Heaven Is a Myth. Kind Of.

“So now he’s saying heaven is a myth. What has gotten into Caleb’s brain today?” This is may be something like the reaction you had to the title of this post. And that’s probably justified. I’ve already pulled pretty well the same stunt with I Don’t Believe in Hell a while back. It’s just that heaven and hell are such deliciously popular topics that such titles always attract attention.

Anyway, what am I actually saying this time? Well, first off I’m certainly not saying that there is no such thing as heaven. That would be Biblically absurd. When I say “heaven is a myth” I mean specifically the popular conceptions of heaven that dominate books and movies, whether Christian or not. There is certainly a real heaven, but it’s not what most people imagine it is, and that is the message I mean to get across in this post.

Define “Heaven”, Please

What’s wrong with the common perceptions of heaven? Part of the problem is the lack of precision. People use the word “heaven” to refer to God’s presence, the place believers go after death, and the future state elaborated in Revelation 21-22. Because many Christians use the same word for all of these places, the differences get muddled to create a strange, murky, and unbiblical mix. My goal here is to distinguish between the different things and clarify the Biblical vision of heaven.

First off, the word “heaven” itself in the Bible is never used for where people go when they die, nor does it ever refer to the new creation after Jesus returns. It is used primarily in three ways (note that I’m only referencing the New Testament to make things easier for me, but what I say can also be seen in the Old):

  • “Heaven” can refer to the sky and/or space, e.g. Matt. 3:16, 16:2, Mk. 7:34, Lk. 9:16, Acts 11:6, Jas. 5:18
  • “Heaven” can be used as a substitute for “God.” This is clearly seen in Matthew. Everywhere the other gospels say “kingdom of God” Matthew uses “kingdom of heaven.” 
  • Finally, “heaven” can refer to the place where God and His angels are, e.g. Matt. 5:16, 22:30, Mk. 11:26, John 1:51, Acts 7:55.

Search the Scriptures and see for yourself: never is the word “heaven” used in relation to where a human is, with precisely two exceptions. The first is that of Jesus, who is exalted in heaven at the right hand of God and intercedes for us there. The only other exception is Paul in a vision being caught up to the third heaven. But these exceptions prove the rule. Heaven is never mentioned as the destiny of the dead righteous.

There is a word used in Scripture for the place where the dead righteous are. This word is “paradise.” Jesus Himself used it to the thief on the cross, and it is one of two direct names for the place where dead believers are. The other reference is “Abraham’s bosom” in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. These two references to the dwelling of dead believers are the only ones which name the place, and neither uses the word “heaven.”

Is it semantics I’m playing here? Not merely. What we must learn to make sense of the Biblical teachings on heaven is to distinguish between the three places associated with our concept of heaven. I’ll give a basic overview of each here, and later I’ll give details on the Biblical case for each.

The Three Things People Like to Call “Heaven”

First, heaven is the space God created alongside “earth.” Our visible world is parallel to the world of heaven, and both were created by God in the beginning. Heaven is flooded with the glory and presence of God, and His will is always carried out there. Angels also dwell there. This world is not the purely spiritual presence of God, but a created space with its own created order which parallels ours. Heaven and earth are distinct, but together. They are separate, but right beside each other. They occasionally intersect and get messily involved with each other. God reigns in this heaven, Jesus’ physical human body is currently present there, and angels go to and fro between there and here to accomplish God’s purposes.

Next, paradise is where believers are after death. It is not equal to heaven, but is something else. For believers, it is a place of rest and comfort until the last day when we are to be resurrected. This is not likely to be a physical or material place, because it is neither in heaven nor earth and the people who dwell there are without bodies for the time being. It is a truly immaterial existence, without sight, touch, smell, or sound. There are no mansions, streets of gold, or anything which can be physically sensed there. Paradise has bliss for the righteous, a bliss that results from God’s caring embrace by the Spirit, but there is still a degree of discomfort because they are “naked” and lack their bodies. This place is ultimately temporary, an immaterial existence which will no longer be relevant in the resurrection.

Finally, the new creation (also called the new heavens and earth) is where believers are destined to live in eternity. This is a physical world birthed out of our current one, a recreation. Just like the Spirit radically healed and transformed us at our new birth to make us a new creation, so will He do to the entire world in the last day. Just like Jesus’ dead body was restored to life and made altogether fresh and new, so will the entire cosmos die in flame and be restored to a new and fuller glory in Christ. This will still be our physical universe, but fixed, renewed, and brought to its true destined purity. 

Obviously, by this point I’ve said a lot that you may not have heard before, and very well may prove controversial. So be it. But alas, I’m nearing a thousand words here, so it’s not the time to go on. I’ll continue this series. In my next post, I’ll start defending and building with Scripture what I’ve said about these three places. In the mean time, try reading the Bible with these thoughts in mind and see if it makes sense. You may be surprised.

Evangelicals vs. Fundamentalists: What’s the Difference?

Broadly speaking, there are four kinds of people in Protestant Christianity. These are not denominational lines, but apply more broadly, affecting the entire Christian worldview. What are these sections? Liberalism, progressivism, evangelicalism, and fundamentalism. All of these are rather distinct. Liberals tend to deny fundamental tenants of Christian doctrine in favor of a more private and unobtrusive spirituality, with an emphasis on social issues. Progressives tend to hold at least to the basic creeds of Christian belief (one God, Trinity, deity of Jesus, historical death and resurrection of Christ, future resurrection, etc.), but feel free to discard certain traditional teachings usually involving the Old Testament revelation of God, Hell, homosexuality, and abortion, among others (obviously within progressivism there is quite a bit of variety on these matters).

But the divide between evangelicals and fundamentalists is not always as clear-cut, and indeed to most liberals and progressives there is no real difference. Being an evangelical myself, though, I think the issue deserves further clarification. For most people, “fundamentalist” is a pejorative term, which “evangelical” doesn’t always have the same connotations. Moreover, the confusion of the two groups both causes bad association arguments by people both within and without them. 

