REVELATION #42: THE NEW CREATION

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We are promised a new world that contains the beauty, but not the fragility. It contains the excitement and wonder, but not the mortal danger. In our perfect bodies, exploring the wilderness will be a joy. In Earth 2.0, humans will not corrupt or threaten the environment. The New Creation will hold the people of God, but not their garbage, because garbage will no longer exist. These promises, and the hope they bring should affect how we live here and now.

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SERMON NOTES

Revelation #42. Revelation 21:1-8

 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

We are in the second-to-last major section of the book of Revelation, which I call “The Seven-Part Victory of Jesus.” The first part of his victory was the destruction of the beast and his followers. Next, came the thousand-year reign. The third victory was the ultimate destruction of Satan. The fourth part of his victory was the judgment of all people who have ever lived, where those whose names are in the book of life are invited into eternal life, while those who rejected Jesus are sent to the lake of fire. Today, we consider the fifth part of the Victory of Jesus, which is the creation of the  New Heavens and the New Earth. We have taken a great deal of time in other parts of the book of Revelation, in order to understand it better. We have come to some areas that are less difficult to understand, but they are wonderful, delightful promises. I want us to feast our soul on these promises today.

Last time, I speculated that when we die, it is possible that our spirits (or souls?) go to be with Jesus for a temporary period. Some people call that “heaven.” But the real “heaven” is actually a physical place. John explains it:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.

God’s plan is to destroy this mortal world, and then to remake it in perfection. Some scholars would say that God will not absolutely destroy it, but will transform it, much in the same way that our earthly bodies will be transformed into resurrection bodies. Either way, this idea of new Creation (brand new, or transformed) is found in many places in the bible.

10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.
11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! 13 But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:10-13, ESV)

17 “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered
or come into mind. 18 But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness.19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. 20 No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, (Isaiah 65:17-20, ESV)

22 “For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the Lord, so shall your offspring and your name remain. 23 From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the Lord. (Isaiah 66:22-23, ESV)

Our eternal future will be spent in physical bodies, living in a physical place – the New Creation. The New Creation, will be perfect, even as our new bodies will be perfect. It will not be subject to frustration because of our sin:

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation eagerly waits with anticipation for God’s sons to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility — not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it — in the hope 21 that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of corruption into the glorious freedom of God’s children. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now. 23 And not only that, but we ourselves who have the Spirit as the firstfruits — we also groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 Now in this hope we were saved. (Romans 8:18-24, HCSB)

I love this world we live in. I love the ocean, and the mountains, the forests and the plains. Being in places with beautiful scenery moves me deeply and powerfully. But our amazing planet is indeed “subject to frustration” in various ways. Many of the most beautiful places on this world are also the most dangerous. A one-thousand-foot cliff is wonderful to look at, and to stand on top of one is awe-inspiring. But one miss-step, one ill-placed falling rock, and that beauty will end your life. The mountains are gorgeous. But it takes a great deal of physical effort and stamina to go into the mountains and explore, and if you go unprepared, there are seventy-three easy ways to die there. So, our beautiful world is also very harsh and difficult.

Not only that, but it is fragile. Human activity seems to be reducing the forests of the world in a significant way. In places like Europe, where humans have lived for many thousands of years, most of the wild animals are gone. Even the most remote shores of islands far from civilization contain garbage washed up from the sea, where millions upon millions of people throw it.

However, we are promised a new world that contains the beauty, but not the fragility. It contains the excitement and wonder, but not the mortal danger. In our perfect bodies, exploring the wilderness will be a joy. In Earth 2.0, humans will not corrupt or threaten the environment. The New Creation will hold the people of God, but not their garbage, because garbage will no longer exist.

Some of you may wonder about the fact that there will be no sea. That would disappoint me, because I love the ocean. Actually, if you remember, the beast came from “the sea” (Revelation 13:1). The prophet Daniel also had visions involving evil beasts, and these too, came from the sea (Daniel 7:3). So, here, “the sea” doesn’t mean “the ocean”  or anything like that. Instead, “the sea” represents the source of rebellion against God, the place from which comes chaos and evil. What John means to say is that the New Creation will have no place from which evil can come. It will not be threatened by rebellion or spiritual darkness.

Folks, that’s just the first verse! Here’s the next:

And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

The city is “as a bride, adorned for her husband.” Many scholars take this to mean that Jerusalem represents the people of God, made perfect by Jesus, coming to meet him in the New Creation. That might indeed be the correct interpretation of this verse. It might also be that God’s people will have a new, wonderful, absolutely perfect home. I think, however, there are layers of meaning we might get from this.

Look at it this way: John was a Jew, who grew up thinking of Jerusalem as the spiritual center of the universe. Before he met Jesus, he probably believed that God made his home in the temple in Jerusalem. You might say that Jerusalem was the home of his heart, though he had never lived there permanently. In 70 A.D., the Romans brutally crushed a Jewish rebellion, and utterly destroyed both the temple, and the city, and caused the deaths of an estimated one million people. The Jewish historian Josephus, who was there at the time, records that the Romans left part of one wall standing, to provide  shelter for the soldiers, and to show how big were the other walls that they destroyed. But he records that the rest of the city was absolutely annihilated:

…But for all the rest of the wall [surrounding Jerusalem], it was so thoroughly laid even with the ground by those that dug it up to the foundation, that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it [Jerusalem] had ever been inhabited. This was the end which Jerusalem came to by the madness of those that were for innovations; a city otherwise of great magnificence, and of mighty fame among all mankind.

And truly, the very view itself was a melancholy thing; for those places which were adorned with trees and pleasant gardens, were now become desolate country every way, and its trees were all cut down. Nor could any foreigner that had formerly seen Judaea and the most beautiful suburbs of the city, and now saw it as a desert, but lament and mourn sadly at so great a change. For the war had laid all signs of beauty quite waste. Nor had anyone who had known the place before, had come on a sudden to it now, would he have known it again. But though he [a foreigner] were at the city itself, yet would he have inquired for it.

(Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, as quoted from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Jerusalem_(70_CE) Accessed, 3/23/19)

That was Jerusalem at the time John recorded the book of Revelation: unrecognizable even to those who had once lived there, not even recognizable as having once been a city. Jerusalem, as John knew it, was no more; it was lost forever. It was a mark on a map, and a pile of rubble in reality. But now, John sees the New Jerusalem, the city of God, coming down from heaven.

Here is what I hear from this verse today: Whatever is good that seems to have been lost forever will be made perfect, and restored to us. Something in your heart might seem utterly destroyed. You may have no hope of ever recovering it. Yet, in the New Creation, it will be made new, and even better than before. Just as the creation is made new; just as we ourselves remade, new and better; so our hopes and aspirations are renewed and fulfilled, but even better than before.

Now, you may be tempted to say, “But I want my hope to be fulfilled in this life. I want all this now.” I understand that sentiment. But, that is a bit like a child who wants to go to a McDonald’s playland area today, rather than waiting a week, and then going to Disneyland. Any hope that we have fulfilled in this life is temporary, and it is infected with that same corruption that sours everything in this life. If your hope is only for this life in the first place, then perhaps it needs to be refined and purified. If what you really want cannot be found in heaven, perhaps what you are hoping for is not good. Our hopes in the New Heavens and New Earth are far better than anything we could imagine here and now.

These promises, and this hope should affect how we live here and now. Peter says that, in the verses I quoted above (2 Peter 3:11-12). Because we have this hope, we can be patient here on earth. Because we have this coming treasure in heaven, we can give of ourselves to others here and now. We know that the best is yet to come, so we can endure suffering in the meantime. That’s what Paul meant when he said this present suffering is not worth mentioning compared to the glory that is coming. I am reminded again of one of my favorite verses:

Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is wasting away, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary, light, affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary. But what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Meditate on these two hopes right now: the New Creation, and the Great Restoration. Let the Holy Spirit speak to your heart.

REVELATION #41 HEAVENLY REWARDS

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The entire New Testament teaches us to invest in heaven, to put our hopes and desires there; our treasure. The Lord sees the things you do that no one else sees. He knows the  battles you have fought alone; the things you have done for which others got the credit. And his grace is such that he not only gives us a salvation that we could not earn, he rewards us for treasuring him.

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Revelation #41. Revelation 20:11-15 Part B.

Before we move on, let me make sure that we have a solid foundation on which to do so. If we trust Jesus, our names are written in the book of life. If our names are in the book of life, we are not thrown into the lake of fire, which I believe is what we normally call “hell.” We do not escape hell, and enter eternal life, based on anything that we have done or not done. Our basis for being saved from hell is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

As someone once put it: “When I look at myself, I do not see any way that I could be saved; but when I look at Jesus, I do not see any way that I can be lost.” This is exactly what Revelation 20:11-15 is telling us. If you want to depend on your own works, on your own goodness, then you will be judged based on what is written in the books of deeds, and unless you are totally perfect, you will fall short. On the other hand, if we depend entirely upon the righteousness of Jesus, upon the suffering of Jesus on our behalf, upon the power that raised Jesus from the dead, then we will find that our names are written in the book of life, and we have nothing to fear from what Revelation calls “the second death.”

In Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus tells the story of the master who hires workers for his vineyard. He pays the people he hired for an hour the same amount that he agreed to pay those who worked all day. I believe this parable is about salvation. Even if you trust Jesus late in life, you too, receive the same salvation as those who have faithfully followed Him for their entire lives. Salvation is not earned. It is not a reward for being good. It is the free gift of God.

I’m going to cover some new ground now, but if, at any point, what I say next appears to contradict what I have already said here, then please ignore it, or ask me about it. I stand by what I have just said, and I have no intention of undermining it or contradicting it.

There are two additional pieces to this passage that I didn’t cover last time, and about which I think many people have questions. After my first sermon on this text, a number of people had questions about the relationship of death, Hades, Hell, and the lake of fire.

Remember that the book of Revelation is very picturesque and metaphorical. There are some things which we certainly ought to take literally. With other things, we ought to focus more on the general idea, rather than get bogged down in specific details. Let me lay out what I believe, and then explain why.

First, I do believe there is a literal hell. Virtually all Christians throughout history until recently also believed it, for the very good reason that Jesus clearly considered hell to be a real place where those who are not in the book of life suffer torment forever. (Mark 9:43-48; Matthew 5:22; 5:29; 10:28; Luke 16:19-24). The New Testament clearly teaches it, including a significant passage from Revelation, that is, 14:9-13. If you have not listened to my sermon on that Revelation passage, I strongly, vehemently, urge you to do so:

https://clearbible.blog/2018/08/07/revelation-31-hell-and-the-love-of-god/

All right, so we have hell. In our passage today (Revelation 20:11-15) hell is represented by the lake of fire.  Sometimes, the New Testament also talks about Hades. Mostly, in the New Testament, Hades is just another word for hell. But, in the book of Revelation, it is sometimes used as simply “the holding place for everyone who has died.” That second concept comes from ancient Greek culture, not from the Bible, but some of the verses in Revelation could be interpreted that way, including those here. Since Revelation was written to people who were part of ancient Greek culture, it could very well be that John is using it to say first, that every single person who has died, no matter where they were waiting after death, now appears before the throne. So even if they were in a place called “Hades,” they will be brought before the throne. And, as far as Hades being thrown into the lake of fire, he is saying, “Look, even the holding-pen for the dead will be destroyed. The day will come when you are either in the Lake of Fire, or in the New Heavens and new earth. There is no middle ground, no neutral place, after you die.”

