Friday, May 20, 2011

Lessons in the obvious and the obscure                                                

We’ve probably all heard about the group that’s been proclaiming the end of the world on May 21stI just don’t get how people can ignore plain teaching of Scripture and hold on to hidden obscurities.  It just doesn’t equate!
Jesus clearly stated in Matthew’s Gospel:
  • “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven…” (Mt 24:36).
  • “Keep watch because you do not know on what day your Lord comes” (Mt 24:42).
  • “The Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (Mt 24:44).
  • “Keep watch because you do not know the day or the hour” (Mt 25:13). 
 And if that wasn’t enough, when they asked him later about it, he reminded them:
  • “It’s not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:7).
It just boggles my mind how someone calling themselves a follower of Jesus can ignore something so obvious!  But while it’s easy to get exasperated at these kind of doomsday predictions, the truth of the matter is we often do the exact same thing: ignore the obvious teaching of Jesus, while holding onto the obscure.

Below are a few more things – obvious things – Jesus said that we tend to ignore:
  • The “Great Commission” – Jesus told all his followers to go and make disciples of all nations (Mt 28:19).  We need to get involved at ‘home’ and around the world.  We can pray, give, go…but we can’t ignore him and do nothing!  It’s high time we made his last command our first priority!

  • The Poor – Jesus said to his disciples “sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Lk 12:33).
     If you read the book of Luke he actually states that 3 different times to 3 different groups (the Pharisees, the disciples, the rich ruler).  But it seems we think that since we live in the West we’re somehow let off the hook and can live as affluently as we’d like!  We’re not called to poverty, but we’re called to radical sacrifice and joyful generosity!

  • “Don’t store up treasure on earth” – Jesus said it as clear as day (Mt 6:19).  Yet for most of us (myself included) it’s just so easy to store stuff up!  But why do we think we’re exempt?  Consumerism, materialism and self-centeredness are killing the church and robbing the poor. 

  • Jesus also said, “You’ll have to give account on the Day of Judgment for every careless word you have spoken” (Mt 12:36).  Ouch!   How many careless words do we say each day?  If Jesus is saying the truth here (and I’m quite sure he is!) then a lot of us will be in a lot of trouble when that day finally does come!
This list could go on and on!  So while it’s easy to blast doomsday predictors, I think it’d be much more fruitful if we repented of disobeying the obvious teachings of Jesus that we ourselves have ignored!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

I wrote a poem regarding this common malady a few years ago.  

Prescriptions are at the end of this post.

I’m a spiritual narcoleptic
 It’s a common thing, I hear
  I suddenly start to sleep
   When the Holy Spirit’s near.
   I don’t pray or read the Bible
  (I’m afraid I’ll overdose)
 Don’t want to see Revival
I’d rather be comatose!
I just don’t want to live
 An “on-fire” life for Christ
  I kinda like my sin
   It’s feelin’ pretty nice:
   A bit of pride and greed
  Some lust and anger, too
 My conscience took a nap
So it ain’t too hard to do!

Well, discipline and prayer
 Are things I hate to hear,
  And all that stuff on purity
   I avoid with nervous fear.
   I don’t need to be “sold-out”
  The price is way too steep
 Don’t wanna be ‘transformed’-
It’s easier just to sleep!

So quit your talk of holiness
 ‘Cause I sure don’t want to change
  And forget this “cleanse me” business
   My friends might think I’m strange.
   Don’t want to seem “fanatic”
  (That’s a term I really hate)
 Don’t want to get too drastic
So I choose to hibernate!

When the preachin’ is anointed
 I can’t take it any more
  When the Spirit starts convictin’
   I just begin to snore!
   I still go to church on Sunday,
  To do the “Christian thing”
 ‘Cause I know the coming week
I can have my worldly fling:

Monday night is football
 Movie night the next
  Wednesday hit the mall
   And Thursday surf the 'net
   Friday’s when I party,
  On the weekend watch TV
 (It’s been a tiring week
So don’t you bother me!)

