What is Hell?

I will never forget first time I heard the doctrine of eternal punishment in hell explained to me. I was a sophomore in college, I was converted on a Wednesday evening and the evening after I was invited to attend the Campus Outreach on campus weekly meeting. I went, and loved it. It was the first time I worshiped with other believers, and the first time I had heard preaching as a Christian. When the time came for the campus minister to preach he walked to the lectern and his first words were as follows, “If you truly understand the nature of hell, you’ll become the greatest evangelist in the world.” Those words hit me like a ton of bricks. They’ve permanently left an impression on me, and has by and large shaped my understanding of what it means to be a Christian in a lost and fallen world.

Hell throughout History

In the early Church the doctrine of an eternal hell was embraced and taught. One document, The Shepherd of Hermas account we read, “…the age to come is summer to the righteous, but winter to the sinners. For just as in summer the fruit of each one of the trees appears, and so it is known what kind they are…the heathen and the sinners…will be found to be withered and fruitless in that world, and will be burned as firewood, and will be obvious because their conduct in their life was evil.” So too the early Church father Cyprian states, “The damned will burn forever in hell. Devouring flames will be their eternal portion. Their torments will never decrease or end. Their lamentations will be vain and entreaties ineffective. Their repentance comes too late. They will have to believe in an eternal punishment, as they refused to believe in the eternal life.” Augustine also, in his work City of God says, “The more enjoyment man found in God, the greater was his wickedness in abandoning Him; and he who destroyed in himself a good that might have been eternal, became worthy of eternal evil.”

This belief continued onto the Middle Ages and the Reformation. Thomas Aquinas believed eternal punishment must be infinite in time because wicked finite man cannot endure an infinite punishment in one moment. It was during this period we find the great works depicting the wicked suffering an eternal punishment in Dante’s Divine Comedy, and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Martin Luther spoke of hell as a fiery oven where the wicked will experience constant judgment and constant pain. Calvin spoke of the punishment inflicted as the fury of God’s might bearing down on those in hell. These thoughts and those similar to them continued to be taught by the Church until the dawn of the nineteenth century and the rise of humanistic modernism in western Europe which came over to America in the twentieth century.

One theologian goes as far to say, “Since 1800 this situation has entirely changed, and no traditional Christian doctrine has been so widely abandoned as that of eternal punishment.” Theologians such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, William Clarke, A.T. Robinson, Karl Barth, and others began teaching that such an eternal judgment is intolerable to the mind and heart of man and that Scripture doesn’t teach it or is just wrong about this. After this a minority view called Annihilationism, which has always been present in corners of the Church, came back into some kind of influence through the largely orthodox theologian John Stott, and some more modern writers such as Edward Fudge. Annihilationism teaches that God’s judgment is sure and wrathful but is not eternal or conscious. Rather, in the judgment God annihilates the wicked for their rejection of the gospel and they cease to be. In this sense the judgment is temporally eternal because from that point on the wicked no longer exist.

This brings us to our present moment in history.

Much of our current time reflects the liberal position believing the Bible to be wrong about hell. The recent survey Ligonier ministries completed shows that only 41% of self identified evangelicals believe hell is a real place. More than half of those who participated in this survey that identified as Christians, believe hell isn’t a real place. This is telling and saddening for sure. Rather than going with the tide of our time, we ought to stand in agreement with the Church of history. Not because we love Church history, though we do, we stand with them because we believe the position of an eternal conscious punishment in hell is an entirely biblical one.

Hell throughout Scripture

A prominent place to see these things is Matthew 25:31-46. In this passage we see in v31-40 the Son of Man will separate the sheep from the goats. On the one hand, the sheep will go into the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world (v34). Why? Because the sheep lived a life characterized by gospel grace before God and man (v35-40). On the other hand the goats will go into hell (v41, v46) for not living a life characterized with gospel grace before God and man. Let’s explore the destination of the goats further.

In Matthew 25:41, 46 Jesus speaking of the goats says, “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…These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous go into eternal life.”

First see here that Jesus speaks of hell as if it’s departing from the presence of God. “Depart from me…into eternal fire…” This is why so many have spoken of hell as separation from God. But is that really case? I don’t believe so. I don’t believe hell is separation from God because God is omnipresent, which means there is nowhere God is not. So yes, even in hell, we see the full presence of God. What then is the separation being spoken of here? There is a true separation being spoken of here in v41, but it is not a full separation. I believe it to be a separation from God’s gracious presence, or a separation from His eternal gospel favor. How does this view impact our definition of hell? It makes it not the place of separation from God, but the place where the wicked, apart from the righteousness of Christ come into the full presence of God, who is a consuming fire in His holiness. So in hell the wicked are consumed forever by the direct presence of God’s infinite holiness. In this sense we must recognize that hell is the place where the wicked will be forever and tremendously intimate with the wrath and fury of God.

Second, we see here that hell is permanent. v41 speaks of fire that is ‘eternal.’ v46 speaks of punishment that is also eternal. This passage shows that the reward or the punishment coming to all men will be eternal. This means hell is not a temporary place, it is forever. Similarly 2 Thessalonians 1:9 says those in Hell will experience “eternal” destruction and Mark 9:48 says hell is a place where, “The worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” The punishment of hell is eternal and forever, and once you’re there you cannot leave.

Third, this passage shows hell is a place of punishment. v46 says the eternal activity going on in hell is ‘punishment.’ Why punishment? Because the goats rejected the gospel, rejected Christ, and rejected His cross. This means the sins of the goats were not atoned for on the cross, and that hell is the place where they will receive the punishment for their sins. A gospel contrast is evident here. Sin is always punished. Sin is either punished on the cross of Christ by Christ, or hell by yourself.

Ending Thought

Let me leave you with this. “The dreadfulness of hell deepens our grateful praise for the salvation we have in Jesus Christ. Hell is what we deserve. And hell is what He experienced on the cross in our place. Believing the truth about hell…motivates us to persuade people to be reconciled to God. By God’s grace those of us who are trusting Christ have been rescued from this horrible destiny. How can we love people and refuse to speak plainly to them about the realities of eternal damnation and God’s gracious provision of salvation? Clearer visions of hell will give us greater love for both God and people” (Tom Ascol).

Affections: Disordered by Nature – Reordered by Grace

I ought to begin this by defining first what an affection is, and second what my affections are as a human made in the image of God. First, an affection is a feeling or emotion. Secondly speaking then, the affections of mankind are the feelings or emotions of man, given by God for our good and His glory, wherein we find the seat of the soul’s activity. This leads directly to the conclusion that man was made by God to feel greatly. But sadly due to our fall in Genesis 3 we must admit that we do not feel as we were intended to, or as we ought to. We too often find a strong feeling toward that which we should feel little for, and a small feeling toward that which we should feel largely for. Or I could say it like this, we have disordered affections, and must believe that part of my sanctification will be the ongoing progressive work of God’s grace in my soul to reorder my soul. We ought to be glad for such work. Though we do not find it so, most of us do find that we deeply desire to feel the right way about right and wrong things. On one hand we want to deeply delight in God, His nature, His ways, His Word, His Son, His Spirit, and His Church. On the other hand we want to deeply hate sin, of all kinds, especially the kinds that affect me the most. The more God does this in me the more useful I’ll be for Him, for my family, and for His Church.

After the second giving of the Law in Deuteronomy 5, v1-2 of chapter 6 reveals the greatest of commandments or decrees of God. What is it? That I and my family ought to fear the Lord. This is where we begin in thinking over our affections, with the fear of God. This is not servile fear or having a fright of God but maintaining and seeking a proper reverence toward Him. How long are we commanded to this fear? All the days of my life. Why are we commanded to this fear? So that our days may be long. This notion of land to Israel is a reference to their time in Canaan. Does this apply to us? Yes and no. No, we are not physical Israelites looking to cross into a physical Canaan. But yes, we are spiritual Israelites and true descendants of Abraham from our faith in Abraham’s Descendant Jesus Christ (Gal. 3), and we are wandering through the wilderness of this present evil age, awaiting the greater Canaan. As Israel was told we are told, fear the Lord, all the days of my life, not that our life would be long (length of days isn’t promised me) but so that our life would be full and abundant here (John 10:10, 15:11).

So what does it mean to fear God rightly? At it’s most basic it means honoring God as God, recognizing His exalted state and nature, His supremacy, His Lordship…while simultaneously recognizing my low condition as man, and fallen at that. He deserves all praise and is worthy of it. This fear is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. 1:7), I should serve the Lord with fear (Ps. 2:11), the fear of the Lord is clean (Ps. 19:9), from fearing the Lord I will turn away from evil (Prov. 16:6), the fear of the Lord is safe (Prov. 29:25), and fearing the Lord is part of what brings my holiness to completion (2 Cor. 7:1). Since fearing God is all of these things, not fearing God is the beginning of folly, impure, an entrance into sin, arrogant and dangerous for my soul, and the increaser of corruption in me.

After being asked which commandment was the greatest Jesus responds in Mark 12:30 by saying, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” Does this go against my definition of affections as the seat of the soul’s activity? No, I take heart, soul, mind, and strength here in v30 to be synonyms all referring to the activity of the soul (or heart). We may truly love many things in this life, but above them all must be our love for God. If this is absent we begin in the wrong place and that wrong beginning will naturally overflow into wrong action. So if we want our lives to be lived accordingly we ought to keep first things first, and the first thing above all other things is to love God over all things. Not just for the sake of living a well ordered life but for the sake of God, who is in Himself beautiful and worthy to be the cream of our delights and well of our joys. I do not think there needs to be a contrast between fearing God and loving Him, I also take these to be synonyms speaking of the same reality because I do not rightly fear Him if I do not love Him and visa versa. We must admit though, we can only love God because He has loved us in Christ first. So at the root of this ability of mine to rightly fear and love God, lies the gospel grace that changes our hearts and gives us the ability to do so.

So I see these things this morning. I was created with affections, with the capacity to feel deeply, and this is a good thing. But I am a fallen man who doesn’t feel as I ought to. So God must command my disordered affections to feel deeply about Himself as part of re-ordering my affections. He commands me to do this through the gospel, as a reaction to how He has loved me greatly in Christ. I must submit to this command, and when I do, I find that to fear God is to love God. If this beginning is present and active in me, many good and beautiful flowers will blossom in the garden that is my heart.

The Finale of History

You may be as wishful as you’d like to be, but the matter of final judgment isn’t a matter of opinion. It will come. 

“Then I saw a great white throne and Him who was seated on it. From His presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:11-15).