So, this is how I think it goes:

1)When you die, if your name is in the book of life, your soul goes to be with Jesus, and awaits the time that your body will be resurrected. Not all Christians agree with me on this. Some would say that you are unconscious of anything until the resurrection. They may be right, I don’t know. I do know, however, that in some way, Moses and Elijah were present at the transfiguration of Jesus. I know that John saw the souls of those who had been martyred, waiting for the final judgment. I know that Jesus told the thief on the cross: “Today you will be in paradise with me.” That all suggests (but does not absolutely confirm) some sort of afterlife before the final resurrection.

2) If your name is not written in the book of life, perhaps you remains entirely unconscious, or perhaps you goes to some sort of “world of the dead” (Hades). Consider 1 Peter 3:18-19:

18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring you to God, after being put to death in the fleshly realm but made alive in the spiritual realm.
19 In that state He also went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison 20 who in the past were disobedient, (1 Peter 3:18-20, HCSB)

So, perhaps there is a Hades, where those who reject Jesus await judgment. Or perhaps they are unconscious of anything until the resurrection. The Bible isn’t exactly clear; except to say that after the final judgment, there are only two destinations: the lake of fire, or the New Heavens and New Earth.

3) At the resurrection, we have the scene described in our text today. Those whose names are in the book of life are resurrected to eternal life in the New Heavens and New Earth. Those whose names are not, are thrown into the lake of fire. At that time, there will be only two alternatives: the lake of fire, or the New Heavens and New Earth.

Another question many people have is about judgment. Our names are written in the book of life, and that saves us from hell, and gives us a place in the new heavens and the new earth (more about that next time). Does this mean that we are not judged in any way at all? I’m not talking about the judgment concerning salvation and hell. But these verses do seem to imply that every single person – even those whose names are in the book of life – seem to go through some process of judgment.

This is a question about which good Christians have disagreed. Therefore, if you think I am wrong in what I’m about to say, I don’t mind terribly much, and I hope we can continue in Christian fellowship together. However, the New Testament does seem (to me) to teach that in addition to being in the new heavens and the new earth with Jesus, there are rewards for the things that we have done as we follow Jesus. Consider the following verses:

But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matt 6:6)

What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. (Matthew 16:26-27)

But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. (Luke 6:35)

Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free. (Ephesians 6:7-8)

I could quote many more verses that say something similar. These rewards cannot be heaven or salvation, because, we have already seen that to earn our salvation is impossible. We’ve already said that if we are judged by the books of our deeds, we will fall short. The entire New Testament teaches over and over again that we are saved by grace through faith, and this is not of ourselves, it is a free gift of God; not of works, lest anyone should boast (Ephesians 2:8-10). Therefore, these verses must be talking about some sort of reward in addition to being with Jesus in the new heavens and new earth. The apostle Paul describes it like this:

For no one can lay any other foundation than what has been laid down. That foundation is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on that foundation with gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or straw, each one’s work will become obvious, for the day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire; the fire will test the quality of each one’s work. If anyone’s work that he has built survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, it will be lost, but he will be saved; yet it will be like an escape through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:11-15)

So, we have the foundation of salvation in Jesus Christ. There is no other salvation, there is no other foundation. We do not earn it. But it also seems that as we build on the foundation of Jesus Christ, there is the possibility that we will receive, in addition to eternal life, some sort of reward. And there’s also the possibility, that if we do not build on the foundation of Jesus Christ, or if we build poorly, that though we are saved, it will be “like an escape through fire.” Now, certainly, the new creation itself is far more than any of us deserve. But God’s goodness is such that he offers us even more than that. He gives us far more than we could ever earn or deserve – and that is just the beginning. He also gives us (I believe) an opportunity to see that our work and faithfulness is indeed noticed.

Now, at first this might dismay you. Perhaps you are worried that you might feel jealous of someone else’s reward, or disappointed in yours. Remember, this takes place as you are being made perfect. Jealousy and envy won’t be inside you anymore. You will be able to honestly rejoice when others are rewarded. You will be able to whole-heartedly accept your own reward.

I meet a lot of people who say something like this: “That’s all fine, but all I care about is being there at all.” I understand that, and it’s true, in one sense. But too many people twist that. They seem intent on just barely squeaking in to eternal life, trailing fumes of booze and cheap perfume. What I mean is, they aren’t really interested in the rewards of heaven. They are primarily interested in enjoying life on earth, and then avoiding hell. I don’t know, but I often wonder if such people really do understand all that Jesus has done for them, or, if they even truly care, beyond their own self-interest.

All throughout the New Testament, we are told to invest in heaven, not on earth. Now, frequently, investing in heaven means showing love to people on earth. Serving the poor, praying, giving, ministering, taking the gospel to people oppressed by fear and false religions (or giving toward that end) – all of these make a difference on earth. But we don’t get anything tangible back from doing them. By serving the people around us, we store up heavenly treasure. Jesus himself told us to store up treasure in heaven.

19 “Don’t collect for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But collect for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matthew 6:19-21

You see, if you are not really interested in storing up heavenly treasure, I wonder where the treasure of your heart truly is. If heavenly treasure makes you go “meh,” then perhaps your heart is fixed on earth, not heaven. And if that is the case, again, I wonder if you really grasp, or even care about, God’s grace to you. The apostle Paul urges us to also live our lives with a heavenly focus:

23 Now I do all this because of the gospel, so I may become a partner in its benefits.
24 Don’t you know that the runners in a stadium all race, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way to win the prize. 25 Now everyone who competes exercises self-control in everything. However, they do it to receive a crown that will fade away, but we a crown that will never fade away. 26 Therefore I do not run like one who runs aimlessly or box like one beating the air. 27 Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:23-27, HCSB)

3 Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. 4 No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in the concerns of civilian life; he seeks to please the recruiter. 5 Also, if anyone competes as an athlete, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. 6 The hardworking farmer ought to be the first to get a share of the crops. 7 Consider what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. (2 Timothy 2:3-7, HCSB)

Now, a lot of people who are faithfully following Jesus are never noticed, while many who appear to be charlatans get fame and fortune. You may have heard of Albert Schweitzer. He was a medical doctor who won the Nobel prize in 1952 for his humanitarian efforts in Africa. In previous generations, people revered Albert Schweitzer the same way we honor Mother Teresa. Now, contrast that with my  former neighbor, Henry Farrar. Henry was a doctor who did incredible things for the people of Nigeria. I’ve met other medical doctors who have visited both Henry’s hospital, and Schweitzer’s, and told me that Henry did far more than Albert Schweitzer. On earth, no one knows Henry’s name. He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry. But I believe that his work did not go unnoticed in heaven. All those things that Henry did without complaining, without recognition from others – they were recognized in heaven, and he will know it on the last day.

C.S. Lewis wrote a book about heaven called “The Great Divorce.” It has nothing to do with divorce or marriage, but anyway, it’s a terrific book about the joy of heaven. One of the characters visits the edge of heaven, and sees a woman there who is surrounded by a magnificent triumphal procession. The character inquires breathlessly if it is the virgin Mary. His guide says, “No, that is Jane Smith. No one on earth knew her, but she is quite the hero here, because she blessed so many children with love and service.”

I think heaven might be a little bit like that. God sees you. You may labor in obscurity. No one may notice how you quietly serve others here and now. But God notices. And he will reward you for it. Your reward is not salvation – no one can possibly earn that. But the injustice you suffer now is not unnoticed. Your quiet labor is gloriously trumpeted in heaven.

Let the Holy Spirit Speak to you today.

RUN THE RACE WITH PERSEVERANCE

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All of these heroes of the faith made a decisive break with the world at some point in their lives. They rejected what everyone around them was living for, and chose to live for the promises of God instead. It cost them to do so. Everyone around them thought they were fools. Often, people told them so, right to their faces. They lived for things that they couldn’t see, and didn’t see, until they were with Jesus. This passage presents a positive challenge to me. At some point, we need to decide to quit messing around. Are we with God, or do we prefer what we can see, touch and get right now?

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Single Sermons. Hebrews 11.

 I want to do something a little bit different this time. I often go through scripture paragraph-by-paragraph. I think this is helpful in many ways. But we need to remember, when we read on our own, that the Bible was written book-by-book. The best way to read it is first in large chunks, as it was written. After we’ve read the large chunks, then we can go back and break it down, piece by piece. This time, I want us to read one large chunk. The selection below is approximately half as many words as one of my sermons. Taken in this large chunk, it is a kind of mini sermon. So, let’s read it, and then I will add a few thoughts at the end. But don’t read it as prelude. Read it as part of the main body of this message.

HEBREWS CHAPTER 11

​​11 1 Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen. 2 For our ancestors won God’s approval by it.
3 By faith we understand that the universe was created by God’s command, so that what is seen has been made from things that are not visible.
4 By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was approved as a righteous man, because God approved his gifts, and even though he is dead, he still speaks through his faith.
5 By faith Enoch was taken away so he did not experience death, and he was not to be found because God took him away. For prior to his removal he was approved, since he had pleased God. 6 Now without faith it is impossible to please God, for the one who draws near to Him must believe that He exists and rewards those who seek Him.
7 By faith Noah, after he was warned about what was not yet seen and motivated by godly fear, built an ark to deliver his family. By faith he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.
8 By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed and went out to a place he was going to receive as an inheritance. He went out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he stayed as a foreigner in the land of promise, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, co-heirs of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
11 By faith even Sarah herself, when she was unable to have children, received power to conceive offspring, even though she was past the age, since she considered that the One who had promised was faithful. 12 Therefore from one man — in fact, from one as good as dead — came offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as innumerable as the grains of sand by the seashore.
13 These all died in faith without having received the promises, but they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth. 14 Now those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they were thinking about where they came from, they would have had an opportunity to return. 16 But they now desire a better place — a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.
17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac. He received the promises and he was offering his unique son, 18 the one it had been said about, Your seed will be traced through Isaac. 19 He considered God to be able even to raise someone from the dead, and as an illustration, he received him back.
20 By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come. 21 By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and he worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff. 22 By faith Joseph, as he was nearing the end of his life, mentioned the exodus of the Israelites and gave instructions concerning his bones.
23 By faith, after Moses was born, he was hidden by his parents for three months, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they didn’t fear the king’s edict. 24 By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter 25 and chose to suffer with the people of God rather than to enjoy the short-lived pleasure of sin. 26 For he considered the reproach because of the Messiah to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, since his attention was on the reward.
27 By faith he left Egypt behind, not being afraid of the king’s anger, for Moses persevered as one who sees Him who is invisible. 28 By faith he instituted the Passover and the sprinkling of the blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn might not touch the Israelites. 29 By faith they crossed the Red Sea as though they were on dry land. When the Egyptians attempted to do this, they were drowned.
30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after being encircled by the Israelites for seven days. 31 By faith Rahab the prostitute received the spies in peace and didn’t perish with those who disobeyed.
32 And what more can I say? Time is too short for me to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets, 33 who by faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the raging of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, gained strength after being weak, became mighty in battle, and put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received their dead — they were raised to life again. Some men were tortured, not accepting release, so that they might gain a better resurrection, 36 and others experienced mockings and scourgings, as well as bonds and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they died by the sword, they wandered about in sheepskins, in goatskins, destitute, afflicted, and mistreated. 38 The world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and on mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground.
39 All these were approved through their faith, but they did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, so that they would not be made perfect without us.

