What Exactly Is “Heaven”?

“Are you sure that you are going to go to heaven when you die?”  “Do you think that my dad is in heaven?”  “Do dogs go to heaven?”

We sure hear questions like this a lot, but why aren’t more people asking questions like, “What exactly is heaven, anyway?”  It’s as if everyone has already made up their minds about what heaven is – about where it is and what they’re going to find there – that they just make a huge assumption in the “what” department and focus instead on the “how”.

Well, we know it’s gold, right?  And that it’s in space?  No, wait, there are supposed to be clouds, so it can’t be in space.  And when we get there, we’re going to have wings and harps…no, that’s in the cartoons; it’s probably nothing like that…right?

When I was younger, I had the brilliant notion that “heaven” is probably just whatever you want it to be.  And that seems to work out pretty well with most people’s idea that you can get into heaven pretty much any way you want to.  You write the ticket and you design the destination!  For my part, I wanted my “heaven” to be an enormous castle filled with endless libraries of books.  I wanted all of my favorite authors to continue writing my favorite fiction series into eternity (ahem…NERD!).  The greatest eternal existence that I could imagine was that of a consumer of other people’s work!  I don’t think it’s possible for me to be so glad about being so wrong!

So maybe it doesn’t make much sense to imagine a place called “heaven” being exactly what I want it to be, and maybe it’s not too smart to think that I can decide how and why I arrive at this place, but what should I think about “heaven”?  Is there some authoritative source of information somewhere on the subject?

Most people have some kind of idea that heaven has to do with God, but many never move beyond that aspect of the deal.  When we do something that our conscience tells us is wrong, we feel guilty – like God is not pleased – and we subsequently feel that these actions may jeopardize our chances of making it to heaven.  Alternately, when we do something that we feel good about – something that makes us proud of ourselves – we think that these actions may commend us in some way to God, and heaven looks a lot more like a sure bet.

Once again, the problem with all of these notions is that they all come from our own feelings.  And though most folks like to decide a great deal of things based on what just “feels right” to them, we also have this nagging doubt that says, “What if I’m wrong?”

So let’s look beyond ourselves for a moment and ask what the Bible teaches about “heaven”.  The Bible is a book that claims to come from God (2 Peter 1:21).  So if God has something to say about what “heaven” is and how a person goes about getting there, we’ll probably find it in the Bible.

The first thing that we discover that might be kind of surprising is that the word “heaven” in the Bible literally just means “sky”.  The Bible uses the Hebrew word ‘shamayim’ and the Greek word ‘ouranos’ exactly the same way that we use ‘heavens’ in the plural.  The Bible doesn’t contain phrases like, “How can I get to heaven?” or “By doing these things, you can go to heaven.”  In fact, it hardly ever talks about “heaven” as a place that people go at all (except for a couple of brief mentions of prophets who saw the earth from high above during some important visions, and one other example that I will cite below).

So where did this notion of “heaven” as our eternal home come from anyway?  We can find in the Bible promises of eternal life to those who believe in Jesus Christ (John 3:16), but then we also see that people who believe in Jesus die just like everyone else.  So, did they get their eternal life in some other state somewhere else, or was that promise put on hold until a later date, or what?  Paul gives the best explanation in 2 Corinthians 5:1-10:

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.

So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord,  for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.

This is most likely where the common notion of “heaven” comes from.  If our body dies (“is destroyed”), then we have a house not made with hands “eternal in the heavens”.  It is important to understand that this is not talking about a literal house that we are going to inherit in the sky, however.  It is referring to the fact that the true life of the believer is in Christ, and that during the time between when this physical body dies and when it is raised again incorruptible by Jesus, we will be “at home with the Lord”.

