What is the measure of a life well spent? How do you know whether you are wasting your life or investing it in the things that really matter?
In America we have several yardsticks by which we measure a life. One is usefulness. We are pragmatists at heart. We feel that if a person does something useful for society, whether it is a profession or a trade, he or she spends his or her life well.
Another yardstick we use is busyness or sheer activity. Our lifestyles reflect our values here—we’re all extremely busy people. Our weekly calendars are full to the brim. We have the notion that if you just sit around, you’re wasting your life.
We also gauge our lives by adventure and excitement. If we can’t get it firsthand, we pick it up vicariously on TV or at sporting events. Our heroes lead exciting lives, either through romance or life-and-death risk taking. We read magazines like People that tell us about the rich and famous, secretly wishing that our lives could be like theirs. We generally think that a person who dies rich and famous has achieved success.
Behind all of these yardsticks is that of personal happiness. Even if a person dies poor and unknown, if he or she was happy or content, that is what matters.
Against these yardsticks of a life well spent, I want to introduce you to Anna. She comes on the biblical page, is described in three short verses, is not even quoted directly, and is gone. If we met a modern-day Anna, we would probably find her a bit odd. Her values clearly are out of sync with those of modern America. Can you picture a reporter for People magazine interviewing her?
Reporter: What is your name?
Anna: Anna, daughter of Phanuel, tribe of Asher. I’m Jewish.
Reporter: Whose daughter? Wanna spell that? How old are you, Ma’am?
Anna: Some say I’m over 100, but others say I’m 84. I like that better!
Reporter: Well, either way you’ve been around the block a few times. I’ll bet you’ve had an interesting life. What have you done?
Anna: Like most Jewish girls, I got married in my teens, but my husband died when I was in my early twenties, before we had children. I’ve been going to the temple almost every day since then.
Reporter: You go to the temple every day? That’s amazing! What do you do there?
Anna: Well, I fast and pray a lot. And, I’m a prophetess, so I hear messages from God now and then.
Reporter: Right! (He thinks to himself, “Maybe this story belongs in the Guinness Book of World Records, not in People magazine!”)
What does this brief glimpse of Anna’s life teach us?
A life devoted to God is a life well spent.
By our American standards, we might look at Anna’s life and think, “What a waste! Eighty-four years, most of it spent in the temple fasting and praying! You’ve got to be kidding! That’s not the kind of life I want to live.” I’ll grant that we’re not all called to devote ourselves to a ministry of prayer and fasting. Obviously, God had gifted her in that way, and she lived accordingly. But apart from her unique gifts, the principle holds true: Anna lived fully devoted to God. God looked on her with favor. In the Bible, every fact is confirmed by the testimony of two or three witnesses. Along with Simeon, God chose Anna to bear witness to the infant Jesus as the Messiah. She played her God-given role well. Her life was well spent.
But you still may be thinking, “Come on, didn’t Anna really waste her life?” You may not verbalize it, but you may be thinking, “Religion has its proper place, but this is a bit extreme. Why spend your life in devotion to God?”
Isn’t it? Stop and think about it—what else matters in this life? The Pharisees and scribes thought that their religious duties were what mattered. They scurried around the temple precincts that day performing their rituals, oblivious to this unique baby who was being dedicated to the Lord. It gave them a sense of pride to be able to say, “All my life I have kept the commandments of the Torah.” But they missed the Messiah because they were really more devoted to themselves than to God.
The Sadducees thought that political influence and power were what mattered. “Life after death,” they scoffed, “is just pie in the sky when you die. What matters is here and now!” A group of them passed within yards of the child and Anna as they debated the latest edict from Rome.
The temple merchants thought that a good income was what mattered. They hawked their temple money and sold their officially approved sacrificial animals within earshot of this humble couple and their newborn son. They lived well and left a nice inheritance to their children when they died. But they missed God’s Savior that day. In contrast to all these, Anna knew that devotion to God is all that matters. She recognized the child as God’s promised Messiah. She was wiser than all the religious leaders in Jerusalem.
I read once about a computer company that went public and its president became an instant millionaire. Hours later he lost control of his Ferrari, crashed through 20 feet of guardrail, and was killed. The Los Angeles Times reported, “Until the accident at 4:30 Wednesday afternoon, it had been the best of days for [the president] and the thriving young company, …” The same week another obituary for a Chinese politburo official, who died of a heart attack, stated that his “death came one week before he was expected to be elected vice president of China.” If either man died without Christ, we should ask, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”
I read recently of a man who thinks he knows how to live to be 120. I thought, “Okay, let’s grant that he succeeds. Then what?” Even if we could figure out how to live 900 years, like the early patriarchs, we still have to die and face eternity. In light of that, devotion to God is really all that matters in this life! With it, we can enjoy earthly blessings if God grants them. Without it, everything is an empty shell. The fact is, not everyone can attain the things that the world labels as success. But,
No matter what your station in life, you can devote yourself to the Lord, and that makes whatever you are and whatever you do count in light of eternity. Take Anna, for example.