121 Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, 2 keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that lay before Him endured a cross and despised the shame and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne. (Hebrews 11:1 – 12:2. HCSB)

 Faith considers the unseen to be better than what is seen. It considers God’s promises to be better than anything the world has to offer. It draws a line in the dirt and says, “God’s promises are better than anything I could find in this world. Having the promise of God, as yet unseen, is better than having the physical reality of what the world offers.”

I think this message is especially relevant when it comes to our way of doing church in small groups in the home. Sometimes, it seems like no one else is doing it like us. Sometimes, it feels lonely. Sometimes, we wonder if we are really accomplishing anything. But we won’t truly see what are accomplishing until we see Jesus face-to-face. Stay the course. Run the race with perseverance.

I want us to think about verses 13-16:

13 These all died in faith without having received the promises, but they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth. 14 Now those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they were thinking about where they came from, they would have had an opportunity to return. 16 But they now desire a better place — a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.

All of these heroes of the faith made a decisive break with the world at some point in their lives. They rejected what everyone around them was living for, and chose to live for the promises of God instead. It cost them to do so. Everyone around them thought they were fools. Often, people told them so, right to their faces. They lived for things that they couldn’t see, and didn’t see, until they were with Jesus. This passage presents a positive challenge to me. At some point, we need to decide to quit messing around. Are we with God, or do we prefer what we can see, touch and get right now?

It might help to think about what these heroes of faith were thinking about. What are the great promises of God that are worth more than anything in this world? The author of Hebrews says that to have this kind of faith we must believe God exists, and that he rewards those who seek him. Those must be amazing rewards, considering what these people gave up for it. So what are the rewards?

First and foremost, the reward is Jesus Christ himself. In Jesus, we have all the fullness of God’s grace. We can look to receive “times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord (Acts 3:20).” In Jesus we find, sometimes, temporary healing of our current physical ailments, (James 4:14-16) but always the promise of eternal healing, bodies that do not get sick, die, or decay (1 Corinthians 15:50-58). In Him we have perfect, permanent love; he loves us even more than we love our own children (1 John 3:1; Psalm 103:8-13). Through Jesus we can have true inner peace (Philippians 4:7), no matter what the circumstances (Philippians 4:11-12). Through Jesus, we can also have peace with others, even though we may be very different (Ephesians 2:14). Because of Him, we belong to a new and permanent family, where we are no longer strangers and alien to each other. In Jesus we have undeserved favor; we have the forgiveness of sins, we are made holy and righteous.

The following verses do a great job of summarizing all this:

3 Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens. 4 For He chose us in Him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love 5 He predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ for Himself, according to His favor and will, 6 to the praise of His glorious grace that He favored us with in the Beloved.
7 We have redemption in Him through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace 8 that He lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. 9 He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure that He planned in Him 10 for the administration of the days of fulfillment — to bring everything together in the Messiah, both things in heaven and things on earth in Him.
11 We have also received an inheritance in Him, predestined according to the purpose of the One who works out everything in agreement with the decision of His will, 12 so that we who had already put our hope in the Messiah might bring praise to His glory.
13 When you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and when you believed in Him, you were also sealed with the promised Holy Spirit. 14 He is the down payment of our inheritance, for the redemption of the possession, to the praise of His glory. (HCSB; Ephesians 1:3-14)

The heroes of faith considered all this to be worth far more than anything they might gain on earth. Think about this. Every person you have ever loved, or ever will love in the future, will eventually die. Their corpses will either be burned, or they will disintegrate with time. Everyone who ever knew you and appreciated you will die and rot. You yourself will die, and your body will become fertilizer. Unless you are extremely lucky, the work you do here and now will be forgotten by everyone in the world within a hundred years. Everything and everyone that you try to live for here and now will be destroyed by death.

But the promise of God in Jesus is a permanent home. In that home, the people you love will not die. In that home, the work you do, the things you create, will stand forever.

Like Paul, these faith-heroes considered earthly riches and  achievements as rubbish compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus

7But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ (Phil 3:7-8, ESV2011)

These faith-heroes knew what martyr Jim Eliott said nineteen centuries later:

He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.

Now, to live like this can be lonely at times. It is so different from the way others live. All around us, people are investing their time and energy in the things of this world, and they seem to be fine; sometimes, even really happy, successful and fulfilled. In our new world of social media, all this gets distorted even more. Just remember, the people you see on the internet are a very carefully cultivated and edited version of the real thing. Just because people look great online doesn’t mean that they are really doing as well as they seem.

The call of our sinful flesh, of the world and of the devil is seductive. They tell us we can find what we need apart from Jesus Christ. But we have four tools to help us live this lonely, different, life of faith. The first tool is the Word of God, the Bible. We must read it, if we are going to persevere in faith. The second tool is presence of God through the Holy Spirit. The third tool is this great cloud of witnesses. We are surrounded, not only with the people mentioned in Hebrews 11, but with two-thousand years more worth of faithful Christians who chose to turn their backs on sin, flesh and the devil. They turned their backs on security, comfort, success, and ran the race with perseverance.

The fourth tool is each other. We who are living differently than the world must band together, and encourage each other. We aren’t as alone as we might feel sometimes. Reach out to each other when it feels difficult. Inspire one another to love and good deeds. So, I say again:

1 Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, 2 keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that lay before Him endured a cross and despised the shame and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne. 3Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. (Heb 12:1-3, ESV2011)

Revelation #20 THE JOY THAT AWAITS

THE JOY THAT AWAITS

The writer of Hebrew says of Jesus that “for the joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2).” This passage today describes the joy set before us. Let us keep it in mind, keep it in focus, so that we too can endure whatever comes in this life, and finally enter the glorious and thrilling presence of God.

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Revelation #20.  Revelation 7:9-17

I believe Revelation is divided into seven major sections. Each section begins with a return to the perspective of heaven. Section one began with a vision of Jesus, and his words about being the first and last, and about having control of all things. After that initial vision, which established the perspective of Heaven, there were seven letters, addressing the concerns among churches here on earth. Next, we entered the Heavenly throne room, and got a glimpse of the Glory and Power of the Lamb and the One seated on the throne. After that came section two, in which God laid the groundwork for the coming of the end of the world as we know it. Now, we begin a new section, and so we return once more to the Heavenly view of things.

The first two heavenly visions were concerned primarily with God. Remember, at the beginning of the book, John had a vision of Jesus. All focus was on Him, and what he said. The second part of the book began with a vision of the Heavenly throne room. Neither of these visions were primarily about human beings: the focus is on God. The first thing about Heaven is God himself. The entire universe is all about God. Heaven is about the magnificence, and glory, and goodness, and power of God. God doesn’t exist to serve us. Heaven wasn’t made for us, it was made by God, for God. God in his grace has made it possible for us to enter into His presence, and to find eternal joy there. But we should not make the mistake of thinking it is all about us. It is always all about God, and the goodness of God is such that he gives us a place by his side, that he makes room for us in his presence. This third vision is focused on what it looks like, or feels like, to be in the presence of God. John is reminding us where all of this is headed. With each new section, he reiterates what we have to look forward to in the presence of God.

John begins the new vision of Heaven with this:

9After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were robed in white with palm branches in their hands. (Rev 7:9, HCSB)

Heaven is filled with people of every ethnic group (the Greek word translated “nation” could also be “ethnicity”). There are people there from every tribe, every language, every distinct “people group” in the world. Heaven is a multi-cultural, multi-racial, joyful celebration. Some people think of Christianity as a European religion, or as the religion of Western Culture. But that has never been true. From the very beginning, Christianity crossed social, racial and cultural boundaries, both in doctrine, and in actual practice. There are churches in India, Ethiopia, and Egypt that date back 2,000 years. Although Christianity is currently struggling with secular culture in Europe and America, it is growing dynamically in Africa and China and other parts of the world. It has been embraced all over the globe.

This is all in accordance with what Jesus and his followers taught from the very beginning. Jesus always intended the gospel to go to all nations (again, the word could mean “ethnicities”). In fact, he commanded it.

18Then Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20, HCSB)

The apostles obeyed, and passed on the value that this gospel is for all people, both near and far. We who are in Jesus are not foreigners to each other, but fellow citizens, fellow members of God’s household.

17When the Messiah came, He proclaimed the good news of peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, 20built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone. (Eph 2:17-20, HCSB)

Jesus is greater than race, nationality or language. By the way, this is an affirmation of the very beginning of Revelation, where John reminds us that we belong to God’s kingdom, and we are citizens of “God’s country” in a way that takes preeminence over any earthly citizenship.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood 6 and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father…(Revelation 1:5-6)

It also says this in the book of Galatians:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26-28, NIV).

I want to make sure I say this clearly. The Bible does not teach a universal “brotherhood” of all humankind. It does not say that all people are God’s special children. It says that all those who trust Jesus are the children of God, and are brothers and sisters, no matter what our cultural or ethnic background. Without Jesus, we are not in God’s family, not according to the Bible. It is Jesus who makes us into the family of God.

11He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him. 12But to all who did receive Him, He gave them the right to be children of God, to those who believe in His name, 13who were born, not of blood, or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:11-13, HCSB, italics added for emphasis)

But if we are in Jesus, we are one with all others who are in Him. No human conventions should divide us. It doesn’t matter what race or gender we are. The fact that we have surrendered our lives to Jesus means that we are brothers and sisters with everyone else who has done the same. Our unity in Jesus is greater than our cultural and ethnic differences. The early church most definitely lived that out:

 1Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. (Acts 13:1, ESV2011)

Barnabas was a Jew, as was Saul. Simeon was called “Niger,” which means “black,” so he was probably an African. Lucius was from Cyrene, which is in modern day Libya, so he would have been an African of different ethnicity than Simeon. Manaen was probably an Idumean, from the area now known as Jordan.

Even today, despite racial tensions in some parts of the world, Christianity is by no means dominated by any particular ethnicity. Ethnicity is not something that ever divides true Christians. In Revelation, it is a great joy to see people of every tribe, tongue and nation in heaven. Our race, color, culture ,and language are never barriers to the unity we have as followers of our one Lord, Jesus Christ.

I feel so blessed in that I have had the chance to travel to almost twenty different countries, and to meet so many Christians of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. It’s amazing and encouraging to hear eight or ten different languages spoken as you gather for worship, and then to see the unity of everyone’s love for Jesus when worship begins. It is a powerfully moving experience, and I think this passage in Revelation tells us that in Heaven it will be like that, only so much greater!

I want to add something else that I find interesting. “Secularism” is a way of looking at the world apart from religion. Secularists are often atheists, or, if not, they still tend to think of God as impersonal and uninvolved in human affairs. In the US and Europe, most people in government, higher education and the news media are secularists.

Many secular people pride themselves for being in favor of diversity in race and culture. However, secularism in itself (the way of looking at the world apart from God) does not appeal to a very diverse group of people. Most secularists are products of Western culture. It has very little appeal to people from other backgrounds. Christianity is far more culturally diverse in actual fact than secularism.

Moving on, this multitude praises God together. They are clothed in white; their clothes are made white by the blood of the lamb. Now obviously, when you dip clothes in blood, they don’t come out white. This is a symbolic picture. It means that the sacrificial death of Jesus has cleansed them from all sin, and made them holy and righteous in the eyes of God. We are supposed to remember that it is Jesus who makes us holy and righteous, not anything we ourselves do. The palm branches may signify a kind of victory celebration.

