meaning of work. “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?”

Every answer we can give is temporal. It is vanity to live for our careers because all we gain by them is temporary and fleeting. By observing the cyclical patterns of nature, the Preacher concludes that life in a fallen world is naturally dissatisfying. A full life is still a short life. The happiest life is microscopic in comparison to the constant ebb and flow of nature. The ground you stand on will far outlast you. Life is like smoke from a candle. It’s here one minute and gone the next. Generations come and go, but the earth remains.

What a humbling thought to consider! No matter what you do with your life, death is coming. And the sun will rise the day after your funeral. The winds will blow and the rivers flow without a hiccup. Earthly gain is not just foolish, it’s impossible! David Gibson has said, “People do not gain from their labor and toil because ultimately they are going to die and be forgotten.”

The Preacher doesn’t qualify his poem. Life is short and elusive; death is certain for all of us living under the sun. We object, “Well, this is true from a secular perspective.” “Well, life does seem that way without Jesus.” But the Preacher doesn’t offer softening qualifiers. He doesn’t care about our sensibilities. He simply looks at the world and tells us what he sees.

There isn’t one reality under the sun for believers and another for non-believers. In fact, his goal is to help us stop pretending the world isn’t the way it is. The world really does repeat itself. No matter how hard we work, we will one day die and another will take ownership of all we have. Eventually, we will be forgotten while the earth on which we toiled will be home to a new generation. Life under the sun is temporary.

The Preacher counters our desire to escape by showing us that we can’t escape. Whatever we gain will vanish. It is vanity to think otherwise. Are you depressed yet? The point of Ecclesiastes 1 isn’t to depress but to illumine. It is a light to help us see the darkness that we try to avoid. Death is coming, so how then should we live?

Coming to grips with the brevity and elusiveness of life will help us seek escape in the only One who can truly provide. it. We long for a world greater than our own. We long for a reality far different from the one we have. Press in to these desires. Lament the fact that we can’t find such gain in this world. And look to Christ, the one who entered our fallen world to rescue us from it. Only in Christ can we delight in a short, elusive life and find true gain.


Mathew Gilbert is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God. Mathew and his wife, Erica, live in Tupelo with their two boys, Jude and Jack.


Choose Whom You Will Serve

The Christian life is a journey. We see the theme of sojourning in a foreign land applied to the Christian life in a number of places in Scripture. John Bunyan also famously personified the Christian life as a journey in his classic work, Pilgrim’s Progress. As Christians, we are plodding along in a foreign land longing for our home in God’s presence.

In the course of this journey, God’s people will face countless obstacles and road blocks to our holiness and our happiness. Christians are not immune to temptation. While the penalty of sin is canceled and the power of sin is overthrown, the presence of sin remains. Our sinful natures continue to haunt us as we strive by grace to walk with Jesus. To deny the presence of sin and reality of temptation is to set yourself up for failure.

We are tempted every day to find replacements for God. This has been the story of God’s people since Eden. And God’s people have imaged the sin of our proto-parents rather than imaging the glory of God. We have failed to fulfill our creative purpose. God’s people in Egypt and the newly conquered Promised Land fell into idol worship. Rather than imaging God, they imaged the culture around them. Even today, we too are faced with a choice. Will we serve the Lord alone? Or, will something or someone else take his place? Will we fulfill the purpose for which we were created? Or, will we turn it on its head?

At the end of Joshua’s life and ministry, he challenges the nation of Israel to remain faithful to the God who has been nothing but faithful to them. Before calling the Israelites away from idols and to faithful service and worship, Joshua reminds Israel of God’s grace and gifts (Josh. 24:1–13, 17–18). By walking Israel through her history, Joshua shows God’s people how weak they are and how strong God is. Apart from God’s power and grace, the Israelites would still be in slavery. The land they now possess is the direct result of God’s unilateral power and grace on behalf of his people. The conclusion of the story is that no man or woman in Israel can boast in their conquest of Canaan. They are where they are by the grace of God alone.

