Saturday, July 30, 2016

What is meant by asking in Jesus' name?

If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.
John 14:14

When I was a very young Christian, first saved, I was taught that a Christian was to pray in Jesus’ name. Though it was not explicitly stated, I did notice right away that as I listened to my Christian friends praying, they were always careful to add the formula “in Jesus’ name” at the end of their prayer. Having read the verse above, and heard others pray, I began to do the same for myself, but it always did make me wonder: what did it mean to pray in Jesus’ name? I recognized that just saying it was in Jesus’ name did not make it so. What did Jesus mean when he said it?

It is a promise only given in John, and that in the upper room discourse, something of which the other gospels do not cover the full panoply, but John does not repeat it once, but actually has Jesus teaching the concept of praying in his name six times. I have reprinted the six times below, all given in the upper room discourse.1 Of course, my intuition as a young Christian was correct; saying a prayer in Jesus’ name is not made by the magic addition of a few words. It is rather by praying in the Spirit of Jesus, with the same accord or the same manner that Jesus himself would prayer.

But do not be dismayed; there is much that can be prayed that is in the will of God. Many mountains have been moved, people have been healed, and peoples have been redeemed because of prayer. In giving us this fresh avenue of prayer, Jesus was indeed enlarging our borders beyond anything the faithful had ever seen. My favorite prayer of the Old Testament is when Elijah prays to his God, “Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the Lord God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again” (1 Kings 18:37). God answers that prayer by fire so dramatically that the witnesses are numbed with the grandeur, and can only repeat over and again: “The Lord, he is God, the Lord, he is God.” And I do love the prayer of Elisha, who striking the Jordan River with the cloak of his master, asks, “Where is the Lord God of Elijah?”, and walks over the Jordan on dry land.

These great acts were seldom done. In fact, even in Elijah’s time, the Bible is clear that wonders and miracles were few and far apart. The great new gift of Jesus was that he was giving the power of prayer not just to such great leaders as Elijah or Elisha, but to all people believing and receiving Christ—all Christians were to be given the awesome power to approach the God who created all things, and to have his ear. That is, to have God listening to each Christian is something mind boggling. I often think rather strange thoughts (perhaps because I am so strange?), and I often find myself thinking about Sunday worship, when so many believers are gathered together, and are praying to the same God at the same time. You or I could not possibly understand, much less answer, all the petitions that arise to God at the same time, but for God it is apparently easy—though it does lift the concept of multiprocessing to a new level. God is very aware of all of us at the same time.

Part of the passage in which these promises of asking anything are very pertinent. What exactly are we to pray? And how do we know that God does indeed hear? Both of these questions are answered in John. First, we need to see the opening statement of Jesus on this subject, before he gave us the six passages promising whatever we asked, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father” (14:12). Whenever John gives us an account of Jesus saying verily verily, we do well to pay close attention to what is said. Here Jesus is promising greater works to those who will believe on him. Then he follows closely with the six repetitions of asking anything in his name. What is Jesus teaching us here? It is obvious that our access to prayer, and thus to the Father, is going to make us do greater things than even did the Son. That would perhaps be blasphemy, were it not something which Jesus himself is teaching us. But look at what else Jesus teaches in the passage.

Jesus says, “And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever”(14:16). This is a marvelous gift. In the Old Testament the Spirit came upon men at sporadic times, and did not linger. Now, Jesus is saying that the Comforter will come and will stay with us forever. Next, Jesus says,”Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.” Along with the gift of the Comforter, our relationship has changed. No longer are we servants—now we are to be considered friends. Such a concept, again, borders on blasphemy, except that it comes from the mouth of Jesus himself.

But the whole point of the Comforter, when we are thinking about asking in the name of Jesus, is that Comforter has forever changed our basic nature. Now we are being given the very nature and person of God, to dwell in us forever. It changes us from servants to friends. As John 1:12 reminds us, we are given the very nature of God, and are considered to be the sons of God. We are adopted, tis true, but nonetheless the very nature of God is in us, and molds us to be new creatures.

Thus, when we pray in Jesus’s name we are to be praying from that new nature, that new relationship. It is not the words, though I think there is nothing wrong in noticing that we are to pray in his name, and ending our prayers in Jesus’ name. But the doctrine he is teaching here is so exciting. The Holy Spirit makes us one with God and teaches us and powers us to be what we should be—adopted sons looking for the coming of our Lord, when at last we are completely changed into his image. We are to pray from the Spirit, to allow that in us to motivate us as to what we should ask. That is what praying in Jesus’ name is all about.