Paul in his famous sermon at the Areopagus in Athens, concludes by saying, “The times of ignorance (v23) God overlooked, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent, because He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom He has appointed; and of this He has given assurance to all by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). Paul’s sermon conclusion told us as much when he said God has given us assurance that He will judge the world in righteousness by a man He appointed. What’s the assurance we have and who is the man? The Man is Jesus Christ and the assurance is His resurrection from the dead. 

What will occur at the judgment?

Christ will Judge

Jesus speaks of His judgment as something the Father has given to Him. John 5:26-28, “For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son also to have life in Himself. And He has given Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear His voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” For this reason Paul, when giving Timothy the charge to preach the Word in and out of season, speaks of Jesus as the “Judge of the living and the dead” in 2 Timothy 4:1. We shouldn’t also miss the implied meaning in Paul’s statement of the “judgment seat of Christ” in 2 Corinthians 5:10, that Christ is the One who judges.

All Mankind will be Judged

It will be a rude awakening for those who believe the judgment of God is only a metaphorical or a matter for the present moment, for all mankind will be judged. Hebrews 9:27 says “…it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” This judgment will be so thorough that we’ll have to give an account for every idle word we’ve ever spoken (Matt. 12:36). Luke 12:2-3 similarly shows us, “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.” It is a common belief that only the unbelievers will be judged at the final judgment, but Scripture tells us all mankind, believer and unbeliever alike, will be judged. Romans 2:6-10, “He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, He will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.”

For the unbeliever, the wrath of God has already been poured out on them in various measures in life because they have suppressed the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18). They have lived foolishly, trusting in their own selves rather than in God and the gospel of His Son. So their end will be the total culmination of the wrath they received in part during their life. For the believer, there is no wrath and fury but instead no condemnation (Rom. 8:1) because they have lived wisely, trusting in God and in the gospel of His Son. So too, their end will be the total culmination of the grace they received in part during their life.

The Saints will Judge

In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul lays out his argument about how to ought to deal kindly and graciously when we wrong one another. In v2-3 he makes an interesting statement when he says, “Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life!” Here Paul uses the careful and considerate judgment we ought to use with one another with the judgment we will use in the final judgment. This does mean that believers will have some measure of judgment over the world where careful consideration must be employed. But I think it also speaks of our union with Christ. When He judges the world and all in it we will in part join with Him in that judgment and feel a sense of agreement and approval when it takes place. But its not only the world that we’ll join in judging, it’s angels too. Referring to our judging angels in 2 Peter 2:4 we find that God “…did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment…” Jude agrees in v6 where he says angels, “…did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, He (God) has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day.” Why does God allow these things to take place on angels? Jude 5 gives us the answer when he says God destroys those who do not believe.

All of these things are good and profitable for us to consider because an awareness of what will take place at the final judgment moves us to live lives that are pleasing to God in the present. The final judgment will be the finale of history, we must prepare accordingly.

Seeing God’s Glory, Praising God’s Love

Psalm 63:2-3 says, “I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding Your power and glory. Because Your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.”

These verses in Psalm 63 have always stuck out to me because of the transition David makes within it. In 63:2 David says that He has seen God in His sanctuary and beheld Him in His glory and power. In 63:3 David then says in response “because Your love is better than life my lips will praise you.” A question rises up upon seeing this. Why would David not say “because Your glory is better than life?” Didn’t he see His glory? How does God’s love come into the mix here?

I think the answer is quite revealing about the manner in which God loves mankind as well as revealing about the manner in which man receives the love of God. Here’s what I think is happening in these two verses.

David saw the glory and power of God and he rejoiced in that glory by praising God. Particularly, in praising the love of God. What then is the connection between seeing God’s glory and power and praising God’s love? I think it’s this. After seeing God’s glory and rejoicing in that glory by praising God, David expressed his joy in God’s love because allowing us to behold His glory is the primary way God loves us.

This would mean that God’s love does not make much of us (man-centered view), but God Himself (God-centered view). God is beheld in His glory, God is then praised in response, man’s soul is filled with joy, and God is glorified and made much of. This displays that God is love precisely because He graciously gives the elect the greatest possession they could ever have – Himself!

Your Millennial View Matters

Though controversial and debated, any study of eschatology worth your time must include an examination of the views of the millennium. So to set the stage for a brief overview of these views we must examine the passage dealing with the millennium most explicitly, Revelation 20.

“Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while. Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years. And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea” (Revelation 20:1-8).

Throughout the history of the Church there have largely been three positions concerning the millennium. Among the many distinctives these positions hold the chief distinctive (from which these positions derive their name) is when the second coming of Christ will occur. For the Premillennial it will occur before the millennium, for the Postmillennial it will occur after the millennium, and for the Amillennial, well there is no literal millennium, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Premillennialism

The Premillennial position has not always assumed the same form throughout Church history, so there is a need to distinguish between Historic Premillennialism and Dispensational Premillennialism.

Historic Premillennialism believes Christ’s kingdom began after the ascension of Christ with the work of the apostles. They call this first phase the Church age. In this age the Church of Christ will be successful in many ways but will ultimately fail in its mission and succumb to complete apostasy. This fall into apostasy will be a steady decline as history progresses toward the end of the Church age. After this Church age the great tribulation will begin, which marks the beginning of the end times or last days. During this great tribulation believers will suffer greatly from the antichrist and unbelief will reign on the earth. After the tribulation is over Jesus will return to rapture His Church away and reward the righteous. Jesus will then descend to earth with His glorified Church, fight the battle of Armageddon, defeat Satan, and bind him for 1,000 years. This thousand year period is the millennium in which Jesus will set up His kingdom in full measure on the earth from Jerusalem. At the end of this millennium Satan will be freed from his bonds, he will deceive the nations, but he will ultimately and finally be defeated by God’s wrathful judgment. It is this moment of final judgment where God will also judge the wicked and rescue the Church fully and forever.

Dispensational Premillennialism is a different belief system. The term was coined in the mid 19th century by Lewis Sperry Chafer, Finnis Dake, C.I. Scofield, and other various theologians. This system is known for two things. First, a belief that redemptive history is separated into varying dispensations where God deal with His people in different ways. Second, there is a sharp distinction between Israel and the Church as two separate peoples with two separate promises from God. To the dispensationalist, all of the Old Testament prophecies about Israel will be fulfilled in the current Jewish geo-political nation state of Israel. They believe the entire Old Testament sacrificial system will be reinstituted in a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem.

In the dispensational view, Christ’s kingdom is entirely future and comes after the church age, whereas in the historic view Christ’s kingdom began after the ascension. In lines up with the historic view at this point when it says the Church will be successful in many ways but will ultimately fail in its mission and succumb to complete apostasy as history progresses toward the end of the Church age. At this point most dispensationalists believe the rapture will occur to remove the Church from the world before the tribulation begins so they won’t have to face such turmoil. I say ‘most’ because some believe the rapture not be here but will occur in the middle of the tribulation, while others believe it will occur after the tribulation. All dispensationalists divide the tribulation into two equal periods of three and a half years. The first three and a half year period called the tribulation, is where the antichrist is revealed. The latter three and a half year period called the great tribulation, is where the antichrist will take up power, persecute what’s left of the Church, set up his own kingdom, and sit down to rule and be worshiped in the Jerusalem temple. After this seven year tribulation Jesus will return, destroy the antichrist, bind Satan, and set up his kingdom and will reign on the earth for 1,000 years. After this millennium Satan will be released, he will attack vigorously, but Jesus will call down judgment from heaven and destroy His enemies. Then the final judgment will occur.

This is the most popular millennial view in the Church today, probably due to the mass production and popularity of end times material published throughout the past generation, culminating in the Left Behind novels and movies.

Amillennialism

In contrast to the Premillennial position the Amillennial position believes Christ’s kingdom began with the first coming of Christ. This time we’re now in is synonymous with the end times or last days. This reveals one of important underlying foundational beliefs, namely, that the 1,000 year millennium spoken of in Revelation 20 isn’t a literal thousand years, but the time where Christ is ruling and reigning between His two advents. This is why the label, coined in the early 20th century, begins with ‘a’. For the amil believer there is no millennium, because we’re in the symbolic millennium now and have been for almost 2,000 years already. There is also a large covenantal, as opposed to dispensational, view of redemptive history where there is no distinction or separation between Israel and the Church in regard to the promises made by God to His people. Amillennialism sees the Church as the fulfillment of Israel. This new and true Israel of God is made up of all believers. “It is not an ethnically, politically, geographically defined people any longer. It has no geographic center. It has no single ethnic identity. It is not a political nation state. It has no system of sacrificing animals, no tabernacle, no succession of priests, no divinely authorized feast days, no requirement of circumcision or dietary particulars. All of these Old Testament patterns were temporary. Jesus has fulfilled them and ended them” (John Piper). And it will not ever return to these things any time in the future. Though these beliefs are prominent in the Amillennial view, the view does leave an opening for Jews to return to Christ in the end. There are varying opinions on this within the amil camp but it is agreed upon that if they’re to return to Him they will come to Him by faith alone.

As to how the Amillennial believes redemptive history will play itself out, here’s the structure. Satan was bound during the earthly ministry of Jesus, and where the gospel is preached and embraced Satan’s influence is held at bay. Believers, therefore, have a true impact on this world and even on the culture in which they live. But they will not ultimately transform the culture. Because, like the premil position, Amillennialism believes the Church will succumb to apostasy, grow in evil, and listen to the antichrist in the very end of days. But Christ will return once to end history, raise the dead, judge all men, and usher in His kingdom in full measure in the New Heavens and New Earth, which is a glorified earth. 

Postmillennialism

Postmillennialism is very similar to Amillennialism and very different from Premillennialism. Rather than seeing the second coming of Christ as coming before the millennium, the postmil position sees the second coming of Christ after the millennium. In regard to the millennium most postmils believe it to symbolic while a few believe it will be a literal thousand year period. The Postmillennial view believes Christ’s kingdom began with the first coming of Christ and that the time we’re now in is synonymous with the end times or last days. It holds to a covenantal view of redemptive history along with the Amillenial view, and sees the New Testament Church as the fulfillment of Old Testament Israel. You may ask, what then is the difference between the amil and postmil views? There is one large difference that has been the one distinguishing belief of the postmil position that sets it apart from all the others. While both the premil and amil believers think the great commission will ultimately fail and that the Church will fall into apostasy, the postmil believer thinks the great commission will succeed and that the Church, though persecuted at times, will win in the end. So much so, that by the time of Jesus’ second coming the earth will be Christianized.

Conclusion?

So we have Premillennialism, Amillennialism, and Postmillennialism. These three views have been and likely will continue to be hotly debated within the Church. I hope you can see that with each position comes not only a view on what the millennium is all about in Revelation 20, but how one ought to approach, interpret, and apply the whole of God’s Word to the whole of God’s people today.