In verse 13, one of the twenty-four elders asks a question that we all naturally have: “Who are these people?” I believe (as do several other respected commentators) that these are the same people who were sealed in the last passage (7:1-8). I think the sealing of the 144,000 (which we covered last time) is a picture of what it looks like on earth. All of God’s people are sealed, but sometimes it seems like there aren’t very many of us. In our daily lives, if we haven’t traveled much, we may even feel like all Christians seem to be of the same people group. That’s how it appears on earth. On earth we must be protected from God’s wrath, and from the Devil. On earth, the true extent and glory of the Church is hidden. But now, starting in verse 9, John shows us what it looks like in Heaven. When we get there, we see that there is a huge multitude that cannot be numbered. Far from looking limited, far from looking like all God’s people come from one nation, John shows us the true spiritual reality of God’s people in heaven.

Once again, some commentators make the argument that the 144,000 are Jewish people who come to faith in Jesus after all of the Gentile believers are “raptured,” and the multitude in our passage today are those Gentile believers who were raptured before the great tribulation. However, that interpretation depends upon an elaborate system of picking and choosing obscure parts of several different books of the Bible, and weaving them together in highly specific ways to create a kind of “timeline” of the end times. It does not arise naturally from the text of Revelation, not even remotely. The Holy Spirit inspired the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, Matthew, and Revelation. But He did not clearly inspire the timeline that people make up by picking and choosing from those books. That timeline is not contained within any text of scripture.

I certainly could be wrong. But every instinct I have as a scholar of the Bible tells me that picking and choosing from different books to create a distinct message that is not clear within any of the books individually is bad Bible interpretation.

In addition of course, the actual text of Revelation says that these people:

“…are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:14, NIV).

The Greek makes it clear that they were in the great tribulation, and now, they have come out of it. In other words, they were not raptured before it started. In fact, some commentators feel that the “great tribulation” refers to the struggles and sufferings of the church throughout all of history, not just the end times. John, however, sees them at a time when all suffering and sorrow is behind them.

15“Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. (Rev 7:15, ESV2011)

Let’s be honest. If we take this at face value, it sounds a little bit boring: serving in a temple all day and all night. But we need to remember that this is figurative and symbolic. Picture it this way: Think back to a time in your life when you were with a group of people that you knew well, and loved. Everyone was at peace with each other, there was laughter, fun, good food. Imagine a time like that, one of those moments that you wished would never end; you wished it could just go on and on like that forever. That is what it means to serve God day and night in his temple.

It says that God will shelter them with his presence. There have been a few times in my own life where I have sensed the presence of God in a particularly strong way. It is overwhelming, it is joyful. This is not some dreary, boring ceremony; it is the essence of joy, it is life itself, continually poured into us, continually overflowing out of us.

It says they shall neither hunger nor thirst, and they shall be protected from the sun. Again, this is figurative language. It means, more or less, that all of our needs will be met, and that we will never suffer anymore. This is because the Lamb himself will be our shepherd. He will guide us to springs of living water, he will wipe every tear from our eyes. God himself will remove all of our grief. He will satisfy our deepest needs and longings. He will lead us from goodness to goodness.

This is what God’s people are sealed for. This is our future, if we continue to trust Jesus, if we continue to surrender our lives to him. This is God making everything right; this is him making room for us in his all-joyful, all-satisfying presence. This is what we’re waiting for, and the book of Revelation is assuring us that this is indeed coming, that God is putting into motion the things that need to happen for this to come about.

The writer of Hebrew says of Jesus that “for the joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2).” This passage today describes the joy set before us. Let us keep it in mind, keep it in focus, so that we too can endure whatever comes in this life, and finally enter the glorious and thrilling presence of God.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today!

Revelation #15 THE PLAN FOR THE FULFILLMENT OF HISTORY

seven seals 2

This life will never completely fulfill us or satisfy us, because it is not supposed to. The good news is that Jesus Christ is enacting God’s plan to bring history to its ultimate fulfilment, and to bring those who trust him – his people – into the New Heaven and New Earth, where we will be completely fulfilled, and completely joyful.

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Revelation #15. 5:1-14

Pieces of Revelation chapters four and five can be found in countless hymns, songs and liturgies. “Holy, Holy, Holy,” is of course, from 4:8. There’s a line in that song: “casting down their golden crowns, around the glassy sea.” This is, clearly from 4:6 & 10. The music group “Casting Crowns” obviously got their name from here. Several of my favorite other hymns reference this part of Revelation. The phrase: “Worthy is the Lamb” is found in probably thousands of Christian songs.

All that shows us that these chapters can, and should, present us with a powerful desire for heaven. These images inspired generations of Christians to live their lives with a view of heaven. Some people object to this. There used to be a very common phrase: “He (or she) is so heavenly minded, he’s no earthly good.” I hate that phrase with a passion. The truth is exactly the opposite. If we do not have a clear picture of the hope that awaits us, and a deep, strong desire for the goodness and joy of heaven, we will be relatively useless as God’s people here on earth.

Let me make sure this is clear. If we are Christians, the best is yet to come. This life will never completely fulfill us or satisfy us, because it is not supposed to. We are made for something better, truer, deeper than this life can offer. And the wonderful news is this: because the of the Lamb of God, we will someday enter the world that we were made for. We will find true joy, total satisfaction and all that we need. Because we know that, we can be patient in the here and now. We can be willing to be less self-centered, because we now that someday, our hearts will be completely satisfied. We can put up with the crushing imperfections of this life, knowing that the best is yet to come. That allows us to work for good here and now, even when it does not directly benefit us. It is those people who are trying to get satisfaction here and now, who aren’t willing to trust and wait, that are not much use in this world to the One who sits on the throne.

Chapter five begins with a scroll, sealed with seven seals (5:1). The NAS version translates it “book,” and indeed, the Greek (biblios) would be literally rendered “book.” However, “book” to the majority of John’s readers would have meant some sort of written document in a scroll form (bound books were relatively uncommon until about hundred years after Revelation was written). The reason this is important is so we can picture what John is picturing. He is seeing a scroll –something like a rolled up poster. Instead of a rubber band to keep it rolled up, there are seven “seals” that keep the scroll from unrolling. A “document seal” in the ancient world was made of wax. The wax was heated and dropped onto the scroll. Usually, the sender of the document made an “impression” on the wax while it was still warm. The “impression” or picture that was pushed into the wax was often from some sort of ring or stamp that had a design on it. The design was usually unique to the owner of the ring or stamp. The reason it was called a “seal” is because the wax was dropped half on the edge of the end of the scroll, and half on the rest of the roll where it met the edge. This resulted in the wax holding the documented closed, or rolled up. On the scroll that John saw, there were seven seals; I would imagine them running across the width of the scroll, holding it closed in seven places. Another way to picture it would be as follows: The scroll held one seal on the outside. After the first seal had been broken, it was unrolled a bit, and another seal was revealed, keeping the rest of the document closed. After this was broken, further on came another seal and another. This certainly would have been an unusual arrangement, and not easily envisaged even by the initial readers of Revelation, though it is favored by many Bible interpreters. I personally prefer to think of the seven seals as found in the first arrangement – all at the beginning of the document.

In any case, the scroll and the seals clearly represent something more than just a written document. The scroll is in fact, God’s plan for the culmination of human history. In other words, the unrolling of the scroll results in God setting in motion the judgment of the world, the return of Jesus Christ and the ultimate salvation of all who know Jesus. The scroll gives meaning to human history. Without this plan, without God’s control and deliberate intervention, human history is just a series of random and meaningless incidents strung together in time. With it, the entire picture is given coherence and hope.

I believe that there is one primary purpose for the seals, and that is that they prevent anyone other than Jesus Christ from “opening the book.” In this way we are given a complete picture of God’s control of history. First, the scroll is in the right hand of the One who sits on the throne – God is holding the plan for the end of history. Second, only one person has the ability to enact this plan, and that is Jesus Christ. It is supremely important to understand therefore, that the breaking of the seals and the opening of the scroll is a GOOD thing, if you are a Christian. John wept bitterly when he thought that the scroll would not be opened – he wanted to see God’s plan brought to fullness. I have spoken with many people who are a bit afraid of Revelation and the things it predicts and teaches. They don’t like the thought of plagues and wars and all that. We must understand however, that to John and to the first readers of the book, the opening of the scroll and the beginning of God’s judgment on the earth was a completely positive thing. They weren’t afraid of the scroll being opened – to the contrary, they were afraid it wouldn’t be opened. Therefore, as we continue through Revelation, we ought to interpret it wherever possible in a way that brings hope and joy to the Christian – for that is how the first recipients of the book read it.

In chapter four we had a picture of God the Father in heaven – on the throne, in control, seeing everything. Now, in chapter five we are given insight into the role of God the Son – Jesus Christ.

Jesus is described as the “Lion of the tribe of Judah;” “the root of David;” and “a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, (5:6)” In his Gospel, John remembers that John the Baptist had called Jesus, “the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” (John 1:29). Peter also compares Jesus to a sacrificial lamb (1 Peter 1:19) as does the prophecy about Jesus found in Isaiah 53:7. The fact that Jesus appears as a lamb serves both to identify who John is talking about (Jesus) and what the Lamb’s great work was (to die for our sins).

That this lamb (Jesus) is part of the Trinity –in very nature the same as God – is indicated by the fact that he is “in the midst of the throne” (the most literal translation from the Greek). Once again we are dealing with things that go beyond our dimension, but it is clear enough that at some level, the Lamb is somehow ‘the same’ as the One who sits on the throne, yet also somehow different.

The four living creatures in God’s throne room worship and praise Jesus, the lamb of God. The 24 elders worship and praise him. A multitude of angels worships and praises him. Since the entire Bible is very clear that only God Himself is to be worshipped, this is yet one more strong affirmation that Jesus is in very nature, God. This is exactly what our Christian doctrine of the Trinity tells us (that God is one Being who exists in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit).

The picture of Jesus as a lamb also reminds us that like a sacrificial lamb, He was perfect in every way. Lest we be led astray imagining a cute cuddly little baby sheep, we are also told that the lamb “has seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God (5:6).” These horns and eyes are not literal – it is a word picture, used to communicate something. “Horns” represent strength throughout the Old Testament, and also elsewhere in Revelation. Although we might be tempted to think Jesus is weak and helpless, this picture reminds us that he is perfect in strength – you can’t get any stronger than seven horns. In addition, of course, he is also “the Lion of Judah.” The eyes, as the verse tells us, represent the Holy Spirit, completing the picture of a God who is “three-in-one.” Here is one, who with all the power in the universe at his command, laid it aside to willingly die for us (Philippians 2:6-11). He died instead of us, to pay the penalty for sins we committed (he committed none himself). By his sacrifice he lost none of his strength, and now arisen offers everyone a chance for a new life – for free. In all heaven and earth there is no one else so powerful or so perfect or so loving as to be able to break the seals of the scroll, and execute God’s plan of judgment and salvation. Only Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God can do it. Only He is worthy.

So taken together, these two things in chapter five tell us that Revelation is a book about Father God’s purposes being fulfilled through the work of God the Son, Jesus Christ and through God the Holy Spirit. This book (like the rest of the Bible) is all about Jesus, and the dark and scary things to come are only supposed to be dark and scary for those who do not know Him. The calamities unleashed by the breaking of the seals are unleashed by Jesus himself; to bring judgment to those who have rejected him, and to allow them one last chance to repent. As we read on, we must bear in mind that redeemed in heaven rejoiced at the breaking of the seals, and the martyrs groaned at how long it seemed to take before it was all brought to completion. The scroll will soon be opened, and it is time to rejoice!