To further complicate matters, not everyone agrees on the definition of “fundamentalist.” To some people, “fundamentalist” just refers to those who believe the basic tenants of Christianity, which would even include many progressives. To others, a fundamentalist is someone who believes that the Bible is inerrant. To still others, a fundamentalist is anyone more conservative than themselves.

The working definition I will be using here for “fundamentalism” aligns more or less with that used commonly by studied evangelicals. We recognize ourselves as distinct from but in some ways near to fundamentalism, but take many sharp breaks. So I’ll be for my purposes counting fundamentalism as more or less like you would see in an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church, or this fundamentalist website. Evangelicalism will be represented by something more along the lines of where I am, the more average church with which my friends and family would be familiar, or names like John Piper, Michael Patton, Bobby Grow, Francis Chan, David Platt, William Lane Craig, maybe John MacArthur, etc.

So without further ado, here’s how I would differentiate between evangelicals and fundamentalists, using various issues to demonstrate. As always, these rules are pretty general and the lines can be really blurry at times.

  • Evangelicals celebrate Christian liberty; fundamentalists restrict it. Evangelicals are not likely to indiscriminately classify dancing, drinking alcohol, contemporary music, or movies as sinful. Fundamentalists tend to consider all of these and more as unacceptable and compromise with the world.
  • Evangelicals treat secondary doctrines with more charity; fundamentalists treat almost all issues as essential. Evangelicals usually allow for disagreement on questions like election, free will, modes of baptism, eternal security, spiritual gifts, styles of music and church services, etc. Evangelicals are charitable to those who disagree on such issues and will often cooperate with them for the Gospel. Fundamentalists often are quite strict on these matters, setting up stuff like the timing of the Rapture or the rejection of Calvinism as if they could make or break true Christianity.
  • Evangelicals are eager to celebrate many ministries proclaiming Jesus; fundamentalists are suspicious and looking for faults in well-known preachers. A great example of this: most evangelicals appreciate Billy Graham and his son Franklin Graham. Fundamentalists tend to consider them both dangerous compromisers. Evangelicals may like John Piper, Rick Warren, Beth Moore, or Francis Chan, while fundamentalists would be afraid of them all.
  • Evangelicals are generally more open to other Christian traditions; fundamentalists accept only a small minority. While not all evangelicals agree on all the boundaries, as a general rule evangelicals are more likely to consider people across certain major denominational lines like Catholics, Orthodox, or Lutheran as true brothers in Christ. Fundamentalists decry them all, and none more than the Catholics who they regard as the worst offenders of false gospel.
  • Evangelicals believe in God’s wrath; fundamentalists obsess over it. Evangelicals do believe that God has wrath and in hellfire for the unrepentant, but that is not the focal point of their theology. Usually, God’s love and grace are given a bigger spotlight as they deserve. Fundamentalists get really pumped from preaching God’s wrath and putting sinners under judgment. They act like Hell is the center of the Gospel: it looms, Jesus gets you out of it, so tell everyone else to avoid it.
  • Evangelicals allow for different opinions on creation; fundamentalists treat a young earth as core to the faith. Many evangelicals believe in a young earth, but many also believe in an old earth, or that God used evolution as His tool in creation, and even when they strongly disagree with each other they accept each other as brothers in Christ and cooperate in ministry with grace. Fundamentalists warn that anything other than a young earth belief is liberal compromise with atheists, and undermines the Bible’s authority, and sometimes even that it sends people to Hell.
  • Evangelicals freely use whatever translation suits their devotional life and ministry; fundamentalists usually only use the KJV. While evangelicals recognize that God’s word is best heard in whatever makes His voice clearest, and so are willing to use the HCSB, ESV, NIV, or NLT with few qualms, fundamentalists don’t trust newer versions and are usually unwilling to go further than the NKJV. Not all of them say the KJV is God’s only word (though many do), but if nothing else there’s usually a very strong preference.
  • Evangelicals believe in culturally appropriate modesty; most fundamentalists tend to straight-jacket attire into very specific and arbitrary forms. Everyone knows that evangelicals care about modesty, and of course it’s a controversial issue even among us. But fundamentalists are often not willing to even participate in this kind of discourse. Many of them are in the “women can’t wear pants” crew, or would balk at girls wearing anything without complete sleeves. They do not see rationally on how culture, modesty, lust, and practicality intersect because of traditions of men.
  • Evangelicals want to help improve the fallen state of the world; fundamentalists are content to condemn people and wait in their pews for the end. Evangelicals are willing to preach that we should help share life and grace in the world not just by witnessing, but also by projects which meet people’s physical, mental, or emotional needs. Food pantries, crisis pregnancy centers, orphanages, and other social projects actually have evangelical volunteers. Fundamentalists tend to simply complain about the state of things and sigh while they wait for Jesus to show up. Some of them even say we shouldn’t bother with these matters when we could be soul-winning.
  • Evangelicals try to win the world to Christ; fundamentalists just talk about soul-winning. In the evangelical world, people actually try to use whatever means they can to show people the life available in Jesus. They, like Paul, are willing to “become all things to all people” to save some. But fundamentalists tend to preach about evangelism, but instead of actually trying to win people they tend to do whatever it takes to repel and disgust them. They’ll witness about grace without using any, or talk about a Jesus no one wants to follow.
"The Word became flesh and dwelt among us."

Why Did Jesus Come “In the Flesh?”

This past Sunday I received the opportunity to preach, which I haven’t done in some time. I greatly enjoyed it, and thank God that my message was well-received. In my preparations, I wrote a manuscript, and I decided I would upload that as a post. It’s long, mind you, since it’s an entire sermon, but I hope someone can be blessed by it.

Why “In the Flesh?”

Tonight I’ll be starting in 2 John 1:7. I won’t be spending much time there, but I’m using this verse to bring up a particular question. After that, don’t worry, I’ll still be using the Bible, but will focus on a couple other passages to answer that question. So let’s look at it.

