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

Bloch-SermonOnTheMount

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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Have You Taken the Course “The Holy Spirit 101”?

Holy SpiritI preached a sermon on the Holy Spirit when I was a beginning pastor. I called the sermon “The Holy Spirit 101.” My first point was that the Holy Spirit is a personal presence — the third person of the Godhead, which includes Father, Son (Jesus) and Holy Spirit.

After the service, a visitor approached me warmly. She said she had never before understood the Holy Spirit as personal — able to communicate, listen, correct, enlighten, but always in accordance with the Christian Scriptures.

She said that she had always assumed that the Holy Spirit was just a feeling, an influence or impulse that came upon people in different ways. The scriptural teaching I had presented — that the Holy Spirit was a “person” especially present in the lives of believers and in the living church — seemed to awaken her to a new reality.

How many professed Christians think accordingly? I have seen a survey that said 50 percent.

What would Jesus say about this? Only hours before his crucifixion, he prepared his frightened followers for his departure by laying before them deep truths about the Holy Spirit (John 14-16). At the core of this teaching he gave this assurance: the Holy Spirit would come to them as an Advocate, or Counselor. “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever — the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16).

An advocate would have to be much more than merely a feeling, however sensational. An advocate would have personal attributes to come to their aid, speak on their behalf, give them guidance and wisdom well beyond their own. This advocate, Jesus promised, would be mysteriously present among them as the essence of truth, and would live in them as Jesus had lived with them.

But the world is full of spirits. How would the Holy Spirit be unique among them? Jesus’ answer to this perplexity resides in the word “another.” The Holy Spirit would be another advocate. The Greek word here means someone else who would be the same as, not different from, Jesus. That is, the one he promised to send would fill the spiritual role of the one who had been with them for three years — Jesus himself!

This promise was so important to Jesus that near the eve of his departure this promise to send an advocate, or spiritual guide, was repeated four times: John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7b. He would be a universal presence in the world, dwell within his followers, purify and energize them and guide them in all truth. That is infinitely superior to a mere feeling.

Advent may not at first seem to be the time for the pondering of this wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit to live within us. But a quick glance across our world in its distress and despair might revise that opinion. Jesus is not physically here with us. But his Spirit is!

In the visible church today there is much need for us not only to understand the personhood of the Holy Spirit but also to invite his work, as we open ourselves to his abiding presence. It is astonishing that the very Spirit of Christ our Lord wills to live in us as our Advocate. Hallelujah!

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Photo credit: hickory hardscrabble (via flickr.com)

Re-post: Thoughts About Serving Holy Communion

Young pastors sometimes struggle to see the value of liturgy, especially the service of Holy Communion. It may seem “unspiritual” to them because the words spoken are prescribed in advance. Consequently, they may feel the need to “reformat” this ancient rite of the Church.

I once heard of a young pastor’s novel come-and-go Communion service. The elements were laid out on the Communion table and people were invited to come anytime Sunday afternoon and serve themselves, without benefit of explanation, pastor, or possibly even fellow believers.

Or there was the pastor so opposed to rituals of any kind that he simply “announced” Communion and passed the elements around without invitation, consecration, explanation, or prayer. Any unchurched person would be sure to go away asking, “What was that about?”

Whatever the cause for disinterest or aversion, here are some simple suggestions to help pastors conducting a Communion service. They may also be useful for laypersons who feel the need for fuller engagement with this sacrament.

1. During the week prior to the service, live in the four brief New Testament passages that report the first Lord’s Supper, attended and hosted by Jesus Himself:

Matthew 26:17-30
Mark 14:22-26
Luke 22:19-23
1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Let the scene set itself in your imagination and let the words sink in. If the truths expressed in “this is my body … this is my blood (broken/shed for you)” seem wrapped in mystery, remember that in the early days of the Christian era the Greek branch of the church often referred to the Lord’s Supper as just that — “the Mystery.”

2. The day before the Lord’s Supper is served, spend time with the ritual itself. Read it aloud. Personalize its opening invitation for yourself. Think afresh what the sacrificial death of Jesus meant and turn that understanding into prayer. It is sometimes the savoring of words — “putting them under your tongue and sucking them like a sweetie,” as one Scottish divine advised — that releases their power.

3. Practice reading the service out loud slowly and thoughtfully. In doing so you may hear fresh truth for your own need. One teacher of pastors offered this advice to those called upon to read the Bible in public services: “Read it as if you are listening to it yourself, not as though you wrote it.” The same advice fits reading the ritual of Holy Communion.

4. If you have any impulse in your mind to diminish or neglect the serving of the Lord’s Supper, remember that, throughout history, it has often been called the central act of Christian worship. Let that understanding refashion your thinking.

