Re-post: Everybody Talkin’ ‘Bout Heaven Ain’t Goin’ There

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Sermon on the Mount by Carl Heinrich Bloch

In the flow of daily life we take seriously many behavioral restrictions: stop signs, red lights, legal notices, restricted crosswalks. It’s in our interest to do so. But do we pay attention to words of warning such as the ones Jesus spoke near the end of the Sermon on the Mount? He says:

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evil-doers.’’ (Matthew 7:21-23)

Attention to that warning is more important to us than stopping at a million stop signs, for we neglect Jesus’ words to our eternal peril. When Jesus speaks of “that day” in the passage quoted above he means the day of final judgment. In the New Testament this is also called “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:8; see also Philippians 1:6, 10).

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus, the young prophet and proclaimer of eternal truths, tells us that at the end of history and at the time of this final judgment he will know the hearts of all men and will have power to forever banish some from the heavenly kingdom, saying to them: I never knew you. Away from me, you evil-doers (Matthew 7:23).

Jesus proclaims here that there will be some who will be rejected even though they claim to have done great, even miraculous, ministries in his name. They will say in surprise, and maybe with reproach: Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles? (7:22)

Instead of accepting all, including this group of false religious achievers, Jesus makes clear there will be only one category of believers who will be received into the kingdom of heaven. It will be those who have paused to pay careful attention to the will of my Father who is in heaven (7:21b).

Heart obedience, it seems, is the key. That is, the heart’s obedience to the Father’s will, rather than general and especially self-directed service or accomplishment. That heart obedience will be the fundamental criterion for anyone’s acceptance into heaven.

To explain why that first group with apparent claims to heaven will be rejected, Jesus makes clear that in “that day,” even dramatic religious performance like the casting out of demons in the Lord’s name will not be enough.

This issue of heart obedience is addressed repeatedly in Scripture. Isaiah said of a very religious generation: The Lord says: “These people come near me with their mouth / and honor me with their lips, / but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13a). And in the closing hours of his earthly life, Jesus said to his closest followers: Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching (John 14:23a).

One needs to stop and ponder. In both Testaments, the obedience of the heart is the big issue. Even attempting wonders in Christ’s name will not count if the heart has not been open in submission and obedience to the Father.

There’s a line in a well-known spiritual that likely was inspired by these words of Jesus about the judgment: “Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven that ain’t goin’ there — O my Lord.” This should awaken us to examine ourselves for both inward and outward obedience to the Father. Only those who do the will of my Father in Heaven, Jesus says, will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

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How the Apostle John Guided the Church in Truth

By the time the New Testament church had grown partly from a likely influx of second-generation believers, the integrity of the gospel had begun to fade in some quarters, and heretical elements were seeping into the ranks

The early Apostles were deeply concerned. They had governing authority over the church as given by Jesus.

When the beloved Apostle John wrote his first of three letters he exercised that authority. He was keenly aware of deviations from the truth of the gospel and he adroitly addressed them and called for repentance.

His first epistle reflects these facts. He opens his letter with a beautiful tribute to the wonder of the incarnated Lord.

I regard this manner of his address as a key element in his style of governance. The first paragraph is often called a prologue but I refer to it here as an anchor point. It was a call to first look beyond the present troubling issues that clouded the church’s faith and begin with a time of reflection to worship the incarnate Lord.

Thus, John’s anchor point: The Lord is from the beginning. He is forever. He enters fully into humanity. It was a miraculous manner of entering. Though he is eternal, the Apostles actually saw him. They even touched him. Both his deity and his humanity were celebrated.

As you will see, the Apostle proclaimed the Incarnation at the outset of his address. This proclamation was for one purpose, he says: to identify the sin in their midst leading to repentance and in so doing to renew the joys that come with genuine faith — this was his first leadership step (1 John 1:1-4).

As a second aspect of his leadership John addresses his readers with warm terms of endearment: My dear children (2:1), dear friends (2:7), dear brothers (3:13), and so forth. He was not coming to them as the sheriff. He addressed them with deep affection. Fifteen times in his first letter he identifies believers affirmatively in this fashion.

