Jesus the Prophet and the Word

A sermon I preached this morning. I pray it will be of some edification.

So, I am not one to get too political in the pulpit for the sake of simply avoiding unnecessary strife. Christians can and do disagree on political issues, though I do believe that Scripture and Christian preaching can and does have some things to say to politics. I’m also not intending to make political point here or offend anyone. But I wanted to menion a funny story I’ve run across about Donald Trump because it is related to what I’m preaching on this morning.

In an interview a while back, Trump was being asked about his relationship with God. He was asked this question: “You have said you never felt the need to ask for God’s forgiveness, and yet repentance for one’s sins is a precondition to salvation. I ask you the question Jesus asked of Peter: Who do you say He is?”

Trump’s first response originally was mostly irrelevant and ignored the issue to point out how much support he has from Christians. But then he was asked the question again to get back on track, and he said this: “Jesus to me is somebody I can think about for security and confidence. Somebody I can revere in terms of bravery and in terms of courage and, because I consider the Christian religion so important, somebody I can totally rely on in my own mind.”

Now, obviously this is a silly answer. It’s nearly a joke. It doesn’t tell you who Jesus is, just how Trump supposedly feels about Him. I bring this up not to Trump-bash, but to make a point. The identity of Jesus is important. Even crazy Presidential candidates are forced to reckon with it. Jesus left the earth 2000 years ago but people still have to answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?”

Well, that’s my theme today, and for the next however many times I get to preach here. I want to look at the different Biblical angles for understanding who Jesus of Nazareth, called “Christ” and “Son of God,” is, and I want to see what focusing on these different angles can tell us about our relationship to Him and how we ought to live as His people.
So for today I want to start with something very basic, an aspect of Jesus’ identity that almost anyone could agree on from simple history. This is Jesus as a prophet. It cannot be denied that, whatever else Jesus was, He was a prophet. Everyone is willing to concede that, whether atheists, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, or random people off the street. Some might think He was a false prophet, and some might think His prophecies came from delusions or evil schemes, but it is uncontroversial to say that Jesus lived as a prophet. It is also the first in most orderings of what people like John Calvin have called the “threefold office of Christ” as prophet, priest, and king. So I’d like to look at Jesus’ prophetic role according to Scripture, and then to see what we can learn from that.

But in order to do that, I will actually also have to go deeper, because a prophet cannot be understood apart from his message, his word. In the case of Jesus, He Himself is a word, actually the Word of God the Father. Because of this any attempt at explaining Jesus’ prophetic office apart from His being the divine Word can only be incomplete. But with both of these in mind, Jesus as prophet and as Word, we will be able to see just how knowing who Christ is can change our lives as His followers.

So, with that goal in mind, on to what Scripture says about Jesus as a prophet. The first thing to notice is that, with our order of the Old Testament canon, Jesus in the New Testament comes right after the prophets. I’m not convinced that this is any arbitrary coincidence. I think it matters. Throughout the OT prophets we see Israel struggling with God, sinning and begging for help and almost repenting but still sinning more, and God kept sending them prophets. These prophets brought God’s word to Israel, usually warnings of judgment or promises of restoration, and in fact most of the time both are mixed. Then there is silence for 400 years. The last prophet writes and dies, and no word from God comes to Israel for centuries.

It is at this point that John the Baptist shows up, the first prophet in a very long time. He announces that the Lord is coming and that the people need to get ready and repent. Then Jesus comes to Him and is baptized, and immediately begins His own prophetic ministry. The very first words we here from Jesus in the Bible are in Matthew 4:17, and they are words of prophecy. He starts preaching, “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near!”

At this point it would be useful to clarify what the prophetic office is. Essentially, to be a prophet is to hear God’s word and relay it faithfully to men. This is a human task, something which humans do for God and for their listeners. It is a kind of work as a mediator, in this case mediating messages, as opposed to the priest who mediates blessing or cursing, or the king who mediates justice. God elects a man as a prophet, calls him to obedience, and entrusts him with a word for God’s people.

Part of the reason for this need is that God transcends us. He is Creator and we are creature. There is an infinite qualitative distinction between God and man. We quite literally have nothing in common with God by nature. Some people would say that we’re like ants or cockroaches compared to God, but even that makes us seem more like Him than we really are. It takes omnipotent power to bridge this gap. Because of this humans can only hear from God if God first puts His words into a human mouth. Otherwise His word, as pure and holy and omnipotent as it is, would be a poweful terror for us, like when God spoke to Israel from Mt. Sinai and they begged Him to stop and speak only to Moses.
But what makes a prophet able to hear God’s word if others cannot? This is the role of the Holy Spirit. This is why in the Old Testament in the few occasions that people are filled with the Spirit, many of them are prophets. The Spirit fills the prophet with the word of God, and the prophet speaks the word of God using his human words. This means that ordinary people can then hear the word of God and respond to it.

This brings us to Jesus’ baptism, the start of His prophetic ministry. At His baptism, according Matthew, Luke, and John, the Spirit came and dwelt in Jesus. We must remember that Jesus’ humanity was truly and fully human in a normal sense, and so in His human life He also needed the Spirit to empower Him for His prophetic ministry. So once He was baptized, anointed as a prophet, He was filled with the Spirit and began preaching.
This actually now brings us to my main text on Jesus’ prophetic office. What matters most for prophets is the message they preached, so I want to go to Luke 13 to find a summary of basically Jesus’ entire message, beginning in verses 1-5.

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

What Jesus says here is actually in His preaching all of the time in all of the Gospels. Roman oppression has killed some Jews. That’s a normal part of the background of the day, and one of the main concerns of the Jewish people who were waiting for their Messiah to rescue them. But of course there was a tendency to view the people who suffered most as the worst sinners, as though the people who Pilate killed were special targets of divine judgment. Jesus corrects them by saying that unless they repent, they will all suffer the same fate. He brings up another example of a tower which fell in Siloam and killed people. Those people weren’t any more guilty either. Unless they repented, they would all likewise perish.

Now, it is important to realize that this isn’t just Jesus saying, “Everyone’s a sinner.” Jesus was a prophet to Israel specifically, just like most the prophets before Him. Israel needed to repent, and Israel was in danger of coming judgment. It’s also important to realize that Jesus isn’t saying, “These people died, and if you don’t repent you will go to Hell.” The word for “likewise” in “likewise perish” means “in the same way.” These people died by Romans violence and falling buildings. Here Jesus prophesies not just any judgment, but the judgment coming on Israel through Rome. This is, again, just like the prophets before Him. They prophesied coming judgments by God through the armies of Babylon, or Assyria, or other nations. Jesus prophesied a coming judgment by Rome. Unless they repent, they will perish under Roman violence and collapsing buildings, a prophecy which was fulfilled when Titus destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70.
This is a constant theme of Jesus, and it is core to His message. It is the point of parables like that of the wicked tenants and the of the talents. We see it pop up again immediately in our chapter, verses 6-9. The fig tree, a figure used in the OT for Israel, has no fruit, and it must be cut down unless it bears fruit very soon. At the end of this chapter, in verses 33-35, Jesus makes the meaning of this message explicit. He says:

It cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! Behold, your house is forsaken.

The message is clear, and it is repeated throughout all of the Gospels over and over again as Jesus battles with the Pharisees, the Saducees, the zealots, and the Herodians. Israel is about to be judged, and God will use Rome, the very nation they expect God to rescue them from, to do it.

There are, though, two major differences between Jesus’ message and the messages of the prophets before Him. First, this is not just one more judgment in an ongoing cycle. This is Israel’s last warning. If they do not repent now, they will not be given another chance. This is most clear in the parable of the wicked tenants. The owner sends messengers and servants, and finally his own son, but the tenants kill the son, so instead of giving more chances the owner destroys them. Israel has been sent many prophets, but Jesus will be the last, and if they reject Him, as Jesus knows they will, then they will be desolated. This exile will be permanent, and Israel will ever be under the curse of the Torah which they disobeyed.

