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.

Revelation #31. Hell, and the Love of God

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If God is infinitely good, infinitely glorious, then to sin against him is infinitely evil. And to say that a loving God would never send anyone to eternal punishment is to say that God himself is not eternally valuable. But even more than that, the Christian doctrine of hell shows us the extravagant extent of God’s love for us: Jesus suffered unimaginably in hell, for our sake.

 Hell itself cannot help but show the preciousness of God and depths of his love.

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:
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Revelation #31.  Revelation 14:6-13

I strongly encourage you to listen to the audio version of this sermon. It is a bit long – 40 minutes, so please plan accordingly. This is an important message, and I believe it is well worth your time.

Please read Revelation 14:6-13

We are in the fourth major section of Revelation. We had the seven letters, the seven seals and the seven trumpets. This section is what I call “the seven significant signs.” These “signs” or visions, tell us that there is a spiritual reality that underlies and surrounds our physical existence. The signs explain what is happening in our lives, and what will happen in the future, from the perspective of this spiritual realm. So the sign of the Woman and the Child tell the story of the church and of the Messiah. Then, enters the Dragon, and we learn that there is a spiritual war going on between the Dragon and the Church. The two beasts show us how the Dragon attacks – through physical persecution and oppression; and also, through deception, lies and cultural pressure. The sign of the 144,000 and the Lamb shows us that not only does God have victory over the Dragon, but those who trust Jesus will also partake of that victory. And so we come to our text today, the sixth sign, which is the three angel messengers.

The three angel messengers go together – they are all part of one “sign,” one aspect of the spiritual reality that surrounds our physical existence. The previous sign showed that those who die are victorious, and are already with the Lamb in glorious light, joy and worship. But the three angel messengers are sent to those who are still on earth. There is a definite progression in the spiritual realm for those who are still alive:

  1. The Gospel is proclaimed. God comes first in peace to all the inhabitants of the earth, inviting everyone into his grace. Notice that the gospel contains both an invitation: “fear God, and give him glory;” and also a warning: “because the hour of his judgment has come.” As we have seen elsewhere in Revelation, God goes to great extremes to allow people to repent and be saved before the end. Once more, he delays judgment, giving yet one more chance.
  2. The judgment upon the empires of the beasts is announced. Babylon was the great enemy of God’s people at one time in Israel’s history. Here in Revelation, “Babylon” represents human society that is organized culturally, economically, and politically against God’s people. It is human culture manipulated by the two beasts. It will come up again soon in Revelation.
  3. The pronouncement of eternal punishment on those who finally refuse to repent and receive God’s grace offered in Jesus Christ. I want to spend the remainder of our time on this subject, since it is controversial in this day and age.

Please bear with me here, because we are going to go into deep and thoughtful territory. One of the great advantages of Christianity – in fact one of the reasons that the nations which were formerly Christian developed faster than many other areas of the world – is that Christianity is deeply thoughtful and intellectual. True Christian faith helps people think well.  Thinking well takes work, but it is important work. I want to entreat you to think on what I say carefully, and thoughtfully. Give some attention to it.

Hell, and the modern world.

The traditional, orthodox Christian view of hell is that it is a place of eternal torment, reserved for those who reject the offer of grace through faith in Jesus Christ. There were a few Christians with different opinions at various times, but the main Christian view was basically settled for all of Christian history. However, that view has come into dispute during the past fifty years or so.

According to Pew Research, only 70% of those who call themselves Christians believe in hell. That means 30% don’t. Fewer women believe in hell than men. 36% of the “Baby Boomer” generation does not believe in hell. Those Baby Boomers include several people who have influence on Christianity in America.

Among those who do believe in hell, there are other areas of dispute. Some Christians, including many influential thinkers, believe that hell is not eternal. Instead, they believe in “annihilation.” That is, they think that those who reject God, after the judgment day, are simply destroyed entirely, ceasing to exist. They reject the idea of eternal suffering.

