Chapter OneGod's Eternal Purposes
and the Insider
* * *
We were just shooting the breeze, talking about whatever
was on our minds, when Jack said something I will never
forget. He said, "These past twenty years of my life have
played out like a bad movie. As I watched them go by I kept thinking to
myself, 'This wasn't the script I had in mind. It wasn't supposed to be like
this.'" He paused and added, ". and I don't know what I can do to make
the next twenty any different."
Professionally, Jack is one of the most successful people I know. He
has a good marriage and children who love him. He grew up in the church
as a Christian. So what was his problem?
Jack was struggling with some unfulfilled expectations. He had
expected more from God than he was getting. He had expected to see God
use him in his workings in the world. But here he was at the peak of his
career and he could see little or nothing to indicate that God had ever
done anything through him!
I know a lot of people like Jack. Many of my friends who became
Christians in their college days are saying similar things. They had believed
in Christ along with the news that he has "a wonderful plan for their
lives"-and they could hardly wait for life to begin! But now the years have
gone by-and they're still waiting!
What has gone wrong? The easiest response is to put the blame back
on the person. (What can people expect when they don't make space for
God in their daily lives?) Or, we could find fault with the way the gospel
had been presented to them. (They believed in a hyped-up gospel that
overpromised.) Or we could lay the blame on God. (He doesn't really
involve himself in people's lives all that much.)
However we interpret this, Jack's problems are real. We all need to live
for something. It's contrary to our nature to be content if we feel our lives
are not counting for something that is bigger than life! God made us this
way. Whatever the earthly value of our achievements, if we do not feel
that what we're working on somehow transcends the here and now, we
find ourselves struggling with feelings of futility. This is a universal phenomenon
that runs through all of human history.
In Pursuit of Meaning
THE EGYPTIAN KINGS who spent their lives-and the lives of thousands
of others-building their tombs were driven by the vision of a busy,
enterprising afterlife. Many of Europe's great cathedrals were substantially
funded by wealthy people who exchanged their properties for promises of
perpetual prayers being offered for them from the cathedrals after their
deaths. They were preoccupied with their eternal status. But one does not
have to be religious to have concerns of this nature. The current popularity
of the idea of leaving a legacy tells us this need is common to all sorts
of people. We want to give ourselves to something that will outlive us.
This was the message of Solomon, the writer of the book of
Ecclesiastes. He had both the opportunity and the means to experiment
with just about every option life can offer. After doing it all he observed:
I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my work
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun.
Solomon tried out everything "under the sun" and did not find meaning
in any of it. That was his problem. His sights were too low! Our experience
must extend beyond the sun to include the eternal, if we are to be
satisfied. Is this need we feel not a part of our being made in God's image?
The times we spend in private devotions won't completely resolve
these frustrations, either. In fact, the more we meditate on the Scriptures
the stronger our desires become to know God and to participate with him
in what he is doing. The Scriptures remind us again and again that following
God does mean more than what Jack and my other friends are
experiencing. So our question persists: What should we expect to happen
in the normal course of our relationship with God?
What's It All About?
NOW WE ARE asking life's biggest question. "What's this life all about?
What's going on?" And there is only one place to go for the answer. It is
to ask, "What is God about? What is he doing?" If we don't have it right
about what he's up to, we can be sure we won't get it right in our own life.
A futile life is one lived on an agenda that has no connection with
God's purposes. It doesn't matter how fast we're going, or how high we're
flying, or where we're headed-if we're not living according to God's purposes,
our life is futile!
What is God doing today? It's hard to tell just by looking at things.
The news from around the world is consistently grim. Endemic corruption
impoverishes millions of people in country after country. Tribal wars
turn millions more into refugees. Diseases of epidemic proportions are
killing millions a year in Africa alone. As I write this, the news from India
reports a massive earthquake with a death toll of over fifteen thousand
people. The same newscast informs us of a famine in central Asia where
thousands are dying of starvation.
But we aren't going to hear much more on these horror stories. There
isn't room on the news hour for such incidentals. The newscasters need
the time to cover "The War on Terror" and the other major conflicts going
on around the world!
To suggest that in the midst of this agonizing chaos God has purposes
and that he is actively pursuing them is quite a stretch! It is easier to
believe that things are falling apart and that he is absent from the scene.
The Scriptures, however, tell us the opposite! They tell us God is at work,
bringing all things together.
The Eternal Purposes of God
IT WAS ABOUT A.D. 60 when the apostle Paul wrote his letter to the
emerging community of believers in Ephesus. Ephesus was also famous
as the center of the worship of Cybele/Artemis, a goddess of fertility. Her
temple was regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Sorcery,
occult practices, and prostitution were a part of the worship practices of
the temple. The new believers Paul was writing to were picking their way
out of all of this. Life in the church was still pretty ragged.
Yet look at how Paul opens his letter. He addresses it to "the saints in
Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus." He is reminding them of who they
are! They have a dual citizenship. They are "in Ephesus" but they are also
"in Christ." Yes, they belong to Christ, but they are to live out this new
life within the realities of the city of Ephesus.
Paul wants the Ephesian believers to understand that despite all that
is going on around them, they are a part of and are significant to God's
eternal purposes. With a few words he paints the cosmic landscape. He
He chose us in him before the creation of the world . to be
adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ In him we have
redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins He
made known to us the mystery of his will . which he purposed
in Christ . to bring all things in heaven and on earth
together under one head, even Christ.