I gotta watch the stocks,
 The Soaps and all the rest
  I’m a regular at the shows
   And I know which actor’s best.
   No time to read the Word
  Or tithe my well-earned money,
 (They’ll say that I’m a nerd
Or think I’m kinda funny)

And what’s this “Great Commission?”
 That I’m hearin’ all the time
  Who cares about the lost
   As long as MY life’s fine!
   Don’t wanna help the poor
  Or see the hungry fed
 If they’re knockin’ at my door
I’ll stay in this ol’ bed!

You may say that I’m lukewarm
 But I think that’s slightly false
  Just come a little closer
   You might find a real faint pulse…
   Look, I’ve got no room for God
  Can’t you see my life is hectic?
 I’m really not that odd -
Just a Spiritual Narcoleptic!
                                                    - J. Willoughby -

Prescriptions for Spiritual Narcolepsy:
1.  Read No Compromise by Keith Green (once a day, after mealtime.  Chew well).
2.  Listen to "Why Revival Won't Come to Canada" by Brent Cantelon (best taken without food).
3.  Listen to a few Leonard Ravenhill clips like this one (warning: may cause eyes to water).
Repeat these steps until symptoms disappear.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Jesus, Judgment and the reality of Hell
Judgment and hell are difficult topics to write about.  If eternal punishment is real, then it is a cause for much soul-searching and should fill us with an incredible sense of urgency and compassion for any who might befall that fate.  It definitely is not something to be treated flippantly…nor is it something to bash people over the head with in condemnation.  If we can’t talk about hell with tears in our eyes and pain in our heart, we should probably remain silent!

In my last post I highlighted a few areas that I disagreed with Rob Bell about regarding his presentation of hell in his book “Love Wins.”  In this post I am going to try and show (a) what the Bible teaches about hell and judgment and (b) why it matters, especially today.  Because of the nature of the subject, and the way it has been (mis)treated by many today, this will take a while to unpack.  However, I encourage you to take the time to think through the Scriptures we’ll talk about.  I especially encourage you to read through what Jesus says about hell and judgment in Matthew 13:37-42; 13:47-50; 18:7-9; 18:32-35; 22:1-14; 24:45-51; 25:41-46.    

1.  As a matter of life and death the topic of eternal punishment and hell are vital for us to grasp.  We should be wary of those that try to explain it away in the name of ‘love’. 
If eternal punishment is real, it would be more foolish for someone to misdiagnose this topic than for a doctor to misdiagnose a life-threatening disease.   Likewise, if you were seriously ill, would you go to a doctor who downplayed your illness and only tried to make you feel happy, or to a doctor who could treat your sickness?  Which would be most caring?

If your car needed major repairs would you take it to someone who explains away the problem while making you feel good about yourself?  Or to a mechanic that can actually fix your car?  Who would be the most loving, the most helpful? 

Unfortunately, this is what many do with the topic of hell.  In the name of compassion they pretend it doesn’t exist.  They ignore Jesus’ words and explain it all away.  They emphasize love and compassion, but at the same time withhold the truth that could bring healing and salvation.  Again, if hell is real, then it would be totally unloving to treat it flippantly, to ignore it, or to redefine it to suit our own desires.
Jesus – the most loving person who ever walked this earth – certainly didn’t explain it away.  He talked of it with both clarity and certainty. 

2.  Jesus is God – and is therefore smart!  He knows better than anyone else why hell was created and what will happen in the future.  If we are to learn about hell, then it is His words we must listen to.

I’m amazed at how many people say they love Jesus – but don’t actually pay much attention to what he says!  Gandhi once said, “Everybody is eager to garland my photos…But nobody wants to follow my advice.”[1]  Unfortunately, this seems true of Jesus as well!  

If Jesus truly is God (and I believe he is!)[2], if he is the Creator of all things (and Scripture says he is)[3], then he would certainly know better than anyone else what hell is like.  He would have been there when it was made and he would have known what it was made for. We need to listen to what he says about it!

3.  Jesus spoke more about hell and judgment than anyone else in Scripture.  He always treated it as something real…and something terrible.  Furthermore, the rest of the New Testament writers agree with everything Jesus taught on hell and spoke in similar words as he did.

