Category Archives: Theology

Heaven: Who’s There?

Have you ever tried to describe a place that you’ve never seen? Never visited? It is impossible. But in the presence of someone who has, for instance, been to the Grand Canyon, you may hear them say: “Oh, it is beautiful! The vistas are majestic! You’ve got to go there! Take the mule down to the bottom! Take the helicopter ride!

Heaven is a bit different in that very few have been there and yet have returned to tell about it. Jesus and the Apostle Paul are two exceptions. Today, we approach the question: “Who is in Heaven?” Our answers are found in Holy Scripture.  Jonathan Edwards was a congregational minister in Northampton, Massachusetts, in the early 18th century. He was also a missionary to Native Americans and the third president of Princeton and considered by many to be the father of the American Church. Regarding heaven, he wrote:

 There are none but lovely objects in heaven- no offensive, or unlovely, or polluted person or thing is to be seen there. There is nothing that is wicked or unholy. …Everything is beautiful to behold, and amiable and excellent in itself.”[1] He was basing his description, not on personal experience, but on Revelation 21:27: “Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Jesus said much about that place. In John 14, Jesus speaks of going to prepare a place for us. This chapter occurs in the context after Jesus announces His departure in 13:36.

Jesus spoke of “His Father’s house.” He was talking of heaven. He mentions rooms. These are dwelling places within the house. Jesus also spoke of “eternal dwellings,” in Luke 16:9.

Jesus is going to prepare a place for His disciples. But the way that He goes is through the cross: the public torture, the separation from His friends and supporters, and most of all, the separation from His Father. Jesus takes the time to reassure them of His love, along with the imperative: Trust in God; trust also in Me.” Moving is the face that on the night that He would be arrested and go through the most difficulties of hardships, pain and separation; it is Jesus’ character to encourage His disciples. He tells them that He is going to the Father in 13:1, 3, and 14:28. Jesus’ words bring up the question…

What happens when someone dies? That is a question that is quite common. Two years ago, I lost my mother. On one of our trips to visit her grave, a relative asked: “Dave, what happens when we die?”  The Bible is quite clear. Jesus said that not everyone who dies goes to heaven. In fact, He made it sound like relatively few people enter everlasting life. Matthew 7: 13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Finding out after you die is too late. Hollywood actor Brad Pitt was asked the question: Is your soul spiritual?

He replied: “No, no, no! I’m probably 20 percent atheist and 80 percent agnostic. I don’t think anyone really knows. You’ll either find out or not when you get there, until then there’s no point thinking about it.”[2] I disagree. To be prepared here and now, is far better and less reckless and irresponsible.

Once we die, a departure occurs. This is the testimony of the major Protestant catechisms such as the Westminster of 1646 and the Heidelberg of 1564. A comfort that the believer has is that once he has died, he will always be in the presence of Christ.   These teach that once a Christian dies…

  • Shortly thereafter, his body goes into the ground. As the pastor says at the committal: “Earth to earth; ashes to ashes and dust to dust.”
  • But the soul departs and is in the presence of Christ. Paul reflecting on his possible death while in prison, wrote in Philippians 1:23: “But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better….” In 2 Corinthians 5:8, Paul said “…to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.”
  • The souls of Christians are separated from their bodies and reside with the Lord until the Second Coming of Christ. That place is known as paradise. Jesus said to the thief on the cross in Luke 23:43: “”I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” It is heaven, but not in its final state or condition that will occur when God brings the new heavens and the new earth.
  • On the day that Jesus returns, the soul will be reunited with the body and it will be raised, what is commonly known as “the resurrection.” Martha, Lazarus’ sister believed this in John 11:24 by saying: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
  • Then, once the final judgment takes place, Christ will bring the new heavens and the new earth, which will come down. From then on, our homes will be permanent. 2 Peter 3:13: “But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.”

