It’s the age old question, the heart cry of disappointment, the confusion after unmet expectations, the frustration when facing injustice; what is the meaning of life? Answers to this seem to be as innumerable as sand on the sea shore. People around the globe wonder why we are here, what our purpose is, and what brings fulfillment to life. These deep longings pull at our hearts and lead us to find answers in religion and philosophy. The disappointment and failure to fulfill these longings lead us to search for success, self-actualization, competitive victory, or ideological confidence. Many decide that life’s meaning is subjective, relative, and individually defined. What do we learn from Jesus about why we are here? Can we find in Him an answer that is relevant to our hearts desire? I think so.
The desire for fulfillment is a powerful longing; and although it is where we all begin, it is actually a misguided pursuit. Desiring fulfillment begins with the belief that there is a moment when we will arrive, achieve, or come to find what our heart longs for. We don’t realize that in the seeking we actually fall further from what we are looking for.
For the Jew in Jesus’ day there were basically 2 groups of people, the Jews and the Gentiles. These 2 groups saw and pursued the meaning of life very differently, and Jesus brings revelation that is contrary to both.
The Gentiles were the non-Jewish folk, the Romans, Greeks, and other ‘pagans’. Each culture had different religions, practices, and worldviews. It would be impossible to sum up any of these groups without huge generalizations, so for the sake of time and cohesive writing I will make an enormous generalization, these people were what we now label as ‘worldly’. It’s the idea that in the pursuit to fulfill the longing of their hearts, individuals are free to seek that out as they see fit. Maybe fulfillment is in achieving social status, finding glory in battle, or just seeking the most pleasurable thing to do in the moment.
We carry this mindset in our world today. Happiness is something we pursue, it is something to be obtained, something that we actually have the power to go get. “Go after your dreams.” “Do what makes you happy.” We look for fulfillment from a self-centered perspective. What do I need to do in order to ‘arrive’ at my destination? Our subjective understanding of the ‘meaning of life’ puts us on a hamster wheel of perpetual striving. If I just get that car, get that wife, get that degree, become this sort of person, or do something important enough. There are an infinite number of ways this searching manifests in our lives, but they all have something in common. We have a goal, a vision, or a dream for our lives. These goals are driven by our dissatisfaction with present circumstances, and we think that if we can change something about them, or about ourselves, then the satisfaction will finally be ours.
This ‘pursuit of happiness’ is the root of comparison, bullying, gossiping, and ultimately living in a controlling and manipulating fashion. The desire to make something of ourselves only exists where we believe that fulfillment is found through personal success. This all leads us to be very self-centered since our primary goal is our happiness. We might even try helping others as a way to find personal satisfaction, but it still puts the cart before the horse. Somehow we need to be fulfilled so that our approach to life isn’t in the seeking but in the enjoying. I think the answer is in Jesus but let’s move on to our second group of people, the Jews.
It might seem like the Jews should be different then their ‘gentile’ counterparts, but what drives the Jew is exactly the same unfulfilled desires compounded by the lie that something, or in this case, someone can bring them to a place of ultimate satisfaction. You see, the Jews believed that life was about being ‘God’s people’, about honoring and serving God, and being in right relationship with Him. They were, after all, God’s people, chosen in Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David. They lived their lives, more or less, trying to do what was right in God’s eyes. They wanted to honor Him, to serve Him, and to be at peace with Him. Written into their theology was the idea that wealth, health, and freedom were blessings that God gave when someone was in right relationship to Him. Those who were sick, poor, or enslaved must have sinned or offended God in some way.
The Pharisees, who were the Jewish religious leaders, saw their Roman oppression as God’s punishment. In the hopes of being free from Rome and being established as a ruling Kingdom once again, the Pharisees dedicated their lives to getting people to turn back to right relationship with God by obeying dietary, ritual, and moral laws.
