What will be

“Jesus is coming back to take us to heaven.” The sentence looks and sounds correct at first, but at best it is sloppy theology, and at worst it is packed with doctrinal errors.

The words “coming back” suggest that Jesus has left and is currently not here. But he promised his followers, “I will be with you always, to the end of the ages,” and, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them.” Jesus will not come back because he has never left. The Greek word “Parousia,” generally translated “coming” in Matthew 24 and in Acts 1:11, has a more complex meaning of “arrival” or “appearing.” It has no sense of returning, but more of an unveiling, a revelation of what already exists.

One passage of Scripture could be used to defend the idea of Jesus coming back—John 14:3 says, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” Although some scholars apply this verse to the ascension and Parousia of Jesus, its context refers instead to his arrest and execution, his burial, and his resurrection. Jesus is not busy now preparing a place for us in his Father’s Kingdom; Jesus prepared a place for us by his death on the cross, his burial, and his resurrection. He came back Easter morning after spending the Sabbath with his body in the tomb and his spirit in the hands of his Father in Paradise. Through the work of his Church he takes us to be with him, even as he is with us as he promised.

Other scholars suggest that the divine Jesus is with us now, but the human Jesus will return at the Parousia. This thought conflicts with Biblical Christology. The divine nature of Jesus and the human nature of Jesus cannot be separated; he is one Christ, always fully divine and always fully human. The Son of God was born and learned how to talk and how to walk, even though as God he can do anything and knows everything. The Son of God was hungry, thirsty, in danger from storms and enemies. He was arrested, tortured, and killed—the Son of God died and was buried, and he rose to life again. Likewise, the Son of Mary is present everywhere in the universe. He knows everything and can do anything he chooses. All authority in heaven and earth has been given to him. When we pray to him, he understands our needs and desires, because he is like us in every way, except that he never sinned.

Likewise, the words “take us to heaven” distort the Bible’s description of the Parousia. I Thessalonians 4:13-18 describe what Jesus will do on the Day of the Lord. He will appear in the sky, seen by every person on earth. All the angels of heaven and all the saints in Paradise will accompany him. Believers alive at that time will meet him in the air (the “Rapture”), but that meeting in the air is a brief event. It is like the officials of a city meeting a king at the city gates to escort him into the city. It is like children seeing their grandmother’s car arrive and rushing out the door to meet her in the driveway. They do not stay in the driveway with her, but they accompany her into the house. I have often considered the Rapture to be our Shepherd’s sorting of the sheep and the goats, described in Matthew 25:32-33.

When Jesus announces his Judgment, unbelieving sinners will be sent away from this world to the devil’s prison. Believers will remain in this world, but we will be changed. All the dead will be raised, and the bodies of all believers will be restored to the original plan of the Creator. Injuries and sicknesses will be removed, never to return. Even birth defects will be canceled. As our bodies will be changed, so also the world around us will be changed. It will be restored to its original perfection, the very good world inhabited by Adam and Eve before their sin brought death and decay into creation. Will there be dogs and cats in heaven? Undoubtedly, for they were part of the first perfect creation. Will they be the same dogs and cats we have known and loved in this lifetime? I don’t know, but I cannot find a verse in the Bible that says that our beloved pets will not be with us in the Kingdom of God.

“The meek will inherit the earth.” Jesus did not describe eternal life as spirits sitting on clouds playing harps. He described eternal life as a wedding reception, an unending celebration of his victory over sin and evil and death. Jesus ate with his disciples after his resurrection; he also spoke about eating and drinking in the kingdom of God. The Old Testament prophets also spoke about the heavenly feast—consisting of the finest foods and the best wine. The new creation will be as physical as the first creation, and it will be on this same planet we inhabit today. Jesus is not going to take us to heaven—he is going to bring heaven to us, making this world perfect so it can be our home with him forever.

Careless and sloppy sentences (such as “Jesus is coming back to take us to heaven”) distract us from the clear message of the Bible. They prevent children from learning what they need to know about Jesus, about salvation, and about the Day of the Lord. They weaken our efforts to share with mission prospects the hope that we have in Jesus our Savior. Those nine words require nine hundred words to clarify and  correct. The real promises of the Bible are far better than our casual summaries. May God grant us firm faith and correct understanding of all that he has told us. J.

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E for effort

Leave it to college students to discover a new approach to higher education.

I was visiting with some students in a classroom one evening this week. One student described a video he had recently watched (presumably on YouTube) which demonstrated that contemporary education is failing because it is built on a social model that is obsolete. I replied that efforts to reform and restructure education have been around since the 1960s. Another student then remarked, “Why should a person have to take algebra in college if that person is going to be an artist and will never use algebra?”

“The usual answer,” I replied, “is that studying algebra develops thinking skills that are used in a lot of areas other than mathematics.”

