Food For Thought
This week’s theme is healing judgement.
The call to worship Psalm is a call for Israel’s restoration who is likened to a ravished vine that was once flourishing.
- Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19 Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, You who lead Joseph like a flock; You who dwell between the cherubim, shine forth! 2 Before Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, Stir up Your strength, And come and save us! . . . 8 You have brought a vine out of Egypt; You have cast out the [a]nations, and planted it. 9 You prepared room for it, And caused it to take deep root, And it filled the land. 10 The hills were covered with its shadow, And the [b]mighty cedars with its boughs. 11 She sent out her boughs to [c]the Sea, And her branches to [d]the River. 12 Why have You broken down her [e]hedges, So that all who pass by the way pluck her fruit? 13 The boar out of the woods uproots it, And the wild beast of the field devours it. 14 Return, we beseech You, O God of hosts; Look down from heaven and see, And visit this vine 15 And the vineyard which Your right hand has planted, And the branch that You made strong for Yourself. 16 It is burned with fire, it is cut down; They perish at the rebuke of Your countenance. 17 Let Your hand be upon the man of Your right hand, Upon the son of man whom You made strong for Yourself. 18 Then we will not turn back from You; Revive us, and we will call upon Your name. 19 Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; Cause Your face to shine, And we shall be saved!
The Old Testament reading from Isaiah tells a parable of a vineyard with a message of judgement.
- Isaiah 5:1-7 Now let me sing to my Well-beloved A song of my Beloved regarding His vineyard: My Well-beloved has a vineyard [a]On a very fruitful hill. 2 He dug it up and cleared out its stones, And planted it with the choicest vine. He built a tower in its midst, And also [b]made a winepress in it; So He expected it to bring forth good grapes, But it brought forth wild grapes. 3 “And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, Judge, please, between Me and My vineyard. 4 What more could have been done to My vineyard That I have not done in it? Why then, when I expected it to bring forth good grapes, Did it bring forth wild grapes? 5 And now, please let Me tell you what I will do to My vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it shall be burned; And break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. 6 I will lay it waste; It shall not be pruned or [c]dug, But there shall come up briers and thorns. I will also command the clouds That they rain no rain on it.” 7 For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, And the men of Judah are His pleasant plant. He looked for justice, but behold, oppression; For righteousness, but behold, [d]a cry for help.
The Gospel reading from Luke presents some sharp sayings of Jesus concerning judgement.
- Luke 12:49-56 49 “I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 But I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am till it is accomplished! 51 Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division. 52 For from now on five in one house will be divided: three against two, and two against three. 53 Father will be divided against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”
- 54 Then He also said to the multitudes, “Whenever you see a cloud rising out of the west, immediately you say, ‘A shower is coming’; and so it is. 55 And when you see the south wind blow, you say, ‘There will be hot weather’; and there is. 56 Hypocrites! You can discern the face of the sky and of the earth, but how is it you do not discern this time?
The epistolary text comes from Hebrews listing examples of faith from Israel’s history as forerunners to Jesus’ faithful obedience.
- Hebrews 11:29-12:2 29 By faith they passed through the Red Sea as by dry land, whereas the Egyptians, attempting to do so, were drowned. 30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they were encircled for seven days. 31 By faith the harlot Rahab did not perish with those who [a]did not believe, when she had received the spies with peace. 32 And what more shall I say? For the time would fail me to tell of Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, also of David and Samuel and the prophets: 33 who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. 35 Women received their dead raised to life again. Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. 36 Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, [b]were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented — 38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth. 39 And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, 40 God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.
- 12 Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking unto Jesus, the [c]author and [d]finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Peace & Division
Luke 12:49-56 (NRSV)
As you heard or read today’s text, I suspect there was part of you that raised an eyebrow. You may have thought, “That’s odd, is Jesus promoting division?” On the face of it, that certainly seems to be the case. These are the words of our Lord and Savior. What do we make of what he is saying in a world that is currently being divided across a myriad of lines. It would seem a text where Jesus calls for division to be a poor choice to speak on. But, blame the lectionary if it helps. Because today, we are called to hear and wrestle with these seemingly enigmatic words that seem so out of place in a society in desperate need of unity, not more division.