What do we pray for? It is impossible for me to tell you what. You pray as you are moved by the Spirit, and that can include a lot of wonderful and awesome things. But our underlying motivation for prayer is to be praying as Jesus would pray, as the Spirit Himself will lead us to pray. All such prayer should be directly to the glory of God, and not contrary to what we are taught so explicitly about walking with God.

We do know from the same passage that Jesus told us about the new thing of asking in his name, he also told us of another duty, that of abiding in him. We should not often find ourselves not abiding in him, especially when we would pray. Powerful and answered prayer comes when we do abide in him. In the next chapter, the Lord’s Prayer, he prays that we might be bonded together in a unity that is one as Jesus and the Father are one (17:11). We are to pray with great concern for those around us, and always that the glory of God may result.

Having said that, it occurs to me that often I have prayed effectually at times when disaster is near, or upon me, and that my prayers are answered. When I finally come to understand that my last step was a mistake, and that now I am falling headlong off the cliff, a quick “help me, Father” is very appropriate. Our Father does indeed care for us in our perceived needs, whatever they may be. I have found prayer in my life to be answered many times, and I simply do not know what I would do without it. In bestowing this gift on the church, Jesus knew just how large a gift it was, and how important it would be to the believer to have the Holy Spirit. I cannot begin to imagine a redeemed life without it! To be able to go to the Father, and remind him (as if he needs a reminder?) that we are coming to him in the beloved name of his Son, always captures his attention, and we know that he hears our prayer. John, later in his epistles tells us that if we are assured that he hears us, then we have whatever we asked (1 John 5:14,15).2 Let us then go boldly before the throne of grace, praying in his name, and expecting our loving Father to answer.

1. The appearances of the asking in Jesus’ name
John 14:13
And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

John 14:14
If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.

John 15:16
Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.

John 16:23
And in that day ye shall ask me nothing. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.

John 16:24
Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.

John 16:26
At that day ye shall ask in my name: and I say not unto you, that I will pray the Father for you:

2. 1 John 5:14, 15
And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us:
And if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him.

Monday, July 25, 2016

What is meant by the narrow path?

Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:
Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

Matthew 7:13, 14

When Jesus came into the world, he certainly upset the natural order of things. We see him cleansing his Father’s temple by driving out the money changers, and we see him making apparent outlandish statements such as, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven.” The disciples assumed that suffering was a sign of sin, which God was sovereignly punishing, something that had been assumed by man at least since the days of Job. But Jesus taught them, saying, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” The meek? Ridiculous! What can he be talking about? Everyone thought that the truly meek were the last in line for everything. Instead, what Jesus said was to confound traditional thought, something that he did often.

But there is another way in which Jesus upset the natural order of things, for he taught that the way to heaven was but a narrow one, and that few there were that would find it. This upsetting teaching is perhaps the most rejected of men and women of our day. It is not that, they say, I do not believe that the way is narrow, but rather that they say, surely a God of love includes everyone in his plan. I have seen many a funeral where the dead person has exhibited no faith, none at all, but in his eulogy is assumed somehow to be accepted of God. All of us, properly so, are reluctant to speak evil of the dead—but the scripture is plain, “he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God”. So what we hear at a eulogy often bears little resemblance to the deceased. We somehow convince ourselves that somehow that difficult person was able to unsay and undo the things that made up his life, though we often have no evidence of any last minute conversion. I think this is perhaps one of the best proofs of what our society believes: that somehow God overlooks our faults and forgets our sin.

This ill-defined belief system has been spreading its tumor-like growth throughout society for many generations. Even Spurgeon, Calvinist though he was, believed that the world was coming to a point where everyone would be a Christian, and there would not be any unbelief. In fact, early in the last century (and before), many Christians and non-Christians alike were leagued together with a gigantic fabulous plan in which they figured man would at last begin getting it right. Heaven on earth would be established, for the Christian, many who were sincere and devout, believed that Christ would finally return to an earth which was properly prepared for him. The non-Christians especially liked the part about self-improvement, and a plan which so obviously deified the exaltation of mankind, and thus were more than willing to ally themselves with their religious counterparts. But such beliefs ignore Zacharias and John (in Revelation), major prophecies which point to a world at the end that is rebellious and antagonistic to God, calling for the judgment and discipline of God himself. I would think that whatever one’s interpretation of Revelation and Zachariah, that at least one would see that the times of the end are calling out for, and receiving deserved judgment. Instead, men have been able to delude themselves with the proposition that things are getting better, and that surely we can make heaven, just around the corner.

Such beliefs were absolutely contrary to the teachings of Jesus who taught that the spiritual experience had to begin with something called being “born-again” (John 3). Even Nicodemus could not avoid the necessity of the new birth, and even being a teacher of the Law and a religious leader of his time could not abrogate the necessity of being born again.