One might think that such gentleness of address to a group of faltering believers would show the Apostle as soft, shallow, easy to resist.

Not so. In fact, the third aspect of his leadership was his clarity with the truth and his directness in stating issues of life and death. In fact, in this third aspect, John continues his communication with a candor that is solemn:

Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. (John 2:4-6)

He reveals his commitment to eternal truth as of issue above all else. In spite of his good will toward those who heard or read him, he was not there to bargain on truth itself.

What could he state more clearly than the following:

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth (1 John 1:5-6).

This must be called loving candor.

This gem of a letter is filled with such measured but penetrating words. But there is one more element in the Apostle’s directness that must be factored into his address in large measure. This measure was likely effective in facing the perilous disorder in the church.

The Apostle repeatedly reminds them of their status in faith: they are “born again.” That is, they are regenerated; they have received the gift of the Spirit; they have inner experience enabled by new life. All of this is implicit in the term born again. By this reality they are bound to the Lord and to one another. This puts them under obligation. Seven times he refers to their new birth (2:29; 3:10; 3:19; 4:8: 5:1; 5:14; 5:18). That emphasis cannot be without purpose.

He writes, for example: … for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith (1 John 5:4). Because of their “regeneration,” their flirting with the manners and inducements of the fallen world had to be repented of and had to cease. He identifies those inducements one after another in his letter and reminds them they are born again. 

The church in every age is tempted to drift from purity of heart and life. Heresy so readily reveals its deviant ways. This epistle is given to Christ’s church in all generations to identify and to correct its wanderings.

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Photo credit: Paul VanDerWerf (via flickr.com)

Repost: Resisting the Peril of Narcissism

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Narcissus by Caravaggio

Narcissus was a mythological figure known for his beauty, who, it is said, looked into a pool and fell in love with his own reflection.

Drawn from this story, narcissism is the term used to describe people who are excessively self-absorbed and preoccupied with their own imagined superiority. They may come across as strong and self-assured, but when their self-satisfaction and high self-regard are not honored as they expect, they are likely to react in a surge of punishing anger, insults, or even violence. The so-called big ego turns out to be amazingly fragile. (For those interested, there is a quieter covert, or vulnerable, form of narcissism, too.)

Narcissism has been on the rise in recent years. It often is manifested by a strong sense of entitlement. “I’m special and I deserve special treatment.” “I’ll not take just any job.”

So why is this in the news in growing measure these days?

Brad Bushman of Ohio State University and others have conducted various studies to understand the cause of narcissism. My takeaway understanding is that narcissism doesn’t come, as previously thought, from lack of parental warmth but instead can be traced to parents who “overvalue” their children during the developmental stage of their lives. Children between six and eight are especially sensitive to this kind of unwise parental influence.

If during those years children are continually told they are superior, are more special than others, do things better than others and in these ways are put on a pedestal, they may internalize an unrealistic view of themselves. Other people begin not to matter.

One might assume from the findings of such studies that the condition is planted by parents who have a need to reach some personal achievement of their own vicariously through their children. They believe their child can do no wrong; their child is unusual in every respect; their child deserves special attention from kindergarten on.

The need to foster healthy self-esteem in children is an entirely different matter. Self-esteem develops when children are helped to internalize the sense that they are valuable individuals but not that they can do no wrong. As they grow up, such children will get the appropriate amount of teaching, nurture, and encouragement but equally importantly, correction, discipline, and such otherwise character-shaping treatment as needed, all within the context of warm adult parental love. It is “overvaluing” that does the damage.

Christian parents are in danger of unwittingly fostering narcissism in their children by absorbing the culture around them. Thankfully, however, they can instead take their teaching from the Scriptures and Judeo-Christian understandings of fallen human nature.

Such parents know from Scripture that children are not a possession; they are a trust from God and must be raised with that in mind. Valuable as we are to God and one another we are all flawed and that fact should be kept in sight as we raise children.

Christian parents will not therefore be surprised when they catch a child in the first lie, or see the first tantrum. Dealing with these both with love and firmness is very important.