But, despite all of this negativity, there is a strong positive side to Jesus’ message. On the one hand, He preaches coming judgment, but just like the other prophets He preaches with it coming restoration. Unlike the other prophets, He preaches that the restoration is now. This is what we see when we move back to the middle of this chapter. In verses 10-17, Jesus heals a disabled woman and brings glory to God on the Sabbath. He then moves on to talk about the Kingdom of God breaking in small at first but certain to grow into something massive. These are also major themes in His ministry elsewhere. His first prophecy was that the Kingdom of God was coming. These healings are all signs of it. The loose attitude towards Sabbath regulations is also a sign, a sign that the weekly Sabbath law is now being fulfilled in the great Sabbath of the Kingdom of God.
This Kingdom is the Good News of Jesus’ Gospel. Even though there is a coming judgment, there is also a way for forgiveness of sins, healing, and restoration. This way is in following Him, the Messiah. This is what Jesus preached from the beginning, like in Luke 4:18-19:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The year of the Lord’s favor had arrived, and if anyone would repent of their sins, their attempts at establishing their own justification though stricter Torah observance or revolutions against Rome, but instead simply follow God’s Messiah, they would enter into this year, the age to come. This was to be the way out of the judgment. Israel as a whole was ready to reject the Messiah and be judged by God, but those who would instead repent and believe that Jesus is the Messiah would find that they could follow Him into a new way of being God’s people which would survive even the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. This was ultimately the way into the resurrection, the regeneration of the world. Jesus said, “Follow me, and I will give you life in the age to come.”

This all, then, comes back to the belief in Israel since they were originally exiled into Babylon that Yahweh their God had departed from them, especially from Jerusalem and the Temple. The glory which used to fill the Holy of Holies had disappeared, and they suffered constant subjection under the pagans. They had been waiting on God to return to them and rescue them again, to bring His glory back into Israel. Jesus preached just this: the return of Yahweh to Zion, a return which would lead to judgment for the wicked and salvation and resurrection for those who embraced Him.

This actually explains some of Jesus’ more odd prophetic actions like whithering the fig tree or cleansing the Temple. He symbolically announced that judgment had arrived, just as the prophets in the OT performed strange actions to illustrate their points.

But, the way Jesus did these things was all even more odd. His healings, His control over nature, His forgiving sins, riding triumphantly into Jerusalem after declaring maternal care, His cleansing the Temple–all of this almost makes it look as though Jesus were Himself acting as Yahweh returning to Zion. You get the impression that these acts are divine acts. Jesus appears to have considered Himself to be not just Yahweh’s prophet, but in some sense an embodiment of this God Himself.

This could, of course, have been passed off as lunacy or maybe something more devious, especially once Jesus was hung on a cross to die. If Beau were to start acting like he’s God, I think we’d all suspect that he’d gone crazy. So it seemed that way for Jesus, too. If He was in any sense God, or an agent of God, the Cross made no sense. God is the judge, not the judged. He is the life-giver, not mortal.

Yet then after three days Jesus rose from the dead. It would seem that this means Jesus was right. In some sense He was truly acting God’s acts. And it is the Gospel of John which helps us understand this, for in John we find that Jesus is not only a prophet, but the divine Word of God Himself.

This brings us to John 1:1-18, the text where we can see most clearly that Jesus is a prophet who reveals Himself as God. John 1:1 tells us that in the beginning the Word was with God and was God. It tells us that Jesus was and is this Word, the Word of creation, of light, and of life. This Word is not merely from God, but is of the very same being, the same essence as God. Verse 14 is key: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” This Word is God as He knows, sees, and proclaims Himself. The Word of God is God speaking God, and this is precisely who Jesus was. This Word became a human being, and as a human being He became a prophet.

The prohetic office and Jesus’ divine person as the Word of God work together in a unique way. This why is Jesus is not merely another prophet, but the last and the greatest prophet whose coming marks the climax of Israel’s story. The word from God which Jesus spoke in His life was not merely any message, but in fact His own person as God’s self-revelation. Basically, Jesus as a prophet preached the Word of God, but unlike every other prophet Jesus was the very same Word of God which He preached. The judgment Jesus warned Israel about was His own judgment, a judgment He made Himself and suffered Himself. The Kingdom of God He said was coming was in fact His very own authority, His own reign over all the earth. And the return of Yahweh to Zion He announced was literally His coming to Jerusalem as the Word of God.

What we understand from this is something which is elsewhere described in John, namely that the word and act of Jesus the prophet from Nazareth are literally and directly the word and deed of God. There is no difference. In John 5:19 Jesus says it simply: “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.”

So Jesus as a human prophet is somehow from within His human life and nature doing the very work of God. The call to repentance was Gods’ last call to Israel. His healings were not just signs of the coming Kingdom but part of the way God was actually calling the new creation into existence. The judgment He proclaimed would be a judgment He Himself would execute and suffer.

All of this, when brought to the Cross, means that Christ’s suffering, being executed as a false prophet and revolutionary, is in fact the act of God. Jesus died for the nation, for the world, which means that God Himself took upon all of this for us. This means we are assured that at His very core, in the depths of His being, God is for us, a God who self-sacrificially loves us. What Jesus did in His whole life and ministry, but especially on the Cross, is what God does. We know God because we know Christ, and knowing God in this way means that His love for us goes all the way down even into Hell. And this is who God really is. The fact that Jesus is both God’s prophet and God’s Word means that, as Scottish theologian T. F. Torrance liked to say, “There is no God behind the back of Jesus.”

This is the ground of all of our assurance. The prophet who said “Neither do I condemn you” is the same God of the universe who will judge the world. There is no division, or even a true distinction, between the mercy we see in Jesus, the gracious promises He offers to those who follow Him, and who God is toward us. This is how we know that there is absolutely no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. We do not know everything about God by looking at Christ, simply because of human limitations, but because the prophetic word of Christ comes from His person as the Word of God who is God, what we see in Christ is true all the way down into the depths of who God is. To quote Torrance again, “God is deep but not devious.” We can have confidence to follow Jesus wherever He leads because we know that the words by which He leads us is the Word of God, and whatever He tells us about our destination is exactly where we will end up. If we are in Christ, then we are in God, and if we are in God, we have every reason to hope.

But to mention being in Christ brings us to the question of what a life in Christ looks like. This in turn brings us back to Jesus the prophet. When Jesus left His disciples, He did the same thing for them that the prophet Elijah did for his successor Elisha. He left behind His Spirit. At Pentecost, Jesus poured out His own Spirit on the Church, so now by the Spirit we are called to continue Jesus’ ministry as prophets. It is our job to be prophets like Jesus, continuing to proclaim His message. Jesus told everyone about the Kingdom of God wherever He went and whatever He did, and this is how we are also called to live. This is why we must evangelize: we share in the ministry of Jesus as prophet. We have to spread His message in the power of His Spirit now that He has been taken to heaven. Obviously not all of us are prophets in the common sense of receiving direct, personal messages from God and being called to preach them and perform signs to confirm them. Yet in another sense we are all prophets now. We’ve received a direct message from God in the prophetic Word of Jesus. We are called to share this Word, and if nothing else we are supposed to use our lives as signs to confirm it. In Jesus we all become prophets, and as prophets we must share the Word of God, who is Jesus, with the world around us.

Now, if we’re going to be prophets like Jesus, our message needs to match up with His. But there are differences. Much of what Jesus preached was directly to a unique moment in Israel’s history. They were about to be judged, the Old Covenant would end, and the Kingdom would come through Jesus’ own life, death, and resurrection. In our day, all of that has already happened. So how do we carry on Jesus’ message in our AD world? We have to look back, see Jesus’ message, and how He has fulfilled what He preached, and then apply the new situation created by His fulfillment to our message. What does this look like?

To begin with, the whole world today is in a similar situation to Israel. At Pentecost God began to invite all the nations into His covenant. He called the Gentiles to repent and submit to Jesus. But the world in large part hasn’t repented. They’re still sinning and rejecting God’s purposes and calling. They’ve been doing this all since Jesus came on the scene, cooperating with the Jews to kill Jesus. But God has raised Jesus from the dead. That proves all He said was true, and God has now put Him over all the world as its judge. Unless they repent, they will all perish under Christ’s judgment, just like they killed Him under their own.

But even so, the Kingdom of God has entered the world in Jesus, especially in His resurrection. The risen Christ offers eternal life as the source of salvation, a way of escape from the coming judgment and a path into bliss of the age to come. This marks the beginning of a new creation, which will eventually set all the universe free.

So now Jesus is set to return, and when He does judgment will come, but those who believe in Him will find that He has already suffered judgment for them. The wicked will perish and the righteous, specifically those who find righteousness by trusting in Christ, will be raised just like He was.

