Outside the Prayer Closet

There are many verses in the Bible that talk about God as Creator. Genesis reveals it, Israel depended on it, the Psalms celebrate it, the prophets expect it will be important in the future. In the New Testament we learn that Christ Himself, the Word of God, deserves credit for creation (see John 1:3, Hebrews 1:2-3).

Consider this early confession:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Colossians 1:15–17

Paul wrote his letter to the Christians in Colosse to deal with a few elements of false teaching in the church. One of them was the idea that Christ was just “one” among many divine beings. The list of principalities and powers that He created shows that He can’t be on their level, let alone on a lower level than them. He made them, He’s not one of them. There is in fact a hierarchy of creatures, but it’s not a rank of some creatures with higher percentages of spirit instead of flesh.

This was a seed of Gnostic thinking which, among other errors, included what we call dualism. Dualism is the idea that matter/flesh/visible/becoming are evil, or at least less valuable than spirit/invisible/being. But Jesus is fully God and fully man, and this didn’t ruin His deity.

It got me thinking: what is the point of Colossians 1:15-17? Why talk about Christ’s creative wisdom and power before talking about His redeeming work (verses 18-20)? What does the preeminence of Christ in the universe have to do with the goal of Christian ministry that Paul described near the end of the chapter?

Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.

Colossians 1:28

For too long–and I should have paid better attention to the context–I thought verses 15-17 established Christ’s preeminence by brute force. “He made everything, so you better do what He says.” Being more like Christ is, therefore, mainly a moral issue. He obeyed perfectly, and He has the authority to demand similar obedience.

He certainly does have all authority, just as He told His disciples (Matthew 28:18). But His creative work establishes not only the extent of His authority but also the extent of His interests. Creation is not merely one big object lesson to motivate our obedience before His force. Creation is His playground and His love and His gift. Ironically, we behave immorally when we complain about, and when we try to avoid, all the things of earth that He calls good.

As image-bearers and as Christians, to reflect God and to reflect Christ means that we must be interested in what God in Christ is interested in. We must learn what He is like and that includes the kinds of things He likes. He likes what He made. He likes wine and wood and websites. He likes legs and breasts and muscles. He likes family trees and family names. He likes farms and good food and the semitrucks that deliver food to the store for us to purchase. So enjoy the process. Being complete in Christ is no less than a way of looking at the wide wide world.

Let’s return to Kuyper’s quote. Whoever translated it into English missed a great opportunity. The phrase “every square inch” is accessible, but a much more concrete and personal and more accurate translation is available. It should be:

“There is not one thumb’s width in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’”

The Dutch phrase is een duimbreed (pronounced un dime-brrrate) which refers to the distance between the sides of the thumb: “one thumb’s width.” Everything that can be touched or measured is claimed by Christ.

This is more than a declaration about the boundaries of His dominion, it is a declaration about the breadth of His interests, the abundance and assortment of His likes, the scope of His concerns. His domain extends everywhere, but it’s not as if He owns a 10,000 square foot house in order to impress on us that He only cares about what happens in the prayer closet. He wants us to get out more.

The First Chapter

When we finished studying Ecclesiastes I still wanted to stay in the Old Testament. I thought perhaps Genesis: starting at the beginning. Genesis is the foundation for the entire Bible. It reveals initial and crucial parts of redemptive history such as the Fall, the call of Abram, the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and some of our favorite stories of the faith. Plus I thought we could work through the creation account and pound on how a good reading of the text just doesn’t leave room for evolution, materialistic or theistic.

I was sure this would be great foundation building stuff. What I didn’t realize is how thin and puny my own foundation was. I didn’t realize that I would not make it out of the first chapter without a severely remade worldview and even more reasons to repent.

I was coming to Genesis as a Christian and even as a Calvinist. I was coming to Genesis as one who believed the Bible in the craziest-seeming parts, including six 24-hours-as-we-measure days of creation. I believed God was all-powerful, the Almighty Maker of heaven and earth. I did not come to Genesis as a doubter, but I soon realized that I had come to Genesis as a dualist. I came to it as a Christian, which is good, but I needed to come to it as a man, as a human being with flesh and bones and blood. I came as one eager for heaven and I had to repent for not appreciating the earth.

Maybe more than His potency, Genesis 1 reveals God’s gushing gladness to create. He spoke nothings into somethings, He separated some things into different things, and called it good. It was all up to Him at that point. He could have made whatever He wanted however He wanted for the sake of whatever He wanted. And He made time: seasons and days and years. He made dimensions: up and down and around. He made colors and shades and dimness settings. He made big and small, many and few.

Then He started talking to Himself, in the Persons of the Trinity (verse 26), about Their upcoming, unrivaled work. They were readying to make a creature who would mirror Themselves. This creature would be stamped with the divine image.

What would it be? Perhaps a vast library filled with the greatest poems and prose, exalting the all-wise and rational truth of God. Or maybe an intricate system of precise scales on which things could be measured and weighed, demonstrating the goodness of God. Perhaps an immense museum filled with paintings and sculptures, with harmonious music in the background, showing the beauty of God.