The road to Hell is most often a quiet walk, where a soul journeys through life, always delaying the hard decisions for a few more miles, fooling themselves with whispers of false confidence, insisting that but a little more effort and a few more steps and it will be alright, that God will surely look at me and see my good heart, that somehow my very soul, neglected and drought-stricken, will be watered and taken care of by divine mercy, no matter that I have rejected that mercy made freely available. Quiet souls, kindly souls, gentle and sweet souls will line the road to Hell, not ever being allowed to see themselves as rebellious against God until it is too late. The angel of light is able to make such things glitter with the brightness of gold until the journey’s end, when it is too late, when we realize we have been had, and in the final sense of the word. Welcome to Hell!

And the deception deepens. Modern man, as I have already tried to show, has throughout history always been modern. There never was a generation who thought they did not know better, that they did not have more understanding, that they were finally doing better, and that better times were just around the corner. Somehow man maintains this delusion even in the face of a crumbling world around him. In part, the delusion is maintained by the accumulation of knowledge, something that is happening at simply an astounding rate, because of our libraries and our depth and breadth of knowledge continues even as our public schools fail in teaching basic reading. How can we be creating an illiterate society and an advanced society at the same time? Do we not even see that they are in contradiction to each other? I fear for those who do read, for most of those are now bereft of a moral compass, and frequently want to carry our society into newly-evolved directions, not realizing that men have many times tried those ways before, and they have been found wanting. There remains but one narrow and hard-to-find path, and few there are that find it.

I am told that 25% of the world claims to be Christian, of one sort or another. Even if I were to take this number at face value, believing it totally, that still leaves 75% of the world careening their way to Hell. No wonder Jesus said broad is the way to Hell, and many there are on that road. In my mind the more tragic of these is found in America, where many are so close to the gospel, living by good rules, and having a form of godliness, but not understanding its dynamic—missing the essential part of Christianity while coasting along with some of its benefits. Therefore, at the end of this piece, I want to simply describe that narrow way. Paul asks us to examine ourselves, to see whether we be in the faith or not.1

The song “I Can Only Imagine” has it exactly backwards, though a beautiful and favorite of mine. I cannot begin to imagine, so the refrain saying I can only imagine should be I cannot begin to imagine. I find myself thinking of the last trip, that of death, which comes to us all, until the day of the Lord, and in my thinking I wonder about so much. I have come to believe that it is probably not anything like I have imagined, that God had worked to make it far more personal and meaningful to each of us than we can begin to appreciate. Jesus said I go now to prepare a place for you, and certainly two thousand years is a long time for preparation. I daresay we never stop with our awe and wonder at what he has done, especially after we are allowed to finally see it. At that point, the body of the Bride will be fitly joined and made, each of us complimenting others, and together, without absenting even one, the Lord will make his bride complete.

In John 17, the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus mentions this one request no less than four times.2 Why would Jesus pray to the Father, saying something four times? Did he not know his Father was always listening? Of course he did, and that is made plain in other passages (his prayer for Lazarus). He repeats the prayer for our sake, that we might not miss one of the most important parts of the Lord’s prayer. He prays four times very close to the same thing, that we might be one, even as he and the Father are one. He did not want us to miss the importance of being one.

In the times of a Great Awakening, the church does seem to be able to lay aside many of the doctrinal differences to focus on the agreement that we have in having the same Lord by faith. At those times we are but, I feel, a poor reflection of the unity that we will one day have. Imagine the saints gathered together, the faithful from every Christian creed, believing a loving the appearance of our Lord in the same main way, but having other emphasis in which we appreciate our Lord a bit differently. I think it will be but the beginning of an eternity of wonder as we appreciate the little differences in the Lord that each of us have focused on. Will not the Lord bless and encourage those differences?

I speak not of those on the broad path to hell; but rather I speak of those God has already winnowed out: the faithful. Truly the path is narrow, and few there are that find it, but in that day, the splendor of the diversity of the Bride will become something that shines out as a witness of the splendor of the Lord. Indeed, Revelation tells us that the righteousness of the saints will be the clothing for the Bride on the day that the Lord comes to claim his own.3 I believe on that day we will see all with faith in Christ, but finally, on that day, we will see the majesty of what God has done in and through the church. So while the path is narrow—having only the vehicle of faith to navigate it successfully—there will be the great differences of those he has chosen, all together bonded into an indivisible unity. Oh precious is the plan of God! How awesome it is that we shall be part of it!

1. The Romans Road is a simple concise and Biblical way to check your salvation:

A. For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.
Romans 3:23
This is a simple recognition of what I was talking about in the space above. We want to do it our way and we are always working at self-reformation. It does not work, and every one of us is wrong—not just wrong by such things as losing our temper, but wrong in the basis of our very nature.

B. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8
God loves us and has made a way of escape, if we will but believe the good news. What better news for the soul than to realize that Christ died for you, loving you, and making a way for you to come to him.

C. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Romans 6:23
The wages of sin (doing wrong) is death, which results only in condemnation from God.
The gift of God is eternal life, which comes because of commendation from God. I say commendation because from henceforth when God looks at you, he will no longer see your sin but rather see his Son who died for that sin.

D. That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.
Romans 10:9
Believing God sent his Son to die for you because he loves you is the only thing God desires from you. He wants none of our works, no matter how fine we might believe them to be. He only wants us to confess or agree with God that Jesus, raised from the dead, is your only hope of salvation.

When you do these things, heaven begins a work in your heart involving a multitude of actions, all on God’s part, that takes place miraculously. If you have done it sincerely, coming to God as you are, the Bible tells us that all of heaven rejoices over your finding life. By doing these things, you have become a new creature, a born-again person. Essentially, then salvation is nothing about you except your believing (or acceptance), and everything about the work of God.

2. The four mentions in the Lord’s Prayer for unity of believers:
And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are.
John 17:11

Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word;
That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.
And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one:
I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me
John 17:20-23

3. Revelation 19:8, And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Will justice reign?

Earth groans and waits
For her King to come
With trembling hands
Of broken innocence
She bows and breaks
'Neath her heavy load
For time has held her ransom
Will justice reign
Will truth prevail

-Kathryn Scott, words from Will Justice Reign

The idea for this question emanates from the haunting lyrics of Kathryn Scott’s well-done song. I think the idea for the question to be so very basic that I cannot imagine why I had not thought of it before. We live in a new generation, and foster the myth that we are “modern”, something that every other generation also thought as they lived out their times. And yet, if we are modern, where is the progress? We see great progress in the advance of knowledge, but little progress in man himself. If we are truly progressing, should not the perfect man be out there, somewhere within our reach? I speak not of the truly perfect man who has already come, and been largely denied by the world; I speak rather of that nebulous idea that somehow we might achieve that state (that we freely spurned when it was given to us) by higher and better achievement. I think that is the center focus of “modern” man even when he lived centuries ago. We were always on the cutting edge of making the world better. The world is bent on achieving that which is freely given, and hell-bent on doing it “their way”.

If their way is working, where is the better world? Have greed, murder, and wars diminished? We have a set of people who believe in one world, who believe in progressivism, but there is scant evidence of any sense in which we are progressing. We have only the last century to look at, and doing the math, find more people killed in the last century than in the wars of the last ten centuries. If this is how we are to measure progress, surely something is wrong with our measuring stick.

Nuclear bombs now reside in the presence of the rogue states, which only the most optimistic continue to rule out a conflagration of this new century that could dwarf those of the last century. Yet the optimistic seem to rule, and everywhere we see denial of the possibility of nuclear holocaust—something all we American children were taught to expect in the 1960’s. The likelihood of nuclear war continues to grow a bit with each passing decade, if ignored by the optimistic, and it is almost futile to point out that mankind has never before turned away from using the destructive weapons it has invented. Nuclear weapons now have seven decades of non-use, and it would be crazy to presume that the world will long continue to observe this abstinence.

All of this is just to set up the environment for the question: will justice reign? If it is to come from mankind, the answer must be an unequivocal no—man is a failure, and more strenuous attempts at self-reform will, in the end, avail nothing. However, there is great reason not to leave the answer there, but instead, to look to the Bible and see what the Bible says about justice. Having just finished reading the Psalms again, I was struck by how often the Psalmist assumes righteousness. I tend to forget that revelation is progressive, and I do forget that things obvious to us now, were not at all obvious to the earlier old testament people.
It is a marvel to me that Job says, “For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.” Job, the earliest writer in the Old Testament, probably around the time of Abraham, knew of something that strongly implies the resurrection—all thousands of years before the cross. How did Job know that? Did God give him a special revelation? Were their prophets of his day that spoke from the Lord? Was this commonly done for men of faith during that time? All of those questions we cannot begin to answer, but we should marvel over the fact that much of the future gospel was imparted to Job way ahead of time.

But in Job’s time, they assumed that prosperity was a sign of favor from God. Job’s friends, famously wrong, all argue that Job’s plight is due to his sin, and thus the withdrawal of God’s approval. The Psalmist often made the same mistake, though not always. David tells us that “a broken and contrite heart, Oh Lord, you will not despise,” but for every instance where he tells us of sin there are two instances of where he presents himself as righteous and full of integrity. In Psalm 7:8, David tells us, “Judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness, and according to mine integrity that is in me.” He maintains his righteousness to God many times, and the Psalms are replete with the “assumed righteousness” theme. We know that David is mistaken about his righteousness, that he had only partial revelation, and still often made the mistake of assuming God was on the side of the righteous. In other places, David is enlightened beyond his time, and in places like Psalms 32:1, he says, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” How did he know that he needed his sin forgiven? By faith, and revelation, he was able to apprehend that which was to come.

