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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The parable of weeds in the field

The Day of the Lord is another name for Judgment Day, or the Day of Resurrection, or the Dawn of the New Creation. The prophets spoke frequently about the Day of the Lord, describing its coming with the darkening of the sun, the shaking of the earth, and the judgment of God upon sinners. In one sense, that great Day of the Lord is still to come, when Jesus reveals his glory, raises the dead, and judges all people. In another sense, the Day of the Lord was fulfilled when Jesus suffered and died on the cross. For three hours the sun did not shine. At the death of Jesus the earth shook. God’s judgment on sinners was poured out on sinners so sinners could be redeemed and set free from the punishment we deserve.

Jesus spoke many parables about the Day of the Lord before the day when redemption was accomplished on the cross. His parable of the weeds—one of the two parables Jesus explained to his disciples—concerns the Day of the Lord. This parable is found in Matthew 13:24-30, and the explanation Jesus gives is in Matthew 13:36-43.

Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a man who sows good seed in his field. Later, an enemy sows weeds in the same field. The servants of the man offer to pull the weeds, but the farmer says no—he fears that they will damage the good plants while pulling the weeds. “Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn’” (Matthew 13:30).

Jesus explains that the sower of the good seed is the Son of Man—that is, Jesus himself. The field is the world, and the good seed is children of the kingdom—those who believe in Jesus, those who know and trust the secrets of the kingdom. The weeds are sons of the evil one, planted by the devil. The harvest is the close of the age—the Day of the Lord—and the reapers are angels. “He who has ears,” Jesus concludes, “Let him hear” (Matthew 13:43).

The field is the world; the field is not the Church. Hypocrites are found at times within the Church, and Jesus provided a process for removing from the congregation people who sin and refuse to repent of their sins (Matthew 18:15-18). They are removed if they refuse to repent, but they are treated as mission opportunities—as pagans or tax collectors. (The one Gospel containing this procedure is written by a former tax collector, and we remember how Jesus treated him!) The Church is not in the business of removing sinners from the world. Instead the Church exists in the world to change sinners. Christians do not weed sinners out of the world. Instead, Christians warn sinners of their danger of judgment, using the Law of God to call sinners to repentance. To those sinners who repent, the Church promises forgiveness and eternal life through the redemption of Jesus Christ.

God created good people, sinless and pure. The devil brought temptation into the world and so created sinners. Unlike weeds in a field, though, sinners can be changed. Without redemption through Jesus, the entire field is covered with weeds, without a single plant that is good. Through the redemption of Jesus, weeds become good plants. On the Day of the Lord, they will be welcomed into the kingdom of heaven. But first the weeds will be removed from the field. That removal is not the work of Christians—angels will separate the lost from the saved. They will carry the sinners away “to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41), but “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43). We know the secret—we are righteous, but not through our efforts. We are righteous through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ.

“He who has ears, let him hear.” In other words, pay attention! The coming Day of the Lord reminds us of our need to repent, to believe the gospel, and to trust all of God’s promises. When we do these things, the forgiveness of God enables us to live holy and righteous lives. We are not yet perfect, not in this lifetime, but in the new creation our righteousness will be complete. Then we will indeed shine like the sun, as Jesus promises. J.

 

The last enemy

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (I Corinthians 15:26). The devil, the world, and the flesh are traditionally the three enemies of God and of God’s people, but death is also an enemy. Some people try to be philosophical about death, treating it as an inevitable part of life, but the Bible clearly states that death is an enemy, albeit an enemy already conquered by Jesus Christ and forced to serve God’s purposes.

Usually when we speak of death, we mean the physical death of a living body. In a broader sense, every unpleasant separation is a death. Christians speak of spiritual death–separation of a person from God, physical death–separation of the soul from the body, and eternal death–being spiritually dead when also physically dead. In a similar sense, divorce can be regarded as the death of a marriage. Friendships can die, careers can die, and hopes can die. Every unwanted ending is a sort of death and also a reminder of the reality of our enemy, death.

God told Adam that, when Adam ate the forbidden fruit, he would die. Adam lived another 930 years after eating that fruit, but he and Eve experienced spiritual death in the garden, as is shown by their desire to hide from God. When Lazarus was sick, Jesus told his disciples that the sickness would not end in death. Lazarus physically died, but because of his trust in Jesus he was not in jeopardy of eternal death. In fact, to show his power over death, Jesus called Lazarus back to life.