“Many deceivers have gone out into the world; they do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist.”

There’s another verse, 1 John 4:2, which likewise says “Every spirit who confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.”

So here’s what I would like to ask. This is question of the entire message. Why is it so important that Jesus came “in the flesh?” Why is this such a big deal that John commands in 2 John 1:9-10 not even to greet or welcome someone teaching otherwise?

Most of you have probably never wondered this, just taking it as a given that Jesus is 100% God and 100% man. You probably take his flesh for granted. If someone disagrees, though you’d seriously condemn their error I doubt you would be able to explain why this is so important, except for “That’s what the Bible says.”

My goal in this sermon is to fix that. I want to, straight from the Bible, answer why it is so vital that Jesus came “in the flesh,” both for our beliefs and for our practical lives.

But before I get into all this, I should quickly explain what “in the flesh” means. When John uses the word “flesh,” he definitely doesn’t mean it at all the way Paul usually does. For Paul, “flesh” usually refers to the sinful and corrupt aspect of human existence. The “flesh” is the part of human life that causes the “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19-21, which include stuff like sexual immorality, idolatry, hatred, ambition, arguments, envy, and promiscuity. This obviously isn’t equal to “the body,” because for example hatred is not something you do with your body but your heart.

When John says Jesus came “in the flesh,” he is saying that Jesus came in a real, physical, human nature with a tangible body. He could be seen, heard, and touched like he said in 1 John 1, and His body wasn’t an illusion or mask like some people were teaching at the time. This is the doctrine of Incarnation. Incarnation means that God become a human being in Jesus Christ. So again, why does it matter so much? Why is it so important that Jesus came in a real human body?

As a good Baptist, I want to address this with three points. The first is why Jesus coming in the flesh is necessary for salvation, and it might not be just the reason you immediately think. The second is why Jesus had to come in the flesh to do anything at all meaningful for us, people who live in flesh. Finally, the third is what practical implications Jesus’ coming in the flesh has for us now.

Flesh and Salvation

So onto the first point. What does Christ coming in the flesh, in real human nature and body, do for our salvation? How did God becoming a baby who needed diapers changed work towards our rescue from sin and death? The first obvious answer is that He came so He could die on the cross. That is part of the answer. But there is more to it. To answer this first question, then, I’ll use Hebrews 2:5-18. If you all want to turn there, I’ll be in it for several minutes. In this passage, the author of Hebrews has just been speaking of how and why Jesus is superior to the angels, due to His divine nature as the Son of God. But at this point he moves into Jesus’ humanity. Even as a human, He an exalted place over the angels. Here’s what it says:

And furthermore, it is not angels who will control the future world we are talking about. For in one place the Scriptures say,

“What are people that you should think of them, or a son of man that you should care for him? Yet you made them only a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You gave them authority over all things.”

Now when it says “all things,” it means nothing is left out. But we have not yet seen all things put under their authority. What we do see is Jesus, who was given a position “a little lower than the angels”; and because he suffered death for us, he is now “crowned with glory and honor.” Yes, by God’s grace, Jesus tasted death for everyone.

God, for whom and through whom everything was made, chose to bring many children into glory. And it was only right that he should make Jesus, through his suffering, a perfect leader, fit to bring them into their salvation. So now Jesus and the ones he makes holy have the same Father. That is why Jesus is not ashamed to call them his brothers and sisters.

For he said to God, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters. I will praise you among your assembled people.” He also said, “I will put my trust in him,” that is, “I and the children God has given me.”

Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying. We also know that the Son did not come to help angels; he came to help the descendants of Abraham. Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people. Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested.

This text is, in my opinion, probably the most important text about Jesus’ Incarnation, which, remember, means His coming in human flesh. So I want to go through it and draw out the logic it uses to explain why Jesus’ flesh is so vital to our salvation. But before I get too far, I should point out potential translation confusion. In some Bible versions like the one I’m using, verses 5-8 speak in the plural of “them” or “human beings” or “people”, while many others speak in the singular, saying “him” and “the son of man.” Here the literal words are singular, but they are speaking in a collective sense. The human race is being represented by a singular “man” or “him.” Even the phrase “son of man” in this verse only means a child of humankind, not specifically Jesus.

So here’s the flow of the passage. In seeking to show Jesus’ superiority to the angels on the side of his human nature, the author quotes Psalm 8, where the psalmist is baffled at the dignity God has given the human race even though we are so puny and less beautiful than His other works. He asks how mere men can be important enough to warrant God’s care or attention.

Then he celebrates the high place God has given humanity. He set us up only a little less than the angels for a while, and He gave us glory and honor. He put us in charge of the whole world like we see in Genesis 1:28-30. How could we deserve this? We’re so small.

But what the author of Hebrews points out is that not everything seems to be in our control even though God gave it all to us. There is suffering, sin, and death wreaking havoc on our world. So what’s wrong? Have we completely lost the high position given to us by God?

The answer is kind of like Paul’s “By no means!” See, even though we don’t see humanity in control of the world God gave us, we do see Jesus. He became a human like us in the flesh, and was made lower than the angels for a while. The rest of us may not be in control of the world God gave us, since we were under Satan’s rule, but Jesus was crowned Lord and is forever exalted. He is reigning in glory and honor. But how did He get there? He died for us all, all of the weak humanity. Because He obeyed the Father even to the point of death, He has been crowned king of everything, which means that He has regained control of creation for us all. A human being is on the thone of the world standing in for God, just like God originally intended.

So at this point the author of Hebrews goes a little further in what Jesus did to restore us to this place. He says that it only fitting that God should make Jesus, the source of our salvation, perfect through suffering. Now this doesn’t mean Jesus was sinful and then became perfect, obviously. He says elsewhere in Hebrews that Jesus was without sin. In this case perfect means mature or complete. Jesus wasn’t completely in place to restore fallen people until He Himself had endured the same sufferings that we do, and He had to learn the experience of rejecting sin and living in faith. He became a man, one of us, and had to live by faith like one of us and deal with what we deal with. The only way to heal man’s problems was for the Creator and Sustainer of all life to become a man Himself and fight them back.

