Not everything is a miracle

On a pair of blogs, both written by faithful Christians, I have recently seen the following quote from Albert Einstein: “Either everything is a miracle or nothing is a miracle.” At first glance it appears that Dr. Einstein was affirming the existence of miracles, but I am afraid that was not the case. That quote does not mean what some Christians think it means.

Consider the source: Einstein was a scientist who studied the principles of the universe—physics—and discovered new aspects of physics that had not been seen before. Religiously, Einstein wavered between Deism and atheism. Sometimes he spoke of the universe as God’s creation and described science as learning God’s rules for creation. But in other cases he stated that he used God’s name as a shorthand label for the order and structure in the universe without considering God to be a personal or accessible Being in the Christian sense of the term.

“Either everything is a miracle or nothing is a miracle.” Einstein probably believed that nothing is a miracle. Everything happens according to natural law, and the more we study the universe and learn its laws, the fewer things will surprise us. If everything is a miracle, then the word “miracle” has lost its meaning. Deists and atheists disagree about whether there is a god, but they agree that no god interferes with the universe and causes events that are against the natural laws of the universe.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” He established the natural laws that scientists like Einstein study to learn, but he did not bind himself by those laws. God’s creation is full of marvels and wonders. We should be astounded every day by the glorious things God has made. But to call created things miracles robs the word “miracle” of its meaning. We must reserve that word for the special actions of God that show him acting within his creation.

We are wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). Every human baby born is a marvel and a wonder. But when ninety-year-old Sarah conceives and gives birth to Isaac, that is more than a marvel and a wonder; it is a miracle. When Mary, a virgin, conceives and gives birth to Jesus, that is more than a marvel and a wonder; it is a miracle.

God sends rain to water the earth, making it grow and flourish. Some of that rain lands in vineyards, where the grape vines soak up the water through their roots along with nutrients from the soil. The vines produce leaves which gather energy from the sun and change carbon dioxide into oxygen to give energy to the vines. That is a wonder. The vines then develop bunches of grapes, which swell and ripen in the sun and the rain. That is a wonder. The grapes can be picked and eaten, or they can be cooked into jelly, or they can be crushed and fermented to produce wine. That is a wonder. But when Jesus calls for six pots to be filled with water and then instantly transforms it into wine, that is a miracle. God is at work in his creation, doing suddenly what his creation requires time to accomplish.

When grain is sown and sprouts, that is a wonder. When it grows in a field until it produces a crop, many times the number of grains that were planted, that is a wonder. But when Jesus takes five loaves of bread and feeds a crowd of thousands, with basketfuls of leftovers remaining after they had eaten their fill, that is a miracle. Once again, we see the Creator at work, going beyond the laws of his creation.

Some people claim that primitive and unscientific people wrote about miracles. They go on to say that we would see the same things today and understand them scientifically; we would not call them miracles. That is far from true. The writers of the Bible described the miracles they saw because they knew those events were special. They knew that ninety-year-old women do not conceive and give birth. Nor do virgins. Water does not instantly transform into wine, nor does a loaf of bread multiply in one day to feed a thousand people. Dead people do not return to life. These miracles were signature events, indications that the Lord of the universe was present, doing good things to help the people he loves.

Miracles show us that Jesus is the Son of God, though whom and for whom all things were created. They show his compassion, his desire to help his people. They show him at work fixing the things that sin and evil have broken in his creation. They foretell what he will do on the Day of the Lord, when all the dead are raised, when every eye will see him, and when the entire planet will be transformed. That new creation will be the ultimate miracle, after which no further miracles will ever be needed. J.

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Jesus has this covered

On his blog, Wally Fry asks the rhetorical question, “The weatherman says, ‘a storm is coming,’ and everyone panics. The preacher says, ‘Jesus is coming,’ and no one cares.” OK, that’s not a question, but it’s still a rhetorical statement. “Everyone” and “no one” are exaggerations, but the point remains that people react more strongly to a little winter weather than they do to the warnings and promises of the Bible.

So I commented, “I suppose it wouldn’t make much sense to rush to the store and buy bread and milk and eggs and a shovel because Jesus is coming. J.” That was merely a quick and casual reaction. Now that I’ve had a few more hours to think about Wally’s quip, I find that I have more to say.

