Will There Be Ethnic Diversity in Heaven?

The standard joke among foreigners when I lived in Hungary was that Hungarian would be the language of Heaven, because it takes an eternity to learn.

But will there actually be diversity in Heaven? Will racial differences exist for eternity? Or will Heaven be homogenous?

One Race?

As recent events have highlighted disparities and tensions between ethnic groups in the United States and beyond, one response from Christians has been to point out that the Bible teaches that all people come from one set of common ancestors. Therefore, they say, there is truly only one race: the human race.

In a recent episode of Calvary Live, Pastor Ed Taylor of Calvary Church in Aurora, Colorado spoke with John Moreland of Denver Christian Bible Church, who is an African American man. When Ed asked John his thoughts on the idea that there is really only one race, John said he was not sure if he fully agreed with that.

Why not? Because, while John would not disagree with the fact that all human beings descend from one common set of ancestors, he feels that saying that there is only one race detracts from the importance of racial diversity.

Is Racial Diversity Something to Erase or Celebrate?

This past Sunday we studied 1 Kings 11 at White Fieldswatch or listen to that message here. This chapter talks about how King Solomon married many foreign women, contrary to God’s command that the people of Israel not do that.

However, upon further examination of the Bible, what you realize is that this prohibition against marrying foreign women was about faith, not about race. Several of the female heroes of the Bible were women who were not ethnically Jewish, but they became followers and worshipers of Yahweh, the true and living God: Ruth was from Moab, Rahab was a Canaanite. In Jesus’ family tree in Matthew 1, five women are listed by name, and three of them are of non-Jewish origin.

In fact, if you look at the origin of the Jewish people, they were a nation chosen by God from among the nations. They were a manufactured nation, not created on the basis of a shared ethnicity, but on the basis of a shared faith in God. This is why there are Jews from places like Ethiopia and East Asia who are not ethnically descended from the Middle East, and yet they are full-fledged Jews. Essentially, anyone who wanted to be a follower of Yahweh was welcome, no matter where they were from.

Mike and I discussed this topic in this week’s Sermon Extra video: “Why Did Solomon Marry Foreign Women”

What made the early Christians unique was that, unlike most religions at that time, which were limited to a local ethnic group, Christianity – like Judaism – was a truly multi-ethnic faith. It claimed to the truth for all people everywhere, and it claimed that Jesus was the Savior not of only one group of people, but for the entire world.

This belief came from the Bible itself:

“Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth.” 

Psalm 67:4

Although in English we often use the word “nations” to speak of political or geographical entities, i.e. “countries.” The word “nations” in the Bible, however, is the Greek word ἔθνη (ethni, the plural form of ethnos), from which we get the English word: “ethnicity.”

So, the country of Russia, for example, is made up of 185 nations, i.e. ethnic groups. This is why in Canada, the indigenous people groups are called the “First Nations.”

So, what this passage is saying is, “Let all the [ethnicities] be glad,” because God judges all the ethnic groups of the world with equity and guides them.

In the “Great Commission,” Jesus instructed his disciples to preach the gospel to all “nations,” i.e. ethnic groups:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:19-20

In his address to the philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens, Paul the Apostle said:

And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us

Acts 17:26-27

Here Paul states that God, in His providence, has determined when and where people would live, with the goal that their setting and situations would drive them to seek Him.

Rather than being opposed to the plan of God, it would seem that diversity is part of God’s design and brings Him glory. In a fallen world, not all aspects of any culture will be good and reflect God’s character and heart, and every culture will have certain idolatries which are common to the people in that culture. Conversely, however, every culture will have some aspects which uniquely reflect God’s goodness and character (common grace), which will differ from the way other cultures reflect those things.

Ethnic Diversity in Heaven

In John’s vision of Heaven in Revelation chapter 7, he writes:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Revelation 7:9-10

John gives three descriptions of the diversity of the people around the throne and before the Lamb: tribes, peoples, and languages. This is an escalating list, which goes from smallest to largest: languages may be used by people of multiple ethnicities, and ethnic groups may contain many tribes.