To start, let’s get a feel for what Luke is trying to accomplish by including this section in his Gospel account. These words are recorded in chapter 12, which is a section of discourse that serves as both an urgent warning, and encouragement for the crowds and disciples alike. Jesus is helping the disciples and the crowds to discern how to live in their present time in light of Jesus’ soon coming kingdom. That gives us a little hint as to what Jesus may mean when talking about division. There is already a dividing line between the kingdoms of this world and his glorious kingdom that will be inaugurated with his death, resurrection, and ascension. And as we will see, there is a clear nod by Jesus to his baptism, which is a reference to his death and resurrection.
Speaking of division, our passage for today can be divided in two parts.
- Verses 49-53 comprise the first part and is aimed to correct misconceptions of Jesus’ ministry that are held by his disciples.
- The second part is the last three verses of 54-56 where Jesus pointedly condemns the hypocrisy of those who fail to “interpret the present time.”
Both sections are a challenge to correctly read the signs of the times.
- The first is for the disciples by clarifying what following Jesus will entail;
- the second is to the crowds who only see what they want to see.
Let’s start with the first part of our reading:
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:49-53 NRSV)
These verses indicate that Jesus’ followers had interpreted Jesus’ ministry as bringing a certain kind of “peace” to the earth that is in contradiction to what Jesus was sent to do. This can be seen in Jesus’ direct challenge, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” The disciples had something wrong in their “thinking” regarding the “peace” Jesus was to bring. To talk about “peace” for the disciples would fall under the backdrop of Roman occupation. Peace for them would be to escape the tyranny of Roman control so they could return to being the nation of their past. Peace under these constraints could only be imagined as coming by an uprising that would overthrow the current power structures. So, these verses comprise essentially three warnings Jesus gives as a response to correct this mindset.
First, he states his mission is to “bring fire to the earth.” This is an image of judgment where a sifting and sorting out takes place. And Jesus lets us know he is ready to see this judgement take place with the words, “I wish it were already kindled!” So, from Jesus’ perspective, this judgement by fire is a good thing for the “earth.”
We often think of judgment as a negative that should be avoided. But righteous judgement brings peace by sorting out what is right and what is not. The two cannot live together in peace, they must be divided and set in their proper place. So, judgement in this understanding is not a peaceful process, but it does ultimately result in peace. This is part of what Jesus needed to teach his disciples. We may also confuse the process with the result in our world today. Many of the divisions we see in our world are not so much a case of people not being able to see eye-to-eye and get along. We may think that with just a little more education or a little more communication, we can usher in peace and stop the divisions. But this misses the root of the many divisive events of our day. Divisions on the earth run much deeper than that. In fact, it’s far too deep for human intervention to solve.
There is something fundamental to our divisions that must be dealt with if any unity is to ever take place. The root issue is sin. It is our determined resistance to the Father and his grace. We want things our way and we believe peace will come when everyone agrees with me. We could say, peace will come when I’m god. That is how the Roman emperors saw it after all. They saw themselves as divine peacemakers. The only catch is, if you did not agree with them, they would kill you or put you in slavery. So much for bringing peace to the earth. If the disciples wanted Jesus to be the next “emperor” – only this time on their side – you can see why Jesus would need to correct their thinking. That would be a continuation of the same problem, only tyrants and victims would have traded places. There would still not be peace on earth.
Second, Jesus gives a warning by hinting at the cost of his own suffering that the process of bringing peace will entail. Jesus’ reference to “a baptism with which to be baptized” is a nod to his soon coming death and resurrection. He tells them that he is under stress “until it is completed!” This has implications for the disciples they will need to wrestle with. Jesus seems to want them to understand that following him will not amount to a straight-line path to victory without any suffering. We often need this same warning in our times as well.
