Tag Archives: heaven

When to subject ourselves to the authorities, and when not to – Titus 3:1-8, Part 1

5 Aug
Photo by Jacob Morch on Unsplash

I recently heard what is reported to be a true story from a Sunday school teacher in Dublin, Ireland.  She writes, “I was testing the children in my Sunday school class to see if they understood the concept of getting into Heaven. I asked them, ‘If I sold my house and my car and had a big garage sale and gave all my money to the church, would that get me into Heaven?’ ‘No’, the children answered.

‘If I cleaned the church every day, mowed the lawn and kept everything tidy, would that get me into Heaven?’ Again the answer was ‘NO!’

‘If I gave candy to all the children and loved my husband, would that get me into Heaven?’ Again they all answered, ‘NO!’

I was just bursting with pride for them. I continued, ‘Then how can I get into Heaven?’ A little boy shouted out, ‘You’ve got to be DEAD!’ **

It’s funny to hear things from a youthful perspective, isn’t it?  Yet when we tell the Gospel story, we can make it seem like what God really wants is for us to be dead.  You might think, “What?  How can you say that, Joel?”  What I mean is that we often start telling the good news of Jesus with, “When you die,” or “After you die.”   Have you ever heard the method of sharing the story of Jesus that starts like this: “Do you know where you’ll go when you die?” 

Is God only concerned with what happens when we die?  As we continue studying the letter Paul wrote to Titus, Paul will speak about this. Turn to Titus 3:1-8, which we’ll be studying in this series of posts.

In verse 1 Paul says to Titus, “Remind the people.”  Why do they need to be reminded?   Remember that Paul and Titus had been on Crete previous to Titus’ current trip.  They had seen people become believers in and followers of Jesus, and thus Paul and Titus had grouped these new Christians into house churches in various towns on the island.  During that initial trip, Paul and Titus had already taught the people what it means to know and follow Jesus.  Now Paul senses that the people need to be reminded.  So Paul is saying Titus, you need to remind the people in Crete of some stuff, and by extension you and I in 2019 need to be reminded of it as well. As we’ll see throughout this series of posts, God is definitely interested in what happens to humans after we die, but he is also very concerned with how we live in the here and now.

What do we need to be reminded of?  Paul has a list of six things in verses 1-2, and they all relate to how Christians live now.  In this post we’ll look at the first one in which he reminds them to be subject to rulers and authorities.  Paul was talking to a very different cultural and political context than our own.  Crete was a part of the Roman Empire in the first century.  Roman emperors would claim that they, the emperors, had become gods.  Thus the people should worship the emperor as their savior.  So in the Roman Empire there was a religion of emperor worship. 

Into that culture, Paul has been clear in teaching that Jesus is God, the true savior of the world. Just glance back at chapter 2, verse 13, where Paul says, “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”  From there you can keep going back and see it in 2:10, and even at the very beginning of the letter in 1:4.  Jesus is God and he is the savior.  Not an emperor in Rome. 

One potential result of this teaching is that the new Christians on Crete could get the idea that they are free from having to obey Caesar or any ruler.  Caesar is no longer their lord.  Jesus is their Lord.  But that freedom in Christ could have disastrous consequences if not handled well.  Christians could believe they were above the law of the land, which could bring them into conflict with rulers, and that could be disastrous.  So Paul says the people need to be subject to rulers and authorities.  

I think it is best to see Paul as teaching that in the vast majority of situations it is right and good to follow the law.  Pay your taxes.  Obey traffic laws.  In a society that is attempting to base its legal system on justice, we can and should be subject to and obey rulers and authorities. 

But what about societies that are unjust?  Or what if one particular law is unjust?  That happens, right? It has happened many times in the history of the USA, and still happens today on the federal, state and local levels.  Thankfully we have a justice system to address this.  But justice doesn’t happen automatically.  It usually starts with individuals speaking up, and often practicing what is called civil disobedience to unjust laws.

The civil rights movement for example broke a ton of laws, but those laws were unjust.  Think of Rosa Parks, refusing to give up her seat on a bus.  What a wonderful Christian example of practicing civil disobedience to unjust laws.  In her case, the law of segregation, was unjust, based on racism and prejudice, and she was right to break it. 

We must remember that we are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven first, and if human government creates unjust laws, we practice civil disobedience seeking to move our government and laws in the direction of justice.  In some places around the world, Christians have an exceptionally difficult time with this because in their countries it is illegal to practice Christianity!  We need to pray for the persecuted church.  Here in America, while our nation is far from perfect, there is still, enshrined in our Constitution, the pursuit of justice for all. So, Christians, let us be subject to authorities when they pursue justice, and let us practice civil disobedience when the authorities promote injustice.

**Thanks to Jim Ohlson for sharing this story with me.

False Ideas Christians Believe About…Salvation

11 Jun

What happens when we die? Is there a way to know? In this post we are fact-checking phrases about salvation and the afterlife:

  1. We’re all God’s children.
  2. We need people to pray the Sinners’ Prayer.
  3. Jesus wants to live in your heart.
  4. I’m so sorry for your loss. Heaven must have needed another angel.

First, let’s consider the phrase: We’re all God’s children.

