Living Now with Eternity in Mind#1: Living with Hope

This is the first of a series of sermons I preached a number of years ago on 1 Peter. Looking at my files, I realized that some are missing. It’s possible that some are missing because my laptop wasn’t working and in for repairs and therefore prepared my notes by hand. So I will post the ones I have that (I think) are worth sharing over the next several days. I hope that they bless and encourage you.

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ:
To those chosen, living as exiles dispersed abroad in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient and to be sprinkled with the blood of Jesus Christ.
May grace and peace be multiplied to you.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you. You are being guarded by God’s power through faith for a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. You rejoice in this, even though now for a short time, if necessary, you suffer grief in various trials so that the proven character of your faith—more valuable than gold which, though perishable, is refined by fire—may result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him; though not seeing him now, you believe in him, and you rejoice with inexpressible and glorious joy, because you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who prophesied about the grace that would come to you, searched and carefully investigated. They inquired into what time or what circumstances the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating when he testified in advance to the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you. These things have now been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—angels long to catch a glimpse of these things.

1 Peter 1:1-12

What is hope? To answer that question, let me ask another one: do you like getting something in the mail? Or have you ever opened your mailbox just hoping that maybe—just maybe—there’s something in it for you? Now, here’s the thing. This can happen in two ways. I can just go to my mailbox hoping that maybe there’s something there for me. Maybe somebody sent me a surprise. Usually I’m disappointed! But there’s another way this can happen. There’s that feeling I get when I’ve placed an order with Amazon and I’m waiting for it to arrive. So I know something’s coming. Usually books. Unless something goes wrong with the order or with Canada Post, I can be sure there is something on its way to my mailbox.  So what is hope? Is hope going to my mailbox and not knowing if something is there or not but wishing there will be? Or is hope like waiting for an Amazon order that is definitely on its way? We often use the word “hope” in the first sense. What might it mean to have hope in the second sense? What difference might that make?

You know, in our world, people need hope. Hope beyond their circumstances. Hope beyond our flawed and often disappointing political leaders. Hope beyond cancer and other sicknesses. We need hope. Jeff Goins writes: “As humans, we need hope. We can’t live without it. It is the lifeblood to our spiritual survival, and the only thing that pulls us out of the deep trenches of the pain and hurt of life.” And whether we realize it or not, we all put our hope in something. So it’s not a question of whether or not we have hope—but where does our hope come from? What is our hope in?

1 Peter tells us much about hope. Our passage begins with Peter telling his readers that God has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. He calls it a living hope. What does this mean? In the Ashbury Bible Commentary, it says: “Those who are reborn have a hope that animates their present lives . . . rebirth equips Christians with the ability to see all of life in the light of the glory to be revealed when Christ returns.” The hope we have should change the way we live—and really be a living hope.

What we hope for changes how we live. Our hope represents how our beliefs about our future impacts our present. When I was growing up my mother would sometimes enter these Reader’s Digest Sweepstakes contests. Other people play the lottery or gamble in other ways. Now, I realize that not everyone who plays these games puts all of their hope in winning, but what of those who do? How does that affect the way they live in the present?

In our passage, there are many things that show Peter was pointing his readers to the future: He mentions a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. The last time here means exactly that. He talks about the revelation of Jesus Christ. When Peter speaks of this, he means when Jesus is finally and fully revealed in all his glory at the last time. He tells them about the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. And, yes, we can be saved now. But we will receive the fullness of our salvation only at the last time. Even the OT prophets who prophesied about the Messiah did so with the future in mind and therefore in hope. He says about the prophets: It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you.

But as he talks about hope, he does so with confidence. This isn’t wishful thinking. And Peter wants believers in Asia Minor to have a confident hope because they were living in the Roman Empire in difficult circumstances. They couldn’t trust that their circumstances would necessarily get better. But they could trust that whatever their circumstances, God has something more in mind for their future.

Let’s put it this way: Living with hope means having confidence in our future. How many people experience hopelessness? How many people feel trapped in their present circumstances unable to see a way out? How many people really don’t think there is good in their future? They feel like having confidence that things could get better is impossible, maybe even laughable.

For Peter’s readers—and for us—to live now with eternity in mind means to believe that God will one day vindicate those who trust in him. Even though his readers were being ostracized in the present, it would not always be that way. Hope in our future gives us freedom in the present. To think about it in terms of identity, as we talked about last week, we’re invited and called to be hopeful people.