According to the Bible, eternal life is not about a place (and certianly not a place of our own imagining!).  Rather, it is about a person: Jesus.  How many people do you think there are that either expect or desire to go to “heaven” who don’t care the first thing about Jesus Christ?  And if a person doesn’t really care much about Jesus – can’t be bothered to come to a worship service, ignores the Bible, and spurns His commands – then what makes you think that person will actually want the eternal life that He offers?  After all, the Biblical notion of eternal life is full of exactly those things: worship (Revelation 22:3), learning more about God (1 Corinthians 13:12), and eternal sinless obedience (Romans 6:17-22)!

So rather than thinking of “heaven” or the “afterlife” as being whatever we want it to be, the Bible paints for us a much less “us-centered” picture.  Eternal life is not made-to-order.  Eternal life is Jesus Christ!  He is “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25) and “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6)!  Don’t settle for a future hope filled with anything less than the God who created everything.  Castles full of stories cannot compare to the presence of the Author of all stories – and the Inventor of pleasure itself.  Set you faith on Him, and put your hope in Him, and trust Him to bring you home to where He is, and let that be what excites you most: Him.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”

Tangled Not

There’s a great scene at the beginning of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation where Clark Griswold hands his son a giant knotted ball of Christmas lights and says, “You work on that.”  And that moment is so funny because one look at that ridiculous clot of lights is enough to tell anyone that there is no chance of ever getting that particular mess untangled.

Our family used to pray for a woman whose life’s story was very similar to that titanic knot.  The lady had so much going wrong for her that there we literally couldn’t pray for her anything more specific than “God, please just fix that disaster!”  There was just nothing else that we could say!  In our limited minds, there seemed to be no way to unravel all of the difficulties that she had landed herself in.  If she was going to get out of all of that, God was just going to have to graciously step in and set it right.

That’s also the way that many of us think about the country that we live in.  This place is a mess!  Not only do we have two completely terrible candidates running for the presidency at this moment in time, but the whole governmental system here in the United States is built whole-cloth out of man-centered and unbiblical ideas.  Human government exists to uphold and enforce God’s Law, but in our land things that should be abominations are not even crimes.  In other cases, minor transgressions are punished far too harshly, and some major transgressions aren’t given near enough penalty.  Instead of rewarding the right and punishing the evil (Romans 13:3-4), the state eschews its most important God-given role to instead to to be the savior of the people, providing care for widows and orphans, feeding the hungry with welfare, healing the sick with healthcare laws, and numerous other things that were never given to the state to take care of.  And because the state handles so many of these functions, the church – the entity that was given much of that responsibility – neglects them.

Like I said, it’s a mess.  The knot is twisted up so bad, I don’t even really know where to start praying.  How do you pull one strand without tightening the ball somewhere else?  In fact, it seems so bad that we may sometimes think that even God would have to do a lot of work to straighten it out!  And because we think this way, we pray really small prayers – like, “God, please let this conservative candidate win the election so that this one small area might possibly get a little bit better.”

The reality is, though, that solving the problem is actually nothing to an infinite and all-powerful God!  Think about it like this: the solution to all of the world’s problems – and by extension, our own nation’s – is the Gospel.  What men really need is to know the Truth about who rules the universe and they need the salvation from their sin that the Gospel provides.  And for that Gospel to transform this world, what is really required is for God’s people to be obedient to preach it to every creature under heaven (Mark 16:15).  So we need believers to do what they’re supposed to do, but God is the One who gives the courage and the energy to do so (Philippians 2:13)!  In addition, as we plant the seed of the Word, God has to give the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6).  It is the outpouring of His Spirit – which He controls – that removes hearts of stone and replaces them with hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26).

And since God is infinitely all-powerful, for Him to pour forth the kind of energy required to solve all of the world’s problems with the Gospel would not be difficult in the slightest.  The sun doesn’t have to work to shine like it does.  Instead, it takes work to hold back those glorious rays!  What that tells me is that God is not frustrated by the current state of our nation or even our individual lives – to bring it down to a more personal level.  He must have all of these things exactly where He wants them, because it would be a release to just let His glory transform the universe into His image.