First, it’s true, at least in Wally’s part of the country (Arkansas), the threat of a little snow or (worse) ice sends everyone to the store to buy milk and bread and eggs. Toss in a little sugar and cinnamon and you could make French Toast. Why people want French Toast with their ice and snow, I don’t know. Of course, they also buy shovels to move snow off the sidewalks and driveways and salt to melt the ice. The city and county and state governments invest very little money in snow removal equipment, since most of the time the snow is gone in twenty-four hours without any human effort. There is always a risk, though, of a longer freeze, possibly with the electricity out, so people in Arkansas have learned to be prepared. And by “prepared,” I mean that they rush to the store to buy milk and bread and eggs.

Jesus told a parable (found in Matthew 25:1-13) about ten bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom to arrive so the wedding celebration could begin. Five were wise and brought extra olive oil for their lamps; the other five were foolish and had no extra oil. When the bridegroom’s imminent arrival was announced, they saw that they had no oil and begged to borrow some oil from the first five, but there was not enough oil for the wise ones to share. Instead, the foolish bridesmaids went to find a store open all night where they could buy some oil. The bridegroom arrived, the doors were locked, and the party started. When the foolish bridesmaids found themselves locked outside of the party, they knocked on the door, but the bridegroom did not recognize them and left the door locked.

Bible interpreters sometimes chase the rabbit of “what does the oil represent?” The olive oil could be almost anything, and the parable still makes sense. Anyone who feels a need to rush out and purchase supplies because Jesus is coming is in danger of missing the party. Like the wedding guests who thought that their own interests and possessions were more important than the wedding of the king’s son (Matthew 22:1-14), these bridesmaids found something to be more important to them than the arrival of the bridegroom. As a result, they missed the party.

Why would you need to run to the store when you know Jesus is coming? Do you need milk? Jesus brought the Israelites to the Promised Land, “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:17); he can certainly supply us with all the milk that we need. As for bread, we know that “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3), but still Jesus says, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he that has no money, come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourself with rich food” (Isaiah 55:1-2). He who fed crowds of thousands with just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish also promises that when he comes, he “will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined” (Isaiah 25:6). Do you need to buy eggs? Jesus says, “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” (Luke 11:11-12). Believe me, or believe his own words: Jesus has this covered.

Jesus can even provide the shovel. We know that he is our Great High Priest (Hebrews 8:1-7), and we read in the Old Testament that shovels were part of the equipment given to every high priest (Exodus 27:3). They were used for clearing ashes from the altar, but still we know that Jesus has his own shovel. And what of salt? Jesus says to his followers, “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). So Jesus is prepared for any bad weather. No storm can defeat him.

Jesus has this covered. We do not need to run to the store because Jesus is coming. Instead, we prepare to welcome him joyfully, knowing that when he arrives, the biggest party ever is going to begin. J.

Advent thoughts: December 24

“Behold, I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple” (Malachi 3:1—read Malachi 3:1-6).

Malachi, like Haggai, reports that the Lord will visit his temple. This Jesus did—as an infant, and as a boy, and as a man. He came to rescue sinners. He came in grace to fix what sin and evil have broken. He came to fight, not against Romans and other foreign powers, not against all sinners, but against sin itself and against the consequences of sin.

Malachi compares the Lord in his coming as a refiner’s fire and a fuller’s soap. Both are very powerful cleansers. A refiner’s fire is hot enough to melt silver or gold and to burn away any impurities in the metals. A fuller’s soap is coarse enough to add body to fabric (making the fabric fuller, hence its name) and also to remove dirt from the fabric. Either of these products can cause injury and death if misused. Both of them, used properly, add value to the metal or the fabric to which they are applied.

So Jesus, in his coming, is dangerous to sinners, but he did not come at first to judge sinners. He came at first to rescue sinners. He came to melt our hearts, to burn away our impurities, and to recast us in his own image. He came to wash us so we can be clean and pure, useful for his purposes and acceptable for his kingdom.

On the Day of the Lord Jesus will have to judge and condemn those who rejected him. Some loved their sin more than their Savior and clung to their sin, refusing to be rescued. Others thought they needed no Savior: they clung to their good works and demanded that God give them what they deserve. In sorrow, Jesus must send both groups away. But those who have trusted his promises have already been washed clean and refined. Those who trust in him will live in his new creation, celebrating eternally the victory Jesus won.