What is the difference between wishful thinking and hope? When we have confidence in our future, how does that help us live in the present?How would you describe your hope to someone else? Is yours a confident hope? Why or why not?

Hope is the thing with feathers 
That perches in the soul 
And sings the tune without the words 
And never stops at all.

Emily Dickinson

Dickinson’s poem suggests to us that hope—genuine hope—isn’t conditioned by our circumstances but is real regardless of circumstances. It perches in the soul, sings the tune, and never stops at all. Hope is something we need in difficult circumstances that arise because of our commitment to Jesus. Peter’s readers were experiencing difficult circumstances. They were outcasts in their community. Suffering is a major theme of this letter.

And in our passage, Peter refers to this when he says in verses 6—7: In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 

Peter’s readers—the believers in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, and Bithynia—need hope because, as he says, they have been grieved by various trials. But he seeks to help to put their trials in context. He wants them to see their trials as evidence that God is up to something in their lives. This is a test of your faith, he says. It will result in praise, glory, and honor, he tells them. Because such trials can be discouraging, he wants to encourage them with words of hope. Peter was calling his readers to stick to their faith until the end.

You might have noticed that postage stamps keep getting more expensive. But at least they have one quality that most of us could stand to imitate: they stick to one thing until they get there. We call that perseverance. We’re called to do likewise: to stick to one thing until we get there! And it our confident hope in the future God has for us that makes this possible. When you have a confident hope that God has a good future in store for you, it becomes possible to persevere—to stick with it—until that future comes to pass.

Listen to what the apostle Paul says in Romans 5:3—5: Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

To put it another way, suffering is the context for hope. Or in other words, living with hope enables us to persevere during suffering.Why is hope important to you? What helps us become more and more like postage stamps, to stick with it until we get there? How might having hope enable you to deal with times of suffering? What are some ways people around you need hope? Can you share your hope with them?

When I married my wife and we were about to move out of her parents’ house, her Dad told me, “When you married her, you married everything she owns.” And her parents more or less let us know that this would pretty much be all we get for an inheritance! And when my mother died, there was no inheritance waiting for me.

Our passage talks about an inheritance. Peter describes it this way: an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. It is this inheritance that we are invited to hope for, Peter says. And so, the natural question is this: what is this inheritance and how can we get it?

Peter tells us that God has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. And it’s being born again that secures our inheritance. And being born again is what happens when we come to faith in Jesus. And all of this—every little bit of it—is possible through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Our hope is based on the actual, historical, and physical resurrection from the dead of the person of Jesus. His resurrection tells us that this life—one often filled with trials and difficulties and suffering—is not all there is. His resurrection tells us that God has a better story in mind for us. His resurrection is what gives us hope.

In his discussion about resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins . . . [and] If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. Our inheritance is resurrection like Jesus. Living with hope is only possible because of Jesus and his resurrection. Apart from Christ, we have no hope. Apart from Christ, all we have is wishful thinking. What does it mean that God has an inheritance in store for us? How do we receive this inheritance?Do you believe that Jesus was raised from the dead? Why is his resurrection so important?What are you hoping for? What gives you hope? Is your hope in Jesus and his resurrection?

Having a Christian Witness in a COVID World

I rarely get sick. And thankfully, if I were to catch a common cold, it’s unlikely to become a divisive political matter. No one would contest the reality of the symptoms. Nor would anyone argue vehemently with me over the efficacy of Kleenex, rest, and over the counter cold medications. There would be no one telling me I shouldn’t cover my mouth when I cough. Instead, most people would accept and support my efforts to get better and to keep others from catching the cold from me.

Then there’s COVID. And all of a sudden, taking precautionary measures leads to polarized arguments on social media, debates about government power and overreach, protests against masks, and, worst of all, division in churches. In churches.

Now, let me be clear. When I say division, I do not mean differences of opinion on all things COVID. Nor do I mean people who opt not to attend church because of their particular convictions or concerns. Instead, I mean the breakdown of communication and relationships. I mean one group of people in a church being unhappy, angry with, or resentful of another group of people in a church. I mean the kinds of situations that tie pastors in knots, because there is no helpful solution that smoothes over everyone’s concerns and makes all parties happy. Worse, I mean people who confess Christ as Saviour and Lord but whose handling of COVID restrictions puts them in the position of acting unbiblically towards their brothers and sisters in Christ.

Let me explain.