Finally, this text tells us that Jesus as a human being had to share our fleshy nature to become our High Priest. A priest stands before God in place of his people, and offers God the sacrifice required. So only a man of flesh-and-blood can represent us, flesh-and-blood people. He had to be like us in every way to minister to the Father on our behalf. For us to be near to God, we need a pure human priest to lead the way. This is the same point behind Paul specifying in 1 Timothy 2:5 that there is only one Mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ. So in last—but not least!—place, Jesus had to become a human being to be our High Priest before God, a work essential to our salvation which continues forever. In fact, this is the key reason we know that Jesus is still human, though that’s definitely a topic for another day.

Anyway, to recap, this is why Jesus became flesh and blood for our salvation. We were supposed to be the rulers of God’s creation, but when we sinned we became subject to death. And when we became subject to death, Satan–who wields death as his power–became a ruler over us. So when Jesus became one of us, when He came in our dying flesh, He started fighting back. He cast out demons and went to war against Satan’s kingdom. He forgave sins and removed Satan’s ground for accusing us before God. Finally, He died. It looked like Satan had beaten Jesus, beaten God, with his weapon of death, but then Jesus rose from the dead. Now Satan has nothing left. No sickness, sin, or death can defeat the Christ who healed, forgave, and rose again. So Jesus, having ascended to heaven, stands now in glory and honor, the conquering human King who has won back humanity’s God-given place as the rulers of this world and defeated Satan who stole that place, and our eternal High Priest representing and substituting for us all in God’s presence.

At this point, we see just how important Jesus’ human flesh was to our salvation. If Jesus had no human body, then none of this chain would have worked. There would be no truly human person to represent and substitute on our behalf, healing sickness, forgiving sin, and beating bodily death. No human being would take the throne of creation to restore humanity to their proper place in the world. Satan would still hold the power of death, since without a physical body Christ could have no physical resurrection to remove the sting of physical death. Jesus had to be like us in every way if He was to suffer for us, forgive us, and empathize with us a High Priest before the Father. And without His flesh, He could do not a single one of these things. We’d still be doomed.

Flesh and Human Existence

This brings me to my next point. A creative and curious person could ask, “Why did Christ need a body for all this? Couldn’t He have accomplished all these things in a spiritual way without coming in the flesh?” And of course, when dealing with God, the answer would have to be “Sure He could.” But, to do that He would have had to make us simply spiritual beings without physical bodies. Or He could have made us with bodies that don’t matter, with only the spirit counting for anything, like the ancient Gnostics believed. But that’s not how He chose to create us. He already had the angels who were purely spirit. When God chose to create man, He chose to create a kind of person with a real, physical nature. He made people defined by having bodies.

Some of you may think this is strange. After all, don’t we believe, to supposedly quote C. S. Lewis, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul; you have a body?” Well, no, and Lewis never said this, either. The truth is that God made us equally body and soul, physical and spiritual. The entire Bible shows the importance of this, starting with creation. When God created mankind, He made them from the dust of the earth first, and only then added spiritual life. The physical was an integral part. Then He blessed the first humans in a physical way, giving them rule over the physical world and telling to make babies. He created mankind in His own image, and this actually means something very physical which most people don’t realize.

See, in the ancient cultures surrounding early Israel, a six day building project would represent the construction of a temple to a god. At the end of the six days, an image of the god would be placed in the temple to represent its presence and authority. An visible, material idol was placed there to stand in for the invisible, immaterial deity. So in Genesis 1 we can see that same concept being used by Moses under the inspiration of the Spirit to show all creation as the massive and glorious temple of the one true God. At the end of the construction, He places an image in the temple to carry out His authority on the earth. Just like the idols of the other ancient temples, in this case a physical image–humanity–is created specifically to exercise His authority and care in creation. So even part of what defines our being made in the image of God is precisely the fact that we are physical!

The theme of man’s physical existence goes on and on from that point. In the Law, God chose to set Israel apart by all sorts of physical signs that affected their day to day bodily life. He wanted to them even conform their flesh to His purposes, as proved by food laws, purity and cleanliness laws, laws about property and land, and even laws about going to the bathroom! The primary sign of His covenant was the intimate and very physical cut of circumcision. All through the Law is this theme: God cares about the physical aspect of being human, and even that part is essential to being who He made us to be.

The pattern continues explicitly in the New Testament, for example in Paul’s teaching on sexual immorality. He strongly condemns all fornication, adultery, prostitution, etc because why? Because the body is irrelevant to our life? By no means! He says that the body is for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. According to Paul our flesh counts a lot.

This all culminates in the Christian hope of resurrection. This is the final hope of Christianity as opposed to others. Unlike the Buddhists and Hindus, today’s New Age spiritualities, the Platonists and Gnostics of yesteryear, we do not hope to escape the body to spend eternity in some pure spiritual existence, but God has promised us the resurrection of our bodies, the transformation of corruptible flesh to incorruptible, mortal bodies to immortal ones. He proved this when He raised Jesus from the dead in a body that is still solid to the touch and capable even of eating. And if this resurrection is so important and lies behind our future resurrection, then clearly our bodies matter so much that they were included in God’s salvation for us..

This means Jesus had to become flesh. If Jesus didn’t become flesh, then we poor humans who God designed in such a fleshy way would be hopeless. When bodies are in trouble, what can they gain from pure spirit? It would be all over our heads and irrelevant to this bodily life God created for us. At best we could only be half saved, with our souls rescued and our bodies abandoned, leaving us incomplete for eternity. So Hebrews is right. Since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus had to become like His brothers in every way. He had to save bodies, not just souls.