Mostly the reason Christians  these days reject what the Bible says about hell is because it seems entirely out of step with modern culture. We have come to emphasize the love of God so much that we have lost sight of the holiness and righteousness of God. In fact many people write and speak as if God’s love far outweighs his holiness, purity and righteousness. That is not true. God’s love, and his holiness are in perfect, eternal balance. If they are not, then Jesus had no reason to die for our sins, and God’s forgiveness is no big deal. In fact, without the proper Biblical doctrine of hell, God would be far less loving, not more. You see, you don’t know how much Jesus loves you until you know how much he suffered. If God’s forgiveness is equivalent to paying for a speeding a ticket, that’s nice, and we should be grateful, but in the end, it’s not really a big deal.  But if the debt that he paid for you was eternal suffering, it is a stunning, overwhelming, unbelievable kind of love.

Hell and the Bible.

The Bible’s teaching on hell is really quite straightforward. Much of Revelation is figurative, not literal, and I think we can take it for granted that some elements of verses 9-11 are describing spiritual realities in a picturesque  way (that is, not exactly literal). For instance, the idea of the smoke going up “in the sight of the  holy angels and the lamb.” I don’t know if this is to be taken literally, but the ideas behind it are justice and vindication. Here on earth, the Lamb is blasphemed, and his followers persecuted while people either approve, or do nothing. In Revelation 14:9-11, that situation is reversed. The point of it is to show us that at the end, the name of Jesus will be vindicated, and his followers will  be proven right.

However, we need to know that what these verses say in general about hell are perfectly consistent with what the rest of the Bible clearly teaches about hell. So, what does the Bible say about hell?

It is interesting to note that there is one person in the Bible who talks about hell more than all of the other Biblical writers put together. That person is Jesus Christ. Jesus spent a surprisingly large amount of time talking about hell. Here’s a summary of what he (and the rest of the Bible) says:

  1. Hell is a place of real torment. The most common metaphors for the suffering of hell are those of fire, weeping, gnashing of teeth, and darkness:

43 And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ (ESV) Mark 9:43-48

41The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather from His kingdom everything that causes sin and those guilty of lawlessness. 42They will throw them into the blazing furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt 13:41-42, HCSB)

10Hearing this, Jesus was amazed and said to those following Him, “I assure you: I have not found anyone in Israel with so great a faith! 11I tell you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12But the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt 8:10-12, HCSB)

The fire and darkness and gnashing of teeth may or may not be literal. But the point is clear: Hell is a place of torment. There are dozens and dozens of other verses that describe hell as a place of torment, including our passage for today.

  1. Hell is forever.

41Then He will also say to those on the left, ‘Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels! (Matt 25:41, HCSB)

43 And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ (ESV) Mark 9:43-48

These are the ones who are like dangerous reefs at your love feasts. They feast with you, nurturing only themselves without fear. They are waterless clouds carried along by winds; trees in late autumn — fruitless, twice dead, pulled out by the roots; wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shameful deeds; wandering stars for whom the blackness of darkness is reserved forever!  (Jude 1:12-13, HCSB)

Once again, this is just a small sample of verses that describe hell as eternal. In addition to the explicit verses, we have logic. We believe that God and Heaven exist outside of time. When we leave this life, we will step outside of time, and be “in eternity” so to speak. It isn’t just a long, long time. It is a whole different plane of existence. Hell also appears to exist outside of time. It is logical that it belongs to the same kind of eternity. Hold on to that thought, because the implication is mind blowing in regard to what Jesus Christ suffered on our behalf.

Some people object to hell in this way: “How,” they say, “can even lifetime of sinning – 70-80 years – merit an eternity of punishment?”  This is a very helpful question, and it helps us to understand exactly why hell is what it is. To get a handle on it, let’s think about crimes in the physical realm. A murder using a gun takes only one second to commit. Should the person who does so only go to jail for a second? Of course not. What about kidnapping? Suppose a kidnapper takes someone for just two days. Should he only serve two days in prison? Of course not.

We recognize that the time it takes to commit a crime is not a measure of its evil. But what is the measure of a crime? On what basis do we decide how to punish criminals? Let’s answer that with a though experiment. Suppose there was a society which said, “A murderer need not stay in prison so long. One or two days is enough.” What would we think? What conclusions could we draw about that culture? The obvious conclusion is that a culture which says that murder does not deserve severe punishment is a culture that does not value human life.

Do you see now? The punishment for a crime is a measure of how precious the thing was that was violated by the crime. This is true even when the crime was only attempted. If someone attempts to commit a crime of graffiti, but fails, there is no punishment. But what if someone attempts murder, but fails? They still go to prison for many years. Even attempted murder is striking at the heart of something precious: human life.