The issue here with the Jews is that their pursuit of fulfillment ultimately still revolved around themselves. They wanted to be ‘blessed’ by God, and in order to do so, they served Him how they were taught they ‘should’ serve Him. Should is a dangerous word when talking about being fulfilled. Jews made sacrifices to please God, celebrating certain holiday’s to honor God, and worshipped to glorify God. Yet they did so with the hope that God would look favorably upon them and bring them into more prosperous and comfortable circumstances that would ultimately be more fulfilling. So the Jews served God with the hope that He would intervene in their circumstances, which would in turn fulfill their hearts longing.
Jesus, born a Jew, was very unlike His people. He was such a contradiction to the Jewish approach to life and God that they ultimately rejected Him, crucifying Him as an enemy of God and ‘His people’ (John 1:11).
He was crucified for saying things like, "blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God (Luke 6:20).” Jesus is giving value to the poor. What a scandalous declaration to people who deeply desired to be a Kingdom on the earth and who believed riches were a reward from God.
In a similar way, Jesus contradicts the Jewish way of life while talking to a rich young ruler, who would have been respected and looked up to by the Jewish people as being ‘blessed’ by God. “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24)."
Where the Pharisees focused on outward actions, Jesus pointed to the intentions of the heart. "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean (Matthew 23:27).”
The most scandalous things Jesus said to the Jews is found in Matthew 11:27 where he says that no one knows the father but the son! He even goes so far to say that when they have seen Him they have seen the Father, because He and the Father are one! One of the main reasons Jesus was killed was because of His claim to be God.
These statements that Jesus makes are astounding, and what He is doing is absolutely revolutionary. He came to reveal who God actually is, which is also the revelation of who we are and what life is all about. Jesus reveals that God is relational, that He shares a certain kind of life within Himself. The Father, Son, and Spirit share a life of love, encouragement, delight, and creativity. Their fulfillment is sourced entirely in their relationship to one another. Jesus came to Earth, into the darkness of our delusion, and invited us to participate in the life that He has with the Father; the life we were created by, for, and in!
Paul, a former Pharisee, was so transformed by Jesus that He wrote to one of the first group of believers saying, “for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Matthew 4:11-13).” That last verse is far from being a statement to achieve personal goals, Paul experienced a fulfillment that transcended his circumstances, and was able to declare something that completely contradicted the Pharisees worldview. He was content even when sick and poor. He didn’t need to ‘arrive’ or ‘get to’ a place where His life had meaning. He had found the secret, and the secret has a name, it is Jesus.
Happiness for Jesus wasn’t about becoming but being. In Jesus fulfillment isn’t gained by finding our value in personal achievement, but grounded in the fact that personal value is established before achievement ever becomes recognized as a way to earn it. Revolutionary isn’t it?
The pursuit of happiness fails, because living for personal fulfillment goes against the grain of how we were designed. It is an empty exercise in futility. We were created to know we are loved, not to live trying to be loved. Fulfillment doesn’t exist when our circumstances align to meet our expectations, but arrives when we have eyes to see the goodness and opportunity in every circumstance regardless of our expectations. Life is about this beautiful dance of the Father, Son, and Spirit that we get to participate in! It is something we can enjoy now, no matter where we are in life. Life is about the journey, the discovery, the wonder, the beauty, the joy of living in the love of Jesus. Life becomes death when we live for those things rather than from them.
Where the world clings, strains, and strives, Jesus let’s go, submits, and rests. Where the world looks to identify themselves by how others see them, Jesus identifies Himself by how the Father sees Him. Where the world tries to find ways to glorify the self, Jesus considers Himself nothing and glorifies the Father. Jesus promotes a way of living that is both contrary to religious and secular worldviews. Meaning isn’t achieved it is recognized, relationships aren’t meant to be used but celebrated, God doesn’t need to be placated He wants to be enjoyed!
When we see the meaning of life through the eyes of Jesus, our character matters more than our circumstances, our relationships are more important than our achievements, and every minute of life is filled with wonder, opportunity, and purpose. Jesus came to bring life in abundance by saving us from our perpetual fear and striving. He is the way, the truth, and the life; in whom we live, move, and have our being! In Him we have fulfillment, rest, and purpose. Jesus is the meaning of life!