Flesh and Loving Thy Neighbor

But this brings me to my third point. We should rejoice that God Himself, the Creator of all who is who He is and dwells in heaven, loved us so much that He was willing to become a real, fleshy human being to save us. I mean, it’s ridiculous when you really think about it. This glorious and unfathomable God became a helpless baby. He cried for food. He pooped and needed diaper changes. He got confused and scared when His mommy left the room. He tumbled around learning to walk. He made silly sound while learning to talk. He did chores, got hot, got cold, got hungry, and experienced hardship. In fact, since Joseph kind of disappears from the Bible by Jesus’ adulthood and on the cross Jesus gave care of Mary to John, Joseph probably died. If so Jesus suffered the pain of losing His stepfather. He grew up and went through puberty, probably getting embarrassing acne and for all we know maybe even crushing on some pretty Jewish girl. He learned to be a handyman and worked with tools in the hot sun to make a living. Then He got baptized, a sign of repenting from sin, in front of a bunch of people even though He was sinless. He gave up food for 40 whole days, being tempted by His growling stomach to cheat and poof up something to eat. From that point on He spent over three years meeting people of all kinds, with every disease and injury known to man, to have mercy on them. He witnessed bruised and broken bodies, disgusting to sight and smell. He associated with the worst of sinners and people of the lowest situation. He helped the poor and the needy in their distress. Finally He suffered and died with criminals and was buried like any other dead man. All of this, He did for us and for our salvation, out of gratuitous love. We ought to be completely grateful, humbled, and worshipful that He submitted to all this so that we could be rescued from it.

But that, praise be to God for it, is still not my third point. My third point can be found in Philippians 2:4-11. My third point, the real life application, is that we should do the same thing that Jesus did. We should suffer all of this to rescue others. Here’s what those verses say:

Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.

Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.

Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.

When he appeared in human form,
he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
and gave him the name above all other names,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

This is what we learn from the Incarnation, from the fact that Jesus Christ came in the flesh. He humbled Himself and lived among those in the depths of sin and death. So go thou and do likewise. Jesus descended to a stable, so can we not enter the slums? Jesus got up close and personal with people who had leprosy, a disease that leads to bruising and loss of body parts. So should we.

I remember once when I was a pretty young that I told my dad I couldn’t possibly work with people so diseased or injured that they looked really gross. I just didn’t think I could handle it. As a good father should have, he rebuked me and asked how I was supposed to follow Jesus’ example. I never forgot that, and in working on this sermon I remembered it and realized how profound that rebuke was. This is the same lesson we learn in Jesus’ coming in the flesh for us. He got down in the dirt to help us, so we should get down in the dirt to help others. Jesus, as I mentioned earlier, went through puberty for us. As someone only 20 years old myself, I remember well that process and think that alone was enough of a sacrifice to teach us that God means business.

I don’t want this to stay abstract, either. I want to cut right to the real life implications of what I’m saying. If Jesus was willing to come so far down for us, we ought to really be working that kind of humble love into our lives. So think for a moment. When was the last time you visited someone who was sick, someone outside of your close family? When have you visited someone in prison, someone who however evil he may be would still be as sympathetic as any villain on Once Upon a Time if you knew his story?

Of course, for many of us the answer to both of this might be “Never.” Because we don’t do what Jesus did. Instead of humbling ourselves in obedience and stepping down from our comfort, we build up walls and separate ourselves from the lowest parts of this world. We try to protect our families from that bad world out there by not associating too much with prostitutes, drug users, homeless bums, and just rude poor people who smoke too much, even though this is precisely the kind of person Jesus sought out. We have all sorts of excuses, and I want you all to think for a moment if you do this at all.

The call of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is to get away from this secluded, protected world of our own making. We are told to have the same attitude as Jesus, who left the eternal glory of His Father to help slimy rich guys who cheat the commoner along with poor women who sell their bodies for extra cash. So we ought to be doing the same kinds of things, going to hospitals, prisons, orphanages, ghettos, slums, and poverty-stricken communities in landfills. We have to become part of these groups, these peoples, not sharing in any of their sins but sharing completely in their relationships. Just like Jesus made His home among our miserable race, we should be willing even to make our home within the worst nations, regions, or neighborhoods. And why? To love them and show them Christ, who humbled Himself to an even greater extent.

Naturally, we do not all have the same precise call in fulfilling this mission. Some of you parents may simply need to interact with the marginalized parents and their children at school. Some of you might need to get into prison ministry, or to start a ministry for visiting hospitalized people without families or friends. Perhaps you should get involved with one of the food pantries around, or if you know where to find one a rehab group or organization. I suspect at least a couple of you may be required to move, maybe to a third world tribe, a persecuted land, or even a crime-infested inner city. After all, people in all these places I’ve mentioned need to be helped, both body and soul, by Spirit-led believers who can share with them not only blessings for the moment but blessings for eternity in Christ.

I know, though, that these are serious callings. I also know that it is bold of me to say what I am saying, that every single one of you has some way that you are obligated in the Lord to radically humble yourselves into the depths of our broken world to bless others. And it’s a scary demand. If we do these things, Jesus promises we run the risk of being hurt physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. In some cases–if we’re doing it right–our lives may end up at stake. But where God’s call is high, His grace is even higher. See, if we are following the example of our Lord Jesus in His Incarnation, when He came in the flesh for us, then we can know for certain that God will do the same thing for us in the end that He did for Jesus. And what did He do? He vindicated Him. He raised Him from the dead and highly exalted Him, proving that He was in the right the whole time and giving Him power and authority. And God has promised to do the same thing for us. The same Spirit who raised Jesus will raise us, and if we humble ourselves we will be exalted in due time. In the end, God will publicly declare our righteousness and prove it by our good works, and He will give us authority in His kingdom. So we don’t have to be afraid. We don’t have to worry. The worst that could possibly happen if we follow Jesus in this way is that we could die, which we know will be undone in our physical bodies at the end. Because Jesus came in the flesh.