On his birthday, Christians like to pull out the baby pictures of Jesus. We remember him wrapped in cloths, lying in a manger. We remember him visited by shepherds. Later he was visited by wise men bringing gifts. But that baby grew to be a man. As a man, he fought evil, and he won. He resisted the devil’s temptations. He refused to be dragged by the world into sin. He suffered the consequences of sin, and he paid in full for the world’s sins. He died, but he rose again victoriously to live and reign eternally. He is our God, our Savior, and our Redeemer. We belong to him today and forever. Thanks be to God! J.

What is yet to come?–part four

The teaching of judgment and eternal condemnation for sinners troubles many believers. It also disgusts many unbelievers. They are appalled that the God in whom they refuse to believe would subject people like them to eternal torment away from his presence. They disregard the fact that one of the chief joys of heaven is living in the full presence of God. If they reject God today, why would they want to be with him forever? God is being kind to them by honoring their choice, saying that if they want no relationship with him, they will not have to spend eternity with him.

The real tragedy of judgment is not that unbelievers will be rejected. The real tragedy is that people who think they are believers will also be rejected. Anyone who thinks he or she is good enough for heaven is wrong. Anyone who invites God to judge him or her by his or her own life is making a terrible mistake. Only those clothed in the righteousness of Christ can enter the new creation. To those who show their own lives to the Judge, he will respond, “Go away; I never knew you.”

Jesus does not want to say those words to anyone. He went to great lengths to avoid the need to say those words. In the parable of Judgment Day, Jesus welcomes believers to “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34). He sends unbelievers to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). God does not desire the death of the wicked. The fire is not for humans, it is for fallen angels. God wants all to hear his promises, repent of their sins, receive his forgiveness, and become citizens of the kingdom of God, prepared for eternal life in his new creation.

Looking at that parable, another important point stands out. Those welcomed into their inheritance, a place in the new creation, are surprised to hear themselves credited with good works. They were not keeping score. They knew that God’s approval depended on the righteousness of Christ and his sacrifice, not by the things they did. Being forgiven through Christ, they were also in the process of being transformed into Christ’s image. As a result, they did perform acts of love and service. In the end, though, those good deeds shine not by their own value, but because the stain of sin had been washed away by the work of Christ, so nothing but good could be seen by the Judge when he looked at their lives.

Those sent away in Judgment were also surprised. They were keeping score. They thought they had done enough good deeds to earn God’s approval. Because they did not trust in Christ for redemption, none of their sins had been removed. As a tiny prick from a pin or needle pops an entire balloon, so even the smallest sin separated them from the God who made them, who loves them, and who wanted them to enjoy eternity with him in his new creation.

Fire and brimstone preachers have, perhaps, made a mistake by focusing on the tortures of eternal condemnation. Jesus does speak of the unending fire, but he has other images also for that condemnation. He speaks of the “outer darkness.” Heaven, he says, will be like a wedding reception, a party with food and drink and music and dancing and family and friends and joy. Heaven will be rejoicing in the presence of God. Those locked outside of the new creation will be like people in the parking lot outside the reception hall. They have nothing to do. They have no reason to celebrate. They are left outside because they disqualified themselves from a place in the celebration. Rather than picturing the flames of hell, we might think of the endless boredom of hell, like an afternoon alone at home with nothing to do and no reason to try to do anything.

Because Jesus did not want to send people away on the Day of the Lord—because he wanted to welcome all people into his new creation—Jesus did the work of redemption to save people from their sins. He became human, as human as we are, being born into the world. He placed himself under the Law and obeyed all the commandments he wants us to obey. He said no to every temptation. He lived a life of pure and perfect righteousness. Then, to give each of us credit for his righteousness, he sacrificed that life. He suffered the penalty of sin so no punishment would be left for us to endure.

The prophets said that on the Day of the Lord the sun would turn to darkness. As Jesus was on the cross, there was darkness; for three hours the sun failed to shine. The prophets said that on the Day of the Lord the earth would shake. When Jesus gave his life, there was an earthquake, and the curtain in the Temple—representing the separation between God and sinners—was torn top to bottom. The prophets said that on the Day of the Lord the moon would turn to blood. If (as many scholars believe) Jesus was crucified on April 3, A.D. 33, the full moon was eclipsed by the shadow of the earth, making it a “blood moon” before sunrise in Jerusalem. (That date is one of three that fits the description in the Bible: Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and the beginning of the Passover celebration fell on the night of a Sabbath day.)