All three of these designations are present around the throne; thus it seems likely that even with our new “heavenly bodies” (see 1 Corinthians 15:35-49), ethnic diversity seems to be maintained and apparent in Heaven, for eternity.

Whereas divisions and oppression will cease, it seems that diversity will not.

It seems that who you are, because of your ethnic and cultural background, will be maintained for eternity, to bring glory to God. While the negative aspects of a culture will be done away with, the good, God-honoring and glorifying diversity will continue to bring glory to God and enrich others.

As we await that day, may God help us to honor and value ethnic diversity, and glean from one another.

What Happened on Holy Saturday?

Holy Saturday is the name given to the day in between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday.

As I explain in this post: Was Jesus in the Grave Three Days and Three Nights? Here’s How It Adds Up, in reality Good Friday was a Thursday, and Jesus was in the grave on Friday and Saturday. But what happened during that time?

He Descended to the Dead

The Apostles’ Creed, one of the oldest Christian creeds – in continual existence since at least the 4th Century A.D. – contains a line which many people have found intriguing: it declares that Jesus “descended to the dead.”

Older translations of the original text into English sometimes translate this phrase as saying that Jesus “descended into Hell.”

Looking at the creed in ancient languages is interesting as the Greek text says: κατελθόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα, which means: “descended to the bottom” – and the Latin text says: descendit ad inferos, the word inferos being translated as “Hell.”

More recent translations into English have chosen to say “descended to the dead” rather than “descended into Hell” as “the dead” would be more accurate biblically and theologically than “Hell.” The reason for this is based on a particular understanding of “Sheol” in the Old Testament and the Jewish mind, which was the dwelling place of all souls, being divided (according to Luke 16:19-31) into two parts: Abraham’s Bosom and Hades, AKA: Hell.

Abraham’s Bosom, we are told in Luke 16, was a place of comfort for those who died in faith, i.e. the “Old Testament saints,” such as those described in Hebrews 11, who died prior to the redemptive actions of Jesus, but died in faith that they would be “raised up to a better life” (Hebrews 11:35)

He Proclaimed What He Had Done, and Led Captives in His Train

In 1 Peter 3:19 and 4:6, Peter tells us that Jesus’ spirit went to Sheol after his death on the cross but prior to his resurrection, and declared to the souls of the deceased there what he had accomplished in his life and death. This message would have been:

  1. A message of redemption and release from Sheol for those who were kept in Abraham’s Bosom awaiting the redemptive work of the Messiah (“He led captives in his train” – Ephesians 4:8)
  2. A message of condemnation for those held in the Hades/Hell portion of Sheol.

God Often Does His Greatest Work in the Dark

For the disciples, that first “Holy Saturday” would have seemed much less than holy. It would have felt like defeat and been perhaps the lowest point in their lives. Many of them, having left everything to follow Jesus, would have been wondering, “Now what am I going to do with my life?” – not to mention the fact that they were afraid that they would be next: that the Romans and Jewish leaders would likely come be coming to arrest and execute them as well.

And yet, in the awful silence of that day, God was doing a great work of redemption!

Remember: with God, silence is not absence. Sometimes when God seems most distant to us, is when He is accomplishing his most profound work.

That is the reminder of Holy Saturday: we can’t always see what God is doing.

May God bless you and give you rest in your soul this Holy Saturday!

See also:

Christmas is for “Those People”

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The Ins and the Outs

If you read the narratives about Jesus’ birth, you notice that two very different groups of people came to celebrate the event: the magi and the shepherds.

These groups could not have been more different.

  • The magi were “wise men from the East,” whereas the shepherds were local.
  • The magi who educated whereas shepherds were uneducated.
  • The magi were trained in astronomy: a practice common amongst social elites at that time. The shepherds were illiterate.
  • The magi were wealthy. The shepherds were the poorest of the poor.
  • The magi were elites: they easily got an audience with the king. The shepherds were outcasts: dirty, smelly, and looked-down upon by others.

