What’s man for? Wait; let’s untangle that question. See, my nephew’s reached the age of perpetual questions. “What’s that?” he’ll ask, pointing to the fire truck for the thousandth time. I don’t know much about child development, but there seems to be an age where questions become our primary way of engaging the world. I’ve noticed that as kids get older, their questions even shift from simply “What’s that?” to “What’s that for?” So when we ask “What’s man for?” we’re not asking what humankind is “for” as in, “in favor of.” Instead we mean, “Why does man exist? For what purpose?”
On the surface, it’s not a hard question. “What’s a car for?” Well, it’s for transportation. “What’s a school for?” That one’s for education. “What’s a phone for?” It’s for communication, interaction, and something called “Candy Crush.” But “What’s man for?” Well, that one gets a little trickier.
Social scientists tell us that there was a day when man was measured by his contributions to the greater good—was he/she a good teacher? A good doctor? Did they improve the lives of others? But in today’s world, we measure ourselves by personal fulfillment. Am I happy? Am I achieving my dreams? If the question was once: “How can we benefit?” the question today is: “How can I benefit?”
For God’s people, the greatest tragedy is not that we fail to attain happiness, but that we think that happiness is something that God owes us. God’s Word delivers a vastly different set of values, and on a hillside in Galilee, God Himself sat down to teach His closest followers what “the good life” was really all about.
5:1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
For Jesus, the “good life” wasn’t merely about some momentary happiness. It was about being “blessed,” to enjoy the life that God had to offer. And if you look at the list, God’s values seem radically different from those we usually think. God’s Word offers us no promise of cheap, immediate fulfillment, but it offers spectacular promises of lasting joy. It’s not as if God’s trying to get us to look at things upside down. No; God’s trying to get us to realize that the world’s already upside down. He’s just helping us see rightside-up again.
What does this have to do with bringing the gospel to our culture? Plenty. If you remember, the word “culture” denotes everything we use—art, music, film, politics, technology—to answer the question: “What’s it all mean?” This in turn helps us understand our earlier question: “What’s man for?” That’s a hard question to answer if you don’t believe in absolutes.
See, if the meaning of life is up to me to decide, then I can have no purpose other than my own private satisfaction. But what if there was more? What if life could have a definite meaning? Suddenly my purpose could be a lot more clear.
If you have a background in church, you may have grown up with a small book called the Westminster Catechism—kind of a religious question-and-answer book. The book opens by asking: “What is the chief end of man?” The answer: “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”
There’s our answer. What is man for? We exist to show the world the glory of God. Of course, that still sounds a little church-y. What does the word “glory” mean? The concept of glory comes from an ancient word that literally meant “weighty” or “massive.” Even today, we call this a “heavy” subject. So to “glorify” God means that we show the world just how significant He is in every facet of our lives. And how do we do that? By being people who mourn, who make peace, who hunger and thirst after righteousness—people who are not satisfied by cheap, material blessing, but find their greatest joy in the values of God’s kingdom.
That changes everything. Suddenly the Church has something vital to offer to the world. This is why Jesus goes on to tell His people:
13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
Salt and light. This is what the Church is called to be. I love how Christian writer Mike Metzger summarizes this concept:
“Being salt and light demands two things: we practice purity in the midst of a fallen world and yet we live in proximity to this fallen world. If you don’t hold both truths in tension, you invariably become useless and separated from the world God loves. For example, if you only practice purity apart from proximity to culture, you inevitably become pietistic, separatistic and conceited. If you live in close proximity to the culture without also living in a holy manner, you become indistinguishable from fallen culture and useless in God’s kingdom.” (Mike Metzger, quoted in unChristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons)
Purity and proximity. We need both. Some of the greatest failures of the Church have happened when we emphasize one over the other:
- Creating subculture (all purity, no proximity): The last century has seen the dramatic rise in Christian “alternatives” to secular culture: education, music, books, etc. The philosophy, of course, is that these alternatives preserve Christian morals without the corrupting influence of secular culture. The problem is this: Jesus said “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people” (Matthew 4:19). If we are not being “fishers” by reaching non-Christians, can we truly be “followers?”
- Accommodating to the culture (all proximity, no purity): The alternative, of course, is to blend in with the culture to such a degree that no one sees a true difference in the life of a Christian. In the absence of purity, the Christian living in proximity to the world will embrace wealth, status, sex, and a whole host of other things as his greatest treasure.
- Creating a missional counter-culture (both salt and light): The gospel teaches us to be “in the world but not of the world.” To be “on mission” means to practice both purity and proximity in your everyday life. Mission, therefore, is not a matter of program, but a lifestyle that God’s people are called to embody.
What’s man for? This. He’s for this. God’s people exist to form a vibrant, soul-nourishing, culture-rattling, missional community that seeks to exalt the name of Jesus in every facet of our lives and in every fiber of our being. If you and I are to find lasting joy, we have only to look to the city on the hill.