So, let’s try to apply this to our lives right now. In the first place, perhaps some of us need to focus on the power and majesty and authority of God. In this day and age, we tend to not respect authority. But this picture of God leaves no room for insolence. He is God, we are not. This is a simple truth, but it is also very powerful. We don’t get to control things. We don’t get to judge God. He is the Supreme ruler of everything that is. Even Jesus, the compassionate lamb of God, is revealed as perfectly strong and all-knowing.

Secondly, perhaps we need to remember that Jesus Christ is in control of history. It is unfolding according to God’s plan. The seals are broken by Jesus himself; it is Jesus who enacts God’s will through history. If we trust God, we have nothing to fear from international tension, or corrupt politics. We have nothing to fear in the events of our own lives. That is not to say that everything will always work out according to how we want it to; but it is clear that we are never, even for a moment, out of the care of Jesus Christ. Even when things seems chaotic and scary (like much of Revelation) we know that Jesus is working all things for our good. In view of this truth, the apostle Paul writes some of the most comforting words in the entire Bible:

28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,8  for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. 31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be9  against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised— who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.10  35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;

we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:28-38)

I pray that we would have such a clear vision of the joy that awaits us that any tribulation in the meantime seems small in comparison. I pray that we begin to truly desire God to enact his plan in history, to bring his will to culmination and welcome us into the New Heaven and New Earth.

WHAT IS HEAVEN LIKE?

heaven

We are like caterpillars, wondering if we will still get to munch leaves when we emerge from the cocoon, but we haven’t even dreamed of the possibility of drinking nectar from flowers. In other words, I think the kinds of questions we have probably don’t even apply.

But we Christians are people of real hope. What awaits us cannot be understood, on this side of the border, but the only One who has truly been both places has given us glimpses, glimpses that are intended for our joy.
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Download Matthew Part 79

Matthew #79  Matthew 22:23-33

Matthew 22:15-40 records three instances where the religious leaders tried to trap Jesus with difficult questions. They were attempting to make him either discredit himself in front of the people, or trick him into saying something that would get him arrested by the authorities.

Last time we covered the question of taxes. One thing I failed to mention was this: at this point, Jesus was probably not terribly concerned about getting arrested. The time had come. So his response, showing us that politics are basically irrelevant for his followers, was given not to keep himself out of prison, but rather, to teach his followers to trust God, not government.

The next question comes from a group called the Sadducees. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection (that’s why they were so sad, you see?). They were sort of social and cultural Jews, more than anything. They didn’t really take God or spiritual things very seriously. To whatever extent they actually engaged in religion, they only really paid attention to the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah, or Law. In many ways, that makes them a little bit like the  liberal “Reformed” Jews of today. The text that the Sadducees refer to is Deuteronomy 25:5.

5“When brothers live on the same property and one of them dies without a son, the wife of the dead man may not marry a stranger outside the family. Her brother-in-law is to take her as his wife, have sexual relations with her, and perform the duty of a brother-in-law for her. 6The first son she bears will carry on the name of the dead brother, so his name will not be blotted out from Israel. (Deut 25:5-6, HCSB)

There were two issues that were addressed by this law in ancient Israel. The first was one of the inheritance of the land. The land was God’s direct, physical gift to the ancient people of Israel. They did not buy and sell property as casually as we do today. Every tribe, and even every family, had a plot of land that was their special inheritance from the Lord. If a particular family had no son, the land of the father’s family was in danger of being lost. In addition, the family name would no longer be remembered – it would be a dead-end, so to speak. So it was the duty of the closest relative who was willing, to marry the widow, and provide an heir to the dead man. The firstborn son of the widow and the relative (her new husband) would be considered not the man’s son, but rather, the son of the widow’s first husband. This meant that the land-inheritance would remain in the family, and also that the dead man’s family line would be continued.

The second issue that this addressed was the status of the widow. With neither son nor husband to take care of her, such a widow would be in a difficult situation. Women did not usually inherit property on their own, so she would have no home, and no real place in society. This law was intended to protect such widows, and keep them on the family land. The book of Ruth in the Old Testament is much concerned with this law. Ruth provided a real service to her mother-in-law, Naomi, by staying with her after they were both widowed, and marrying the nearest relative of her dead husband. This insured the family line of Naomi’s dead husband and sons would be continued. The man who married Ruth, by doing so, also saved Ruth and Naomi from a life of poverty and danger.

By the time of Jesus, however, this ancient law was no longer in common use. For one thing, the Jews no longer had direct control over their own land, so the problem of inheriting land was not as pressing. The law still taught the principle that God’s people should care for widows and the destitute in society, but it was no longer a matter of obeying the law literally through the marriage of relatives.

I think the Sadducees presented this question to Jesus for three reasons. First, they were trying to trap Jesus in the same way that people try to ‘trap’ Christians today. I hear these types of things all the time today: “Doesn’t the Bible say we should kill all of our enemies? Doesn’t it say we should execute homosexuals?” It is the practice of taking verses out of textual and historical context, and trying to trick someone into saying something stupid. But even by the time of Jesus, these types of verses were not applied directly and literally. It is not merely a matter of what it says, but also of how we interpret it.

Secondly, their argument was that Moses commanded this law so that the name of the dead brother “will not be blotted out from Israel.” In other words, they are saying that the only “life after death” in the eyes of the ancients was that the family name should be carried on. The law seemed to be given, in their eyes, precisely because there was no resurrection.

Finally, their question was a kind of sly mockery: “When a widow or widower remarries, won’t the resurrection be a mess? Who is married to whom?” They want to show that the resurrection is a silly idea.

Let’s take the biggest issue first: the fact that the scripture does teach resurrection from the dead. The resurrection is central to the teaching of Jesus, and also to the teachings of the apostles, and to all true Christians throughout history. As the apostle Paul writes:

12Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say, “There is no resurrection of the dead”? 13But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; 14and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation is without foundation, and so is your faith. (1Cor 15:12-14, HCSB)

No resurrection, no Christian faith. It is as simple as that. I have preached extensively on the resurrection in the past, and I will do so again later on in this sermon-series on Matthew. For now, let’s consider Jesus’ response to the Sadducees. As I mentioned, they typically only recognized that Torah (the first five books of the Bible) as legitimate. Jesus quoted extensively from the other books of the Old Testament, so clearly, he disagreed with them about that. Even so, he meets them on their own turf. He says, basically, “You want to talk about resurrection, but you want to limit the debate to the Torah? How about this one: ‘I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’”

In case you miss the significance of what Jesus is saying, let me spell it out. When God appeared to Moses, he did not say, “I was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” He did not say, “Abraham followed me, back when he was alive.” Instead, the Torah records that God used the present tense, indicating that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were somehow still alive, more than four hundred years after they died. According to God, he still was their God. How could he be their God, unless they were still, in some way, alive? That is the point Jesus is making.

I want us to notice something about all this. Clearly, Jesus treated the scriptures with great respect. He shows us there is sometimes significance even in the tense of the words used in the Bible.

Now, sometimes I think for Christians today, we tend to say, “Yes, yes, I believe in the resurrection, but what is this business about no marriage?” If your marriage is difficult, perhaps this sounds like good news. But if you have a good marriage, this seems like kind of a sad revelation. If you are single, you might also be disappointed, lest you die before you experience marriage. For a large number of people, marriage greatly enhances the joy and satisfaction of life. Let’s be honest about something else: this also makes some people wonder about sex in heaven. The Bible says that the only time sex is good and right is within marriage. Some people may wonder if this passage means that there is no sex in heaven, and some might be disappointed with that thought. All of these questions come down to this: How can heaven be, well, heaven, without marriage and/or sex?

The answer is something like this: we cannot really understand what it is going to be like, but it will be better than we can imagine. John writes:

Dear friends, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him because we will see Him as He is. (1 John 3:2 HCSB)

Jesus said we will be like the angels, but that is not particularly helpful. John, talking about the return of Jesus, says, “we don’t yet know what we will be.”

Paul considers the same issue in 1 Corinthians 15. The following passage is rather long, but I think it’s worth including the whole thing:

35But someone will say, “How are the dead raised? What kind of body will they have when they come? ” 36Foolish one! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37And as for what you sow — you are not sowing the future body, but only a seed, perhaps of wheat or another grain. 38But God gives it a body as He wants, and to each of the seeds its own body.

39Not all flesh is the same flesh; there is one flesh for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. 40There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is different from that of the earthly ones. 41There is a splendor of the sun, another of the moon, and another of the stars; for one star differs from another star in splendor.

42So it is with the resurrection of the dead: Sown in corruption, raised in incorruption; 43sown in dishonor, raised in glory; sown in weakness, raised in power; 44sown a natural body, raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45So it is written: The first man Adam became a living being; the last Adam became a life-giving Spirit. 46However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural, then the spiritual. 47The first man was from the earth and made of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48Like the man made of dust, so are those who are made of dust; like the heavenly man, so are those who are heavenly. 49And just as we have borne the image of the man made of dust, we will also bear the image of the heavenly man.

50Brothers, I tell you this: Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, and corruption cannot inherit incorruption. (1Cor 15:35-50, HCSB)

We are like seeds, wondering what happens after we are planted, but having no point of reference. I once grew zucchini squash in my garden. The seeds are smooth and flat, roughly the size of a fingernail, but oval shaped. There is a kind of beveled border all around the edge of the seed. The seed is cream colored. Now, that seed is pure zucchini. There is nothing in the seed that is anything other than zucchini. It contains every part of the DNA of a full zucchini plant. And yet, the seed is nothing at all like the whole plant – in fact it isn’t even very much like the zucchini squash. The plant is green. It grows to over two feet tall, and more than four feet around of spreading green stalks and leaves. The flowers are long and yellow or orange. The zucchini “fruit” is a foot long or more, with white flesh and dark green skin. The seeds do not change their essential nature. The DNA of the grown plant is the same as the DNA of the seed that dies to produce the plant. You might say the plant is the seed, as it was meant to become. Yet the plant is also so much more than the seed. And no matter how long you took, you would never be able to imagine the plant merely from looking at the seed.

Another illustration comes from the caterpillar and the butterfly. The caterpillar is not much like a butterfly. It is slow and ugly and it must crawl on the ground. The butterfly is pretty. It flies, flitting nimbly from flower to flower. And yet they are the same. The caterpillar becomes the butterfly. The butterfly that emerges is the caterpillar, but transformed into an entirely different mode of existence.

We are like caterpillars, wondering if we will still get to munch leaves when we emerge from the cocoon, but we haven’t even dreamed of the possibility of drinking nectar from flowers. In other words, I think the kinds of questions we have probably don’t even apply. There may not be munching leaves after the chrysalis, but there is flying, and drinking nectar. There may not be marriage in heaven, but there may be something better, something so much better that we haven’t even imagined it. In fact, I think we can count on that.

For myself, I see three or four areas where the Holy Spirit speaks to me through this text. First, I recognize that many people today use the same sort of “trap” used by the Sadducees. They take a scripture out of its historical, cultural and textual context, and then try to play “gotcha.” I love Jesus’ response: “You are deceived, because you don’t know the Scriptures or the power of God.” He wasn’t just being mean, he was stating the facts. We need to remember that many people are deceived and don’t know either the scriptures, nor the power of God. We should not let them discourage us.

