What is yet to come?–part one

In the long-held traditions of the Church, the month of November is a time when Christians think about eschatology—the study of Last Things. Granted, many congregations in the contemporary world create their budgets for the coming year in November and, as a result, they use November to talk about stewardship and tithing. But the older tradition is to consider Last Things. From All Saints’ Day on the first of November to the Sunday of the Fulfillment near the end of the month, readings and hymns and sermons and prayers tend to focus the congregation’s attention on eschatology.

More than many topics, eschatology tends to produce a blurring of the Bible’s clear and literal teachings and its imagery about Last Things. Some Christians tend to consult the book of Revelation first about Last Things and to use its splendid imagery to interpret the more straight-forward passages in the Bible about Last Things. The result can be highly imaginative and creative, but at the same time it is rather inaccurate. Not that this is a catastrophe; any Christian who trusts in Jesus Christ for salvation will be saved. Some Christians are in store for a few surprises when the Last Day comes, but afterwards they will be able to laugh with Jesus and the other saints about any misunderstandings.

Eschatology divides easily into personal and cosmic Last Things. I will discuss cosmic eschatology in a later post and deal today with personal eschatology, based on what the Bible says.

Some of the clearest teaching about personal eschatology—and passages I have used in hospice situations—comes from the words of Christ on the cross, written in Luke 23. First Jesus prays for sinners: “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.” The prayer could apply narrowly to the soldiers who nailed him to the cross. However it broadly applies to all sinners, all of whom made the crucifixion necessary for salvation. God the Father answers the prayer of his Son: all those who trust in Christ are forgiven. Next, when a thief beside Jesus confesses his sin and prays, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” Jesus responds, “I tell you the truth: today you will be with me in Paradise.” As his own death approaches, Jesus prays, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

From this we learn that, at the moment of bodily death, the spirit departs to be in the hands of the Father, with Jesus in Paradise. Paradise is a spiritual waiting for the resurrection on the Last Day. It is not the final fulfillment of the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. Paul writes about Paradise when he says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” than life in this sinful world (Philippians 1:23). He also writes, “We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord… we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (II Corinthians 5:6-8). But Paradise is not the final goal of the Christian. “Not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (II Corinthians 5:4). Paul also stresses the vital importance of the resurrection of the body in I Corinthians 15.

Christians proclaim faith in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Death is described as sleep from which we shall awaken. Some conclude that the soul will sleep in Paradise and will not experience the passage of time between the death of the body and the resurrection. It appears, though, that in death the body sleeps and not the soul. Revelation pictures saints in Paradise praying for the Church on earth (Rev. 6:9-11). Paul’s notion of “better” and “at home with the Lord” seems to indicate some awareness of being with the Lord, as do the words of Jesus: “You will be with me in Paradise.”

The Bible also hints of a spiritual waiting place for those without faith, those who will not have a home in the new creation. The Old Testament’s word “Sheol” appears, at least in some instances, to describe that waiting for judgment. Jesus borrows the Greek term “Hades” to describe the rich man waiting for the final judgment while the beggar Lazarus is at Abraham’s side (Luke 16:19-31).

But all are waiting to stand before the throne of Jesus and receive his Judgment. The announcement of Judgment will be a verdict, not a trial with evidence produced and weighed. The spirit’s presence in Paradise or in Hades already indicates the verdict for each spirit.

The saints who have departed this earth are not yet walking the streets of gold. They have not yet entered the pearly gates. Those belong to the new creation, not to Paradise. But the saints are with Jesus, in the hands of the Father, and that is a better place than this sin-polluted world.

And next comes the cosmic eschatology. J.

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James, John, and two cups

Jesus and his disciples were on the road, going to Jerusalem. (You can read about it in Mark 10:32-45.) Jesus was leading the way, setting the pace, even though he knew what was going to happen in Jerusalem. Not only did he know; he even told his twelve apostles what would happen: “The Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”

James and John didn’t get the message. They came to Jesus with a request: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” No parent would fall into that trap, and Jesus was not about to be tricked. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” they responded.

Their eyes were on the glory. They knew that Jesus is the Messiah, the promised Rescuer who would establish the kingdom of God and defeat all his enemies. They wanted to be close to the action. They wanted a share of his kingdom and power and glory. They wanted to freeze out Peter and the other apostles by getting the chief places of honor beside the King himself.

Jesus first asked, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” When they affirmed that they could, Jesus told them that they would, but then he added, “To sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

I used to wonder about the people who would claim those places of glory, at the right hand and the left hand of Jesus. In the history of the Church, who has earned such awesome authority? Would Paul the apostle be given such a place? What about Augustine of Hippo, or Martin Luther, or Billy Graham? Who deserves to be at the right hand of Jesus or his left hand when he claims his kingdom?

Then I learned when it was that Jesus claimed his kingdom. He is not waiting to claim it when he appears in glory; all authority in heaven and on earth has already been given to him. He did not claim the kingdom when he ascended into heaven, or even when he rose from the dead. The kingdom was his when he suffered and died on the cross in the place of sinners. The glory was his when he announced, “It is finished.” Easter and the Ascension and the Glorious Appearing are all results of the cross. Without the cross, we would have no joy in any of these things. Without the cross, we would be excluded from his kingdom, and Jesus does not want us to miss the party.

Who was at his right and his left when Jesus claimed his kingdom and his glory? Two thieves were there, each of them on a cross. At first they both mocked Jesus, but then one came to faith and confessed his faith. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom, Lord,” he prayed. Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth: today you will be with me in Paradise.” From these words, we know when Jesus received his kingdom and his glory.