And of course, that is exactly what He tells us in His Word.  He says, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).  He also says that “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of Yahweh; He turns it wherever He will” (Proverbs 21:1).  “He changes times and seasons; He removes kings and sets up kings” (Daniel 2:21).

God allows this giant knot to exist for His glory, but He can unravel it just by letting go and letting His power pour forth!  So when we pray for the situations that we are in, and when we pray for the nation and the world that we live in, be sure to remember that God doesn’t have to work through these petty human-centered structures that we have set up.  Pray like Jesus taught us to pray: say, “Your Kingdom come; Your will be done!”  Don’t settle for praying for anything less than that!  If you can’t see how He could possibly do it, then don’t worry!  That’s just because we are all pathetically limited creatures!  But put your trust in His ability to make all things right rather than in some man to possibly, maybe, perhaps be able to make a little bitty change in what might be the right direction.

Needing to See

My eyes play tricks on me – or maybe it is my mind.  Likely it is both of them conspiring together.  In my work, I have thoroughly searched a piece of paper for a certain phrase and have not been able to find it, only to have a coworker point it out with a single glance.  I have triple-checked and noted an error in an address between two places where it was written, but then looked back again to see that there was no error after all.

Moments like this are shocking and disturbing to me.  We rely upon our senses, and our minds’ interpretation of that data, for practically everything, so we don’t want to think that our input can be corrupted somewhere along the pipeline!

I have come to realize through all of this just how much I depend upon God’s grace to be able to see the world as it really is.  I already know that my heart is traitorous, and now I am discovering that my mind and my eyes can be too.

I think about this in relation to an atheist that I came into contact with last year.  This man so completely hates the idea of God that he has devoted his entire Facebook profile to making belligerent statements against those who believe.  He ridicules the Bible and anyone who confesses to hold to its truths.  And as I think about him this morning, I understand that what he really needs is for the blinders to be taken off. He has been blinded by the god of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4) and he is dead in his trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1), and the only thing that can ever change him is if God opens his eyes, removes the blinders, speaks into his mind “Let there be light”, and brings him to life from the dead (2 Corinthians 4:6; Ephesians 2:4-5).

But this man does not deserve for God to bring him to life in this way.  He has said so many blasphemous things against God and His revelation of Himself in His Word that he deserves to be dragged alive into hell, kicking and screaming and weeping.  But here’s the clincher: so did I…No; so do I, and so do you.  This man’s rebellious heart is no different from any other individual’s in the history of humankind (except One).  Romans 3:10-18 tells us how it really is:

None is righteous, no, not one;  no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.  Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.  The venom of asps is under their lips.  Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.  Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.  There is no fear of God before their eyes.

That’s not a description of only part of the human race – the people you don’t like.  That’s a description of the whole human race, and you and I are included in that!  This is what spiritual blindness looks like.  It’s what a broken mind and perverted senses look like.  A person who is still living in that original human condition, inherited from our forefather Adam, just can’t see the Truth, just can’t hear the Truth, and just can’t love the Truth.  It can be right in front of their faces and yet they miss it.  And we all know people – even loved ones – who have been exposed to the Gospel over and over again, but they just don’t want it.  Nothing we can do will make them want it, either.

Thankfully, it’s not all up to us!  We are commanded to tell the Good News, but we are not commanded to bring the dead to life.  That’s God’s work!  He can remove the blinders from any man, no matter how far gone.  Take the apostle Paul, for instance: he was trying to kill the followers of the Messiah and silence their message right up until Jesus said, “Let there be light” into his darkened mind.

This should be a profound encouragement to us, both in our struggle for the souls of our loved ones and every time we share the Gospel.  The Spirit blows where He wills (John 3:8) and has the power to make spiritually dead people be born again into life.  He can cause the blind to see His glory by graciously opening their eyes.  That’s encouraging because that’s work that we can’t do!  If He chooses to illuminate the one to whom we are witnessing, then praise God; another brother or sister has come into the family!  If He chooses not to, then we can be confident that He has His own reasons for not doing it, and those reasons are wise and good and perfect.  That encourages me to share my faith more because the pressure is off of me.  It’s easy to just tell someone about Jesus and what He has done and then leave all of the heavy lifting to God.