The Call to Believe

But of course, if you don’t have that same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead, you won’t be raised. In that case there would be no hope and there is good reason for you to fear. If you are not united to Jesus Christ in the likeness of His dead and resurrection, then you are still under the one who holds the power of death, that is, the Devil. And if you merely say, “Lord, Lord,” but don’t actually do the Father’s will in imitating the love of Jesus in His coming in the flesh, listen to what Jesus says in Matthew 25:31-46,

“But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’

“Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’

“And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’

“And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.”

So if you are one of these goats who claims to follow Jesus but really doesn’t, or if you don’t even acknowledge Jesus as Lord at all, then you have no other choice. I’ve told you how much God loved you that He went through the whole course of human life, from dirty diapers to acne to death itself, to free you and bring you to Himself. And as we saw in Hebrews 2, He did everything that was needed to save you, since we humans were all trapped by death and couldn’t save ourselves. Now it is finished, like Jesus said on the cross. He’s done it all and by tasting death for everyone He reconciled everyone to God. So as I step down, I assume they’ll move into invitation. Which means you should repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord. You will be saved. Then just like Jesus came down from heaven, come down to this altar and arrange to be baptized, so that by experiencing this sign of Jesus’ death and resurrection you can start your own journey to follow after His life of humble love.

A Better Reason to Work Hard

Work hard, make money, live the American Dream. Sound good? That’s the normal philosophy of middle class people in our rather rich nation. The point of work in our Western, individualist culture is to make money that we can use to get a nice house (eventually a dream house), fill the house with nice goodies, and live a comfortable life. This basic assumption is often carried over without second thought into Christian circles. But I want today to give two Biblical reasons to work, emphasizing one of them in particular.

As I can see, there are two main reasons to work from a perspective set on the Kingdom of God. The first is simple: to enable us with our money to maintain quiet lives for ourselves and our families. We have basic needs like food, clothes, and shelter, and if we want to do anything for God’s Kingdom these needs must be met. In God’s providence, He usually gives these to us through a job. So we must work. Proverbs is full of such affirmations of work as how we get our provisions (Prov. 12:11, 12:14, 16:26, 28:19), while Scripture is clear that even what we get from work is from God (Ps. 34:10, Prov. 10:3, Matt. 6:25-34). This especially important when you have a family to take care of, since God truly values family.

But there is another and, I daresay, a higher reason to work hard. What is this reason? I’ll let Paul explain:

The thief must no longer steal. Instead, he must do honest work with his own hands, so that he has something to share with anyone in need.

Ephesians 4:28

While the thief’s repentance is the first point of the verse, I don’t think saying this applies to us all would be a stretch. Why should we do honest work with our own hands? So we have something to share with anyone in need.

The significance of this cannot be understated in my opinion. I don’t know about you, but in practice I mostly work to pay my own bills, build my little guy a college fund, and save for a rainy day. All of these have something in common: they do not go beyond my own household, which is in no danger of real poverty. If all else failed, my wife and I have very awesome and supportive families to fall back on.

Not everyone is so blessed. Many people have no fallback. They are broke and alone. Around the world people starve and live in landfills. Many people are bound by slavery, oppressive governments, or excessive debt. Some people are in trouble by their own fault, some are innocent victims, though they are all in need either way. This world is filled with “anyone in need.”

So when we work, we can’t do so only concerned with ourselves, but also others (Phil. 2:4). When we earn money, we should not only spend our earnings for ourselves but for others. Our financial goals should not be just about our own families, but also about poorer families. Sometimes a penny saved should be a penny given, and instead of merely seeking to build up our retirement and vacation funds, we have to consider all the people out there who don’t even have funds for groceries.

Not only should we think of these things and do them, but they should motivate us. Paul did not say to work and to share, but to work so we can share. The kind of love God calls us to in the Gospel of His Son is so radical that it demands (and creates!) the transformation of our priorities and interests. Jesus says to become deeply concerned with others, not merely to act that way.

So let everyone work not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.

Jesus the New and True Israel

What do God’s redemptive plan and the movie Inception have in common? Complex layers within complex layers. If you don’t know Inception, the movie is about dreams, and involves dreams within dreams within dreams. Each dream is very different, but also very connected to the dreams on the higher and lower levels. The dreams are all important and, after you wake up, end up changing your real life.

How does this relate to God’s redemptive plan? Like the Inception dreams, the history God shapes with His people has many very different but very connected parts. What happened with Adam is connected to what happened with Noah, which is connected to what happened with Abraham, which is connected to what happened with Isaac, Jacob, and all Israel, which is connected to what happened with Jesus. In fact, from the beginning with Adam, everything that happened was similar to and leading up to Jesus.

The most important connections involve Israel. In order to redeem all humanity, God chose one particular human family starting with Abraham (Gen. 12:3). These people came to be known as Israel, and they were not chosen because they were any different than everyone else (Deut. 9:4-5). In fact, as the whole sweep of the Old Testament reveals, the Israelites were no less messed up than all humanity. They had to be for God to bless all nations through them. If a doctor wants to cure a disease, will he study the healthiest person around and use him to test potential cures? No, he will take an average sick person just like all the rest, so that by curing one of them he can cure them all.

So what happened to Israel? First, they were born from a normal family. After an exile to Egypt, who persecuted them and killed their babies, they were baptized through the waters of the Red Sea (1 Cor. 10:1-2) and entered the desert, where they were tempted for 40 years. They received God’s laws so that they would love Him and love each other. As a kingdom of priests, God intended to make them shine before the world so that He would be worshiped by every people. After the 40 years they entered their land and conquered the evil people living there. But they disobeyed, so God let them be conquered themselves and carried off into another exile. Yet He was faithful to His promise, so He brought them back. (See a summary of all this in Acts 7:2-50.)

Since Israel failed so miserably and constantly, God’s plan to bless everyone on earth through them seemed to be at a standstill. How would God save the world if His chosen people were so stubborn and always resisted the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51)? As the prophets foretold in shadowy and obscure language, God Himself was going to create the perfect Israelite obedience He was looking for. He became a human being, a Jew Himself, so that despite human problems He could fulfill His covenant from both sides. The human being Jesus, who is the eternal Word of God, acted both as the faithful God and the faithful Israelite. But He couldn’t just start from the middle of their failures. He had to go back and redo the whole project.