When I am writing these posts I have typed the phrase into a Google Image search just to see what results I get.  Sometimes I get a background picture that is useful.  I also often get surprising results.  When I typed the phrase, “We are all God’s Children” into the search bar, I discovered that a lot of people have been quoted as saying it. Dolly Parton.  Supreme Court Justice Brett Cavanaugh.  Politician JC Watts.  I wonder what they mean?

When we say, “We are all God’s children,” who is “we”?  All Christians?  Or all people everywhere? And what do we mean by “children”?  Are we simply talking about the theological principle that God is the creator, and in that sense he is the father of all?

It could be that the person making this statement is not talking at all about salvation and eternal family, but simply about the biblical teaching that all humans are created in the image of God. That is found Genesis 1:26, when God says, “Let us make man in our image and in our likeness.” 

In that sense all humans everywhere are created by God, made in his image, and therefore have equal value.  So there is a real way, and this is not just symbolic, in which we Christians can say that all humans are God’s children.  In God’s eyes we are all equally precious and valuable.  Even ISIS fighters, even child rapists, even your jerk neighbor, arrogant coworker, difficult family member or bully classmate.  Even the person across the your church sanctuary that you have a hard time with.  All are equals in God’s view.

But there is a Christian understanding of the family of God that is unique to Christian theology.  Jesus and his followers taught that there is a family of God that not everyone is a part of. 

In the Old Testament the Israelites were called the Children of God, which we saw in the Deuteronomy series.  Deuteronomy 14:1, for example, says that Israel were “the children of the Lord their God.”  But that was not a label that applied to all people at that time.  Israel had a special relationship with God.  They were in a covenant relationship.

In the New Testament we read that God has entered into a new covenant with the church, and thus God created a new family identity that people can be a part of.  But again, not all humans are automatically a part of this new family.

In John 1:1-14, John uses symbolic language to describe Jesus.  First he calls Jesus “The Word” and then he calls Jesus “The Light.”  Notice what John says in verse 7.  He says that John, and here he is talking about another John, John the Baptist, came to testify concerning this light, so that through the Light “all men might believe.”  That is key.  John is beginning to describe the new family. Clearly God wants all humanity to be a part of it. 

As the discussion continues, John says that the Light gives light to every man.  There again, it is for all humanity.  Every man.  And then in verses 10-11, John tells us that Jesus came into the world, to his own. Who were his own?  They are his original people, the people of Israel, the people with whom God had a covenant, just as we saw in Deuteronomy.  But there is a problem: those people, his family, the Jews, did not receive him, John tells us.  Thus God decided to create a new family, and a new way to become part of the family. 

Look at verses 12-13. John says that though the Jews did not receive Jesus, it is still possible to receive him and believe in him, and become part of his family.  We can become children of God.  Clearly John says that this new family is not about human genetics, or natural childbirth. The Old Covenant was like that.  You were a part of the Old Covenant as a Jew because you were genetically Jewish.  In the New Covenant, anyone can be part of God’s family, anyone can become a child of God, by receiving and believing in Jesus. 

One biblical metaphor for this is adoption.  We can be adopted into God’s family.  I’ve been at three adoption ceremonies over the last few years, and they are amazing.  There is incredible joy when a child becomes part of a family!  I sat in the courtroom three times just weeping with gratefulness.  That is what God has done for us! 

So let me reiterate.  God loves all.  Consider John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” Also consider what Paul taught in 1 Timothy 2:4, that God wants all to be saved.  That 1 Timothy passage is so interesting because of its larger context.  In verse 1 he urges Christians to pray for and give thanksgiving for all people, even for kings and all those in authority.  Who was the king in authority when Paul wrote this?  The emperor Nero, who savagely persecuted Christians.  If you ever think that you can’t stand leaders in our country or other countries, imagine living in a country where the leader butchers Christians.  Pray for him?  Yup, Paul, says, because God desires that all would be saved!  Even those we hate.

But will all be saved?  We hold to the traditional teaching (as found in the EC Articles of Faith) of eternal destiny, that not all will be saved.  But God has loved us enough to make a way to be adopted into his family.  He has made a choice available.  The way to be saved came at the great cost of Jesus’ becoming one of us, giving his life for us.  So God shows us that he desperately wants us to be a part of his family. 

I recently heard a story about a man who grew up Muslim in Europe.  He said that he had a dream where Jesus came to him and called him to follow Jesus.  The man decided to follow Jesus.  You need to know the ramifications of that.  This man’s choice to follow Jesus meant that while he was becoming part of God’s family, he faced being shunned and threatened by his own earthly family.  But he received Jesus, believed in him, and followed Jesus.  He went on to start something like a hundred Christian churches, so that more people could be part of God’s family. 

But not all will choose to be adopted into God’s family.

Therefore, my conclusion about this phrase it that it needs some explaining: We are all God’s children, as he is creator of all, but all humans are not a part of the family of God that is the church. 

We’ve talked about receiving Jesus and believing in him, and that leads us to our next phrase.

What is “The Sinner’s Prayer”?  Some Christians have said that we need people to pray this prayer so that they can become part of God’s family.