Anna was a woman. While Jewish women enjoyed more respect in that day than women in other cultures, there still was a fair amount of discrimination against them. The rabbis did not approve of the same amount of instruction in the Torah being given to girls as to boys. They regarded women's minds as not adapted for such investigations (Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life [Eerdmans], pp. 132-133). The women were restricted to an area of the temple called “The Women’s Court.” They could not enter the inner court where the ceremonies were performed. According to Josephus, women and slaves could not give evidence in court (cited by Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel [McGraw-Hill], 1:156).
And yet the Lord is pleased to include the testimony of Anna concerning Jesus. God is no respecter of persons. He is pleased with the devotion of any person, male or female.
Anna was a widow. In fact, she had been widowed at an early age. She easily could have grown bitter toward God. She could have complained of her loneliness. Widows in that culture didn’t have much opportunity to get an education and learn a business or trade to provide for themselves. They were often the target of unscrupulous businessmen. No doubt Anna had experienced a difficult life. And yet she did not turn her back on God. In fact, God declares that He has a special concern for orphans and widows: “A father of the fatherless and a judge for the widows is God in His holy habitation” (Ps. 68:5). Anna took refuge under God’s protective care. Her trials drove her to deeper devotion to God, not away from Him.
Anna was elderly. While the elderly were more respected in that society than they are in ours, they were still subject to the abuse of the unscrupulous. In our pragmatic society, the elderly are often viewed as useless. They can’t take care of themselves. They can’t make a living. Although many may think it, few are crass enough to say what Colorado Governor Richard Lamm said a few years ago. During a discussion of spiraling health care costs, Lamm said that terminally ill elderly people have “a duty to die and get out of the way.” In the context, Lamm was not speaking of the right of a competent, terminally ill patient to refuse treatment that would only prolong the dying process. He was speaking of the death of the elderly as a service to society so that limited resources could be freed up for other more useful goals (reported in “Action Line,” April 11, 1984). Thankfully, God does not view the elderly as useless or as a burden on society! If an elderly person is devoted to God, their life and death is precious in His sight (Ps. 116:15).
The point is, no matter what your station in life—male or female, young or old, rich or poor—you can be devoted to God and He will be pleased with your devotion. The world may ignore or despise you, but God always has had such a godly remnant. They are the salt of the earth; they preserve the whole mass from corruption. You can be counted among them.
Thus we’ve seen that devotion to God is all that matters; it is available to all.
Worship: Most likely Anna did not live in the temple, but Luke means that she was there all the time. The word translated “serving” (NASB) has the nuance of worship or service to God. Anna’s worship took the form of “fastings and prayers” (2:37). Fasting means going without food for some period of time, and is usually joined with prayer. For the Jews, the most common fast lasted from sunrise to sunset, although longer fasts are mentioned in the Bible. The Day of Atonement was an annual national fast. Otherwise, fasting was done in times of personal or national distress, or as preparation for special times of seeking the Lord. While there are no commands in the New Testament epistles for us to fast, there are examples of fasting (Acts 9:9; 13:3; 14:23; 2 Cor. 6:5; 11:27). Personally, I have found fasting to be a beneficial way of setting aside time to seek the Lord in times where I needed to know His will or in times of crisis.
Anna’s worship also took the form of prayers. Some of God’s saints are especially gifted for the ministry of prayer in that He enables them to devote large blocks of time to it. Part of that time involves interceding for others, but part of it also will be devoted to praise and thanksgiving. The main thing in prayer is to seek God and commune with Him.
Even if you are not gifted in the ministry of worship and prayer, you need to set aside time to seek the Lord as Anna did. Take a half-day each quarter or one lunch hour each week or an hour each Sunday afternoon to spend in devotion to the Lord. Read His Word, sing some hymns or praise songs, and pray. The familiar ACTS—Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication—is a helpful outline to follow in your prayer time.
Witness: Anna couldn’t keep it to herself; she “continued to speak of Him” to others (2:38). If your cup is brim-full, you can’t help but slop some of it on others. If you are excited about your relationship with the living God who sent His Son to save you from your sins, people around you will know about it. Some believers justify their not witnessing by saying, “I don’t talk about it; I just live the message.” But part of living the Christian life is talking about it!
We all talk about the things we love. Have you ever been around a sports fanatic? What does he talk about? “Did you see that game last night!” Have you ever been around a young man or woman who has just fallen in love? What do they talk about?
Yes, you need to be tactful and sensitive. Yes, you need to wait on the Lord for the right opening. But, all too often we don’t err on the side of being too bold or insensitive. The order, by the way, is important: Worship first, then witness. The reason Anna was telling everyone about the Lord Jesus was that she spent much time in private devotion with the Lord. All too often, the reason that we do not bear witness is that we have lost our first love.