5. Finally, whether you are a pastor or layperson, resist the tendency to seek innovation. Sometimes in our youth we are inclined to diminish the value of repetition in favor of new ways of saying or doing things. Innovation certainly has its place, but not with a fundamental practice of our faith such as the Lord’s Supper. Repetition is intended to fix its truths in believers’ minds.

After one communion service at which I had served believers of all ages, an elderly woman, the widow of a minister, spoke to me. She had heard the ritual all her life. She said to me with feeling, “The longer I live, the more meaningful the Lord’s Supper becomes to me.”

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Photo credit: Kathy (via flickr.com)

Do Christians Worship Three Gods?

Do Christians worship three gods? Skeptics insist they do. Religious organizations like Unitarians and Jehovah’s Witnesses lay the same charge. The word Trinity is baffling to them.

At the same time some Christians are vague about what Trinity means because it seems mysterious. Mysterious indeed: God reveals himself first as one God, and, at the same time, as three Persons in one Godhead.

Nearly all bodies of Christendom subscribe to this doctrine of the Trinity — Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, United Methodists, Assemblies of God, and on and on. One source says 47 of 50 major denominations identified do so.

How is the claim supported in Scripture?

Moses was living in a world that reeked with many gods when God addressed him at the burning bush (Exodus 3). But Moses did not ask, “Which god of the many is this now?” From the beginning, God revealed to him that there was only one true God.

Listen to the Shema, the Jewish statement of faith found in the Old Testament that is recited at morning and evening prayer every day: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). In that ancient world, teeming with gods, the Old Testament names Jehovah as “the Sovereign LORD” (Habakkuk 3:19).

The New Testament continues the claim. During Jesus’ forty-day fast, Satan tried to entice him to bow down and worship him. Jesus’ response: “It is written, ‘Worship the LORD your God and serve him only’” (Luke 4:8). God is one.

At the same time, the Scriptures show that the One God manifests himself in three persons, and this reality is repeatedly set forth.

After the resurrection, Thomas worshiped Jesus as the risen Savior, exclaiming, “My Lord and my God.” If this exclamation had been false, but Jesus had accepted it anyway, Jesus would have committed blasphemy.

Later the Apostle John reinforces the declaration of Thomas. In the prologue to his gospel he testifies of Jesus as follows: “the Word (Jesus) was God” (John 1:1).

But what about the Holy Spirit? In the New Testament Church, when a couple named Ananias and Sapphira tried to deceive Peter over a money gift, Peter saw through their ruse. He said to Ananias, “you have lied to the Holy Spirit” (Acts 5:3). Then he added, “You have not lied to men but to God” (Acts 5:4).

It is impossible to lie to a mere feeling or sensation. The Holy Spirit is instead a person. He is a “person” of the Godhead. He is God the Spirit. Jesus helps us understand the Holy Spirit’s purpose by calling Him the Paraclete (counselor).

At his baptism, Jesus “saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove” and heard the voice of the Father saying, “This is my Son whom I love” (Matthew 3:16, 17). In that moment recorded in Scripture, we have the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit all in one revelation.

During the first four hundred years of the early church, the church fathers wrestled with these affirmations. To give them order, they formulated this profound truth about God under the title of the Trinity (tri-unity, three-in-one).

They said, God is one in “being” and, at the same time, three in “persons.” We say God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The three persons are God — coeternal, coequal and indivisible — and one in being.

We are to worship the one true God seeing at the same time both the unity of His being and His three persons. God the Father rules over all; God the Son is our incarnate Redeemer; God the Spirit is our Sanctifier. More broadly, the Holy Spirit is the executor of the Godhead in the world.

The hymn our congregation sang to conclude worship on a recent Sunday morning included the following words:

Laud and honor to the Father,
Laud and honor to the Son,
Laud and honor to the Spirit,
Ever Three and Ever One.

The historic church sings this 700-year-old hymn in praise to the one and only God who in three persons creates, redeems and sanctifies.

If this truth still mystifies, remember that it is in our worship of the God who is three-in-one that we come closest to grasping the reality of this great mystery of the Christian faith.

When we pray, “Our Father who art in Heaven” we are worshiping the one and only God. When we say of Jesus, “He is Lord and Savior,” we acknowledge the one and only God. When we entreat the Holy Spirit to empower us or intercede for us, we also appeal to the one and only God. One Godhead in three persons! Three persons in one Godhead!

All praise to the Eternal God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit!

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Why Christians Should Stand for Traditional Marriage

Why do conservative Christians stand firm for traditional marriage — one man and one woman for life? Is it because they fear change, or are bigots, or simply lack imagination?

Or is it that they believe the Bible is the Christian’s authority on the subject and it speaks to the question very clearly?

The book of Genesis alone reveals the mind of God on the matter of marriage. He is Creator over all and, as Creator, he declares marriage, as you will see, to be the union of one man and one woman for life.