In 1 Corinthians 8 Paul addresses an issue we will never specifically face in our day: whether or not believers should eat food that has been offered to idols in pagan temples. Many Christians in Corinth were converts from paganism. Some of them couldn’t in good conscience eat such meat because of its association with pagan worship. The passage is worth quoting at length here:

About eating food sacrificed to idols, then, we know that “an idol is nothing in the world,” and that “there is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth—as there are many “gods” and many “lords”—yet for us there is one God, the Father. All things are from him, and we exist for him. And there is one Lord, Jesus Christ. All things are through him, and we exist through him.

However, not everyone has this knowledge. Some have been so used to idolatry up until now that when they eat food sacrificed to an idol, their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not bring us close to God. We are not worse off if we don’t eat, and we are not better if we do eat. But be careful that this right of yours in no way becomes a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone sees you, the one who has knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, won’t his weak conscience be encouraged to eat food offered to idols? So the weak person, the brother or sister for whom Christ died, is ruined by your knowledge. Now when you sin like this against brothers and sisters and wound their weak conscience, you are sinning against Christ. Therefore, if food causes my brother or sister to fall, I will never again eat meat, so that I won’t cause my brother or sister to fall.

1 Corinthians 8:4-13

Notice how Paul clearly says that Christians are free to eat such meat. It doesn’t matter one way or the other. There’s nothing special about this meat. And, besides, idols are simply idols. They are not divine beings of any sort. At the same time, though believers are free to consume this meat, Paul also tells them to be careful that this right of yours in no way becomes a stumbling block to the weak. Going further, he says that if food causes my brother or sister to fall, I will never again eat meat, so that I won’t cause my brother or sister to fall.

So Paul’s concern is that our actions as believers do not cause others to stumble in their faith. To this end, he says we ought to be willing to put our freedom aside in order to prevent others from stumbling. In other words, it is not Christlike to assert our rights when the well-being of the body of Christ is at stake. Indeed, following Jesus involves sacrifice, putting others’ needs ahead of our own, and loving our neighbour even when it costs us.

Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians, Paul explicitly talks about not making use of his rights as an apostle. Speaking of his rights as an apostle, he says of himself and his co-workers that we have not made use of this right; instead, we endure everything so that we will not hinder the gospel of Christ.

Once again, the emphasis here is on not asserting one’s rights. And this is for the sake of the gospel. Note again: asserting our rights as Christians can, at times, be a hindrance to the gospel and not an expression of it.

And with all due respect to believers who feel strongly about COVID restrictions, remember that it is not a gospel issue. What we believe or don’t believe about COVID isn’t a matter of Christian orthodoxy, theological correctness, or biblical faithfulness. It’s not a salvation issue. Even if someone truly thinks that these government-mandated guidelines are the beginning of a slippery slope to even more government overreach and abuse of power, being asked to socially distance and wear masks doesn’t even come close to being asked to deny your faith in Jesus. It simply doesn’t. It certainly doesn’t qualify as persecution. Asserting otherwise is an insult to the many around the world in other nations who suffer and die daily for confessing faith in Christ.

And when we talk about setting aside our rights for the sake of the gospel, I think we can unpack this in a few ways.

First, of all Christian unity and peace in the body of Christ is a gospel issue. The relationships between people in churches is a gospel issue. It actually matters whether or not we are willing to put others’ needs ahead of ours. It actually matters whether or not we prioritize our relationships with other believers over our convictions on secondary or even tertiary issues. It actually matters whether or not we find spiritually healthy ways to deal with tension and conflict in our churches. Consider more words from the apostle Paul:

Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope at your calling—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:1-6

Notice how Paul explicitly connects unity and peace in the body of Christ with the work of the Spirit, with our baptismal confession, and with very nature of our trinitarian God. The way in which we handle these sorts of matters relationally in the body of Christ matters because it is part of our witness to our larger communities. Our relationships with one another ought to reflect our deeper, primary convictions about the nature of God. We do this through humility, gentleness, patience, and love.

Frankly, how you get along with fellow believers and how you are growing into a spiritually mature and emotionally healthy follower of Jesus is significantly more important than your view of masks and social distancing.

Not only that, our unity as believers is so important and so intimately connected with the witness of the church in the world that Jesus–to whom we confess our allegiance–prayed for it.

I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in me through their word. May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me.

John 17:20-23

Why does Jesus pray for unity among his followers? He prays for this so that, as he says, the world may know you have sent me. Others coming to faith in Jesus, knowing he was sent into the world by God the Father, depends in some measure on the unity of the church. It’s a matter of Christian witness.

So, secondly, our witness is also a gospel issue. Our relationships in the church demonstrate what we believe about God and the good news of Jesus. When there is discord in the body of Christ over secondary issues, it’s a stain on the witness of the church to the wider world.

All of this is to say, if you are a follower of Jesus, are you thinking through the way in which you express and live out your convictions on secondary or tertiary issues? Are you thinking through how you are affecting your brothers and sisters in Christ as well as the witness of the church in your neighbourhood? What does your manner of living out these particular convictions say about God, the good news, and the church?

For example, if you are on Facebook or other social media platforms, do you think (and even pray?) before you type and post? I really think that the kind of disembodied communication that takes place on social media, absent of personal presence and actual relational accountability, gives many permission to say things they wouldn’t dare say in person. Not only that, I think many use technology as a way of actually avoiding real human interaction that they would find uncomfortable or awkward or that would potentially challenge their assumptions. Rather than another, healthy way of engaging others and ideas, instead it’s a way of sidestepping the more difficult, but essential work of relationships. Often there is no conversation per se. Instead, people talk past one another without ever stopping long enough to listen.

It goes without saying that those who confess to believe in and follow the Lord Jesus should model another way. We should be voices of humility, peace, and calm. We need to be aware of the degree to which we can mistakenly allow the medium of social media dictate how we express our beliefs and interact with others. We ought to demonstrate what it means to have unity even when we disagree on secondary or tertiary matters. We should show through our relationships that the gospel of Jesus is our priority.

After all this, I should also make clear that I am not asking anyone to violate their conscience. If a Christian believer has a particular conviction with respect to COVID restrictions, and it’s a matter of conscience, my suggestion is that they follow their conscience. Hopefully, what I’ve said above makes clear that it’s the manner of following one’s convictions on this matter that is crucial. How are you relating to others who view matters differently? Are you seeking to encourage fellow Christians, even if you disagree?

As it happens, how we do this is also a part of our witness and therefore a gospel issue. And whatever else we make of COVID and all the restrictions that our governing authorities are currently requiring us to follow, those of us who know and trust the Lord Jesus need to prioritize the witness of the gospel, of which our relationships with one another in the church are a fundamental part.

No One “Goes” to Heaven

Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven.

N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church

Now that I have your attention with the title of my post, let me explain.

In Western culture, talk of what happens when someone dies usually has to do with whether or not such and such a person will “go” to heaven. Often what gets the most attention in these conversations is who gets to go to heaven and why. Is so and so good enough? Did they live an admirable enough life? Or to make it more personal still, will my good deeds outweigh my bad deeds?

And, yes, these kinds of mathematical attempts to g the likelihood of our getting into heaven need definite correction. The Bible certainly has a great deal to say on the matter. But that’s not what I want to talk about here. Instead, I want to draw attention to other cultural misconceptions, some of which are also shared and perpetuated by well-intentioned Christians. You see, even Christians often have wrong ideas about the afterlife or what the Bible means by heaven and what we can expect to happen to us when we die.

The first point is this: no deceased person is presently in their final eternal resting place. Whatever else we say of heaven, no one is currently in what will be their final state.

A lot of people can sometimes talk as if a deceased loved one is in heaven right now. A popular euphemism is that the deceased individual is in “a better place.” Yet according to Scripture we also know that with the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus there will be a resurrection of the dead, a final judgment, and, only then, will people enter their eternal state.

I would have to say that, though it’s difficult to understand (because Scripture doesn’t unpack all of the details for us), believers who have died are present with the Lord and that until the resurrection on the Last Day, this is not a bodily existence. Consider these words from the apostle Paul:

So we are always confident and know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. In fact, we are confident, and we would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

2 Corinthians 5:5-8

Paul here is contrasting our bodily existence in the present with what our experience will be like when we have died and are, as he says, away from the body. He can’t be speaking about our final state, however, because that state involves bodily resurrection. See, for instance, what Paul says in his great chapter on all things resurrection:

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? What kind of body will they have when they come?”

So it is with the resurrection of the dead: Sown in corruption, raised in incorruption; sown in dishonor, raised in glory; sown in weakness, raised in power; sown a natural body, raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body . . . And just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.

1 Corinthians 15:35, 42-44, 49

When a person places their faith in the person of Jesus, they are joined to him. Theologians call this union with Christ. And part of what this means is that we have both died with Christ and that we will also be raised like him too. So if Christ had a spiritual, resurrection body, so will believers joined to him when they are raised.

So in the passage from 2 Corinthians 5 he must be speaking about an intermediate state–one that is away from the body–that believers experience between death and their ultimate resurrection. I can’t see how else to make sense of what Scripture says.

This means that whatever else is true of people who have died in Christ, they are not currently experiencing what will be their final state: that of having a resurrected embodied existence like Jesus after he left the tomb. And, yet, Paul does say that people who have died in Christ are at home with the Lord. This means that somehow those who have died in Christ are in his presence now awaiting the final resurrection. To be with the Lord is what it means for a believer to be home. Those who are experiencing this intermediate state are experiencing comfort and peace and joy. But there is more to come. In fact, the best is yet to come.

My second point is this: heaven is not about some sort of eternal, incorporeal (non-bodily) existence. Though Paul speaks of being away from the body in 2 Corinthians 5, he is not speaking of what will be the final eternal state of believers.

When some people talk about heaven, they often talk as though our bodies have nothing to do with it. Instead, they conceive of it as some sort of weird, spiritual, ghostlike existence. Either that, or they conclude (altogether unbiblically, I might add) that people who have died, and perhaps were especially virtuous, get turned into angels. I think this in part because if they think someone can be in heaven in some final sense now, it is difficult to square that with the reality of a cremated or buried body. In other words, if when my Mother died in 2011 she went immediately to her final state of eternity, then it certainly can’t include her body which remains buried.

Might someone who has already died be given an altogether new, spiritual body entirely separate and distinct from their earthly and now deceased body? I don’t think so. And the reason I don’t think so is because of Jesus’ resurrection. His tomb was empty. His resurrected body bore the scars of crucifixion. There was continuity between Jesus’ pre-crucifixion body and his post-resurrection body. Resurrection is about transformation, not replacement. What was true of Jesus will also be true of those who are united to him in faith.

In any case, Scripture makes abundantly clear that whatever else we say of the final state of existence for those united to Christ, it will be a bodily existence. We will have arms and legs, fingers and toes, noses and ears. Jesus’ resurrection is an affirmation of the Genesis pronouncement over creation: God saw all that he had made, and it was very good indeed.

This brings us to the third point: those united to Christ don’t “go” to someplace called heaven; heaven and earth come together in the new creation. Heaven is not located up and away from earth. Heaven is where God’s presence is fully known and experienced. We’re not looking to escape earth; rather, we’re awaiting the renewal, restoration, and indeed, the resurrection not only of the earth but of the entire cosmos. Consider these words given to John on Patmos:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.

Then I heard a loud voice from the throne:Look, God’s dwelling is with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away. Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new.”

Revelation 21:1-5

And the words of the prophet:

For I will create new heavens and a new earth;
the past events will not be remembered or come to mind.

Isaiah 65:17

And of the apostle Peter:

But based on his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.

2 Peter 3:13

What we are invited to anticipate as believers is not being able to leave this world behind for a disembodied existence in some other heavenly location but rather a new heavens and new earth, where we will enjoy physical lives free of all that limits and destroys life on this side of eternity. It will be creation as God has always intended it to be, free from the stain of sin and disease and the curse of death.

Put simply, God will resurrect us and the rest of the creation he made. Pastor Tim Keller says this: “The resurrection of Christ assures us that God will redeem not just souls but bodies, and will bring about a new heavens and new earth.” And, dare I say, it will be very, very good.

And so the fourth and last important point (at least for this post): heaven is not simply about living forever but about living forever in the presence of our Creator. And this is not an incidental point. As we saw in Revelation 21, what we can look forward to with hope is that God’s dwelling is with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God.

The point is relationship, indeed, perfect fellowship, between human beings, all of creation, and the very One who gave everything existence in the first place. Shalom. Complete and total flourishing. No hint of trouble or tears. Not a whiff of sin or dysfunction.

The upshot of this is that, unlike what many in our culture would like to believe, only those who confess faith in the risen Lord Jesus will be able to participate in this new heavens and new earth. Consider the following words from famous preacher and pastor John Piper:

The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there?

John Piper, God is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s Love as the Gift of Himself

In other words, if you think you could enjoy heaven without God, then you will not be there. We cannot separate God and heaven. Where one is, so is the other. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that it is in being in the presence of God that the experience of heaven primarily consists. Or to put it another way: getting to heaven is not the goal; getting to God is. The apostle Peter expresses it this way:

For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God.

1 Peter 3:18

So why did Jesus suffer, die, and rise? To bring us to heaven? No, to bring us to God, which is, in Christian terms, the precise same thing as heaven.

Now do you see what I mean when I say no one goes to heaven?

What do we do with all this, then?

The first thing is to stop thinking about heaven according to a false cultural narrative–one that affects people both inside and outside the church. Christians are called to be biblically minded, to have their thinking on these matters shaped by what Scripture actually says, not what we assume or wish it says.

Another takeaway is that the physical world–our bodies, the ground we walk on, the food we eat, the beauty we admire–is good. Inherently good. And one day it will be perfected and eternal. The so-called afterlife is not an afterlife after all. It is life as it was always supposed to be. It is not a consolation prize. It is the jackpot. Imagine the very best of this life brought to perfection. Contrary to what some think, we will not find ourselves bored in heaven.

Lastly, there is hope. With all that ravages our world, from the various forms of violence and dehumanization, disease and disaster, most of us long for a world without any of these things. We want to be free of pain. We don’t want to worry anymore. We want to know what real, lasting peace is like. We want our relationships to be healed of anger and regret.

And all of this is what God is going to accomplish by creating a new heavens and new earth, by making all things new. Indeed, this is what he began to do in raising Jesus from the dead. That was but the beginning, the utimate signpost to an available new reality which we can start to experience even now, but we can only fully experience on the other side of our resurrection. And to know that we will participate in this new reality, we need to acknowledge that it was indeed inaugurated through the empty tomb of Jesus. As he says in John 11:25–26, I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

How do you answer Jesus’ question?

So, sure, no one “goes” to heaven. But doesn’t all this sound infinitely better?

Faith and Fear in a Time of COVID

I think it’s an obvious scriptural truth that even people of faith experience fear. Otherwise, why would Jesus (and other biblical writers) encourage us not to worry so frequently? Surely, if people of faith were never going to worry or find themselves facing fear, the Bible wouldn’t have to address it. Yet it does. All the time. And nowhere is this more true than with the very real, universal human fear of death.

Over the last year, I think COVID has brought many in our culture face to face with the realities of human mortality. And I say face to face for a reason. Because we’re all intellectually aware of death, even our own inevitable death. We know we will not live forever. Loved ones die. Celebrities and public figures we admire and follow die. Whether from accident, crime, or illness–death follows us at every turn. At the same time, we don’t necessarily live like this is true. We sequester suffering and death into nursing homes and hospitals and then only visit infrequently. No sooner do we become more acutely aware of the brevity of human existence then we quickly put it out of our minds. It’s too much to process. It’s too painful. Yet, whereas much of the time we are able to distract ourselves or avoid having to deal with the fact of physical suffering and death, this pandemic has torn away the facade of immortality.

And so, fear.

How else to explain people breaking down in hysterics on TikTok and other social media platforms over the failure of others to abide by all the guidelines and restrictions?

Whatever else we say about COVID, it has revealed what most people fear above all: death.

And so much so that this fear is–in various ways–the controlling factor in the lives of many. Though not only in a time of COVID.

Scripture is pretty clear on this. People are slaves to their fear of death. More importantly, this is the reason why God became flesh in the person of Christ. One biblical writer says it this way:

Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these, so that through his death he might destroy the one holding the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.

Hebrews 2:14–15

Another translation of the second part of this verse says that people are like slaves all their lives because of their fear of death.

Jesus came into our world to free us from all this. Jesus, after all, calls himself the resurrection and the life.

Which brings us to what for some is an uncomfortable point. Even Christians–people who believe that Jesus has conquered death through his resurrection–can fear death. In some measure, we all do. If I say I have no fear of death, maybe that’s because I’ve never really had to contend with my own mortality except theoretically. Because I’m guessing that in the moment when I am face to face with the very possibilty of my own death, assuming I have the time to contemplate it at all, my knees might shake at least a little. I’m guessing maybe more than a little. And if I don’t, that will only be because of the grace of God. I can’t really know until that time arrives.

But the question we ask as people of faith is probably this: If I experience fear of death, does that mean I lack faith?

My answer might surprise you. Because it’s this: Yes. Because even apart from a fear of death, I lack faith. Even without a devastating health diagnosis, I lack faith. Even when life is all rainbows and happy songs, I lack faith. Even at my spiritual best, I lack faith. Simply put, we do not trust God as we should. We do not love God as much as we should. God is not our hope and peace to the degree he should be.

And that’s the case with anyone who confesses faith in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. Anyone.

You lack faith. I lack faith. The Christian you’ve known and admired for years–maybe decades–lacks faith.

We all lack faith.

Do you get that? Am I making my point?

Otherwise, we’d somehow be spiritually perfect–complete in faith and trust–in this life. And while I have met many incredibly mature, faith-filled, and wise believers, I’ve never yet met a perfect one. Ever.

However, bear in mind that lacking faith or having imperfect faith doesn’t mean we are without faith. It doesn’t mean we are faithless. We need to get that too. We can have faith even when we experience fear. The latter doesn’t completely cancel out the former. Often, on our darkest days the two live in tension.

So when we berate ourselves or feel guilt for experiencing fear, believing that somehow people of faith ought to be immune to fear, we’re making the mistake of thinking our trust in God can somehow be perfect, without fault or lack, on this side of eternity. And like I said, this is not even congruent with biblical teaching. Our guilt feelings also reveal we see God the same way, that we worry or feel he expects us to be fearless in the face of our mortality. “How disappointed he must be,” we think. Not only are we frustrated with our imperfect faith, we conclude God is too.

And if we think God is disappointed in us over our lack of faith, because when we find ourselves staring death in the face we’re afraid, what kind of effect is that going to have on our prayers, our faith, on our relationship with God? How likely are we to approach God in trust if we think our fear frustrates him? What kind of heart posture will we adopt in that moment? Is he our loving Father inviting us closer or our disappointed Father telling us to try harder?

Here’s the thing: God knows our fears. He constantly addresses our tendency to fall prey to it in the Scriptures he has graciously given to us. Do not be afraid. Don’t worry. Do not be anxious. He knows we can be fearful. But you know what? He loves us anyway. And he still chooses to meet us in our brokenness. In his mercy, he seeks to heal us rather than condemn us. In Jesus we meet a God who does not grow weary because our faith is often lacking. He doesn’t tire of us because of our failure to trust him fully. Instead, he invites us deeper in. He literally and figuratively condescends to us.

Recently, well-known pastor and author Tim Keller wrote an article for The Atlantic called “Growing My Faith in the Face of Death.” Having been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the spring of 2020, he writes “as death, the last enemy, became real to my heart, I realized that my beliefs would have to become just as real to my heart, or I wouldn’t be able to get through the day.” Even Keller, a renowned Christian leader, found himself wrestling with doubt and fear in the face of death. In a later interview with Russell Moore on his podcast Signposts, he spoke about his experience and what he has learned through it. You can see that interview here. It’s worth a watch.

But the one thing Keller said in the interview that I want to point out here and now is this: If Jesus was really raised from the dead, then ultimately everything is going to be ok. Keller then commented that there is nothing that could convince him otherwise at this point in his life. If Jesus was raised, then we’re going to be fine. And that on the other side of eternity because there will be no pain and death, there will be nothing at all to fear.

So what do we do? Well, we can ask that God would increase and grow our faith. We can ask that God would help us to trust him more and more. That he would help us to be unafraid when difficult moments come our way. That a vision of who Jesus is–as the one who defeats death–would gradually overtake our fear. Certainly we should read Scripture over and over and over so that more and more of the truth of who God is sinks into our hearts and comes out in our prayers and lives.

And of course we never, ever, do this alone. Jesus calls us to a family of faith. He calls us to shoulder one another’s fears. He calls us to remind each other that he is the resurrection and the life. To say it over and over and over. Until we believe it, and believe it so much that it, and not our fears, becomes the determining force of our lives. Whether in a time of COVID or not. We will all die, but thanks to Jesus’ resurrection, we can also live–and that forever.

On that note, there’s no better way to end than with the apostle Paul’s own words on the matter:

For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead also comes through a man. For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits; afterward, at his coming, those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when he abolishes all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign until he puts all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be abolished is death.

1 Corinthians 15:21-26

Like a Child

I love kids. Or at least I love my kids. As it happens, like other parents, I love my children in a way only I can. Sometimes I just love watching my kids. I love seeing them at play, observing their behaviour as they interact, learn, and discover the world around them. And while most of the time we adults are teaching our children, we often miss out on the fact that they can teach us much too. Of course to learn from our children, it’s important that we welcome them—that we engage them on their terms, meet them at their level.

I was playing outside with my twin boys (then around 2 years of age) Henry and Eli—while my wife and daughter were in Grand Bay, and it was such a pleasure to watch these two little guys toddle around, toss the ball back and forth, throw snow in no particular direction, and explore the various areas in our yard. There was something so simple about their joy in being able to play, in how they enjoyed their environment. Random twigs and pebbles became toys. Walking from the front lawn to the back deck became a fascinating journey. Their hands and feet made new discoveries with each step. Laughter punctuated our silly conversations. There is a freedom in play that only children seem to know. It made me wonder that afternoon what we lose as we grow older. It makes me wonder still if when teaching our children we’ve gotten into the habit of educating them out of their imaginations, that ready playfulness and receptivity to the possibilities of the world around them. It seems, at times, that we don’t want our kids to be kids—at least not for very long.

As I watched my two sons play that Saturday afternoon, it occurred to me that one of the things I could learn from them is to slow down. Sometimes we grown-ups are in a big, fat, hurry. Life moves at a quick pace these days and catching our breath is always a challenge. Now, it may sound silly to think that kids—especially excitedly mobile toddlers!—can teach us about slowing down, but I guess I mean that they don’t yet know the pressure of having to be in a rush. They have the freedom to enjoy their environment, of taking in the world around them one twig or pebble or insect at a time.

We, on the other hand, miss much that is within view. Our day-planners force a certain kind of myopia upon our vision. This can have the effect of losing the ability to take pleasure in little things, like when our daughter, when less than two years old, spent a great deal of time examining a slug crawling along the ground. She declared it to be beautiful. She did the same thing with caterpillars. Without kids going with us on a hike, what else might we miss that is beautiful?

The Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the church in Corinth, wrote these words: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me (1 Cor. 13:11).” So maybe we can say that we’ve just grown up. We’ve matured, and put old ways behind us. While the kids around us have an imaginative, playful freedom, it’s something that we should hope for them to outgrow. At some point our children need to “put the ways of childhood behind” them. We’re simply helping them along the maturing process.

Unless, that is, there is a difference between being childish and being child-like. Obviously, our kids are going to grow up. They will mature, change, and become more sophisticated. But do they have to lose their imaginations in the process? Must they forfeit their freedom to enjoy the world around them, to capture in gleeful glimpses its often unrecognized examples of beauty? Should we encourage them to quit playing or should we instead learn to join them?

In our present culture children are growing up faster than ever. From the education system to our media-saturated environment, kids are hardly allowed to be kids any longer. Toys get packed away sooner and sooner. Exposure to questionable subject matter is becoming harder and harder to control in the age of the iPod and Facebook. Pressure on parents to ensure their kids preparedness for life in every respect looms larger than it ever has. Even worse, the school system is geared to introduce ideas to our children at a stage not all parents deem appropriate, ideas of a certain moral and social complexity perhaps best left to parents and out of the classroom altogether.

I wonder if the reason for this pressure kids sometimes face to grow up is that we don’t always take them seriously as people in their own right—they’re only adults-in-waiting, and until they do grow up they are of no significance. Let’s face it, there are a number of social contexts where children are simply in the way. We experience them as a nuisance. In church we murmur under our breath, “Can’t they make their kid shut up?” Or in a line up at Wal-Mart we think, “Boy, that kid sure is a brat!” All these thoughts cross our minds without us ever wondering at the same time if we’ve made appropriate space for these little people to be a part of the community. How have we welcomed them? How have we made room for them?

In the Gospel of Luke, there is this story about Jesus and his disciples: “People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’”

Jesus’ welcome of children is instructive for us. If he extended hospitality to children, saw their intrinsic value, and even went as far as to suggest that we should be more like children, then this presents us with a challenge both in how we view the kids in our midst and how we interact with them.

Given that in Jesus’ day children were non-persons, the lowest on the low rung of the social ladder, we shouldn’t be surprised at the initial reaction of his disciples. “Those kids don’t belong here! Don’t bother Jesus with your children. He’s got more important things to do!” Sounds like what we might say while waiting in a line-up at Wal-Mart. But Jesus’ attitude was markedly different. Not only did he teach that we should welcome these little ones into our company, receive them kindly, but he also suggested that we should become more like them. They are our example.

In Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus makes this even clearer: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes a humble place—becoming like this child—is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

If we not only welcome these little ones but also dare to become more like them, perhaps we too will experience something of the freedom, the natural sense of playfulness, they seem to know almost instinctively.  It’s not so natural to us. An adult must stoop to play with a child. And stooping has a certain undignified air about it to us. But maybe it’s in welcoming a degree of childlikeness in ourselves that we most effectively lose childishness and become fuller human beings. Perhaps it’s when we become like one of these children that we can truly say we’ve grown up.