After my own study I have come to embrace the Amillennial position, because I think this view not only has the most evidence throughout Scripture, I think this view is the only one of these views present in Scripture. I do think Premillennialism has an over exaggerated view of the nation of Israel as well as a thorough misunderstanding of how the two Testaments relate to one another. I also admit, I want Postmillennialism to be true! But I don’t see evidence for an ultimate triumph by the Church throughout the world. I see great things for the Church, but I also see great error in the Church as well as the rise of unbelief in our world.

So, for better or for worse I am an Amillennial.

I say this fully convinced but knowing I may be truly wrong about this. Many of the theologians I admire and have learned much from hold to views I don’t. One thing is 100% sure, God did not inspire His Word in order to give us options of belief about Him and His ways in the world. Whatever position you hold, hold it strongly with deep conviction. Panmillennialism, the belief that it will all ‘pan out’ in the end is not an available option.

The Time, Manner, and Purpose of the Second Coming

In Acts 1:9-11 we find the following words, “As when He had said these things, as they were looking on, He was lifted up, and a cloud took Him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as He went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.’”

In this passage we find the promise of the second coming, or the second advent, of Christ. “This Jesus” as the angels in white robes said, will return Himself in the same visible way He left. How did He leave? With a sense of awe and wonder. He was taken up in a cloud of glory and He will come again in a cloud of glory. This is why Matthew in 24:27 can say of the return of Christ, “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” Yet in spite of such a rich and comforting promise Jesus warned that His return would be a controversial matter. In the beginning of His famous Olivet discourse given to us in Matthew 24 we read, “As He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray” (Matthew 24:3-6).

So what will the second coming be like?

Scripture has three definitive things to say about it.

The Time of the Second Coming

Matthew 24:36, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, not the Son, but the Father only.” Two things only are certain, He is coming back and His coming is always near. This last statement, that His coming is always near, is an implication of 2 Peter 3:8 which says, “But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” Because of this passage’s explanation of time to God, who is Himself outside of time as well as the creator of time, implies that His coming is always near because time as it is to us is not what it is to God. What may be very short to us could possibly be very long to God, and what may be very long to us could possibly be very short to God. The passage also could seemingly be teaching us both of these realities simultaneously. This is why we’re given the command to be ready at all time. Matthew 24:44, “…be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” The time of Christ’s return is, therefore, unknown to all except God the Father.

The Manner of the Second Coming

It will be personal, visible, and physical.

Recall Acts 1:11 that we began this evening with. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.” So, the Jesus who left is the Jesus who will return. Acts 3:19-21, “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that He may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets long ago.” Philippians 3:20, “…our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ…” Colossians 3:4, “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.” 2 Thessalonians 1:10, “…when He comes on that day to be glorified in His saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed…” Christians are spoken of us people who “love His appearing” in 2 Timothy 4:8, as those who are “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” in Titus 2:13, and as those are “eagerly waiting for Him to appear a second time” in Hebrews 9:28. Christ Himself will return as He left, in His physical glorified body visible for all to see.

It will be sudden.

1 Thessalonians 5:2-6, “For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.” Similarly in Mark 13:35-37 Jesus says, “Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”

These passages intend to teach us that the return of Christ will be sudden. But though it will be sudden God tells us to stay alert and watchful for His return so that we are not surprised when it occurs. So our lack of watchfulness is directly correlated to our measure of surprise when He comes again. That the return of Christ will be sudden also encourages us to live lives that are holy and pleasing to God in the present while we wait. Again Titus 2:11-13 shows us this. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ…” So how are we to live while we’re waiting for the blessed hope of Christ’s second advent? v12 gives us the answer. We’re to renounce ungodliness and worldliness while we embrace godliness and holiness.

The Purpose of the Second Coming

The second coming of Christ will be personal, visible, physical, and sudden, but we find the purpose of His second coming in this: it will be triumphant.

There’s something of a historical parallel for us to see here. In the Roman Empire when the Roman armies would come back from a military campaign they would camp outside the city and send word to the senate that they were victorious and waiting to enter the capital. Upon hearing of their return the senate and other leaders of the city would set up a large archway for the soldiers to walk through which marked the beginning of a victory parade. The armies and the senate of Rome would agree upon a time to enter the city once all the preparations had been made and when that time had come for this large conquering host to begin marching into Rome a large trumpet would be blown. This trumpet was the signal for the citizens of Rome to come out and join in and participate in the victorious march themselves. Paul uses this imagery to discuss the return of Christ throughout his letters. That when Christ returns He is returning in triumph, at the trumpet sound, with His Church who joins in His victory because of their union with Christ.

So this moment when He comes, He will not be coming in condescension to save. No, He will come in exaltation as the King of all kings and Lord of all lords, the Judge, and ultimate Victor. He will bring in the full measure of His Kingdom. The dead will rise, the Church will meet Him in the air, and all will go to the judgment. The righteous will go into eternal life in the New Heavens and the New Earth, while all the wicked will go into an eternal punishment in hell.

This second coming is the single global event in which, what is immortal will swallow up what is mortal, all that is wrong in the world and wrong in us will be made right, and the entire history of mankind will come to a close.

What is the Intermediate State?

In 1562 Zacharias Ursinus, born on July 18, 1534, was asked to draft a new catechism for Frederick III. Ursinus, then a professor at the University of Heidelberg, began work immediately and one year later the Heidelberg Catechism was published. It was received so well it was soon translated into Latin, Dutch, French, and English. Since it’s publishing it has become the most loved and devotional catechism of the Reformation as well as the fourth bestselling book in history (after the Bible, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ).

The 57th question of the catechism introduces us to our topic today.

Q: How does “the resurrection of the body” comfort you?

A: That not only my soul, after this life, shall be immediately taken up to Christ its head, but also that this my body, raised by the power of Christ, shall again be united with my soul, and made like the glorious body of Christ.

Question 57 of the Heidelberg Catechism speaks of the great biblical reality that one day our souls will be reunited with our bodies in the great resurrection. My aim in this post isn’t to discuss what our glorified bodies will be like or even to discuss the great and final resurrection. My aim is to talk about the in between time, when our souls are still separate from our bodies.

This time is called the intermediate state.

In the early Church the doctrine of the intermediate state wasn’t taught or written on because the return of Jesus was believed to be imminent. As the years progressed and a realization settled in that Jesus was tarrying, theologians began to discuss the intermediate state. These early accounts viewed this state as a temporary foretaste of the greater joy or greater terror to come. Among those who held this view were Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Novation, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, and Augustine.

As time continued on into the Middle Ages this widely held belief was taken up by the Roman Catholic Church and it is here that we see the birth of purgatory. Which teaches that after physical death the souls of imperfect believers must go to a waiting place (or a limbo) where they will be purified to the point where they can enter into glory. In this sense purgatory is seen as the last step in a believer’s sanctification. How did they come to create such a doctrine? The Roman Catholics do defend and seek to prove the existence of purgatory from other passages, but they mainly go to 2 Maccabees 12. You may recognize that 1st or 2nd Maccabees isn’t in any of our Bibles. That’s because it’s found in what’s called the Apocrypha, or the Pseudepigrapha, as some Protestants call it. These books are historical books that show the details of what took place between the Testaments. The reason they’re not in our Bibles today is because the early Church fathers, Jesus and the apostles, as well as 1st century Jews didn’t believe them to be part of Scripture, so we don’t as well. They are helpful to read to get a historical perspective of what took place during that time, but in no way are these inspired texts of Scripture. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church didn’t officially believe the Apocrypha to be Scripture until 1547.

The context of 2 Maccabees 12, is that there has just been a large war where 25,000 Jews had been killed. The reason 25,000 men were killed was for secret idolatry. But afterward a leader named Judas leads the people to pray for these dead men “…that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out.” Then Judas took up an “offering for the dead, and had a special atoning sacrifice made them so that atonement would be made and they would be absolved from their sins.” Now you can see where the Roman Catholic Church gets their doctrine of purgatory as well as the doctrine of indulgences, which function as a kind of special offering for yourself or the dead taken up to shorten time spent in purgatory.

This view of purgatory was held as common belief until it’s rejection during the Protestant Reformation, though some reformers like Philip Melanchthon, believed it to be a matter of secondary importance and not worth arguing over. To this John Calvin said, “Since…purgatory is built on so very many blasphemies and is everyday reinforced by even bigger ones, creating untold scandals, it should never be ignored.” In our present time Roman Catholics and some Universalists still hold that purgatory exists (along with varying opinions of limbo), while the almost all the entire Protestant world rejects this concept due to lack of Scriptural evidence.

So what does the Bible say about the time between our physical death and the time when we’re reunited with our bodies at the resurrection? We could summarize it like this:

Upon death our bodies go into the grave while our souls will go immediately to heaven to be with Christ. In this state we will continue as conscious bodiless souls until the second advent of Christ where He will usher in His Kingdom in full measure, judge the world in righteousness, reunite the soul and body, send the wicked into hell forever, and bring the Church into the New Heavens and the New Earth for all eternity.

I do not believe the intermediate state to be a place of purification where we’re perfected until we’re holy enough to go to enter God’s presence, or even a place of soul sleep where we’re unconsciously waiting for Jesus’ second advent. No. I believe the intermediate state we get in the pages of Scripture is the time our bodiless and conscious souls spend in the direct presence of Christ in heaven, before the Second Coming of Christ.

We see this clearly in Revelation 6:9-11 where John the apostle says, “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the Word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before You will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’ Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were killed as they themselves has been.”

Here we see the martyrs. Those who have borne witness boldly and bravely to the truth of the gospel in a place that didn’t welcome such things. For this they lost their lives. Upon their martyrdom their souls immediately go to the throne of God where they cry out for God to judge the world and avenge their blood. Here they will be until the full number of martyrs come in. This place where they are right now is the place where all believers go upon death – heaven, in the direct presence of the Lord. God hears their cries, knows their pain, and comforts them with robes of white until Jesus descends on the earth in a cloud of glory with His heavenly host to right all wrongs and make all sad things untrue.

The hope of heaven is that we will once again be united with our bodies and will reign upon the earth in the New Heavens and New Earth forever all because of Christ.

The Soul’s Immortality

Generally speaking, though there are always thinkers who deny it throughout history, in every nation, people, tribe, and tongue regardless of religious belief and quality of life there has always been a belief in the immortality of the soul.