Waiting: Not only Simeon and Anna, but others also were “looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (2:38). While that phrase has nationalistic nuances, it also refers to the spiritual redemption that God had long ago promised and now was bringing to fruition for His people (Isa. 40:1, 9; 52:9; 63:4). J. C. Ryle (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 2:74-75) observes that although these people lived in a wicked city, they “were not carried away by the flood of worldliness, formality, and self-righteousness around them. They were not infected by the carnal expectations of a mere worldly Messiah, in which most Jews indulged. They lived in the faith of patriarchs and prophets, that the coming Redeemer would bring in holiness and righteousness, and that His principal victory would be over sin and the devil.” Even so, those devoted to God in our day “wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10).
Devotion to God is really all that matters. It is available to everyone. It takes many outward forms, but always involves worship, witness, and waiting for His final redemption to come.
Anna was devoted to God, but the second she saw the baby Jesus, she thanked God and began to speak of Jesus to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. Note:
God the Son and God the Father are inextricably joined in Scripture. In Psalm 2:7 Messiah states, “I will surely tell of the decree of the Lord: He [God] said to Me, ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You.’” This does not mean that the Father brought the Son into existence at a point in time. Rather, the “today” is the day of God’s decree. Since it is an eternal decree, it means that Christ is eternally the Son of God, one with the Father. While we can never fully understand the nature of the Trinity, we must affirm the revealed truth of Scripture, that the eternal relationship between the First and Second Persons of the Trinity is expressed as that of Father and Son.
This means that you cannot know God the Father apart from God the Son. In John 8:19, Jesus told the Jews, “You know neither Me nor My Father; if you knew Me, you would know My Father also.” First John 2:23 states, “Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also.” You cannot separate God and Jesus Christ. Those who say they worship God but who deny the deity of the Son of God are sadly mistaken. Jesus claimed, “He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him” (John 5:23).
God the Son is the Redeemer of God’s people. In the eternal decree of God, God the Father determined to send God the Son to bear the sins of His elect. The entire human race is in bondage to sin and under the just condemnation of God’s law. But, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us … in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:13-14).
To understand the concept of “redemption,” you must keep in mind three things. First, redemption implies antecedent bondage. A free person does not need redemption; slaves need redemption. Every person is born enslaved to sin and under the curse of judgment imposed by God’s holy law. Second, redemption implies cost. A price must be paid to buy the slave out of bondage. Since the wages of sin is death, that was the price to redeem us from our sins. A sinless substitute had to die in our place. Jesus Christ did that on the cross. Third, redemption implies the ownership of that which is redeemed. Since Christ bought us with His blood, as Paul states, “… you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:20).
Many years ago, Dr. A. J. Gordon was the pastor of a church in Boston. One day he met a little boy in front of the church who was carrying a rusty cage with several birds in it. Gordon asked, “Son, where did you get those birds?” The boy answered, “I trapped them out in the field.” “What are you going to do with them?” “I’m going to play with them for a while and then I guess I’ll feed them to an old cat we have at home.”
Dr. Gordon asked the boy how much he would take to sell the birds. The boy answered, “Mister, you don’t want them. They’re just old field birds and they can’t sing very well.” Gordon replied, “I’ll give you two dollars for the cage and the birds.” “Okay, it’s a deal,” said the boy, “but you’re making a bad bargain.”
Gordon paid the boy who left happily with his money. Gordon then walked around behind the church, opened the cage, and freed the birds. The next Sunday Dr. Gordon took the empty cage into the pulpit and used it to illustrate his sermon on redemption: he paid the price so that these creatures in bondage, doomed for destruction, could go free. He said, “That little boy said that the birds could not sing very well, but when I released them from the cage, they went singing into the blue, and it seemed that they were singing, ‘Redeemed, redeemed, redeemed.’” (Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations [Assurance Publishers], p. 1231.)
You cannot be devoted to God unless you have been redeemed by His Son. That redemption cost Him dearly, but He offers it to you as a free gift that you can only receive by faith. The instant you receive it, He will free you from sin and judgment. You can go your way singing His praises, devoting your life to Him who loved you and gave Himself for you (Gal. 2:20).
On his deathbed, Matthew Henry, whose commentary on the whole Bible is still widely used almost 300 years after his death, said to a friend, “You have been used to take notice of the sayings of dying men—this is mine: that a life spent in the service of God and communion with Him, is the most pleasant life that anyone can live in this world.” Anna would agree. A life devoted to God is a life well spent. A life devoted to anything else, no matter how noble, is a life ultimately wasted.
Whatever you do for a living, make sure that love for Jesus Christ is at the heart of why you are living. Then, whether you live a short or long life on this earth, you can have the assurance that you have spent it well.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 1998, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation