I suppose it makes sense that the New Testament figure with the most to say about the afterlife is the One who had actually seen it beforehand. I’ve known for years that the Bible records more teaching about hell from Jesus than from any other source. It makes for an amusing rebuttal to the people who claim to be followers of a sweetness-and-light Jesus while rejecting the teachings of His mean ole followers. Wherever they found their Jesus, they didn’t find Him in the Scriptures.
Recently, I’ve come to realize that Jesus is also the source most responsible for Bible teaching about our afterlife in heaven. Sure, you’ve got a goodly chunk of material in Revelation 21-22, but I’m only about 55 percent certain that it’s about heaven (as opposed to being about the victorious church), and John’s efforts to conceal his point from Scripturally ignorant contemporaries also serve to conceal his point pretty well from many Christians today. Unless you’re playing Old Testament Reference Bingo as you work through Revelation, you’re not going to get it.
Jesus, on the other hand, talks about heaven in Matthew 22:1-14, 25:1-13, Luke 13:22-30, 14:15-24, and 22:28-30. Toss in the description of paradise as “Abraham’s side” in Luke 16:19-31, and you’ve got a considerable body of teaching that all employs the same accessible metaphor. To Jesus, heaven is a banquet, a wedding feast. I don’t think we’re doing the text a disservice to say that Jesus wants us to see heaven as an eternal party.
At this thought, a number of brethren become alarmed. In our society, after all, “party” has some ugly connotations. We hear “party” and think “frat-house kegger”. However, even for us, the essence of partying isn’t in getting drunk and sinning. Somebody who gets drunk by himself isn’t a party animal. He’s an alcoholic.
Instead, having a party is about being around other people and having fun with them. Certainly, I would choose different companions than the boys down at Delta Psi, and I would do different things with those companions, but for all of us, a party is about companionship.
As ideas go, that one is awfully close to the Biblical concept of fellowship, and fellowship is exactly what Jesus is attempting to convey with all of his feasting imagery. In Luke 16, Lazarus isn’t in Abraham’s bosom because they’re snuggling. It’s because they’re reclining at table, and Lazarus is leaning back against Abraham. In the final working-out of the kingdom of God, pauper and patriarch will celebrate together.
In No Exit, Sartre famously declares that hell is other people. He is exactly wrong. Hell isn’t other people. Heaven is. It’s impossible for us to get to heaven without loving others, and heaven will be filled with those who return our love. The joy that we experience there will be like the joy of an evening spent with dear friends, only intensified and prolonged for eternity.
Of course, the centerpiece of this eternal feast will be the bridegroom Himself, Jesus. I’ve never had a conversation with Jesus, though I desperately long to, but in heaven, the yearning of every honest heart for Him will be satisfied. Forever with the Lord, forever with His people—that’s a party that everyone should strive to attend!
I admit to being reassured by the apostle Paul’s use of sarcasm. As any student of Scripture knows, rather than being sweetly earnest all the time, Paul had a keen sense of irony, and he didn’t hesitate to deploy it for rhetorical effect. One of the most sarcastic passages in Paul’s writing appears in 1 Corinthians 4:8-13. Here, he compares the presumed spiritual accomplishments of the Corinthians to his own suffering for Christ’s sake. Particularly, in v. 10, he observes, “We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong, You are held in honor, but we in disrepute.”
The idea of being a fool for Christ is well worth unpacking. Of course, Paul isn’t speaking in spiritual terms here. He’s offering a world’s-eye-view, or, more precisely, a weak-Christian’s-eye-view, of the difference between him and the Corinthians. They had apparently managed to straddle the gap between Christ and the world, belonging to the former while remaining respectable in the eyes of the latter.
Paul, on the other hand, did all sorts of “foolish” things. He didn’t ask churches for money. He was loud about his faith even when he knew it would get him in trouble. He got kicked out of synagogues. He made such a nuisance of himself for Christ that he was constantly getting entangled in legal trouble or even run out of town. Paul was at war with the world, not on good terms with it, and the conflict constantly made his life more difficult. However, in God’s eyes, Paul, not the Corinthians, was on the right track.