I’ve heard it called the ABC prayer:  A – Admit that you are a sinner.  B – Believe that Jesus died and rose again to pay the penalty of our sin.  And C – Confess your faith in Jesus.  This is also sometimes connected to verses in Scripture, particularly in the letter to the Romans, called The Roman Road.  The letter A is supported by Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  The letter B is supported by Romans 5:8, “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”  And the letter C is supported by Romans 10:9-10, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

So it sounds good, but is the Sinner’s Prayer in the Bible?  No. 

Wait. No?  How can you say, No, Joel? You just read all those verses from Romans that show it is in the Bible? 

Let me explain.  The ABC Prayer is not in the Bible, and it was created as a way to give people a method for starting a relationship with Jesus.  It is very easy to understand, and thus some have said that it is good for kids.  That very well may be true.  We should not, however, give kids or anyone, a false idea that all God wants them to do is say a prayer.  The Sinner’s Prayer might actually give them the wrong idea, as if God wants us to say certain words. 

So what does God want?  Is there one specific way that people come to follow and believe in Jesus?  No.  People through the ages have come to Christ in so many ways.  That is okay.  In the Bible we see many different ways that people come to believe in and follow God.  There is no one way.

I recently read the story of James Bryan Smith who, after reading a book by CS Lewis, came to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, and decided to follow Jesus.  He and his friends started reading the Gospels, and as a result their lives were changing.  Several of their friends also became Christians.

Then Smith met a guy in a college campus ministry who asked Smith if he ever prayed the Sinner’s Prayer.  He said he never heard of it.  The campus minister was aghast, and responded, “Well, then, you are not saved and doomed to hell.”  Smith explained how he had been reading the Gospels, how his life was changing and how he was interacting with Jesus every day. The campus minister said, “Nice story, but if you die tonight, you would go to hell.” 

Smith believed the campus minister, and prayed the prayer, and it seemed to him that this version of the Jesus story was all over the place.  It was a story of “rotten sinners, an angry God, a sacrificial Son, and the constant battle to make it to heaven in the end.”  One day, he says, he came to the realization that he hated being a Christian.  Clearly the Sinner’s Prayer was detrimental to Smith. I would suggest that it has been likewise for many others, misleading them about what it means to be in relationship with Jesus.

So if it is not a Sinner’s Prayer, where can we go in the Bible to guide into understanding what it means to begin a relationship with Jesus?

I would recommend that we look at Jesus, and his approach to the disciples.  Remember how he started his relationship with them?  He said two words: “Follow me.”  That was it.  The concept of “believe in me” was a part of his teaching to the disciples, as we see that especially in the Gospel of John.  The disciples’ true belief in Jesus, however, only came after the resurrection.  Three years of ministry later! 

Think about it.  Through the three years they followed Jesus, during which time they were doing all the work of ministry: healing, exorcism, preaching, but they still didn’t fully believe.  How do we know this?  Because when the end came, at his arrest in the Garden, what do we see?  Judas betrayed him, Peter, the leader who boldly proclaimed belief just a few hours before, ended up denying him three times, and all the rest ran away in fear.  It was after Jesus’ resurrection when their belief was solidified, and they never turned back, even giving their lives sacrificially to follow him.  What that means is that for the disciples, following Jesus came first, believing in him came second.

We so often have it the other way around.  Smith said this: “The central question of the gospel is not how can I be saved, but who is Jesus?  Your relationship to Jesus unleashes redemptive power.  I hear people say, ‘We need to get people to make a commitment to Jesus.’ My response always is, ‘We need to get people to know Jesus.’  If they come to know Jesus, in his beauty, goodness and truth, they will naturally make a commitment to him.”

We don’t need people to pray the Sinner’s Prayer, we need to get them to learn who Jesus truly is.  Smith again summarizes Jesus’ mission in a way that I find so compelling: “The Christian story is not primarily about how God in Jesus came to rescue sinners from some impending disaster.  It is about God’s work of initiating us into a fellowship and making us true conversation partners with the Father and the Son through the Spirit, and hence with each other.” 

In other words, there are many ways to come to Jesus, and one way is not better than the other.  It could be a Sinner’s Prayer moment in Sunday School. But it could also be through dreams.  For some it is a slow life-long process of parents and churches investing in their kids.

Do we need a specific date that we prayed a prayer?  No.  Do we need specific words of prayer?  No. 

We can place too much emphasis on a prayer, date, event.  But maybe you’re wondering, what about the needed emphasis on evidence of a real relationship?  Jesus once taught, “By your fruit you will know them.”  What he meant was that a real relationship with Jesus will be evidenced by what comes out of our lives.  You know it is an apple tree because it has apples growing out of it.  As Paul said in Galatians 5, walk in the Spirit, and the fruit of the Spirit will come out of your life.

What does that mean?  Walk in the Spirit? Well, it relates to the next phrase we are fact-checking.

Turn to Ephesians 3:16-17 and you’ll read Paul say, “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”

There it is. This phrase is right out of the Bible. But what is this talking about?  Our actual heart?  Our blood pumper? 

No.  The heart is symbol for the center of our will and emotion.

What this means is that Jesus with us.  This idea pops up in many places in Scripture:

John 14:23 – If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.

Romans 5:5 – And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.

Galatians 2:20 – I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

But what does this mean?  In what way does Jesus live in us?  It is a strange concept to think about Jesus being in our hearts, so this phrase needs some explaining.

Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 6 that our body is the Temple of Spirit.  In the Old Covenant, the presence of God resided in a physical building, the tabernacle, and then eventually the temple in Jerusalem.  But in the New Covenant, God’s Spirit resides in us. 

God no longer resides in a building! 

Think about that.  God, through his Spirit, wants to live with you!  Amazing, isn’t it.  God created us to have fellowship with him and wants to be so close to us.  He loves us, and went to such great lengths to be with us.  “God with us” means that he wants to make his home with us for the purpose of human flourishing.

It is vital for us, then, to learn to walk in step with the Holy Spirit who lives with us.  How often do you think about the Holy Spirit throughout the day?  What could it look like for you to talk with him, listen to him, allowing him to shape you more and more to look like Jesus when Jesus lived on earth?  It means we must give attention to our lives, our choices, our thoughts.  We must give time to practice developing our relationship with God. 

There are habits and practices that we can add to our lives to grow our relationship with God. I would encourage to search this blog for posts like this one that talk about spiritual practices.

Now we have come to the final phrase we’re fact-checking, and it relates to our relationship with God after death. 

This is expressed so often in the context of grief, such as loss of a loved one.  It sounds like a sweet statement.  But at deeper glance, this one has some concerns.

First of all, it can make God the bad guy for taking a life. “Heaven needed?”  It seems to say that the person who passed away is now serving a higher purpose.  But does God take people out of their earthly existence because they are needed in heaven?   There is no biblical teaching to support this idea, and it is dangerous to depict God that way. 

But what about the rest of the phrase?  Do humans turn into angels when we die?  What is the biblical teaching on angels?

Angels are super popular in our culture.  Hebrews 1:14 gives maybe the best description: “they are ministering spirits sent to serve those (us) who inherit salvation.”  Throughout the Bible, angels are messengers.  Psalm 91:11 is where we get the idea of angels protecting humans.  Psalm 34:7 is another similar reference.  But I would strongly caution us to avoid the idea of individual guardian angels, as if we have an angel assigned specifically to us.  The psalms are poetic, and that means they use symbolic or figurative language that should not be interpreted as teaching scientific fact.

In my opinion, this is not a major point of theology, and as a result, it is one that I do not hold with a tight grip.  The angelic realm is just too mysterious in biblical teaching, I think, for us to be certain of much.  So please know I don’t mean to come across as dogmatic.

So back to the phrase we are fact-checking.  It raises another question: what does happen when we die?

Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 15 that Christians who die will be given new bodies.  But those new spiritual bodies are not the same as angels.  Quite frankly we don’t precisely how a human spiritual body might differ from an angelic body.  What we do know is that angels and humans are different creations. 

Humans who die and are given new spiritual bodies, however, are still humans. 

My conclusion is that the phrase “heaven must have needed another angel” is not true, if the person saying the phrase means that humans transform into angels.  If the person saying the phrase means “angel” in the symbolic sense, though, referring to humans who are in heaven, then that is totally in keeping with biblical teaching.

I think that a better question to consider is: What should we say when people are experiencing grief?

The reality is that in moments of grief, when we don’t know what to say, but we think we have to say something, what comes out can be word vomit.  In those moments we can utter really bad theology.  What we should do is say nothing and just hug them and express our love and concerns. 

I recently heard an interview of the man who has handled settlements for many of our national tragedies.  After 9/11, he was responsible to divvy out money to families that had lost loved ones.  As he met with families, one time he tried to express empathy, and said “I know what you are going through.”  The family looked back at him across the desk, and said, “You have no idea what we’re going through.”  He never said that again.

Our hearts are in the right place when we are counseling people in their time of grief, and we so desperately want to make it better.  But we need to use self-control and not just let words out.  Also when you are the one grieving, and people say ridiculous stuff to you, I know it is hard in that moment of pain, but we can be gracious to them, and remember that they are just trying to help. 

Remember that grief takes time, and is unique to each situation. So when it comes to salvation and the afterlife, we can praise God that he has made a way for us to be in his family.  Let us be a people that warmly, graciously invite people to get to know Jesus.

Can we experience Jesus’ victory now…or do we have to wait till we get to heaven?

24 Aug

What is heaven like?  There is much speculation.  I wish the Bible was much more clear than it is.  Sometimes it talks about a supernatural dwelling place of God.  In the New Testament the word for “heaven” can also mean “sky”.  Is heaven up there somewhere?  But then other times the Bible talks about heaven as a new earth or new Jerusalem.

As we conclude 1 Peter 3:18-22, Peter tells us that Jesus is in heaven, at God’s right hand, with all other beings in submission to him.  Why is Peter bringing up this heavenly image?  Once again, as we have seen all week, Peter wants to encourage people who are feeling defeated that Jesus is clearly the victor, and in him they, too, can have victory.

At the time when Peter wrote, it is likely that they were not feeling all that victorious, considering the persecution they were enduring.

How about you?  You might not be feeling all that victorious either, but Peter wanted those Christians then to know, and by extension we can know, that there is victory in Jesus.

But note that Peter is not just talking about ultimate victory in heaven.  No doubt, he is referring to that.  Jesus wins.  In the end, Jesus wins.  There he is in heaven, the victor over all!