The first student then said that education should be more career-oriented. The students were careful not to use history as an example—I am their history instructor—but the students did mention classes they are required to take that have no use in most careers. “The usual answer to that,” I said, “is that education includes more than learning how to do a certain job. Students need to learn how to make a living, but they also need to be exposed to various things that make living worth-while.”

A couple other students nodded. “But why should they have to pass those classes?” the second student asked. “Being exposed to other things is good, but—as long as they come to class and do the work—why should they need to pass the class or take it again if they didn’t pass?”

“That,” I told him, “is a very good point.”

I’ve been thinking about that conversation for a while. A high school graduate should be able to do basic computation—addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. He or she should be capable of giving correct change, balancing a checkbook, and filling out a simple tax form. A high school graduate should be able to communicate—to read, to write, and to speak in public. Beyond that, a high school graduate should be exposed to science, to history, and to the fine arts—visual arts, music, literature, and drama. It’s best for a high school graduate to have skills in some vocation, especially if that graduate does not plan to continue on to college. For that matter, all those things are true of a college graduate. Each college student should go deeper into his or her chosen field while at college, while also being exposed to a range of experiences from the sciences, the fine arts, and the liberal arts.

But why should they have to pass the classes not related to their major or career?

We already have a grading system perfect for this change, since grades are assigned as A, B, C, D, or F (for failure). Why not add an E for effort? If a professor or instructor perceives that a certain student is trying his or her best in the class but just not getting it, why not give that student an E? Those who don’t show up for classes and don’t turn in assignments would still receive the F, but the student who tries to comprehend algebra or history or chemistry or music appreciation and fails should be given some credit for his or her effort. After all, the object of education is to expose the students to various facets of life. That object has been achieved. Why demand that the student take the class again, when that will only sour the student upon the subject matter, reversing the point of that exposure?

This idea would suit high school and undergraduate college work. Elementary students are still mastering basic skills, so an E for effort would not be appropriate at that age. Likewise, graduate students are focusing on deeper and narrower aspects of their chosen specialty, so an E for effort would be pointless. Honors students would not be allowed to accept an E, nor would an E be given for a class in the student’s major or minor department. In all other cases, though, whether the class is required for all students or chosen as an elective, if the subject has no bearing on the student’s career or personal interests, why not leave the teacher the option of awarding an E?

An E would not enter into a student’s grade point average. That average would reflect only the student’s basic skills in computation and communication, as well as the student’s mastery of knowledge and application relevant to his or her career. The artist would not be barred from graduation because of his or her inability to master algebra. The engineer would not be barred from graduation because of his or her inability to understand Shakespeare. But the artist was exposed to algebra, and the simple effort to handle it enriched his or her thinking skills. The engineer was exposed to Shakespeare, and he or she may return to Shakespeare’s work later in life with a better opportunity to understand and enjoy that work.

What do you think? Should high school and college teachers be permitted to grant their students an E for effort? Why or why not? J.

Sanctification

“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”

Luther explains, “What does this mean? I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the truth faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian Church he daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true.”

Salvageable adds: The second article of the Creed distinguishes Christians from nonChristians; the third article distinguishes some Christians from others. From the Bible Luther learned that not all people will be saved; only those who believe God’s promises, fulfilled in Christ, will be saved. Luther also learned that God does not want to condemn anyone and that the sacrifice of Jesus is sufficient to atone for every sinner who ever lived or who ever will live. But Luther found other verses in the Bible that say that people cannot come to Christ unless God draws them to himself. Jesus is a Shepherd going into the wilderness to find lost sheep; he is not waiting for the sheep to find him. Therefore, Luther credits God the Holy Spirit with giving him faith and with keeping that faith alive in him.

Luther’s gifts of the Holy Spirit are not those listed in I Corinthians 12, nor are they the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5. Instead, the fruits that enlighten God’s people include the Word of God, that which was preached and written by apostles and prophets as guided by the Holy Spirit. The Word of God grants faith and helps that faith to mature. Other gifts of the Holy Spirit that enlighten Christians are the Holy Christian Church, where forgiveness is proclaimed, Holy Baptism, and Holy Communion.

Jesus died on the cross to purchase forgiveness for all sinners. The Holy Spirit brings forgiveness to sinners through those gifts. The Church which gathers around that forgiveness is kept together by those gifts. When God looks at his people, he does not see them gathered in many separate buildings, each with different labels on the front doors. God sees one Church, united by his Son and his Spirit, some waiting in Paradise for the resurrection of the dead and some still alive on earth.

When Jesus is seen in glory on the Day of the Lord, all the angels of heaven will be with him, along with all the saints. The bodies of everyone who ever lived will be raised and gathered for judgment. This judgment will be a verdict announced by Jesus, welcoming the saints into his kingdom but sending unbelievers to join the devil in his prison. The saints in Paradise today are not yet enjoying their final reward. Though they are away from the body, in the presence of God, a better world is still coming. The resurrection of the body is the beginning of life everlasting. Christians have that life today, but not in its fullness. On that Day we will truly be in heaven, as all the glory of heaven comes to renew this earth. J.

