Category Archives: Bible

The Church and Singles

Hey, guys:

There’s a lot that I’ve been wanting to blog about, but as the father of a five-year-old, an almost-three-year-old and a nine-month-old who is currently teaching an overload at the college (um, I’m doing the teaching, not the the baby), spare minutes to write are getting hard to find.  But I was in an email discussion among some preaching friends about what the church should preach on Valentine’s Day, and I said:

I’ll just add this: whenever I paid specific attention to married life and romance in my preaching, I spent equal time on singleness, and emphasized the unmarried lives of Jesus and Paul.  Married people tend to get a lot of attention and positive affirmation in churches, and that can leave singles feeling like they aren’t real people yet.  That’s unscriptural and damaging, especially in a culture where most people don’t marry until their late 20’s, and many are between marriages.

On the other hand, depending on the background of your congregation, you might want to make the affirmative case for marriage, given how many secular people don’t see the point of it anymore.  Have to get the secular folks to value commitment and get the churchy folks to honor singleness.

I was asked what it would look like if I were invited to preach a sermon honoring singleness, and my attempt to answer that turned into a rant I thought I would share here.  Disclaimer: this rant is ranty.

__________________________

Well, to be honest, my primary impulse is to tear down the idol of “family” which is often used as a synonym for “Christian” or “responsible.”  The biggest place you see this is in the term “family values,” which when used in conversation means “Christian values as I understand them” 90% of the time and means nothing at all the other 10%.  Or, I remember being at a pastors’ prayer breakfast with mayor once when the mayor said he didn’t like all the focus on “the Almighty dollar” in our town and wanted to replace it with “the Almighty family.”  I nearly fell out of my chair, since I was expecting his last word to be “God,” and I think I did drop down a few inches when assembled pastors burst into applause.  But most of them had been focusing on the family and promoting family values for so long that it might not have been a big stretch to just declare the family almighty and worship it.

I think I preached a sermon once called “Can Single People Have Family Values?” that tried to kick some of the stones out of the family altar the modern evangelical church has created.  What I’m afraid this does is create an expectation that real  Christians have spouses and kids, and if you don’t, you are either defective or in a sort of holding pattern while you’re waiting for your real life to begin.  Too many larger churches have singles’ classes that are functionally either “Youth Group 2.0” or not-so-thinly veiled elder-sponsored match-making services.  As someone who was single until 29 and hated that dynamic, I can attest that if you insist on showing up to just a normal adult class, there will be some people who try to gently steer you toward the kiddie table where you belong.  Or, consider this: if you have knowledge of biggish churches, you’ll find a lot of singles’ classes sponsored by a married couple, which is, again, a not-too-subtle hint that either (1) you guys can’t govern yourselves and need a real adult around here or (2) you would benefit from a living example of someone who has successfully gotten married, since that either is or should be your goal.  But how often do you hear about a couples’ class taught or sponsored by a single person?  “Never” is the answer in my experience.  Churches will choose someone who was married at 19 to lead a class of singles in their 20’s and 30’s even though that person has no experience in long-term singleness because we don’t value the experience of long-term singleness.  We value marriage, and they have proven they can get married.  We think long-term singles can learn from long-term married people–and, sure, they can–but we almost never reverse that.  And the fact that married people and single people are on such unequal footing in many churches, with the former always teachers and the latter always students, shows you how far we are from Biblical teaching.

And, as any unmarried preacher knows, you aren’t going to get very in a ministry career until there is a ring on your finger, in spite of the fact that almost all of the New Testament is either about an unmarried preacher (Jesus) or written by one (Paul).

Matthew 19 is one of the primary texts in this regard:

3 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’[a] 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’[b]? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

I think it’s worth pointing out to the church that when the disciples say “Sounds like maybe it’s better not to marry!” Jesus doesn’t respond, “Oh, no, I wouldn’t go that far!”  He says, “Yeah, for some people it is–and single living can be done for the sake of heaven,which means it is something that heaven honors and finds valuable, even if earth doesn’t.”  In fact, for several hundred years of the early church, it would have made a lot more sense to name an organization “Focus on the Singles” or to talk about “Single Values.”

A few quotes from a paper I once wrote about this topic:
Jerome, writing to Eustochium, a celibate woman of aristocratic heritage, encouraged her to realize her superiority over married women: “Learn from me a holy arrogance: know that you are better than they are!” Ambrose provided the corollary: “Those who decide to marry…must of necessity confess that they are inferior to virgins.”