Even in the time of Jesus, the disciples struggled with this theme of riches being a sign of approval from God. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than it is for a rich man to be saved,” proclaimed Jesus, shocking the disciples. Their amazement at his statement is obvious in their next question, “Then, Lord, who can be saved?” They had assumed that the richer you were, the more likely you were to have God’s approval.

And I give all of these examples (and many more might be found), making the point extensively, so that I can point to today’s society. Do we not do the same thing? Do we not look to the wealthy and the rich for signs of God’s approval? Do we not measure a society by their rich class, assuming that their morals are the proper morals? In the midst of all of that balderdash, Kathryn Scott, in her song quoted at the beginning, says that earth groans and waits for her King to come. And it is precisely at this point that justice will indeed come and forever reign.

I hate the oppression and tyranny and indignity of life I see around me, and I know that I see the best of it, because I do not travel to the dark corners of the world, and instead live in the United States. But even here, I see murders taking place, and no one held accountable. I see politicians lining their pockets with gold that was supposed to go to help the poor. I see people venerated who are naught but evil leaders, and I see so many daily casualties of the careening morals of our society. How much shall be made right? The correct answer is every bit.

First there is the judgment for the Christian, and before you insist that the Christian is not to be judged, you need to remember that he has already been judged in Christ. God poured out his wrath and judgment for the sins of the world, that whosoever believes might escape the judgment themselves, because God has already judged his Son for our sins. There is no sin that cannot be forgiven, no mercy that cannot be extended to those who will believe God. Do not let the horror of your own sin make you think that God’s provision is not adequate—it is fully able to provide mercy to all who call upon him and believe. Do not insult God by telling him that your sins are too big for his provision—all he asks is your acceptance and belief. Not by works of righteousness which we have done, says Titus, but according to his mercy he has saved us.

But apart from hiding behind Christ, wherein all Christians must find their rescuing, there remains no sacrifice for sin. What does that mean? No one gets away with anything. Period. Every murderer, even those who escape justice in this world, shall face justice in that world. Every plot, every evil deed, and every evil device shall be uncovered and exposed in that day.

Even the mundane evil—the rejection of the provision of God—shall be exposed on that day, and apart from Christ no one will escape. The thoughts of man are open to God, and on that day, they will all be exposed. As long as we assume that man is not an eternal creature, it makes sense to plot against other men, and devise evil subterfuges. But the second that men are found not to be just animals gone crazy through evolution, but instead are found to be eternal creatures made in the image of God, the game is up. In that day, men will be righteously and completely judged for their sins, whatever they may be. Will justice reign? Most assuredly!

A final note. It is easy to blame the judge, and thus it might be easy for men to imagine that it somehow is all God’s fault. But the great escape from judgment is made, and having given his all to make it, God could do no more than he did. The fault lies in the doers of the deeds. Having chosen to meet God on their own terms, those are the very terms that they will be judged by. In that sense, God will not be the cause of their destruction, merely the instrument. If a man freely chooses hell and damnation, in the end God allows them their choice. How much better that we should hide behind the one he sent, and all the while, being most careful in our treatment of others, knowing that the Judge does indeed see all things.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Why did God remove the tree of life?

In the Garden of Eden, woman sinned, being deceived, and the man followed her, knowingly sinning. It tells us in Genesis that after the sin, God considered the Tree of Life and removed it from access. History is full of stories of men rediscovering the Fountain of Youth, and of course, all of them are untrue. When God removes something, he really removes it and there is no chance of men ever ferreting out something that God has taken away. Psalm two talks about the kings of the earth plotting against God, and the Psalm says God shall have them all in derision—in other words God laughs at the feeble plans of mankind.

The writer of Genesis (generally thought to be Moses) brings us this information on the Tree of Life, and it is not much talked about afterwards—until we get to the last book of the Bible (written by John about 1500 years later), and then the subject comes up once more. In fact, it does not come up until the last chapter of the last book of the Bible, and there John tells us, “In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:2). It is one of the most understated connections of the Bible, pointing to a common theme in the Bible that goes from book to book and from generation to generation. A theme begun under the hand of Moses is mostly left until the very end of the last book written by John over 1,500 years later! What majestic truth is pointed to in the harmony of the Scriptures.