But Peter is writing to Christians feeling defeated and discouraged in their actual lives. He wanted to encourage them in a way that mattered not only in a distant future, but also so that they could experience victory right then and there.  They were not alone.  They had power in Jesus.  Jesus had suffered too.  They were not forgotten.  They were remembered.  And they had access to the same strength Jesus did.

Our oldest son is in the National Guard.  For his extended drill this summer, his unit went to an intense training center in California.  It’s been 118 degrees most days.  He is in full battle gear, there are long, exhausting days and hot nights.  For the past 2 weeks he and many others were out in the desert.  So no access to phones (meaning…no connection to home), faced with rough terrain, practicing difficult intense drills and so much more.  After that two weeks in the desert, they returned to base for at least another week and they got their phones back.  Our son texted us saying those weeks out in training were the toughest things he’s ever done in his life.  Tougher than basic training.  And then he went on to tell us how much he’d grown and how much God had taught him.

That’s victory in Jesus.  That is finding God in the midst of difficult discouraging times.  That is what we have access to, a living God who is making things new in us and in our world.  We get to be a part of that.  A part of His living and breathing victory.  That is what Peter is talking about.

So we need to see that Peter is talking to people about how to live life now.  We can experience victory in Jesus now.  Remember that a major emphasis of Jesus’ death and resurrection is God setting things right.  The power of God that raised Christ from the dead that is available to us, as Paul teaches in Ephesians 1:15-19. Take a moment and read that.  Did you read how God’s power that raised Jesus from the dead is available to us?  Amazing!

The big question, then, is how do we access that power?  For our son in the desert, he accessed that power a couple ways.  Prayer and reading about Christians who he looks up to.  He took a couple biographies of Christian athletes and read and was greatly encouraged.  Part of what made prayer and those stories of Christian faith so powerful was that Tyler was right in the middle of something extremely difficult.  And right there found victory in Jesus.

If you are going through a hard time, and even if things are good, how will you reach out to God to access the victorious power of God?  I highly recommend prayer as a starting point.  But also read the truth of God in his word, seek out stories of other Christians and how they placed their faith in God.  Then consider bringing other Christians into your own story.  Share your struggles, allow others to speak truth to you, and practice living out victory in Jesus.

A story about what happens after people die

6 Aug

Photo by Ashim d’Silva on Unsplash

What happens after a person dies?  My uncle recently sent me this story, author unknown, that tries to answer that question.

On the outskirts of a small town, there was a big old pecan tree just inside the cemetery fence. One day, two boys filled up a bucketful of nuts and sat down by the tree, out of sight, and began dividing the nuts.

‘One for you, one for me, one for you, one for me,’ said one boy.  Several dropped and rolled down toward the fence.

Another boy came riding along the road on his bicycle. As he passed, he thought he heard voices from inside the cemetery, so he slowed down to investigate. Sure enough, he heard, ‘One for you, one for me, one for you, one for me…’

He just knew what it was. He jumped back on his bike and rode off. Just around the bend he met an old man with a cane, hobbling along.

‘Come here quick,’ said the boy, ‘you won’t believe what I heard! Satan and the Lord are down at the cemetery dividing up the souls!’

The man said, ‘Beat it kid, can’t you see it’s hard for me to walk?’ When the boy insisted though, the man hobbled slowly to the cemetery.

Standing by the fence they heard, ‘One for you, one for me.  One for you, one for me.’

The old man whispered, ‘Boy, you’ve been tellin’ me the truth.  Let’s see if we can see the Lord!

Shaking with fear, they peered through the fence, yet were still unable to see anything. The old man and the boy gripped the wrought iron bars of the fence tighter and tighter as they tried to get a glimpse of the Lord.

At last they heard, ‘One for you, one for me. That’s all.  Now let’s go get those nuts by the fence and we’ll be done.’

They say the old man had the lead for a good half-mile before the kid on the bike passed him.

That boy and the old man had a very interesting view of God and what happens after people die!

While we might take issue with their theology, we can agree with them that something does after to people after they die.  We believe that there is an eternal destiny for all.

Therefore, a significant element of the mission of God’s Kingdom has been that Christians tell the story of hope that we have because of what Jesus has done for us.  We don’t have to look at life beyond the grave with fear because we have hope in Christ.  Additionally, Jesus said that the hope we have in him matters before we die.  We believe that becoming a disciple, a follower of Jesus, gives us hope for eternal life after death, and gives us hope for best possible way to live now.  We believe that God is preparing a place for us in heaven, and he is seeking to transform society now!  Eternal life in heaven, abundant life on earth.  That’s how we summarize this amazing Kingdom of God.

As Peter continues teaching the Christians in the Roman Empire around the year 65 AD, he now teaches them about how to live out this mission of God’s Kingdom among people who might be antagonistic or atheistic, agnostic or apathetic.

So please read 1 Peter 3:13-17.  This week we’re going to see how Peter instructs Christians to talk about this hope they have.

What my sons’ mugshots taught me about citizenship

13 Jun

How about those two cute little mugshots?  They are my two oldest sons in September 2000, when they were 3 and 2 years old.  Our family of four had just moved to Kingston, Jamaica, and we had to apply for immigration status as legal aliens.  That meant we had to get photos taken and use those photos for immigration cards which we carried with us.  Even the boys at 3 and 2 years old had to have legal alien status.