Today, we must grapple with the possibility that unless we are willing to be fools for Christ’s sake, we might not be anythings for Christ’s sake. This is hard. Like the Corinthians, we want to be respectable, and it’s easy for Christians to fall into a respectable Chamber-of-Commerce kind of religion. We can be good solid citizens who go to church on Sunday, never do anything crazy, and leave everybody else alone.
The problem is, though, that Chamber-of-Commerce religion isn’t Christlike. It’s Christ-lite. Jesus was righteous, not respectable. The respectable elements of His society generally hated Him. He was loud. He caused too much trouble. He didn’t appreciate them the way they felt they should be appreciated. He demanded that people make dramatic changes in their lives for God’s sake. Ultimately, He picked too many fights with the wrong people and got nailed to a cross for it. “What a fool,” we can imagine them saying, shaking their heads sadly.
We need to be the same kind of fool. We need to be loud about Jesus and not shut up, even when others start thinking less of us for it. We need to be willing to do the right thing, even if society thinks we’re nuts for doing it. In short, we need to prove that this world is not our home by doing the things that the wise citizens of this world don’t do. Otherwise, we cannot foreclose the possibility that rather than using Jesus’ playbook, we’re merely using the playbook of the worldly wise.
Since the rise of Internet pornography, much has been made about how easy it is to be a secret sinner these days. That’s true, but in many other ways, keeping sin secret has become much harder. I was reminded of this by a couple of recent news stories.
In the first, a drunken woman’s racist rant was captured for all the world to see by her victim’s smartphone. In the second, another woman became entangled with a man who eventually murdered her because she had earlier allowed him to take compromising photos of her.
Of the two scenarios, the first is much more straightforward. Bad behavior that used to remain private now can go viral. 25 years ago, Susan Westwood would have faced no consequences for her outburst. Today, she lost her job less than 24 hours later, and the stigma of that recording will follow her for the rest of her life.
The take-home is pretty simple. Don’t get drunk. Don’t say mean, hateful things to people. If you do, the odds are that someone will use their smartphone to record you and wreck you. Those chickens will come home to roost in a big way.
Lauren McCluskey’s case is considerably more complex. I have the utmost sympathy for her, her family, and all who knew her. No one deserves to be the victim of sexual extortion and murder. She was not “asking for it”.
At the same time, though, we must not blind ourselves to the lessons we ought to learn from her tragic end. It is always risky and frequently sinful to take intimate photos/video of ourselves, or to allow others to take them of us. I don’t think it’s a sin for a husband and wife to send such things to each other, but all it takes is one nosy co-worker. Then, that unguarded phone or logged-in Facebook account can produce something that will haunt you for decades.
Of course, producing and sharing explicit photos/video outside of marriage is always wrong. It’s also much riskier. Marriage, though it often isn’t, is at least supposed to be for life. More casual relationships aren’t. With those, it doesn’t take a third party to expose you. You can be betrayed by your ex, your hookup partner, the unwilling recipient of your clumsy come-on, or even some stranger on the Internet who talked you into flashing them.
In fact, the momentum of our society makes this likely to occur. As the cynical saying goes, the Internet is for porn. When countless indecent pictures are already public, it seems reasonable to the possessor of an indecent picture of you to make it public too. Nor are worldly people likely to be deterred by the thought of the anguish it will cause you. In fact, they probably consider that part of the fun.
The spiritual consequences of sin always have been severe, but in this area, the physical consequences are quickly catching up. Because one moment of foolishness and evil can ruin us, we must be constantly on our guard. It may well be that the recording we don’t want anyone to see becomes the recording that everyone sees. As Paul points out in Ephesians 5:15-16, the days are evil. We had best walk carefully.
It is a warm November day in Palestine, sometime around 28 AD. The field on the upper hillside has been plowed, and a man with a basket is scattering seed. As he flings handfuls of grain across the field, some of the seeds bounce and come to rest around the margins of the field. This has been happening the same way in the same location for more than a thousand years.
On the lower hillside, stretching down toward the sea, a crowd has gathered. Many of them have come from a village around the next headland. A short way away from the shore, a small boat rocks in the water, and a man is standing in it. The crowd is watching him, and even the farmer on the hill above glances down occasionally.
The man says, “Listen! A farmer went out to plant some seed. . .”
The Bible is for all people in all times, but we should never underestimate the extent to which its language is bound up in a particular time. For us, the language of the parables is almost a kind of sacred code. When we talk about “sowing seed,” we are certainly not talking about planting a field by hand, which few (if any) of us have ever done. We’re talking about telling others about Jesus.