My wife and I are avid fruit lovers, and I tell her that I think one of the twelve fruits of this tree must certainly be cherries, and perhaps cherries as big as apples. But there is no reason for believing that except for the reason that my opinion is that the taste of cherries is somewhat heavenly. But back to the question: why did God remove the tree of life? Genesis is very clear as to the reason, God saying that man would become like one of us.

And that is the crux of the question. What does it mean? Obviously, had man been allowed to partake of the tree of life, he would have taken on the eternal nature of God. Man was not ready to do that. Consider if you will, a sort of Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, living his very wrong life out forever. To be forever condemned to being wrong, living wrong, thinking wrong. That was the dilemma that God correctly saw. Instead, he provided another way, with a promise of the Redeemer coming one day to bruise Satan’s head.

I can think of nothing more awful for this universe than to have man as he is, live eternally. Think what heights he might reach! Without a doubt we would come to the place where we would see the nuclear bomb as the proverbial outdated and scorned musket, so great and terrible would our invented weapons of destruction be. If you remember the Death Star from Star Wars, you are getting close to the awfulness of what man would become.

I think of C.S. Lewis’ very awe-full work, The Screwtape Letters, where all the thinking is perverted, where good is redefined as bad, where evil is the foundation of all society. I read that work once, and have no desire to return to it; indeed, Lewis himself confessed it was a very difficult book to write because it caused his thinking to become so convoluted. Our universe would be doomed to become an extension of our planet. Men would live forever with their wrongs which would never be righted, piling up around them in ever growing heaps, and the universe would only grow darker and more abhorrent.

Instead, God in his mercy, removed the tree of life, and in due time, sent his Son to make a way of peace possible between himself and man. Not forgetting that tree, he waited until the last author of the Bible and told us that one day it will be renewed.

We cannot be as we are now forever. Instead we must be changed, and that which is perverted in our nature must be straightened. This God accomplished in the cross, nailing our sins forever to the cross, and Jesus, being raised from the dead, sent us a Helper, just like him, to live and dwell in us, promising us in this lifetime of the things to come. The tree of life will bear its fruit once more, and the living water will be made available to all. May the Lord come soon!

We have already seen where Revelation proclaims that the tree of life will come back bearing fruit, but the Bible tells us of that time when the living water shall return, way back in the Old Testament, in Zechariah, “And it shall be in that day, that living waters shall go out from Jerusalem; half of them toward the former sea, and half of them toward the hinder sea: in summer and in winter shall it be. And the Lord shall be king over all the earth: in that day shall there be one Lord, and his name one.” So, again, we see the harmony of the Bible—complete in a sense of no other book, written by many authors, and yet the themes begun in Genesis are completed throughout, making it obvious that there is but one author.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

How many people are going to Hell?

Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
Matthew 7:13, 14

Obviously, Jesus was making the point that more of us are going to hell than are going to heaven. Jesus spent quite a bit of his ministry, more than most people realize, in telling about the coming judgment, and about death and hell. So few of us ever bother to read the Bible to find out what he really said. In the previous question, we focused on the seven woes told to the Pharisees, and found that self-righteousness is probably the biggest impediment to man realizing his utter need.

Randy Alcorn in his book Heaven, quotes Dorothy Sayers: “”There seems to be a kind of conspiracy,” writes novelist Dorothy Sayers, “to forget, or to conceal, where the doctrine of hell comes from. The doctrine of hell is not ‘mediaeval priestcraft’ for frightening people into giving money to the church: it is Christ’s deliberate judgment on sin. . . . We cannot repudiate Hell without altogether repudiating Christ.””1 People are very willing to talk about heaven, and who might be eligible for heaven, but not about hell, for many reject the idea of eternal punishment altogether, reasoning that a merciful God would not punish.

Thus the first error of the self-righteous—they define God in their own terms, and will not rely on the definitions of scripture at all. God, in his graciousness, has extended his mercy to all. There is no race or creed or gender or deviant lifestyle that cannot be saved. But salvation only comes through repentance and faith (perhaps it would be better to say faith and repentance, for that is the normal order I see in a newly saved person), and through no other way. It does no good for us to try to define God, for he defines himself, and we can only appreciate that through the scripture. If one were to follow Jefferson (who retranslated all of the New Testament, removing all of the miracles), and were to take out the many speeches that Jesus had to say about Hell, there would be a very large portion of what he said that would disappear.