Jesus has already gone through the Day of the Lord to rescue sinners. God’s Judgment fell on him so we could be spared Judgment. On the Day of the Lord our sins will not be displayed, for God has already removed our sins from as “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). An inheritance belongs to us, because Jesus died to provide the inheritance he earned by his righteousness.

What then will life be like after the Day of the Lord, when we live in his new creation? That remains to be described in one further post. J.

What is yet to come?–part two

Many books of the Bible mention and describe the Day of the Lord. This is Judgment Day, or the end of the world as we know it. The most succinct description of that Day comes from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (I Thessalonians 4:14-17).

Only God knows when this Day will be. Christians will not be surprised by the Day, because we have already been told that it is coming. To the rest of the world it will come “like a thief in the night,” unexpected and without warning. No countdown exists to tell us how soon the Day will be; God says only that it will be soon. All we can say is that it is seven days closer than it was a week ago.

No one alive on that Day will fail to notice what is happening. Jesus will appear in the sky, and everyone will see him. How God will accomplish this on a round world is beyond me, but the Bible says it will happen, so I believe it. Everyone will hear the noise that Paul describes as three sounds: a cry of command, the voice of an archangel, and the sound of the trumpet of God. All the dead will be raised and all people who ever lived will stand before the Lord for Judgment—for the announcement of his verdict. They will be sorted quickly, “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:32). The parable that contains that phrase mentions sheep to the right and goats to the left, but Paul describes the separation as happening in a different direction: believers “will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” This ascension of the Church has become known as the Rapture. Although Christians disagree about the timing of the Rapture relative to Christ’s Judgment, Paul certainly makes it sound as if it happens on the same Day.

After commenting on the fact that mockers pretend to wonder why the Day of the Lord has not yet happened, Peter describes another aspect of that Day: “The Day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (II Peter 3:10). In other words, the fire of God’s judgment will remake creation, restoring it to what it was before sin and evil and death entered. Christians will meet the Lord in the air; they will land with the Lord upon the surface of the new earth, where we will live with him and with all his saints forever.

As for those who have died, their bodies will be raised and restored. Any injury caused by sickness or accident or age will be removed; even birth defects will be canceled. Our eyes and ears will function perfectly. Our knees and backs will no longer ache. All allergies will disappear. Even malfunctions of the mind and of the emotions will be erased. All the consequences of sin will be removed, and we will live with the Lord forever.

All these teachings from the New Testament are found in the Old Testament as well. On the Day of the Lord the sun will refuse to shine, the moon will turn to blood, and stars will fall from the sky. The earth will shake, and sinners will seek to hide from the eyes of the Lord, but there will be no place for them to hide. God’s faithful people will be vindicated, and their enemies will be removed. The saints will dwell in a new world in which God will be their God and they will be his people. The Son of David will rule an eternal kingdom in peace and righteousness and glory.

I want to emphasize two points: first, the resurrection is a physical reality, not a symbol. We will not be bodiless spirits in heaven; we will be physical as we are now. Yet we will be focused on the life of the spirit. We will eat and drink and enjoy the bodies God fashioned. In a future post, I will try further to describe what life will be like for God’s people in the new creation, after the Day of the Lord.

Second, the change will be abrupt. One minute we will be going about our lives, along with everyone else in the world. The next we will be meeting the Lord in the air. All the events of the Day of the Lord described in the Bible will happen at the same time. We will move seamlessly from this old sin-polluted world into the new creation.

Someone may ask, but what of the Great Tribulation, and what of the thousand-year reign of Christ? I will discuss such things in my next post. J.

About angels

Last Saturday, September 29, was the annual festival of St. Michael and All Angels, sometimes shortened to Michaelmas. This minor holiday on the traditional Christian calendar provides an opportunity for Christians to think about the things we know about angels and to thank God for the place he has given angels in creation and in the life of the Church.