We should also remember that the Lord also taught, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 24.26). In its haste to point out that Jesus did not literally mean “hate,” the contemporary church has neglected to teach that Jesus certainly did mean that family matters are subservient to kingdom concerns, and his disciples may be called upon to leave all those attachments behind. Certainly that was true of those he called during his earthly ministry.

The fact that Jesus taught both that that some are called to be eunuchs for the kingdom and that whoever comes to him must hate his family, and the church has still managed to make an idol of family life shows how powerful this dynamic is.  I think we’ve basically given into the impulse to take what is the norm in our society and declare it the standard that all should strive for.  It’s very reassuring for our married folk to be told they’ve done it the right way.  But the Bible at the very least, presents both married and single life as valued paths, and, honestly, by the time you really absorb Matthew 19, Luke 24 and 1 Corinthians 7, it’s pretty easy to make the case that celibate singleness is the standard and marriage is a concession for people who can’t handle the higher calling.  This is a message most of the evangelical church is unable or unwilling to hear, even though it is right there in the Bible. And when a single person reads those passages and notices that they are either (1) never preached or (2) preached with so many disclaimers and caveats that there’s no message left by the end of the sermon, they see what’s going on.  We are going to do what it takes to continue honoring married people above singles even if we have to tape up the mouths and Jesus and Paul to do it.

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An Atheist Who Gets It

A lot of the atheists I run into have a really warped view of the Bible–almost the mirror image of the fundamentalist view. I understand where that comes from–it’s largely a reaction to vocal fundies in the media. But for people who espouse the virtues of rational discourse to dismissively refer to the Bible as a collection of fairy tales about an evil old man in the sky is an absurd a failure to see what it actually is–about as absurd as saying that it is inerrant and never contradicts itself.

Robert Price, an atheist speaking to a group of (mainly) atheists, gives them a better view of what the Bible actually is, and why even a non-believer can (and should) love it.

Listen to it here, on the podcast of the “Point of Inquiry” radio show.

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The Wrong Definition of Having Faith

I’ve been wanting to comment on a certain strain of American evangelical culture for a while now and haven’t been sure how to get into it, but Mike Cope broached the topic, so I’ll take this as my opportunity to jump in.  He’s commenting on Jason Boyett’s new book O Me of Little Faith: True Confessions of a Spiritual Weakling, and I’ll re-quote part of the book Mike quoted:

“When you live and work within the American Christian subculture — especially the less liturgical, more conservative, evangelical, megachurch sub-subculture — you hear a lot of people talking casually about the intimacy of their relationship with God. The way they tell it, they get frequent, distinct impressions from the Holy Spirit. They get personal promptings from Jesus. They get very specific answers to prayer and detailed directions about even the most trivial aspects of their lives.

“I’ve heard someone tell a friend, ‘I woke up in the middle of the night and thought of you, and it was definitely the Holy Spirit wanting me to pray for you right then and there.’ I’ve overheard a middle-aged woman say, ‘It was totally a God thing that my flight got cancelled, because I got to share my faith with the lady next to me. Talk about a divine appointment!’

“I’ve heard musicians credit God with having written their song lyrics. I’ve heard businessmen give God credit for finally coming through with the promotions for which they’d been praying. I know a few people who don’t hesitate to reveal that God told them to quit their jobs and go into full-time ministry.

“One Sunday I overheard someone give this breathless recap of a worship service: ‘The Lord totally showed up in church this morning. When we got to that key change in “Breathe,” you just knew God was moving.’

“You’ve heard this kind of talk too, maybe coming out of your own mouth. Please understand me: I’m not telling you — or them — to stop. I’m pretty sure most of those kinds of statements express a sincere and real faith in a personal God who is intimately involved in our lives. That people talk this way is not what bothers me.

Unlike Boyett, I am asking them to stop, and I’m not at all sure those statements reflect a sincere and real faith in a personal God who is intimately involved in our lives.  I think it reflects a sincere and artificial faith that mistakes predictable responses to certain stimuli as the work of God.  Far from being more spiritual, I think that people who are always going on about the latest thing that God has said to them are less spiritual.  One of the keys to authentic life with Yahweh is not taking the Lord’s name in vain, which I take to mean, in part, not acting as though your own thoughts and purposes necessarily have divine approval.  If it’s wrong to falsely proclaim that God has damned something, surely it’s also wrong to falsely proclaim that he has blessed something.  I’m not going to be as generous about this stuff as Boyett is.  We seriously need to knock this stuff off, and we definitely need to stop sending the signal that that real Christians hear from God on a regular basis.