The wise men were the 1%-ers. The shepherds were the undesirables.

Honored yet Disgraced

Then there’s Mary. When the angel came to her to tell her that God had chosen her to be the one through whom the promised Savior would come into the world, her response was:  “Me?   Really?”  Later on she says that God had “looked upon her lowly estate” (Luke 1:48).

Mary was a young woman and she was poor. She was engaged to a blue-collar construction worker. We know that together they were poor because when they dedicated Jesus as a baby in the temple, they gave an offering of two turtledoves (pigeons), which was the sacrifice that the poorest of the poor were allowed to make (the wealthy were required to sacrifice a lamb, but this allowance was for those who couldn’t afford to buy a lamb). Truly: he was was rich became poor… (2 Corinthians 8:9)

Furthermore, since God’s plan necessitated that the Messiah, the promised savior, be born of a virgin (Genesis 3:15, Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:22-23), that necessitated that whoever would be chosen to bear the Messiah would become a social pariah by doing so, because they would become pregnant outside of wedlock.

Mary had to be content with knowing who she was in God’s eyes, because in the eyes of those in her community she was disgraced. In fact, John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus had to deal with insults and people calling him a bastard because of his mother’s assumed impropriety (John 8:41). Scholars also note that when Mark’s Gospel reports that Jesus was called “the son of Mary” rather than the common way of referring to a child as the son of their father, i.e. “the son of Joseph” – that this was a slight, insinuating that Jesus was the product of Mary’s adultery.

Hope for “Those People”

Sometimes people look at Christianity and say, “the problem with Christianity is that it is so narrow and exclusive,” because Christianity says that if Jesus is God, if Jesus is the Savior, then you have to put your trust in Him and follow Him in order to be saved.

But here’s what’s interesting: I have met many people who say: “All you have to do to be saved is: be a good and moral person.”

Most people don’t believe that all people will be saved. They fully expect that Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot will go to hell, as well as those who hurt children or the weak. They believe that those who are cruel and mean, and those who do bad things and hurt others deserve Hell rather than Heaven.

In fact, many people find it scandalous that by just believing in Jesus, a person like Jeffery Dahmer, who has done truly terribly things, could be forgiven of their sins and still go to heaven. People even go so far as to say things like, “If someone like that is in Heaven, then I would rather not be there.” The assumption is that for God to forgive someone like that would be a grave act of injustice.

The problem, though, with saying that “All moral and decent people will go to Heaven,” or “If you live a good life, then you will be saved,” is that not all of us are moral! Not all of us have lived good lives! Some of us are failures. Some of us are broken. All of us have done things that we’re not proud of. We have all done things that hurt other people.

To say that “good and moral people” will be saved, or that in order to be saved you must “live a good life” is narrow and exclusive, because it puts “those people” on the outside. The gospel, on the other hand, offers hope to “those people” because it says that anyone who comes to Jesus will be welcomed, received, forgiven, and transformed.

The message of the gospel is good news for all people – for the elites and the outcasts. For the decent and the indecent. For the good and the bad (see Matthew 22:10 – both “the good and the bad” were invited to the wedding feast). The gospel is scandalously open to all people who will come and receive the free gift of redemption through Jesus. That’s good news for “those people” like me and you!

Merry Christmas!

Do All Babies Go to Heaven?

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A question that many people wonder about is the eternal destiny of children who die in infancy. Furthermore, if we believe that life begins in the womb, what about those babies who are aborted?

Having never had the chance to hear, understand, and believe the gospel – what happens to their souls? Is there some special mercy of God which is available to them?

Aside from the anecdotal evidence from 2 Samuel 12, in which David expresses his belief that he will be reunited one day with his deceased son, from a theological perspective the basic question really comes down to this: While we are all born with a fallen, sinful nature, is it this sinful nature which incurs God’s judgment, or is it rather disobedience, which is based on knowledge?