Maybe the situation can be described in this way. If you lived in downtown Chicago, in a difficult area. But you were notified that you had inherited a sprawling beachfront home in Cape May, NJ. On your trip to Cape May, you had a small layover in Pittsburgh. While in Pittsburgh, you met some other family members who would also inherit the home. You would tell others that you were headed to Cape May; but your trip to Pittsburgh was incidental; it was a necessary stop, on the way.

In such a place, death is conquered. Who will be in heaven? Jonathan Edwards writes:

“Every gem which death rudely tears away from us here is a glorious jewel forever shining there. Every Christian friend that goes before us from this world is a ransomed spirit waiting to welcome us in heaven. There will be the infant of days that we have lost below, through grace to be found above. There the Christian father, and mother, and wife, and child and friend, with whom we shall renew the holy fellowship of the saints, which was interrupted by death here, but shall be commenced again in the upper sanctuary and then shall never end. There we shall have companionship with the patriarchs and fathers and saints of the Old and New Testaments, and those of whom the world was not worthy, with whom on earth we were only conversant by faith.”[3]

Overjoyed, we’ll be to see our Christian friends and loved ones, and those we’ve only read about and admired over the years. Most of all, we will be in the presence of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We are comforted and blessed to know that it is a wonderful reunion and a great discovery. More than can ever be described into words. “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him (1 Corinthians 2:9).”

Until then, we know that we have access to the Father through Jesus. Now the Lord gives us a pretty exclusive response to Thomas’ question in 14:6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” Jesus is the only way of connected to God. He alone provides access to Him. If we think that there are many ways to God, you are in essence calling Jesus a liar or you do not know your Bible very well.

Jesus said in John 1:51: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you shall see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” This is an Old Testament allusion to what is known as Jacob’s ladder, the dream that the patriarch had of a ladder reaching to heaven with angels ascending and descending on it. Of that place, Jacob said: “And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven! (Genesis 28:17)”

Furthermore, Peter and John preached an exclusive message in Acts 4:12 when they said: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” This goes with what Isaiah 45:22 says: “Turn to Me, and be saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.”

That’s why missions is so important to the life of the church. We have a message to get out and preach and share. D.A. Carson states: “It is totally inadequate to claim that one knows God, …while disowning Jesus Christ.”[4]

Nevertheless, the culture says: “Oh, there are other ways to God. Why be so narrow?” But what did God say? What did Jesus say? What more needs to be said?

Some within the false church and many within the culture say that this is an arrogant statement. Why be so narrow? We confused criticality with narrowness. Jesus is clearly speaking in reference to His Father’s house and its access. The point is that Christ has opened up heaven. When Jesus died on the cross, the veil in the temple was rent in two from top to bottom.

Hebrews 4:16 tells us that based on the endurance of Jesus, and because He is our high priest, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” In Biblical times, no one could ever approach a king’s throne with boldness. You had to be summoned. If you went where you were uninvited, it could cost you your life. But we serve a different king that allows us to approach Him with confidence. Without Christ, there is no access, let alone confidence.

So, heaven is for those who know the Father through Jesus Christ. It is the place that Jesus has gone to prepare for us.

But Jesus is also preparing us for a place. That is called sanctification; the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those who’ve trusted Christ. May the Lord’s words function as peace and encouragement to you who live for Him. May they function of motivation to know Him, if you’ve lived you’re life apart from Him. May it be to all of us a call to preparation; to know that this life is not all that there is. Rather this life is a preparation for the next. Your eternity lies outside of the material and outside of yourself. It demands trust in Christ and dependence upon Him.

Thomas a Kempis, a cardinal in the 15th century and the author of one of the best known Christian devotional works, The Imitation of Christ, said:

Follow thou me. I am the way and the truth and the life. Without the way there is no going; without the truth there is no knowing; without the life there is no living. I am the way which thou must follow; the truth which thou must believe; the life for which thou must hope. I am the inviolable way; the infallible truth, the never-ending life. I am the straightest way, the sovereign truth; life true, life blessed, life uncreated.[5]

[1] Jonathan Edwards, 14.

[2] http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/idolchatter/2009/07/quote-of-the-day-brad-pitt-on.html.