This is, at least, one possible way to tell the story, a sample of how we carry on Jesus’ message in view of the world’s changed situation after He fulfilled His work. And this king of message is what we need to proclaim. It is what we need to tell our neighbors and friends and coworkers. We have all been called to be prophets of Jesus, following in His footsteps as a prophet, by our union with Him.

So how can we really, practically do this? That’s a great question, and if any of you know the answer I’d be glad to hear it. But seriously, we need to think about that and do what we can to proclaim the word about the Word. Some of that might be personal evangelism, talking one-on-one to people we know. Some of it might be Bible distribution or street preaching. Personally, I would like to see especially here a way to get involved in more canvassing and survey evangelism. And of course there are actual mission trips, and there is VBS and community outreach. We must do all of this, and anything else we can come up with, to be prophets of Christ, sharing His Word with the world.

Our lives must also match our message, just like Jesus’ did. Jesus preached that the time of God’s favor had come, and He proved it by healing, forgiving, and redeeming broken lives. He also preached that the time of judgment had come, and He acted it out in the Temple, on a fig tree, and in His harsh condemnations of the religious elites who were leading people astray. He lived the life He said that God’s people must live in this new time: a life characterized by love for enemies, trust in God, patience under persecution, and compassion and mercy to those in need.

If we are going to be Jesus’ prophets, we have to live the same way. If we don’t, we make our message look fake or powerless. For Jesus there was no difference between the life He lived as a prophet and the divine Word which He was in His person. In the same way, we can’t let there be any difference between our lives and the Word of Jesus that we preach. Of course we will fail at this over and over again. We sin daily, and we fail to be the prophets we are supposed to be. We don’t share the message of Jesus enough or well enough, and we don’t live the kind of way that backs up even what we do say. But Jesus anticipated that from the start, and our union with Him includes our dying with Him, so that our sins are already dealt with. His “Neither do I condemn you” is assured for us. Confident that Jesus will keep His word, since He is God’s Word, we can try again, repent daily, and continue to press on in our lives as prophets of Jesus.

The goal of all of this, of course, is for us to make Jesus visible in both our words and our deeds. We want to direct people away from us and to the Word of God, who Himself was a prophet of His own Word. We basically just want people to see and hear Jesus when they see and hear us, because whoever has seen Jesus has seen the Father. We do and say what Jesus does and says which is what God does and says to reach our final end. We want the world to find life in knowing God. So I encourage all of us, myself more than all of you combined, to take this call to heart and do anything we can to be prophets of Jesus. If we combine our witnesses as the Body of Christ, then one day Isaiah 11:9 can be fulfilled, and “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” This future, the hope of the Kingdom of God, is our call and mission. So let us take up this mission, and follow after our leader, a prophet called Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus the Prophet and the Word

Church Is for the Church

What is a Sunday morning church service for? As Christians, we meet together on the first day of every week, the day of Christ’s resurrection. We sing songs, hear preaching, and (hopefully) take Communion. But why? What is the purpose and goal of this meeting?

To many people, our gathering together as the Church on Sunday is about evangelism, about reaching the lost. Contemporary, upbeat songs attract them, relevant preaching helps them see the usefulness of Christianity to their lives, and finally we invite them to make their professions of faith and perhaps join our church.

Let me be entirely clear from the outset: trying to reach the lost, or doing the things I just mentioned, is not at all bad. I could never say they are. Nonetheless, I believe that the outreach focus is not the right focus for our weekly meetings. As Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is a time and a place for everything, and, Biblically, our weekly gatherings as the Church are not, I am convinced, for evangelistic purposes, but for, well, the Church itself.

Scripturally, church (the weekly service) is for the Church (the people). It is not about reaching unbelievers, but about building up the Body of Christ. Honestly, it would be difficult to point to a particular proof text for this point, but that’s not because it’s unbiblical, but because it is the basic assumption of all the New Testament letters to the churches. Reading any of the letters makes this clear enough if you’re paying attention, but some passages that draw it into sharper focus might be 1 Corinthians 14, large portions of Ephesians, or the latter chapters of Hebrews.

Acts also shows this pattern. There are two parallel ministries in Acts: the evangelistic ministries which occurred out and about in society, and the gatherings of believers by themselves. There was public preaching to the crowds, and after and apart from that the believers gathered together devoting themselves “to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

In fact, this verse I believe sums up how Church is meant to work. In order to become the people we need to be to reach the world for Christ from Monday to Saturday, we must participate in the right Body-building, sanctifying activities together on Sunday. We learn from the apostles’ teaching how to live the Christian life rightly, so that we please God and win people to the beauty of the Gospel life. In fellowship we encourage and assist one another as fellow believers to spur each other on to good works, to reassure doubts, to share burdens and joys, and to share insights and experiences with our common Savior. By the breaking of bread in Communion, we recall the sacrifice of Christ in the past, enjoy His sustaining power for us in the present, and train ourselves to live in anticipation of the resurrection life which we will share with Him in the future. Finally, our collective prayers invite God’s supernatural power and presence into our life together as the Body of Christ. 

These means of sanctification—preaching, fellowship, sacraments, and prayer—are the essential elements of our weekly gatherings as the Church, in addition to worship, and yet are explicitly believer-oriented. Only believers can “devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching” in a productive and transformative way. Only believers can encourage one another with the Gospel, share burdens in Christ, and build each other up with their spiritual gifts. Only believers are permitted to take Communion and so feed on the nourishment of Christ’s body and blood given for us. Only believers have unfettered access to God’s throne of grace for prayer. And only believers know to worship God in spirit and in truth.

The point is fairly simple, then. Our meetings as the Church are meant to be by the Church for the Church. Unbelievers are, of course, welcome. They can come to hear the Gospel, which is always a good thing. We can love them and show them the life of Christ in its beauty. Yet the presence of unbelievers in our meetings is assumed in the New Testament to be occasional and potential rather than normal and intentional (see 1 Cor. 14:23). The basic and important pattern is the gathering of Christians to be Christians.

I again emphasize, though, that this is not at all to say anything against evangelistic outreach towards unbelievers. In fact, I would instead say that the church-for-Church model is an essential part of reaching unbelievers. By concentrating on the strengthening and renewing of our life in Christ together when we meet on Sundays, we can become more and more able to reach the world around us the rest of the week. This is, in fact, exactly what the earliest Christians historically did. They met together early Sunday morning before going to work (as Sunday was a workday for them) for the benefits I mentioned above, and then they set out on their weeks to be the best followers of Christ they could be in the sight of unbelievers. The Lord’s Day was a time to recharge together in the presence of the one Lord, so that by His Spirit they would be empowered to fulfill the Great Commission when they went their separate ways.

I believe we could do well to relearn this approach in modern times. It seems to be more Biblical, and have been more historically effective at producing active Christians, than seeker-sensitive or evangelistic approaches. And in fact, it stands as a challenge to us all specifically in evangelism. It’s harder to be a witness for Christ in our actual, daily lives and reach unbelievers there than to round them up for a Sunday preacher, after all. Maybe if we try we’ll find that the hard way is, as usual, the better.

Church Is for the Church

Jesus the Apocalypse: The Announcement of Elijah

[This is the third post in my Bible study on Mark. See the others here.]

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the LORD, make his paths straight,'”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 

Mark 1:2-8

What the Bible Says

As we saw last time, Mark has just abruptly opened his Gospel with the good news that Jesus is here. Now he moves into the actual story of that arrival. This story begins, rather unexpectedly, not with Jesus Himself but with John the Baptist (or baptizer, as the NRSV renders it).

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah — Mark begins right off with an appeal to the Scriptures, which is a reasonable strategy to back up his claim that Jesus is the Messiah. If anyone is to accept Jesus as Messiah, they will have to see how He fulfills the relevant Scriptures.

A potential problem, for some, arises at this point. While Mark says “the prophet Isaiah,” the following quotation is not just from Isaiah, but actually starts from Malachi. There are also other manuscripts which simply say “the prophets,” which probably resulted from a scribe trying to fix that problem. In the end, though, this doesn’t need to bother us. Over half of the quote is from Isaiah, and since Isaiah is also the more prominent book of the two, the lack of precision is unimportant.