2000 years ago, though, this language wasn’t rich with symbolic significance. It was flatly descriptive of everyday life in Galilee. Indeed, my suspicion is that in many of the parables, Jesus isn’t merely describing a scene with which all of His audience is familiar. He is describing something that is happening right in front of them. The lilies of the field and the ravens aren’t hypothetical constructs. They are the weeds blooming at Jesus’ feet and the birds flying over His head, right as He is talking. The parables show that long before the invention of PowerPoint, Jesus was in the speech-with-visual-aid business.
This is important for us to recognize for two reasons. First, it shows us how difficult to follow Jesus’ teaching sometimes would have been. In our church-building auditoriums 2000 years later, it’s obvious that Jesus isn’t talking about a real farmer or real seed. 2000 years ago, when Jesus may well have been literally pointing to a real farmer with real seed, it would not have been at all obvious that He was doing anything more than offering an agriculture report. We often criticize the disciples for not understanding His teaching fully, but we ought to give them credit for recognizing when there was something more to understand.
Second, making the effort to visualize Jesus’ teaching in its original location can help us to understand why it got the reaction that it did. This is perhaps most important with the parable of the vineyard in Mark 12:1-12. We know from Mark 11:27 that Jesus is teaching on the grounds of the temple. As a result, we ought to read the parable in this way: “A man planted a vineyard [Jesus gestures to the temple precincts] and put a fence around it [Jesus gestures to the temple walls] and dug a pit for the winepress [Jesus gestures to the stairways down] and built a tower [Jesus gestures to the temple itself].”
There’s a reason why the chief priests, scribes, and elders had no trouble perceiving that Jesus had told the parable against them. The setting made it obvious. Jesus’ prediction that the temple elite would be destroyed was a threat too dangerous to ignore. The parable made it clear to them that He had to go.
The gospels are not a collection of myths. They are history, and history has a setting. The more we work at incorporating the setting, the better we will understand the message.
A few days ago, I got an email from a friend of mine who recently started preaching. He had been thinking about the Botham Shem Jean shooting and wondered if it should affect his message. Is it the place of a gospel preacher to condemn social injustice and cry out for change? He felt uncomfortable with the idea but wondered if his discomfort was due to his insulated status as a white man. Here’s what I told him:
Interesting question, brother! I brought Shawn in, we talked about it, and our conclusion is that your instincts are correct. Taking a side on the political controversies of the day is dangerous for a preacher and weakens his message.
Shawn and I see several main problems with taking a stand on some politically charged current event. First, the facts are generally unclear or even disputed. It's certainly tragic that an innocent black brother in Christ was shot in his own apartment, but it's not clear to me that he was shot because he was black. Similarly, I don't think any of us will ever know what really happened in the Trayvon Martin case. If you're taking a position on any events like this, you're taking a stand on uncertain ground.
Second, preaching on such events is likely to polarize the congregation. Because they are politically charged, members are likely to have strong pre-existing opinions about them, and if you express an opposite opinion, you're likely to alienate those members. I know that there are members at many congregations who would really struggle to wrap their heads around the notion that kneeling for the national anthem is an acceptable form of protest. Similarly, there are members at many congregations who think it's a valid way to call attention to racial injustice and would have trouble seeing the other position. No matter which side you pick, you're going to lose.
Third, calling for social change is simply not a part of the gospel. Above all, Christ is concerned with the heart of the individual. He calls the sinner to repentance. You want to preach on racism and the responsibility of the Christian to treat everyone with love, great! You should preach lessons like that. Unity in Christ is one of the great themes of Scripture. In fact, I'm preaching a lesson on the subject on Sunday. My experience is that when I condemn racism from the pulpit, it finds favor with the whole congregation, black and white alike.
However, I question the usefulness of any sermon that is aimed at people who aren't part of the congregation. Do we live in a perfectly just society? Of course not! However, reforming society is not the work of the preacher nor the work of the church. We are supposed to change the world one soul at a time, and if racism is ever going to be defeated in this country, it is going to be defeated in the hearts of individuals. We're already working on that. Why exchange the God-endorsed strategy for one that He hasn't endorsed?
Them's our thoughts, brother! Any questions?