Jesus was born in a normal family (Matt. 13:54-56). After escaping to Egypt while Herod killed babies, He was called out of Egypt back to the Promised Land (Matt. 2:15-16). There He was baptized in the waters of the Jordan River (Luke 3:21-22), and after that He entered the desert to be tempted for 40 days (Matt. 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13). He preached to Israel how to really obey God’s law to love Him and others (Matt. 5-7) and made His disciples to be the light of the world for God’s glory (Matt. 5:14-16). Then He went around Israel conquering the forces of evil in all forms: demons, death, suffering, and sin (Matt. 8:16-17). Through the Spirit (Luke 4:14) by means of prayer (Heb. 5:7) He remained obedient to God to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:8). But God was faithful to His beloved Son and brought Him back from the dead (Acts 13:30-37).

If you missed the strength of these parallels, try reading the paragraph about Israel again. I didn’t even cover them all. There are several smaller details as well, such as the miraculous feedings (Matt. 14:13-21 with 2 Kings 4:42-44), raising children from the dead (Matt. 9:18-26 with 2 Kings 4:18-37), and judging Jerusalem with the Temple (Luke 21:5-24 with 2 Chron. 36:10,15-19). Jesus relived the history of Israel, but with one crucial difference. Israel gave into temptation and disobeyed, leading to exile, and received a partial restoration simply because God was faithfully merciful, but Jesus resisted temptation and remained obedient, leading to a saving death, and He received a total, one-of-a-kind resurrection because of His own faithfulness to God.

This retelling of Israel’s story in Jesus is actually how we are saved. Israel, as we mentioned before, was only ever made of normal people among normal people. They stood before God as a microcosm of the entire human race. So by blessing and saving Israel God intended to bless and save all the world (again, Gen. 12:1-3). Yet Israel was unfaithful, and was always going to turn out that way, so within God’s chosen people God brought forth His chosen Son, Jesus. Jesus redid and repaired Israel’s history in His own life, winning salvation for His people (Matt. 1:21). His people, by the way, are firstly Israel, since He is a Jew, and secondarily all people, since He is human (Heb. 2:5-18). This is how salvation is from the Jews (John 4:22), and why Paul tells us that salvation and condemnation will come for the Jew first and also the for the Gentiles (Rom. 2:9-10). Jesus’ life fulfilled Israel’s life which fulfills humanity’s life.

Given all this, I can’t think of anything else to say. Words fail the complex reality God has accomplished in His Son. Praise God for Jesus, the new and true Israel!

Every Lucid Moment

Hazy. That’s  the best word I could think of to describe many of the hours in my average day. I’m not sure what all I did or how much I enjoyed it. During the day I tend to slip into a mode: doing what I do. And at the end of the day I find myself wondering: what have I even been doing?

See, when I think about it, there is quite a bit I’d like to change about my life. I’d like to spend less time on the computer doing mostly nothing and more time enjoying the family God has entrusted to me. I’d like to pray more, and spend more time reading Scripture. While I read lots of random articles and blog posts online, I know I would benefit from reading more real books. 

Beyond habits and time management, I have character issues and virtues to work on. I want to become less self-centered and more aware of others. In my relationships I want to be more genuinely interested in what other people say, do, and care about. I’m too arrogant in my knowledge and could use some humility. Perhaps my most practically difficult flaw is my grand introspection, where I inflate my every last mistake into a life-scale issue by tracing out all the flaws in my heart and worrying about my ability to fix them into the future.

All of this deserves my effort and careful attention as I live out my day. I can only make progress if I actually try to. But alas, I don’t usually think about these things until the hour that they become painful problems. After that’s over, I remember my lesson for a while and then forget as I get back into the groove of everyday life. Next thing I know I’m making the same mistakes again. And so the circle goes on.

What I have come to realize is how very necessary it is that I capitalize on the moments when I am thinking and genuinely concerned. During the times in which I am aware of my flaws, I have to make what progress I can before life sweeps away my focus. This is what I usually fear to do, sometimes out of the fear of what might happen if I do change, and sometimes out of the fear that I won’t be able to keep up whatever I wish to accomplish. I find myself too often paralyzed by the awareness of my impending forgetfulness. So then I lose the moment, and the pain which brought me clarify becomes vain.

Obviously, what I ought to do is very different. The lucidity which fills me with fear for my future ability to do right ought to take one more step. When I think even more clearly, I see that any progress I hope to make must start with the moments that I can see that I need it. This means taking the first act, doing whatever I can to grow, instead of doing like I normally will and waste the time fretting over my lack of willpower. I have to capitalize on the times God opens my eyes before they fall shut again.

The best way to do this is to pray. While other actions are also necessary, I must take every lucid moment to pray. After all, there is no way for me to grow apart from the Holy Spirit. My flesh can only do so much, and its fruits are always full of worms. So when I know I am nothing and in need, my immediate response must be to call on the Lord, who gives to all generously and without criticizing. He promises to be my healer, the one who sanctified me and will sanctify me. If I don’t do this, if I wait or let my apprehension keep me from moving, what hope will I have? If I don’t take the opportunity to ask, seek, and knock before I forget what I am looking for, I will only come away empty-handed.

Father, you are my only hope. In Jesus you have created the perfect human life that I so desperately need. So by your Spirit living inside me, uniting me with your holy Son, let me become the man you call me to be. Every time you open my eyes, let me make the move I must make, and pray so you can continue to move me. Then when I am back in the normal course of life, I can trust you to work behind the scenes. In the name of my only Lord Jesus, Amen.

So I find that this law is at work: when I want to do what is good, what is evil is the only choice I have. My inner being delights in the law of God. But I see a different law at work in my body—a law that fights against the law which my mind approves of. It makes me a prisoner to the law of sin which is at work in my body. What an unhappy man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is taking me to death? Thanks be to God, who does this through our Lord Jesus Christ!