After essentially showing the lunacy of idolatry by highlighting God’s grace in the past and present, Joshua soberingly commands, “Put away the gods that your fathers served” (v. 14). Most ancient peoples were polytheists. Polytheism infected the Israelites, who repeatedly tried to serve both the God of Israel and the “gods” of the peoples around them. If they choose the deadly path of idolatry, they can’t add the one true God into the mix. The Israelites are free to serve either the false gods of Egypt or Canaan, but if they do, they cannot also serve the Lord.

God will not play second fiddle. Nor will he be the first among many gods. As historic catechisms have put it, “God is the first and best of beings.” So, he alone is worthy of worship. You can’t serve God and anything else. Joshua makes it very clear where he stands: “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (v. 15). This is a message we need to hear. Like Israel, we tend to think, “Why not both?” We try to serve God and family, God and career, God and sports, God and school, God and prestige. But none of us can serve two masters. Even God’s wonderful gifts make puny gods.

Despite measures taken to help the people keep their commitment (v.18), they will prove faithless again and again. Our story would be the same. If staying in the favor of God was up to our faith, we too would fail. But in Jesus we have a seal that will never be broken. Jesus was perfectly faithful to God alone and died for all our unfaithfulness. His faithfulness in life and death empowers us to worship God alone, and eternally atones for our failures as we walk with him for the rest of our journey in this foreign land.


Mathew Gilbert is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God. Mathew and his wife, Erica, live in Tupelo with their two boys, Jude and Jack.

When God Is With Us

After the death of Moses, God called Joshua to lead his people. He calls Joshua to a daunting and frightening task. Leading God’s people will require great strength and courage. In Joshua 1 alone, God commands Joshua to be strong and courageous three times. But he doesn’t leave Joshua alone to find strength and courage for himself. Instead, God provides the sources of his Word and his presence for Joshua to draw the strength and courage he needs.

God commands Joshua, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success” (Josh. 1:8). Notice that God doesn’t call Joshua to have a passing acquaintance with the Scriptures. He doesn’t call him to read his Word for the sake of religious duty. Instead, God calls Joshua to meditate carefully on all of God’s Word.

The word “meditate” means to think deeply. Bible meditation isn’t a form of emptying your mind, but a diligent practice of filling your mind with the Word of God and patiently working out its meaning and purpose in your life. God’s Word is a spiritual feast. God wants us to chew on his Word for the joy of its sweetness and the strength of its nourishment. Joshua needed strength and courage. Just as we strengthen our bodies by eating healthy food, our souls find strength as we meditate on God’s Word. When we meditate on God’s Word, we are meditating on God’s voice–the ultimate source of life-giving power and joy.

The purpose of meditating on God’s Word is obedience: “so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it” (Josh. 1:8b). Obeying God in a new and scary land will not be easy for God’s people. It will be tempting for Joshua, as it was for Moses, to capitulate to his flesh and the will of a wearisome people. However, God’s Word provides the strength and courage necessary for obedience.

Isn’t it encouraging that God doesn’t command much of his people without providing the grace they need to obey? What was true for Joshua is true for us. Obedience is the goal of our Bible studies. Obedience is the goal of Bible meditation. God will provide the grace you need to obey him in even the most difficult seasons of your life.

God doesn’t just leave Joshua with his Word as his only source of strength. God also provides his very presence to strengthen and give courage to his servant. The God of the Bible is no distant deity. God reassures Joshua by saying, “Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you” (Josh. 1:5b). God can give no greater comfort than to supply us with his omnipotent and loving attention: “Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”

For Joshua, the assurance of God’s presence was validation of his new position as the leader of God’s people. In fact, God’s people wouldn’t have followed Joshua unless God was with him (Josh. 1:17). If you are in Christ today, you are a part of God’s people, which means God is with you. What does this mean for you? What validation or assurance does God’s presence bring?

Knowing God is with you should assure you of his love. God loves you and his love will never depart because in Christ, he will never leave you or forsake you. Knowing God is with you helps you endure deep pain and suffering. Knowing God is with you is validation of your identity and mission in life. You can freely strive for holiness, knowing God already loves and accepts you.


Mathew Gilbert is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God. Mathew and his wife, Erica, live in Tupelo with their two boys, Jude and Jack.