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way — This part of the quote is from Malachi 3:1. In the original context, God was declaring judgment on Judah for her sins. In 2:17, God accuses the people of asking, “Where is the God of justice?” Then 3:1 comes as the answer. God has sent a messenger ahead to prepare His way, and according to the next part of the verse He will come suddenly to His temple. Then verse 2 makes it clear that this visit will be a day of judgment, for “who can endure the day of his coming?”

the voice […] paths straight” — This part of the quote is from Isaiah 40:3. The wording of this verse is very similar to Malachi 3:1, but there is an important difference in meaning. Isaiah 40 is an announcement of comfort and promise of redemption to Israel. Instead of the impending doom Malachi speaks of, this verse references impending forgiveness, despite being nearly the same.

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness — Again, Mark works with sudden appearances, the kinds of abrupt changes you would expect in a vision or dream. Now John has appeared, apparently as the fulfillment of the cited texts. Based on these verses, he is a messenger preparing the way for Yahweh’s return to Jerusalem. The wilderness location is significant. Israel has always had an interesting relationship with the wilderness, having wandered for 40 years. New religious movements at this time often retreated to the wilderness, including Messianic ones. Yet John is not secluding himself with followers; he is baptizing and preaching.

proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins — Now we know what John is preaching. Baptism was at this time a rite that Jewish proselytes (Gentiles who wanted to fully join Judaism and Israel) would undergo, hinting that John saw sinful Israel as cut off from God’s people and they needed to essentially convert as though they were outsiders. They were called to repent and receive forgiveness. I should also point out that this would not have been understood primarily as individual. It wasn’t just about Mr. Jacob or Mrs. Martha. As I mentioned before, most the Israelites still thought of themselves as in exile, and exile was understood as the result of Israel’s sin as a nation. Therefore the call to repent and receive forgiveness would be understood as the means by which Israel might finally return from exile, and thus God’s kingdom would come.

And people […] their sins — The unrest of the time at a national level meant many people were ready to take an opportunity at seeing God’s kingdom come and receiving forgiveness in the return of Israel exile. People flocked to John, clearly enthusiastic about this prospect.

Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey — This well fits John’s persona as a prophet. In fact, it hints, when combined with the prophecy from before, that John is fulfilling the role of Elijah, who was expected to come before God’s kingdom came. Elijah was described similarly in 2 Kings 1:8, and Zechariah 13:4 reveals that this kind of dress was associated with prophets. He also clearly had no trouble with purity laws.

He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. — Again, the role of forerunner is apparent, which strengthens the Elijah parallel. John clearly sees himself not as the Messiah or fulfillment, but as called to prepare Israel for God’s kingdom by preaching repentance.

I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” — This curious statement has always been debated. What does it mean that the one to follow John will baptize with the Holy Spirit? There is no doubt that the Charismatic “baptism of the Holy Spirit” is not in view. No one in John’s day had such a concept, and indeed it did not exist for hundreds and hundreds, if not over a thousand, more years. More likely, the word “baptize” should be understood with its original meaning of “immerse,” so that the picture is of Israel being immersed in the Spirit, which would call to mind eschatological expectations that God would pour out His Spirit on all flesh when His kingdom came (Isa. 44:3, Ezek. 39:29,  Joel 2:28).

The Theology Part

So what picture does this paint for us theologically? The first thing to note is, again, the sudden appearance. Carrying on the visionary or dream-like elements, the Messiah’s forerunner shows up in the wilderness and begins preaching. His message to Israel is that they must repent and be baptized for forgiveness of sins, the return from exile. The theme is clearly the coming of God’s kingdom. The prophecies cited make this abundantly clear, as well as the allusions to John’s role as the coming Elijah.

The specific combination of prophecies used here points to God’s return to Jerusalem as both a positive and negative occurrence, both salvation and judgment. All of the Jews would be expecting this, though later we will see just how subversive and shocking the outplaying of this actually is.

Other overlooked, but in my opinion very important here, is the way the coming of Jesus is identified with the return of God Himself to His people. Remember that both Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1 in their original contexts refer to prophets announcing the coming of the Lord, Yahweh. Yet in Mark “Lord” clearly refers to the subject of verse 1, Jesus the Messiah. This theme will not stop in Mark or any of the Gospels. As we go on, we find it more and more impossible to separate Jesus from God. They are one, and this realization eventually became detailed church tradition in the glorious affirmation of the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.

One more important theological point to notice is the relationship of baptism, repentance, and forgiveness. For some verse 4 would be used with other texts to say that baptism is necessary for salvation. Yet this does not regard the original context of the verse. John was calling for Israel to repent and essentially reconvert to their God in preparation for the return from exile and coming kingdom. This baptism and the baptism instituted by the risen and glorified Christ are not exactly the same, being on opposite sides of the Cross.

What to Do about It

So, what do we get from this? How should the announcement of John the Baptist affect us today? Two main thoughts come to mind.

  • John knew the time had come, and that God’s kingdom was about to break into the world through Jesus Christ. So he preached that message to all who would listen, baptizing them and teaching them to repent of their sins. Now Jesus has gone away, but will return, and we know that He could be back any time. We must therefore follow John’s example, preaching the Gospel of Jesus to all who will listen, baptizing them and teaching them to observe all Jesus commanded. Basically, the Great Commission Matthew 28:19-20.
  • John also was constantly clear to make himself nothing and Christ the focus. We really ought to be doing the same way. So much of our approach as Christians tends to draw attention to the preachers, the speakers, the bloggers, and even us as individuals with our testimonies. Or in church, we may find ourselves trying to get the word out about Our Church, or its programs, music, or relevance. Our worship services may seem more like concerts about the band and lights than about the God who revealed Himself as Jesus Christ. But all of this would be wrong. Our energy should go altogether towards making Jesus the object of focus, desire, and proclamation. If our message is anything but Jesus, we are in trouble.
Jesus the Apocalypse: The Announcement of Elijah

Heaven, Resurrection, and New Creation: Our Destiny in Christ

[This is a sermon I preached a week ago. Like my previous sermon, it is a long read.]

The Mismatch

I want to start out this morning with a few really simple and straightforward questions. No gimmick or trick; I’m just looking for totally natural answers.

What do you smell with? Your nose.

What do you see with? Your eyes.

What do you walk with? Your feet.

Okay, so now, what do all these things have in common? What are they all part of? Your body.

In that case, without body, could you do any of these things? See, hear, walk? No.

And where is your body after you die? In the ground.

So if after you die, your body is rotting in the ground, and you need your body to see, hear, and in particular walk, how can you be walking on streets of gold in heaven?

I’m guessing most people in here, and elsewhere, have never thought of or heard a question like this before. This to me indicates a fault, a crack, in the popular lines of teaching about heaven and life after death. I mean, this is a pretty basic concept. If we won’t have our bodies when we die, how can we be doing anything that involves a body while in heaven? A mismatch like this comes from years of confused traditions, and people randomly combining Bible verses from different contexts. Instead of the overall Biblical theology of life after death, we end up with a buffet collection of heaven parts from different categories. This morning I want to address what’s gone wrong, and how we can recover a Biblical vision of heaven and so on, a vision that might just change the way we see the world and live in it.

See, to be honest the entire emphasis in the church today on “going to heaven when you die” isn’t really from the Bible. The Bible doesn’t talk that much about that. It does talk about salvation and eternal life very often, but if you look through the Bible to see what those are about, you won’t find much about heaven, or even much about what happens when we die. What will you find? You will find something much better. In Scripture, the destiny of believers and the world isn’t just a spiritual place of being with God; it is resurrection and new creation. This is our eternal hope, not so much that Jesus will rescue us from this world, but that He will rescue us and this world from death and decay. Salvation doesn’t mean leaving space, time, and matter behind, but God renewing them all in Christ Jesus.

So I want to look at this all in three major points. (I am going to a Baptist college, after all.) The first is resurrection as the way we will experience eternal life. The second will be the relationship between heaven and the new creation as where we will experience eternal life. Finally, based on these two ideas, I want to look at the ways we get to begin living out eternal life in the here and now. By the end, I hope to have provided a clear vision of God’s gracious destiny for us and the way it can impact our lives.

As Christ, So Us: The Coming Resurrection

On, then, to my first point. Far more than what happens right after we die, Scripture points us to hope in a future bodily resurrection. This theme can be seen all throughout the Bible, starting with God’s promises to Israel. Isaiah 25:8 and 26:19 talk about God destroying death and bringing His people new life. In Ezekiel 37:1-10, God uses the image of resurrection to show Ezekiel His future restoration for Israel. Daniel 12:2 shows us the first verse in the Bible which says straight out that there will be future resurrection.