Christian parents will affirm their children’s achievements to a degree appropriate to their ages and commensurate with the actual achievement. When a four-year-old makes his bed or a seven-year-old sets the table he or she is thanked, but not raved over as if that was the most amazing thing anyone had ever done. And when they do wrong, the call to account should be real.

Christian parents pray daily with their children, and in this setting the Christian view of human nature may be shared at an age-appropriate level. Children can be helped to face and accept their failures as well as their successes. The early teaching of a developing child to worship God who is majestic and holy and far above them, and to say I’m sorry when appropriate, is a first line against the development of narcissism.

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The Changes New Life in Christ Will Bring

When we come to Christ in faith, confessing our sins and declaring ourselves his followers, we begin a new life. As the Apostle Paul exhorts: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Let us consider several ways in which this newness in Christ expresses itself for every Christian — though not always in the same way, and not always at the same rate of development. I hope this will help you or that you will pass it on to new Christians.

1. We have a new Lord. Before the change we were largely our own lord, seeking our own pleasures, captive to our own sometimes empty interests. Now, we bow before the lordship of the one who gave up his life for our salvation. His lordship brings us to a surprisingly enlightened state of mind! Understanding deepens! We are able to say with Paul: … no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God … can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3).

2. The Holy Spirit becomes our new spiritual guide: He guides us, leading us in a righteous life. As Jesus said to Nicodemus: Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5). Spirit here refers to the third person of the Trinity. He is a personal, spiritual presence. How personal? The Apostle Paul exhorted reverently: And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption (Ephesians 4:30).

3. We have a new Guide Book. When we were dead in our sins and alienated from God we had little thought of the Bible, unless it was to speak of it casually or with disdain. But the new life in Christ awakens in us commitment to the Bible as the primary source of saving truth and also the guide for righteous living.

The Christian Scriptures are inspired by God as the source of his truth. It’s the book describing God’s redemptive purpose for our lives. The Apostle Paul had this practical goal in mind when he wrote:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped in righteousness. (2 Timothy 3:16,17)

New Christians not yet well instructed in Bible truth may begin acquainting themselves with the Bible by first reading through one or more of the four gospels, preferably beginning with Mark, the shortest of the four.

4. As we live the new life some old relationships may fade and new ones take their place. When we experience Christ in a saving way friends will either show keen interest in our story, asking sincere questions, or they will appear skeptical, disinterested, or even hostile. Friendship may become difficult. The prophet Amos asks: How can two walk together unless they be agreed? (Amos 3:3) In such situations, the Holy Spirit will lead and comfort.

5. With the blooming of the new life, we find ourselves drawn toward a new community. Call it the local church. Most often, when we read the word church in the New Testament it is a translation of the Greek word for called out. That is, it is an assembly of believers who are called to gather regularly to understand and deepen their faith in Christ. We may also find new friends in such an assembly of Christians.

In looking for a good church in which to worship and to serve the Lord, look for one where pastors and other leaders carry on ministries rooted in Scripture and who themselves are alive to Jesus Christ; where church life is well ordered, love among members is evident, and Bible teaching makes clear what we are to believe and how we are to live. It should also be a gathering where fellowship looks inward to nurture the Christ-centered life, and outward to find opportunities to serve others.

As you ponder these suggestions keep in mind that the life God calls us to follow is a life that includes warfare, not against people but against the evil one who is the archenemy of God. Consider the Apostle Paul’s word about conflict and temptation to the church in Corinth:

No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)

6. The end result of these life changes will be the natural development of Christian character. It’s what Paul had in mind when he set before the Galatian Christians the wonder of Christian growth, comparing it to a beautiful collection of developing fruit thus: … the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). It was in our Lord’s thoughts when he prayed for his disciples when he was soon to leave them: Sanctify them [make them holy] by the truth; your word is truth (John 17:17).

If you are challenged and encouraged in your faith by these six points of change prompted by the new life in Christ, I wish you God’s rich blessings as you ponder and receive ongoing Christian guidance from them.

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Spending January in the Psalms

My resolution for the first part of this New Year has been to read for reflection five psalms from the Book of Psalms each morning. At that pace it will take me one month to ponder prayerfully all 150 of them, even though they may not all speak to my need on the day I read them.