The Risen King

The day Jesus died seemed to be the darkest day in the history of the world. It must have been especially dark for Jesus’ disciples. All of Jesus’ disciples were deeply saddened when Jesus died. They didn’t know all we know about Jesus’ death and what it meant for them. They thought Jesus was going to save the world and rule immediately as an earthly King. They never thought he would take his kingdom by dying.

Jesus’ death on the cross was a crushing blow to the disciples’ hopes and dreams. Their leader, friend, savior, and God was dead. They saw him arrested. They saw him mocked. They saw him beaten. They saw him crucified. They saw his body taken off a cross. They saw him placed in a tomb. As far as they knew, it was all over.

As upset and scared the disciples must have been at the death of Jesus, what they were about to experience cannot be described with words. We have already seen three women approach Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body. Can you see the sadness on their faces? Hearts broken. Eyes filled with tears. But as they approach the place where they laid Jesus to rest, they discover something that will change their lives forever.

Mark tells us that as the women approached the tomb, they noticed that the stone had already been rolled back from the tomb, which was cut out of a rock ledge (Mark 16:4). We learn from other Gospel writers like Matthew and Luke, that there were Roman guards who were assigned to guard the tomb because they were afraid Jesus’ disciples might try to steal his body. But, even with all of that, the stone is rolled back from the tomb, and when the ladies slowly and timidly enter the tomb, they discover that there is someone there, just not the one they expected to see.

“And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed” (Mark 16:5). Can you imagine what these women must have thought? First, where is Jesus? Second, who is this strange dude?! This angel saw their shock and said, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him” (Mark 16:6).

The angel is there as an initial witness to the resurrection of Jesus. He also gives an explanation for why the body is not there. Could it be that the disciples had stolen the body? Nope. “He has risen.” He was truly dead. But now, he is truly alive!

While the women initially approached the empty tomb with fear, they left with total fascination. They were glad to obey the angel’s command to “tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee.” Oh, and can you imagine the joy they experienced when they heard the angel say, “There you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:7). The women and even the disciples didn’t have it all figured out, but they were totally amazed (Mark 16:8).

When Jesus walked out of the tomb, he proved himself to be the eternal Son of God who had power over sin and death. These women teach us a lot about how to approach the reality of the resurrection. The risen Christ should cause you to be amazed. God has freed you from your sin. He has conquered death. If you can trust Jesus to defeat sin and death by rising from the grave, how much more can you trust him with everything else in your life? Approach the risen Jesus with amazement and complete trust.

Mathew Gilbert is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God. Mathew and his wife, Erica, live in Tupelo with their two boys, Jude and Jack.

The Good News of Good Friday

The gospel, which means “good news,” is the story of stories. It is the ultimate love story, drama, tragedy, and epic all rolled into one. It is the story of an innocent man taking the place of the guilty. It is the story of a man who never sinned, taking the punishment of sinful men and women.

As an innocent man dying for the guilty, Jesus proved himself to be the promised Israelite Messiah, the Savior-King, sent from God to bear God’s wrath against sin and sinners. He also proved himself to be the Son of God who brings sinners back to God. His dying hours on the cross overcame millennia of sin, suffering, and evil. The ancient curse is reversed and the ancient Serpent is defeated.

There are two images in Mark 15:33-39 that show Jesus as our sacrificial Lamb and great Mediator.

First, look at Mark 15:34. Mark writes, “And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice…”My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This means so much for you and me. Jesus was about to die. With the last bit of strength he had in his dying body, he shouted loudly that God had “forsaken” him. This means that God had abandoned him.

In this moment, the wrath of God was pouring out on Jesus. It was like God the Father turned his back on God the Son. For the first time in eternity, forsakenness existed within the Trinity where only blessing, love, peace, and joy had ever been. As Jesus took his final breaths, the weight of human sin was on his shoulders—your sin and my sin. Jesus took our sin upon himself (2 Cor. 5:21). He was forsaken or abandoned by God so that all who believe in him will never be forsaken or abandoned by God.

Second, look at Mark 15:37-38. Mark writes, “And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” John tells us that loud cry was, “It is finished” (John 19:30). As Jesus breathed his last breath on a hill outside the city of Jerusalem, a curtain in the temple in Jerusalem tore in two pieces.