Here are some things we know about angels (along with some things we can reasonably guess):

  • Angels were created by God. Although the Bible does not tell us when angels were created, it is reasonable to guess that they were created at some point in the six days described in Genesis 1. Many Christians opt for the fourth day of creation—the day when God created the sun, moon, and stars—since stars are often associated with angels in the Bible.
  • Angels have always been angels and will always be angels. People do not become angels when they die. People who die remain human, even though their bodies and their souls are separated between their death and their resurrection.
  • Angels are not material beings. They do not contain any atoms or molecules. They take up no space in the three dimensions of creation, nor do they reflect light. When it is useful for an angel to be seen and heard, that angel glows with light instead of reflecting light. They Bible does not explain how immaterial angels make themselves heard by human ears.
  • The English word “angel” comes from a Greek word which means “messenger.” Likewise, the Hebrew word in the Old Testament translated as angel means “messenger.” Sometimes the same word is used to describe human messengers. (This may be the case in the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3.) The reason this word is used to describe the beings we call angels is that (most of the time) when humans interact with angels, the task of the angel is to deliver a message to the human.
  • Other names for angels found in the Bible include cherubim (single = cherub) and seraphim (single = seraph). These Hebrew words depict the glowing or burning appearance of the angels. Early medieval Christian writers deduced nine levels of hierarchy among the angels, including thrones, principalities, and powers. Michael is named as an archangel, or head of the angels (but see below). Gabriel is the only other angel named in the sixty-six books of the Bible. (Raphael is an angel named in the Apocrypha.)
  • Moses described Jesus as an angel—namely, the Angel of the Lord. This reflects knowledge of the Holy Trinity in the writings of Moses, as he speaks of the Lord, the Angel of the Lord, and the Spirit of the Lord. The Angel of the Lord frequently speaks of God in the third person (“he” rather than “I”) but also says things that only God can say. Some Christians believe that Michael the archangel (or head of the angels) is also Jesus, since he has authority over all the angels of heaven.
  • Early in time, some angels rebelled against God and tried to grasp his authority over creation. The leader of the rebellious angels is called the devil. He is also named Satan (which means the accuser or the prosecutor). Some Christians deduce that Satan drew one third of the created angels into his rebellion. (Revelation describes a dragon who swept one third of the stars out of the sky with his tail.) If so, that means that the faithful angels outnumber the rebellious angels two-to-one, not to mention that they serve on the side of the Almighty God, whom Satan opposes.
  • The Bible says only that Satan rebelled against God because of Satan’s pride. It appears that Satan understands power and authority, but he cannot grasp love and mercy. Therefore, Satan believes he is stronger than the loving and merciful God. It is fitting, then, that the Lord defeated Satan through a sacrifice given because of God’s love.
  • Whenever humans break a commandment of God, whether through an act that is against what God has said or through neglect to do what God requires, that person declares independence from God and joins in the devil’s rebellion. Pure and untempered justice would require that sinners be forced to accept the consequences of that choice and to share the devil’s punishment for rebellion. Because his nature is to love, God is unfair to human sinners, providing a way to be rescued from their sin and from Satan’s power. That rescue is accomplished by the perfect righteousness of Jesus, the Son of God who became human, and by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The resurrection of Jesus proves his victory over the devil, death, and all evil. All who trust in Jesus and in his life, death, and resurrection, share also in his victory.
  • Jesus lived, died, and rose again as a human being to redeem human beings. Jesus has done nothing to redeem Satan and the rebellious angels. The Bible does not explain why God made that distinction between angels and human beings, choosing to rescue the latter but not the former from rebellion and its consequences.
  • It appears that after Satan’s rebellion, God has hardened all the angels into their state of obedience or disobedience. The obedient angels are not in danger of a future fall into sin, nor are the rebellious angels given an opportunity to renounce their rebellion and return to the Lord.
  • The power of the devil is in his lies. He persuades people to sin by lying to them, and he tries to block their path to redemption by lying, saying that they cannot be forgiven and that God does not love them anymore. The power of God’s Word overturns the devil’s lies. To those who know and believe God’s Word, the devil is like a lion caged at the zoo, separated from those he wants to harm. Those who discard God’s Word are like visitors to the zoo who climb into the exhibit and try to play with the lions.
  • Satan’s fall from heaven does not happen at a single time in human history. Rather, Satan falls from heaven whenever and wherever God’s Word is proclaimed and believed. Satan has been falling ever since God spoke the first Gospel promise to the first sinners. Satan fell from heaven when the apostles of Jesus proclaimed his Word in Galilee (Luke 10:18). Satan falls as pastors, missionaries, and any Christians share God’s Gospel promise with sinners.
  • God assigns angels to watch over his people in this sinful world. Although at times those angels can intervene to protect or save a human life, their primary desire is to preserve faith in the heart of the believer. At death, angels carry the soul of the believer to Paradise to await the resurrection. According to God’s will, guardian angels permit suffering and even death to happen to a Christian. We cannot know how many times and how many ways each of us has been protected by an angel.
  • Angels, as our guardians, take their orders from God. We cannot tell angels what to do. In the new creation, when all our sin has been removed, we will have authority over angels. We cannot exercise authority over angels today.
  • Angels do not want us to pray to them or to be distracted by them from God. Angels want our faith and trust to be in Christ Jesus and not in angels. Even when studying what the Bible says about angels, Christians do well to remember Christ and his cross and to keep them central in their thinking.
  • On the Day of the Lord angels will be active in gathering Christ’s people from all parts of the Earth to join Jesus in his glorious appearing. They will accompany Christ Jesus as he brings the souls of the saints from Paradise and raises their bodies for life in the new creation. Satan and all rebellious angels will be cast out of the new creation. Humans who have refused to trust Christ and believe his promises will share the devil’s punishment. This is just, because they did not want to be with Christ during their lifetimes, and they would be miserable in the new creation where Christ will always be present for everyone living there. But the believers—body and soul united, never again to be separated—will live forever with Christ and with all the faithful angels in a perfect new creation, never to be stained by rebellion, sin, or death.

