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Will Heaven Be Boring?

Saturday, January 20, 2024

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

Revelation 21:3-5a

Some people critique Christianity because they think its view of the afterlife is boring. We often sing, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first begun.” Well, we might think, ten thousand years, let alone an eternity, is a long time. Won’t singing God’s praises get monotonous after a while, even to the most devoted Christian?

This common view often stems from half-remembered Bible lessons from childhood, bad religious art or popular depictions of people playing harps on clouds for no apparent reason—forever. The root of this problem is a false conception of both God and heaven, and is sometimes even perpetrated by those who wear the name of Christ. What do the Scriptures say happens when we die and what will the afterlife be like? Biblically understood, the afterlife has two stages: (1) life after death and (2) life after life after death.

Life after death: a disembodied, intermediate state — For those in Christ, physical death means that the soul separates from the body and enters into the presence of God. The Bible does not reveal much about this stage, except that one is “with the Lord” but nevertheless “unclothed,” that is, lacking a body (2 Cor. 5:1-10). This disembodied and intermediate state—between mortal life and the resurrection of the body—is incomplete. Paul expresses his “longing to put on [his] heavenly dwelling” and not to be found “naked,” a soul without a body (2 Cor. 5:2-3). Humans were created to be embodied, but death (due to sin) has shattered this unity of soul and body (Jas. 2:26). At death, the Christian is freed from the chains of earthly, sin-affected existence but has not yet put on the resurrection body promised by Christ.

There are some descriptions of redeemed spirits praising God in the book of Revelation, a highly symbolic book, where harps are mentioned (Rev. 14:2; 15:2). Even so, the activity of praising and worshiping an infinitely majestic God cannot possibly be boring or pointless. We may praise and honor finite beings to some extent, but even standing ovations for virtuoso musicians end at some point. However, the worship of an infinite and Perfect Being has no end, since finite beings will always be in God’s debt and will always have more of God’s endless life to joyfully experience in worship throughout all eternity. This is what paradise is—to be with the Lord (Lk. 23:43).

Life after life after death: an embodied, eternal state — The final, eternal home for Christians is “the new heavens and new earth,” described in poetic terms as a perfect garden-like city that echoes both Eden and Jerusalem but will far exceed them in glory (Rev. 21-22; 2 Pet. 3). Humans were originally created to cultivate and develop the world, thereby glorifying God (Gen. 1-2). When Christians are resurrected from the dead, they will be clothed with imperishable, spiritual bodies (1 Cor. 15:35ff) and take their place in this new perfect world to fulfill their original purpose. Far from sitting around on clouds getting bored, we will have meaningful work to do that will finally fulfill our created purpose as image-bearers of God. Revelation 22:5 promises that the saints will “reign forever and ever” with the Lord.

Further, “the wealth of the nations” (humanity’s cultural achievements, purified and perfected), will be brought into God’s presence (Rev. 21:26; cf. Isa. 60:5, 11; 61:6), thus giving the citizens of the new Jerusalem ample occasion for enjoyment and appreciation. Once in the presence of God, in their resurrected, glorified state, saints will not only possess a greater capacity for joy but an ever-increasing capacity for joy. Therefore, all those in Christ will enjoy living in a perfect body, in a perfect world, with their Perfect God forever. “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14; Isa. 11:9).

So, if one takes the Bible seriously, the afterlife cannot be viewed as bland or uninspiring. Since God is infinite, he will be infinitely enjoyed by those in his presence. As Irenaeus wrote, “The glory of God is man fully alive”—and the redeemed will be fully alive in their glorified state (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4.20.7).

Remember Lot's Wife

Saturday, January 13, 2024

Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all— so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed. On that day, let the one who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away, and likewise let the one who is in the field not turn back. Remember Lot's wife. Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.