In the New Testament, resurrection comes into even sharper focus. By this time the Jews had already studied the Old Testament enough to believe in a future general resurrection (except for the Sadducees), and Jesus kept this theme alive. He rebukes the Sadducees about the resurrection in Matthew 22:29-32, promises repayment for generous giving at the resurrection in Luke 14:14, and explains how God gave the future resurrection and accompanying judgment over to Jesus Himself. Then, of course, Jesus Himself died and rose again.

Jesus’ resurrection set the stage for resurrection becoming even more important to the early Christians than it was for the Jews. Paul makes a big deal about the coming resurrection in Romans 8:1-11, 1 Corinthians 6:14, 2 Corinthians 5:1-5, Philippians 3:21, and 1 Thessalonians 4:14, among other places. Later on, Hebrews mentions the resurrection a few times, and Revelation tells the story of the future resurrection as clear as day.

With all of this Biblical evidence, and more that I haven’t listed, it should be clear how important the coming resurrection is meant to be. So in particular, I want to look at maybe the most important resurrection passage in the Bible. This is 1 Corinthians 15:12-58. It is long, and I will be here a while, but I won’t read it all right now. You should just be able to follow along with what I’m saying.

In this passage, Paul is responding to more trouble in the Corinthian church. They were mostly Gentiles there, which means they would be more influenced by popular Greek philosophies than the churches in Jewish regions. But Greek philosophy not only didn’t believe in resurrection, but thought it would be a bad thing. To most Greek philosophers, the body was at best unhelpful and at worst evil, so the goal was to escape it into spiritual bliss. Resurrection would seem nonsensical and unhelpful. Apparently, some people, probably from within the Corinthian church, were influenced by thoughts like this and so were telling others that there wouldn’t be a resurrection.

Paul got pretty riled up about this, though. As far as he was concerned, the resurrection was a very big deal. This is already different from what I hear in most churches. While most churches I’ve been in at least acknowledge there will be a resurrection, it isn’t given any emphasis, and the usual preaching is all about getting to heaven when you die. If you got rid of the resurrection, their normal preaching, teaching, and service wouldn’t really be affected. But in the Bible, that’s not an option. It’s a big deal that got Paul rolling on a long response.

So on to his response. In verses 15:12-19, Paul draws a strong connection between Jesus’ resurrection and our future resurrection. “If there is no such thing as a resurrection of the dead,” he says, “then even Christ hasn’t been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation is without meaning, and our faith without meaning, also!” He’s going so far as to say that if we won’t be resurrected, then Christianity is altogether pointless. He goes on to say that without resurrection, both ours and Jesus’, we are still in our sins and those who died in Christ already are lost forever. Without resurrection, we’re pitiful.

The reason for this deep connection between our resurrection and Jesus’ is rooted in the Jewish hope that Jesus showed up in. Before Jesus, the Jews only expected one resurrection, the final event where God would save Israel. But then after Jesus’ resurrection, what the early Christians believed was that the one resurrection actually started with Jesus. So Jesus’ resurrection and our future resurrection were both considered the same event, just split into two parts. And the second part, our resurrection, depends on His in the first part.

But moving on, in 15:20-28 Paul says that just like everyone dies in Adam, everyone will be made alive in Christ. First Jesus rose, undoing Adam’s own death, and next everyone will rise, undoing the damage we all suffered because of Adam. By doing this, Jesus defeats death and every other enemy. When the end comes, He will reign over all creation, death itself defeated, and He will give His kingdom over to the Father so that God can be, as he says, “all and in all.” By saying this, Paul shows just how crucial the resurrection is for Jesus and the victory of God. Without resurrection, death would not be brought under God’s rule, and there would still be another enemy out there.

Still, the argument isn’t over. Like I said, Paul under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit thinks that resurrection is a big deal, so he gives even more proofs. First, he mentions baptism for the dead. Now, we don’t actually know what he is talking about. We have no record of baptism for the dead. But it is worth noting that Paul doesn’t say “we” anywhere about it. It doesn’t sound like he or the other apostles performed these baptisms. But some people did, and what Paul says basically is, “Look, why would people even do that if there won’t be a resurrection?”

From that point, Paul also points out the suffering of him and the other apostles. Why would they constantly risk their lives and bodies if that would be the end of them? If there won’t be a resurrection, Paul says we ought to forget about risking becoming a martyr and just enjoy the good life. Notice that he doesn’t put our hope for risking our life in going to heaven when we die. He puts it in resurrection, just like the author of Hebrews does in Hebrews 11:35.

Now we reach 15:35-44. Paul was aware of some objections people raised about resurrection, and he had answers from the Spirit. I should also point out that people wouldn’t have these kinds of questions if heaven was the focus of Paul’s preaching. Only a real, physical resurrection invites these questions. But on to what he was saying. He compares the our current body and future body to a seed and a plant. Our current body is like a seed. Our resurrected body will be like a full grown plant. What that means isn’t about physical appearance, as though our resurrected bodies will look like something totally unrelated to our current ones. He tells us the difference. Using the analogies from nature, he shows that the resurrection body will have a new glory and different kind of life. Our bodies now, in their natural fallen state, are mortal, dishonored, weak, and merely natural. But like the seed transforms, so will we. Our bodies will become immortal, glorious, strong, and spiritual. I like the way C. S. Lewis said it: “the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.”

Unfortunately, modern ideas about what “spiritual” is may confuse us about verses 44-49. We are taught here that our natural body will become a spiritual body. Some people think that means our physical body will become a non-physical body, that our body made of matter will become a body made of spirit. This is certainly not what Paul is saying, as we quickly find out. First, I remind you about the seed analogy Paul used. Just like the seed and the plant, our current body and resurrection body will still be the same body, but changed. The natural body, made as simply a body from the dust of the earth, lives “according to the flesh,” that is, basically just like an animal of nature. The natural body is powered by basic biology and physical desires for needs like food, sex, and sleep. These things themselves aren’t bad, but the natural body only aims to satisfy these lusts at whatever cost, which produces the “works of the flesh.” It lives like there is no God, or grace, or Gospel call.

This is in contrast to the spiritual body. The natural body is rooted in Adam, who denied God’s call for the sake natural desires, but the spiritual body is rooted in Jesus, who lived out perfect communion with the Father and was driven by the Holy Spirit. The spiritual body is not a body made of spirit, but a body energized by the Holy Spirit, who helps us to live our Jesus’ own life connecting human nature and God Himself. This is how the “last Adam,” Jesus, became a “life-giving spirit.”

So the natural body and the spiritual body are a matter of nature and grace. The natural body is just a part of nature, acting like an animal to satisfy its instincts and desires. The spiritual body is raised by grace to live in God’s life in Jesus Christ through the Spirit. This is our destiny. No longer will we be controlled by our hunger, lust, sleep schedules, pride, instinct for self-preservation, or anything else purely natural. Our resurrected bodies will be filled with only the fruit of the Spirit.

Finally, in verses 50-57, Paul bursts into praise, excitedly summarizing the teaching of the resurrection. Mere flesh-and-blood, the perishable natural body, cannot inherit God’s coming kingdom, but we will be mysteriously transformed and rescued. In a moment, Jesus will return and all the dead will rise to immortal, imperishable bodies. This will mean the final defeat of death, and the victory God accomplished in Jesus will become a permanent and universal fact of the universe forever and ever.

Heaven for Now, New Creation Forever

So, with that awesome future in mind, I want to move on to the next point, that of where we will enjoy eternal life. After all, if we’re going to have physically resurrected bodies to enjoy forever, they’ll need to be somewhere. But this is where we need to be precise, because people tend to confuse two futures here. See, for the Christian there is both life after death and life after life after death.

Think back to what I was saying before about not having a body when you die. If you don’t have a body, what exactly is happening when you “go to heaven?” Where will we be in between death and resurrection? While we usually talk about this as heaven, the Bible never uses that word for where we go right after we die. Instead, it calls it either “paradise,” like Jesus said to the thief on the cross in Luke 23:43, or “Abraham’s bosom,” a common Jewish phrase Jesus also used in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. Modern theologians usually refer to this as the “intermediate state.”