This curtain separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place in the temple. It was in the Most Holy Place that the presence of God dwelled, and where the high priest would go to make sacrifices for the people. When Jesus died, he offered himself to God as the once for all perfect sacrifice for sin. Through his death, the veil separating the people from the presence of God was forever torn.

A day the Church has celebrated for 2,000 years as “Good Friday” wasn’t initially received as a sign of anything good whatsoever.

For Jesus’ closest followers, the world was ending. Their hope in Jesus was rooted in a misunderstanding of his person and work. Like many of us, they expected Jesus to do things he never intended to do. The disciples craved instant gratification. They wanted immediate liberation. They wanted to see Jesus retake David’s throne and drive out the evil Roman Empire. The disciples had witnessed divine power from Jesus. Surely the one who had power to calm a storm with nothing more than a soft command could escape death. But each step toward Golgotha drained the disciples of every ounce of hope.

For Jesus’ opponents, the world was purged of a dangerous radical. The Roman and Jewish authorities weren’t sure what Jesus would do, but they were sure his authority threatened theirs. His following had ballooned to an uncomfortable level. His death meant the end of a possible uprising.

Jesus’ final words, “It is finished,” resonated with every witness to the execution. In the minds and hearts of everyone on that dreaded hill, it was all over.

But we can look back on that solemn and holy moment on the original Good Friday and see the beauty of the gospel. Jesus was crushed. He was forsaken. He was defeated. He was executed. His disciples mourned. His enemies rejoiced. But through his defeated, Jesus conquered. Through his death, he gave life. Through his forsakenness, Jesus made the way for enemies of God to be children of God.

The day Jesus died is called Good because of what he accomplished in death. Humanity and the entire created order find redemption in the King who bled and died on a hill outside Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. Christians can celebrate today because Jesus endured what we deserve. By faith in this crucified King, we receive the life, peace, hope, joy, and blessing we don’t deserve. Oh, how good is Good Friday for those covered by the blood of Christ!

Mathew Gilbert is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God. Mathew and his wife, Erica, live in Tupelo with their two boys, Jude and Jack.

Last Words at the Last Supper

Often when a leader nears death, he gathers his closest followers one final time. A general may give final orders to his subordinates. A father may simply express his love and affection to his family. This is especially true for leaders who know their death is near, or their mission is nearing completion.

Although his disciples still didn’t realize what was about to happen, Jesus gathered with his disciples one final time before his death in what we know as the Upper Room. While Matthew, Mark, and Luke only share details of the Last Supper, John shares some of Jesus’ “last words” at this meal. Jesus knows he will soon depart, not only through his death but in his ascension as well. He spends some of his final hours encouraging and exhorting his friends with life-giving words.

In John 15, the beloved disciple shares four final words from Jesus:

  1. Jesus’ power is in his disciples
  2. Jesus loyally loves his disciples
  3. Jesus is united with his disciples in suffering
  4. Jesus promises to send a Helper when he leaves

First, Jesus shares the nature of his power in his disciples. In John 15:1-8, Jesus teaches his disciples that apart from him they can do nothing through a vivid illustration. Grapes were a popular crop in this area, so Jesus used the example of a grapevine and its branches to explain what he meant. A branch can bear fruit if it is connected to the vine. The vine gives the branches the nutrients they need to produce grapes. In the same way, we must stay connected to Jesus like a branch does to the vine so that we can grow as a Christian and make disciples. This is why Jesus said he was the true Vine.

The power to follow Jesus and lead others to follow Jesus is in everyone connected to Jesus. So, if you are trying to obey Jesus in your own power, you will fail. And if you are trying to lead others to follow Jesus in your own power, you will fail. Branches severed from the vine cannot produce fruit. Neither can you apart from Jesus.

Second, Jesus shares his love for his disciples. He actually calls his disciples friends in John 15:12-17. What an incredible sentiment! The eternal God of the universe calls creatures who have rebelled against him friends. No one has loved more than he who has laid down his life for his friends. If you are in Christ today, you aren’t just his subject, slave, or follower. Jesus is your friend. His affection for you is deep. His loyalty to you is unmovable.