Plato taught that upon death the physical body dissolves into parts while the soul remains intact and cannot be dissolved into parts because it is spiritual in nature and not physical. C.S. Lewis argues in Mere Christianity, that “…if I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probably explanation is that I was made for another world.” Lewis is saying God gave men certain qualities (talents, aspirations, longings, etc.) that will not reach fruition in this world, and that from recognizing such realities he concludes that God has made another world where these qualities will reach their full potential, a world where we’ll live with Him forever. We could also speak of the lack of justice on the wicked. Our consciences testify that too often the evil grow in their evil deeds and those who suffer too often increase in sorrow in this life (think Psalm 73). That this is so often the case has led many to a belief in an afterlife where the wicked and the righteous receive what they’re due. Generally speaking, these thoughts sum up man’s opinions about why there must be an immortal state after this life and what that life entails.

Now, let’s get a bit more specific and go to the Scripture to see these things.

So let’s ask what appears to be a simple question on the surface. How does the Bible define the term immortality? We could use the term immortality in the sense that Paul uses the word in 1 Timothy 6 where speaking of God he says, “…He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To Him be honor and eternal dominion forever. Amen” (1 Tim. 6:15-16). Here Paul makes it clear that it is God who alone has immortality, and because He alone has immortality He is the only Sovereign, the King of kings, the Lord of lords, to whom belongs honor, weight, and glory forever. If anyone one else has existence, that existence comes from the God who has always existed. All others had a beginning, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit never did.

But, since this passage clearly states God alone has immortality, does this imply that no one else will experience or have immortality? That answer from the Bible is clearly no. Adam and Eve could rightly be considered immortal beings before the fall. If they had obeyed God’s command and abstained from eating the fruit they would’ve continued to be immortal. But they chose poorly. So now upon physical death the body does return to dust (Gen. 3:19). But we know, because of the work of Christ, the souls of believers gain a blessed conscious immortality with Christ in glory while the souls of unbelievers gain a horrific conscious immortality apart from Christ in hell.

So yes God alone has immortality in the sense that only He has always been and never had a beginning. But also no, God is not the only One who has or experiences immortality because in another sense we too have immortality. The difference between our immortality and God’s is that ours is a created immortality. Paul makes this clear in his second letter to Timothy when he says Christ Jesus “…abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10).

Theologians of old have described the immortality of the soul in these three ways:

Man in the Image of God

Man, as opposed to all the other creatures God made, was made different. Genesis 1:26-27 says God made man in His own image. This does means mankind is higher than the beasts because man has the ability to reason and ponder his own existence. Implied in this as well is the truth that mankind is higher than the beasts because man was made to commune with God, to worship God, to glorify God. How does man find out about the purpose he was made? God has placed eternity in his heart (Ecc. 3:11). Nowhere does the Bible give us any hint that God places eternity in any of the other creatures He made. That man is made in God’s image, and that God is eternal and immortal necessarily implies man, and man alone, will also have an eternal and immortal existence.

The Presence of Sheol and Glory

Throughout the Old Testament we see the wicked go to a place called sheol. In Psalm 49:14-15 the Sons of Korah declare, “Like sheep they (foolish man in his pomp, see v5-13) are appointed for Sheol; death shall be their shepherd, and the upright shall rule over them in the morning. Their form shall be consumed in Sheol, with no place to dwell. But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for He will receive me.” Here sheol is explained as a place of judgment not blessing. There is even a contrast to the wicked who are appointed for sheol and the upright who will rule over them. Then in v15 the Psalmist gladly declares that God will rescue him from such judgment. That the place of sheol exists and that it is contrasted with a place of blessing throughout the Scriptures, implies that man has an immortal existence apart from the body after death.

In the New Testament we see a similar reality being taught. In Matthew 10:28 Jesus says, “And do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” The contrast between Satan who can only kill the body and God who can destroy both soul and body in hell assumes the soul of man continues on after physical death. Likewise in Luke 23:43 Jesus tells one of the thieves next to Him on the cross, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in paradise.” Both Jesus’ and this thief’s body will expire very soon, but that Jesus pronounces the presence in paradise implies their souls lived on. Lastly a passage where no comment is needed, John 11:25, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet he shall live…”

Confident and Delightful Expectation

The immortality of the soul is also seen in the numerous passages that speak of the confident and delightful expectation of the righteous. Job 19:25-27, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has thus been destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!” Psalm 16:9-11, “Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption. You make known to me the path of life; in Your presence there is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Paul in 2 Cor. 5:1-5 speaks of the same expectation saying, “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.”

Here the tent that is our earthly home is our body and the building from God eternal in the heavens is our entire glorified state. So while is here in this body he is longing to be clothed with the eternal, “…that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” We could also point to Paul’s monumental boast that is the entirety of Romans 8, where he delights in the no condemnation, no separation grace of God that will one day end in future glory where the sons of God will be revealed. These confident and delightful declarations of expectation imply the soul’s continuance after physical death.

Lesson? The activity of the soul is not a mere by-product of brain function that ceases when the brain dies with the body. We cannot after death live on in this life through our children and grandchildren though we love them dearly and will in a sense always remain in their hearts. Even if we make a name for ourselves in this life and leave behind a lasting and famous legacy or influence, we cannot after death live on inspiring many, eventually we all will one day be forgotten. That our souls will continue on for all eternity ought to sober us in this life. Indeed, living in light of eternity brings our present existence much clarity about what really matters.

The Complete Renovation of the Soul

In his book Turning to God: Reclaiming Christian Conversion as Unique, Necessary, and Supernatural David Wells says, “Conversions of all kinds are commonplace in our world today. An alcoholic turns from drink to sobriety. Westerners afflicted with boredom renounce their way of life and seek meaning from Eastern gurus. One person joins a cult and closes the door on his or her prior way of life; another looks for the power hidden within and turns away from institutional religion. Although these ‘conversions’ may be triggered by dramatic crises and result in changed behaviors, they are not conversions in any Christian sense. If they do not have Christ as their cause and object and His service as their result…If they do not involve turning from sin to God, on the basis of Christ’s atoning blood and by means of the Holy Spirit’s work, they cannot be called Christian.”

Perhaps you feel, even in this quote, the disdain our culture thinks of conversion? Conversion in our day conveys a negative image or a moment of forced decision, as if someone were strong-arming you into making a decision you don’t want to make. But I submit that this notion is largely an unfair view of conversion. For example if we were to look in a thesaurus we would find the following synonyms for the word conversion: change, adaptation, alteration, renovation, transfiguration, exchange, and even transformation. Interesting isn’t it? That our cultures view of the word conversion is so negative while the synonyms bring nothing but positive pictures into view. I suppose the negative idea of conversion has crept in from Church history; specifically those moments on both the Roman Catholic and Protestant side of the aisle when conversion was done by coercion. When it was forced either by trial, by inquisition, or by war. These are stains on the history of Christianity and are evidence that the Church is full of fallen men and women. Events like these have long lingered in the mind of man giving us our modern distaste for the idea of conversion.

 

When we come to the Bible we see an entirely refreshing and positive view of conversion. Rather than being seen as coercion we see it as the great work of the Holy Spirit in beginning the Christian life by raising us from spiritual death to spiritual life. It is the moment of transformation, when we become, by the work of the Spirit, something we never thought we would ever be. Conversion in the Christian sense of the word, in the biblical sense of the word is nothing less than a complete renovation of the soul.

Throughout the Scriptures there is one word rises to the top when we discuss conversion. This word in Greek is metamorphuo, which as you can probably guess is where we get the English word metamorphosis. When this Greek word shows up in the New Testament it is usually translated into English as ‘transformation.’ In regards to the transformation of conversion two passages drive this home to us.

An Unveiling Glory – 2 Corinthians 3:12-18

“Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”

Here Paul is comparing the glory of the Old and New Covenants. To illustrate this comparison he speaks firstly of Moses, who had to put a veil over his face so that the Israelites wouldn’t be terrorized by the glory of God. Paul says even in his day when the Law is read there is still a veil over the hearts of the Israelites. “But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” (3:16). More so, Paul seems to interrupt his argument with a statement about the freedom that comes into the heart when the Holy Spirit removes the veils and takes up residence within us. But upon further examination Paul isn’t interrupting anything. Paul makes this statement about the Spirit in v17 in order to tell us that the One who does the work of removing this veil over our hearts is the Holy Spirit Himself, and because the Spirit does this, we now have freedom. Freedom from what? Freedom from the Law, freedom from the veil over our eyes, freedom from the veil over our hearts. Freedom from the shadowy nature of the old covenant. Freedom in the crystal clear nature of the new covenant. Freedom to see the glory of God with nothing hindering our sight. Freedom to finally draw near to God without sheer and utter terror.

Then, in what has to be one of the most famous passages of Scripture, Paul summarizes by detailing this Spirit produced metamorphosis and transformation saying that in the New Covenant all those who come to Christ by faith, now, with an unveiled face, behold the glory of the Lord. And from beholding God’s glory we are literally transformed by that glory into another kind of person. Initially this is the moment of conversion, or resurrection, of the new birth. But notice that once God transforms us, that transformation doesn’t end, it continues on progressively from one degree of glory to another. This progressive work of transformation is called sanctification, where God, by exposing us to more of His glory, makes us into His holy image. So the initial moment of transformation in view here is a one time act of God’s free grace on us, and the progressive transformation in view here is the continual work of God’s free grace in us. If there is any doubt in the reader as to who is responsible for this unveiling, transforming, metamorphosing work, Paul makes it clear in v18, “This (all of this grace!) comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

So from this first passage we learn that conversion is a transformative moment, where the Holy Spirit does the work of removing the veil over our hearts so that we can truly behold the glory of God. And from beholding the glory of God, what happens? We are transformed…initially and marvelously and throughout our lives God the Spirit continues to transform us to greater and greater degrees. Notice the end of v18 again, “For this comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” This is why Paul is able to call believers letters written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God in 3:3.

Creating A New Creation – 2 Corinthians 5:14-19

“…we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”

Here Paul is laying out the ministry of reconciliation all believers have received from God. He died so that those who live would no longer selfishly live for themselves but for the glory of Christ who died and was raised for them in v14-15. Because Christ died that we would live for His glory Paul says he no longer regards those who believe in Christ according to flesh in v16. How then does Paul regard believers? v17 tells us, he regards us as what we truly are – new creations of God. The old has passed, the new has come. How did this happen? v18-19 tell us. All of this is from God, who sent His Son to reconcile us to Himself and then give us the ministry of reconciliation after His resurrection.

This is all good and well but where does the Holy Spirit come into this? Through the theme of creation. Back in Genesis 1 who was hovering over the waters? The Spirit. What then did God do to create all we see today? He spoke His Word by the power of His Spirit into the darkness and created all things. Paul uses this exact argument one chapter earlier to describe how God made new creations out of us at conversion. In 2 Cor. 4:6 he says, “For God, who said ‘Let light shine out darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Therefore, the meaning of 3:18 and 5:17 is that just as God accomplished creation through His Word and Spirit, so too, God accomplished our conversion by His Word and Spirit too, transforming us and making us new creations.

