To be like Jesus
How often do we read familiar passages from the Bible without much thought? But we can’t do that with Ecclesiastes, for it’s a difficult book; it seems to flip-flop between the outlook of a believer and that of a sceptic.
Perhaps Solomon is sometimes reflecting on his life when he was close to the Lord and sometimes expressing the views he espoused when backslidden. Thankfully though, his conclusion is clear and obvious — ‘Fear God and keep his commandments’. Then he adds, ‘this is the whole duty of man’ (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
That last statement is a phrase we need to stop and consider. If you were given a sheet of paper with the words, ‘Our whole duty is . . .’, and told to complete the sentence, what would you write?
I suspect that most who are Bible-believing Christians would say something like this: ‘Our whole duty is — to repent, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and follow him’. But Solomon says our whole duty is to ‘fear God and keep his commandments’.
This sounds rather like salvation by works, doesn’t it? There are some who teach that although salvation is now by grace through faith, under the old covenant it was by works. However the Bible is clear that salvation in any era was by faith and faith alone.
Habakkuk’s words, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’ (2:4), are quoted several times in the New Testament, and in Romans 4 both Abraham and David are said to be justified by faith.
The only basis of salvation is faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ at Calvary. Old Testament believers looked forward to that day, while we look back to it.
What are we to make of Ecclesiastes 12:13 then? We should note that it does not say that salvation was earned by fearing God and keeping his commandments, rather it is speaking of our duty.
In fact, man’s duty in all ages has been to fear God and obey him. What is the ultimate thing that God wants from us? Is it that we should have faith? No, faith is but a means to an end.
Each year my wife and I fly to Britain to see family and friends. For that we need an airline ticket. But is that what our visit is all about?
Do we frame the ticket and constantly study the details on it? Of course not! The ticket is just the means of us getting there; the important thing is spending time with our loved ones.
So faith is a means to an end. And what is the end? It is to be like Christ. God predestined us ‘to be conformed to the likeness of his Son’ (Romans 8:29). He chose us ‘to be holy and blameless in his sight’ (Ephesians 1:4).
That is the great end of salvation — to be like Jesus. And how will that come about? Some treat with disdain the idea of keeping God’s commandments. They tell us that this is sheer legalism, and if we love the Lord we will do instinctively what is right. We don’t need anyone to tell us what to do — so they say.
That sounds fine, but how will we know what is right? If we truly love the Lord, we will want to do what is pleasing to him. And for that we need some directions — we need to keep his commandments. John tells us, ‘this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands’ (2 John 6).
Let’s consider for a moment the ‘fear’ of God, which Solomon also includes as our whole duty. Again, there are some who would teach that the God of the Old Testament was to be feared, but the God of the New Testament, our loving heavenly Father, is to be loved not feared.
But has God changed? Surely he is the same for ever. There are plenty of commands to fear God in the Old Testament, but they are not lacking in the New. In Acts 9:31 we are told that the believers lived ‘in the fear of the Lord’. Peter likewise tells the believers to ‘fear God’ (1 Peter 2:17).
The writer to the Hebrews said that we should ‘worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire’ (Hebrews 12:28-29). While we have great joy and boldness in approaching God, this must be balanced with reverence and awe.
God has not changed. We are to fear him, and, if we do that, we will want to obey him. Of course, as true believers we are also motivated by love. We want to obey him who has loved us and redeemed us by his blood. But we cannot avoid the conclusion that as the redeemed of the Lord we must and should want to obey his commandments.
We might ask another question. Which commands should we obey?
Think for a moment of what God requires of us. We have seen that he wants us to be like Christ, or, simply put, he wants us to be like himself. ‘Be perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48); ‘be holy, because I am holy’ (1 Peter 1:16).
That being so, what God requires of us does not essentially change, because he does not change. We understand that there are some of God’s commands that pertain to specific covenantal periods — such as circumcision and sacrifices — but what God wants of us morally does not change.
We are to be conformed to his likeness, as seen in Christ. To attain to that it is better that we look to Christ than Moses.
Paul makes an important distinction in 1 Corinthians 9. In verse 21 he speaks of winning those ‘without law’ — the Gentiles. To do this he becomes as one without law, but adds, ‘I am not free from God’s law, but am under Christ’s law’.
Our ‘whole duty’ then is lovingly to keep Christ’s commands and seek increasingly to become more like him. Moreover this is not an option.
When we read of the accounts of the final judgement, they consistently speak of a judgement according to works. Consider this example — ‘we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done in the body, whether good or bad’ (2 Corinthians 5:10). See also Matthew 25:31-46; Romans 2:5-13; and Revelation 20:11-15.
Of course, these passages are not teaching salvation by works, but showing that in that final judgement day believers will be identified by good works. Their holiness of life will be the evidence, the proof of their saving faith.
It is sad when professing Christians are no different from those who make no profession of being Christ’s disciples. We must not be deceived — without holiness we shall not be in heaven.
Let us then strive to make the keeping of God’s commandments our whole, yet delightful, duty, as we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.