Romans 7:21-25a

Jesus Is Lord, the U.S. Government Is Not

“Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not.” This quote from N. T. Wright (among others) reflects what he sees as a major subversive political message throughout the Gospels and the New Testament in its entirety. The fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead despite the agreement of Jewish and Roman political leaders to kill Him means that the authorities of this world have no real power. The greatest power of tyrants is death, and Jesus undid death. This reality of resurrection is a threat to all world powers. Christ’s people are therefore free to live as citizens of the kingdom to come and not the kingdoms of this world.

Of course, this sounds rather irrelevant to modern life for the most part, at least in the Western world and America. We don’t live in a dictatorship, or an absolute monarchy, or a police state, or any recognizable kind of political tyranny. Instead we pride ourselves on being a free country. So the significance of “Jesus is Lord, [insert political power here] is not” can be lost on us. 

But at the same time, there is something slightly subversive even now in saying, “My allegiance is to Jesus Christ, not the United States of America. My country is from above, and in this nation I live as a foreigner. The President, Congress, and the courts can say what they like, but if I obey them it is to better serve Christ, and not for their sake.” After all, we look to the government to affirm right and wrong, do something about our national problems, and maintain order among the people. So a statement like this grounded in Jesus risen Lordship can’t help but strike lots of people as at least a bit rebellious and dangerous.

But what brings me to this topic? I know this will get me a facepalm from my more liberal friends (both politically and theologically), but it’s of course about a certain Supreme Court case. Unless you’ve been living under a rock lately, you probably know that Obergefell v. Hodges is set to determine the future of gay marriage in all 50 states. And unless you’ve been living under a rock for 50 years, you can probably guess how this will turn out. Given the status of public opinion on gay marriage, and the spirit of the age, it seems likely enough that this case will result in the determination of a “Constitutional right” to gay marriage in the entire nation.

Obviously, the mere existence of gay marriage won’t hurt me or others who oppose it, but the real issue comes in the affect unanimous government approval of gay marriage would have on churches and Christian schools. As it stands, most churches can choose to only hire straight pastors and other staff members and to only marry straight couples. Generally, Christian schools are not obligated to hire gay teachers or enroll students in gay marriages. We have moral standards based on traditionally solid readings of the Holy Scriptures, and we can for the most part honor those beliefs in how we run schools and churches.

This may very well not continue following the Supreme Court’s ruling. If you’ve paid attention to the news lately, you may have seen the comment by Solicitor General Donald Verrili in the case arguments. Chief Justice John G. Roberts asked him about the tax exempt status of religious schools who oppose gay marriage. Bob Jones University was previously stripped of their tax exempt status for banning interracial relationships, and the Chief Justice asked if the same would happen to places with policies against homosexuality. The response:

You know, I—I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. I—I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is—it is going to be an issue.

So we have from the mouth of an important political official that there will be some kind of problem with the ability of Christian colleges to oppose gay marriage if the ruling enforces its recognition. That is dangerous to Christians, since here we have the legitimate possibility of the government wielding taxation as a weapon to make believers conform to the mindset of the world at large. If this happens, it will be the declaration, “We are Lord, your Jesus is not.”

This problem can also be seen in the statements of various politicians around the nation. Most recently Hillary Clinton comes to mind. Here’s what she said about abortion “rights”:

Far too many women are still denied critical access to reproductive health care and safe childbirth. All the laws we’ve passed don’t count for much if they’re not enforced…Rights have to exist in practice — not just on paper…Laws have to be backed up with resources and political will. And deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.

There’s no trick or quote mining here. Hillary’s record on these matters speaks for itself. For Hillary Clinton, one of the foremost representatives of the Democratic Party and half the country, religious convictions are an obstacle to be overcome so that people can have abortions. Disagreement cannot be tolerated. The law must spite religious belief and move the people towards liberalism’s goals. 

Unfortunately, beliefs like these are all to common and seem to be the trajectory of the government. Soon Christian schools and churches are likely to be faced with a choice: obey Christ or country. Let your judge be God or government. And of course if you choose to believe that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not, there will be consequences. They’ll likely start out purely within the economic sphere (taxes and fines), but do not be surprised if they move on from there. Christian schools could potentially lose accreditation. Churches could lose their buildings. And there’s always the possibility of more “hate speech” laws leading to jail time for Christian pastors, professors, and bloggers.

Of course, I’m not here simply to scare anyone or complain about the victories of some conspiratorial liberal elite. I’m simply making the point that our government is reaching a point where it considers itself the “father” of church. Religions are like rambunctious children who must be corrected and disciplined so that they will do what their parents want. The state is to keep the church in line, not the other way around. This is dangerous and points ever so subtly towards an innocent-looking, nearly accepted totalitarianism. 

We know, however, that Jesus is Lord and the U.S. government is not. Whatever they say, we must continue to follow Christ. For we don’t obey the laws of this world for their own sake, as though they had any real authority. We obey them for the Gospel, so that by submitting to the institutions God has given power for the sake of maintaining order we may live quiet, respectful, and peaceful lives which witness to God’s amazing grace in Jesus Christ.

This means that when it comes down to it on issues like abortion and gay marriage, or anything else which comes up, we will not waver but follow the faith we have received. We trust that whatever the fallout, we will be vindicated and restored by our Father, if not in this life then in the resurrection. But this also means that we should not go out of our way to cause trouble. While we should stand our ground, we should avoid being feisty, aggressive, or rebellious. These are not Christian virtues and will only unnecessarily hinder our respectable witness. 

I suppose I’ve rambled a bit, so here’s my main point: the U.S. government is coming to a place where it thinks it can control the Christian religion. But it cannot. Whatever authority it presumes to have is undermined by the victory of Jesus. So if they try to oppose us in whatever ways, we are already on the winning side. Because of Christ, we need not fear or get feisty, but can be bold, brave, and also respectably self-controlled. For Jesus is Lord, and the U.S. government is not.