“The wages of sin is death,” Paul wrote. Every sin is part of spiritual death, separating the sinner from God. Physical death is likewise a result of sin; had Adam and Eve never sinned, they would have lived forever. Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus before raising Lazarus, because Jesus was facing an enemy, one he would soon battle and defeat on the cross. Christians are right to be saddened by death, although we are reminded not to grieve like people who have no hope. We have hope for ourselves and for our fellow believers in Christ. We are guaranteed the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

While Jesus was on the cross, the thief being crucified next to Jesus confessed his faith, declaring that Jesus was innocent of any crime and asking that Jesus would remember him when he came into his Kingdom. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus replied, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” Later, facing his own death, Jesus prayed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” From these words of Jesus, we know what happens at the death of a Christian. The soul leaves the body and is with Jesus in Paradise, in the hands of the Father. This is a spiritual existence; it is not yet the new creation with pearly gates and streets of gold. While it is better to leave the body and be with the Lord, the best is still to come.

On a Day known only to God, Jesus will suddenly appear. The spirits of all believers who have died will be with him. At the command of Jesus all dead bodies will rise for judgment. The spirits of Christians will be united with their bodies, which will have been raised and healed. Even birth defects will be healed at this time. All eyes and ears and legs and minds will work properly, and Jesus will welcome all those who trusted in him to their new home, a re-created Earth that will be as good as it was when God first made it.

How can sinners hope to have that eternal life when their sins have separated them from God? Jesus paid the necessary price to cancel that separation and to reconcile sinners to the Lord. He lived a sinless life, but he transferred the rewards earned by that life to everyone who trusts his promises. In that exchange, Jesus paid for every sinner, enduring spiritual death on the cross. In the darkness of that separation, Jesus prayed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He knew that the answer to his question was that he was bearing on himself all the sins of the world; but his prayer (a quote from Psalm 22) demonstrates his agony at the separation from his Father that was caused by sin.

Having defeated the devil and the world and the flesh and death itself, Jesus physically died. On the Sabbath he rested–his body in a grave, his spirit in the hands of his Father in Paradise. On Sunday morning, Jesus rose, body and soul reunited. His resurrection promises our resurrection on the Day Jesus appears in glory. Death, the enemy, has been defeated. It must now serve God’s purposes as Jesus–the Good Shepherd–leads his people through the valley of the shadow of death so they can dwell in the house of the Lord forever. J.

Super Advent

The season of Advent begins on Sunday November 27 this year. Because Christmas is on a Sunday, Advent is a full twenty-eight days this year—the longest Advent can be. For this reason, I have decided to label this year’s Advent a Super Advent. We will not have another Super Advent until 2022.

This month the moon reached its perigee while it was full. (The perigee is the nearest the moon comes to the earth during its elliptical orbit.) The nearness of the full moon made it seem a little larger than usual on the 14th, especially when it was closest to the horizon. This effect of a larger moon has been labeled a Supermoon.

Advent always begins on a Sunday. Therefore, when Christmas is on a Monday, Advent is only twenty-two days long. This year’s Super Advent reaches the other extreme. But what is Advent? Advent is less a countdown toward Christmas than it is a spiritual and emotional preparation for Christmas. While the rest of the world is bustling with Christmas preparations and early Christmas celebrations, Advent is an island of calm, a quiet time of reflection for Christians. Congregations that observe Christmas all the Sundays of December are missing an opportunity. Congregations that observe Advent offer an opportunity to consider why Christmas matters to Christians.

The word “advent” means “coming.” During Advent, Christians think about the coming of Jesus. Advent is a royal season, as we await the coming of a King. Yet it is also a somber time when we reflect upon our sins and upon the price the King chose to pay to claim us for his Kingdom.

During Advent Christians sometimes think of three advents of Christ. We think of his first coming to be our Savior. We reflect upon the prophecies and pictures of Christ in the Old Testament and upon the people of Israel waiting for the Son of David. We think of his second coming to be the world’s Judge. We do not fear his judgment, because we know he has already given himself (in his first advent) as a ransom so we will not be judged and condemned. Therefore we rejoice to welcome him on the Day of the Lord when we will see him coming in the sky with all the angels and all the saints. Meanwhile, we think of another advent of Christ which happens every day. “I will be with you always,” Jesus promised the apostles, and his promise to them is true to us as well. Jesus comes to us in his Word and in the blessings of his Church. He comes as Savior, as Ransom, and as King. He comes to claim us and to make us his forever.

During this Super Advent we have twenty-eight days to think about the Advent of our God. May these four full weeks of Advent enrich your Christmas celebrations. J.

The Sea of Time

“Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippiin’, into the future.” Fly Like An Eagle, lyrics by Steve Miller and Steve McCarty, ©1976.

For some reason those lyrics keep rolling through my mind as I try to compose a post or two for this blog. I didn’t want to write about that song. I wanted to write something timely for Thanksgiving. I also wanted to write about a workshop I recently attended on microaggression. Somehow the two subjects keep on merging into one potential post.