A decent argument can be made for the latter, from many places in the Bible, not least of which is found in Romans 1-2, where the wrath of God is clearly stated to be incurred by rebellion and disobedience, which are based on knowledge of God and knowledge of right and wrong. Deuteronomy 1:39 also states that infants do not have knowledge of good and evil.

We should also consider how this applies to those with cognitive disabilities.

This brings up several questions, such as whether there is such a thing as an “age of accountability” at which a person becomes responsible for their actions and choices before God? Our human laws certainly deal with people based on knowledge and understanding. If God does also, how is that age of accountabilty determined?

Here is a brief discussion that Pastor Mike and I had on this topic in our Sermon Extra video for one of the messages from our “I Could Never Believe in a God Who…” series:

Did People Go to Heaven Before Jesus’ Death & Resurrection?

mountains with crepuscular ray

A reader recently sent in this question:

In John 3:13, Jesus says“No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven-the Son of Man,”

  • Is this saying that people didn’t go to Heaven before Jesus’ death and resurrection?
  • Where had everyone who died gone before Jesus died and rose?
  • Did this change after his death and resurrection?
  • What verses can you share with me about this?

Let me answer each of those questions in order:

Is this saying that people didn’t go to Heaven before Jesus’ death and resurrection?

Yes, I believe so.

Where had everyone who died gone before Jesus died and rose?

The Old Testament talks a lot about “Sheol” which is the dwelling place of the dead. Psalm 139:7-8, for example, says: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!”

Is this saying that God is present in Hell? No. It’s saying He is present in Sheol. 

It would seem (I’ll give Scriptural justification for this below) that Sheol was divided into two sections: Abraham’s Bosom and Hades.

Abraham’s Bosom was a place of comfort for those who died in faith. Since they had not yet been redeemed through the death and resurrection of Jesus, they could not go to Heaven, so this was a sort of holding place, or waiting room for the souls of the Old Testament believers who died in faith, trusting not in their own works or performance to garner them favor before God, but casting themselves on God’s mercy and grace to save them through the Messiah who was to come.

Hades, on the other hand, was a place of torment for those who died apart from awareness of their shortcomings and apart from faith and trust in God’s mercy and grace. Hades, like Abraham’s Bosom, was/is a holding place or waiting room for the souls of those who have died apart from faith, and though those in Hades suffer torment presently, one day Hades will be emptied into the Lake of Fire, meaning that Hades is not the final destination for those who have died apart from faith.

Did this change after Jesus’ death and resurrection?

It seems that in the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus descended into Sheol and released those from Abraham’s Bosom and led them to Heaven. Those who die now in faith in Jesus go to Heaven, i.e. the presence of God.

Hades, on the other hand, remains in tact, and those who die apart from faith still go there.

What verses can you share with me about this?

Luke 16:19-31: The Rich Man and Lazarus

Luke 16:19-31 gives us insight to this through the story of the rich man and Lazarus: Lazarus, a poor man who died in faith, is taken to Abraham’s bosom, whereas the rich man who died apart from faith is taken to Hades. Between the two parts of Sheol, the story tells us, is an uncrossable chasm, and there is no escape.

The rich man desperately wants someone to go and speak to his family members, and plead with them lest they end up in Hades as well, but the man is told that his family members have been given Moses and the Prophets (i.e. the Scriptures), and they should listen to them.

Ephesians 4:8-10: He Led Captives in His Train

In Ephesians 4:8-10 we read this: Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives (in his train), and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)

The Apostles Creed, one of the oldest Christian creeds, includes this phrase:

He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.

Going back to Jesus’ apostles, who spoke with him after his resurrection, there seems to have been an understanding that Jesus descended into Sheol, and did two things:

  1. Released those “captives” from Abraham’s Bosom and led them to the immediate presence of God (Heaven). (Ephesians 4:8)
  2. Preached to the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:19-20)

The latter of these was not evangelism, but a pronouncement of judgment upon those spirits in Hades. We know this because of the qualifying text in 1 Peter 3:20.