So…

Yes, change is needed. Yes, change is possible. Yes, we must become new, not just better. Yes, we must know the gospel, believe the gospel, and bank on the gospel. And yes, all of these things, all of this great work of God inside the soul of man that we call conversion, is brought about by living and enduring Word of God.

The Six Glories of John 3:16

In 1917 pastor and hymn writer Frederick Lehman wrote the following words, “The love of God is greater far, than tongue or pen can ever tell, it goes beyond the highest star and reaches to the lowest hell; the guilty pair, bowed down with care, God gave His Son to win, His erring child He reconciled and pardoned from his sin…Could we with ink the ocean fill and were the skies of parchment made, were every stalk on earth a quill and every man a scribe by trade, to write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry, nor could the scroll contain the whole, though stretched from sky to sky.”[1]

These words describe the beauty and wonder of the boundless and wonderful love of God. This love is revealed to us all over the Bible. From Genesis to Revelation we see a holy God in love choosing, pursuing, rescuing, changing, and keeping sinful men and women for the glory of His name. There are literally 1,000 places we could go to in Scripture to see this love revealed to us in manifold splendor, but there is one place which rises above all others. John 3:16 is the most famous, the most well known, as well as the most prized verse in the whole Bible. This verse is literally everywhere: from Tim Tebow’s eye black to the lips of every evangelist, from countless posters at sporting events to innumerable bumper stickers, from the pulpits of churches around the world the millions of Christians in those churches, John 3:16 is without a doubt a massive source of comfort and security. But while this is without a doubt the most well known verse of all the Bible, I also think it is also without a doubt one of the most misunderstood and distorted verses in all of the Bible. I believe this to be true because one can know John 3:16 without really knowing what it teaches. Everyone loves it’s big, grand, and universal scope, but no one gives a thought to how particular the verse is. 

See here the six glories of John 3:16

1) “For…”

This first word of the verse isn’t a throwaway word for it connects John 3:16 to the larger context of John 3. So in order to know what John 3:16 means we must see it in the context it comes to us. In John 3:1-15 we witness the evening meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus where Jesus unfolds the details of what He calls the new birth and what it means to be born again. It was difficult for Nicodemus to hear and embrace these things, he was confused and a bit appalled at what Jesus had to say, even after Jesus used earthly imagery to explain what He meant Nicodemus still doesn’t get it. Jesus then in v14-15 draws a parallel between His own Person and Work with the bronze serpent Moses lifted up in the wilderness in Numbers 21. Then seemingly in order to drive that point home, we then have John 3:16 being the very next verse and the ‘for’ means that v16 is a continuation and implication of v14-15. But pause and ask, who said v16? Most red letter Bibles use red in John 3:3, v5-8, and v10-21, leading us to believe the famous words of John 3:16 were given to us from the lips of Jesus Himself. But, I differ in opinion here, and think that the evening meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus ended at v15, which would mean John 3:16 is where the apostle John’s reflection on this meeting begins.[2] And the first thing John has to say about this meeting has become the most famous verse in the entire Bible. This opening word, “For…” answers a question we have. What does this evening meeting’s dialogue ultimately mean? “For…” is the indication to us that the apostle John is about to tell us.

2) “For God…”

So John 3:16 is not only meant to be read and understood in the context of v1-15, but that the very next word is ‘God’ tells us that John 3:16 is first and foremost about God. Before this verse is ever about you or me this verse is about God. It tells us who He is, what He is like, and what He has done. “For God…” reminds us that there is a God who exists, that this world and we ourselves are not a cosmic accident or a result of chance, and that this God is not a distant God, but a God who is near to the creation and the creatures He has made. Many deny God’s existence saying He is a figment of our imagination similar to the tooth fairy, and just as we all grew up and out of our childish belief in the tooth fairy we must also grow up and out of our childish belief about God. I tell you today that God is not a mere symbol that mankind created and attaches meaning to. God is not a divine fairy tale character. God is not a figment of our imagination. What does John 3:16 say? The reality of John 3:16 is that before any of us existed, and before this world existed God was! The wonder of John 3:16 is that this God, who was and is fully sufficient, independent, lacking nothing, out of sheer grace created this world and every human on it so that we would glorify Him by enjoying Him forever. John 3:16 is rightly and surely a verse loaded with good news, but the first piece of good news John 3:16 gives us is this: “God is, and He has not remained silent.”[3] What then did God do toward this world He made?

3) “For God so loved the world…”

Just like a full size crunch bar gets better and better with each bite, so too, the glory and beauty of John 3:16 gets better and better with each phrase. We have seen that there is a God – holy, just, independent, gracious, and fully sufficient. We have seen that this God isn’t aloof from the world He made. We now see here that this God who made the world has a certain disposition toward this world, toward us, He loves. “For God so loved the world…” Two things are important to see here:

a) How we interpret the word ‘so’ is incredibly important to how we interpret this verse. For example most of us, being native English speakers, interpret the word ‘so’ to carry a meaning of intensity as when a husband says to his wife ‘I love you sooo much.’ This is a legitimate use of the word ‘so’ in English but this notion of intensity is not in view in the original Greek word here. Rather than intensity, the Greek meaning of the word ‘so’ is one of ‘manner’ which makes John 3:16 say something like, “For God loved the world in this manner…” or “For God loved the world like this…”

b) How we interpret the word ‘world’ is also incredibly important. John’s use of the Greek word ‘cosmos’ which means ‘world’ is an all-encompassing word that includes the entire created order. It’s not so much referring to individual people, but referring to all God has made. God, therefore has a loving disposition toward all He has made. Knowing this should then lead to us being surprised because this world is a fallen world. We believe that when our first parents Adam and Eve bit the fruit they plunged mankind into death, and the entire created order fell from its original position. Thus, ever since Genesis 3 this world has been a fallen world, filled with a humanity that is hostile to God, unwilling to submit to God, and rebellious to God. Yet, in spite of this continual rebellion and hostility God what? He loved this world? John 3:16 says so. That God would love a world like this, filled with sinful people like us, does not communicate our own value or worth – no – it communicates the greatness of His love that is characteristic of who He is.

But this poses a new question: how did God love the world?

4) “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son…”

How did God love the world? He loved the world that He gave to it. So God isn’t merely a God of who is characterized by love, but this love moved Him to give. What did He give? He gave that which was most dear to Himself, His one, unique, and only Son.[4] Now comes the larger question: why did He give His Son? Think of it like this. If you don’t like me, you could probably hide around the church until everyone left, pop out as I’m locking up and punch me in the face. There probably wouldn’t be very serious consequences to doing that, you probably could just leave like normal, go home and have lunch while I’m lying on the floor knocked out. Now contrast punching me in the face with trying to punch President Trump in the face. It is highly likely the moment you tried to get close enough to do so that a secret service member will take his gun out and shoot you. Why? He’s the President, there are very serious consequences and penalties to trying to harm him. But why is there a difference in punishment between harming President Trump and harming me? Because the nature of punishment is measured by who the crime is committed against.

Now come back to John 3:16. Remember, we have sinned against the highest One there is, God. And because we sinned against God who is the cosmic King of all, even the smallest of sins against Him is cosmic treason. Why then did God in love give His Son? To to live the perfect life we never could have lived and die the death we deserved to die. So Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, was given by God live for us, die for us, and wonder of wonders…the very thing we’re celebrating today…rise for us.

5) “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him…”

Wrongly, many assume John 3:16 says something like “For God so loved the world that God sent His only Son to save everyone.” The word ‘whoever’ truly is universal in its scope, but do you see how the verse places a condition on how to gain the benefits of Christ’s work? ‘Whoever…believes.’ The great and loving work of God through Christ is not doled out to everyone in general. No, it only applies to those who believe, those who trust, those who come to Christ clinging to Him as we would cling to a parachute while skydiving. This is none other than the ‘way of salvation.’ God doesn’t say He gave His Son to whoever obeys His commandments, or that He gave His Son to whoever does not sin, or that He gave His Son to whoever does not struggle with doubt or despair. No, He gave His Son to whoever believes. Charles Spurgeon once said it like this, “Faith, however slender, saves the soul.”[5]

I wonder, what are you believing in today? What are you trusting in? What are you clinging to? Perhaps some of you know the facts of the gospel, you may even believe that those facts are true, but you’re not believing in them one bit to save your soul. No, the life you’re now living is a life of unstable hopes and you’re looking to many other things in this world to give you stability and rescue from the evils you feel within your own fallen and sinful heart. If that’s you be challenged, hoping in the world or in other people will leave you distressed, only hoping in Christ will bring you rest. Or perhaps you’re discouraged and feel that you’re too weak or despairing to grab ahold of Christ by faith, that the pit you’ve fallen into is far too deep to get out of, so deep that the sun itself doesn’t even shine where you exist day by day. Be encouraged, for the smallest faith receives the same strong Christ as the strongest faith in the world.[6] Whether you’re barely entering your teens, in the middle of life, or gaining more and more of a grey head – ‘whoever believes’ is a call from God that has no limit!

6) “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

See here a contrast God intends us to see. The end of unbelief is the beginning of eternal suffering in hell, while the end of belief is the beginning of pleasure forevermore in heaven. This is not just a matter for the future. For all hard-hearted sinners who reject the Son of God will be hardened even more in this life, while all hard-hearted sinners who embrace the Son of God are softened and experience the spiritual blessings and benefits of the New Covenant Christ came to begin even now.

Citations:

[1] R. Kent Hughes, John: That You May Believe, Preaching the Word Commentary, page 89.

[2] R.C. Sproul, John, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary, page 44. See also Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, NICNT, page 228.

[3] See Francis Shaeffer, He is There and He Is Not Silent, Tyndale House, 1972.

[4] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, NICNT, page 230.

[5] Charles Spurgeon, Immeasurable Love, sermon delivered on 1850 in the Metropolitan Tabernacle.

[6] Jared Wilson, There is No Faith So Little That it is Not Saving, For the Church Blog, accessed 4/13/17.

Our Greatest Problem Is Not What You Think It Is

Mankind has a host of problems to deal with in life.

Some of the major ones we’ve got to deal with are nuclear weapons, war, disease, population increase, cleaner and more sustainable energy, terrorism, injustice, domestic and global economic crisis, climate change, hunger, poverty, and clean water around the world. Some dare to include other problems to this list like tangled ear bud cords, running out of siracha, and posting something on Facebook only to receive a couple of likes. Above these ridiculous first world problems, and above these real global problems we encounter in this life, one problem rises to the top that every man will one day have to face: death.