Following Christ doesn’t mean that now we can expect all our dreams to be fulfilled. This warning speaks directly to ministries that invoke a prosperity gospel. But it also speaks to our surprise of having to suffer for the sake of Christ. We may be tempted to think Jesus wouldn’t call us to suffer. After all, didn’t he come to bring us peace. And there it is, confusing the process with the result. It’s a way of avoiding the cross. Jesus is clear that he will not avoid the cross, and he doesn’t minimize his suffering as if it’s not really that bad. As his followers, if we are discerning the times from a perspective that doesn’t include suffering, we may miss what God is doing in and through the suffering we see in our world, as well as the suffering we experience in our own lives.
We often go through life trying to avoid suffering at every turn instead of discerning our present sufferings in light of Christ sufferings. In our sufferings, we can trust that Jesus is purifying and bringing us into his peace, a peace that surpasses all understanding (Phil 4:7). He has assumed all our sufferings, and he is now working his redemptive work through them. When we encounter suffering, we can discern them as a participation in the sufferings of Christ.
The third aspect of warning follows up more pointedly on challenging the disciples understanding of “division.” He tells them in no uncertain terms that he brings division. This may be disturbing to us as it undoubtedly would have been for the early disciples. Remember, Jesus is trying to deal with how people are discerning the signs of the times. How do we understand and respond to all the divisions we see playing out around us in our times? The disciples apparently were thinking peace was just around the corner. That’s how they understood all the signs of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus was performing miracles that indicated the Messiah had arrived. That was true, but they misunderstood what this Messiah was going to do to establish peace. He broke into our sinful and hostile hearts with the proclamation of his reign of peace. That proclamation would be a word that would divide. Jesus came as the Word of the Father. He came to proclaim the soon coming kingdom that he would establish. It is naïve to think that this proclamation would go without challenge. There are other kings and authorities that will resist such a proclamation. Our own self-crowned hearts will also have to be divided by this word. Hebrews 4:12 tells us as much.
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12 NRSV)
This doesn’t sound like the peace of which Jesus’ earliest disciples were thinking. Jesus goes on to make it personal by speaking of divisions in one’s own household as a result of following Jesus. Jesus begins this by saying, “From now on…” This tells us that we should not expect to see all our relationships magically dissolve of all divisions. On a larger scale, it also tells us that we should not expect some worldwide movement of unity in our times. Division will continue from now on until Christ returns. When there are movements to establish world peace by human authorities, by Jesus’ word, we know it’s an idealized pursuit at best or a sinister lie at worse like we see with the Roman emperors. Divisions will continue because the word of Jesus goes forth. And this word will not be taken away but will return to fully establish the reign of Christ. In this way, we can take some comfort when we see all the divisions springing up in our world. Division can be understood as a direct result of God’s kingdom breaking into the world. The evil in the world is resisting, and it gets manifested in many divisions among people and people groups. The division reminds us that God is at work purifying and sorting out. Like a rock thrown into an undisturbed pond, when Jesus breaks into the world, he creates waves.
This doesn’t mean we cheer on divisions or don’t take measures to alleviate division when called to do so. But we are to rightly discern these divisions in light of the gospel. Otherwise, we may think divisions should be avoided at all costs. As if they represent a failure of God’s word in the world. When we think like this, we may avoid times of division by compromising the gospel. Maybe we think we should not take a stand on Jesus’ claims of authority, or the ethical implications those claims present. We don’t want to offend, we may reason, or that would only create division. But, as Jesus is saying here, there is a type of division that is a necessary part of the process that leads to the true peace he is bringing with his kingdom. In that way, we are not being divisive, but the gospel certainly is. Jesus didn’t come to pat everyone on the back and say “I’m ok with you not knowing me and not wanting anything to do with me. Now, let’s go have a drink together and hang out.” Jesus will purify and burn away all the hostility that exists in order for there to be peace in our relationship with him, and by extension, with each other. And thank God, we see in this passage that he is committed to that end.