That should serve as a sign post to us that Jesus really did want us to know about hell. It makes us uncomfortable to think about it, much less talk about it, and most of us, judging from history, will quietly walk ourselves to the final judgment without ever really thinking through what is coming. “Our ancestors came from Eden. We are headed toward a New Earth. Meanwhile, we live out our lives on a sin-corrupted Earth, between Eden and the New Earth, but we must never forget that this is not our natural state. Sin and death and suffering and war and poverty are not natural—they are the devastating results of our rebellion against God.”2

The corruption of sin is so blinding that most do not even see their need. Christians have the ministry of reconciliation, of trying to show the blind where to get bread, but in much of the world it is against the law and culture to even explain the gospel. What an evidence of the truth of the gospel! Evil is made plain when we stop to consider the darkness is resolute about one thing only—and that is letting the light come in. The good news is opposed by men everywhere, and even in my beloved country, it is getting so difficult just to explain it simply. “No wonder Satan doesn’t want us to learn the truth about Heaven. If we fall in love with the place and look forward to the future that God has for us, we’ll fall more in love with God, and we’ll be emboldened to follow him with greater resolve and perspective.”3

So, yes, it is true—most people are going to hell. Some seem to be going in the fastest train, careening their way recklessly to hell. But most dutifully punch their tickets, and take many stops along the way of life, blithely headed towards an unconsidered eternity. Some have estimated professing Christians to be nearly one-fourth of mankind, but of those how many does God know as his children? It passes the ability of this saint to know any answer to that question, but we are left with a very awful fact: More than three-quarters of mankind are headed to a judgment wherein they will be found wanting. Truly Jesus said it, narrow is the way to life, but broad is the path to destruction.

Of this there should be no doubt, hell is a real place. Jesus told us “And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea. And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched.” Notice the very graphic description. I have heard many times people unthinkingly say that they should go to hell because that was where all their friends were. There is nothing in the Biblical description of hell that allows us to foster the wild notion that we have any association with others. Milton, not the Bible, gives us the picture of Satan reigning in hell. What we are told of heaven is that it is a place of awfulness, of darkness, and fire, and the endless torture of being without the ability to even slake our thirst.

In Mark 9, Jesus takes three times to solemnly tell us of that awful place and it would do well for us to heed it. “Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.” Imagine being stuck with your immortality, for your soul in the image of God is indeed immortal, and having no rest. And knowing, beyond all question that you were there only because you neglected the things of God, the glorious gospel of being forgiven in Christ, if we will but put our trust in him.

And what of the rest of us—by us I mean Christians? Do we not have a ministry of reconciliation? Ought we not be busy proclaiming in hopes that some blind might yet see? I remember that in No Compromise, the biography of Keith Green by his wife Melody, that there is a story of Keith witnessing to one of his close friends. Getting nowhere with his message to his friend, Keith’s frustration grew and grew. Eventually tears started streaming down his face as he countenanced his friend’s fate. It was those tears that finally broke through, and brought his friend to faith and repentance. Have we sought our witness to our friends out like that? Have we cried because we realize the fate of those who stay blind? As long as this age lasts, and it is drawing to a close, we are commanded to go forth and proclaim. Is there someone today that you might pray about being that witness to?

1. Alcorn, Randy (2011-12-08). Heaven (Alcorn, Randy) (Kindle Locations 776-778). Tyndale House Publishers. Kindle Edition.
2. Alcorn, Randy (2011-12-08). Heaven (Alcorn, Randy) (Kindle Locations 1657-1659). Tyndale House Publishers. Kindle Edition.
3. Alcorn, Randy (2011-12-08). Heaven (Alcorn, Randy) (Kindle Locations 3122-3123). Tyndale House Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Friday, July 08, 2016

What are the seven woes of the Pharisees?

Notice the introduction in Matthew 23:13 (“But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in”), Jesus gives a general woe to the Pharisees, introducing the theme of the woes which is that the Pharisees are actively preventing other people from getting to heaven even while they themselves are not going into heaven. Why? These were not what society would term awful men. They were men of great learning, esteemed by the society as living righteously, and therein is the problem. They were men who were standing on their own foundation of righteousness, missing completely their need for God. In that, they compare well with many in our society.

Today we have many people who are rich, satisfied within themselves, who are not at all ready to meet their Maker. The message of the gospel, that salvation is by faith alone and is the gift of God, does not penetrate through their garbs of righteousness. Their reasoning is that they do more good than wrong, and that when that final day comes perhaps God will have to fudge a bit in their favor, but surely their good deeds will outweigh their bad. By such reasoning many souls continue in their blindness all of their lives, slow-walking themselves to hell, and ignoring all the warning signs. Look at the woes of the Pharisees and see what those with self-righteousness wrongly assume.

1. (Matthew 23:14) “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.”
Pharisees were counseling widows, talking them out of their houses, and garnering money for their own purposes. Instead of helping them to find heaven, they were accumulating wealth and power unto themselves by making their piousness evident through public prayer. For this Jesus says they will be judged more severely.