Jesus responds to these ignorant, deceived people by instructing them. He pays careful attention to the scripture, and honors what it says. I don’t know that any of them changed their minds, but I’m sure it encouraged the disciples, and it did, at least, provide the Sadducees with the opportunity to hear the truth and repent.

This passage also encourages me to think about the resurrection. God himself speaks of the dead as if they were still alive! Christianity is a faith that is built upon the hope of a good, eternal future where our very selves are purified, redeemed and continue on in glorious existence.

We may not be aware of how unique this is, even among world religions. Hindus believe that it takes approximately 8,400,000 reincarnations before you can reach nirvana. Therefore, the chances are not very good that you are anywhere close to the ultimate goal. Even then, the Hindu vision of the ultimate goal is that you lose your sense of individuality and become absorbed into the impersonal, cosmic one-ness that is God. In other words, for all intents and purposes, you will cease to exist as you. That doesn’t sound very hopeful.

Tibetan Buddhists, likewise, have this as their goal: to utterly cease to exist. They believe that the only way to escape suffering is to do so. Again, this is not what I would consider true hope.

In Islam, there is a vision of an eternal paradise in which people continue to exist as individuals. However, in Muslim heaven it is much better to be a man than a woman. Unlike the Christian vision of the resurrection which we have been considering, it just sounds a lot like a nice life on earth, especially for men. Also, though one can wish for paradise, there are very few ways to have real hope that you will get there. It is almost always an uncertainty, which is perhaps, why proportionately more Muslims are willing to die for the “cause,” since that way offers more of a guarantee of heaven.

But we Christians are people of real hope. What awaits us cannot be understood, on this side of the border, but the only One who has truly been both places has given us glimpses, glimpses that are intended for our joy and hope.

SECOND CHRISTMAS

2nd Christmas

Christmas has a way of awakening our desires. What we often don’t understand, however, is that our deepest desires are mere echoes of the great Reality that awaits us on the other side of time.

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2 Peter 3:1-18. ADVENT 2015 #3 (fourth week in Advent)

Remember when you were a kid, and it seemed like Christmas would never come? I sometimes enjoy the movie A Christmas Story. It really captures the combination of yearning, excitement and apprehension that some children feel about the holiday. In that movie, Ralph, a young boy, desperately wants a BB gun. He needs it. His heart will not be at peace until he possesses it. Throughout the whole movie he is aching for Christmas to come, but also a bit fearful that he’ll be disappointed.

As I have pointed out during the past few weeks, Jesus also promised us a “second Christmas.” He said he would return some day. In some ways, I think we look at the return of Jesus the same way Ralph in A Christmas Story looks at Christmas. We want the gifts we might get: eternal life, an end to sorrow and suffering, being reunited with those we loved and have lost. Revelation 21:1-5 puts it like this:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

That sounds exciting. That sounds like a present we could really look forward to. In fact, in my better moments, I yearn for this. I know my soul won’t be at rest until I receive it.

But at the same time, we have a certain amount of apprehension about second Christmas. What if, when it comes, we are disappointed? What if Jesus was just messing with us when he promised to take us to be with him (John 14:1-6)? I think our fears about his return fall into a few different categories. I fear that won’t enjoy the time leading up to it. The holidays between Thanksgiving and Christmas can get hectic and stressful. In the same way, the Bible indicates that the time before Jesus returns will be stressful.

Another thing we tend to worry about it, is this: will heaven really be all it cracked up to be? I mean, I might get bored, singing in the choir, after a thousand years or so. Is our “second Christmas” present really as good as we think it is?

Finally, I think some us worry about this: will we really get the present we want? Or will we be left out? Jesus promised, but what could be taking him so long? Is the promise really for me? Is he even coming back at all?

The apostle Peter, in his second general letter to Christians, addressed some of these issues in 2 Peter 3:1-18. When Jesus first promised to come back, the apostles and the early church expected him within their lifetimes. No one ever dreamed he would wait for 2,000 years or more. So many Christians had begun to doubt, or at least wonder, about this promise. They were excited, but also worried. Here are several points from what Peter writes, that might help us as we look forward to the second Christmas.

1. Second Christmas (the return of Jesus) is going to come. Scoffers are mocking the promise of Jesus, saying he is never really going to come back. But Peter reminds us that God is not bound by the same rules of time that bind us. A thousand years might be like a day to the Lord, or vice versa. If that is the case, the church of Jesus Christ has only been waiting two days for him to return. It seems like forever – just like Christmas seemed forever away when you were a kid – but it is not forever. God doesn’t count time the same way we do, just like adults see time differently than kids. But he has not forgotten or changed his promise. He will come back. The time-delay is because of God’s mercy and grace (2 Peter 3:9 & 15). He doesn’t want anyone to miss out on a chance to receive the incredible gifts he is bringing. So he is giving the world a chance to repent of sins and self-centeredness, and receive him. We may be apprehensive, but we are dealing with a loving and gracious God.

2. It really will be good. In fact, it will be better than we can fully understand. This world is full of things that disappoint us. Remember that Christmas present you yearned for as a kid? How much joy does it bring you on a day-to-day basis today? By the time we are adults, if we are wise, we have learned that lasting joy does not come from temporary things. However, heaven is the opposite of temporary. We are promised eternal life, eternal joy. C.S. Lewis, among several other great Christian writers, suggests that our deepest desires are signals to us of what will be fulfilled in heaven:

Now, if we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us, but not yet attached to the true object, and will even appear as the rival of that object.

Heaven is not a place where we wear robes and sing in a choir all day. It is the place where our entire purpose for existence is consummated. Our deepest desires are mere echoes of the great Reality that awaits us on the other side of time. Let me give you a specific and surprising example: A lot of people wonder if there will be sex in heaven. The biblical picture we have is unclear. But what is quite clear to me is that the joy and pleasure and intimacy with another person that we want to experience through sex is a pale, weak shadow compared to the stunning fulfillment we will find in heaven. The kinds of questions we raise about heaven are like a little child who is on his way to visit his grandparents, and wants to know if he will still be able to talk to them on the phone when he gets there. We are promised that it is better than we can ask or imagine. C.S. Lewis puts it this way:

These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited.

3. This Gift has been promised to us, and we can rely on the promise. Peter says the earth and sky will be consumed in fire, but: “In keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. (2 Peter 3:13)” Again this is the same promise reiterated in Revelation 21, quoted above. It is unimaginably good; better than we could ask or conceive of.

4. The expectation of second Christmas should affect how we live today (2 Peter 3:14).

14 So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.

Let’s understand something clearly. Too many people get the cart before the horse. We don’t make efforts to be blameless and at peace with God in order to get to heaven and receive these promises. No. It goes like this: because we have these promises, and because we believe Jesus has given them to us out of his grace, our response to get ready for the life he offers. We don’t try to act right in order to receive God’s grace – we receive God’s grace first, and as a result, we make every effort to be blameless and at peace with him. The promise of Christmas can have a wonderful effect on young children. Sometimes, it is because they think they must be good in order to get good presents. But more often, it is the knowledge that at this time of the year, there is plenty of goodness and to go around. They are going to get goodness, and their response is often to be good in return. Ours should be the same, whether we are adults or children. The Lord has promised good to us (Jeremiah 29:11) – let that goodness flow back to him in a response of gratitude.

The fact is this: if we really are looking forward to the return of Jesus as the ultimate Christmas present, it should affect our lives. Worries that might otherwise be a big deal, don’t have to be so dominant. Things that others to do hurt me, don’t have to be unforgivable. God is being generous with me at Second Christmas, so I can spare some of the goodwill, and be generous with love and forgiveness toward others. There are a lot of things we get all tied in knots about, that simply won’t matter very much once Second Christmas comes.

5. We can be secure in grace. (2 Peter 3:17-18)

17 Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. 18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.

Peter writes that we should be on our guard. We are not invincible. We might be carried away by the opinions of others, or our own love of sin. However, though we are not invulnerable, we can be secure – Peter himself calls our position secure. He tells us to grow in grace. What does that mean? I think it means that we grow in our understanding of how powerful and incredible God’s grace and love are. Because of what Jesus has done, there is no sin you commit than cannot be forgiven if you repent. There is nothing that can keep God’s love from you. Second Christmas is coming, and it is good, and the promise is yours simply by trusting that it is for you. These verses are about the end of the world. But they are not meant to scare us – they are written to encourage us, and comfort us.

Enjoy Christmas this year. But keep your eyes on the real promise – the Second Christmas, the return of the One who came the first time as a little baby. To focus our thoughts right now, let me close with two more quotes from C.S. Lewis and the weight of glory:

At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of the morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so someday, God willing, we shall get in.

Nature is mortal; we shall outlive her. When all the suns and nublae have passed away, each one of you will still be alive. Nature is only the image, the symbol; but it is the symbol Scripture invites us to use. We are summoned to pass in through nature, beyond her, into that splendor which she fitfully reflects.

CHILD-LIKE GREATNESS

toddler wide eyed

 

Only those who abandon control and learn to trust can truly let Jesus give them his grace. To the extent you do not trust, you cannot receive.

There is something else we need to get from all this. Jesus’ main point to his disciples about being great is that great Christians don’t look like “great Christians.”

 

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Matthew #61. Matthew 18:1-14

Thanks for making use of Clear Bible. We’ll be talking this time about true greatness, and the willingness to give up whatever we need to in order to enter the life that Jesus offers us. Before we get into all that, however, I’d like to remind you that we deeply appreciate your prayers for this ministry. Please pray that this ministry will continue to be a blessing to those who hear it. Ask God, if it is his will, to touch even more lives with these messages. Ask him to use this ministry in making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Please also pray for our finances. Pray for us to receive everything we need. Please pray for us in this way before you give anything. And then, as you pray, if the Lord leads you to give us a gift, please go ahead and do that. Click on the “Donate” at the top of the page for more information about how to give. But if the Lord doesn’t want you to give financially to us, that is absolutely fine. We don’t want you to feel bad about it. We want you to follow Jesus in this matter. But do continue to pray for our finances and the ministry as a whole.

Now, on to the main message.

This teaching of Jesus begins, as so many of his teaching do, with the disciples messing up. That’s a happy thought for me. I think when I mess up that I have, well, you know, messed things up. But Jesus sees the mistakes of his followers as opportunities to help them grow.

In this case, their way of messing up was to seek greatness for themselves. It is just possible that Matthew was slightly ashamed of this incident: he merely records that the disciples raised the issue with Jesus. Mark and Luke both record that in fact, the disciples were arguing about it while away from the presence Jesus, and Jesus, finding out, spoke with them.

It is also encouraging to see how gentle Jesus is with them in this particular instance. He brings a child into their midst, and says basically, “turn from your ambitions and become like this child.”