This paragraph is filled with vital information. God has purposes. He
has a plan and right now he is in the midst of working it out. This is not an
emergency rescue operation that God is performing, a sort of "plan B" after
things went wrong. This plan was in place before God created anything at
all! We also learn that at the center of this plan is the creation of a people,
and that the cost of getting them would be the blood of his Son. In summary,
this passage tells us that life has to do with a people and a cross!
This same idea is addressed in Psalm 2. It opens describing a revolution
in progress-the human powers revolting against God. "The kings
of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the
Lord and against his Anointed One." Down with God! Up with us! We
don't need him! they chant. "'Let us break their chains,' they say, 'and
throw off their fetters.'" We're taking over!
The demonstration is interrupted by laughter. Someone is laughing!
It's God! "The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them."
This rebellion is so ludicrous it makes God laugh! He addresses the rebels:
Look over there. Look at the throne you intended to occupy. It's already
filled. My Son is on it! "I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill."
Then God turns to his Son and says, "You are my Son Ask of me."
What can I give you for your inheritance? The Father offers, "I will make
the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession."
Here again, we come away with the same message. Attempting to live
apart from God is foolish, even if you're a king. What is God doing? He is
creating an inheritance for his Son. It consists of people of all nations.
The Day of the Refugee
BUT, NOW, WHAT is this next statement God makes to his Son? He says,
"You will rule them with an iron scepter; you will dash them to pieces like
pottery." What is he talking about? Who is going to be dashed to pieces?
It's the rebel kings, those who were revolting against God! He tells them,
"You kings . be warned, you rulers of the earth . Kiss the son, lest he
be angry and you be destroyed."
Throughout history, ever since these words were written, God has
repeatedly acted on this promise to his Son. A society builds a system that,
in time, shuts God out. As the rebellion of its leaders hardens, the people
in that society are deprived of any direct news about God. At some point,
God intervenes. Suddenly, the repressive system is no more!
This is, indeed, what is happening all around the world today. God is
breaking to pieces the powers that rule people's lives, the things they
believe in, the things they have traditionally looked to for security.
Governments, economies, cultures, markets, and religious systems occupying
people's minds and souls for centuries are breaking apart. The "isms"
are falling and the people these systems held captive are being freed to
become part of Christ's inheritance. The refugee is a good example.
I have a friend, Isma'il, who is living as a refugee in a Middle Eastern
country. His home country is Iraq, but he and hundreds of thousands of
other Iraqis have migrated to this particular country in search of a more
secure place to live. Isma'il is a contagious follower of Christ, living in the
midst of a solidly Muslim society. Over the past two years he, with the
help of a few friends, has planted the gospel in five different communities
of refugees, where it is now taking root and growing. The uncertainties of
life for the refugee combined with the newfound space to think and seek
truth are breaking up the hold of the Muslim religion and creating fertile
ground for the good news of Christ. This is happening in many places
around the world.
It's All Coming Together
GOD IS BRINGING "all things in heaven and on earth together under one
head, even Christ." This phrase, "bring . together," is the verbanakephalaioo. It expresses the idea of gathering things together to present
them as a whole. In rhetoric, the word is used to describe summing
up the argument and to show how each part of it fits together to substantiate
the thesis. In math, the verb refers to the process of adding up
columns of figures and then putting the sum at the top. All of the pieces
that make up this chaotic world will be put in their places, and the picture
will become clear!
So God continues to create! Jesus said, "My Father is always at his
work to this very day, and I, too, am working." This time he is creating
an eternal people who will be his citizens, his heirs, his household, and
This outcome is not in doubt. Coming out of a vision, the apostle
John reported what he had seen:
I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one
could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language,
standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb They
cried out in a loud voice:
"Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb."
There they are! It's as good as done. God is bringing his eternal family
together. Today, God looks at this same chaos we fret over and says, It's all
coming together! In spite of the mess mankind is making, my work is
right on schedule.
A People and a Cross-and Jack
SO WHAT ABOUT Jack? God is working in this world, but Jack doesn't
feel he has a part in that work. It has turned out that the main feature in
most Christians' lives today is congregating. This makes most of us passive
participants. Jack is not comfortable with that. His problem is, he too
lives in an Ephesus. He knows in his heart that he has an inside track on
a world of lost people-and he doesn't know what to do with that! Most
of his waking hours are spent rubbing shoulders with people who are in
one self-destruct mode or another. But he feels like an alien in their midst.
He lives a divided life. One part of it is in church; the other is in society.
He senses there has to be a way to bring these two worlds together to
where all the parts of his life-his work, social life, leisure, and civic
activities-count for something.
Jack probably couldn't put this into words, but he realizes something
big is missing! He isn't interested in adding another activity to his life.
He's already too busy. He isn't looking for an evangelistic program that
will help him reach some of his friends. Programs begin and end. He's
looking for something bigger than that. Jack needs to engage his life with
God's purposes in ways that endure. He longs to live all of life to the glory
That's why we've written this book. We want to help people like Jack
understand their calling to participate in what God is doing today. We
want people to see that this calling is to be worked out within their existing
relational networks where they are already positioned as insiders. God
intends that every part of our daily life should line up with his purposes,
to his glory. We believe this is something that is within reach for all of us,
not just the gifted few.