Third, Jesus shares his unity with his disciples. Despite the logic of what Jesus says in John 15:18-25, it’s kind of surprising. Jesus tells his disciples they will share in his suffering. The world hated and rejected Jesus. Likewise, the world will hate and reject his followers. As followers of a suffering and bleeding Savior, we must prepare ourselves to love people who will not love us back. We must be prepared to sacrificially give of ourselves for people who will do nothing but oppose us.

Finally, Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, to empower his disciples to live the kingdom life. The Holy Spirit will comfort and calm our hearts when we endure suffering, and he will empower us to walk in holiness and make disciples. Jesus is about to leave his disciples. He is going to die, rise, and ultimately ascend to heaven. But he would not leave them alone. The Spirit would come and unite his people to himself and empower all that he has called them to do.

As the true Vine, Jesus unites us to God, so we can be a part of his family. Just as Jesus encouraged the disciples before his crucifixion, his last words are also meant to encourage us. Jesus calls us his friends and wants us to share in the infinite blessing of the gospel and to bring others into this blessed fellowship.

Mathew Gilbert is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God. Mathew and his wife, Erica, live in Tupelo with their two boys, Jude and Jack.

A New Kind of Kingdom

Throughout Mark’s Gospel, he has been showing us the kingdom of God through Jesus’ teachings and actions. Jesus has come to bring a new kingdom to earth and he is the king. We have seen through Jesus’ healing and miracles that his kingdom is marked by life and blessing.

With each miracle and ground-shaking teaching, Jesus gives us a glimpse of what life in his kingdom is like. The kingdom of God is a realm that carries a particular set of values.

Life in the kingdom looks a certain way, and no other ways are tolerated. Jesus bringing the kingdom of God to earth is like a new coach taking over for a team. When a new coach is hired, the culture of the team and program immediately changes. There are new rules, new goals, and new expectations.

With the arrival of Jesus came a new way of life that would be opened and empowered by his life, death, and resurrection.

Jesus’ kingdom is marked by humility, love, peace, mercy, grace, and self-sacrifice. Such a kingdom stands in stark contrast to many kingdoms in the world. People base their lives on many things, but the above list usually isn’t found on a fast track to success.

There are kingdoms based on money, power, and prestige. In these kingdoms, you typically don’t put others first and strive to live peaceably with all while loving those who persecute you. Nice guys finish last, after all. Jesus himself turns the such kingdoms on their heads as he calls for self-sacrificial love by teaching his disciples to die to self and strive to be last.

The kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world collide as Jesus and his disciples are confronted by Judas and his mob outside the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:43-50). Judas approaches Jesus in stealth possibly to catch him off guard with betrayal. Perhaps Judas didn’t simply point Jesus out to the mob because he feared Jesus was prepared for a fight. After all, Jesus has been talking about a kingdom and his disciples believed he was the Messiah.

After being betrayed by the kiss of a friend, Jesus is immediately arrested by an armed mob. Peter responds the way Judas probably expected. He fights. He pulls a knife and slices off the ear of a soldier.

Jesus responds by asking if the mob believes him to be a criminal. He’s asking, “Am I some kind of rebel trying to start a revolution that you have come out with swords and clubs?” Jesus essentially declares that his enemies are completely blind to his kingdom. Jesus rebukes Peter and the mob because his revolution is not fought by taking life, but by giving up his life as a ransom for others.

Judas and Peter come with swords drawn because both have missed the point of Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. Judas was living for himself and personal profit. His kingdom was marked by lust for wealth and status. Peter pulled a sword to save his life. He was trusting in his own view of the Messiah and the kingdom.

Jesus counters all of our self-seeking and self-serving kingdoms by refusing to flee or fight. He serenely submits to his arresters and accusers remaining basically silent throughout his trial. He could have defended himself. He could have called down a legion of angels to come to his defense. He could have. But he is the King of a new kind of kingdom.

Instead of trying to save himself or take life, he submitted to his Father’s will and took appropriate steps to give up his life so that sinners like us could enter his eternal kingdom.

Mathew Gilbert is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God. Mathew and his wife, Erica, live in Tupelo with their two boys, Jude and Jack.