I am uncomfortable when someone dismissively refers to our National Day of Thanksgiving as “Turkey Day.” I am uncomfortable when advertisers portray the best part of the four-day weekend as the opportunity to go shopping. Our National Day of Thanksgiving has already been consumed by the excesses of the traditional feast; to see even that feast and family gathering disappear for many families, because of the excessive demands of shoppers and business-owners, borders on the tragic. I remember when the Day of Thanksgiving featured a special service at church to give thanks to the Lord for all his blessings. The feast and family gatherings, the televised parade and football games, all took second place to the church service. Now that service has been moved to Wednesday night… because we are too busy celebrating Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November to actually stop and give thanks.

Other potential posts are also swirling in my mind. This fall Mrs. Dim has been spending hours each day trying to clear her lawn and flowerbeds of autumn leaves. Every morning, of course, new leaves have fallen. This fall I have spent one hour a week dealing with autumn leaves. I bought biodegradable paper bags, and every Saturday I fill five bags and leave them by the curb to be taken by the city. When my grandchildren have grown, my leaves and bags will long have decomposed into fertile soil. Mrs. Dim’s leaves will still be trapped in their plastic bags.

When Christmas is on a Sunday (as it is this year), Advent is a full twenty-eight days long. Advent always includes four Sundays, but the season can be as short as twenty-two days when Christmas is on a Monday. As we observed a Super-moon this month, now we can enjoy a Super-Advent this year.

And time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’, into the future. That song has never made sense to me. I think of time as linear, and existence in time is like a train traveling down the track. Each moment of existence, there is a little more of the past and a little less of the future. It would seem that time is slipping into the past, not into the future.

But Albert Einstein demonstrated more than a hundred years ago that time and space are relative. Perhaps that is why the future exists—perhaps it is fueled by moments from the past that slip into the future. George Santayana famously said that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. (When read in context, that sentence does not mean what people think it means, but that is yet another topic to consider.) Perhaps as our memories of the past fade to gray, the future becomes correspondingly brighter.

We know that a Day is coming when history as we know it will end. The Lord Jesus will appear in glory with all his angels and with the spirits of all the saints. All the dead will be raised, and every person will stand before his throne for judgment. Some will be welcomed into his perfect new creation, while others will be sent away. To open his kingdom to unworthy sinners, Jesus has already entered this polluted creation and paid the penalty for all sins. Therefore, for those who trust in him the Day of the Lord is not Judgment Day; the Day of the Lord is the beginning of a new and eternal life. The new creation will not follow the rules of entropy and decay that we know in this world. There will be no pain, no suffering, no tears, and no death. In that world, time will indeed be perpetually slipping into the future.

For that, we can be truly thankful. J.

Christ in Genesis: Confession and Promise

“And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day…” This sounds so pleasant, Jesus taking a walk in the garden. (How do we know it was Jesus? “No one has ever seen God [the Father]; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known”–John 1:18.) I don’t know the history of the translation of this verse, but the original Hebrew has a different tone. The word translated “cool” is ruach, the same word that means breath or wind or spirit; and I do not think “cool” is used to translate this word anywhere else in the Bible. In the first Greek translation of Genesis (in the Septuagint), the translators chose to render the word “fear.” Jesus approached Adam and Eve in the spirit of the Day–that is, the Day of the Lord, the Day of God’s wrath at sin, Judgment Day.

No wonder Adam and Eve tried to hide from Jesus. They had sinned, dying spiritually, rebelling against God. They were guilty. They were ashamed. They tried to cover their shame with fig leaves, but human works cannot cover our sins. Jesus called them: “Where are you?” When Adam confessed his shame, Jesus asked him, “Did you eat the fruit I told you not to eat?”

The Lord gave Adam and Eve an opportunity to confess their sin–to repent. The topic of repentance can be confusing. On the one hand, God wants us to repent and calls upon us to repent. On the other hand, nothing we do earns God’s forgiveness. There is nothing you have to do for God to forgive your sins. The best resolution of this seeming contradiction is to know that, when God commands us to repent, he also gives us the ability to repent. (Compare this to Jesus telling a lame man to walk, or telling a dead man to come out of his tomb.) Repentance (like faith) is something God does in us, not something we do for God.

Adam tries a sly sort of repentance. He says, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit of the tree, and I ate.” He points a finger of blame at Eve, and subtly even tries to blame God. (“If you hadn’t made this woman, we wouldn’t have this problem.”) If Adam had been thinking more quickly, he might have added, “She gave me fruit from the tree you made. Why did you make it if you didn’t want us to eat it?” Many of Adam’s descendants have tried the same sort of escape from guilt, blaming God for making sin possible.