If my pledge strikes you as old-fashioned, please recall that the Bible is still the most read book in the world and the psalms are the most often read portions of the Bible. This has been so for generations.

Having started a few days after January 1, recently Psalm 34 was included in my assignment. As background, this psalm was apparently written after King David had a narrow escape from death. The heading to the psalm refers to an incident when he was running hard from King Saul who wanted to kill him (1 Samuel 21:10-15).

To escape, he sought refuge by offering himself in the service of a Philistine competitor of King Saul, Achish king of Gath, only to learn that his life was in danger there, too. So, he feigned insanity. By this ruse and divine providence David escaped.

This psalm itself teaches the reader how to pray during times of special struggle. It teaches us how to praise God in the times of his blessings, and to be at all times attentive to his mercies.

That’s what caught my attention in the very first sentence of the psalm. Its opening resolution is to extol the Lord — that is praise him highly — at all times.

We might call that a 24/7 pledge — to give God praise during both day and night, good times and bad.

Is that kind of devotion possible in our kind of world? Our world is fast-paced, and many distractions and issues come at us from all directions. To add to those challenges our present era is not a particularly religious one. If we don’t worship the God who rules the universe we may say it is because God doesn’t matter (secularism) or that he doesn’t exist (atheism). Even some who say these things have their superstitions, rabbit feet or hidden idols to fall back on and lend a little dash of spirituality.

Psalm 34 is a wonderful alternative, written for believers.

Here’s the psalmist’s testimony toward the end of his prayer: The righteous person may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all; he protects all his bones, not one of them will be broken (verses 19, 20).

Or here is his further word of witness: I sought the Lord and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears (verse 4). Or this: The Lord is close to the broken-hearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit (verse 18).

I will admit, after reading Psalm 34 several times, that its Hebraic style is different from modern poetry. But reading it can be like panning for gold. Both activities take time and some sifting and careful inspection, but when gold appears in the words of the Psalms, the search proves well worth the while.

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Photo credit: News of Peace (via flickr.com)

A Mistake or Providence?

Although the word “providence” is itself not a word in the Bible, we use the term generally to reflect God’s loving care of the universe he has created and which he continues to sustain.

But as laypersons we also use the term in specific and personal ways. We use it to speak of God’s extraordinary gracious interventions in our lives.

Take, for example, the story of Ruth in the Old Testament, told in the book named after her. She was a Moabite, widowed from her Israelite husband. She insisted on relocating to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law, Naomi.

As a result of her decision, she eventually married Boaz, and the two of them became the grandparents of David, king of Israel. Her story shows that bad things may happen (Ruth’s widowhood and alienation), but providentially they may also lead to good consequences.

A story I heard a while ago reflects events that were alarming yet turned out to bless wondrously.

As the story goes, on a certain Saturday night a pastor was working late at his church. He decided to call his wife before leaving for home. It was about 10 p.m., but his wife didn’t answer the phone.

The pastor let the phone ring many times. He thought it was odd that she didn’t answer, but decided to wrap up a few details and then try to phone again a few minutes later.

When he tried again, his wife answered after the first ring. He asked why she had failed to answer earlier. She said that the phone had been quiet all evening. They agreed that it must have been a fluke.

The following Monday the pastor received a phone call at the church office. It came in on the phone he had used the previous Saturday night. The call was from a stranger who wanted to know why the pastor had called on Saturday night.

The pastor was puzzled until the caller said, “My phone rang and rang Saturday night but I didn’t answer it.” The pastor remembered calling his wife and realized he must have called the wrong number.

The man interrupted the pastor’s explanation, “That’s okay,” he said. “Let me tell you my story. You see, I was planning to commit suicide on Saturday night, but before I did I prayed, ‘God, if you’re there, and you don’t want me to do this, give me a sign now.’” At that point my phone started to ring. I looked at the caller ID, and it said, ‘Almighty God.’ I was afraid to answer!”

The reason it showed “Almighty God” on the man’s caller ID was that the church the pastor was serving was called Almighty God Tabernacle.

Was that “wrong number call” just a coincidence or a providential interruption to show grace to the caller? My readers can ponder and decide…

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