How the Gospel Shatters Our Parental Comparison Wars

Comparison wars in parenting are brutal and leave nothing but destruction in their paths.

My wife and I have already learned how tempting it is to unnecessarily compare your children to others. Instagram pictures of our kids’ development plastered in creative fonts on a chalkboard leads us to stand our little ones side by side to see how they compare. It inevitably causes us to question parenting decisions we have made. Guilt and shame often prevail in our comparison discussions.

“Oh, your son started walking at 11 months? Well, mine started walking at 10.”

“That’s cute your five year-old just learned to swim. Mine has been swimming since she was one.”

“Your son played a great game in the rec league. We would play there too if my boy wasn’t already committed to his elite travel team.”

The worst version of comparison is directed at children themselves. Prolonged childhood trauma is produced from parents who have scolded or even punished children for not performing academically or athletically in comparison to their peers. Children who are constantly trying to earn approval from their parents develop a habit that will continue into adulthood. Children who stress over impressing their parents will struggle to find security in future relationships.

It happens when we are upset with our children’s performance in school or sports because they fall short of their classmates. It happens when our pride in our kids skyrockets when they outperform others, yet plummets when they don’t.

It takes many forms, but the temptation to measure our children up against their peers is pervasive.

Such comparison is dangerous for both parents and children. We will be tempted to try to boost our children’s confidence by showing them how they are superior to others in academics, sports, or physical characteristics. However, when we compare our children to others, we teach them their identity and value is found where they stand in relation to their friends. We also may unintentionally teach them that our our love for them and joy in them is conditionally based on their performance.

Gospel-centered parenting shatters our comparisons.

  • The gospel teaches us that we are loved unconditionally based on God’s grace, not our performance.
  • The gospel pushes us to compare ourselves to the perfection of Christ and then cling to him as the only basis for our righteousness.
  • The gospel compels us to love others selflessly.
  • The gospel helps us walk humbly, and to see ourselves as worse, not better, than others.
  • The gospel gives us a new identity rooted in the historic and eternal person and work of Jesus.

How does the gospel inform our parenting in light of the temptation to compare?

1. The gospel helps us show our children their worth and identity are not rooted in their performance.

Our children are special simply because God created them in his image and because they belong to us. While their performance and development fluctuates in comparison to others, their God-given identity never changes.

2. The gospel helps us show our children their need for a Savior.

When we compare our kids to others, we either demean their worth, or more commonly, we boost their confidence in themselves and their own abilities. If we teach our kids they are awesome based on their performance, we are leading away from the cross.

3. The gospel helps us love our kids no matter what.

The gospel is the good news that God has loved us in Christ not because of our goodness, but in spite of our badness. God loves us because he chose to love us. It is an unconditional love that we cannot lose.  Since we have received such unconditional love, we should parent our children in such a way that there is no doubt our love for them is rooted in who they are as our children, not what they do in their lives. Such unconditional love is counter cultural and will require diligent inner fighting against the desires of the flesh.

Because of who we now are in Christ, we have both an example in him and power through him to parent our children free from the chains of comparison. Don’t teach your kids to live their lives looking at what others are doing to see how they measure up. Instead, teach them to see their inherent worth as image-bearers, your children, and point their eyes to Christ as their only hope to save them from themselves.

Resolve to teach your kids in both word and deed that their security and identity is not found in what they do, but in who they are. This is the essence of gospel-centered parenting as it will till the soil of our children’s hearts for the gospel to be planted and grow. My hope for your children and mine is that God’s love for them in Christ will not surprise them because they have learned similar unconditional love from their parents.

Mathew Gilbert is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God. Mathew and his wife, Erica, live in Tupelo with their two boys, Jude and Jack.

Victory in a Garden of Agony

The Bible talks of two primary representatives for mankind. Each represented us in a garden.

Many, many years before Jesus entered Gethsemane, Adam was placed in Eden. He was created without sin. He had a perfect heart, a perfect relationship with God, and he lived in a perfect environment. Yet, Adam failed to keep covenant with God. He was faced with a choice to submit to God’s will, and he bowed to his own. When Adam sinned against God in Eden, he was cursed, banished, and defiled because of his sin. Paradise was lost and the entrance to Eden was guarded by a flaming sword. From that point forward, Adam and all of his offspring would be under the righteous wrath of God.

