We get a glimpse of God’s throne room in heaven in Revelation 4. God’s holiness and glory should overwhelm us and lead us to worship. Brian Watson preached this sermon on March 28, 2021.
Guest preacher Steve Semas preached this sermon on January 17, 2021.
One of the great questions that people have is, “What happens after I die?” At least, that should be a question that we ask ourselves. Yet many people avoid talk of death and the afterlife, and that’s unfortunate. There was a comedian who was interviewed by Time magazine a few years ago. He was asked why he spoke so often about death in his stand-up acts. He said it’s because we’re all going to die. He made this analogy: it’s like we’re all getting on a bus that’s headed to Pittsburgh. The bus says “Pittsburgh” on the front, but when we get on the bus, no one is talking about Pittsburgh. Then, when someone starts to talk about that city and what they’re going to do there, people get uncomfortable and they ask, “Why are you talking about Pittsburgh.” And you say, “Because that’s where the bus is going. It says it right on the tickets!”
This morning we’re going to talk about Pittsburgh, metaphorically speaking. Actually, we’re going to talk about what is beyond death. We’re going to hear from Jesus about two eternal destinations, what we would call heaven and hell. We’ll do this by considering a story that Jesus told, found in Luke 16. The story is something like a parable. The actual events are somewhat fictitious, like the events in his other parables. But this story teaches some very true things, things that Jesus wanted his original hearers to know, and things that God saw fit to record in the Bible.
If you haven’t been with us recently, we’ve been studying the Gospel of Luke. This is one of four biographies of Jesus found in the Bible. At this point in Jesus’ life, he is teaching about the proper use of wealth. God has given us everything to be used wisely, not just for ourselves, but for the sake of others and, ultimately, for the sake of God’s kingdom. In this story that we’re looking at today, Luke 16:19–31, we see how a rich man failed to do that.
So, without further ado, let’s turn to Luke 16:19–31. I’m going to read the whole passage, and then I’m going to go back and make four points about the text, and then some comments about what this has to do with the work of Jesus.
19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”
As I said earlier, I want to make four points about this passage. The first is that we see two very different men. First, there is a rich man, who isn’t named. We’re told that he wore purple clothing, which might not seem like an important feature, but purple dye was very rare. So were linen undergarments. In short, this man was clothed in very expensive clothing. He also “feasted sumptuously every day.” In the ancient world, this simply wasn’t possible. Most people ate a simple diet. But this man lived it up every day. The second man is Lazarus, a very poor man. This isn’t the Lazarus found in John 11, the one whom Jesus raised from the dead. This is, after all, a fictional character. But perhaps it’s not surprising that they bear the same name. Lazarus is a form of the Hebrew name Eleazar, which means “God has helped,” or “God is my help.” God helps this Lazarus, but not before he has a miserable life. He was covered with sores, and his lot was so bad that wild dogs came to lick his sores. David Garland, in his commentary on Luke, says, “Dogs [from a Jewish perspective] are regarded as unclean animals and are often mentioned as eating the bodies of the dead (1 Kgs 14:11; 16:4; 21:19, 23, 24; 22:38).” In a way, this man was left for dead. Lazarus was brought to the gate of the rich man, with the hopes that he could eat some scraps from this man’s table. We’re led to believe that he never got those scraps.
Now, we’re not told a lot about these men other than these bare facts. But from what we see here, the rich man knew who Lazarus was. He even calls him by name. So, he was aware of this man’s plight, and it seems that he repeatedly saw Lazarus lying in terrible condition outside his gate, but he did nothing to help the man. We don’t know anything about Lazarus other than his poverty and terrible physical condition. He never speaks in this story. But he must have been a man of faith, a man who trusted in the God of Israel. The story doesn’t tell us everything about why people go to either one of two destinations in the afterlife; we have to draw some inferences based on our knowledge of the rest of the Bible. For now, it’s important to pay attention to what this story says about these two men.
We see that both men die, but they go to two different places. The poor man dies and is taken to “Abraham’s side.” This is what we would call heaven. There are times in the Old Testament when we’re told that someone who died was “gathered to their fathers” (Gen. 15:15; 47:30; Deut. 31:16; Judg. 2:10; 1 Kgs. 1:21). Abraham was the forefather of all of Israel, a man of faith, someone who trusted in God’s great promise to bless the whole world through Abraham’s offspring. So, Abraham here is a representative of people of faith. But, more than that, in this story he’s also representative of God.
By contrast, when the rich man dies, he goes to Hades. (We’re told that the rich man was buried, but we’re not told that about Lazarus, which suggests that he didn’t have a proper burial because he was so poor.) In the Old Testament, Hades is called Sheol. It’s the realm of the dead. But while in the Old Testament, Sheol is a rather neutral place for all the dead, Hades is known as a place of torment. The rich man says that he is “in anguish in this flame.” We might call this hell.