Why does it bother me so much?

1)  It’s unbiblical.

Search the scriptures are closely as you can.  You aren’t going to find any instances of God leading someone through a coincidence, or a gut feeling or an intuition. That never happens. No one ever tries to discern God’s will for their lives. His general will is communicated through the scriptures, and if he has a specific mission for someone, he sends a message that can’t be missed–an audible voice, an angelic visit, something like that. As soon as someone says “God laid a message on my heart” they have departed from all Biblical precedent. You can, of course, argue that not every Christian practice needs to have Biblical precedent, and for some matters, I would agree. But on the central question of “how does God communicate with people?” I’d sure like to see a verse or two that supports our practices.

2) It “defines divinity down.”

Another problem with hearing from God every afternoon is that when your way of hearing from the Lord is completely indistinguishable from the routine products of your own imagination, the experience of God has became so meager and small that the glory of God is inevitably diminished. Frankly, I’d much rather worship a God who communicates clearly through overwhelming personal encounters, but rarely, than a God who works in my life exactly the same way coincidence and personal insights work for atheists.

We’ve gotten used to speaking about the presence of God and the voice of God in casual ways that don’t knock us down to our knees (and that certainly doesn’t line up with the biblical testimony). I’ve often thought about that when I’m in a worship service where they sing “Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord”

Open the eyes of my heart, Lord
Open the eyes of my heart
I want to see You
I want to see You

To see You high and lifted up
Shinin’ in the light of Your glory
Pour out Your power and love
As we sing holy, holy, holy

The sounds great to sing, but do we realize what we are asking for? When someone sees God high and lifted up, it isn’t a fun or casual experience, and you don’t leave feeling good about yourself. Just ask Isaiah.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

One of my big pet peeves is when some human person cleverly designs a worship experience for maximum emotional impact through dramatic lighting and moving song selections, and then, when it is over says something like “God really showed up and showed off tonight!” This bothers me because a) nothing happened here that doesn’t happen in secular concerts or movies every day and b) if God had decided to show up and show off, you wouldn’t be telling me about it over dessert at Chili’s. You’d still be in the sanctuary shaking with fright, and we’d be on our way there to bring you a clean pair of pants.

3) It’s a pagan worldview in Christian language.

In Deuteronomy 30, when Moses has finished passing on to Israel the commandments that God gave him (with an audible voice and written tablets, not a warm feeling in his heart), Moses says:

The LORD will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your fathers, if you obey the LORD your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

In other words–I’ve just laid out God’s will for you. It’s really clear, and now you all know it, and there’s no need to worry about how you are going to know what he wants. He’s told you up front.

This is really, really great news, because it means they don’t have to do what the pagans do, which is read tea leaves and animal entrails to try to figure out what the gods want, or search for signs in the heavens, or–worst of all–go to some witch or necromancer to see if the souls of the departed have any insights. One of the incredible plusses of the biblical tradition is that everything we need is set down in print.

Have you ever noticed that when Jesus encounters someone who isn’t hip to God’s agenda, he never says “you need to spend more time seeking God’s will for your life”? Instead he points them to the Bible. “Have you not read….?” This is one area where the Judeo-Christian tradition is in sharp contrast to the surrounding culture of the ancient world. Having written scriptures is better than having to search for signs of the divine will, and it’s a move backward (and one that mystifies me) to leave the assurance of a scriptural grounding for the uncertainties of analyzing your gut feelings.

I once heard someone say “Faith isn’t believing that God will do whatever you want him to do. Faith is believing that God will do what he has already promised to do.” He never promised to pick out your college, or your spouse, or your job, and whisper the answer to you. He didn’t promise “divine appointments” or messages laid on your heart. No matter how much we might want those things or how great we think they are, it doesn’t seem to be the way that God prefers to operate. And it causes all manner of practical problems. But more on that later, maybe.

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Something Better Than Heaven

A friend of mine asked me to preach for him last week while he was away on vacation. This is the rough draft of my sermon, which more or less follows what I actually wound up saying when I got there.