Something curious happened, though, when the photographer took our photos.  What you see above is round 2.  In the first round of photos, he took the photos, developed them, and surprise, they showed nothing by eyeballs and hair.  Two eyeballs on a plain background with no body!  What?  The photographer had not adjusted the camera settings to account for our light skin tone!  That was one of the first times we felt a tinge of what strangers and aliens feel.  After a good laugh and a few setting changes to the camera, the photographer retook the photos and all was well.

We often felt like strangers in Kingston, and we were official aliens in Jamaica.

All week long we’ve been talking about strangers and aliens.  (You can review the previous posts here and here.)  That might sound odd, depending on how you are thinking about the word “aliens.”  Creatures from outer space?  No.  Peter is using the word “aliens” like we do when we use the phrase, “illegal aliens.”  In our society, an alien is a person from one country that is trying to set up a new life in another country, just like we did in Jamaica.

So why would Peter use that concept to describe Christians?  In our study of 1st Peter 1:17-21 and 2:11-12, Peter tells the Christians in the Roman Empire around 65 AD that they are aliens and strangers in the world.

It’s like the words of the old spiritual: “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.”  All Christians, Peter says, are living in a foreign land.  We have another true home country.  We are from another place.

But what other country is he talking about? First of all, many of the Christians Peter was writing to were actual strangers and aliens.  Some had fled for their lives, leaving their home country, and became refugees in another country, in order to escape persecution.  They could easily have felt like strangers in their new country.  Second, as Christians, followers of Jesus were a unique, tiny minority in the Roman Empire.  Christianity was relatively new, only about 30 years old, and very few people understood it or accepted it.  So Christians were perceived as strange in regard to their beliefs.  In both areas the physical and the spiritual realms, those Christians were strangers and aliens.

Likewise, though we Christians today might not be strangers and aliens in our earthly country of citizenship, we are strangers and aliens in a very real spiritual sense.  We are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.

We believe that, we claim it, but if we are honest it can be very hard for many of us to grasp how our citizenship in God’s Kingdom should impact our lives.

Why?  Because we get so entranced by what we see, touch, and feel.  It is super easy to get focused on what affects us.  It is all too easy to think, “I am an American.”  We were born here, we live here, we are comfortable here.  It is all we know.  Alien?  Stranger?  It sure doesn’t feel like it.  It is hard to see ourselves as citizens of the Kingdom of God, because it is invisible.  It is much easier to identify as an American.  So what Peter has to say is difficult and radical: you’re actually an alien, from another place.   That American birth certificate, passport, voting card, social security number, ID card, and driver’s license?  None of it depicts your true identity, or your true home.

Remember that concept of new birth in Christ, being born again, that Peter talked about in verse 3?  When you choose to believe and follow Jesus, you are born again into his country.

I didn’t choose to be a citizen of the USA.  I was born here, in Virginia.  My birth certificate proves I am a citizen of the USA.  When I travel abroad, I carry my US passport, and when I return to an airport in the USA, at the immigration checkpoint the officer glances at my passport and says, “Welcome home!”

What I need to dwell on more is that I did choose to be a citizen on the Kingdom of Heaven, through new birth.  Christians, disciples of Jesus, have been born into a new place, and thus we are citizens of the Kingdom of God, and that citizenship is the true one.

How do citizens of an earthly country see themselves also as citizens of the Kingdom of God?  Can we hold dual citizenship?

What Peter is saying is that we Christians do have a dual citizenship.  But our citizenship in an earthly nation is temporary.  That whole nation is temporary.

Tom Hanks’ movie, The Terminal, illustrates this well.  Hanks plays a man who is from a small country.  The man is traveling outside his country, and on the way home, while in a foreign airport, he is shocked to learn about a revolution in his country.  In a very short time, that country is dissolved and a new one forms.  The airline will not let him back without proper identification.  What country did he belong to?

Some of us might have a change of citizenship like that while we are on this earth.  And for all of us, no matter if they drape an American flag on our casket, when we die, our citizenship in the USA is over.

Citizenship in heaven, however, is forever.

So Peter is saying that we Christians must choose to live now during our earthly lives, by the principles of the Kingdom of God, which is forever. How do we do that?  Check in tomorrow and we’ll begin to look at what Peter says Christians should do to live as strangers and aliens in the world.

How to have an inheritance that cannot be squandered

24 May

Image result for squandered inheritance

Michelle and I both had grandparents pass away in the last few years, and we have watched our parents and their siblings handle their parents’ estates.  Sometimes inheritances are smooth and easy.  Sometimes they are a bit complex.  One time Faith Church received a bequest from a parishioner who passed away, and it took nearly two years to receive it!  After a person passes away, there can be many details to process in the settlement of their estate.  Those details are often bills that eat away at the inheritance.  Imagine the frustration when what initially appeared to be a nice inheritance is reduced to pennies.

As Peter continues his teaching in 1 Peter 1, verse 4, he says the living hope based on Jesus’ resurrection, which we looked at the past few days, gives us “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.”

What inheritance is Peter talking about?  That word “inheritance” is defined as: “to receive something of incredible value which has not been earned.”  Human inheritances can be squandered away quickly.  My father-in-law loves to joke around that he is going to write us out of the will, for example, if we don’t help him split firewood.  I love to say back to him, “Good, because all you have to pass on is junk!”