That statistics will always stand. 10 out of 10 die. Regardless what man in his scientific genius accomplishes in this life the reality of death awaits us all. On this R.C. Sproul says, “Death is the greatest problem human beings encounter. We may try to tuck thoughts of it away in a far corner of our minds, but we cannot completely erase our awareness of our mortality. We know that the specter of death awaits us.”[1]

All the way back in the beginning God told the man Adam and the woman Eve in Genesis 2:16-17, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” They could eat of any tree they so desired as they did life in the garden God had made for them. But they believed the word of the serpent over the Word of God and ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Upon sinning that first time they spiritually died and became unfit to be in God’s presence, so they were banished from the garden. But spiritual death wasn’t only in view. Up until the point they ate the fruit they were going to be with God for all time, but now that they had fallen, physical death would one day come to them. Paul speaks of this sad moment in Romans 5:12-18 where he says sin came into the world through Adam, and death through sin, which led to death spreading to all men. Thus we read God’s pronouncement upon our first parents in Genesis 3:19, “…for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Therefore, the origin of spiritual and physical death is sin.

 

I recently had the opportunity to attend a funeral. Family and friends gathered to honor this man’s life, memories were shared and tears were shed inside the church and throughout the few days we came together. But for me, the most poignant moment of the whole funeral, the moment filled with sobering reality, was when we gathered around the gravesite for the burial. I knew once the casket went into the ground that this man wasn’t coming back out. The finality of the moment was thick. It seemed impossible to escape. The unbelieving worldview simply thinks of death as the last part of a natural process but standing there watching the casket and hearing the sobs of the loved ones I didn’t feel anything of natural order. It made me feel that death is a cruel master, waiting to carry out its sentence on all of us one day where it will harshly sever the unity of body of soul.

Perhaps this is why Louis Berkhof mentions that “…death is something foreign and hostile to human life: an expression of divine anger, judgment, condemnation, and a curse.”[2] I think we feel such things at moments like this because death wasn’t part of our original state before God. We we’re made to live with Him forever but because we chose to sin by rebelling against God’s command all of us now will (because of God’s judgment on us for our sin) feel the pang of death one day. That is, unless Jesus returns first.

But see the beauty of the grace of God in that while He could’ve put forth an exact judgment as soon as Adam and Eve at the fruit, ending humanity once and for all, He didn’t. In His common grace He restrains the full effects of sin and death, and adding glory upon glory, in His special grace to His people He has conquered sin and death through the work of Christ. So it is true what many preachers have said throughout the ages, “Believers are born twice and die only once while unbelievers are born only once and die twice.” Is this not the outworking of Romans 6:23? “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The wages, or payment, of sin is death. So all those who remain in sin and unbelief will experience death in hell forever. While all those who forsake sin and believe will experience life in heaven forever.

But since the wages of sin is death, and Jesus bore our sin as our substitute, absorbing the wrath of God in our place, since that is true, why do believers still have to physically die? Why can’t God just take us to heaven when we’re saved or sometime before physical death occurs since believers have no more wages for sin to pay? This is a good question, and there are good reasons why God ordains for most of us to go through physical death.[3]

First, for Witness

If we are born again and immediately taken to heaven who would preach the gospel, who would share the gospel, who would gather with the Church? In fact, if God took us away upon conversion there wouldn’t be any Church left on earth, and if there is no Church left on earth, there is no way the great commission would be engaged in, let alone finished. By saving us and leaving us here God gives us the opportunity to be a witness to truth throughout our lives.

Second, for Humility

Nothing humbles the pride of man than an awareness of an impending death. Even if God’s providence brings you death years into the future, the knowledge that death will one day come and bring your life on earth to an end, does much to bring one’s life into focus. That all mankind: rich and poor, young and old, male and female will one day die is a great equalizer.

Third, for Holiness

Death does bring one’s life into focus. The peripheral things get pushed away and the chief things of man come into prominence. And among those chief things that come into prominence, knowing and pleasing God becomes most prominent because He is ultimately the One we must reckon with in the end of all things. Therefore, an awareness of death in the end will lead one to have a greater zeal for holy living in the present.

Fourth, for Heavenly Mindedness

In Colossians 3:1-4 Paul makes this point stating, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.”

The big idea Paul is getting is that we live this life rightly by considering, inclining our heart to, and wholeheartedly entertaining the things that are above, not on things that are on earth. So to set our minds on things above means using all of our energy to know Christ, continually seeking to mature in Christ, getting out there and pursuing the lost with the message of Christ, reading and meditating on God’s Word to grow in the knowledge of Christ, devoting ourselves to prayer to draw closer to Christ, and giving our lives to the service of the Church following the example of Christ. To flip the popular saying, “The only way to be of any earthly good is to be heavenly minded.”

The Puritan pastors used to teach their congregations to think on death often for the sake of gaining the right perspective in our current lives. In the Puritan prayer book, the Valley of Vision, part of the prayer entitled Sleep reads, “May my frequent lying down make me familiar with death, the bed I approach remind me of the grave, the eyes I now close picture to me their final closing. Keep me always ready, waiting for admittance to thy presence… I retire this night in full assurance of one day awaking with thee.”[4]

For the Puritans, our earthly life is only the title page and table of contents, preparing us to for chapter 1 of the never ending book that is eternity with God.

May the same be true of us as well.

 

 

Citations:

[1] R.C. Sproul, Everyone’s A Theologian, page 295

[2] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, page 670.

[3] I say ‘most’ because the believers who are alive when Christ returns will not have to endure through physical death.

[4] The Valley of Vision, page 163.

The Centrality of the Atonement

The atonement of Christ on the cross is central to the message of Christianity.

To atone for something is to make amends or to make satisfaction for a wrong. This is exactly what we see on the cross – it is through the blood of Christ that the holy God and sinful man are brought together peaceably. By nature we’re at odds with God because of sin, and at the center of our message we find blood. The blood of Christ, which is able to bring sinners like us who were once far away from God, near to Him. This is why Christianity is seen as a religion with a central message of redemption and reconciliation. By the blood of Christ we are redeemed from sin and reconciled to God. So we see at a very basic level that any representation of Christianity that diminishes the centrality of the atonement is a false form of Christianity.

Even from the earliest chapters and books of the Bible we see atonement as central to those who would do life with God. In Eden, after the fall of man, for the first time in history God made atonement for His people by shedding the blood of an animal and using it’s skin to cover the shame of Adam and Eve. Cain and Abel offer sacrifices in Genesis 4, Noah offered sacrifices to God in Genesis 8, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all do the same thing each time God meets them or blesses them. We see many other offerings in Genesis, but when Israel gets into slavery in Egypt and when God calls Moses to go to Pharaoh and say ‘Let My people go’ in behalf of God it is here where we see the doctrine of atonement coming into view clearly.

After 9 plagues completely devastate the Egyptians, God brings a dreadful decree to close out His assault on Egypt. He tells Moses of His plans and Moses tells Pharaoh in Exodus 11:4-6, ‘Thus says the Lord: ‘About midnight I will go out in the midst of Egypt, and every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die…there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there has never been, nor ever will be again.’ Moses leaves Pharaoh’s presence and God gives Him further directions in chapter 12, ‘This month shall be for you the beginning of months…On the 10th day of this month every man shall take a lamb for his household and on the 14th day of the month you shall kill the lamb at twilight. Then take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the house…the blood shall be a sign for you…and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.’

It was the blood that saved Israel from death, it was the blood that secured their redemption from Egypt. Paul picks up this theme in 1 Cor. 5 where he calls Christ our Passover Lamb. The parallel is clear is it not? Just as the blood of the lamb secured Israel’s redemption from Pharaoh and Egypt and sent them on their way to the promise land, so too, it is now the blood of Christ, our Passover Lamb, that secures our redemption from Satan, sin, and death and sends us on our way to the greater Canaan. It was the blood of the lamb that atoned for Israel, it is the blood of the Lamb of God that atones for us.

From this point on, we see God instituting His Law, which has many prescriptions in it for various offerings and sacrifices intended to atone for the sin of the people. This Law is then what all of the Old Testament prophets courageously and consistently called God’s people back to. Therefore, atonement has always been central to the people of God, and when we come over into the New Testament we find that all the sacrificial atoning work of God culminates in one act of atonement, the cross of our Lord Jesus.

Let me show you this in six ways:

1) The Atonement is a Secured Redemption

Hebrews 9:11-12, ‘But when Christ appeared as a High Priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of His own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.’ This puts on display what we’ve seen already – in the Old Testament the high priest once a year would enter into the Most Holy Place to make atonement for God’s people by the means of the blood of goats and calves, but Jesus, our true High Priest, entered the Most Holy Place to make atonement for God’s people once for all time, not by the blood of animals, but by His own blood. What was the result? The result was not that redemption was now possible, no, the result was that by doing this Jesus secured an eternal redemption. In 9:15-22 the author of Hebrews goes onto say that the only people who benefit from this atoning work are ‘those who are called.’

2) The Atonement was Accomplished

Romans 8:30, ‘And those whom He predestined He also called, and those whom He called He also justified, and those whom He justified He also glorified.’ In this passage Paul speaks of Christ’s work with such confidence that he uses the past tense for all of his main verbs, speaking that even glorification is already accomplished for God’s people through the work of God’s Son. This is why Jesus cried out on the cross, ‘It is finished!’ in John 19:30.

3) The Atonement is for the Church/Sheep

Ephesians 5:25-27, ‘Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the Word, so that He might present the Church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.’ In these verses who is it that Christ loved? Who is it that Christ gave Himself up for? Who is it that Jesus cleansed by the water of the Word? Who is it that He’ll one day present to Himself in splendor by His atoning work? His Church. He loved the Church and gave Himself up for the Church, only the Church. John 10:11 also, ‘I am the good Shepherd. The good Shepherd lays His life down (for who??) the sheep.’ After saying this to the crowds Jesus a bit further on in 10:26 tells many who are listening to Him that they ‘are not among His sheep.’ Acts 20:28, ‘Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for (who?) the Church of God, which He obtained (how?) with His own blood.’

4) The Atonement Redeemed a People for Christ’s own Possession

Titus 2:14 speaks of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ ‘who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good works.’ Christ gave Himself to redeem a people, a particular people, for His own possession. John 11:51-52 speaks of this by saying the cross gathered into one people the children of God who were scattered abroad. Matthew 1:21 too, ‘Mary will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins.’ Here we see Jesus’ name is connected with His mission. Why did He come? To save His people, from their sins.