It’s probably best to think of both places as provisional stations of the afterlife. At the end of the Bible, we’re told that the final destinations of all who live are either the new creation, a renewed and perfected physical world in which God’s people dwell with God forever, or the “lake of fire,” best thought of as a place of torment that exists beyond the world. But the Bible teaches that before the new creation and that final lake of fire, there is an intermediate state. For those who die trusting in Jesus, their spirits are in heaven. We’re not given as much information about those die not trusting in Jesus, but it seems there is some kind of provisional place of torment, Hades. And that’s what is being pictured here. Sometimes, this place is pictured as being one of fire. Other times, it’s a place of darkness and isolation and pain. It’s best to think of it as a removal from anything good, apart from any of God’s blessings.
What’s interesting is that the rich man, though he’s suffering in Hades, does not seem to show any sign of change. Yes, he does say, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me.” That’s because he’s suffering. But he never suggests that he was selfish and greedy, that he lived a life of comfort and ease while he ignored the plight of a suffering man who was right outside his gate. In fact, the rich man still treats Lazarus poorly. He tells Abraham to send Lazarus to him to give him even a drop of water to cool his tongue. He’s treating Lazarus like a lackey, and not like a person made in the image of God. The rich man shows no sign of true remorse, no sign of repentance. He’s trying to control the situation in the afterlife.
As for Lazarus, we’re not told about his devotion to God and his faith in God. But we are given a picture of the rich man’s poor character. Everything seems to be about him. Yes, he later shows concern for his five brothers who are still alive. But earlier in Luke, Jesus said this:
32 “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same (Luke 6:32–33).
The rich man should have realized that Lazarus was his brother. In the Old Testament, fellow Israelites were regarded as “brothers and sisters,” and there were commands to help the poor. Here is just one example, from Deuteronomy 15:
7 If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, 8 but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be (Deut. 15:7–8).
And beyond commandments of the law, we find other statements in the Old Testament that show that a failure to help those in need is ultimately an insult to God. Here is Proverbs 14:3:
Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker,
but he who is generous to the needy honors him.
When the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus, Abraham responds tenderly, by calling him “child.” But he reminds the rich man that he had a life of ease and failed to help Lazarus, and now he is in anguish. Lazarus had a life of poverty and pain, not to mention the same of being licked by dogs, but now he is comforted. There is a great reversal. This is what Mary sang about in chapter 1:
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty (Luke 1:51–53).
It is also what Jesus said would happen: “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Luke 13:30).
The rich man’s problem is that all this thoughts and cares are about himself. Theologians from Augustine to Martin Luther have noted that this is what sin does. The power of sin curves us in upon ourselves, so that we don’t look to God, who made us to live for his sake, and we don’t truly look to the welfare of others. We are selfish and proud, arrogant and greedy. At this point, I’m reminded of some lines from C. S. Lewis’s novel, The Great Divorce. It’s an interesting book, one that imagines a busload of condemned people given a chance to visit heaven. They are offered another chance to repent of their sinful ways and to believe in the God of the Bible. But they don’t. The book is a fantasy, not a work of systematic theology, so it’s not the place to go for clear answers on heaven and hell. But like all of Lewis’s writings, it has some powerful insights. At one point, a character says, “a damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself.” The unredeemed soul shrinks, curved in on itself, shut up in itself. By contrast, the redeemed soul loves God and loves God’s creatures. At another point in The Great Divorce, it is said, “You cannot love a fellow-creature fully till you love God.”
So, these two different men end up in two very different places, one of torment and one we must assume is a place of rest. The third thing we see is that there is a chasm fixed between these two places, and this chasm cannot be crossed. Abraham says, “between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” C. S. Lewis imagined the possibility of that chasm being bridged, but the fact is that the Bible is consistent in its teaching: once someone has died, it is too late to repent, too late to turn to God in faith. The book of Hebrews says, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27). There is no passage in Scripture that suggests that the citizens of hell want to be in heaven, nor does any passage suggest there is a way to get out of hell into heaven. Upon death, one’s eternal destiny is sealed with an utter finality, and this should be sobering to us.
There are many people who claim to be Christians who think that there is some way for people who haven’t turned to God in this life to be saved in the next. Universalists believe that everyone will be saved. Others believe that, somehow, God will save more people, who will ultimately be won over by God’s great love. Yet there really is nothing in the Bible to suggest that this is possible. In fact, given what we see in the Bible, those who are condemned don’t want God. They don’t want to repent, just like the rich man. They don’t see the error of their ways. The book of Revelation says that even while God is pouring out his righteous wrath against sin, people still refuse to repent (Rev. 9:20–21; 16:9–11). The greatest passage in Lewis’s The Great Divorce captures this reality:
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 Bible says that God gives people over to their sinful desires (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). Basically, God says, “You don’t want to live life on my terms? You don’t want to love me and live for me? You don’t really want me in your life? Fine, go your own way.”