Genesis begins with the account of creation, concluding with these words: So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27). This declaration, repeated three times, presents who may be participants in a marriage — one man and one woman.

Chapter two of Genesis then introduces us to the timeless story of Adam and Eve, teaching that God instituted marriage as a unique human union. It leaves open no other options, ending with this summary word: For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). 

In chapter 3 the picture of humanity darkens. Adam and Eve are disobedient to God and the consequences are dire. They feel estranged from their Maker and at odds with one another. Their descendants must live under the shadow of their disobedience. Marriage as God intended is scarred by sin but not dissolved.

Conditions deteriorate further in chapter 4. Lamech, the descendant of Adam and Eve, married two women. This veers from God’s revealed plan, and bigamy represents a further distortion of marriage in ancient culture.

Even Abraham, the father of the faithful, had children by two women — his wife Sarah and her servant, Hagar (Genesis 16). Abraham’s union with Hagar was arranged by Sarah, according to the cultural practices of the times. But, as we see, an arrangement such as this, so contrary to God’s declaration, created great domestic stress among Sarah, Abraham and Hagar from the very start of Hagar’s pregnancy.

And in another accommodation to the culture of the times, Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, was tricked into marrying two sisters and eventually had children by them and their two maidservants (Genesis 29:31-30:23). This too was not in accordance with God’s creative declaration, and the story that follows shows the distressing consequences — family strife, jealousy and bargaining for sleeping rights.

All the while, here and there in Genesis a flag is raised in favor of “one man and one woman for life.” For example, consider Pharaoh, the pagan king of Egypt. He did not belong to the chosen people and had not been exposed to divinely revealed laws, but the account shows that he was aware how wrong it would be to invade the sanctity of Abraham’s marriage (Genesis 12:10-20).

It was so also with Abimelech, a heathen ruler in the southern regions of Philistia where Abraham and his retinue settled for a period of time (Genesis 20). Abimelech too reflects the fear of violating the union between Abraham and Sarah.

Later, in the story of Sodom, the book of Genesis speaks against homosexual practice. In Genesis 19, men in large numbers sought sexual satisfaction with men — and were violent in their pursuit. This deviation from the created order eventually brought about the destruction of Sodom (Genesis 19:1-28).

Genesis closes with the story of Joseph, a Hebrew alien in Egypt. He had no family there to support him and no faith community to guide him. His Egyptian master’s wife tried repeatedly to draw him into sexual sin. He steadfastly refused, asking his temptress, How then could I do such a thing and sin against God? (Genesis 39:6-20)

Thus, this opening book of the Bible consistently sets forth as God’s intention the vision of marital intimacy between one man and one woman. This remains clear in spite of the distorting influence of sin which brought into the general picture polygamy, adultery, incest, promiscuity and homosexuality to corrode his design.

Did the coming of Jesus many centuries later amend God’s initial design in any way? How did he speak to the issue?

We know that among the Pharisees of Jesus’ day there were two schools of thought about marriage and divorce. The liberal view said divorce was permissible for almost any cause. The other view said only adultery was grounds for divorce. These differences circulated around the interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-5.

On one occasion the disputants sought to entangle Jesus in this debate. They asked him which interpretation was correct. Refusing to be trapped, he went deeper than the law of Moses, calling the disputants back to the initial teaching of the early portions of Genesis.

Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh” (Matthew 19:4-6).

The possibility and fruitfulness of a marriage between one man and one woman are gifts flowing from creation. That should settle the question. If Jesus, the most compassionate man who ever walked on earth, would not amend the law of marriage as presented in Genesis, we must not either.

Admittedly, this understanding of God’s design for marriage is received in pain by many who have experienced the marital brokenness of our times. What can the church do? It must first sound forth the message as God has given it — to the young, to any contemplating marriage, to the newly married and the traumatized or forsaken. At the same time, God gives his people resources for bringing support and healing to the wounded.

With regard to marriage and human sexuality, in taking both responsibilities seriously — to uphold the created order, and to aid the suffering and desolate — we fulfill Jesus’ declaration: You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden (Matthew 5:14).

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Photo credit: Nick Kenrick (via flickr.com)

Why Must Perfect Justice Wait?

Of Jesus’ 37 recorded parables, more than half concern issues of final judgment and life’s two alternate destinies.

Jesus’ stories are called parables because the lessons they teach arise out of concrete human experience to make a spiritual point, assuming that what is true in the physical world is also true in the spiritual world.

Here’s one of his stories, retold from Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43.

A farmer sowed wheat in his field and then he and his household went to bed. But while they slept an enemy crept into the field and over-seeded it with weeds.

The next morning, the field appeared unchanged. But weeks later, when the wheat sprouted and began forming heads, the farmer’s servants noted that weeds were threatening to crowd out the wheat.