5) The Atonement is Not for All but ‘Many’

Matthew 20:26-28, ‘Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.’ Isaiah 53:11, ‘Out of the anguish of His soul He shall see and be satisfied; by His knowledge shall the Righteous One, My servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and He shall bear their iniquities.’

6) The Atonement Purchased a Global People

Rev. 5:9-10, ‘And they sang a new song, saying ‘Worthy are You to take the scroll and to open its seals, for You were slain, and by Your blood You ransomed (purchased – NIV) people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and You have made them a Kingdom of priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.’ See here again, the cross didn’t make salvation possible for people, a specific, a definite people were purchased on the cross.

Again, any representation of Christianity that diminishes the centrality of the atonement or seeks to lesson Christ’s atonement by saying it wasn’t intended to purchase a select few but merely make salvation possible is in error. On the other hand, any representation of Christianity that makes much of this atonement and glories in the six items above is true, good, and beautiful.

Give your lives to churches that glory in the centrality of the atonement.

The Mission of the Church

Sooner or later the question ‘What is the mission of the Church?’ is something every Christian asks. We ask this question because a Christian, by definition, is a new creation. The moment of the new birth, a new life begins, and God intends our new life to be lived out among the new community called the Church. Once involving ourselves in the membership of the Church we begin to grow in our knowledge of the Church’s mission. Or to say it another way, once we’ve been inside the Church long enough we begin to understand that God has called the Church to one certain task above all other tasks.

This task is the mission of the Church.

But with the rise of the term missional, I’m afraid it is now a bit more difficult to discern the chief task God calls the Church to do. Such that almost everything the Church does is seen as its mission. To worship God is our mission. To study the Bible is our mission. To pray is our mission. To disciple is our mission. To care for those in need is our mission. Being missional is abundantly helpful in that it reminds us that everything we do carries a deep sense of purpose along with it. John Stott has said mission isn’t all the Church does, but “…everything the church is sent into the world to do.”[1] But being missional can be less the helpful because when everything the Church does is part of our mission, it can be puzzling to know if God even gives or calls the Church one supreme task above all others.

So we come back to the question, ‘What is the mission of the Church?’ And when looking for the chief or supreme task and activity God has given to the Church, when looking for the mission we’re to give ourselves to we need look no further than Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I and with you always.”

Taking a closer look at this commission shows us that there are three things[2] to see here:

 

Submitting to the Authority of Christ

The authority of Christ is large theme throughout the gospel of Matthew. For example in it we see Jesus healing, casting out demons, teaching with authority, as well as forgiving sin. So when we read here of the authority of Christ in 28:18 it’s not a new authority we see. We’ve seen His authority all along. But because of His resurrection He does now have a new level of authority, indeed the highest possible authority.[3] Because of this, first and foremost, the one reason Jesus Christ can say that He has been given all authority is because He and He alone is the resurrected Lord. He is One who has an unending Kingdom, and He is the One with everlasting dominion. At the beginning of Matthew 28 Jesus was in the tomb and when He rose v3-4 says, “His appearance was like lightning, and His clothing was white as snow. And for fear of Him the guards trembled and became like dead men.” When the stone rolled away from the tomb everything changed. We are no longer free to ignore Jesus as a mere teacher or prophet, we must recognize and submit to Him as the very Lord of all.

Matthew Osborne rightly states that Matthew 28:18 is the highest statement of Christology in the entire Bible.[4] All of the great Christological passages of the New Testament (Col. 1:15-20, Phil. 2:5-11, and Heb. 1:1-3) exists because Matthew 28:18 came first. Jesus has all authority. Therefore all men must humble themselves before Him. Perhaps you’ve heard someone say, or perhaps you yourself have once said that ‘you made Jesus Lord of your life.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus isn’t made Lord by our approval and authorization, He is Lord. He doesn’t become God over us when we give Him permission, He is God over us. This means when we repent of sin and turn to Him in faith we are not accepting Him into our lives. No. When we repent of sin and turn to Him in faith, we become acceptable to Him.

Do not miss this: the Lord Jesus holds all authority over heaven and earth. 

Following the Command of Christ

Because Jesus holds all authority He has the right to do whatever pleases Him, and it pleases Him to command us to go and disciple the nations. v19-20, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…” David Platt says of this commission, “This is not a comfortable call inviting most Christians to come, be baptized, and sit in one location. This is a costly command directing every Christian to go, be baptized, and make disciples of all nations.”[5] As the first Adam was commanded by God to exercise dominion and spread God’s image with his helpmate Eve, so too, now the Second and Last Adam Jesus Christ is exercising His dominion by spreading His own image around the world through His helpmate the Church.

This does indeed mean that the mission of the Church is to go spread the gospel of Christ and disciple with the gospel of Christ to the uttermost ends of the earth among every people group. But it also means ‘as we go’ about our life we should be about the business of the Kingdom of God wherever we find ourselves to be. Just because some may feel urged to go to the hard places of the world to spread the gospel, it does not mean the rest of the Church has no commission responsibility. We’re all to be about the work of the commission in our own contexts. Or Acts 1:8 says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

Some have interpreted this Great Commission in such a way as to lessen the importance of working hard to alleviate suffering around the world. We should not do this, but we should keep things in the proper perspective. Yes we care about suffering, yes we care about homelessness, yes we care about the quality of food and water, yes we care about slavery of all kinds, and yes we care about serving those in need. But, if we attend to these important physical needs while neglecting the most important spiritual need of all people we sin. All of the Church, throughout all generations, is to chiefly and supremely be about the business of baptizing and teaching disciple making disciples. The Church should be concerned with getting the whole counsel of God to the whole world.

Whatever else we do as the Church in this world pales in comparison to this mission.

Remember, the One commanding us to this mission has all authority in heaven and earth. Who He is and what He has done is the very message we’re to be spreading. And because He is worthy of all worship for who He is and the work He has done John Piper is exactly right to say, “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the Church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the unredeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity.”[6]

Depending on the Presence of Christ

Lastly, upon whom do we depend in this chief mission of the Church? How do we know this mission will succeed? Are we banking on our own ingenuity or on our own methods? Are we relying on our own stick-to-itiveness and endurance to make it to the end? Are we trusting in our own resources to spread this message to all peoples? No. v20 shows us what we must depend on, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Jesus promises to always be with us. Matthew begins and ends in the same way. The announcement of Immanuel (God with us) began the book, and now the promise of the presence of the resurrected Lord forever ends the book.

To sum all of this up, in submitting to the authority of Christ, following the command of Christ, while depending on the presence of Christ – the Church finds and fulfills its chief mission: discipling the nations. All of His authority, all of the nations, teaching all that He commanded, with all of His presence.[7]

Church, take hope. This mission cannot fail.

 

 

Citations:

[1] John Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World: What Should the Church be Doing Now? Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity, 1975, page 30.

[2] David Platt, Christ-Centered Exposition: Exalting Jesus in Matthew, page 369-379.

[3] Douglas Sean O’Donnell, Matthew: All Authority in Heaven and Earth, Preaching the Word Commentary, page 911.

[4] Ibid, page 913, and 1036.

[5] David Platt, Christ-Centered Exposition: Exalting Jesus in Matthew, page 374-375.

[6] John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad, page 15.

[7] Douglas Sean O’Donnell, Matthew: All Authority in Heaven and Earth, Preaching the Word Commentary, page 918.

Two Keys to Flourishing in the Digital Age

I have an iPhone. I’m sure some of you do too, if you haven’t jumped on the Android train. Either way, life in our current time is different from other generations that have gone before us. Why? The smartphone. It’s whatever you want access to anything on the planet in your pocket. This can be used for great good, or for great wickedness. How we do use our smartphones for God’s glory and the good of others around us?

Tony Reinke has a good answer that you should pause and give a some time to. Here’s his entire post below from the Desiring God blog this past week:

Always connected to the web, always connected to social media, a smartphone with a camera is the most addictive tool of communication ever invented.Packaged with all its potent blessings come the amplification of its curses. Our phones can allow unnecessary habits in the silent spaces of our lives. And our phones can feed the most insidious impulses that live inside of our hearts.We all seem to sense that — for good or bad — our smartphones are changing us, our habits, and our relationships. We all know it. We feel it. We seem to be more productive, and yet we are more distracted. We seem to be more connected, and yet we are more alone. We seem to be more knowledgeable, and yet we are less likely to understand the very purpose of our lives.The more important questions are these: What can be done about it? And do we Christians have anything relevant to say to the perplexing questions facing our digital age?After three years researching and writing my new book on smartphone habits, I say emphatically: Yes!Let me show you the relevance of the Bible for the “never-offline” smartphone generation.

Four Important Questions

First, technology is a gift from God, when we use it for human flourishing. But new technology is merely a collection of new tools we invent and share and use to make things go faster and run more smoothly. Technology makes what we do easier, but it cannot answer our deepest questions.Specifically, technology cannot answer these four questions:

  • Who am I?
  • What am I here for?
  • What am I called to do?
  • And am I succeeding or failing at it?

Technology will not answer these four foundational questions of life.Scripture does.

Luke 10

Luke 10 is a good example of Scripture’s relevance in the “never-offline” culture. The chapter begins with Jesus sending out 72 disciples to preach the gospel. All social media gospel spreading in the digital age really can be traced back to the democratization of the message in this sending moment (Luke 10:1–24). I’ll pick up the story in the next scene, in Luke 10:25, what we call the parable of the Good Samaritan.

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him [Jesus] to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He [Jesus] said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he [the lawyer] answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

Here we find the two love commands. In two other similar accounts in the Gospels, Jesus himself states the same summary. Here it’s a lawyer. This scheming lawyer fishes for self-justification, and misses the point.Nevertheless, the lawyer is not stupid. He boils down the entire moral will of God into two categories:

  1. Love God with all that you are.
  2. Love others as yourself.

Jesus commends the lawyer’s summary. He’s right.

Love Command One

Here’s the primary love command: Treasure God with everything you are! This is the chief vocation for humans.
We were created to express a heart-soul-strength-mind, holistic embrace of God. Faith is a response to seeing God’s glory and goodness. In the light of his beauty, faith desires nothing on earth more than him and cherishes him above even the most beloved father or mother or son or daughter. Faith joyfully gives all our earthly assets in this life to buy a field that holds the priceless treasure of Christ. Faith considers everything in this life as loss compared to the supreme worth of knowing Christ. That is saving faith. It is seeing and hearing and tasting and touching — holistic metaphors for all the various expression of how faith is treasuring God with all that we are and all that we have (Psalm 34:8; 73:25–26; Matthew 10:37; 13:44; Luke 10:27; 14:33; John 6:35; Philippians 3:8).