And for those of us who have had these spiritual eyes openened, we need to be continually thankful for His ongoing work of feeding our spiritual senses with Truth.  And we need to be conscious of the fact that He actually does this.  We can’t trust our senses or our intellect to provide accurate information without the grace of God at work, but we can always trust our Savior to provide all that we need.

Good News for Fools

Most people who have read much of the Bible know very well how it can act just like a mirror.  It shows you who you really are – confronting you with your weaknesses and sins and exposing you before an all-knowing God.  You can’t hide from yourself as you read God’s Word.  This is a fearsome aspect to studying the Bible and ought to cause us to tremble.  It isn’t “safe” to look into those pages!

But just as we might fear to see our reflections in God’s judgments, we also crave to see our reflections in the stories of redemption.  Any who have ever struggled with lust read David’s story over and over again – as well as his confession and repentance in Psalm 51 – and delight to see how God actually forgives such heinous sin.  If there was hope for David, there might just be hope for us!  Those who struggle with outbursts of anger and regret over the same might read of Moses the murderer and rejoice that God decided to use him anyway.

So we look for reflections of ourselves for encouragement, even as we might also be fearful to see God’s indictment of our sin in another reflection.  But one of the places that we might never think to look for encouragement is in any place where God has used the word “fool”.

Reading through the book of Proverbs, one comes quickly to the conclusion that a “fool” is about the worst thing you can possibly be.  Even the Psalms declare that it is the fool who says in his heart that there is no God (Psalm 14:1).  Fools are pictured almost everywhere as self-destructive unbelievers that are a plague upon everyone and generally make life miserable.  Well, that makes sense and seems like a just declaration…until I look around at my life and discover with surprise and horror that I have been acting like a fool.  Suddenly, those passages that describe and condemn the fool start to give me a sinking feeling in my gut.

There is hope in the Scriptures even for the believer that may feel like a fool, however!  In Isaiah 35, the prophet tells us of a “highway of holiness” that God will build through the desert places.  This “highway” is the way of salvation that Jesus Christ accomplished with His crucifixion and resurrection.  And at first blush, this highway seems daunting for the one who feels himself a fool.  We are told that “the unclean shall not pass over it” (v. 8), and suddenly our hearts sink again, because we rarely feel anything other than “unclean” when we look within ourselves.  The next sentence of the same verse, though, brings sweet relief!

It shall belong to those who walk on the way; even if they are fools, they shall not go astray.

I love that!  If a fool gets on the highway, he can’t foolishly stumble off of it again!  This is very good news!  Of course, it’s all contingent on exactly how a person gets on this highway in the first place.  There’s nothing but more good news on that account, however.  The end of verse 9 and the beginning of verse 10 tell us that the ones on the highway are the “redeemed” and the “ransomed”.  They are not “holy in themselves”.  They are not “the deserving ones”.  They are the ones that have been bought with the blood of Christ because they had no capital to purchase themselves.  They were bankrupt and worthless, blind, deaf, lame, and mute (vv. 5-6), but Christ’s death on their behalf has purchased them and made them clean, given them sight, restored their hearing, allowed them to walk, and put words in their mouths!  He has done it, and as a result, His ransomed get to experience “everlasting joy” (v. 10)!

Most Christians are very much aware that they didn’t secure their own salvation.  We know that we couldn’t have done anything and that Christ had to do it all, but many of us – myself very much included here – often feel like we are making a mess of things after we have been saved and we wonder how God can remain patient with our foolishness.  Isaiah 35:8 should be a great encouragement when we feel like we are not worthy to remain on the “highway of holiness” that Christ has built.  Even the fools can’t go astray!  But we also need to hear the correction that Paul levels at the Galatians in chapter 3 of that epistle:

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.  Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?  Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?