“Today you will be with me in Paradise”

2 Corinthians 5:8Luke 23:43  & Philippians 1:23 tell us that when a believer dies today, they are taken to the direct presence of God, AKA “paradise”.

Hades will be cast into the Lake of Fire

Revelation 20:11-15 describes how, after the judgement of the living and the dead at the end of all things, Hades will be cast into the Lake of Fire.

And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.  (Revelation 20:13-15)

A New Heavens and a New Earth

Heaven, as it is now experienced, is different than what will be after the final judgment, where Revelation 21 tells us that there will be a new heavens and a new Earth, for the first heaven and the first Earth will have passed away, and will be no more. (Revelation 21:1)

Jesus said in Matthew 24:35 that Heaven and Earth will pass away, but his words never will.

2 Peter 3:7 says, But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. 

And 2 Peter 3:10 says, But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

Thus, after the final judgment, there will be a new heavens and a new Earth, which will be not only the restoration of Eden, but the fulfillment of what Eden would have been had sin not entered in.

In the New Jerusalem, once again, we see humankind together with God, with no sin nor shame, nor any of the destructive effects of sin (i.e. sickness, pain), and that the Tree of Life is there. Whereas Eden was a garden, the New Jerusalem will be a garden city.

Submit Your Questions!

Thanks for these great questions! Keep studying the Word, and feel free to send more questions to me by filling out this form.

The Last Supper? Actually, No.

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This week is Holy Week, the week during which we remember the final week of Jesus’ life on Earth leading up to his crucifixion and resurrection.

Maundy Thursday is the day in the church calendar when we remember what we call “the Last Supper”, the Passover meal that Jesus shared with his disciples before he was crucified. For more on the “lesser known” days of Holy Week, read: “The Less Famous Days of Holy Week

However, there are several aspects to these traditions that might be misleading.

First of all, Jesus’ Passover Dinner with his disciples would have been on Wednesday evening. According to Jewish thinking, this would have been Thursday, since in Jewish thinking the new day begins at sundown. Thus, what we consider to be Wednesday night would actually be considered Thursday by the Hebrews.

For more on the timing of Holy Week, read: “Was Jesus in the Grave Three Days and Three Nights? Here’s How It Adds Up

But most importantly, what is misleading is the name “the last supper”. Consider what James K.A. Smith has to say on this topic:

when Jesus celebrates the Last Supper, he actually intimates that it’s not really the last supper, but the penultimate (second to last) supper.1

Smith is right. Think about what Jesus said during that supper:

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:26-29 ESV)

Paul the Apostle then says this about the practice of the Lord’s Supper by Christians:

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:26 ESV – emphasis mine)

In other words, the meal commonly referred to as “the last supper” was not ever meant to be thought of as the last supper that Jesus would have with his disciples, but as the preview of the great supper that they would one day share with Jesus in His Kingdom.

In other words, Communion, AKA the Lord’s Supper, AKA the Eucharist is an eschatological supper, through which we remind ourselves week in and week out of what is to come: the wedding feast of the lamb, in the New Jerusalem (Heaven).

Consider these words further thoughts from James K.A. Smith:

there’s a certain sense in which the celebration of the Lord’s Supper should be experienced as a kind of sanctified letdown. For every week that we celebrate the Eucharist is another week that the kingdom and its feast have not yet fully arrived.2

As you remember and reflect during Holy Week on Jesus’ penultimate supper, and every time you take communion, keep in mind that we do so both as an act of looking back and as an act of looking forward! Both are essential aspects of the hope that we have in Jesus!

 

James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdomp.199
2 Ibid., p.200

One Day

 

What all of us long for is nothing less than redemption.

This young Israeli couple have been posting videos of their music for a while. This video, according to their Facebook page, was recorded a cappella in their car because the original recording had audio problems, but there is something very lovely and beautiful about both the way they sing and what they are singing about.