I’m going to depart from my normal preaching style this morning. That’s probably okay with you, because you don’t know what my normal preaching style is. Well, I’ll tell you. What I normally do is start with a reading from the Bible and spend the rest of the time in a sort of extended study and explanation of that passage, sticking closely to the text all the way through. One of the nice things about that kind of preaching is that no one ever asks “where is he going with this?” If they do ask, the answer is “I’m not going anywhere—we’re hanging out in this text all morning, just going deeper and deeper into it.”

That’s how I normally preach, but that isn’t how I’m preaching this morning. And I’ll tell you up front why I’m not. The first reason is that there are several passages I want to discuss, not just one. I want to give us a big picture of a Biblical teaching. My normal preaching is kind of like an architectural blueprint, with lots of notes that show how the planks and railings of a passage fit together. What I’m aiming for this morning is more like a water painting of a landscape. I’d like to leave you not with all the details worked out, but with a big picture that you can carry with you. The second reason I’m leaving my normal pattern is this: the passages that I really want to talk about are difficult for modern people to grasp right away. And that isn’t because the words are complex—they really aren’t. It’s because we have about an 1800 year history of reading them in a certain way that I’ve come to believe almost completely misses the point. Sometimes we read them the same way my daughter opens birthday presents. She’ll cut the ribbon and tear the paper off and then hold it up for everyone to see and say “Look! It’s a box!” You have to keep prodding her sometimes to get her to move past the box—which I admit is a wonderful and attractive thing—and get her to open up the present inside.

This morning, I want to try to get us to open up the box, but to get there we need to make some preparations. So let’s start someplace else. Let’s start with a Starbucks coffee cup.

Joel Stein is a writer for the Los Angeles times, and I think it’s fair to say that he had no idea when he first wrote those lines that they would eventually kick off such an enormous controversy.
World Net Daily conducted a survey asking its readers for responses to the coffee cup quote, and a near tie for first place among the 7600 responses:

27.64% said they will do their best to avoid buying anything at Starbucks in the future.
27.36% said it’s leftist garbage from a leftist company based in a leftist city.

Over at The Christian Courier, Wayne Jackson agreed, calling the cup “display of contemptible ignorance,” and asking his readers, “Why not put your money where your heart is, instead of into some humanistic-oriented corporation that has an agenda hostile to those who reverence the spiritual?”

You and are just barely getting to know each other. Right now, all you know about me is that I’m friends with Shane, and I don’t know whether you think that’s a good thing or not. So at this point I’m going to leap out in faith and make a confession.
Here’s my confession:

I think Mr. Stein has a point.

Try as I might, the popular images of heaven just don’t grab my imagination. Robes and harps, angel wings, lazy days among the fluffy clouds. That might be nice for an afternoon or even a few weeks. I’ll really stretch and say I could learn to like that for a year or two. But for all of eternity?

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who’s ever had that thought, and I know what the approved response is: if you were just spiritual enough, you’d love the idea of heaven. Your problem is that you haven’t really cultivated the taste for worship and prayer. If you liked church better, you’d be excited about an eternity of praising God.

To quote Wayne Jackson:

The foregoing erroneous images of heaven are the result of….the lack of disciplinary training in things spiritual, in contrast to aggressive pursuits of the material. Many Christians truly do not fathom how they will be able to be happy in an environment where there is no golf, Monday Night Football, or shopping malls.
Quite frankly they find worship on earth dull—as obviously reflected in their patterns of church attendance. The thought of serving God continuously is a frightful nightmare to the “spiritually challenged.”

Now, that might be the right diagnosis for some people. I don’t know. But I’ve got to tell you, I don’t find worship dull—well, most of the time I don’t. And I’m a pretty faithful church goer. I read my Bible regularly, I sing and pray every night with my children, and I spend a fair amount of time meditating on the things of God. Sunday morning is my favorite time of the week. I love a good gospel meeting. I’m sure I have a ways to go, and it’s dangerous to deny your own weaknesses, but I don’t think my lack of excitement about heaven has to do with not being churchy enough. I’m pretty churchy.

Furthermore, I have no interest at all in either golf or shopping malls, and—while I realize this is a true heresy in these parts—I’m really not all that much of a football fan. I can give those things up with no hesitation at all.

And, of course, there are some things about the traditional picture of heaven that I just love. Really, really, love. No more death! Hallelujah! No more sickness! Amen. No more pain or sorrow! No more farewells! The hope of dwelling in the true presence of God the Father and the Lord Jesus—to be surrounded by the saints of all the years before. To walk with loved ones who have passed on before me. That’s a joy and a wonder.

