Our Seating Doesn’t Determine Our Standing
Luke 14:1-14 (NRSV)
Our text today presents us with yet another story of Jesus around a meal table. Why do so many stories of Jesus involve eating and tables? The stories abound. One of the first attacks on Jesus had to do with him eating with sinners and tax collectors. Jesus ate with many different people and even got the label “glutton and drunkard” for his trouble. Jesus restores Peter at a breakfast fish fry and opens the eyes of two travelers on the road to Emmaus at an evening bread breaking. And who can forget his miracles involving wine, fish, and bread. And we haven’t even mentioned the last supper and his institution of communion by which all his followers would remember him . Jesus seems to love teaching around the table. There is even that odd little story of Jesus turning over some tables that created a major disturbance in the temple. Perhaps we should pay close attention to this metaphorical use of tables, eating and banquets. Luke 14 will give us just that opportunity as we see Jesus at yet another banquet, teaching some dining etiquette, and once again turning the tables, only this time not so literally.
There are essentially two scenes in this story and our lectionary has us focus primarily on the second scene. But it also throws in the first verse for some important context.
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely. (Luke 14:1 NRSV)
If you have been reading through Luke and are familiar with the Gospel stories, this one verse prepares you to anticipate confrontation. Let’s see, we have Jesus with a religious elite, around food, and on the Sabbath to boot. Yeah, here we go again. This will not end well. And if you missed Luke’s clues to conflict, he gives us one final detail that gives it away: “… they were watching him closely.” Have you ever been under the watchful eye of someone you know is against you? You know what’s up right? They are intently watching Jesus in hopes they would see him do something they can use against him. This invitation by a leader of the Pharisees is a trap.
The lectionary doesn’t include the scene that comes next, but we will look at it quickly to set up scene two. Besides, what Jesus does next is too good to miss. He springs the trap.
Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a Sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this. (Luke 14:2-6 NRSV)
How interesting that the man who had dropsy just appeared in front of Jesus seemingly out of nowhere. Typically, a man with this ailment, which we would call edema today, a condition of swelling due to excessive fluid, would be considered impure by Levitical standards, and therefore wouldn’t be allowed in this setting. This Pharisee seems to have taken steps to position this suffering soul in front of Jesus hoping to trap him in some way. The man with dropsy is the bait. And we have already been shown the trap — this takes place “on the Sabbath.” All this unfolding under the hostile eyes of the “lawyers and Pharisees.”
It’s possible these religious elites are acting out of fear of Jesus because he often challenged the status quo of the cultural fixation on status and standing. Remember, Jesus is the one running around eating with sinners and tax collectors. But we can relate, right? When we measure our worth according to our position or prominence, we will fear losing this standing and be tempted to use others to protect it if necessary. But Jesus is not fooled. He knows our fears and he knows the healing we need.
Jesus anticipates the Pharisees’ trap and asks them, “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath or not?” Perhaps Jesus is not referring only to the individual man with dropsy who needs healing. He used the plural “people” in his question instead of “this person!” It is also the people, you and I included, who have calloused hearts swelled with fear that need healing. They had no answer to his question that wouldn’t jeopardize their plan. So, they remained silent.
Jesus then heals the man and sends him away. He is not going to let him be used any further by these calculating authorities. He follows this healing up with another question about pulling a child or an ox out of a well on the Sabbath, an allowance made by the supplemental body of Jewish law. This question exposes the hypocrisy of their hearts. The Pharisees again refuse to answer. With this double silencing of his opponents, Jesus has ensnared the Pharisees in their own trap.
Now we can move to the second scene, which is the focus of our Lectionary passage. It begins with verse 7.
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. (Luke 14:7 NRSV)
Before we look at the parable did you notice a change in the story? Who is doing the watching now? That’s right, Jesus now becomes the one who is doing the watching as “he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor.” He is watching the guests instead of being watched by the host. Now that Jesus has silenced his opponents, he is presented in the story as the host of the banquet. And that is how Jesus “turns the tables.”
And we will be glad he has done just that, not only in this story, but in our stories as well. When Jesus is the host, the banquet will be enjoyed by those who live by the table manners of grace and not soured by fearful attempts of self-promotion. Jesus knew Proverbs 17 well:
- Dry crumbs in peace are better than a full meal with strife. (Proverbs 17:1-2 ISV)
Now to the parable Jesus has for his “guests.”
“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:8-11 NRSV)
And why we may ask is Jesus telling this parable? On the surface, this may look like straightforward wisdom talk common to the ancient world. Is Jesus just reminding them of Proverbs 25?
- Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble. (Proverbs 25:6-7 NRSV)
On the contrary, he is not just giving them advice on how to avoid embarrassment at a social gathering. Jesus is not concerned about the appropriate way to rise to the top. He is addressing the heart that seeks self-exaltation by any means. This parable is aimed at the fearful hearts of the Pharisees (and you and I when the shoe fits). The last line of the parable makes this clear. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Notice the passive “will be humbled” and “will be exalted.” The seating arrangement is determined by the host, not the guest.
It’s the heart of the host that ushers in the wedding banquet of all banquets. And if you will bear with me for one theological excursion, we will take a quick look at that heart. It is the heart of God, the triune God, who invites us to be his guests.