Friends, outside of faith in Jesus, this is where we all stand—under the righteous wrath of God. God’s wrath can be defined as God’s righteous response to sin. Wayne Grudem calls it his “intense hatred of sin.” Because God is holy, he is wrathful against all that is unholy. In John 3:36, Jesus says that the wrath of God remains on all who do not believe in him. The author of Hebrews understood the wrath of God when he wrote, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). But I especially love the way C.S. Lewis communicates God’s wrath in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:

“Mr. Beaver said, “Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”…”Safe?” said Mr. Beaver…”Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Here is the toughest reality that is naturally offensive to the human mind and heart: We deserve God’s wrath because of our sin. We deserve to face what caused Jesus to sweat blood and be so close to death that an angel had to come to his aid. We deserve the horrible, terrible, and terrifying wrath of God not because our sins are particularly egregious, but because God is infinitely holy. It is the greatness of God, not the degree of our sin that puts us under the wrath of God. This means that no matter how small or big you think your sins are, you stand under the flaming sword of God’s wrath.

But there is good news for you and me. There is news in this passage that gives purpose, hope, and joy in the midst of all suffering. While Adam disobeyed in a garden of paradise, the Last and True Adam obeyed in a garden of agony. It is no coincidence that Jesus agonized over his impending death and submitted to God’s will in a garden. It was in a garden that we began, in a garden where we fell, and it will be in a garden where we begin to find restoration and redemption. Charles Spurgeon observed this. In one of his great sermons, he said,

“May we not conceive that as in a garden Adam’s self-indulgence ruined us, so in another garden the agonies of the second Adam should restore us? Gethsemane supplies the medicine for the ills, which followed upon the forbidden fruit of Eden. No flowers which bloomed upon the banks of the four-fold river were ever so precious to our race as the bitter herbs which grew hard by the black and sullen stream of Kidron.”

As our perfect representative, Jesus is prepared to take on the full wrath of God that we deserve. We do not have to sweat blood in agonizing torment before the wrath of God, because Jesus faced his Father’s wrath for us.

We see this in Jesus’ request for the cup to be removed from him. The word “cup” is a metaphor that specifically refers to God’s wrath. Psalm 75:8 says, “For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.”

What Jesus communicates in this agonizing moment in the Garden of Gethsemane is that his journey has reached its climax. Jesus takes the cup of God’s wrath out of your hands and drinks it down to the dregs. Not because he is wicked and deserving. But because he is willing and able to bear your guilt, your wickedness, your failures, your unbelief, your hypocrisy. Jesus takes the cup reserved for you so that you never have to drink from God’s wrath. Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath, so that you may drink the cup of God’s salvation. In the words of theologian Michael Horton, “The same cup that was filled with judgment for the Messiah is now drunk by those who, united to his death and resurrection, receive from it only forgiveness and life.”

But I think Keller says it best: “In the garden of Gethsemane, [Jesus] turns to the Father and all he can see before him is wrath, the abyss, the chasm, the nothingness of the cup. God is the source of all love, all life, all light, all coherence. Therefore exclusion from God is exclusion from the source of all light, all love, all coherence. Jesus began to experience the spiritual, cosmic, infinite disintegration that would happen when he became separated from his Father on the cross. Jesus began to experience merely a foretaste of that, and he staggered.”

In the garden of Eden, Adam cried, “Not your will, but mine be done.” But in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus cried, “Not my will, but yours be done.” With this cry from the second Adam, Jesus paves the way for us to return to Eden. Jesus entered a garden of agony and suffering, so that we might re-enter a garden of pure bliss, harmony, joy, and eternal paradise.