Instead, God invented toes and knees and hips and elbows and shoulders and vertebrae and teeth, all out of dust, and then breathed life into it. A little while later He made a complimentary creature out of chest-bone, giving that creature more curves and some different internal parts. God ordained their uniqueness and their covenantal oneness, celebrating their relationship as a pattern for all time.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:26–27

When the Maker addressed Adam and Eve He gave them a mandate, recorded for us in Genesis 1:28.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Genesis 1:28

God said: Have kids, who have kids, who move out of the house, and figure out how to build houses, and keep bugs out of your houses, and later make an online shop to buy things to furnish those houses. Here was a human task, to have and enjoy families, to invent and extend work.

This is what God thinks is good. He patterned weeks for us by His own work. He also patterned equal but different relationships for us.

So: the things of earth are not keeping us from what God thinks is good. Even verse 29 is as if God couldn’t wait to show Adam the goods. “And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.’” (Genesis 1:29). He wanted to show Adam all the variety of veggies available for eating. Eating! It’s not a chore, it’s a grace, an undeserved gift given to men. All of it, from babies to bananas, dirt and dominion, generations and exploration, genders and astronomy and sleep, God says is good.

Do we say it is good? Yes, Genesis 3 happened, and work now requires a sweat when you have to restart your computer after the software crashes. Birth involves extra pains not present previously. There are conflicts in relationships that come because of sin. But sin is also what keeps us from seeing the good world and being thankful. God didn’t give up on the human body after the fall. He gave His Son one and promises all His people a glorified one. God didn’t give up on marriage after the fall, or the blessing of faithful grandparents and parents and cultural heritage. God didn’t limit us to grits without salt and butter after the fall, He even added beef and eventually pork to the menu. And note, Adam and Eve didn’t even have a Bible to read in paradise. They had work, fruits and veggies, walks, sex, rest, and fellowship with God. That’s all GOOD.

The Wide Wide World of Christ

At the beginning of 2005 I was finishing up preparation to teach about the Reformation at our youth ministry’s winter retreat. I had recently listened to a message by John Piper from the “Sex and the Supremacy of Christ” conference where he preached a rousing message on the preeminence of Christ. In his message he quoted a man I had never heard of before named Abraham Kuyper. The quote was:

“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’”

It’s a fantastic quote, and I’ve heard it used or read it a number of times since then. I even used it in my message on Solus Christus at that retreat. Jesus reigns! As much as I believed it to be true, I didn’t realize how wide the truth of it applies.

Wisdom from the Wisest

The previous fall I had started teaching through Ecclesiastes with the students. I wanted to preach something other than an epistle, and I also thought that Ecclesiastes was perhaps the book most like an epistle in the Old Testament. Solomon wrote about life under the sun and, in particular, life’s heavy vanity. But as we studied through the book I noticed that every so often he described a buoy in the middle of the sea of vanity that a person could grab onto and pull their head out and get a breath.

I’m not sure that Solomon would have found much joy in this painting. You can make your own judgment.

What surprised me, though, as someone steeped in the epistles, is that joy for Solomon was not found somewhere other than on earth nor outside of normal, temporal activities. I don’t think it’s because in all his wisdom Solomon didn’t know about or believe in heaven, but rather because he believed that for those who fear God there is good to be had here, good in white garments and life with one’s wife and working with all your might (see Ecclesiastes 9:7-10). Here’s the money passage in the entire book as far as I’m concerned:

There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy.

Ecclesiastes 2:24–26a

This joy returns a few times in the preacher’s wisdom. It isn’t found by getting away from people or duties or even off the planet. Joy is a gift from God for those rightly related to Him, a gift that He gives for those in the process of life on earth, not just those waiting for eternity.

Repentance dominated those days, that is, I was seeing my need to repent all over the place. Repentance was needed for complaining about repetitive, routine tasks. Repentance was needed both for seeking improper satisfaction from earthly things and also seeking improper liberation from earthly things. Repentance was required for avoiding God’s gifts, not just abusing them. According to the Scriptures, eating and drinking and toiling are places to find joy, not hindrances to joy.

To me, joy had been found in reading the Bible, in prayer, in studying theology, in writing sermons, in equipping others to disciple, in retreating for spiritual purposes. That was my work as a pastor, but I defined my work so narrowly that filling out paperwork, running errands, maintaining the car, or talking about budget spreadsheets seemed like lesser things. Was joy to be found even in that work?

If Solomon was right, how couldn’t it be? I knew that in studying the Bible one must always ask who the original audience was. Who were the people who first heard Solomon? They weren’t all philosophers or politicians, let alone theologians or pastors. They would have included farmers, soldiers, carpenters, musicians, cooks, and homemakers, the salt of the earth sort. Solomon couldn’t really be saying that God gives enjoyment in that kind of work, in itself, could he? Isn’t that kind of work the work to do to get to the work that matters? Yet my conclusion wasn’t in the text. The wisest man in the Bible had nothing for me about finding joy in longer hours of devotions and less in diaper changing. And he wasn’t the only one.