Luke 17:28-33

In the passage above, Jesus explains the coming of “one of the days of the Son of Man” (Lk. 17:22). This is his way of describing a day of judgment that would come upon Jerusalem as a result of their wickedness, a day which was fulfilled a generation later in AD 70 when general Titus led his Roman troops to destroy the city. When Jesus speaks of his coming in judgment against Jerusalem we are not to shrug it off as something meaningful only to those living in the first century. No, these limited, earthly judgments are meant to stir us to repentance and faithful preparation for the final, universal Day of judgment to come described in such places as Matthew 25, 1 Thessalonians 4-5 and 2 Thessalonians 1.

This is precisely what Jesus is doing in Luke 17. He’s drawing lessons from previous judgments—the suddenness of Noah’s flood (Lk. 17:26-27; cf. Gen. 6-9) and the total destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Lk. 17:28-32; cf. Gen. 19)—to prepare his generation for the judgment coming upon them.

Do you remember the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? In Genesis 18:20-21, God told Abraham that the “outcry against” the cities was “great and their sin [was] very grave.” He investigated the cities himself along with two angels and found the cries against them were true; they were utterly evil. The angels had to literally seize Lot and his family and drag them out of town to save them from being swept away in the destruction. Lot foolishly delayed and whined that the distance he was expected to travel was too far (Gen. 19:19-20). God graciously stalled his wrath long enough for them to get away “but Lot's wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.” (Gen. 19:26)

I’ve always pictured Lot’s wife looking back over her shoulder wistfully at the city—and the life—she was leaving behind. But the words of Jesus in Luke 17 indicate she “looked back” with the intention of returning to the city. Jesus is telling his disciples that when they see the army approaching Jerusalem they are to run for the hills, not even stopping in the house to get their things. “Remember Lot’s wife.” She wasn’t turning around simply to take one last look back for nostalgia’s sake; she was refusing to go further and attempting to go back perhaps thinking she was, in the words of Jesus, preserving her life. But in the end, she lost it. Instead of surrendering to God and finding salvation by moving forward according to his word, she was frozen in the act of turning away from him. So it will be with us if we turn away from God’s word.

God has promised to bring this world to justice and save those who live by faith. “The whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” (1 Jn. 5:19) Therefore, we must “not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” (1 Jn. 2:16-17) By “the world” here, John means the world in rebellion against God. The “world” is to us what Sodom and Gomorrah were to Lot’s wife. God help us look forward to the world to come and not back, “in love with this present world.” (2 Tim. 4:10)

All Things New

Saturday, January 06, 2024

He who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Revelation 21:5a

Happy new year! But what exactly is so new about it? Everything we have now is a year older than it was before. If we buy a new car it begins to grow old the moment it leaves the assembly line. So what constitutes newness? We long for newness but we only get glimpses of it now because this present world, and the things we accumulate in it, are destined to pass away (1 Jn. 2:15-17).

In contrast, all that we have in Christ is truly new. In one sense, of course, our faith is ancient and based on texts that are at least two thousand years old. Yet Christian faith is described with the language of newness; not just temporal newness but qualitative newness. What we have and are in Christ is not just new in relation to what is old and came before. What we have and are in Christ is new in quality, eternally new and will never grow old. There are several texts which make this point. Let’s examine a few of them.

In Christ, we have come under a new covenant in which our sins are forgiven (Jer. 31:31-34). Unlike the covenant made with Israel at Sinai, this covenant is open to everyone. Jesus, the Mediator of the new covenant, established it by sacrificially shedding his blood on the cross which he called “my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt. 26:28; Lk. 22:20). Sin is the reason why everything new eventually wears out and grows old (Rom. 6:23a). But through the sacrifice of Jesus, we are raised to walk “in newness of life,” that is, eternal life (Rom. 6:4).

In Christ, we are given a new name which describes an enduring relationship (Isa. 62:1-5). When our sins separated us from God, we were “Forsaken” and “Desolate” (Isa. 62:4a) but in Christ, God calls us “My Delight Is In Her” and “Married” (Isa. 62:4b). This new name speaks of a new relationship we have with God through Christ.