Our life in Christ – our walk along the highway of holiness – did not begin with the works of our flesh, and our continued travel down that road does not depend on those works either.  The present, as well as the past, depends on the completed work of Christ and the continuing work of the Holy Spirit.  That’s where we need to put our trust.  That’s where we need to find our feelings of acceptance: always in Him and never in ourselves.

Cheer up, fools!  There’s hope even for us in Jesus Christ!

I Know the Way to the Tree of Life

I know the way to the Tree of Life.

Once there was an immaculate Garden, planted by the Creator and kept by the creature. In this place there was no fear between man and beast. There was no sadness, no pain, and no shame. The Creator had provided exceedingly well for his creatures. Every green thing was given to man and the lesser creatures to eat. They had all they could ever need or want in this perfect Garden.

Amid the myriad of plants that produced fruit good to eat, there stood two unique trees. Each of these trees was special in its own way. The fruit of one had the property of granting wisdom. The other could bestow eternal life.

What should perhaps intrigue us is that a command was given by the Creator regarding only one of these special trees. He said to the man, “You shall 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.” But what about the other tree? Implicit in God’s command not to eat of the one tree was a direct command to joyfully partake of the other, for he had said, “You shall surely eat of every tree of the Garden.”

What was set before Adam and his bride was a choice between life and good, death and evil.

But man was not stupid before he made his choice. The fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil did not hold for the man the promise of knowing the will of God, because God had already made his will known to man. The fruit would not provide the man with the knowledge of how to work the ground or care for the animals, because God had already given him those abilities. The fruit would not give him a greater knowledge of his Creator, because before he took it and ate, he walked daily with his God. In short, without the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, man lived by every Word that came from the mouth of God.

What the man chose, then, by taking the Forbidden Fruit, was to gain understanding apart from the Word of his Creator. The Serpent questioned the truthfulness and authority of what God spoke, and he encouraged the woman to seek knowledge on her own terms. Man and wife then made the choice to cease eating from the Tree that would cause them to live forever under the authority of their God and to turn instead to the Tree whose fruit promised separation from the Creator’s life and authority. The rest, as they say, is history.

Our first parents were removed from their Paradise and forced to work the hard ground. A terribly fearsome creature with a flaming sword was placed at the gate of their former home to guard the way back to the Tree of Life. They had made their choice to live according to their own will rather than the will of God, and so the Tree that that the Creator had once commanded them to eat of was now beyond their grasp. Life would end.

Over a thousand years passed. A flood came upon the earth because of man’s evil. Only eight were left. The Garden was buried beneath the water and sediment. No one knew where it had been any longer. The Tree that could grant Life was lost.

Another millennium passed over the world. Then one day, an eighty year old shepherd caught sight of a bush that burned but was not consumed. The Tree was still alive. The Creator once again began to walk with man and expected him once again to live only by his Word. The choice again was laid before his people of life and death, good and evil.

These descendants of the first man had inherited his nature, though, and were incapable of living by God’s Word. Since death was what they chose, God gave them death. They were slaughtered by their enemies, carried into captivity, and dispossessed of their inheritance.

Generations passed. Whispers began to be heard of a Shoot from the stump of Jesse. A Righteous Branch would spring up from David. The Tree would once again grow from the wasted earth.

This time, it was a surprise, however. When the Tree of Life once again appeared in the world of men, it looked like nothing other than a Tree of Death. Nonliving boards tied or nailed together in a twisted mockery of the Living Tree that they resembled held impaled the dying body of the Righteous Branch. The blood of the Creator-made-flesh ran down the rough-hewn trunk of this Tree. The fruit that could grant eternal life was now flesh and blood, and those who wanted to live forever had to feast on this macabre food and drink.