Luke reserves the last three verses to record Jesus’ address to the crowds.
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Luke 12:54-56 NRSV)
In these verses, Jesus is chastising the crowd for being experts at determining weather patterns while at the same time ignoring what is taking place in their time. Jesus, the Creator and author of life, is standing right there speaking to them, and many can’t discern what’s going on. By calling them “hypocrites” he is obviously not chiding them for being wise on small matters but dull on important ones. It is more of an accusation of ungodliness. These people are clearly intelligent and capable enough to discern what Jesus is saying. But they are not interested in that as much as they are interested in determining their day-to-day practicalities, like what to wear tomorrow. The analogy Jesus gives involves discerning the signs of an approaching storm, either a rainstorm or heat wave. But when it comes to discerning signs of God’s soon coming kingdom, they would rather continue in a lifestyle that avoids suffering and seeks peace by any means necessary. Such avoidance is to be completely unprepared for a much larger storm that is coming. Jesus’ reign will be on the wise and the foolish. There will be no option to remain divided on the issue.
For us today, we are once again faced with the decision to follow Christ. Every day, we are called to follow him. Following him will involve suffering and it will involve division. But it ultimately leads to Jesus’ complete healing and lasting peace. We can trust Jesus to bring about his purpose and his will – in our lives, in our relationships, in our culture, in our world – even in the midst of division and suffering. That’s what Jesus is doing in our time today. May we grow in trusting him and in discerning what he is doing in our own hearts and in the world around us.
Here are some GCI articles on the topic of THE GOSPEL:
- Believing the Gospel
- Here’s Good News for Everyone (a gospel tract)
- The Gospel Really is Good News
- Good News for Ordinary People
- The Kingdom of God
THE GOSPEL REALLY IS GOOD NEWS
When people gather in churches after a disaster, they come to hear words of comfort, encouragement and hope. Yet, try as they might to bring hope to a grieving people, some Christian leaders unwittingly proclaim a message that amounts to despair, hopelessness and fear for people whose loved ones died without having first professed faith in Jesus Christ.
Many Christians are convinced that everyone who did not profess Christ before death, even those who never so much as heard of Christ, are now in hell, being tortured by God — the God the same Christians ironically proclaim as compassionate, merciful, loving and full of grace. “God loves you,” some of us Christians seem to be saying, but then comes the fine print: “If you don’t say the sinner’s prayer before you die, then my merciful Savior will torture you forever.”
The gospel of Jesus Christ is good news. It remains forever, good news, the best news imaginable, for absolutely everybody and everything. It is not merely good news for the few who came to know Christ before they died; it is good news for the whole of creation — even for all who died before they ever heard of Christ.
Jesus Christ is the atoning sacrifice not merely for the sins of Christians but for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). The Creator is also the Redeemer of his creation (Colossians 1:15-20). Whether people know that truth before they die is not the thing that determines whether it is true. It depends entirely on Jesus Christ, not on human action or human response of any kind.
Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16, New Revised Standard Version in this article). It is God who loved the world and God who gave his Son, and he gave him to save what he loved — the world. Whoever believes in the Son whom God sent will enter into eternal life (better translated “the life of the age to come”).
The verse does not say that belief has to come prior to death. In fact, it says that believers will not perish, and since even believers die, it is obvious that “perish” and “die” are not the same thing. Belief keeps people from perishing, but it does not keep them from dying. The kind of perishing that Jesus is talking about here, translated from the Greek word apoletai, is a spiritual death, not a physical one. It has to do with utter destruction, with being abolished, put an end to, or ruined. Those who believe in Jesus will not come to such a final end, but will, instead, enter into the life (zoe) of the age to come (aeonion).
Some enter into the life of the age to come, or kingdom life, while they still live and walk on the earth, but in the grand scheme of things, this happens to only a small percentage of those who make up the “world” (or “kosmos”) that God loves so much that he sent his Son to save it. What about the rest? This verse does not say that God cannot or won’t bring to faith any of those who die physically before believing.