J.

Thy Kingdom come

Jesus says, “When you pray, say ‘…Thy Kingdom come….’”

Luther explains, “What does this mean? The kingdom of God certainly comes by itself without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may come to us also. How does God’s kingdom come? God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.”

Salvageable adds: Scholars speak sometimes of the three kingdoms of God, although they do not intend to say that these are distinct kingdoms. No, they overlap, and a person can be part of more than one of God’s kingdoms. They are called the kingdom of power, the kingdom of grace, and the kingdom of glory. The kingdom of power is creation, over which Jesus rules right now. The kingdom of grace is the Church, including saints in Paradise with Jesus and believers still living on the earth. The kingdom of glory is the coming new creation, in which all things will be perfected, all evil will be removed, and all the saints will live with Jesus forever. They will be royalty because of their family relationship to the King.

We do not need to pray that the kingdom of power will come. Creation already is here. We pray about that kingdom, though, when we pray for daily bread.

We pray for the kingdom of grace—for the Church. We pray for pastors and other church leaders, that God would keep them faithful and would work through their ministries. We pray for missionaries spreading the good news about Jesus. We pray for people we love, especially those who seem not to believe in Jesus right now. We pray that the kingdom of grace would come to more people so they can be redeemed and can enter the kingdom of grace and await eternal life in the kingdom of glory. The Lord’s Prayer is a missionary prayer.

At the same time, we are praying for ourselves. We pray that we would continue to mature in the faith—as a famous song from Godspell says, to see God more clearly, follow him more nearly, and love him more dearly. On the one hand, there are not different levels of faith. The faith of every Christian is identical, because it is faith in the same Savior, the same Lord, and the same promises. The Christian life is easier, though, for believers who have stopped measuring themselves, who have put their full trust in the Lord, and who are being transformed into the image of Christ, loving God and neighbors according to the example of Christ and by his strength.

Even as we pray for the kingdom of grace, we also pray for the coming of the kingdom of glory: “Maranatha—come, Lord Jesus!” We look forward to the Day when we see Jesus coming in the clouds, bringing with him all the saints of Paradise, raising all the dead, and inaugurating the new creation. We pray for that Day when all sorrows and sufferings will cease, when sin and evil will no longer exist, and when death will no longer be an end to life. That Day is already guaranteed through the redemption of Christ. By his life and death and resurrection, he has conquered sin, death, and evil. By his life, death, and resurrection, he shares his victory with us. Therefore, we do not fear the Day of the Lord. We look forward to it with hope and excitement, and we pray for its coming. Yet it has been delayed for the sake of the work of the kingdom of grace. There are yet more people—at least one more person—who will come to faith and enter the kingdom of grace before it all becomes the kingdom of glory.  J.

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.

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.