What had happened to the Tree? Why this bloody spectacle? The Fountain of Eternal Life was filled with the slime of our wickedness. The Sinless One became sin for us. The Blessed One became cursed for us, and all of our evil was placed upon him who knew no evil that he might suffer the wrath that was due us because of our sinful choice. For we have all followed in the footsteps of our first parents and have chosen to pursue our own wisdom apart from God’s Word. The death we see in the Tree of Life is our death, the consequence of our choice.

When we then eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink of his blood, we show that the penalty of our sin was placed upon him. When we eat the Bread of Life and drink the Living Water, we partake of the reward that is His by rights. The fruit of the Tree of Life still has the effect of causing those who eat of it to live forever, but its appearance forces us to come to repentance for our sins. The natural man does not want to eat from this Tree. It is disgusting in his eyes. The beauty of Christ on the cross is spiritually discerned. We see our death there, but we see that our death was placed on the shoulders of another. To desire the fruit of this Tree is to see our sin for what it really is. We must hate our evil and turn from our wickedness and cling only to this One who has set us free from the power of sin and the wrath of God.

I know the way to the Tree of Life. It leads me to renounce the wisdom of man that my ancestors sought to obtain through the fruit of the other Tree. It leads me back to every Word that comes from the mouth of God as the source of all of my knowledge. It leads me to see my wickedness as God sees it and to hate it as He hates it. It leads me to Jesus Christ as the only One who can deliver me from God’s wrath, which I so richly deserve. It leads me to my knees in love, adoration, and worship of the one who took my shame, my curse, my death. It leads me to offer my life as a living sacrifice, taking up my own cross and dying to the desires of my flesh in order to bring glory to the one who has given me eternal life.

We have the directions to Life. May we never forget how to get there, and may we never neglect to point others along the Way.

Theology is Supposed to Help People

The following quote is by John M. Frame from his book, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God.

“Objectivism” continues to be a danger in orthodox Christian circles.  It is all too easy for us to imagine that we have a higher task than merely that of helping people.  Our pride constantly opposes the servant model.  And it is all too easy for us to think of theological formulations as something more than truth-for-people, as a kind of special insight into God Himself (which the Biblical writers would have written about, had they known as much as we).  But no, theology is not “purely objective truth”; as we saw earlier, there is no such thing as purely objective truth, or “brute fact.”  Our theologies are not even the best formulation of truth-for-people for all times and places; Scripture is that.  Our theologies are merely attempts to help people, generally and in specific times and places, to use Scripture better.

A Glorious Thought

So, I was driving to work this morning, and I was thanking God for making creation in the way that he made it. I mean, we take a lot for granted: concepts like space and time, for instance. And I just started meditating on how our finite minds – shaped completely by the confines of the reality that surrounds us – cannot even conceive of really anything fundamentally different than what we already experience. Try to imagine a new, never-before-seen color and you’ll see what I mean.

But then I started thinking about how God is infinite, and the very definition of infinite is that the infinite is not constrained to the finite. Since my super-limited mind can conceive of the possibility – if not the details – of other realities that are wholly different from our own, then of course the God who made me can. So that naturally leads me to wonder if He ever has. Well, He knew the thoughts that I would have this morning before He ever laid the foundation for this reality. In fact, He created me and engineered the circumstances of my life so that I could and would have such thoughts, so they cannot possibly be new to Him. He is their ultimate Source.

So what if God does conceive of other realities in His mind?  Would those realities exist purely in a cognitive form, or would they immediately spring into existence? God’s conception of any idea must be so complete, full, and perfect that the ‘existence’ of that idea really becomes a non-issue, because how could it’s ‘existence’ – in any sense that we finite creatures could understand – be any greater than what was already conceived?

This of course got me to thinking about our own reality. Why could we not say that all the universe that God created ‘exists’ in His mind? There is certainly no ‘space’ in which He occupies only a part. He is the Inventor of the very concept of space. It is definitely very feasible, then, to posit that all of our reality is a notion in the mind of God. But of course, His notions are so complete, full, and perfect that nothing can be said to ‘exist’ in a more real sense than one of God’s thoughts. He must also continue to think this grand thought in order to hold it all together. Sounds a bit like Colossians 1:17, doesn’t it?