The servants were baffled. They asked the farmer where the weeds had come from.

The farmer’s reply was that an “enemy” had done this. No more than that is said because Jesus’ lesson is not on the origin of evil. Rather, it is about the final accounting of good and evil.

Although the two often appear to be intermixed in this world they will eventually be dealt with separately and with finality.

The farmer’s servants wanted to act immediately. They offered to go out and pull up the weeds but the farmer said no, because in doing so they would pull up the wheat also.

Let them grow together until harvest, he told them, adding, “I will then tell the harvesters to collect and tie the weeds into bundles to be burned, whereas the wheat will be gathered into my barns.” One plant would be treasured, the other destroyed.

Later, when his disciples were alone with Jesus in the house and still baffled by his story, they asked him to explain.

He broke the story down by telling them the sower was the Son of Man (Jesus); the field was the world; the good seed represented the people of his kingdom; the weeds were the people of the evil one; the enemy was the devil; the harvest was the end of the age; the harvesters were the angels.

The parable helps us understand that wherever Christ’s kingdom is sown and growing in the world, the weeds of evil will be found. This may be true in a Christian youth group, a megachurch, a Christian home, or in a country like China, where the Gospel is advancing while at the same time being mercilessly resisted and persecuted by the state.

In the eyes of the servants, an immediate clean-up appeared to be the right thing to do, but the farmer knew that the clear and complete separation of wheat from the weeds must await the day of harvest.

Similarly, where the Gospel is operating and manifest in this life, evil often appears intermixed and deeply rooted. In such cases, we are sometimes called to be patient, being assured that evil and righteousness will be thoroughly dealt with in a final judgment.

Deep reflection on this parable and the reality it explains helps us to bravely endure wrongdoing that we are powerless to resist or “root out.” We know that all things in this life will be put right when Christ reappears to judge the living and the dead.

With this story before us, how can we escape the urgency of the Apostle Paul who wrote that we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Corinthians 5:10).

Photo credit: Sleepy Claus (via flickr.com).

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Why Should We Fear God?

A couple of days ago I found a site on YouTube that arrested my attention. SermonIndex.net contained portions from the sermons of six preachers whose ministry together spanned more than half a century in different locations.

Whatever their geographic locations, their sermons had a common theme. With one voice, they contended that there was a lack of genuine “fear of God” among Christians in their era and they pled for repentance.

What does it mean to fear the Lord? It is an unusual and even perplexing expression. Is not our God the very essence of love? Why then not speak of loving the Lord or trusting Him? Why fear him?

The answer begins by noting that the word “fear” used in this sense does not mean to be terrified of God; it means to respect God deeply and humbly so as not to offend him. But is this definition adequate?

Let’s test its adequacy against the words of instruction spoken to Israel by Moses before the Israelites entered the Promised Land at the crossing of the Jordan:

And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the LORD Your God; to walk in obedience to him; to love him; to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul; and to observe the LORD’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good? (Deuteronomy 10:12-13). 

Nothing here suggests the need to be in terror or to cower. The lead command in this exhortation — fear the Lord your God — calls for our respect, reverence, awe, love and obedience.

We might have twinges of human apprehension if introduced to a world-renowned person such as the queen of England. But the kind of fear Moses called his people to exercise was not fear toward a mere human, however elevated, but toward God who is our Creator.

This kind of fear, as you can see from Moses’ exhortation, has deeply felt love at its core but unshakeable respect, honor, and commitment to God as its sheath.

For true believers, such fear of the Lord may be tested in life’s desperate moments. For example, when the pagan king of Egypt ordered the Israelite midwives to kill male babies at birth as a form of controlling Israel’s male population the midwives refused to obey at the peril of their lives. Why did they refuse so bravely?

The account in Exodus 1:17 tells us: The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. Today there are many Christians in jail or worse in other lands for no other reason than that they fear God more than they fear the godless rulers who have put them there.

The God we are called upon to fear is more than a human potentate. He is the Almighty, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, the Creator and Sustainer of all things.

As humans, “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). That is, he is the source of each moment of our mortal existence. It is with his power, majesty and holiness before us that we bow down to love and fear him with joy.

Some may respond that this is really just Old Testament talk and we need to get into the love and grace moods of the New Testament. Quite to the contrary; while being assured of God’s love and grace in the New Testament we are called several times to fear the Lord as followers of Jesus Christ.

To believers who had been ejected from their homes and scattered for their faith, St. Peter exhorted …live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear (1 Peter 1:17). The Apostle Paul called the Christians in Philippi to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).

How then can we disregard the Apostle Paul when he exhorts the Corinthians and us as follows: Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of the Lord (2 Corinthians 7:1).

Photo credit: PlusLexia.com (via flickr.com)


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