Redemption

“(I believe) in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty. From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead.”

Luther explains, “What does this mean? I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives, and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.”

Salvageable adds: If the first article of the Creed can be confessed even by Jews and Muslims and heretics, the second article separates the Christians from those who only seem like Christians. The mysteries of the Incarnation of Christ and of Redemption are summarized by Luther in clear and simple statements—producing perhaps the most important sentence that Luther ever wrote.

Jesus Christ is true God, begotten of the Father from eternity. He is truly and completely God, one with the Father and with the Holy Spirit. Jesus possesses every quality of divinity—he is all-powerful, all-knowing, present everywhere, with authority over all things in the universe. At the very same time, Jesus is true man, born of the virgin Mary. He has all the qualities of humanity: a human body, a human mind, a human spirit. He knows what it is to hunger and thirst, to face temptation and danger, to suffer, and to die. He is 100% God and 100% human, yet one person. The Son of Mary possesses all the powers of divinity; the Son of God possesses all the elements of humanity.

Later creeds spelled out in more detail what it means to be one person, completely God and completely human. The Nicene Creed calls Jesus “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten—not made, being of one substance with the Father.” The Athanasian Creed clarifies that Jesus is “equal to the Father regarding his divinity and less than the Father regarding his humanity.” Many of the false teachings that have plagued Christianity through its history result from misunderstandings of the two natures of Christ, the relationship of his divinity and his humanity.

He became human to rescue humanity from sin and from evil. We could not redeem ourselves: every one of us is trapped in sin and evil. The blood of Jesus, his suffering, and his death, paid the price to reclaim us for the kingdom of God and reconcile us to God. The resurrection of Jesus proclaims his victory and promises us a resurrection like his. His suffering, death, burial, and resurrection are historic events, part of human history, that expand in importance to rescue sinners both before and after they occurred. All of the Bible, both Old Testament and New Testament, point to this rescue mission of Jesus Christ.

He is my Lord. We have a real relationship, one that matters more than anything else in my life. As my Lord he takes care of me, rescues me from enemies, and sustains me. Because he is my Lord, I owe him allegiance, obedience, and reverence. We are not equal partners, but we have a relationship based upon love. His love for me comes first, and my love for him cannot equal his love; but I love him because he loved me first. This relationship outlasts a lifetime. Because he rose from the dead and will never die again, I can be sure that I will live forever in his kingdom, celebrating his victory with him and with all his saints. As Luther says, “This is most certainly true.” J.

Creation

“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.”

Luther explains, “What does this mean? I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that he has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life. He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil. All this he does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me. For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey him. This is most certainly true.”

Since the first century, Christians have produced statements of faith, or creeds. Creeds are summaries of what the Bible says—they are not intended to replace the Bible. Christian creeds have three purposes. They instruct children and visitors about the key teachings of the Bible. They remind every member of the congregation what we believe. They declare to God the truth we believe about him. In that way, they serve as part of Christian worship, another way to thank and praise God.

The Apostles’ Creed is one of the oldest creeds. It was not written by the apostles, but it summarizes their teachings. Versions of it date back to the first century. The creed has three articles—one about God the Father, another about God the Son, and the third about God the Holy Spirit.

The first article, and Luther’s explanation of it, are probably acceptable to every religion that proclaims one God. Jews and Muslims and heretics could all say the same: we believe in a God, we believe that he is able to do anything, and we believe that he created everything that exists, aside from himself. As Luther spells out in detail many of the things God provides, he reminds us that we are dependent upon God for everything we have and for everything we are. We deserve none of the gifts we receive from God through his creation, but we are managers of the property God has invested in us. Part of serving and obeying him is fulfilled as we care for our bodies and for our minds, putting them to the best use. Along with that, we manage wealth and property that belongs to God. On the Day of the Lord, he will ask us to account for the way we handled his property.

The Ten Commandments tell us how to serve and obey God. They do not tell us what can be done for us when we have failed in that responsibility. Nor does the first article of the creed tell us how we are rescued from our sins, from an evil world, and from the power of death. That information is found in the second article of the creed.

I picture Luther pounding his fist, or perhaps his stein, on the table as he firmly declares, “This is most certainly true.” J.