Now, here’s where the real fascinating part comes into play. All of what I have just said sort of sets the stage.

Some of the most helpful and profound words that I have ever read in Christology (the study of the Christ) were written by John Piper in one of the small devotions in his book A Godward Life. He said:

I have stressed (from texts like Hebrews 1:3; Colossians 1:15; 2:9; Philippians 2:6; 2 Corinthians 4:4; and John 1:1) that the Son of God is the mirroring-forth of God the Father Himself in His own self-consciousness. God has a perfectly clear and full idea of all His own perfections. This image of God is so complete and perfect that it is, in fact, the standing forth of God the Son, a person in His own right.

For me, this just totally makes sense of every passage that describes the relationship between the Father and the Son and relieves a whole lot of the mysterious tension of the Trinity. It just works, and it is beautiful. God’s self-conception can certainly be called His Son, and it makes all the sense in the world that He would love this Son – this self-image – with all of His infinite ability to love, because God Himself is the most lovable (in terms of the capacity with which He deserves and can receive love – not how cuddly He is) and delightful being. Period. Nothing and no one deserves more love, honor, and glory than He does. Therefore, He must love this self-conception of Himself more than anything or anyone else.  As I said, this beautiful notion of the Son as the Father’s self-image wonderfully explains the relationship that we see revealed in Scripture.

Now, combine these two ideas: reality as a concept in the mind of God, and the Son of God as God’s own self-conception. The Son is then the manifestation of the entirety of God’s perfection into His creation as He thinks about Himself dealing with the reality that He has conceived! That thought just blew the top off of my head!  Read it again and see if it doesn’t do the same for you.

The Disciples’ Prayer

I preached this sermon during the AM service at Hoosier Prairie Baptist Church on January 9, 2011.  The sermon text is Matthew 6:7-15.

The Disciples’ Prayer

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I preached this sermon again (with minor modifications) on October 8, 2011 during the AM service at Providence Baptist Church in Clayhatchee, Alabama.

Hope for Sinners

Most Bible readers are very familiar with the many, many sins of the northern kingdom of Israel in the Old Testament.  That nation did not have a single godly king.  They were constantly whoring themselves to pagan idols and to the two golden calves of Jeroboam son of Nebat.  Their rulers consistently ignored the Word of Yahweh, delivered to them by such prophets as Elijah, Elisha, Amos, Hosea, Jonah, and Nahum.  It was a despicable land full of rebellion, and yet God showed them mercy time and time again.

Now Hazael king of Syria oppressed Israel all the days of Jehoahaz.  But Yahweh was gracious to them and had compassion on them, and He turned toward them, because of His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and would not destroy them, nor has He cast them from his presence until now. (2 Kings 13:22-23)

I had to highlight the above passage in my Bible this morning.  Upon reading it, I was struck with the profound magnitude of God’s mercy and grace: that His patience would yet extend to this spiritually adulterous people because of a covenant made long before.

Not only that, but this passage is especially encouraging to me because I am a sinner.  Just as the northern kingdom of Israel provoked God’s wrath time and time again, so have I done.  At times it seems to me that there can be no patience left with God toward my sin.  And then I read of how God put up with these Old Testament sinners for generations upon generations because of a covenant made with some men hundreds of years before, and I remember that there is a greater covenant of which I am a part.

This New Covenant is spoken of often in both Old and New Testaments, but for the purposes of this hope that I am exploring, I want to look at just one reference:

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. (John 6:37)

The covenant that God the Father has made concerning me and concerning all born again believers was not simply made with some mere human.  He covenanted with His own Son – His Image, His glory, and the exact imprint of His nature (Hebrews 1:3) – to save those whom He chose and predestined to save (Ephesians 1:4-5).  Our names were written in a book from before the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8).  He has given us as a bride for His Son, and all those whom He has given will come to Him, and those who come to Him He will never cast out (John 6:37)!