Those things are so wonderful that it makes me a little embarrassed to admit that I find the harps and clouds and wings part pretty boring to contemplate. But I do. Not only do I understand where Joel Stein is coming from, I kind of resonate with this coffee cup, too:

And even though in the church we know we are supposed to long for heaven, it’s a challenge for some of us to work up much excitement. I think the problem is that there isn’t much that the Bible tells us about heaven; the little bit we do read is pretty vague and the incomplete picture that results just isn’t always enough to stir a person’s imagination.

What’s missing in that picture for me are things like surprise. Challenges. A sense of accomplishment. Worthy goals. And, to be honest, things like feeling wet beach sand pushing up between my toes. Pushing myself to hike up a mountain, feeling the blood pump and the muscles groan and respond. I’m going to miss things like learning and exploring. The feel of a handshake or a pat on the back. Can wispy souls shake hands in the clouds?
I’m going to miss building things.

There’s a lot about life on earth that I love.

And you’re going to have a hard time convincing me that the things I’m talking about are bad or frivolous things. Don’t the scriptures testify that those things sprang from the creative mind of God? As he made the things that fill our planet, didn’t he say over and over again “This is good! This is good! This is very good!” I agree with God! I like the Earth! I think he did a great job! It brought him pleasure to create and it brings me pleasure to receive it, and to join with him in the work of building and restoring. I like it—and I think I’m supposed to like it.
I guess what it boils down to is this: if the traditional picture of heaven that you and I grew up with is right—if the physical is stripped away and there is nothing left of me but a soul, there’s just a lot that I’m going to miss.

You know what I think I would really love? If I could have the good things about physical embodiment without the down sides. If I could have hugs but be done with heart attacks. If I could have exploration but be done with illness. If I could have challenges but no more losses. If God’s actual plan wasn’t to do away with the Earth, but to renew it and restore it—I would love that. No more spilled oil, no more litter, no more rubble. Just clear blue skies, soft green grass, pristine oceans. If his actual plan wasn’t to leave us as bodiless souls but to resurrect us into perfect, eternal bodies, real solid bodies that could never age or die, forever—wouldn’t take be marvel? What if we could have all the things we love most about the traditional picture of heaven, but at the same time hold on to all that we love best about life on Earth. Hugs and handshakes and swing sets and forest trails, with Jesus himself and all the people we love.

And what if I were to say to you that as near as I can tell, that’s exactly what the Bible promises, over and over?

1) The expectation of the disciples was that if Jesus came back, he was going to come back in a bodily form.

So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”
26A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

2) Jesus is only the first of many who will be raised in a new body.

12But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
20But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27For he “has put everything under his feet.”[c] Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.
–1 Corinthians 15

This is much more than a promise that “my soul will live forever in heaven after I die.” The Biblical promise is that I will be back—changed, immortal, renewed, and restored, certainly, but me.

But it doesn’t end there.

3) God will restore and renew all of creation.

10But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.
11Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.
–2 Peter 3

18I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 20For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that[i] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
22We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in this hope we were saved.
–Romans 8

1Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
5He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
— Revelation 21

Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. 18But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer. 19Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, 20and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. 21He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.
Acts 3:17-21

Why we almost completely stopped talking about restoration, renewal and resurrection and shifted to hoping that our souls would wind up in heaven is a long and complex story, but I think the short version is that a cultural tendency to discount the importance of physical things led our spiritual forebears to assume that God couldn’t really be interested in renewing earth and reviving our bodies—that his actual goal must be rest for our souls. And so, in spite of an abundance of verses about resurrection, and shortage of verses about the hope of heaven, we began to preach and sing as though getting in to heaven is what Christianity is all about. But that was never meant to be where we placed our hope.

Our hope is that just as Christ was raised, we too shall be raised, to new life, on the new Earth, forever.

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One Things the Gospels Never Say About Heaven

In the last post I looked at every verse in the gospels that mentions heaven.  Every single one.  Now, imagine that you were going to record and examine everything said in your average church about heaven.  How much of it would be about the souls of the faithful going there someday?

But when you look at the gospels, exactly none of the verses that reference heaven are holding it out as the eventual home of righteous souls.  None.

How did our rhetoric move so far away from the language of Jesus?

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Everything the Gospels Say About Heaven

The Flammarion Woodcut, a depiction of the heavens and the earth from 1888.