The idea that death is a barrier to God’s ability to save, or to his ability to bring a person to faith in Christ, is a human interpretation; the Bible states no such thing. We are told that everyone dies, and then they are judged (Hebrews 9:27). But let us remember that their Judge, thank God, is none other than Jesus, the slaughtered Lamb of God who died for their sins — and that changes everything.
Creator and Redeemer
Where do people get this notion that God is only able to save live people and not dead ones? He conquered death, didn’t he? He rose from the dead, didn’t he? God doesn’t hate the world; he loves it. He didn’t create humanity for hell. Christ came to save the world, not to condemn it (John 3:17).
One Christian teacher (and probably many others as well) said that God is perfect in hate as well as perfect in love, which accounts for why there is a hell as well as a heaven. He went on to explain how dualism (the idea that good and evil are equal and opposite forces in the universe) is a false doctrine. But doesn’t he realize he posited a dualistic God with his explanation of God holding in tension perfect hate and perfect love?
God is absolutely just, and all sinners are judged and condemned, but the gospel, the good news, lets us in on the mystery that, in Christ, God took that very sin and its judgment on himself for our sakes! Hell is real and horrible. But it is precisely that hell, the hideous hell reserved for the ungodly, that Jesus bore in humanity’s stead (2 Corinthians 5:21; Matthew 27:46; Galatians 3:13).
All humans are under condemnation because of sin, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ (Romans 6:23). That’s why it is called grace. In Romans 5:15, Paul puts it like this:
The free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass [this “many” refers to everybody; there is no one who doesn’t bear Adam’s guilt], much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many [the same “many” — absolutely everybody]. (Romans 5:15)
Paul is saying that as bad as our condemnation for sin is — and it is bad (it deserves hell) — it can’t even hold a candle to the grace and the free gift in Christ. God’s word of reconciliation in Christ is incredibly louder than his word of condemnation in Adam — the one completely eclipses the other (“much more surely”). That is why Paul can tell us in 2 Corinthians 5:19 that “in Christ God was reconciling the world [that’s everybody, the “many” of Romans 5:15] to himself, not counting their trespasses against them…”
So, then, what about the family and friends of those who die without having professed faith in Christ? Does the gospel offer them any hope and encouragement about the fate of their dead loved ones?
Indeed, the Gospel of John records Jesus declaring, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). That’s good news, the gospel truth. Jesus didn’t lay out a timetable, but he said that he would draw everybody to himself, not just a few who find out who he is before they die, but absolutely everybody.
Then it is no wonder that Paul wrote to the Christians in the city of Colossae that in Jesus Christ, God was pleased, pleased, mind you, to “reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20). That’s good news. It is, like Jesus said, good news for the whole world, not just for the limited few.
Paul wanted his readers to know that this Jesus, this Son of God raised from the dead, is not just some exciting leader of a new and improved religious concept. Paul is telling them that Jesus is none other than the Creator and Sustainer of all things (Colossians 1:16-17), and more than that, he is God’s way of fixing everything that has gone wrong with the world from the beginning of history (verse 20)! In Christ, Paul was saying, God has moved once and for all to make good on all his promises that he made to Israel — promises that he would one day act in pure grace to forgive all sins everywhere and make everything new (see Acts 13:32-33; 3:20-21; Isaiah 43:19; Revelation 21:5; Romans 8:19-21).
Only for Christians
“But salvation is only for Christians,” some people howl. Yes, of course it is. But who are “the Christians”? Are they only the people who repeat the sinner’s prayer? Are they only those who are baptized by immersion? Only those who belong to the “true” church? Only those who are absolved by a duly ordained priest? Only those who have ceased sinning? Only those who come to know Jesus before they die?