In the words of Piper: “Jesus’ demand to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength means that every impulse and every act of every faculty and every capacity should be an expression of treasuring God above all things” (What Jesus Demands, 82).This is our primary vocation — and it’s a lofty one.Now, the lawyer knows that a whole-life embrace of God is the most important thing in the universe. What the lawyer doesn’t see is that this expression of faith is nothing short of a miraculous gift of God’s sovereign grace.

Love Command Two

Here’s the second love command: Love your neighbor as yourself. This is the resulting human vocation, which comes out of the first vocation.Love God.Love others.These are the two pillars of all human flourishing — true in the Old Testament, affirmed in the ministry of Jesus, and no less relevant for digitally savvy Christians today.By affirming these two love commands, Jesus is saying that these are the two load-bearing commands — on them “depend [or hang] all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:40).

So, if you lose the second pillar (to love your neighbor), ethics will collapse and crumble into a heap of pious religious jargon that fails to demonstrate the value of God in service to others. Or, if the first pillar crumbles (to love God), ethics collapses into secular social work that cannot, and will not, give expression to the overflow of God’s all-satisfying beauty.All human flourishing rests on these two pillars.

Who Is My Neighbor?

Next, the text forces us to ask this question in Luke 10:29–37:

But he [the lawyer], desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.“But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

The image of a dying man in the street is so relevant today, after the terror attacks in Boston, Paris, and now in London and Russia. Sadly, it has become a universal experience to see pedestrians bleeding out on public streets.Now, the lawyer himself misses the whole point — he’s not searching for justification in a Savior; he’s seeking self-justification in front of the Savior.

The Ultimate Neighbor

This whole episode for the lawyer will make no sense until he sees Jesus inside the story. Those with eyes of faith will see that we are the man in the gutter of sin and desolation. The pressures of the world, the sinfulness of our flesh, and the conniving of the devil have jumped us, knocked us out cold with brass knuckles, and left us in total ruin and death.In the cross, we find Christ as the Greater Levite. Christ is the Ultimate Mercy Giver. Christ is the Ultimate Neighbor. Christ is the Greater Priest who does not stand at a safe distance near the Purell dispenser. He draws near to me to get his hands dirty and to shed his own blood for me while I am in my most broken place. The One born in a barn because all the hotel rooms were booked is the Savior who makes for you an eternal home in his Father’s house. Don’t miss the echoes of Jesus in this parable.In other words, “you’ll never become a radical neighbor for others until you see that you have been radically neighbored by Christ” (Keller).

Your Neighbor

So, this text answers the question: Who is my neighbor? That phrase, “your neighbor” — appears over 60 times in the Bible, mostly in Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Proverbs. The stress, as Jesus points out here, is on embodied place-ed-ness.
For the purpose of an illustration, imagine that you and I, who don’t recognize each other, are sitting inside the same Starbucks coffee shop. At that moment, I exist in the room, and you exist in the room. This is where our bodies coincide. At that moment, we become neighbors in a way that we were not neighbors earlier in the day, not because we follow one another on Twitter, but because our physical presence now overlaps in proximity.Embodied place-ed-ness.Sitting as apparent strangers in the same room, we are neighbors. In this moment, we are now responsible to care for one another. If one of us needs medical attention, the other is obligated to offer help, and to not walk away.My point is that neighboring is rooted in space and time. To have a body is to be obligated to others. We have obligations to our parents, perhaps to a spouse, to children, to a local church, to a boss, and to a neighborhood. And in many of these situations — in the home and church — we have gender-specific obligations to one another. To be a creature is to be obligated to others. That’s fundamental to neighboring.But in the digital age, when we lose a sense of our bodies, we quickly find ourselves in isolation from others, and our sense of what it means to be a true neighbor evaporates.The resulting fallout of this isolation is why the Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek Murthy, has made it his mantra: “The most prevalent health issue in the country is not cancer or heart disease or obesity. It is isolation.” Social disconnection. Even in those areas that most root us — our marriages and jobs — our culture has taught us the dance of having one foot in and one foot out never quite committed to anything. We like to keep our options open.So, when a beaten neighbor is lying on the metaphorical path of our lives, we are quick to jump over to the sidewalk of escape on the other side of the street. For many of us, that escapism is found in the virtual world of our smartphones.
Never offline, always within reach, we now wield in our hands a magic wand of technological power we have only begun to grasp. But it raises new enigmas, too. Never more connected, we seem to be growing more distant. Never more efficient, we have never been more distracted.

The Main Point

All of these points in Luke 10 link our evolving smartphone habits to the ancient parable of Jesus.Here’s the point:The priest sees the man in the street, but he’s rushing off to God’s temple to dispense his priestly work. He’s clean, pure, unsoiled, and perhaps his shift begins soon — so he absolutely cannot stop to dirty himself with this filthy, bloody, dying guy in the street. The Levite sees the man, too, but he’s apparently running late for his preaching gig. He cannot stop for the same reason: ministry expectations beckon for his faraway attention. You begin to see the problem here rather quickly. Setting your mind on good and noble things, like remote ministry possibilities, can eventually callous you to the flesh and blood needs around you.Giving over your attention to virtual possibilities, even finding an important role online, can blind you to the gospel needs lying at your feet.If that is not a prophetic warning for Christians in the digital age, I don’t know what is.

Good or Essential?

Jesus clearly wants the lawyer to see the sin of his own neighbor-neglect and repent. In this parable we see the sin of our smartphone abuse, the sin of our hyperconnectivity to the virtual world — even in performing good ministry online. We so often are tempted to withhold mercy from those around us — our families, our roommates, our colleagues, our classmates, our church members, and yes, our neighbors.Neighboring, defined by Jesus, puts great stress on how our bodies root us in a particular place, as both gift-getters (receiving mercy) and gift-givers(offering mercy).Radical neighboring is embodied neighboring. Face-to-face. Real needs met. And there is no exemption clause because you have five hundred followers online.

Offline Authenticity

Taken together, Luke 10 says to all of God’s disciples: Yes, like the 72 sent out, go into the digital world as far as your online influence will spread, and proclaim the good news of Christ — but — don’t get so wrapped up in those opportunities that you forget your essential vocations: (1) to cultivate a genuine love of God above everything, and (2) to care for the needs you see immediately around you.
To put it another way, you can fake online authenticity for a while, but not forever. It will catch up to you. Our authenticity offline is always the basis for our authenticity online.So, if God has called and equipped you to be a Twitter sage, or a hip-hop artist, or an Instagram evangelist, or a podcaster, or a writer, or a social media social activist, or a digital creator of any type, you must take breaks from the scuttle of those ministry expectations — those expectations out in the remoteness of the virtual world — in order to reconnect with the ultimate purpose on this planet that grounds all our flourishing: To be embodied children of God, feeding our faith on the truth of God, cherishing him with our entire being, and then, out of our abundance, serving our neighbors.

Three More Helpful Points On Eschatology

Last week I began this post by giving you two helpful introductory points on eschatology, today I want to give you three more.

Third, the New Testament is God’s inspired commentary on the Old Testament.

Hence, Jesus can say the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms all speak of Him on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:27 and 24:44. Which leads Sam Storms to say, “Old Testament authors prophesied of events that would occur in a distant time and in a new world inaugurated by Jesus. From their original context they might not fully grasp how their words would find fulfillment in a history radically transformed by the coming of Christ.”[1] So, the New Testament shows how Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled at Christ’s first coming, and how they are then ultimately fulfilled at Christ’s second coming. The authoritative guide to understanding and interpreting the Old Testament is the New Testament. Dr. Derek Thomas once told us students at Reformed Theological Seminary that the reason the apostle Paul arrived the conclusions he did throughout his letters wasn’t because he was a theological innovator, but because he knew his Old Testament very well.

Fourth, when it comes to prophecy we should remember that “our ideas about things we have never experienced are largely controlled by things we have experienced.”[1]

This fourth, like the third statement gives us more background on the original intentions of the biblical authors. When the Old Testament authors sought explain a future they hadn’t lived in, they explained it with images and language from the world they did live in. For example Isaiah 2:4 speaks of a time when God’s people will “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” Did Isaiah mean that one day we will literally hammer out weapons of war into tools for agriculture? Or is it more likely that Isaiah is speaking metaphorically of a time when God will bring such a lasting peace that war will be no more? I think the metaphorical reading is the correct one. But see that Isaiah describes this future with words and images from his own time.

This brings us face to face with a larger issue which many people wrongly interpret when it comes to the biblical language: the meaning of metaphor. On the surface of every metaphor there is an untruth used to teach a truth.[2] If a student says ‘That class was a breeze’ they do not literally mean the class itself was a light wind, they intend to communicate the easy nature of this class. Or if I say neglecting true and sound doctrine is a ‘slippery slope’ I do not mean that you’ll literally slip and fall down a slope. No. I intend to communicate the grave hazard it is to neglect the sound teaching of the Bible. All of this to say two things: first, to approach the Bible using a ‘wooden literalism’ is to interpret the Scripture in a manner God never intended. And second, to approach the Bible understanding the metaphorical nature of prophetic and apocalyptic passages is to interpret the Scripture in the manner God intended. I do think most of the errors interpreting the book of Revelation (and much of the nonsense we see today about prophecy and Israel) misunderstand this very thing.

Fifth, typology and eschatology go hand in hand.

In Romans 5:14 Paul says, “…Adam was a type of the one who was to come.” This word ‘type’ in Greek is tupos which means ‘type’ or ‘pattern’ or ‘example.’ Typology then, is the study and recognition of certain types (people, actions, institutions) in the Old Testament that are complemented and transcended in the New Testament.[3] So in Romans 5:14 we see that Adam is a type of Jesus Christ. Since this is the case, we should learn much of the Person and Work of the second Adam Jesus Christ by looking at the person and work of the first Adam. We can learn much of the Church, or the helpmate of Christ, by looking at Eve, Adam’s helpmate. We can learn much of heaven by looking at the promise land of Canaan. Types of all kinds abound in the Old Testament and they all find their fulfillment in the New Testament. We can not only learn much in this way, but often the New Testament authors will specifically point out that these former Old Testament patterns existed in order to prepare the way for the greater reality to come.

Now, to bring this back to eschatology. Of all the books in the New Testament do you know which one contains the most quotations, references, and allusions of the Old Testament? The book of Revelation. Thus, one cannot properly understand eschatology if we don’t know of typology. Or to say it another way, the more we know our Old Testament, the more glory we’ll see in the New.

These three, coupled with the previous two points about eschatology, will do much to help guide us in our study of eschatology.

 

 

Citations:

[1] Brent Sandy, Plowshares and Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic (Downers Grove: IVP, 2002), page 25.

[2] Ibid, page 63-64.

[3] Leonhard Goppelt, Typos, page 10.