Now what if there was something even more precious than human life, something infinitely valuable, infinitely precious and good? If someone commits a crime against this infinite good, the most precious thing in all the universe – shouldn’t the punishment show how precious this good thing is? Shouldn’t  a crime against infinite good be punished with infinite punishment? If your answer is “no,” then you do not really believe in something that is infinitely good.

Let’s consider the nature of God. God is the ultimate good, the ultimate beauty, the ultimate wonder, joy and perfection in the universe. When God makes a judgment, or decision, there is nothing higher than Himself to which he can appeal. He is the Law. He is the ultimate authority. We say God is good, that he is righteous. What that means is that he is unwaveringly committed to uphold the value of what is infinitely valuable. What is infinitely valuable? His own glory. There is nothing better than him, nothing more valuable than him. As popular author John Piper puts it:

“God has no constitution or legal code outside himself by which to measure what is right and good in his own thinking and feeling and doing. It must be measured by himself. What then is righteousness in God? God’s righteousness is his devotion to, his allegiance to, his absolute unwavering commitment to stand for, and uphold, and vindicate, that which is infinitely valuable: Himself. If he for one millisecond diverted from his passionate, infinitely zealous cause of holding up his glory, he would be unrighteous, and unworthy of our worship.”

–John Piper The Echo and The Insufficiency of Hell (July 13, 2017).

So, if something strikes against the heart of God – who is infinitely good, infinitely precious – shouldn’t the punishment reflect the crime? That is exactly what is happening with hell. The crime is against the infinite good that is God himself. God’s character is infinitely precious. By our sins, we are attacking his character, violating the heart of this precious thing, as if to destroy it (if we could).

If God is infinitely good, infinitely glorious, then to sin against him is infinitely evil. And to say that a loving God would never send anyone to eternal punishment is to say that God himself is not eternally valuable.

We do not stop there. Now we come to stunning, unimaginable love of God. At the moment of Jesus Christ’s death, the whole land was cast into darkness, and he cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

These things reveal what was happening to Jesus on the cross. Throughout his whole ordeal, Jesus never cried out about being whipped, or being deserted by his friends. This cry was not about physical or psychological pain. This is about hell. When Jesus took upon himself the punishment for our sins, he was “cast out into outer darkness.” He spent not 36 hours in hell, but an eternity. Hell isn’t bound by time, so when Jesus “went to hell” he experienced the eternal rejection of God the Father. He experienced an eternity of suffering. If that is what our sins deserve, and Jesus paid for our sins, then that was the price he paid. Not only that, but Jesus experienced an eternity of suffering for each person who ever lived!  There is more here than we can fully understand, but this is one reason it had to be Jesus who paid for our sins. Since he is eternal and infinite himself, he was able to suffer more than any created creature possibly can.

You see what I mean now, that hell shows us how shockingly extravagant is God’s love for us?

So, if you deny the Biblical doctrine of hell, not only do you say that God is not infinitely precious, you also say that Jesus is not infinitely loving.

Without hell, Jesus suffered 33 years of human burdens that he didn’t need to have. Then he suffered about 18 hours of intense physical pain, followed by 36 hours “just dead.” Sure, that’s pretty amazing too, but it is hardly infinitely loving.

So, our text today is not only describing what happens to those who reject the infinite preciousness of God, it also shows the magnificent extremes of his love for us. Not only that, but no one must go to hell – that was the point of Jesus’ incredible and ultimate suffering. So, when someone rejects this extravagant love, it is a spiteful evil of unbelievable proportion. The punishment of hell for someone who  rejects such precious love is one that fits the crime.

Hell itself cannot help but show the preciousness of God and depths of his love.

I want to add one final thought. In all that I have shared, what I want you to focus on is not the horror of eternal suffering, but rather, the infinite preciousness of God, and the magnificent extravagance of his love for you. Hell might scare you away from the wrong direction, but it cannot lead you to heaven. For that, you need the love of God. I hope this message has given you a deeper appreciation for it. Spend some time meditating on it right now.

WHY WOULD A LOVING GOD SEND ANYONE TO HELL?