Or does Jesus himself, the one into whose nail-pierced hands God has given all judgment, decide who is and is not ultimately to be included among those upon whom he will have mercy? And while he is at it, does he, the one who conquered death and gives eternal life to whomever he wants, decide when he might bring a person to faith … or do we, the all-wise defenders of the true religion, make that determination for him?
Every Christian became a Christian at some point, that is, was brought to faith by the Holy Spirit. But the common assumption seems to suggest, however, that it is impossible for God to bring a person to faith after that person has died. But hold on, Jesus is the one who raises the dead, and he is the one who is the atoning sacrifice, not for our sins only, but for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2).
“But the parable of Lazarus,” someone will argue. “Abraham says that there is a chasm fixed between his side and the rich man’s side” (see Luke 16:19-31).
Jesus did not give this parable as a textbook on the afterlife. After all, how many Christians would want to describe heaven as “Abraham’s bosom” with Jesus nowhere in sight? The parable was a message to the members of the first-century Jewish privileged class who rejected their Messiah, not a portrait of the resurrection life. Before we take that further than Christ intended, remember what Paul wrote in Romans 11:32.
In the parable, the rich man was unrepentant. He still saw himself as Lazarus’ superior. He still saw Lazarus as existing only to serve his personal needs. Maybe it is not unreasonable to think that the rich man’s persistent unbelief is what kept the gulf fixed, not some arbitrary cosmic necessity. Remember, Jesus himself bridges the otherwise impassable chasm from our sinful condition to reconciliation with God. Jesus underscores this point, the point of the parable — that salvation comes only through faith in him — when he says, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31).
God is in the business of saving people, not torturing them. Jesus is Redeemer, and whether we believe it or not, he is awfully good at what he does. He is the Savior of the world (John 3:17), not the Savior of a fraction of the world. “God so loved the world” (verse 16) — not merely 20 percent.
God has ways, and his ways are higher than our ways. Jesus tells us, “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:43). Surely we believe he loves his own enemies. (Or do we believe that Jesus hates his enemies while he calls on us to love ours, as if we are supposed to be more righteous than he is, and that his hatred accounts for why there is a hell?) Jesus asks us to love our enemies precisely because he loves them. “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing,” Jesus prayed of those who murdered him (Luke 23:34).
Those who continue to refuse Jesus’ grace even after they understand it receive the fruit of their own stupidity. There is no place left for people who refuse to enter the Lamb’s banquet, except outer darkness (another of the metaphors Jesus used to describe the state of alienation from God; see Matthew 22:13; 25:30).
Mercy to all
Paul makes the amazing assertion in Romans 11:32 that God “has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” The Greek words here mean all, not some, but all. Everyone is disobedient, and in Christ the same everyone is shown mercy—whether they like it or not; whether they take it or not; whether they know it before they die or not.
What can you say to such a marvelous thing, but what Paul says in the next verses:
O, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen. (verses 33-36)
It seems that his ways are so unfathomable that many of us Christians simply cannot believe that the gospel can be that good. Some of us think we know the mind of God so well that we just know that everybody goes straight to hell if they aren’t Christians yet when they die. But Paul’s point is that the extent of God’s mercy is beyond our understanding—a mystery revealed only in Christ: God has done something in Jesus Christ that nobody would ever have guessed in a million years.
In his letter to the Christians at Ephesus, Paul says that this is what God had in mind all along (Ephesians 1:9-10). It was the whole point of God’s calling of Abraham, of his choosing of Israel and David, and of the covenants (Ephesians 3:5-6). God is saving even the aliens and strangers (2:12). He is saving the ungodly (Romans 5:6). He really does draw all people to himself (John 12:32). The Son of God has been at work underneath all of history from the very beginning, bringing about the redemption, the reconciliation of all things to God (Colossians 1:15-20). God’s grace has a logic all its own, a logic that often seems illogical to religious-minded people.