[3] Jonathan Edwards, Heaven: A World of Love (Amityville, NY: Calvary Press, 1992), 17.

[4] D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans: 1991), 491.

[5] Thomas A ‘Kempis The Imitation of Christ, 56. 1.

A Picture that Never Fades

The following message is based on Romans 6:1-11 and presents the subject of baptism, which is a sacred picture, offered by the church, of ritual cleansing from sin.  It was preached on June 2, 2013, on the occasion of baptizing six young people and receiving them into membership.

Pictures are representations of memories or special events.  We go to great lengths to save them.  Unfortunately, old pictures can fade, turn yellow or be destroyed.  The preservation of one’s collection of photographs is a popular topic today.  Many get theirs scanned into a computer for ready access.  Old movies can now be transferred to DVD.  Pictures remind us of important people, events and occasions.  Graduation pictures have been taken by the hundreds over the last few weeks.

We value pictures. Something that I like to do is go through old albums of years gone by and look at loved ones.  I especially like to view old pictorial directories of years ago.  You all don’t change!

Today, I want to speak with out about an important picture.  It is not a photograph, per se, but a representation of what Jesus does in the life of His followers, as we look at the picture of baptism.  We first learn that…

BAPTISM IS A SACRED PICTURE OF CLEANSING, DEATH AND RESURRECTION.

Water is the primary instrument of baptism.  It is associated with many things.  Water has always been seen as a universal cleansing agent.  The definition of baptism is the application of water in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  It is an initiation rite into the Christian faith.  It is the sign and seal of God’s grace, as circumcision was in the Old Testament, as Paul teaches in Romans 4:11 and Colossians 2:11-12.

Baptism is also a symbol of transformation and cleansing.  Why do we need cleansing?  Because God says so.  Our sin says so.    God makes this invitation known in Isaiah 1:18: “Come now, let us reason together,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”

In Romans 6, Paul teaches that baptism is a picture of the death and resurrection of Jesus.  It implies that new life has been imparted to the individual and that there’s been a change in identity.

In answer to the question, if God’s work in our lives gives us license to do whatever we want, Paul answers: “May it never be!  We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

It marks the beginning of this new life in Christ.  Jesus called himself the source of living water (John 4:10 and 7:38).  Because of God’s offer of cleansing and forgiveness, many people in the Scriptures were baptized.  John the Baptist baptized at Aenon (John 3:23). Jesus was baptized; not for the reasons that you and I share, but to identify with us and mark the beginning of His public ministry.  The Ethiopian Eunuch was baptized by Phillip; Paul was baptized after being converted on the Road to Damascus.

This new life is what gave rise to Paul being made a new person; one who persecuted the church and responsible for the killing and imprisoning of Christians, to one who traveled the entire world and put his life at risk to preach the gospel.  He would say in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Sometimes Christians think that baptism is something that we do to get saved.  This is incorrect.  We are saved by grace through faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9).  Baptism is not something we do to get salvation.  It is not a cause and effect relationship.  Rather, it is a passive picture of the benefits of an active faith.

Baptism is also a reminder of the ongoing benefits to trusting and following Christ.  Baptism is necessary to our faith.  Baptism is needed because we forget.  If you have not been baptized, then please see me.  It is an ordinance that you will never forget.  Caspar Schwenckfeld taught: “I believe in a holy Christian baptism for the washing away of sins in the confession of the Holy Trinity and calling upon the name of the Lord.  …I hope (I am) a baptized, though weak Christian.”[1]  We need this picture and must refer to it again and again.   BAPTISM IS A SACRED PICTURE OF CLEANSING, DEATH AND RESURRECTION. Secondly, who administers baptism?  Next, we find that…

THE CHURCH IS THE KEEPER OF SUCH BLESSINGS.

These people also come today to commit themselves to the Central Schwenkfelder Church, as their spiritual family.  Today, the church has become optional in the eyes of many.  As I shared last week, church membership is seeing a dip as well as church attendance.  Over 4,000 local congregations permanently close their doors every year in the U.S. alone.