What makes it so beautiful, is that they are singing about a day in the future when there will be no more wars and strife, when things will be the way we all innately feel that they should be and the way that all people deep down hope it will be.

What all of us long for is nothing less than redemption. 

And that’s because we were made for perfection, but we’re fallen… and yet we have a sort of ancestral memory of it; we know that even though death and strife and sickness are the realities of the world we live it, even though that may be how it is, we still believe that it’s not the way it should be, and so we long for and we sing and dream and write about a world where these things are no more and everything is finally as it is supposed to be:

No more death. No more violence. No more pain. No more parting from those we love. No more infirmity. Love that lasts forever. True peace. Overcoming the limitations we experience now with frustration.

That is why this song is so moving. That is why all of the movies which make you cry have the same common themes: heroic self-sacrifice, good overcoming evil, immortality and overcoming death itself.

The message of the Gospel is that God loves you so much that He made a way for you to be redeemed through Jesus, so that one day that hope could become reality, so that everything your heart longs for deep down could not only be a wish, but a reality.

One day…

 

If you’re interested in more from these guys, here’s a link to their YouTube channel, and here is another song of theirs, this one in Hebrew (English translation can be found in the comments section on YouTube) – it’s a song of praise and worship to God:

 

Playing Harps in Heaven? Don’t be Ridiculous

I have been reading CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity along with the men’s group at White Fields Church. I first read the book 18 years ago, and reading it again has been like reading it for the first time.

I came across this quote in the book, which I thought was excellent, in regard to the Christian belief in Heaven:

There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of ‘Heaven’ ridiculous by saying they do not want ‘to spend eternity playing harps’.

The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them.

All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course, a merely symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible. Musical instruments are mentioned because for many people (not all) music is the thing known in the present life which most strongly suggests ecstasy and infinity. Crowns are mentioned to suggest the fact that those who are united with God in eternity share His splendour and power and joy. Gold is mentioned to suggest the timelessness of Heaven (gold does not rust) and the preciousness of it. People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity (p. 137).

I love his line about if you can’t understand a book written for grown-ups, then you shouldn’t be talking about it!

He says in another place in the book:

Very often a silly procedure is adopted by people who [oppose] Christianity. Such people put up a version of Christianity suitable for a child of six and make that the object of their attack.

When you try to explain the Christian doctrine as it is really held by an instructed adult, they then complain that you are making their heads turn round and that it is all too complicated.

It is no good asking for a simple religion. After all, real thing are not simple.

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity (p. 41).

I have found this to be true – not only in regard to discussions about Christianity, but in many debates about many things. People put up a caricature of the other person’s views and then proceed to destroy them. This is sometimes called a “straw man argument”.

It is important that we should not allow people to do that with Christian beliefs, and also that we should not do the same with other people’s beliefs. This is sometimes called “Presuppositional Apologetics” – the idea that you should try to frame the views of your “opponent” in such a way, that they would say, “I couldn’t have put it better myself.”

As Timothy Keller put it recently:

 

 

Was Paul Suicidal?

Recently at White Fields I have been teaching through Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in a study titled, The Pursuit of Happiness.

This past Sunday I taught on Paul’s famous saying: “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” – and I explained how the gospel gives new meaning to our lives and it redefines what death means for us. Audio of that message can be found here.

In that sermon, I didn’t get to what Paul says after that famous phrase. Here’s the rest:

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again. (Philippians 1:21-26)

A reader of this blog sent me a message this week about this passage:

I have always wondered if Paul was experiencing a period of depression when he wrote this epistle. What he says in verse 1:22, “yet what I shall choose I cannot tell” even makes me consider that he was in some ways considering “suicide”. I know that sounds preposterous, and I’m not suggesting that he actually thought of killing himself but rather maybe purposely doing something that would result in his death. In todays world it might be called “suicide-by-cop”. It seems as he continues through the remainder of the chapter that he convinces himself that it is better to remain for the benefit of others. It could be that he was just experiencing a time when his death seemed imminent and he was preparing the readers for that eventuality, but I think that he was experiencing a great amount of stress during this time. As always, he was able, through the Spirit, to overcome his stress and turn it into a beautiful, encouraging letter. I believe it probable that all men of great faith experience times of doubt or fear brought on by the enemy.