James and John thought they wanted to be there with Jesus, but Jesus did not want them there. He went to the cross to spare them punishment. He went to the cross to rescue us all from punishment and guilt. He who knew no sin became sin for us so we could be the righteousness of God. The innocent one who should not have been punished accepted our punishment so we can be free. The Author of life gave himself into death so we can live forever.

Why did Jesus tell James and John that they would drink from his cup? Some scholars apply those words to the persecutions they faced as apostles. But the cup Jesus had in mind was the suffering of the cross. It was the cup he pictured as he prayed in Gethsemane, “Father, let this cup pass from me… but not my will; your will be done.”

Imagine a cup before the throne of God with your name written on it. Every time you sin, a drop of God’s wrath falls into that cup—a drop of poison you deserve for your sin. Every time you say something you know is untrue, another drop falls. Every time your mind wanders where it does not belong, into lust or envy or hatred, another drop falls. Every time you neglect an opportunity to help a person in need, another drop falls. How many drops have fallen into that cup? Is it overflowing yet with the wrath of God, wrath you have earned by all your sins?

Yet Jesus comes. He takes that cup that bears your name and is filled with your poison, and he drinks it dry. He did not want to drink it, but he accepted the poison to spare your life. He faced justice for you, because he knew you could not bear to face the justice you deserve.

But Jesus did not leave you without a cup. As in a comic movie (The Princess Bride, or The Court Jester), there are two cups, and only one is poisoned. Jesus exchanges cups with you, not to poison you but to preserve you. He has a second cup, a cup that belongs to him. It is the cup of salvation. It is the cup of the New Testament. It is the cup that is overflowing, not with wrath and poison, but with grace and forgiveness and new life.

James and John were rescued from their own pride. They asked for something that was not theirs. Jesus gave them something that was not theirs. He gave them his righteousness, along with his redemption through his own blood. He continues to distribute those blessings today. We will be with him forever in his kingdom, celebrating his victory, because of the cross where Jesus rescued and redeemed us. J.

Four heavens

A more accurate title for this post would be “four meanings for the word heaven,” but that struck me as unwieldy. As used in the Bible and among Christians, the word heaven has four distinct meanings, and when people confuse those meanings, their concept of heaven becomes muddled.

The first heaven is the sky—where the clouds are, where birds and airplanes fly. It could perhaps to considered equivalent to the Earth’s atmosphere, although sometimes it is said that the orbit of the moon marks the boundary between the first and second heaven.

The second heaven is the vastness of the universe beyond the Earth’s atmosphere or beyond the moon’s orbit. The sun and all the objects orbiting the sun are part of the second heaven, as are the other stars in our galaxy and whatever objects orbit around them. The second heaven also includes the other galaxies and everything they contain. Whatever physical objects exist outside of galaxies are likewise part of the second universe.

The book of Genesis starts with this sentence: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The two heavens—the immediate sky and the vastness of the universe—are included in that sentence.

The third heaven is the presence of God—a special presence, since God is present everywhere in the universe. Paul wrote of being caught up into the third heaven (II Corinthians 12:2). In Revelation, John saw a door in the sky (the first heaven) and, moving through that door, entered the third heaven (Revelation 4:1-2). When we speak of a believer who has died and now is in heaven, we are referring to the third heaven. Jesus mentioned the third heaven twice while on the cross. When a criminal being executed with Jesus said, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth: today you will be with me in Paradise.” Later, he prayed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Therefore, we can describe the third heaven as Paradise, the Father’s hands, being with Jesus, or—in the case of one of Jesus’ parables—in Abraham’s bosom.

The fourth heaven is a shortening of the expression “new heavens and a new earth.” This new creation is promised to Christians as a future reality. On the Day Jesus is seen in the sky, with all his angels and all the believers who have died, he will restore creation. Everything in creation will be new—it will be like the world Adam and Eve experienced before they sinned. Everything that was very good then will be very good again, and it will remain very good for all eternity.

Unbelievers mock Christians as if we believed that the presence of God—the third heaven—was somewhere in the sky—the first and second heavens. They describe Christians as picturing God as an old man with a long white beard sitting on a cloud. The third heaven cannot be found by traveling anywhere in the universe. Instead, one could think of it as another set of dimensions overlaying the familiar dimensions of height, width, and depth. (Time has dimensions too, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Christians sometimes mix together the third and fourth heavens in our minds and our conversations. The third heaven is an ongoing reality. God, his angels, and the saints who have died are in the third heaven now. The fourth heaven is a future reality. It is the new creation established by Jesus on a Day that has not yet occurred. The Bible says many more things about the fourth heaven than about the third heaven. Therefore, Christians sometimes make the mistake of describing the saints in Paradise as having the blessings of the new creation. They are guaranteed those blessings or they would not be in Paradise; but they are waiting for the new creation even as we are waiting.

Eternal life in the new creation is the ultimate Christian hope and God’s firm guarantee. Heaven will be like Paradise because we will always be in the presence of God and always experience his presence. Yet heaven will also be this planet—and the rest of creation—restored to perfection. As Adam and Eve had tasks in Eden, so we will have things to do for God and for one another. None of them will be burdensome or boring. Each of us probably will do the things we love doing most in this world—singing, gardening, woodcraft, or many other possibilities. Yet many vocations will have disappeared. We will not need legal professionals, health care professionals, military professionals, and the like, because the world will be perfect. Deadlines will no longer be a problem, because there will be no death. Nothing in all of creation will be harmful or dangerous. Best of all, we will be with the Lord forever.

We are looking forward to a new creation, the home of righteousness. Our faith includes the guarantee of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. When Jesus spoke of heaven, he did not say much about white robes or harps. Instead, he compared it to a wedding reception—a joyful party with food and drink, music and dancing, and people celebrating the glory of a loving relationship. This is our future, and no power in all creation can take it away from us, for Jesus has already paid the necessary price to make this new world our home. J.