As part of my preparation for a Sunday School class I’m teaching next week, I decided to take a look at every place where the four gospels mention the word “heaven” and do a quick analysis.  This isn’t super scholarly–it was all done in English with some simple online tools, but it might be a good starting point for deeper study later.  I’ll try to write up some conclusions before long, but it might be fun (depending on your definition of “fun”) for you guys to take a good look first and see if anything in particular jumps out at you.  Again, this is a rough first look, done in my spare time over two evenings.

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If you do a simple word search for “heaven” in the gospels, you find 123 verses that contain that word.

Matthew

Just over half of those verses, 65, are in the gospel of Matthew, which uses the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” where other gospels say the “the kingdom of God.”  That accounts for 31 verses, none of which are referring to the afterlife. Another twelve are references to “our Father in heaven,” used as a label for God.  Of the remaining 23, we have:

Lines that are in some way acknowledging heaven as the dwelling of the Father, the Spirit or the angels

  • 3:16-17 Two references in the story of the baptism of Jesus, in which heaven opens and the spirit of God descends, and then a voice from heaven calls out “This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
  • 5:24 “But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne…”
  • 6:10 (The Lord’s Prayer) “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
  • 11:25 A reference to God as “Lord of Heaven”
  • 14:19 Jesus looks up to heaven as he prays.
  • 16:1 The Sadducees demand a sign from heaven
  • 18:10 “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.”
  • 21:25-26 Jesus presses his enemies to answer whether John’s baptism was from heaven or from men.
  • 22:30 “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”
  • 23:9 “And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.”
  • 23:22 “And he who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.”
  • 24:36 “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
  • 26:64 “But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
  • 28:2 “There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.”

References to the faithful storing up rewards/treasures in heaven

  • 5:12 “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
  • 6:20 “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…”
  • 19:21 “Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

Heaven mentioned as part of a hyperbolic figure of speech intended to reinforce a teaching point

  • 5:18 “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
  • 24:35 “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

A declaration regarding apostolic authority

  • 18:18 “”I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”

A declaration regarding the authority of Jesus

  • 28:18 “Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.””

Mark

The word “heaven” appears only 14 times in Mark, (1:10-11, 6:4,; 7:34, 8:11, 10:21, 11:25,30-31, 12:25, 13:31-32, 14:62, 16:19) all of which can be placed into the same categories used for Matthew, and most of which are parallel passages to a line in Matthew.  The one notable line which Matthew doesn’t contain is Mark 16:19, which is part of a longer ending added by an anonymous scribe.  The oldest manuscripts of Mark end at verse 8.  16:19 reads “After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God.”

Luke

Luke uses the term 28 times.

Usages seen previously in Matthew and Mark

Lines that are in some way acknowledging heaven as the dwelling of the Father, the Spirit or the angels

  • 2:15  “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven”
  • 3:21-22   At Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit descends from heaven and the Father’s voice calls from heaven
  • 9:16  “Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke them.”
  • 10:21 “Father, Lord of heaven and earth”
  • 11:13 “your Father in heaven”
  • 11:16 “a sign from heaven”
  • 15:7 “rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents”
  • 15:18,21 “I have sinned against heaven and against you”
  • 18:13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”
  • 19:38 “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
  • 20:4-5 Jesus presses his enemies to answer whether John’s baptism was from heaven or from men.
  • 21:11 “signs from heaven”
  • 22:43 “an angel from heaven appeared”

References to the faithful storing up rewards/treasures in heaven

  • 6:23  “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven.”
  • 12:33 “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”
  • 18:22 “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”

Heaven mentioned as part of a hyperbolic figure of speech intended to reinforce a teaching point

  • 21:33 “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

Usages unique to Luke

Heaven as the originating place of the sun

  • 1:78        “by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven”

Heaven, the place from which divine punishments are issued

  • 9:54  “When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them ?”
  • 17:29 “But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all.”

Heaven as the place where Satan once was

  • 10:18     “He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.”

Heaven is where the names of the faithful are recorded

  • 10:20 “However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

Heaven, the destination of the resurrected Jesus

  • 9:51  “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.”
  • 24:51  “While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.”