And so here is hope: not in our own ability to walk perfectly before the Lord, but in His ability to keep us in spite of our sin and to present us blameless before the presence of His glory with great joy (Jude 24).  He extends patience and mercy and grace and blessing not because of goodness in us, but because of His decision to save us and His covenant to do so.  This is the only hope that I have – the only hope that anyone can have – that we belong to Him and that He will not let us be snatched out of His hand (John 10:28).

Eyes of Elisha

One of the Hebrew words that was used to denote the prophets in the Old Testament can be translated literally as “seer” or “one who sees”.  It is no mystery as to why a term like this would be used to describe the office of a prophet, since kings and commoners would seek them out in order to discover what the future would hold or what God would have them do.  In the story of the prophet Elisha in the book of 2 Kings, though, we get even more detail concerning what a prophet could see.

In one well-known story in chapter 6 of that book, Elisha is staying in a city called Dothan (a situation with which I am currently sympathetic) when the army of Syria marches in and surrounds the city walls.  The king of Syria wanted Elisha dead for being able to see all of his troop movements before they even occurred and for telling such news to the king of Israel.  So it seemed as if the city of Dothan would be thrown down, and yet the seer was not troubled.

Early that morning, when Elisha’s servant went out to see the commotion outside of the gates, he returned to his master in great distress saying, “Alas, my master!  What shall we do?” (2 Kings 6:15).  Elisha himself was calm, however, and simply prayed that God would open the eyes of his servant that he may see.  Apparently, Elisha’s eyes were already opened, and what he saw gave him no cause for alarm.

The Lord answered Elisha’s prayer, and the young man was able to see not only the Syrian army, but also a great force of horses and chariots of fire filling the mountains around the city, completely surrounding the smaller earthly force (v. 17).  Now the servant was able to see that his master’s words were wise and true when he said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (v. 16).

Many of us would love to be able to have our eyes opened in this way so that we could see the power and protection of God when we are experiencing trying times.  But the reality is that if we have been born again through the power and working of the Holy Spirit, we have had our eyes opened.  Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:3-4, “And even if our Gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing.  In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the Image of God.”  The ones who have blinders on their eyes are the ones who are perishing, not those who have been born again.  They cannot see the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, but those who have been given the gift of faith surely can.  Paul says of believers, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (v. 6).

If we are born again believers, our eyes have been opened; thus says God’s Word.  And yet my guess is that probably none of us are seeing horses and chariots of fire wandering around the countryside.  I know that I don’t see anything like that in Dothan, Alabama!  But let me ask you something: did Elisha actually have to see something like that in order to be assured of God’s power and protection?  We are actually never told that he himself saw those flaming chariots – just the servant – although he certainly might have.  My point is that he didn’t really need to see them.  Elisha knew what an awesome God he served.  He knew that his God was the Creator of the universe and the sovereign King over all history.  He knew that if God wanted him to live to see another day, that there was nothing that could stop that from happening.  He also knew that if God was through with him, then nothing could delay his departure.

This is the way that Paul talks about our eyes being opened as New Testament believers.  We have been given “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”  In 2 Corinthians 1:20 Paul says that all God’s promises find their ‘yes’ in Christ.  We have absolutely no reason to fear anything that Satan or the world can marshal against us because our God has never left His throne.  He is still the one holding all the reins of history, and all of His forces are constantly arrayed around His children to accomplish all of His purposes concerning us.  Sometimes that means that He leads us to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but it is only so that He can reassure us with His presence and conform us to the image of Jesus Christ.  At other times He gives us mighty victory over impossible odds in order to encourage us and fill us with an appreciation of His awesome wonder.  But at no point does He leave us alone and forgotten, and we should ever remember that.  Keep your eyes open to the fact that God runs the show and that He has your best interests always at heart if you belong to Him in Christ as one of his children.