A. Jesus spoke about hell and judgment an astonishing number of times!  In Matthew alone Jesus speaks about eternal punishment and the Day of Judgment over 25 times!  (See the full list at the end of this post).  In fact, Jesus spoke about hell more than all the other New Testament writers put together. 
But why would God reference such a terrible thing so much?  Simply because it is real, it is terrible…and he doesn’t want anyone to go there! 

If you’re a parent like me you know that if something is really important you’ll repeat it to your kids.  You say over and over, “don’t play near the road!”  Why?  Because it could be a matter of life and death and you realize your child doesn’t quite grasp the consequences as you do.  So you repeat it over and over, you make sure it’s ingrained in their minds, you passionately warn them. 
That’s what Jesus does: over and over he warns his listeners about hell – especially since it’s a topic that’s hard for us to grasp.  He cares deeply for us and wanted to do everything in his power to make sure we got the message!

Now, if it’s true (as some say) that everyone will end up in heaven anyway – why would Jesus talk about hell so much?  Why was he so concerned about it?  If hell doesn’t exist then Jesus really wasted a lot of breath!  If judgment isn’t real then the only thing we can say is Jesus was terribly confused!  Not many would actually say that out loud…but many people quietly (or not-so-quietly) imply that by their shallow view of hell.

Among other things, Jesus referred to hell as:
  • A place of fire (Mt 5:22; 18:9)
  • Where the “Fire never goes out” (Mark 9:43)
  • Where the “Worm does not die, fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:47,48)
  • Which destroys the soul and the body (Mt 10:28)
  • A place of “Weeping and gnashing of teeth” (8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; cf Luke 13:28)
  • Fiery furnace (13:42, 50)
  • A place of Darkness (Mt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30)
  • Eternal fire (Mt 18:8; 25:41)
  • Eternal punishment (Mt 25:46) 
In the same way other New Testament writers referred to judgment/hell in these words:
A place of: “eternal destruction” – 2 Thess 1:9; “eternal judgment” – Heb 6:2; “punishment of eternal fire” – Jude 1:7; “judgment and destruction of ungodly people” 2 Peter 3:7; “if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” – Rev 20:15 (see also Rev 21:8).

B. Jesus spoke of it as something incredibly terrible.  Jesus referred to hell using the Greek word “Gehenna.”  As I mentioned in my last post, Gehenna was a place outside the city where people threw garbage and corpses and left them to decompose or get eaten by scavenging animals.  It was a place of filth and of death – you could smell it, hear it, sense it…and you did all you could to avoid it.  Jesus used this language to make his listeners realize that hell is the worst thing imaginable

Now some have said that all these images Jesus uses aren’t meant to be taken literally.  However we need to remember that these descriptions are the same throughout all Scripture – from Isaiah to John the Baptist to Jesus to Paul to Jude and the Apostle John.  They all speak of hell in the same language, with the same urgency and with a literal emphasis.
Furthermore, when Jesus uses descriptive words it is not to belittle the image he is talking about.  Rather it is to highlight to frail human understandings a truth that is greater than they can grasp.  Something more powerful, magnified and on a larger scale than they can imagine. 

If the images of hell Jesus uses are ‘just’ metaphors, then hell is unthinkably worse than mere fire. 
A professor named Dr J. Budziszewski (try pronouncing that!) recently noted, 
“Some writers have said that the flames of hell are not real flames but mere metaphors for the agony of being left to ourselves…but remember that a metaphor is just a shadow of the real thing; if flames are a mere metaphor for that agony, the agony must be worse than flames.”[4]
And John Piper notes, 
“Even if I try to make the ‘lake of fire’ (Rev. 20:15) or the ‘fiery furnace’ (Matt. 13:42) a symbol, I am confronted with the terrifying thought that symbols are not overstatements but understatements of reality.  Jesus did not choose these pictures to tell us that hell is easier than burning.”[5]
This may sound strange, but I hope that Jesus wasn’t just using metaphors…if he was then hell is much, much worse than anything we’ve yet imagined!