Now, despite the picture we get in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, we shouldn’t think of this place as something physical, with senses and bodies. Parables aren’t about the literal details, after all. We’re not literally a younger son who runs away and squanders our inheritance. That’s a picture of the reality. The real point of this parable in context was Jesus criticizing the Pharisees for their love of money. By showing a nameless rich man as ending up in torment but Lazarus the poor man in bliss, Jesus turns their expectation on its head, especially since the Jews tended to assume that more money meant you could stay in God’s favor better because you could afford more sacrifices and tithes.

But back to what the intermediate state is Biblically like. Paul mentions it in 2 Corithians 5:1-9. There he says that if his earthly tent, his current body, is destroyed then we have a new, imperishable house in the heavens. This doesn’t refer to as heavenly mansion, but, just like the earthly tent, it’s a body. This is the resurrection body he described already in 1 Corinthians 15. He says that he wants this new body so that he doesn’t have to be naked, or unclothed, that is, stuck without a body. Nevertheless, he insists, he is still better off without a body and with Jesus than with a fallen body and away from Jesus. Resurrection and the new body is the hope to have both a body and Jesus at once.

So, without a body, we won’t have our sense. We can’t see, or hear, or taste when we die. Our bodies are in the ground, after all. Without legs, we won’t be walking on streets of gold. We won’t even think or feel the same way that we do now, because right now our physicals brains have a huge influence. Life will be completely different in between death and resurrection.

In fact, in a way it is kind of like sleep. It isn’t exactly the same as sleep. Death isn’t just a knockout where we wake up on resurrection day. But Psalm 6:5 wonders who will give thanks when dead? Psalm 88:11 asks rhetorically if anyone will praise God’s faithfulness in the grave? Ecclesiastes 9:5 says that the dead don’t know anything anymore, and verse 10 says that there isn’t any work, planning, knowledge, or wisdom in the grave.

If we want to take these verses seriously instead of, like many Christians, totally ignoring them or trying to slip around them, we get the distinct impression that we won’t be conscious the same way we are now. After death, it will be something like sleeping until resurrection day. Yet the martyrs’ prayer to God in Revelation shows that we won’t be completely out, or completely unconscious.

So to summarize the intermediate state, the Bible seems to teach that after death we enter a state of rest and bliss. We enjoy being in some way with Jesus, while not being completely awake. It’s a completely different way of existing than being in a body. No streets of gold or mansions yet. Just rest in the arms of God until He brings us back to life.

But, as I said, this is only until He brings us back to life. After the resurrection, our eternal destiny will be to live in the new creation, also called the “new heavens and earth.” To look at this theme, I want to start in Romans 8:18-23. This is at an important point, leading up the climax of the Gospel in Romans. At this point Paul has been speaking of redemption in Christ, our future resurrection, and new life in the Spirit. Now he pulls all of these themes, which he had been applying to us, to the whole of creation. He says that the whole creation is eagerly awaiting God’s redemption in His people. Creation has been stuck in corruption and futility, but when God redeems the human race, the pinnacle of creation, the whole rest of the universe will join in.

See, our resurrection is Biblically part of an even bigger divine project. I want to read two texts which show the big picture. Colossians 1:19-20 says “For it was by God’s own decision that the Son has in himself the full nature of God. Through the Son, then, God decided to bring the whole universe back to himself. God made peace through his Son’s blood on the cross and so brought back to himself all things, both on earth and in heaven.” And Ephesians 1:10 talks about God accomplishing His gracious plan “to bring all creation together, everything in heaven and on earth, with Christ as head.”

The entire project is new creation. It starts with us, just like 2 Corinthians 5:17 says. Anyone in Christ is a new creation. Our old man dies and is recreated as the new man by the Spirit in union with the resurrected Jesus. Then our bodies get involved as our old bodies die and are resurrected by the Spirit in union with the resurrected Jesus. Finally, as verses like Revelation 21:1 show, when everything else is finished, the old universe will pass away and will be recreated as a new heavens and earth by the Spirit in Jesus.

I want to emphasize this last part. God isn’t going to get rid of the space, time, and matter universe. A lot of Christians seem to think this way, but this misses entirely the connection between Jesus’ resurrection, our resurrection, and the new creation. Verses like 2 Peter 3:10-13, Revelation 21:1, Psalm 102:26, or Mark 13:31, which talk about a catastrophic end for the world, aren’t to be seen as a total end anymore than our death will be a total end. Instead, like two of these verses specifically mention, this is only the death that leads to resurrection.

In fact, Jesus’ resurrection is key to understanding all of this. His physical body died. Three days later, that same body, same matter, came back to life and was transformed to new glory and immortality. His body wasn’t replaced, or turned into pure spirit, or annihilated. It came back to life, but more life than it ever had before. This is what will happen to our bodies, and this is what will happen to the whole world. The Bible teaches that the physical universe will die in fire and be raised to new life. All of the Old Testament prophecies and the New Testament ones imagine the new world in eternity as this world fixed and restored to God’s will and grace.

The most detail we have about the new earth is found in Revelation 21 and 22. These chapters describe especially what we might call, for lack of a better word, the “capital” of the new world, namely the New Jerusalem, which comes from God’s heaven to the new earth. John writes a dazzling description of this city using mostly vivid poetic descriptions taken from the Old Testament prophets. He tries to give us a glimpse of a world that is all as it should be, filled with the glory of God, and the end result of everything God has built through Israel and the Church in history.

With that in mind, we should be careful not to press the details for a physical picture of what the New Jerusalem will literally look like. John isn’t giving us a photograph of the world to come. It’s more like a van Gogh painting. He wants to raise the imagination to God’s promised new creation.

As one last point about this place before I move on, this is the only place where we find streets of gold mentioned in relation to the destiny of believers. And this isn’t heaven right now. It’s not where we go when we die. It is a future city, part of the new world God will transform ours into in the future. So we can see just another example of people confusing the different Biblical teachings, applying stuff from the new creation to present heaven. Yet the Bible itself doesn’t permit that.

So to pull this all together: this is our final destiny. It’s not eternity in a spiritual heaven. It’s resurrection and new creation. God’s heaven and our earth will finally join together to make the perfect world, the new heavens and earth, filled with the healing glory of God. This world isn’t new because it replaced the old, but because by God’s grace in Jesus and His resurrection He will transform everything everywhere into a greater reality than we could ever imagine now. It’s Earth 2.0, what the world was meant to be from the beginning.

Living in Hope

Hopefully, that’s an exciting vision, and my prayer has been that it is one you will see from the Scriptures is faithful to what God has said and done to and for us. But I’m not quite done. My point in all this isn’t just to get everyone to agree on what the Bible says about heaven. God doesn’t do things for no reason, and He certainly doesn’t reveal His plans for no reason. So for my last point, I want to look at the practical applications of this view of the Christian hope. How can knowing the destiny God has for us more Biblically change how we see and act in this world?

My key word on this point is “anticipation.” It’s not enough to simply believe what is coming. We must eagerly and actively anticipate it. And while it’s probably not enough, I can see three major ways to do so that I want to mention before I conclude. I think a Biblical belief in resurrection and recreation can give us a radical new opening for evangelism, a new ground for life that follows the resurrection pattern, and help us treat the physical planet we live on in a brand new way.

Let me explain the first one. In our society’s worldview, just like most other worldviews throughout history, resurrection simply isn’t a possibility. Anyone who thinks or says that someone will come back to life gets crazy looks and probably ridicule. Even the wildly popular show LOST, known for supernatural craziness happening left and right, held that “dead is dead” and no one ever actually came back to life even when you thought they did. It’s not the same if you talk about going to heaven. Most people think that’s fine and possible. In fact, a whole lot of people think they’re going there. But how many people expect to be raised bodily from the dead and enjoy eternal life on a recreated planet earth?

Just imagine. If you tell someone, “I’m going to heaven when I die. Are you?” they’re not all that likely to be surprised or challenged at all. People are familiar with this kind of witnessing. But, imagine if you said, “Well, I’m coming back to life after I do. How about you?” It’s shocking and subversive and perhaps a bit exciting as well. Preaching “dying and going to heaven” has nowhere near the possibilities for inviting people to fresh listening about the Gospel when compared to the hope of resurrection.

Then there’s my next example, the power of resurrection for Christian living. In this world, it is often hard to kill sin and live righteously. But Paul always connects the victorious Christian life to Jesus’ death and resurrection. The connection he points to is the Holy Spirit. He tells us that the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead lives in us, so we can access that same resurrection power in the here and now.