2. (Matthew 23:15) “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.”
When I read this woe I cannot help but wonder where Saul of Tarsus was, who later was renamed Paul. Trained by the Pharisees, he shows up more than a decade after this, vigorously attacking Christians. So it is when the self-righteous teach others—their pervasive doctrine remakes someone to be much more evil. Very likely, he was a youth at the time of Jesus teaching, and was being filled with the leaven of the Pharisees.

3. (Matthew 23:16) “Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor!”
The interpretation of the laws of God were woefully overdone by the Pharisees. Instead of looking for the truth of those laws, it was almost as if they were taking a microscope to the laws and finding things there that simply were not to be found. Here Jesus points to their rule that swearing by the temple itself was nothing, but swearing by the gold in the temple was everything. Their hearts were laid bare by the accusation of Jesus—gold was where their hearts were, and not at all with the God who made it all.

4. (Matthew 23:23) “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.”
Notice the woe. Jesus is not correcting their fastidiousness in observing the small points of the law. Indeed, he tells them that is commendable, but his lament is over the lack of attention to the greater things. Are we not just the same? We are so careful in some few things and so blind in other things. At least, I have found repeated blind spots in my own life, and sought to correct those under the power of the Spirit, but how much more the self-righteous? They point to their deeds always, and those deeds may be wonderful works, but they neglect to mention all the things they have forgotten. It is most dangerous for such a person to find himself standing before God and facing his judgment. It is no good defense to point at one’s good works when we know that wickedness of the heart will always find us out.

5. (Matthew 23:25) “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.”
I remember reading of Luther’s struggle for salvation. He knew himself to be desperately wicked, and forced himself to many extra confessions, struggling with the “inside of his cup”. Luther knew his sin, and eventually he found the way to be rid of it was by faith, by believing that God punished sin at the cross in his Son, and that because of that punishment we have been forever redeemed—by faith. In contrast, the self-righteous man is so busy cleaning the outside of the cup that he never sees the inside, stained and hideous and corrupt though it may be.

6. (Matthew 23:27) ”Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness.”
In this woe the glaring contrast of self-righteousness is made to that which is inside. Jesus furthers his theme of being clean on the outside but filthy on the inside. I often hear such people protest, “Oh, you know I am not such a bad guy”, and that may bring a smile from our spouses in this lifetime, but do we really want to go to God and try to convince him that we are not evil? He sees directly into our hearts, which is at times most inconvenient, but there it is. I am afraid such a defense will not work.

7. (Matthew 23:29-31) “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous, And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets. Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers.”
The self-righteous had made monuments out of the graves of the prophets, trying to show how they were different than their fathers. But they were destined to do the deeds of their wicked fathers, and nowhere does that become more evident than in their rush to crucify the Lord of Glory. Here Jesus, I believe, is looking forward to the dastardly deed of the cross which these self-righteous sepulchers were going to perform.
The seven woes of the Pharisees, then, were aimed at the self-righteous, and we seem to have plenty of those in modern society. I believe that the cloud of self-righteousness stands over the heads of multitudes, throughout all generations. Certainly it is the chief way that men are deceived into believing they have no need for a savior.

Remember that these are the very best of society. The disciples somewhere exclaim “Who, then, is able to enter the kingdom of God?” after Jesus tells them that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter heaven. Even the disciples figured that God was surely with the “nice” people—were they not rich as a sign of God’s approval? The rich young man came to Jesus, telling Jesus of all that he had done (self-righteous), and Jesus, the gospel says, looked at the young rich man, and loved him. Jesus said, “Go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor.” But the young rich man could not be parted from his riches, and went away from the very love of God.

I can think of nothing worse than being in hell and knowing that God loves you, and also knowing that there is nothing that can be done, for you listened to the quiet lies of self-righteousness and neglected the necessity of caring for your soul. Elsewhere Jesus says I am not come to call the righteous, but the unrighteous. No wonder! The righteous will never hear his call, for they never examine themselves to see that righteousness is just a fa├žade. It is only those who realize their unrighteousness that will answer the call to faith.

The warning is there. Jesus ends the woes asking the Pharisees how they will escape the damnation of hell. It is most interesting to study history and observe how few of these Pharisees ever did see their need. Paul stands out most prominently, and there were but two or three others of all the thousands of Pharisees. Without a doubt, there are going to be many surprised people at the last judgment, for in blindly depending on their own deeds, they condemn themselves, and there remains nothing more to be done. Sinners in the hands of an angry God.

Matthew 23:
13 But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.
14 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.
15 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.
16 Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor!
17 Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold?
18 And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty.
19 Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift?
20 Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon.
21 And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein.
22 And he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon.
23 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.
24 Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.
25 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.
26 Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.
27 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness.
28 Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.
29 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous,
30 And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.
31 Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets.
32 Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers.
33 Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?