In Christ, we are given a new heart which is purified for obedience to God (Ezek. 36:25-27). Through the gospel, we learn of God’s love which cleanses and transforms our hearts so that we no longer want to live selfish and sinful lives but lives of purity and faith in him.

In Christ, we are promised a new body which is imperishable and eternal in the heavens (2 Cor. 5:1-5). Our earthly bodies give every appearance of mortality and corruption but they will be raised from the dead and transformed into a glorious body like our Lord’s.

In Christ, we can sing a new song which celebrates his victory over evil (Rev. 14:1-3). The psalmists would sing a new song when they experienced some unexpected, fresh deliverance from God and no previous song could adequately express their joy (Psa. 40:3). Christians will sing this new song when their salvation is complete as they enter God’s presence and see him face to face.

Where will these new covenant people with their new name sing this new song from their new hearts in their new bodies? The setting of this eternal newness for the saints is a new Jerusalem in which only righteousness dwells (Rev. 21:1-5; 2 Pet. 3:10-13). This garden-like city is eternal and incorruptible because God is there and no darkness of evil can ever enter into it.

This newness is not just something to hope for in the future. God’s first act of new creation was raising Jesus from the dead to immortality. Jesus is only the firstfruits of the harvest to come, the firstborn from the dead among many brothers. If you are in Christ, you yourself are “a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17), fundamentally changed and reborn not just for a second chance at life, but to “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).

The best kind of newness this world can offer isn’t really new at all.  There is nothing new under the sun (Ecc. 1:9). Don’t settle for “all new things” which eventually grow old and pass away with this world. Christ is making “all things new,” and he is starting with you!

Trust the Process

Saturday, December 30, 2023

For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.

Romans 6:19

I recently had a discussion with a recovering alcoholic who made an acute observation with Christian parallels. Others in the program (Alcoholics Anonymous) had shared their testimony of the great burden that was lifted from their conscience and the sense of peace they felt after having followed the Twelve Steps. The Steps assume one will eventually experience a “spiritual awakening” as a result of following them. He lamented the fact that he never felt such an awakening. Instead he felt that every single day, sometimes every moment, was a struggle against temptation. He contacted his sponsor about this and the reply came back, “Trust the process.”

A major part of recovery is patient persistence. To avoid relapsing, a recovering alcoholic must constantly remind himself of the evils of alcoholism. To guard against falling off the wagon he must trust the process by continuing to move forward in those Twelve Steps. AA meetings are filled with proverbial mantras that remind those in recovery to trust the process: “One day at a time,” “Keep it simple,” “First things first,” “Let go and let God,” “Nothing changes if nothing changes,” “This too shall pass,” “Keep coming back,” etc.

There are, of course, many similarities to Christian repentance and faith. Jesus said, “By your endurance you will gain your lives” (Lk. 21:19). Christians are always being reminded of the importance of patience (Heb. 10:32-39; 12:1-3; Jas. 5:7-11; 2 Pet. 1:3-11). This kind of spiritual persistence does not come through stoic self-effort but through trusting the Lord. We must continue to remember his promises, submit to his teaching and press on toward the reward (Phil. 3:12; Jas. 1:12). In other words, we must trust the process.

The process, in our case, is called “sanctification.” Those in Christ have been forgiven of their sins and are now identified as “saints,” people sanctified, consecrated, set apart for a special purpose by God. This new consecrated status we enjoy in Christ entails the need for continual reform and spiritual growth (2 Pet. 1:3-11). The emphasis in the New Testament letters is for Christians to be what we are in Christ: “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” (2 Cor. 7:1)

We have a personal responsibility to continue to submit to that process of sanctification, progressively becoming more and more like our Lord (2 Cor. 3:18). We are to grow in love (1 Thess. 3:12), faith (2 Cor. 10:15), grace and knowledge (2 Pet. 3:18). But, as stated above, this growth does not all depend on us any more than a fruitful crop totally depends on the farmer. Yes, he must till, sow, water and weed his garden but God provides the raw ingredients of spiritual growth (2 Pet. 1:3) and causes the increase (1 Cor. 3:6). He can be trusted to complete the good work he began (Phil. 1:6).