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OK, the part about hell is a little ways into the message. But here’s a teaser: The essence of love is choice. For love to be real there must be an alternative to it, some other choice that could be made. It is that choice, choosing a person when you don’t have to, that is the essence of love.So what is the alternative to loving God?  What would it be like to be completely separate from the loving Creator of the universe, to be apart from every good, loving, holy thing that exists in the universe? That alternative is what we call “hell.” Hell exists precisely because God is truly loving. If there was no hell, there would be no true love.  

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To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Matthew Part 89

Matthew #89  Matthew 25:31-46

We considered the parable of the sheep and the goats last time. There are still a few things about the text that I would like to talk about. I realize that when we read this parable, it will naturally raise a number of questions about things that are really outside the scope of the text alone. The two that stand out to me are these: “Do good works get us into heaven?” And, “Is hell real?” Since those related questions are pretty important to the Christian faith, I want to look at them before we move on from this text.

At first reading, the passage makes it sound like people will get into heaven based entirely upon how they treat the poor and needy. As we learned last time, we need to refine that to “poor and needy fellow Christians.” Even so, that still leaves us with the problem that it looks like we get into heaven based upon our own good works. Is it true? Did Jesus really teach that we enter heaven based upon what we do?

Now, I did refer to the answer to this question when we talked about the parable of the talents. But even if you already know the answer, I think it is helpful to go through the process, so that as you do, you “practice” interpreting the Bible.

First, let’s look at a possible answer from the text itself. Consider verse 34:

34Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. (Matt 25:34, ESV2011)

We tend to read over such things quickly, but there is something startling here. The sheep are invited to enter “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” This makes it sound like these people were chosen for the kingdom long before they did any good works; in fact, before they were born.

When we study difficult things in scripture, it is helpful to look at other verses that address the same subject. With that in mind, let’s consider what Paul writes in Ephesians (I’ll italicize parts, for emphasis):

4For He chose us in Him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love 5He predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ for Himself, according to His favor and will, 6to the praise of His glorious grace that He favored us with in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:4-6 HCSB)

Now, this brings up another difficult subject, that of predestination. I don’t intend to get into that just now, but my point is, Jesus said that the kingdom was prepared for his own people (the sheep) from the foundation of the world. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and passing on to us and explaining the teaching of Jesus, says the same thing. So the sheep could not be chosen, or saved, by anything they did. Their salvation was given to them first, long before they did anything. Their actions simply reflected the fact that they belonged to that kingdom.

So the kingdom was given to them by grace, not by any works they had done. But they did their good works because they already belonged to the kingdom. This reminds me of another verse from Ephesians:

8For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — 9not from works, so that no one can boast. 10For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them. (Eph 2:8-10, HCSB)

The good works that the sheep did were prepared ahead of time for them by God, just like the Kingdom they were invited to enter.

Let’s make sure we have all of this very clear. The New Testament teaches that we cannot earn our salvation. We are forgiven for our sins, restored to a healthy, joyous relationship with God, and given eternal life, only because of the work Jesus has already done for us. We receive those gifts only by God’s grace, through trusting Jesus Christ, not through any works that we do. Here are some of the verses which teach this clearly. I’ve italicized parts of them, for emphasis:

We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! Together with Christ Jesus He also raised us up and seated us in the heavens, so that in the coming ages He might display the immeasurable riches of His grace through His kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — not from works, so that no one can boast. (Eph 2:3-9, HCSB)

Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By one of works? No, on the contrary, by a law of faith. For we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. (Rom 3:27-28, HCSB)

He has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace, which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began. This has now been made evident through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who has abolished death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. (2Tim 1:9-10, HCSB)

He saved us — not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy, through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit. He poured out this Spirit on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that having been justified by His grace, we may become heirs with the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:5-7, HCSB)

Yet we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified. (Gal 2:16-17, ESV)

So we have these many, clear verses telling us that salvation is a gracious gift, not a reward for good works. But then we have this passage here in Matthew, and several other passages in the New Testament, that seem very concerned with how we behave:

I say then, walk by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you don’t do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar. I tell you about these things in advance — as I told you before — that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self-control. Against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, we must also follow the Spirit. We must not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. (Gal 5:16-26, HCSB)

20If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen. 21And we have this command from Him: The one who loves God must also love his brother. (1John 4:20-21, HCSB)

14What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can his faith save him?