C.S. Lewis famously said, “There are far better things ahead than what we leave behind.” If you would trust Jesus today, you would be united to the one who suffered more than you ever will, and through whose suffering all suffering will be undone. You can find genuine hope and true joy because Jesus took your place. This is only true for those who believe in the one who suffered in Gethsemane and later on Golgotha for them. For all who trust can say with hymn-writer Charles Gabriel:

“For me it was in the garden, He prayed: ‘Not my will, but Thine.’ He had no tears for His own griefs But sweat drops of blood for mine. How marvelous! How wonderful! And my song shall ever be, How marvelous! How wonderful! Is my Savior’s love for me!”

Mathew Gilbert is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God. Mathew and his wife, Erica, live in Tupelo with their two boys, Jude and Jack.

Extravagant Devotion

It’s really difficult to determine the worth of anything. Do we really know how much an iPad should cost? We know they probably cost too much! But there is no way of knowing exactly what something is worth. Companies set prices not based on what something is actually worth, but based on what customers believe it is worth. Customers and economies give products value. But determining the actual, inherent value of something is nearly impossible.

Mark 14:1-11 is all about the value and worth of Jesus. This passage contains an example of extravagant love for Jesus sandwiched between deliberate and diabolical schemes to destroy Jesus. The religious authorities and Judas Iscariot serve as foils to an unnamed woman as their treacherous and cowardly plans to arrest Jesus are contrasted with her sacrificial and lavish love for Jesus. The actions of each person in this passage either miss or match the worth of Jesus. The worth we ascribe to Jesus will be mirrored in our responses to Jesus.

Some of us, like the chief priests and scribes, will respond to Jesus with outright hostility. The religious leaders were threatened by Jesus’ power and authority and wanted no part of him. We are naturally rebellious, so we must guard ourselves from wanting a different Jesus. There may be some aspects of Jesus’ person, work, or teaching that you don’t like. In this sense, you may be tempted to be hostile toward who Jesus actually is and prefer a Jesus of your own making. If so, resist and repent.

Some of us, like Judas, will respond to Jesus with slow, yet sudden betrayal. Judas’ betrayal of Jesus was unexpected and sudden, but it was the result of slow rebellion. Judas was spiritually privileged. He walked with Jesus religiously. He had more intimate contact with Jesus than nearly anyone else in Palestine during Jesus’ life. He received special revelation from Jesus about the kingdom. He witnessed his divine power and deep love on a regular basis. And yet, at the end he fell away and turned his back. He abandoned Jesus. Judas is a sober warning to us. We can be around Jesus and never be connected to him. We can attend church regularly and never be in the Church. We can betray Jesus through repetitive, unrepentant sin. May we never publicly follow Jesus, while privately betraying him, The payoff for betrayal is never worth it.

Some of us, like the group in the home of Simon the leper, will respond to Jesus with comfortable discipleship. When the unnamed woman in Mark 14 poured out an entire jar of incredibly expensive perfume on Jesus’ head, his disciples and others at the dinner party were disgusted. They rebuked the woman for what they considered a very foolish act. To this group, it was a sweet gesture gone wrong. Honoring a worthy guest like Jesus with an anointing was customary. But, she emptied what would amount to a $30,000 jar of perfume. It was a fine gesture, but seemed fool-hearted. While their reaction is reasonable and understandable, they gave their view of Jesus away. They loved Jesus. They thought he was worthy of their lives. But they placed a limit on his worth. He may be worthy of much, but such extravagance was silly in their eyes.

We are prone to fall in this group. We know Jesus is worth much, but we place limits on him. Sacrificial devotion to Jesus is difficult for us. But for we who have received extravagant love from Jesus, should be quick to respond with extravagant love for Jesus.

The goal and standard for discipleship is found in the spontaneous and sacrificial devotion of the woman in Mark 14. She isn’t named, but Jesus says her action will never be forgotten. While everyone else was either opposing Jesus or enjoying the benefit of his presence, she recognized that communing with Jesus was a unique and special gift. She made the most of the opportunity by giving the most that she could. Do you view discipleship in this way? Do you follow Jesus with similar reckless abandon, ready and willing to sacrifice all for Jesus?

Jesus’ worth is infinite. There is no measure or end to his worth. May our lives declare his worth. We cannot love Jesus too much and we cannot devote ourselves to him too extravagantly.

Mathew Gilbert is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God. Mathew and his wife, Erica, live in Tupelo with their two boys, Jude and Jack.