Now, like any of Jesus’ parables or analogies, he has just a few main points in mind. If you can remember your own childhood, or if you can remember being the parent of young children, you know that children come with their own sets of issues. They can be selfish, angry, easily upset, stubborn, rebellious and so on. But Jesus didn’t mean that his followers should become like children in every possible way. Other places in the New Testament tell Jesus-followers not to be like children – at least not in our thinking:

Then we will no longer be little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit. Ephesians 4:14 (HCSB)

I think probably Jesus had three or four characteristics of children in mind. First, I believe, is humility. A young child does not usually have ambitions to rule the world, or to be greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Particularly in the presence of adults, a child knows his limitations and accepts them humbly. Jesus is telling these men who are jockeying for position in the kingdom of heaven: “Forget all that. Instead, be humble, like a child.” In fact, he mentions humility specifically in verse 4. Psalm 131 portrays this childlike humility:

1LORD, my heart is not proud; my eyes are not haughty. I do not get involved with things too great or too difficult for me.2Instead, I have calmed and quieted myself like a little weaned child with its mother; I am like a little child.3Israel, put your hope in the LORD, both now and forever. (Ps 131:1-3, HCSB)

Another characteristic of children that Jesus might have had in mind is innocence. I don’t mean children don’t sin – obviously, they do. But they usually haven’t been exposed to the full depth of evil in the world. So Paul writes:

Brothers, don’t be childish in your thinking, but be infants in regard to evil and adult in your thinking. 1 Corinthians 14:20 (HCSB)

A third possibility that Jesus might have meant us to understand is that a child’s main job is to learn. A child has not mastered any subject, but humbly learns from others, and in fact, at least until we ruin it with school, most children are naturally inclined to learn. Peter puts it this way:

Like newborn infants, desire the pure spiritual milk, so that you may grow by it for your salvation, 1 Peter 2:2 (HCSB)

So, the followers of Jesus should regard themselves as learners.

Finally, I think one thing Jesus definitely meant by “become like children” was to learn to trust. Children know how to trust – they have to. Unless a child has been very unfortunate, trusting is the one thing that very young children are better at than anyone else. They are dependent upon adults for their entire survival. I think this is precisely what Jesus means when he says, “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Only those who abandon control and learn to trust can truly let Jesus give them his grace. To the extent you do not trust, you cannot receive. Psalm 131(quoted above) connects childlike humility to trust.

There is something very important we need to get from all this. Jesus’ main point to his disciples about being great is that great Christians don’t look like “great Christians.” I don’t mean they look like bad Christians, but what Jesus does mean is that He judges greatness based upon entirely different criteria than the world.

I think this is very relevant. We live in a culture that is obsessed with celebrity. The world reveres people who have managed to become famous, no matter how they achieved it. A large number of famous people today, regardless of their notoriety, have achieved almost nothing worthwhile. Think about it: the people we most admire and talk about either play games for a living (athletes), or pretend to be other people for a living (actors). Their lasting contributions to the human race are almost worthless. It would be hard to argue that the world will be a better place one-hundred years from now because of Leonardo DiCaprio or Anne Hathaway or Jennifer Anniston.

It’s almost impossible to over-emphasize how backwards our culture’s view of greatness has become. Recently Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner won an award for courage. What did he to do to merit the award? Rather than face his own brokenness with the courage to pursue healing, instead of learning to accept himself how he was, he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to physically change the body he was born with, all the while knowing that the media would be eager to praise him for it. That’s not courage. That’s not greatness – but we have called it such.

Unfortunately, many Christians have bought into society’s model for greatness. We don’t necessarily honor the same people as great, but we honor “Christian Celebrities” as great, and often they have done just as little or less than secular celebrities. We merely replace the Kardashians with the Robertsons (of Duck Dynasty fame). Or instead of admiring One Direction, we admire Hillsong (or, more probably, both). In fact, recently I saw an ad for a movie about the success and fame of the musicians at Hillsong. It looked like any other movie about a bunch of celebrities; these just happen to be Christian ones.

You know what I am talking about. You know that the Christian celebrity culture is alive and well. Chris Tomlin and Matt Redmond are celebrity worship leaders. Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer are celebrity preachers. David Platt is a celebrity author. Christian culture in America thrives on this stuff, because “Christian culture” is not very different from secular culture in how it judges greatness.

But Jesus said, “this is not how greatness looks in the kingdom of heaven.” In heaven, greatness looks like a child: humble, willing to learn, not caught up in the entanglements of what the world has to offer, and above all, trusting the Lord for everything. I doubt we will know who the real celebrities in God’s kingdom are until we are resurrected in the new heavens and new earth. If we could somehow see it truly, I think we would be surprised at who the great ones are in our present generation. I doubt it is anyone we have heard about from our Christian Celebrity culture.

I am not judging the ministries of the people I have named. I am merely saying that even we Christians have lost sight of how Jesus defines true greatness.

After this, Jesus turns the conversation slightly. He was telling the disciples to be like children, and now he goes on to talk about “little ones.” I think Jesus is probably referring both to actual children, and also to those who enter the Kingdom of Heaven like a child.

First he warns against causing the downfall of one of the little ones. I have said before that all sins are equal in that no matter what sin we commit, it separates us from God. However, not all sins have the same earthly consequences. Jesus now says something that is as close as he ever gets to “There is a special place in hell for sinners like that.”

6 “But whoever causes the downfall of one of these little ones who believe in Me — it would be better for him if a heavy millstone4 were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea!

It seems that when someone corrupts a child, or a naïve disciple, this makes Jesus especially angry. People are going to sin, but if you are the one who leads another person into sin, you have done something particularly contemptible. That sin – corrupting others, seducing them into sin – can be forgiven, of course. It isn’t the unforgiveable sin. If you think you have done this, repent now, quit corrupting others and trust that Jesus has forgiven and changed you. If not, you’d be better off swimming with the giant stone necklace than facing the wrath of Jesus.

Next, Jesus reiterates something he said earlier in his ministry, during the sermon on the mount:

8 If your hand or your foot causes your downfall, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes your downfall, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, rather than to have two eyes and be thrown into hellfire!

I think there are two helpful thoughts here. First, sin is serious. Jesus isn’t messing around here. Sin is the cancer of the soul. If your foot has cancer in it, you have an operation to get the cancer removed. If you can’t remove the cancer without amputating, you amputate, because otherwise the cancer will spread, and your whole body will eventually die. When dealing with cancer, we understand, this is life or death. We do what is necessary to get rid of the cancer, including removing major body parts.

Jesus is telling us that sin is just as serious as cancer. If alcohol is causing you to sin, quit drinking. If watching certain TV shows or movies is getting your head into a bad place, quit watching. If friends are influencing you to sin, maybe you aren’t strong enough to keep those friendships at this time. I don’t mean you should never have non-Christian friends. But I do mean that if it becomes a choice between following Jesus faithfully, or having a certain person in your life, you would be better off to choose Jesus. Jesus is telling us that this is serious business. Do what it takes to keep on following him.

There is a second piece to what Jesus is saying here. He says: “It is better for you to enter life maimed or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into the eternal fire.” The eternal fire is the serious, scary thing. But there is a serious, good thing too: Life. The promise is that we can indeed enter life. There is something good up ahead – a life waiting for us. This life now is temporary. What’s ahead is the real thing.

Would you give up a thousand dollars right now if you knew it would get you a million dollars when you retire? Of course. A temporary sacrifice is worth a long-term reward.

So, what if you’re never allowed to get drunk and party again in this temporary life – the life is coming that will be better than any party you’ve been to, and you can enjoy it fully without the aid of alcohol, and remember the whole thing clearly, too.

Is it worth giving up a few temporary pleasures (which don’t bring lasting fulfilment anyway) in order to enter eternal life? The answer should be obvious.

There’s an old song written by Rich Mullins, that wasn’t well known, called Heaven is waiting. Perhaps fittingly considering the message today, it is one of his least-known songs, and was only ever recorded once. I strongly encourage you to go listen to the song, and reflect on all these things as you do. Unfortunately the best recording I could find was here, and there is a little bit of distortion; even so, it’s a great song:

Heaven is Waiting (You Tube Music Video)

HEAVEN IS WAITING

By Rich Mullins and Mitch McVicker

“I don’t need no woman to kiss me
And I don’t need no man to stand by my side
I don’t need to slake my thirst with whiskey
Don’t need to shuffle cards to pass the time
‘Cause the stars are bright and silvery
And with the dry ache of a lone coyote’s whine
My Savior’s calling and I’m listening
Time to saddle up my pony and ride
‘Cause heaven is waiting
Just past the horizon
Just over the mesas
Across the great divide
And faith is blazing
This trail that I ride on up this mountain
I’m prayin’ I have the strength to climb
I ain’t looking for no seven golden cities
But I know there’s a fortune somewhere to find
There’s a peace that I hear whisperin’ through the
pinyons
And a love that’s taller than the ponderosa pines
And heaven is waiting
Just past the horizon
Just over the mesas
Across the great divide
And faith is blazing
This trail that I ride on up this mountain
I’m prayin’ I have the strength to climb
So don’t ask for no lengthy explanation
When there ain’t no reason quite wild enough
No words could be as tender
It’s greater than the fears that we imagine
More than the warmth that we remember
It’s always just beyond the pass
And I must go
‘Cause heaven is waiting
Just past the horizon
Just over the mesas
Across the great divide
And faith is blazing
This trail that I ride on up this mountain
I’m prayin’ I have the strength to climb
Oh heaven is waiting
Oh heaven is waiting
Heaven is waiting”

TREASURING WHAT IS MOST VALUABLE

treasure

When we store treasure for ourselves in this life, we are setting ourselves up for major disappointment. The relationships we cherish so much won’t ever be all that we want them to be. We are very unlikely to achieve the success and accolades we desire. Financial security escapes all but a few. Death takes every single person. We can’t count on our dreams here. Even those dreams which are fulfilled are still missing some indefinable thing that leaves us with lingering doubt and emptiness.

I think sometimes one reason we get so angry and disappointed with God is that we want to have it all in this life. But the Lord never promises we will have it all (or, necessarily any of “it”) here in this life.

The answer is not in this life. Our mistake is to seek it here. But the call for Christians is to keep our focus on real treasure.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Matthew Part 20.5

Matthew #20.5 Matthew 6:19-21

In our church last week, someone suggested that it would be a good idea to dwell a little bit more on what our treasure in Heaven will be. It’s hard to focus on something, to aim your life at something, when you only have a vague idea of what it is. So, I’m going to go back from where we are in the text, and re-visit Matthew 6:19-21. Jesus said:

“Don’t collect for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But collect for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matt 6:19-21, HCSB)

Prior to this, Jesus was talking about how our Heavenly Father will reward us, and we should seek that reward, rather than the praise of other people. So, what is heavenly treasure? What is heavenly reward?

So often, we don’t really believe that our real treasure is in Heaven. We are still looking for it on earth. So our eternal future does not figure very much in our day to day plans and decisions.

For Most Christians, heaven is a backup plan. Our primary work is finding a life we can at least get a little pleasure from here. Heaven is an investment we’ve made, like Treasury bonds, or a retirement account, which we we’re hoping will take care of us in the future sometime, but which we do not give much thought to at present. (John Eldredge, Desire, chapter 6).

Part of the difficulty about heaven is that we’ve never been there. Even those Christians who have had death-experiences and returned, have not really been to heaven, but only to the entrance of the afterlife, so to speak, and we cannot give their experiences the same kind of authority that we give to the Bible; and yet the Bible doesn’t seem to have very many specifics. However, the Bible does give us some big-picture ideas about eternity for those who are in Jesus.

First, when the bible talks about “eternal life” the Greek word for life is a special one: zoe. Jesus said that whoever trusts in Him will have zoe (John 3:15). It means much more than just “live forever.” Zoe means not only life that is indestructible, that lasts forever, but also a certain higher quality of life, better life. John says we have zoe when we trust Jesus:

The one who has the Son has zoe. The one who doesn’t have the Son of God does not have zoe. I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal zoe. (1John 5:12-13, HCSB I have substituted the Greek word for the English, where it occurs)

This is important. If by eternal life we meant just a long life exactly as we have known it, that sounds a little daunting. This life leaves a lot to be desired, and extending it forever would not fix most of the problems we have. If eternal life was just more of this life, we would continue to struggle with broken relationships. We would still face unfulfilled desires (only now, for eternity). We would go on being disappointed by others, and ourselves, and not finding as much joy as we think we should from getting what we think we want. We might go on struggling with finances, and with worry, and with feeling insecure, and unattractive. Continuing to live this life forever sounds more like a punishment than a blessing.