Furthermore, as stated above:
4.  Jesus spoke more about hell and judgment than almost any other topic he taught on!  If we are to ignore him on this, we might as well ignore him in every other area as well.  There’s just no getting around what he had to say about it.

Jesus only references being “born againtwice in Scripture (John 3:3,7)…but most people will tell you that Christians think it’s a pretty important thing!  If we ignore Jesus speaking about hell and judgment – when he mentions it over 25 times – we can probably ignore the “born again” bit as well, don’t you think?  While we’re at it, we should forget the “love your neighbour as yourself” part because he only said that twice (Mt 19:19; 22:39). 
Do you see what I’m trying to get at?  We focus on the passages that sound nice or are a little easier to swallow, but we try to ignore those that we don’t understand or aren’t ‘politically correct’.  Why is that?
I’ll say it again – Jesus talked about judgment and hell more than almost anything else in Scripture.  So if we ignore what he says on this topic, we might as well ignore everything else he said as well.
Either he was God and knew what he was talking about, or he was slightly confused and we can’t rely on him at all. 

The foundational issue here really isn’t about hell, it’s about Jesus: do we really believe who he says he is?  Do we believe he speaks truth?  That’s the first issue we need to settle in our hearts. 
If we say yes to that, then we need to seriously take his words regarding hell and judgment to heart.

5.  Jesus taught that hell was made for the devil, not for humankind.  He taught that it was a real place, a place of eternal torment and punishment.  He used images people could understand to reveal that it was the worst thing imaginable.

A. Hell was made for the devil.  Jesus said: “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt 25:41).  So we see that hell was not originally made for humans, but for the devil.  It was not God’s original intention that people enter hell and eternal fire.  However, once sin came into the world we came under God’s judgment. 
He is totally holy and sin can’t come anywhere near his presence. 

B. Jesus also taught that because of sin this world is now under the control of the devil, the “evil one”.  Jesus called the devil the “prince of this world” (John 12:31) and the “ruler of this world” (John 14:30 and 16:11).  He also said to Paul, “I am sending you…to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18. See also 2 Cor 4:4; Eph 2:2).

All those verses are to show this one thing: Because of our sinfulness, the devil has rule over us.  And if he is the one ruling us, our punishment will be the same as his.  If we’re following him in this life (and by default of our sinfulness everyone is) then we’ll follow him into eternity.  However, if through repentance and faith in Jesus’ sacrifice we have turned “from darkness to light and from the power of satan to God” then our sins are forgiven.  The great news is that there is forgiveness of sins and if we follow Jesus in this life, we’ll follow Him into eternity!

C. Hell is a place of punishment and torment.
·         Jesus said it was a place of eternal punishment (Mt 25:46) and,
·         A place of “Weeping and gnashing of teeth” (8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; cf Luke 13:28)

D. Hell and punishment are eternal.
  • Eternal fire (Mt 18:8; 25:41)
  • Eternal punishment (Mt 25:46) 
Note that in both these places “eternal” is the Greek word “aionios”, which can only be translated “eternal,” (never ‘temporal’ or ‘a period of time’).  It is used 68 times in Scripture and most often refers to “eternal life” but also refers to the eternal nature of God; the Holy Spirit; salvation; the Gospel; and God’s covenant.  It is never used for anything less than eternal.

6. Hell is a very real and terrible place.  Jesus himself said so many, many times.  But we don’t bash people over the head with this truth, because the reality is ALL OF US deserve hell because of our sinfulness.  NO ONE is good enough to enter “eternal life” and the presence of God. 
If I have a huge glass window in the front of my home, it doesn’t matter if you throw a big rock through it or a little rock through it…both will shatter the glass.  And it doesn’t matter if we’ve “sinned big”, or “sinned little,” any sin will shatter the holiness necessary to come before God. Only through Jesus can we be forgiven and be remade into the type of people who can enter His presence.