Christians sometimes speak of experiencing a feeling a sense of peace and liberty after obeying the gospel. I would not dare to deny another’s emotional experience but I will say this: for those who have obeyed the gospel but have not felt such an emotional experience afterwards and perhaps wonder if you really are forgiven and saved, please don’t be anxious. Listening to what God says is always more trustworthy than listening to what our hearts feel (1 Jn. 5:13). And what does Scripture say? Jesus died for you and was raised from the dead. When we believe this and are baptized in him, his blood washes away all our sins. Are you still struggling with temptation after your baptism? All Christians do! (1 Pet. 2:11) But if you continue entrusting yourself to Jesus “one day at a time” you will see that the process works. God will complete what he started in you if you continue to move towards him in faith (Jas. 4:8)

Learning from Children

Saturday, December 16, 2023

Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.

1 Corinthians 14:20

Jesus often directed the attention of his disciples to children to teach important lessons about God’s kingdom. To be sure, there are ways Christians should not be like children (see above) but they are  often positive role models for us grown-ups. Let’s look at three times Jesus refers us to children as our teachers.

Their dependence (Lk. 18:15-17) — People were bringing their babies to Jesus to be blessed but his disciples rebuked them, as if the Lord didn’t have time for such things. In response, Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Entrance into the kingdom is determined by how we “receive” it. Children are completely dependent on receiving parental care. Other mammals can walk within seconds of being born. But we can’t do anything for ourselves because infants are underdeveloped, immature and incomplete. We must “receive” everything from our parents.

Disciples of Jesus, therefore, must exhibit that same childlike dependence on God to enter the kingdom. Only when we see ourselves as immature, underdeveloped and in need of God’s care can we depend on him for everything and trust him implicitly. Of course, underneath this teaching is the truth that our God is totally dependable and trustworthy. Immediately after this text, Jesus is met by a man who seemed to have these childlike characteristics but proved he was not willing to fully depend on God (Lk. 18:18-30).

Their humility (Mt. 18:1-20) — On this occasion, the disciples were asking Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus replied by calling a child to him and saying, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Greatness is determined by having a correct view of oneself and others. Humility is shown in how we treat others. Jesus went on to teach that we are to regard each other with the same care and protection as we would our “little ones.” We would never want to cause a little one to sin (6-9) or lose a little one and not go after him (10-14) or begrudge a little one mercy (15-20). While we need a childlike dependence on God we also need a childlike humility toward others.

Their enthusiasm (Mt. 21:14-16) — In Jesus’ final week leading up to his crucifixion, he entered Jerusalem and began healing people in the temple precinct. The children were crying out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” But the chief priests and scribes were indignant and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” The children were crying out for the Messiah to save them and they saw Jesus as that Messianic Savior. Jesus responded to the indignation of the ‘grown-ups' by linking the children’s praise to the words of David in Psalm 8:2: “Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise.” In Psalm 8, David contrasted the frightful enemies of God with “babies and infants” who, though weak and powerless, are established in strength because they praise God. These children calling out enthusiastic praises to Jesus were exhibiting a certain spiritual strength over against the indignation of the chief priests and scribes. Jesus approves of the exuberant praise he receives from children. Do we worship him with that same fervent, joyful praise? Children tend to pray from the heart and sing without the self-consciousness characterized by so many adults.

We must become like children if we are to enter the kingdom. We are blessed with so many kids at Dulles, but are we learning from them? Imitate their dependence, their humility and their enthusiasm.

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