The point of this is highly practical. If this Spirit could take a dead body and bring it back to life, certainly He can take our inner death and turn it around to new life. He is the one who makes it possible to crucify the old man with Christ and live as the new man from the risen Jesus. By sharing in Jesus’ resurrection through the Spirit, we can die to our flesh and self, refusing sinful desires, and instead live to God, raised in power to love and serve to a supernatural degree.

The power of resurrection for Christian living is even more clear when it comes to taking risks for the Gospel. The worst thing that could happen is that someone could kill us or our families, but if we know that we are promised resurrection then we don’t even have to fear this. We know that our bodily life won’t end when the world tries to stuff us out; instead we will be raised and vindicated publicly in the end. In fact, this was the motivation for all the early Christian martyrs. They were well known for spitting in the face of death, and they did this precisely because they believed that Jesus’ resurrection meant they would be raised to. With resurrection, we have nothing and no one to fear on this earth. This even includes every government, however much they might end up opposing us.

But finally, I want to point out the way that anticipating a new creation which is still connected to the present world can change the way we see it and all handle it. See, if this world isn’t going to be permanently destroyed, or be totally replaced, an interesting question comes up. What stuff on earth right now will still be around in the new earth?

This is where we find room to use a Biblically-controlled imagination. We don’t know exactly how what is on the earth now will translate into what is on the new earth. John could barely describe the place except in the most enigmatic of rich images. So what we are called to remember is what Paul told the Corinthian church on the basis of resurrection and recreation: “Therefore, my dear friends, stand firm, unshaken, always diligent in the Lord’s work, for you know that, in union with him, your toil is not in vain.”

See, what Paul tells us is that resurrection and recreation guarantee that our work in the here and now have eternal impact, because not only will saved souls last forever, but indeed the whole creation will endure once God redeems it. In fact, what Paul says about Christianity ministry in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 about ministry he would probably connect to all work Christians do in line with the Spirit.

It’s probably not completely obvious what I’m getting at, so I’ll ask a question to give you a better idea. When this earth dies in flame and then is recreated and filled with God’s glory, what will happen to this church building? Will it survive the purifying fire? What about your house? Or the White House?

This is a place where we don’t know exactly what to expect, but if we think creatively about what God has revealed about new creation, and the way Christian work will survive or perish, I think we can take a guess at some of this. Perhaps what is made or used for the flesh will be burned up, while what is made or used in the Spirit will make it through. We might find that the casinos have all burned down, but several small country churches where Jesus love’ always had shined through will still be there, looking more beautiful than they could have before. The scars of the Nazi prison camps might be completely eradicated, but a humble home where Christians habitually showed grace to strangers might seem strangely and wonderfully preserved.

And there’s more to think about than buildings. What about art? I find it unlikely that we’ll see that infamous crucifix in a urine jar when the world is remade, but how unlikely would it really be that the paintings of a passionate believer he painted to show God’s creativity will still be around for all to see? And of course it’s plenty likely that music made today which glorifies God will still be played in the new world.

With this all in mind, I think we can look at the world and think of some ways to make the best use of space, time, and matter all for God’s purposes. For some people, this might take the artistic routes of making paintings, sculptures, architecture, music, or poetry inspired by who God is and what He has done. Since we are promised that whatever we do for God’s kingdom through the Spirit will not be in vain, we can do all of this in the physical world without worrying that it will only be temporary.

There are other things to think about, too. If God’s not going to wipe this world off the map for good but instead renew and redeem it, then we need to take more responsibility for it than some people, even Christians, are willing to do. I’m not environmentalist by any stretch, but it would probably be a good idea for us to at least think through the environmental issues we see these days with something besides automatic dismissal. Even I do that a lot, but it’s probably not the proper response of a Christian to damage being done to God’s good creation. Basic care for this planet is a way of recognizing in the here and now the restoration that God is preparing to bring when Jesus returns.

There are obviously lots of other possible applications for recognizing and anticipating the coming resurrection, but I don’t have time to lay them all out here. Hopefully it will suffice to say that the future new creation and the resurrection, if you really think about them, can change the way you see the world, and so also the way you live in this world today. And if we do this, if we try to anticipate God’s final redemption, we might just find a little more grace in our lives now.

Of course, all of this is only relevant to you now if you have the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead in you. Without Jesus and His Spirit, you’ll be left out of the glorious future and end up experiencing the “resurrection to condemnation” mentioned in the Bible, which leads to the lake of fire. You’ll be part of what God removes from the world to redeem it. So if by any chance any of you have not believed in Jesus, now is the time. In Him you can have a good resurrection and new life, both in the future and today.

Heaven, Resurrection, and New Creation: Our Destiny in Christ

Ascension Day: What Did Jesus Going to Heaven Do for Us?

The life of Jesus: Jesus was born of a virgin. He lived the perfectly obedient human life. He died an atoning death. He rose victoriously from the grave. The end.

Okay, that’s not the whole story. There is a part I left out. Did you spot it? After He rose again, Jesus spent 40 days appearing on and off to the apostles, and finally He ascended into heaven. This event, simply enough, is called the Ascension. Given that today is 40 days since Easter, I thought it would be appropriate to say a little something in memory of this event.

The Ascension usually receives little attention, and I do not think this is fair. People view it as the happy ending. It’s the part of the story we need to get the resurrected Christ out of the picture and explain why He isn’t still around. But indeed, there is more to it than that, and this has been woefully ignored. So here’s a quick summary of two things the Ascension does for us:

  • The Ascension secures our salvation by establishing Jesus’ eternal role as High Priest. Hebrews mentions early on how after Jesus performed His atoning work He passed through the heavens and sat down at the right hand of the Father. And what does He do there? He brings sanctified humanity into the presence of God so that man and God can experience the reconciliation He won. For the Scripture says, “We have a great High Priest who has gone into the very presence of God—Jesus, the Son of God.” Because of this, it then says, “Let us have confidence, then, and approach God’s throne, where there is grace. There we will receive mercy and find grace to help us just when we need it.” As a human representative, Jesus is our priest in heaven before the Father.

    So we who have found safety with him are greatly encouraged to hold firmly to the hope placed before us. We have this hope as an anchor for our lives. It is safe and sure, and goes through the curtain of the heavenly temple into the inner sanctuary. On our behalf Jesus has gone in there before us and has become a high priest forever, in the priestly order of Melchizedek.

    Hebrews 6:18b-20

  • The Ascension made time for people of every tribe, tongue, and nation to be saved. What would Jesus have done if He had not left? Wouldn’t He simply keep on with His task, and get straight to judging the world? After all, Jesus did not rebuke His disciples for thinking He would restore the kingdom to Israel, only that He was doing it right then. The Old Testament didn’t even prophesy about separate comings; it treated Jesus’ first and second comings as a single event. But by ascending, Jesus has created time for evangelism. If the end had come then, only a handful of people would be saved. But God wanted to give everyone time to come to the knowledge of the truth through the preaching of the Gospel. Not until every people has heard will Jesus return to finish what He started (Matt. 24:14).

    First of all, you must understand that in the last days some people will appear whose lives are controlled by their own lusts. They will make fun of you and will ask, “He promised to come, didn’t he? Where is he? Our ancestors have already died, but everything is still the same as it was since the creation of the world!”…But do not forget one thing, my dear friends! There is no difference in the Lord’s sight between one day and a thousand years; to him the two are the same. The Lord is not slow to do what he has promised, as some think. Instead, he is patient with you, because he does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants all to turn away from their sins.

    2 Peter 3:3-4, 8-9

Thinking of these things, let us thank God that Jesus did not only live for us, die for us, and rise for us, but also ascended for us! Amen.

Ascension Day: What Did Jesus Going to Heaven Do for Us?

Every Eye Open If You Want to Get Saved

“Now none of this matters if you don’t already have a relationship with Jesus Christ,” the preacher says with a shift of tone. “Without Him, you can’t live an abundant life. So here’s what I want you to do. With eye head bowed and every eye closed, if you want to accept Jesus Christ into your heart tonight and be saved from your sins, please raise your hands. No one looking around; it’s just me. It’s okay if you’re shy, just raise your hand since everyone else has their eyes closed. Now repeat after me…”

Ever heard anything like this? I’m quite sure that you have. This is, in a way, the climax of most special Christian events. After music and shenanigans and finally a sermon, the preacher seeks for people who want to accept Jesus. Of course, sometimes making such a public statement is a bit embarrassing. Who wants to admit they need Jesus tonight? So, in the interest of making sure people aren’t scare off at the invitation of the Gospel, it is only natural that we would ask everyone to close their eyes and give potential converts their privacy to make this personal decision of faith. Right?