- The diagram below consists of a triangle to illustrate some foundational truths about the Trinity. Notice each line of the triangle has its own label. One line is labeled “One God,” another is labeled “Three Persons,” and the final line of the triangle is labeled “Equal.” Also note the label on each corner – modalism, tritheism, and subordinationism.
This triangle illustration is used to show how each foundational truth about the Trinity guards against a corresponding heresy. Each of the three sides of the triangle is a foundational truth. When any of these truths is denied, the other two sides make an arrow that points to the resulting error. Don’t get distracted by all the “isms” and big words. We just want to look at one foundational line of the Trinity triangle. The one labeled “Equal.” This is meant to convey the orthodox understanding that the three Persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, Spirit, are all equally and fully God. This truth guards against a heresy known as “Subordinationism.”
Essentially what this means in its simplest expression is that there is no hierarchy in the being of God. It is this foundational understanding that God is not hierarchical that sheds the most light on our passage in Luke 14. If we are created in the image of God, and God is not a God of hierarchy, then we must take seriously the implication for our lives. With Jesus as host of the banquet, why would we attempt to position ourselves hierarchically. This banquet does not operate by stepping on people in order to climb one rung higher on some arbitrary ladder of success. We don’t need to clamor for a seat at the VIP table. Jesus has invited us to enjoy the meal. And, more importantly, to enjoy him, and his relationship with his Father by the Spirit.
Jesus’ parable is aimed at correcting the mindset that our standing is dependent on our position that we obtain for ourselves. In his parable it is the host who determines our standing. As we see Jesus as the host who has invited us to the banquet, we need not be concerned about seating arrangements. We have been seated at the right hand of the Father in Jesus Christ. Our standing with the host has been settled through his own humbling and exalting through his death and resurrection.
After Jesus addresses everyone in the room with his parable, he then gets more personal by adding a word to “the one who had invited him.” If you are still listening to the words of this scripture, you are the one who has invited Jesus. May we listen to his final words personally spoken to us today:
He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:12-14 NRSV)
Jesus wants to personally give us some instructions on extending invitations. Instead of inviting only those who can help our standing, Jesus wants us to participate in his life that has no need of hierarchy. Imagine the burden lifted to live free of such pressure and constraint! As we come to know our standing in Jesus – that we are loved, embraced, adored, cherished, and adopted into the life of Father, Son, and Spirit, called sons and daughters of the King – then we can lay down all our attempts of bettering our position by using others or by posturing and maneuvering. Instead, we can “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” and receive the blessing of sharing in Jesus’ life as we play host in our world. These guests represent an invitation that is free of any desire for self-promotion. There is nothing they can give us in return. With Jesus as host, there is no fear of others threatening our identity. Besides, for all our clamoring for better seats, for all our positioning of ourselves for greater power or prestige, for all our manipulating and using of others to our own end, wouldn’t you agree that we are none the happier?
The blessed and happy life is the one found in Jesus who knows nothing of hierarchy but only of self-giving love. May we embrace this life that has so embraced us in Jesus Christ. Amen!
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.
- Why? Why do you think their messages cause hopelessness?
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.”
- Why do you think many/most Christians would be convinced some loved ones might be in hell?
- See Isaiah 49:8 and 2 Corinthians 6:2
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.
- Why is the Gospel good news … contrary to what some/many Christians might think?
- Answer … what the Scriptures really say about “day of salvation”
- Check biblehub.com re: Isaiah 49:8 and 2 Corinthians 6:2 .
- Note the next paragraph in Mr. Feazell’s article …
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.
- 1 John 2:2 And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.
- 1 Timothy 4:10 For to this end [a]we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.
- Colossians 1:15-20 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by (in) Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or [a]principalities or [b]powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. 18 And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. 19 For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, 20 and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.
- 1 John 2:2 And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.
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 For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin (?) for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
- Matthew 27:46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
- Psalm 22:1-2 My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? Why are You so far from helping Me, And from the words of My groaning? 2 O My God, I cry in the daytime, but You do not hear; And in the night season, and am not silent.
- Psalm 22:19-24 But You, O Lord, do not be far from Me; O My Strength, hasten to help Me! 20 Deliver Me from the sword, My[g] precious life from the power of the dog. 21 Save Me from the lion’s mouth And from the horns of the wild oxen! You have answered Me. 22 I will declare Your name to My brethren; In the midst of the assembly I will praise You. 23 You who fear the Lord, praise Him! All you [h]descendants of Jacob, glorify Him, And fear Him, all you offspring of Israel! 24 For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; Nor has He hidden His face from Him; But when He cried to Him, He heard.
- Galatians 3:13 Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”) (Deuteronomy 21:22-23)
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 And we declare to you glad tidings — that promise which was made to the fathers. 33 God has fulfilled this for us their children, in that He has raised up Jesus. As it is also written in the second Psalm: ‘You are My Son, Today I have begotten You.’
- Acts 3:20-21 and that He may send [a]Jesus Christ, who was [b]preached to you before, 21 whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things (apokatastasis) , which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since [c]the world began.
- Isaiah 43:19 Behold, I will do a new thing, Now it shall spring forth; Shall you not know it? I will even make a road in the wilderness And rivers in the desert.
- Revelation 21:5 Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” And He said [a]to me, “Write, for these words are true and faithful.”
- Romans 8:19-21 For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; 21 because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of [a]corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.
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. (Romans 11:33-36)
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 (Ephesians 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