That’s an interesting thought. Certainly Paul was facing dire circumstances, and I fully agree with the final sentence, but I wouldn’t go so far as to agree that Paul might have been having suicidal thoughts – even to the degree of doing something that might provoke someone else to kill him.

To me, the tone of the letter is one of triumph in the face of harsh circumstances, even death.

I believe that what’s going through Paul’s mind as he writes those words is that he wants to explain something important to the Philippians: That although as Christians, the ultimate hope of the Gospel is the hope of eternal life in paradise with God, that should never minimize the purpose that God has for our lives here on Earth.

This seems to have been a problem amongst some of the early Christians. 2 Thessalonians was written, in part, to let the Christians know that Jesus had not yet returned, that the Parausia, the Second Coming, was still to come – but that as we await Jesus’ imminent return, we should not be inactive;  we should still work hard. That’s why he says:

If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12)

The context of that, is that the Thessalonians were eagerly expecting the return of Jesus any day – as all early Christians did, and as it seems that Jesus intended all Christians to do, which is the reason for his vagueness about when his return will take place.

The point is this: We should not have a Christianity in which we encourage people to just believe in Jesus and then hang on and wait for death! I think Paul wanted to Philippians to understand that: that Christianity isn’t only about going to heaven when you die, it’s about living this life for Christ – as much as, and as long as possible.

It’s not only that because of the Gospel, DEATH IS GAIN – but also: because of the Gospel, TO LIVE IS CHRIST!

Another reason why I think Paul was not discouraged when he wrote to the Philippians is because he closes the letter by saying:

Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household. (Philippians 4:21-22)

What this means is that members of Caesar’s household, including the Praetorian Guard (members of which were chained to Paul 24 hrs a day in 6 hr shifts), were becoming Christians through his being there in jail. I think Paul was feeling particularly encouraged after facing years of discouragement prior to this. Finally he was starting to see some fruit and the purpose for which God must have allowed this series of terrible difficulties and injustices happen to him. Many of us may never get to see that in our difficulties, but when we do it helps to encourage us that God is indeed in control and using all of the frayed strands to create a beautiful tapestry.

 

Farewell to Elisabeth Elliot

One of the first books I read as a missionary was the diary of Jim Elliot – missionary to Ecuador who was martyred by the people he went to tell about Jesus.

The diary of Jim Elliot details his thoughts and dreams, his hopes and prayers, as he went to Wheaton college,  went as a missionary to Ecuador, met and married his wife, Elisabeth, and then embarked on a journey to share the Gospel with the unreached Auca indians – an endeavor which ended in both tragedy and glory: tragedy because Jim and his missionary companions were murdered, but glory because after their deaths, the wives of the slain men continued to reach out to the Auca’s, forgave them for what they had done, and ultimately did lead them to Christ.

The reason Jim Elliot’s diary was available for me to read was because of the work of his wife: Elisabeth Elliot, who made it available to the world. Additionally, Elisabeth Elliot wrote two books about their missionary work in Ecuador – one titled Through Gates of Splendorwhich has been called one of the most influential books of the Twentieth Century.

Elisabeth Elliot went on to write many other books and became a prominent advocate for world missions.

Yesterday she entered through those Gates of Splendor herself at the age of 88 and was reunited with Jim in the presence of the God she loved and served her whole life.

Here’s more about Elisabeth Elliot from Christianity Today. Oh that God would give us more people like her! Oh that God would give us the kind of hearts for Him that she and Jim had.

Jim Elliot’s famous quote – brought to the world through the work and advocacy of Elisabeth Elliot:

He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.

Here’s a photo of that quote in Jim Elliot’s own handwriting:

Jim Elliot’s diary