Thankfully, the Bible promises not more of the same, but rather, something different; eternal zoe. Our eternal life will be of a different, better quality. In the first place, we will have new bodies. Many Christians don’t realize this. The promise of eternal life is not some ghost-existence where we float around like disembodied spirits. 1 Corinthians 15 tells us that we will have bodies, but that they will be different in important ways from our present bodies.

But someone will say, “How are the dead raised? What kind of body will they have when they come? ” Foolish one! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow — you are not sowing the future body, but only a seed, perhaps of wheat or another grain. But God gives it a body as He wants, and to each of the seeds its own body. (1Cor 15:35-38, HCSB)

We are like seeds, sitting in a seed packet, wondering what happens after we are planted, but having no point of reference. Back when I thought I could grow a garden, I planted some zucchini squash. The seeds are smooth and flat, roughly the size of a fingernail, but oval shaped. There is kind of beveled border all around the edge of the seed. The seed is cream colored. Now, that seed is pure zucchini. There is nothing in the seed that is anything other than zucchini. It contains every part of the DNA of a full zucchini plant. And yet, the seed is nothing at all like the whole plant – in fact it isn’t even very much like the zucchini squash. The plant is green. It grows to over two feet tall, and more than four feet around of spreading green stalks and leaves. The flowers are long and yellow or orange. The zucchini “fruit” is a foot long or more, with white flesh and dark green skin.

The seeds do not change their essential nature, and yet they are destroyed in order for the plant to grow. The DNA of the grown plant is the same as the DNA of the seed that dies to produce the plant. Yet the plant is so much more than the seed. And no matter how long you took, you would never be able to imagine the plant merely from examining the seed.

So it will be with our new bodies. They will be fully us, and yet very different from how we are at the moment. They will not experience disease or pain or death.

Our new bodies will have a new creation to inhabit. Paul writes that all of creation was “subjected to futility.” That creation will be redeemed when we ourselves are finally resurrected into eternal zoe with our new bodies:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us. For the creation eagerly waits with anticipation for God’s sons to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to futility — not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it — in the hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of corruption into the glorious freedom of God’s children. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now. And not only that, but we ourselves who have the Spirit as the firstfruits — we also groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. Now in this hope we were saved, yet hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with patience. (Rom 8:18-25, HCSB)

John writes about his vision of the end of the universe as we know it:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. (Rev 21:1, HCSB)

This world is a beautiful place still. As I type this, I can see three pictures on my wall, all of them taken by me while traveling. One is a sunset scene on the Gulf of Mexico.

100_3901

Another is from a mountainside in Northern California, overlooking meadows, forests and the ocean. The third is a majestic and stunning view of Mount Hood in Oregon, clad in winter white, draped with dark green fir forests. I love these MtnViewplaces, and many more equally beautiful, but different parts of the world. And yet, the beach on the Gulf was only recently threatened by a massive oil spill. Just a few miles from my Northern California scene, the city of San Francisco spreads asphalt over the beautiful land, and belches smog above the bay. The north side of Mount Hood has been artificially protected from fire, and the forests there are now filled with dead wood, and primed to go up in smoke across half the mountain. Even if they don’t, Hood is a volcano that could someday erupt, and turn the beautiful scenery into smoking slag rock.

And let’s be honest. In Gulf lurk bull sharks and stingrays that threaten our enjoyments, and at times even our lives. The mountainsides are gorgeous, but a fall, or an avalanche, or a falling tree, or a snake, or a cougar, or a bear, or just getting lost could kill us easily. Even if we don’t die, we can experience discomfort from insect-bites, illness from drinking untreated water and hunger if we can find no food. Our world is beautiful, but it is also still very imperfect and unsafe.

As beautiful as our world is, it is subject to futility. It is not eternal. It is not perfect. It is fragile, and even often unsafe for us. But the promise of the Bible is that we will get a new world, even more beautiful, one that is redeemed and perfected along with us. We can swim in beautiful waters with no fear of sharks. We can wander in the wilderness with no discomfort from mosquitoes, no fear of hunger or wildlife. This is indeed a treasure to look forward to.

John also says this about the new creation to come:

Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look! God’s dwelling is with humanity, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will no longer exist; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away. Then the One seated on the throne said, “Look! I am making everything new.” He also said, “Write, because these words are faithful and true.” And He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give water as a gift to the thirsty from the spring of life. (Rev 21:3-6, HCSB)

Our eternal zoe-life will be free from death, grief, and pain. Every time you experience grief, or emotional pain, or physical pain, or sorrow, use it to remind yourself of the treasure that awaits you in the New Creation.

In eternal life, we will be reunited with everyone else who has trusted in Jesus and died with faith in Him. A day will come when we see those who have gone before us. Death does not have to be forever. Pause for a minute, and think of those you have lost in this life who are waiting for you now in eternal life. These loved ones are a very great treasure for us. In Jesus, all goodbyes are temporary.

I think one of the clues to our treasure in heaven is the Garden of Eden, before Adam and Eve sinned. They lived in perfect health in a beautiful place, at harmony with nature. Most especially, Adam and Eve lived in complete vulnerability and intimacy with God and with each other. In their intimacy and vulnerability, there was no shame, no danger, no hurt or disappointment. In many ways, the Bible hints that the New Creation will be like the Garden of Eden – only better, and without the snake. Our relationships with God and with each other will be healed and whole and open and joyful and fun.

Sometimes we might think heaven will be boring. Isn’t it just one long worship service? I don’t think so. I think the worship takes place in many ways. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had work to do. It wasn’t toilsome – it was joyful. They found fulfillment in doing what they loved to do, and they found that it all came together as they lived according to their purpose. Here on earth, when you try to live for your purpose, it is usually a struggle. Others don’t care about your purpose. It’s hard to make a living doing what you were created to do. Many don’t appreciate the gifts and unique person that God made you to be. But in heaven, our yearning to be significant and our drive to do certain things we love will be fulfilled, not removed. Jesus, in the parable of the talents, describes the Master giving the faithful servants responsibilities and goals that are suited to them. You won’t be bored. You will finally get to do what you were created to do, with no hindrance or frustration.

John Eldredge writes about the eternal life to come for those who trust Jesus. He suggests that maybe one reason we don’t put our treasure in heaven is because we have incorrect expectations of it.

How can the church service that never ends be more desirable than the richest experiences of life here? It would be no small difference if you knew in your heart that the life you prize is just around the corner, that your deepest desires have been whispering to you all along about what’s coming. (John Eldredge, Desire, chapter 7 emphasis mine).

I think Eldredge is on to something. It is true, we can have sinful desires, and these will not find fulfillment in heaven. But our longing for closeness with God and with other people, our desire to be significant and to accomplish something worthwhile, our yearning for beauty and refreshment – all these are little signposts here on earth, pointing toward the eternal treasure that is waiting for us when God renews the heavens and the earth.

Let me give you one surprising example. Many people love the experience of sexual intimacy. At times, it feels almost necessary. That desire is really much more than physical. It is a desire to be close to another person, to be almost “immersed” in the one you love. Sexual desire is a pull to experience the beauty of another person fully, and to be known yourself fully. Of course, on earth, it gets distorted and twisted into all sorts of lesser things, sometimes very ugly and sinful things. But the desire itself is not wrong, and I believe that desire for intimacy and beauty and safe vulnerability will be fulfilled in heaven in a far greater way than it ever can be on earth. If you died without ever having sex in this life, you have not missed out – the real thing, the thing that sex is merely a shadow of – that is waiting for us in heaven, and it is better than what we call sex.

All of the things we love here on earth, and the things that desire most deeply are mere copies and shadows of the reality that is to come.

Therefore, don’t let anyone judge you in regard to food and drink or in the matter of a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is the Messiah. (Col 2:16-17, HCSB)

These serve as a copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was warned when he was about to complete the tabernacle. (Heb 8:5, HCSB)

Even our sinful desires are often just a distortion and deception of something that began as a righteous desire for the heavenly reality. The point is this: one of the great treasures of heaven is that the true deep desires of our soul will be fulfilled. God created us with yearning for heaven. Sin and the devil have distorted and confused the yearning, but they haven’t eliminated it. To put it another way, in heaven is what you truly want. Heaven contains what you’ve been trying to find, trying to achieve all these years, and even more. If that is not something to treasure, I don’t know what is.

When I was in High School, some of the kids acted as if High School was all there was. They immersed themselves in becoming sports stars and prom queens and part of the “in” clique. These folks didn’t want to be “losers,” but they were quite free in calling others by that name. Many of them achieved their High School dreams. But when they graduated, and High School was over, it was almost as if they were surprised. They were lost, and it took some of them a long time to realize that High School is only one very short part of life, and not the most important part, either. Some of these “popular” ended up as “losers” in real life.

Brothers and sisters, this is High School. This isn’t real life. What we have here, what we treasure, is just a shadow of the real thing. What everyone seems to chase after is shallow and it doesn’t last – it isn’t real treasure. You’ve heard the saying “there are no dress-rehearsals; this is real life.” I beg to differ. This is the dress rehearsal. Real life hasn’t even started yet.

So many of us don’t want to acknowledge this. We keep pursuing things that don’t last, things that don’t matter. We keep storing up treasure that we can’t take with us and focusing on what is meaningless. Isaiah wrote about such people:

You were wearied by all your ways, but you would not say ‘it is hopeless.’ You found renewal of your strength, so that you would not faint. (Isaiah 57:10).

He was talking to people who would not give up trying to get what they wanted in this life, people who wouldn’t trust that God had something better for them in eternity.

When we store treasure for ourselves in this life, we are setting ourselves up for major disappointment. The relationships we cherish so much won’t ever be all that we want them to be. We are very unlikely to achieve the success and accolades we desire. Financial security escapes all but a few. Death takes every single person. Some die too young, and others wish they could die sooner, but it comes to every single human being. We can’t count on our dreams here. Even those dreams which are fulfilled are still missing some indefinable thing that leaves us with lingering doubt and emptiness.

I think sometimes one reason we get so angry and disappointed with God is that we want to have it all in this life. But the Lord never promises we will have it all (or, necessarily any of “it”) here in this life. What Jesus said about this life was this:

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, ESV2011)

David writes it like this:

Our lives last seventy years or, if we are strong, eighty years. Even the best of them are struggle and sorrow; indeed, they pass quickly and we fly away. (Ps 90:10, HCSB)

The answer is not in this life. Our mistake is to seek it here. But the call for Christians is to keep our focus on real treasure, real zoe-life:

Therefore, with your minds ready for action, be serious and set your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1Pet 1:13, HCSB)

So if you have been raised with the Messiah, seek what is above, where the Messiah is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on what is above, not on what is on the earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with the Messiah in God. When the Messiah, who is your life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. (Col 3:1-4, HCSB)

Set your minds on what is above, not on what is on the earth. Put your treasure in heaven. Keep your life aimed toward real life, eternal life, not this temporary thing. Let your hope be not for this life, but for heaven. Don’t seek just for a comfortable eighty years passing the time on earth, but for an eternity of abundant better life. Store up your hope and treasure for heaven.

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