But not the inheritance that Jesus promises to those who are reborn.  We read that it can’t perish, spoil or fade.  Peter goes to enough trouble to use three individual words to describe how indestructible this inheritance is!  It is imperishable and undefiled and unfading, which is a word that means “pertaining to not losing the wonderful, pristine character of something”.

Like a new white shirt.  You know what happens: in a couple months or so, they lose that bright color.  But imagine a shirt that stays just as white as when you bought it at the store, even if you wash it 1000 times.  Paul says our inheritance in heaven is even better than that.  It will never fade.

So not only do they have hope that gives them inspiration to keep the faith now, even though they face persecution, they also get to experience the inheritance of God in heaven.

In other words, Peter is saying, “Christians, you can do this!  Though life is rough when you are going through hard times, remember the hope you have.  That hope can motivate you to stay true to God, to follow him, even when people come against you.  And what’s more, if they kill you, then you get that inheritance in heaven!”

It begs the question: just what will this inheritance in heaven be like?

Probably the most frequent thing I hear at a funeral is that heaven is a better place.  The person who died “is going to a better place.”  What is that better place?  A mansion in Heaven? The Good Place?  Have you seen the TV show The Good Place?  It is a comedy about a lady who, after death, goes to The Good Place, but it becomes apparent very quickly that a mistake was made, because she was supposed to go to The Bad Place.  And in the show, The Good Place is amazing!

Is that what our inheritance in heaven is?  Peter doesn’t tell us.  Instead he assumes that his readers who are going through hard times will know that their inheritance in heaven, which God has gone to great lengths to make available to them, and which God preserving for them, is far superior to what they are going through now.

Remember that Peter is talking to people who are being persecuted or who are threatened with persecution.  He is not intending to give them a full blown treatment of what heaven is like.  Instead he wants to remind them that they have hope now and an inheritance in the future.

For people living in uncertainty, there is certain hope that inspires them to stay true to God now, and an inheritance that will be waiting for them in heaven after they die.

I have to admit, during a prayer time last week, I was thinking about this passage and my own struggles in life, and I said to God, “Lord, I am intellectually thankful for hope of an inheritance in heaven, but I want to feel better now, to be done with my struggles now. I want that inheritance now.”

And instantly, you know what happened?  Thoughts flashed in my mind, thoughts I take as from the Lord, saying, “That’s what the prodigal son said.”

Bam! Conviction hit me hard and fast.  It’s true.  I so often ask for my inheritance now, just like the Prodigal Son saying to his father, “Give me my share of the estate,” while his father was still living.  What a slap in the face.  Do you ever do that to God?  I admit I do. I want my troubles to be done now!

But Peter is not telling these Christians going through a hard time that the hard time will stop.  The persecution might not stop.  Some have already died for their faith.  When we are going through a hard time, we usually want it to stop immediately.  Peter doesn’t say that though.

Instead he concludes in verse 5 that they are being guarded and protected by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in last (moment in) time. In other words, we can learn to wait for our inheritance in heaven.  We can learn to trust in God in the difficulties of the here and now, remain faithful to him, keeping that hope, that inheritance set before us.

But there is even more to this hope, Peter tells us in verse 5. By faith our salvation is shielded by God’s power. The word “shielded” is the idea of a guard that is posted until the time that God’s salvation is ready to be revealed.

Do you see the overall theme? Though you are going through these hard times, you can still have hope of a great inheritance, and it is secure.

You and I are not being persecuted.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t have challenges in life.  What are the difficult situations you are going through right now?  Know that your future is secure and your hope in Christ can enable you to face any challenges.

Nothing is certain in our world.

It is hard to watch the news.  Our country and world seems unstable.

The stock market is up and down. Bills keep coming and finances might be tight. Maybe we get laid off from work.

Health fails.  All of a sudden we can be on death’s door in a hospital bed.

Family and relationships go sour.  A person has to admit to their friend, “My relationship with my spouse is on the rocks, and we are headed for divorce.”  Friendships can tear apart.

Something in the house breaks.  The car dies.

A school shooting.  And our kids go through active shooter drills now.

Life feels very uncertain. We cannot count on the things of this world to take care of us.

But the good news is that we have a living hope.  And it is kept secure for us in heaven by the power of God.  That is our solid rock that will not be shaken.  What is that living hope?  That God is alive.  That he is active in our lives.  That he gives grace and mercy in the midst of the struggles.  That he loves us unconditionally. That he has made new birth in Christ available to us, so that we can have an inheritance in heaven.  This motivates us to pursue him in faith now!

That’s why it makes incredibly great sense to follow the way of Jesus, even when it gets hard, even when it doesn’t make sense, even when our bodies and emotions tell us to follow a different way.

Jesus’ way is the one true solid rock.

This is not just knowledge we need as we face difficulty and uncertainty!  We can access this hope to make actual choices to keep following Jesus, to keep being his disciples, to keep living like he wants us to live, even when life is falling apart around us.

Have you experienced this new birth?  Following Jesus starts with new birth that Peter refers to in verse 3.  It means believing in him, and living your life the way he wants you to live.  Or maybe you have received the new birth of the Spirit, but you know you have not allowed that to fully define your life.  Today is the day to make the choice to follow Jesus.  Let’s talk about that.  Comment below!