I think this is dangerous, actually. Despite the good intentions, I am confident that this method of encouraging people to convert actually has very harmful side effects. The main problem is the creation of false believers. In fact, this method of invitation does away with the very call of the Jesus in the Gospel in favor of a seeker-sensitive, pandering call. Where the Gospel demands self-sacrifice, asking everyone to close their eyes for potential believers protects them from any need to sacrifice at moment one.

See, the true conversion which results from genuine encounter with Jesus through the Holy Spirit and a yielding of the soul to His grace should never take timid form. The major verse about becoming a believer, Romans 10:9, says this: “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.” But where is the confession when the new believer is told he can come in secret, with no one else watching? Likewise, in Mark 8:38 Jesus promises this: “For whoever is ashamed of Me and of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” There are lots of verses with this same theme. If you would come to Christ, you are not given the option of doing it covertly.

altar-call-1

This requirement should be no shock, anyway. How can someone who is actually coming to know the grace of Jesus refuse to make it known that they love Him? All such refusals are sinful. When we pander to them, we are saying, “It’s okay to let your pride get in the way of your Savior.” The motivations for keeping quiet cannot be good. It may be you’re too proud to admit you’re still a sinner in need of grace. It may be people think you’re already saved and you’re scared to show them otherwise. Perhaps you simply fear what people will think about you if you become a follower of Jesus. But to all this, the Scripture says that “if we deny Him, He will also deny us.”

So what should we do? When we open the invitation, we must make it clear that the call to follow Jesus is not easy, and involves self-denial all the way through. Instead of “everyone will close their eyes for you,” we should tell them, “If you wish to follow Jesus, crucify your pride, take up your cross, and follow Him.” But what if this means fewer people raise their hands? What if less people decide to accept Jesus because of this? Then I daresay we have lost nothing. For if someone is clinging so much to their pride that they won’t even sacrifice an initial confession of faith, then surely that person is not actually being led by the Spirit of God to salvation! If the Spirit is working in them at all, they must be resisting that work. Making it easy will only encourage people to think they are saved, to think they’ve been secured and converted and will make it to the resurrection, even when they have no faith beyond mental facts. This is what Jesus showed us in His ministry. He did not provide an easy call, but time after time said controversial and scary things, sometimes apparently trying to get rid of anyone not serious about following Him.

Honestly, I think part of the problem may lie in the pride of people performing such events. Not all are like this, but there are many who love the numbers more than the fruit, even without realizing it. The more tally marks they can make for people who raised their hands to accept Jesus, the more impressive their events will seem. Easy invitations make for large numbers of “salvations” which in turn bring attention to the ministry doing these things. But we must be willing to sacrifice even the image of our works for God if we wish to do right in leading people to the truth.

The real danger here, by the way, is not only adding to our lists more saved people than there really are, but creating people who believe they are secure and saved when they are still in their sins, never more to worry about their spiritual state because of one misleading event.  Their chance at salvation in the future may be seriously hindered because they think they have already found the life in Jesus, even though they only accepted an easy and impotent form of the Gospel. It is like a cancer patient who dies before his time, all because an incompetent doctor told him that he was cured when he really wasn’t, so he stopped seeking treatment. May God never let this happen!

So what do I propose, again? Let’s tell people the truth: you must die to yourself if you wish to follow Christ. In the simplest and first way, just don’t pander to their self-consciousness by giving them a moment of secrecy to make their “confession.” Make them confess Christ publicly or not at all. This the example of Jesus. In fact, if I were to have it my way, I would yank open a baptismal at the invitation and tell people, “Sacrifice your pride and your dry clothes if you truly believe. Confess Christ as Lord, repent, and be baptized in the name of the Jesus for your forgiveness!” This kind of radical call will not only keep people from falsely and shallowly converting to their soul’s detriment, but may even embolden and inspire those who the Spirit is working in, giving them a concrete way to express their new faith. In this way, we together with our new brothers and sisters can honor Christ as those who need not be ashamed.

Every Eye Open If You Want to Get Saved

Witness with Your Inside Voice

Have you ever heard of a BHAG? (That’s a Big Hairy Audacious Goal, if you don’t know.) What about the book Radical? Or can you imagine a college student dressing in funny blue pants and a massive afro wig? Whether you are familiar with all of these things or not, they represent a common thread in popular Christian thought, especially among rambunctious teenagers.

There is an idea out there that as Christians we need to do big, bold things to be the “light of the world.” Popularly, BHAGs, Radical, and the silly stunt I pulled while a dual-enrolled student are all examples. We must always stand out and be ready to even do such things as stand up on a table in the mall and recite the Romans Road (something we may all applaud but feel guilty that we’d never do). After all, don’t such spectacular displays suit the urgency of evangelism, the need to spread the Good News to all people for their salvation?

The truth is, though, that while some people are called to be more showy witnesses (I mean, think about what the apostles did), the idea that we all should be so radical is quite foreign to Scripture. For my main support, I cite 1 Thessalonians 4:10b-12.

But we encourage you, brothers, to do so even more, to seek to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you, so that you may walk properly in the presence of outsiders and not be dependent on anyone.

I’d also reference something like 1 Timothy 2:2b-4, where Paul tells us to pray for authorities

so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

The New Testament teaches that the Christian life, for the most part, should be fairly subdued. It does not need any flashy attempts at getting God glory or big plans to be radical and weird in obvious ways. Those things come from a good intention, but they are practically speaking often unhelpful to the kingdom of God, since the very spectacle intended to give them power can easily turn people off from the Christian life.

Really, when we look at what the Bible says to us, we do not see commands for most of us to emulate the witness of the apostles and evangelists, but to do like the texts I cited above say: to live quiet and respectable lives, maintaining a good reputation among people both inside and outside of the church. Why is this? This is the kind of life which gives our message of Christ credibility and attractiveness. As we see in places such as Titus 2:8, 1 Peter 2:12, and 1 Peter 3:15-16, our primary method for sharing Christ with the world is by living a life which can be respected, appreciated, and accessibly imitated by all people, so that they will not be scared away but see the true worth of Jesus.

Of course, this is not to say that our lives should just blend in with the world. Absolutely not! These verses I’ve mentioned all ring with another theme: to be holy, living a life of blamelessness, love, and integrity. Doing these things to a supernatural extent (by the work of the Holy Spirit in us, cf. Gal. 5:22-23) is what makes it possible for the Christian walk to not only be taken seriously by outsiders, but to actually be seen as a positive ideal, something worth becoming a part of. This is radical, but not in a showy or obvious way. It is radical in the way that the little details and contours of your life before the world, which you only explain by reference to Jesus in you, cause people to tilt their heads in wonder. This is a BHAG, but a subtle one which attracts people to Jesus Himself and not an event, personality, or church.

So what’s my ultimate point? The high calling of the Christian life for most believers (and this is a very high calling) is not to show off our Gospel or zeal in spectacular, radical, or jaw-dropping ways. Instead it is a calling to a quiet life, respected by all, and attractive by virtue of its purity and charity. In this way, people will see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven. With this kind of life in mind, try reading the Beatitudes:

The poor in spirit are blessed, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs. Those who mourn are blessed, for they will be comforted. The gentle are blessed, for they will inherit the earth. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed, for they will be filled. The merciful are blessed, for they will be shown mercy. The pure in heart are blessed, for they will see God. The peacemakers are blessed, for they will be called sons of God. Those who are persecuted for righteousness are blessed, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs. You are blessed when they insult and persecute you and falsely say every kind of evil against you because of Me. Be glad and rejoice, because your reward is great in heaven. For that is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:3-12

(P.S. As always, I need to do a final clarification. I think there is a legitimate place for stuff like BHAGs, but I do not think that place is necessarily somewhere visible to all, but where the Father who sees in secret can reward you. Likewise, I do not at all have a problem with the kind of life David Platt teaches in Radical, but would advise that we do these radical things humbly and without show. If we are radical to be seen by others, which is too often the case, what will be our reward? But if we are closet radicals, our God gets the glory.)

Witness with Your Inside Voice