Only path to salvation
Jesus Christ is the only path to salvation, and he draws everybody to himself—in his way, in his time. There isn’t anywhere in the universe except in Christ, since as Paul said, nothing exists that isn’t created by him and upheld by him (Colossians 1:15-17). Those who finally reject him do so in spite of his love; it’s not that he refuses them (he doesn’t—he loves them, died for them and forgave them), but that they refuse him. C.S. Lewis put it this way:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done” and those to whom God says, in the end, “THY will be done.” All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice, there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek, find. To those who knock, it is opened. (The Great Divorce, chapter 9)
Heroes in hell?
As I listened to Christians preach about the meaning of September 11, 2001, I thought of the firefighters and police officers who sacrificed their lives trying to rescue victims of the attack on the World Trade Center. How can Christians call these people heroes and applaud their self-sacrifice on one hand, but on the other hand declare that unless they confessed Christ before they expired, they are being tortured in hell? Their good works cannot save them, but Christ can.
The gospel declares that there is hope for those who died in the World Trade Center without yet having professed Christ. They will encounter the risen Lord on the other side of death, and he is the Judge—the one with nail marks in his hands—eternally ready to embrace and receive all his creatures who will come to him. He forgave them before they were born (Ephesians 1:4; Romans 5:6, 10). That part is done, just as it was done for us who believe now.
All that remains for them now is to throw down their crowns before him and receive his gift. Maybe some won’t. Maybe some are so committed to loving themselves and hating others that they will see their risen Lord as their archenemy. That would be a shame — no, more than that; it’s a disaster of cosmic proportions, because he’s not their archenemy. Because he loves them anyway. Because he would gather them into his arms like a hen gathers her chicks, if they would only let him (cf. Luke 13:34).
It is safe to say, if you believe passages like Romans 14:11 and Philippians 2:10, that by far most of the people who died in that attack will jump into Jesus’ forgiving and merciful arms like a puppy runs to its mother at mealtime.
“Jesus saves,” Christians put on their posters and bumper stickers. It’s true. He does. He is the author and finisher of salvation, the beginning and goal of all creation — including all dead people. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, Jesus said. Rather, he sent his Son into the world to save it (John 3:16-17).
Regardless of what some people say, God is out to save everybody (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9), not just a few. And guess what? He never gives up. He never stops loving. He never stops being who he is, was, and will always be for humanity—their Creator and their Redeemer. Nobody falls through the cracks.
Nobody was created for the purpose of sending to hell. If anybody winds up in hell—the tiny, meaningless, dark, nowhere corner of the eternal kingdom—then what causes them to stay there will be nothing but their own stubborn refusal to receive the grace God has for them. It will not be because God hates them, because he doesn’t. It will not be because God is vindictive, because he isn’t. It will be because 1) they hate the kingdom of God and refuse his grace, and 2) God won’t let them spoil the fun for everybody else.
The gospel is a message of hope for absolutely everybody. Christian preachers don’t have to resort to threats of hell to coerce people to turn to Christ. They can proclaim the truth, the good news:
God loves you. He isn’t mad at you. Jesus died for you because you’re a sinner, and God loves you so much he has saved you from everything that is destroying you. So why should you keep on living as though this dangerous, cruel, unpredictable and unforgiving world is all you’ve got? Why don’t you come and start experiencing God’s love and enjoying the blessings of his kingdom? You already belong to him. He’s already paid for your sins. What are you waiting for? He’ll turn your sorrow into joy. He’ll give you peace of heart like you’ve never known. He’ll bring meaning and purpose to your life. He’ll help you improve your relationships. He’ll give you rest. Trust him. He’s waiting for you.
This message is so good that it bubbles out of us. Paul wrote in Romans 5:10-11: “If while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
Talk about hope! Talk about grace! Through Christ’s death, God reconciles his enemies, and through Christ’s life, he saves them. No wonder we can boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ—we are already experiencing in him what we are telling others about. They don’t have to keep on living like they have no place at God’s table; he’s already reconciled them, they can come on home. Christ saves sinners. It really is good news. It’s the best news anybody can hear.
Author: J. Michael Feazell