 

Gray November blues

I’ve been lethargic for the last two or three weeks, which is frustrating, because there are a number of projects I need to complete. I bought new strings for my guitar three weeks ago because the top string broke, but I haven’t taken the time to restring the guitar. I have replaced the railing on one side of the front steps, but the other side needs to be done too. I haven’t even raked leaves in more than a month. I’m sure that seems passive-aggressive to Mrs. Dim and my other neighbors, who have been frantically raking and bagging several times a week. But, in my defense, when the weather is good I’m busy doing other things; when I have time to rake leaves, it is raining or has recently rained and the leaves are wet. (Not that wet leaves stop Mrs. Dim from blowing and gathering and bagging leaves.)

For most of my life, I’ve lived in places where the trees are bare by Veterans’ Day. Even now November seems to bring gloom and fatigue. Five years ago I had just suffered a wrenching series of problems (which I now describe as the Mayan apocalypse). I think those memories are flavoring November this year. On top of that, I’ve been experiencing fierce tinnitus (ringing in the ears) all this autumn. It’s like hearing tree frogs day and night, only about two octaves higher.

Thursday afternoon, driving to teach a class, I suddenly had an unusual sense of well-being. I don’t know why—it may have been the blue sky and the unseasonably warm temperature. Anyhow, I felt good the rest of the evening. Friday brought me back down to earth. The contents of the storage shed which burned last spring had been taken for cleaning and were finally scheduled to be returned on Friday. I arranged to be off of work Friday morning, and I waited for the phone call from the delivery person. No call came. I was feeling increasingly stressed as noon approached. I tried calling the company, but only a machine answered the phone. I ate lunch, changed clothes, and drove to work. When I arrived, I had a message waiting on my phone. The company had given the driver my work number instead of my home number. I called him, agreed to meet him at one o’clock, got another employee to cover my responsibilities for the afternoon and drove home. It took about fifteen minutes for the two of us to unload the truck. (He thanked me for helping.) So now I have boxes of Christmas decorations waiting to be unpacked last month; and our traditional autumn decorations are in place finally, even though they were not out for Halloween.

Some people battle with frequent colds and others wrestle with allergies. My struggles are hidden inside of me, where no one else can detect or measure them. Even as simple an action as sifting through my WordPress Reader, clicking on posts, reading them, liking them, and perhaps commenting on them—even that pales after a few minutes and I turn to assembling a virtual jigsaw puzzle on the computer. This too shall pass; it always does. Blame the month of November. J.

God is jealous?! and he takes it out on the children?!

 

God says, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:5-6).

Yes, God himself says that he is jealous. But jealousy is not always the same as envy and coveting. At root, the meaning of jealousy is wanting to keep that which is one’s own. A husband who is jealous does not want to share his wife with other men. His jealousy may tempt him into sinful behavior, but the desire that one’s wife or husband remain faithful is not sinful. In fact, a man who willingly shares his wife with others shows that he does not love her.

God loves his people. He does not want to share his people with false gods. God does not envy false gods, because he needs and wants nothing from them. But he is jealous, wanting his people not to have other gods or to worship graven images. Whether the false gods are those worshiped by ancient religions—Baal, Zeus, Thor, Osiris, and the rest—or whether they are the modern false gods of money, fame, pleasure, political causes, and the like—God does not want to share. He loves his people too much to let them be deceived and harmed by anything that looks like a god and sounds like a god but cannot accomplish what God alone can do.

For that reason, God allows us to see the price of evil, the damage that it causes. He intends that we see what is wrong with evil and prefer that which is good. Evil is unfair, but God is fair. He would not punish children for the sins of their parents. Through Moses, he forbade the government of Israel to follow that practice (Deuteronomy 24:16). Other ancient governments did that, reasoning that a man’s concern for his family might deter him from crime even more than his concern for self-protection. But God says, “The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezekiel 18:20).

Unfortunately some translations do misinterpret Exodus 20:5-6, reporting that God punishes the children for the sins of the fathers. These translations miss the sense of “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children.” That visit of iniquity is not a punishment from God; it is a consequence of sin and evil. God does not work this way, but the sinful world works this way.

Children who were abused by their parents often become parents who abuse their children. It’s not fair, but it happens. Children whose parents misuse alcohol or other drugs are more likely to misuse the same drugs. It’s not fair, but it happens. It’s not fair that some children are born with defects, and others are born already addicted to drugs, because of bad decisions their mothers made during pregnancy. It happens because evil is unfair, and God wants us to see evil for what it really is.

When iniquity visits, it stays for a while. The consequences of sin do not disappear, not even when the sin is already forgiven through the sacrifice of Christ. God measures the durability of evil as lasting “to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” He contrasts that with his love. God’s love lasts for a thousand generations. (According to the Bibles account, nowhere near that number of generations has yet lived on the earth.) Rather than resenting God for the evil he permits—and he does so for good reasons—God’s people rejoice to know that the love of God and his mercy overwhelm the power of evil. All  victims are rescued because God himself became a victim, suffering unfairly on the cross so he could redeem those who trust in him. And that really isn’t fair either, but it is unfairness that is given for our benefit. J.