What happens after death? (Will God be fair?)

24 Oct

Image result for what happens after we dieIs God unfair?  That’s the question I asked yesterday.  I bring it up because Solus Christus, the fourth of the Five Solas that we are studying this week, very much has a bearing on how we might view this difficult theological situation. If salvation is in Christ alone, by grace through faith, then doesn’t that mean that all those people who do not have the opportunity or capacity to confess Christ will die separated from God forever?  If so, it really seems like God is not being fair, punishing those for no fault of their own.

This doctrine is an emotional one.  It is called the destiny of the unevangelized.

Christians through the ages have come up with many options for explaining how God is fair.  Sometimes these options have led to very heated debates and accusations of heresy.

So let’s review some of the options and their difficulties.

First there is Universalism, which teaches that all go to heaven.  Hell is not real.  The Bible clearly says that God is love and he loves all, and so therefore universalists believe he will save all.  It sure would be nice to believe this, but this view has difficulties.  Simply put, the Bible, including Jesus, clearly talks about eternal punishment in the afterlife.  Also Jesus said a couple different times that the way to God is narrow and few will find it. For those of you from Faith Church reading this, we are a part of a denomination called the Evangelical Congregational Church, and our EC Articles of Faith affirm that there is a hell.  We do not hold to universalism.  But we do hold strongly to the biblical teaching that God is love.

Second there is a relatively small group of Christians who believe in Post-Mortem Evangelism.  This view suggests that after you die and see the options of heaven and hell, God gives you a second chance to choose.  Again, this promotes God’s grace and love, and it removes the unfair element for those who are unevangelized.  No matter what your situation was on earth, whether a tribal person, a Muslim in Turkey, a person with diminished mental capacity or a baby, when you die, you will have a fully capable mind and body to make an informed decision.  God will give you a second chance to choose him.  It might seem that this is basically universalism because who wouldn’t choose heaven at that point?  But in theory some would still choose hell.  This view, however, has some difficulties, the big one being that there is basically no evidence of it being taught in the Bible.  Personally, I’ll be shocked if this is what actually happens after death.  As with universalism, I don’t think it is true, but I hope it is.

Next is Purgatory, which is not just a Roman Catholic doctrine.  Purgatory is the name of a place kind of between heaven and hell. In the Old Testament, there is evidence of this when OT authors used a word called Sheol to describe a place beyond the grave, and it appears to work like purgatory.  Sheol seems to be a place of waiting.  What is unique about the Roman Catholic view of purgatory is that it is a place where people can essentially pay off the debt of their sin. It’s not fun, but after years of waiting, you’ve done your time, and you get to go to heaven.  The difficulty again is that this view is biblically sketchy.

The fourth view is Annihilationism.  This, too, is a minority Christian view that says that believers in Christ go to heaven, the rest are just destroyed.  Annihilated.  Where does it come from?  Well, Jesus one time, said this in Matthew 10:28: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”  This view deals with the trouble many people have with a God who would send people to eternal conscious torment in hell.  Instead of feeling pain forever, like being burned alive but never dying, or the pain of being separated from God, annihilationism says that unrepentant sinners are destroyed.  The difficulty with this view is that we should be exceedingly cautious about making doctrine based on one verse.

Another view is called Predestination/Election. God picks or elects who will saved and who will not be.  It has nothing to do with human free will.  One aborted baby might be elected to go to heaven.  One might not be.  One Yanomami tribesman might be sent to heaven.  Another might not be.  One Turkish Muslim might go to heaven, another might not be.  It is all up to God.  This view is a very strict determinism.  Many people who believe in some form of predestination or election don’t take it that far.  But some do.  The Bible does talk about predestination and election, but most Christians do not believe it is to be understood in this strict sense.  The major difficulty of this view is that the way Jesus and the apostles talk about salvation is that it is a gift that we choose to receive or not receive.

And that leads me to bring up one more view, Free Will.  Those who choose of their own free will to be true disciples of Jesus, after they die, will go to heaven, while the others who have chosen not to believe in and follow Jesus, after they die, are separated from God for eternity in hell.  The difficulty with this view is that it requires that people hear the Gospel.  This view presumes that all have the choice to follow Jesus, but as we saw yesterday it doesn’t seem like all actually do have the choice.  What about tribal people, those is other lands with different religions, or those with a lack of mental capacity to understand the Gospel?

Do any of these views help you think about God’s fairness in salvation by Christ alone?  Which view do you hold to?  Or is there another view that you prefer?

I can’t say that any of these views is completely satisfying to me.  As I tried to show, they all have their pros and cons.  Are there any other biblical passages that might give us some help to understand this?  Yesterday, I mentioned the apostles teaching in Acts 4:12 that “there is no other name by which we are saved.”  They were referring to salvation in Christ alone.  And Jesus himself said in John 14:6 that he alone is the way, the truth and the life, that no one comes to the father, except through him.

Today we have surveyed many options that Christians have employed to try to respond to the question of God’s fairness, but maybe you are thinking that we really haven’t made any headway.  Thankfully, there are more places in God’s word that we can explore to shed some light on this thorny issue of God’s fairness in salvation by Christ alone.

Check in tomorrow as we’ll look further at those passages.