When God questions Eve, she shows herself to be a quick learner. She also points a finger of blame, this time at the snake. “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

The poor serpent has no fingers to point, and Jesus does not give him the opportunity to make excuses. Knowing that the serpent is Satan in disguise, Jesus essentially says, “You chose that form for your rebellion–now accept the consequences. You are going to crawl on the ground. You are going to eat dust.” In other words, “You are the loser in this contest.”

Jesus adds that there will be enmity between the woman and Satan and between their offspring. This means more than that women generally fear snakes. It means that the devil did not gain allies in his rebellion against God. He merely broadened the battlefield. When the key battle in the war between God and evil would be fought, a descendant of Eve would win, and the devil would lose.

“He shall bruise your head.” Those words promise victory over Satan. “You shall bruise his heel.” Those words speak of the pain the Savior must bear while defeating the devil. The cross of Christ is described with these words. God is addressing the snake, but his message is for Adam and Eve. Through their descendant, God will win the war against evil, reversing the consequences of their sin. God’s words to the snake are the first preaching of the Gospel.

Meanwhile, the consequences of their sin remain. Family relationships are distorted because of sin. Work in the world is hard labor (whether physical or mental, whether challenging or boring) because of sin. Physical death is a consequence of sin. Jesus created Adam from dirt. Through physical death, Adam will return to the dirt. The ground itself is cursed because of the sin of Adam and Eve.

Yet, as God curses the snake and curses the ground, he does not curse Adam and Eve. He has promised victory through the cross; even the promise itself reverses the curse of sin. Adam and Eve did not have to wait for Christ to be born, to suffer, to die, and to rise again, before they could be spiritually alive again. Believing the promise of the coming Savior and the coming victory, they were already given saving faith. Even though their bodies would die, they already had eternal life.

 

Fifteen years later

I took part in two services this morning at two different churches. Neither preacher mentioned the terrorist attacks of 9-11 (so far as I can remember), but both spoke of the attacks during the prayers, and one of them had a moment of silence for the victims of the attacks.

Americans over eighty years old remember where they were when they heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Americans over sixty years old remember hearing about the assassination of President Kennedy. Americans over forty years old remember the stretch of weeks during which John Lennon was killed, Anwar Sadat was killed, and attempts were made upon President Reagan and Pope John Paul II that seriously injured both men. Americans over twenty years old remember the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington (and the attempted attack that ended in Pennsylvania), but to college freshman that bit of history is probably a vague memory if they remember it at all.

It seems that each generation has a defining tragedy, an attack of such violence that its impact lingers in memory. Until Christ returns in glory, he warned us, there will be wars and rumors of wars. History is less a countdown to the Last Day than it is a continuing reminder that the world is polluted by sin, stained by evil, and subject to God’s righteous judgment. On the Last Day the earth will shake, and every earthquake of our lifetimes reminds us of the Last Day. Every storm, every flood, and every disastrous fire reminds us of God’s judgment upon a sinful world. Still, the end is yet to come.

Nature in revolt against humanity seems only fair, given the damage we regularly inflict upon God’s creation. Human violence against one another is devastating in a different way. War is one of the most vivid metaphors we have to describe the fight between God and evil; or rather, the revolt of evil against God. When nations engage of wars of conquest against their neighbors, or when nations are embroiled in wars of revolution, the violence and bloodshed and death—as well as the hatred that justifies such violence—presents an image of the war that began when Satan deceived the woman, and she and her husband ate the forbidden fruit. Although the decisive battle of this war was fought as Jesus was hanging on the cross, the culmination of this war will occur when Jesus returns in glory to claim his Kingdom.

Revelation 16:16 refers to a battlefield called Armageddon. This word has taken on several meanings in western culture. It literally means “the heights of Megiddo.” The city of Megiddo was on a plain in northern Israel; in ancient times, several significant battles were fought on that plain. As a geographical feature, the heights of Megiddo do not exist. I believe that Armageddon refers to the entire war between God and evil, from the first day of sin to the Last Day, the Day of the Lord. Evil forces gather sinners into their rebellion—all the nations of the world are involved. Yet Jesus wins without an arrow being shot, without a spear being thrown, without a sword being drawn, without a shot being fired, and without a bomb being dropped. His victory was announced from the cross when Jesus said, “It is finished.” Ever since that weekend, the people faithful to Jesus have been carrying news of this victory to all the nations of the world, as Jesus said we would do.

We need to remember acts of war, both as lessons from history and as pictures of what is yet to come. Commemorations of Pearl Harbor, or of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, serve both purposes. May our memories of the past and our witnessing of present violence prepare us for the victory already won but yet to be seen in its fullness. And, to those who fear war and terrorism and violence, may we remember to share the good news of this victory. J.