We cannot appreciate spiritual growth without giving the church, the family of God, its rightful place.  John Calvin said: For what God has joined together, it is not lawful to put asunder [Mark 10:9], so that, for those to whom he is Father the Church may also be Mother.[2]

Many of you grew up with Christian Endeavor.  You might remember its pledge that says: “I will support my own church in her Sunday worship, and all her ministries, in every way possible…”[3]  My good friend, Dave Coryell, the Director of CE says: “God intends us to be a part of a group of people that will worship Him together.  This is called a church.”[4]  In other words, you cannot claim to be a Christian and be permanently outside of the fellowship of the local church.

The Church plays a vital role in the lives of its members in the following way.  First, it is the body of Christ– Matthew 16:18, Jesus said, “Upon this rock (of Peter’s confession), I will build My church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”  It is Jesus’ bride and God’s ordained instrument to spread the gospel to the world.  As Christians, it is not optional part of our lives, but functions as a lifesaver in a world that is lost and dying.

Secondly, the church guards the role of Scripture, God’s sacred love letter to us.  Paul wrote to Timothy:  “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2: Timothy 3:14-15).  And as Christians, we are to desire the Scriptures as we desire nourishment.  1 Peter 2:2: “like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation.”  It is among the body of Christ that we primarily learn and grow through our study of the Bible.

Thirdly, the church promotes the role of prayer.  The early church prayed as we find in Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Jesus told His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.”  It is most readily in the church that we see and hear of God giving and blessing and opening doors for His children.  We have a midweek prayer service throughout the summer  in our new Prayer Garden, or if it is raining or too hot, in the Community Center: Wednesdays at 6:45 p.m.

Fourthly, the church also promotes the importance of relationships. We need each other.  Proverbs 27:17 teaches: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”  There are so many “one anothers” in the Bible.  We are taught to love one another; serve one another; forgive one another; teach one another, encourage one another.  All of these are pictures of love.  Bob Russell states: “I’m invited by a lot of churches to come and talk to them about church growth.  One of the first things I tell them is that the church will not stay healthy and grow without love.  The place to begin to improve your congregation is not with programs or organization or even doctrine but with the attitude of the people toward one another.”[5]

BAPTISM IS A SACRED PICTURE OF CLEANSING, DEATH AND RESURRECTION.  THE CHURCH IS THE KEEPER OF SUCH BLESSINGS.  Why is the fount on our altar?  It functions as a reminder that we need the Lord to cleanse us if we are to know Him.  Baptism is needed because we forget.  It is the entry to our relationship with Christ and the church.  It represents cleansing and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  Lent originally was established for new Christians, those who experienced a call. They were to spend 40 days and 40 nights preparing for their baptism. If at the end they still wanted to follow Jesus, then on Easter Eve they would be baptized as the sun was rising in the east, signaling the new day, the new era, inaugurated because of the Resurrection.

I am sure it had a powerful significance for them, to have prepared for their vocation as Christians the same way Jesus prepared for His vocation as the Messiah: 40 days of introspection and self-examination.

There was a young convert in Haiti whose family believed in voodoo. They urged him not to forsake the family faith for this new Christian religion. But he ignored the family pressures and came for baptism. He walked into the water, stopped, and turned back! The missionaries were sure he had changed his mind. They were certain that the family pressures had prevailed. But he went back to shore to empty his pockets of all his voodoo charms. Then he reentered the stream and was baptized.

 

 


[1] Caspar Schwenckfeld, Eight Writings on Christian Belief (Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Press: 2006), 135.

[2] Institutes IV, 1.1.

[3] 2011 Pledge of Christian Endeavor Mid Atlantic, found at http://www.cemidatlantic.org/who-we-are/c-e-essentials/.

[4] Dave Coryell, I Accepted Christ! Now What? (Blaine, WA: Arrow Leadership Ministries, 2001), 9.

[5] Bob Russell, The Power of One Another, (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 2004), 7.