Obviously, where exactly one draws the lines between categories is a matter of subjective assessment.  The final category could easily be placed with the first, (Lines that are in some way acknowledging heaven as the dwelling of the Father, the Spirit or the angels), but I thought it important to set it apart in this analysis because of the sheer importance of these verses to Luke.  9:51 marks a major turning point in the narrative—any scholarly outline of Luke will take note of the shift that happens here.  24:51 is at the very end of the book.  Most of Luke’s narrative is bookended by the line announcing that Jesus will at some point be taken up to heaven and the line that depicts it happening.

John

John’s themes and interests are very different than those of the other three gospels, and that is evident in his sixteen uses of the word “heaven.”  Four of them come under the most prominent category from the synpotics:

Lines that are in some way acknowledging heaven as the dwelling of the Father, the Spirit or the angels.

  • 1:32 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.
  • 1:51 He then added, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
  • 12:29 Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.
  • 17:1 After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed

Of the other twelve occurrences, all are found in chapters three and six, and all twelve make exactly the same point:

Jesus came down from heaven

  • 3:13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.
  • 3:27 To this John replied, “A man can receive only what is given him from heaven.
  • 3:31 “The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all.
  • 6:31 Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ “
  • 6:32 Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.
  • 6:33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
  • 6:38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.
  • 6:41 At this the Jews began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”
  • 6:42 They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”
  • 6:50 But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die.
  • 6:51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
  • 6:58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.”

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Marketing the Messiah

After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.
–Luke 10:1-4

I’ve had this passage stuck in my brain for a couple of years now*, always wondering the same question: how do the people of Christ today fulfill their calling in a way that is congruent with this beginning? (Maybe I’m still a restorationist at heart after all.)

Sometimes we think the palpable weirdness of the New Testament is a function of gaping chasms of linguistic and cultural difference that must be crossed when reading an ancient document from another part of the world. And sometimes that’s true. But even in his own day and age, Jesus was a weirdo. I can’t imagine that anyone else who intended to start a new global movement would do it this way–send people out into the world resourceless and vulnerable, looking for a friendly home to take them in so they could spread their message of the kingdom.

Churches today–at least, the ones I know anything about–do almost the opposite. Rather than walk through the world empty-handed, looking for places where the Spirit is already at work, our impulse is to show the world how much we can offer it. “Exciting Youth Program! Upbeat Worship! Relevant Preaching!” I remember getting a advertisement in the mail for one congregation’s Easter service. Six different times it mentioned that the Easter bunny would be there in person to meet the kids who came to the egg hunt. Not once did it mention that Easter was a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. In fact, the words Jesus or Christ didn’t appear anywhere in the ad. And this wasn’t one of the flaky “Best Life Now” temples to personal success. It was a fairly well-grounded congregation that I had attended for a couple of years. But their idea of reaching the world, at least on that day, involved a volunteer in a bunny suit and a proclamation of the good news of free eggs and prizes.

The rebuttal I usually hear when I get all cranky and reactionary about this stuff is that we are supposed to do Nice Things for Our Neighbors and, anyway, Once We Get Them in the Door, We Will Tell Them the Gospel. This is where I’m kind of simple-minded. I think we ought to do Jesusy things in Jesusy ways. If you can honestly picture Jesus spreading the word that his new movement will have “Well Staffed Nurseries!” and “Beautiful Worship Spaces!” and “Your Kids Can Meet Astarte Herself During the Spring Fertility Rituals!” then go for it, I guess, but that’s not the vibe I get from him in the gospels. It looks to me like a bunch of us are deciding that the world doesn’t want what we actually have to offer, so we’ll give them what we think they do want, and kind of see what happens from there. Maybe everyone is in agreement that the pastor they interviewed on the Daily Show, who tries to win converts through Ultimate Fighting, has gone off the deep end, but I think of him as a kind of living reductio ad absurdum argument against evangelism that relies on the power of clever marketing rather than the power of the spirit working through our resourcelessness and poverty. Once you decide that you are going to offer the teeming crowds what they want in order to get them inside, you may as well notice that some of them really want Ultimate Fighting, so what’s the harm?

I think it would be an interesting learning experience for a church to try to recreate some of these gospel scenes as closely as possible. What if we agreed that one Saturday morning we would put on simple clothing, leave our wallet and keys at home, and walk out into the world looking for a place where God is working, praying for open eyes that will let us see where we can join in, and praying also for hospitable strangers who will welcome us?

Yeah, I know–do I want people to think we’re a bunch of weirdos?

*In fact, I probably blogged it before, but it’s on my mind again and I’m not going to let redundancy slow me down. The internet isn’t running out of pixels.

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