7.  But why such a harsh punishment?  Why would the things done in this short life have such huge consequences?  Doesn’t that seem a little unfair?  That’s a good question. 
My first response is – I didn’t make this up, it’s what Jesus clearly taught (over and over) by referring to hell as a place of eternal torment.  Again, read Matthew 13:37-42; 13:47-50; 18:7-9; 18:32-35; 22:1-14; 24:45-51; 25:41-46.  You can ignore it, but you’ll be ignoring Jesus. 
Secondly, I want us to step back and look at another area of life that provides a great analogy in regards to eternity – the womb.
My wife just gave birth to our second son.  While pregnant she was very careful what she ate and what kind of exercises and work she took part in.  Why?  Because those 9 short months (doesn’t feel short at the time!) will affect the baby for the rest of its life.  She didn’t drink alcohol, barely touched caffeine and didn’t do belly-flops at the pool from the high-diving board.  Why not?  Because she knew it would affect the baby!  Her choices during those months would have consequences for decades
In much the same way, these few years here on earth are preparing us for the thousands of years in eternity.  For a physical life to be born, there's this stage of growth in the womb.  For a spiritual life to come to maturity, there's also been appointed this time on earth. 
Our choices in this life affect the next.  Whether we like it or not, we can’t get around it. 
Third, we need to remember the Justice of God.  What would a country be like if the government didn’t punish murderers, rapists, thieves?  It would not be loving – it would be chaos, it would be hellish!  God is the ultimate judge, he knows the hearts and deeds of all, and one day he will judge with justice.
Fourth, God is a holy God.  Sin is an offense against HIM.  We need to understand that the greater honor someone deserves, the greater the consequences for dishonoring them.  For example, if you slap me, that won't get you into too much danger.  But if you slap the president - you'll be in trouble!  God is the ultimate authority, worthy of greatest praise and infinite honor.  The natural consequences for spitting in the face of infinite honor is infinite punishment.  Whether we understand it on this side of eternity or not the reality is that “the punishment fits the crime” – for all of us.

At this point I want to remind us, this punishment was NEVER intended for us – it was made for the devil (Mt 25:41).  But because of our sinfulness, we’ve all become aligned with the devil in this life and so will enter into his punishment in the next.
Again, the reality is that NONE of us deserve life/heaven.  ALL of us deserve hell.  All of us have dishonored God, have broken his laws, have spat in his face.  The surprise isn't that hell exists.  The real surprise is that heaven exists - and that we are offered the opportunity to actually be with God forever! 

8. SO WHAT should our response be?
A.  We should stand in awe of God for his mercy.  The reality is that all of us deserve hell.  The fact that the door to eternal life has been opened is incredible grace!
B.  We need to live in light of eternity with the way we live and the choices we make.  This life is short - it would be foolish to focus on this brief existence, ignoring the reality of eternity to come.  As someone once said, "Only one life, it will soon be past, only what's done for Christ will last."
C.  We need to share the news of God's grace with others.  We don't bash them over the head with 'turn or burn'.  Rather we gently share the reality of eternal things, the reality of how sin kills and how we need God's love to bring us to wholeness.   Paul, after talking about Judgment Day, put it this way:
“Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade people…” (2 Cor 5:11).
That's why Jesus was so clear in telling his disciples to "GO into all the world" and share this message.  We all deserve hell...but he's made a way out! 
D. Finally, we must always speak the truth with heartfelt love, sharing the same attitude as Jesus who “wept over Jerusalem” (Luke 19:41) and Paul who “never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears” (Acts 20:31).

Verses from Matthew on Hell and Judgment:
5:22,29,30; 7:13,19, 23; 8:12; 10:15, 28; 11:22, 24; 12:36, 41, 42;
13:40-42; 49-50; 18:6.8.9, 34; 22:7,13; 23:15,33; 24:51;
25:11-13, 30, 41-46

[2] See John 1:1; 20:28; Hebrews 1:8-12; 1 John 5:20; Titus 2:13; 2 Peter 1:1 for a few examples.
[3] See John 1:3; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:10
[4]  J. Budziszewski, How to stay Christian in College, (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2004), page 42.
[5] John Piper, Brothers We are Not Professionals, (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2002), page 114.