15If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it?

17In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself. 18But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I will show you faith from my works. 19You believe that God is one; you do well. The demons also believe — and they shudder.

20Foolish man! Are you willing to learn that faith without works is useless? 21Wasn’t Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?

22You see that faith was active together with his works, and by works, faith was perfected. (Jas 2:14-22, HCSB)

Forgiveness and salvation are offered to us as God’s free gift in Jesus Christ. We don’t earn it in any way. But we also need to understand this: a true, living faith will result in good works. A true living faith will express itself in love for fellow-Christians. A true and living faith will fight against sin in your life.

If you continue to live in an ongoing pattern of sin, or if you do not love your fellow Jesus-followers, it may be because you do not have true faith in Jesus Christ. As James says: What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Faith without works is not real faith.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that when you are a Christian, you just can’t help yourself from doing good works, and you should sit on your hands until the impulse to do good overtakes you. Good works often require self-discipline. They aren’t always enjoyable. Sometimes you must make yourself do them even when you don’t feel like it. But the point is, you do them because you love and trust Jesus, not because you think they will earn you special points with God. You do them because it is in you to do them (even if that “in you” looks like self-discipline). And it is in you to do them because your faith is real. Again, particularly in this passage of Matthew, the good works we are talking about is to love, and do good to other Christians.

Now, there is an important contrast between the fate of the sheep and that of the goats. The place of the sheep was prepared for them from the foundation of the world. But the place to which the goats were sent was not originally intended for them. Listen to what Jesus says:

41“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matt 25:41, ESV2011)

There is the contrast. The kingdom of God’s people has been prepared “for you” from the foundation of the world. The eternal fire was prepared “for the devil and his angels.” In other words, though people will be sent there, God intended it originally for the devil and demons, not for human beings. I want to tread lightly here, since we are touching on some very profound subjects. But I think we should understand this: God’s desire is for all people to be saved.

3This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. 7For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle ( I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. (1Tim 2:3-7, ESV2011)

Although this is God’s desire, many, many people thwart God’s desire, and he allows them to do so. Clearly, in this parable, as well as many other points throughout the gospels, Jesus thinks of hell as a real place into which some human beings will go. Just in case you aren’t sure, consider these other verses, just from the book of Matthew alone (there are more in the other gospels, also):

13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matt 7:13-14, ESV2011)

If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell!  (Matt 5:29-30, HCSB)

Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.  (Matt 10:28, HCSB)

The rest of the New Testament also affirms the teachings of Jesus about hell. Even so, recently it has become unfashionable to believe in hell. The endlessly repeated question is this: “If God is so loving, why does he send some people to hell?”

That question reveals our huge cultural misunderstanding of love. Love is not something you “fall into.” Love is not something you “can’t help.” The essence of love is choice. If you know someone has no choice but to “love” you, you do not feel loved at all. You feel loved when you know the other person has the alternative not to love you, but does anyway. Think about it: Forcing someone to love you is technically impossible. The very idea of forcing is antithetical to love. For love to be real there must be an alternative to it, some other choice that could be made. It is that choice, choosing a person when you don’t have to, that is the essence of love.

So, God doesn’t have to love us. We don’t have to love God. But what is the alternative choice to God’s love, and loving him back? What does rejecting God mean? What would it be like to be completely separate from the loving Creator of the universe, to be apart from every good, loving, holy thing that exists in the universe? That alternative is what we call “hell.”

Hell exists precisely because God is truly loving.

If there was no hell, there would be no true love.

And now we are back to the parable of the sheep and the goats. The exact difference between them is that the sheep exhibited the love of God in action to fellow Jesus-followers, and the goats did not do so. Their actions revealed their inner choices about God’s love.

Let’s make sure we have this all straight:

  • Salvation is a free, unearned gift of God, offered in the context of love.
  • Those who reject that gift, who choose not to love God, will go to hell, which the New Testament teaches is a real place, or state of being, that is utterly separated from God and all goodness.
  • Those who receive God’s salvation in faith will express it by loving their fellow Christians.
  • Those who do not love their fellow-Christians are shown, by that lack of love, to not have true faith.

 

I think we have plenty to chew on for this time!