Now, the very notion of hell and judgment is off-putting to some people. But I don’t think those people are considering things carefully. Imagine that the world that God created is like one big house. It’s God’s house, and he made the rules. And his rules are good, because God not only created the house, but he designed all of life. Now, there are some people in God’s house who decide to break the rules. This isn’t just an insult to God. It’s also dangerous. It’s harmful to the other people who live in the house. The rule-breakers are messing up God’s house and hurting other people. And the fact is, they don’t even want to be in God’s house. So, at the end of the day, God will say to them, “Get out. You don’t want to be in my house. You don’t want to obey my rules. You don’t truly love me or the people I have made. You must go.” God is right to do such a thing. He’s protective of his creation. And he’s protective of his own glory. We exchange the glory of God for the lesser glory of created things. We don’t worship the Creator. Instead, we make other people or things in this life more important to us. All of this is wrong, and God is perfectly right to kick us out of his house. Yes, there’s anguish and torment outside of God’s house. But the fact is that though people experience that torment, they won’t want to live by God’s rules. It seems like the torment of hell goes on forever because the people there keep sinning forever.
Now, to get back to the story, we see something very interesting at the end. As I said, the rich man shows some concern for his five living brothers. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus to them to warn them to change their ways, “lest they also come into this place of torment.” At least the rich man has some awareness that how he lived led to his current state. But notice that he’s still treating Lazarus like an errand-boy at best. Nevertheless, Abraham, who is representing God in this story, tells the rich man something interesting. He says of the man’s brothers: “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” He means that these brothers have the Old Testament, which should be sufficient to warn them against living like their dead brother.
The rich man protests. He says, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” Abraham knows better. He says, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” Think about that for a moment. Imagine that someone you know to have died appears to you, telling you, “If you don’t change your ways, you’ll end up like me, condemned and in anguish.” If you’ve seen any of the many iterations of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, you know that this is basically what Jacob Marley’s ghost tells Ebenezer Scrooge. Imagine how powerful that would be. Of course, this isn’t going to happen. God could make it happen if he wanted; he is the God who made the whole universe out of nothing. He can cause the dead to come back to life. But God knows that sinful hearts are so hard that not even a messenger from the grave would turn people away from sin and back to him.
But what’s stunning is that Jesus says God’s word is sufficient. Abraham tells the rich man that if his brothers will not pay attention to the Old Testament, they wouldn’t listen to a resurrected Lazarus. The Old Testament has plenty of warnings about misusing wealth and treating the poor poorly. The Old Testament has many calls to repent, to turn back to God and seek him with your whole heart. If people won’t listen to that, they won’t pay attention to a miraculous messenger, whether that’s a dead person risen back to life, an angel, or a vision of Jesus himself.
This should tell us a lot about the importance of God’s word. The Bible is enough to tell us everything we need to know about God to be reconciled to him and to live a life that is pleasing to him. Yet many people don’t realize this. At this church, we try to conform our practices to that idea. That’s why we don’t have gimmicks here. Many churches rely on entertainment. They try to make a big splash with events that have nothing to do with Jesus. But here, we make much of the Bible, because we try to make much of God. We spend time reading the Bible and talking about it because we want to hear from God. I preach messages that explain the Bible because I realize that the Bible is God’s word to us. It’s a message from him. Why spend time on cute stories, or funny anecdotes, when they don’t have the power to save us from condemnation? They don’t have the power to transform us. Yet when God’s word is applied by the Holy Spirit to hard hearts, God can change a person. He can warn a person to repent. He can show a person the errors of his or her ways. He can comfort a person with the promise that all who come to Jesus can rest from striving to be their own gods and saviors. God makes wonderful promises in his word that all who come to Jesus in faith can be forgiven of sins, can be adopted into God’s family, and can come back into God’s house. In Jesus, we can come back home, to a place of comfort and rest. We wouldn’t know that apart from the Bible.
Before I close, I want to show how this passage connects to Jesus. In this story, we see the reason why the rich man went to Hades. He didn’t love his fellow man, a man whom he knew by name, who was laid outside his gate in the worst of conditions. The reason he was selfish and didn’t care for Lazarus is because he didn’t truly love God. We may not all be rich, but all of us have been selfish, fixed upon ourselves. We have all failed to love God and other people as we should. This passage doesn’t teach that every rich person is bound for hell. What matters is not how much money we have, yet how we use our money is a reflection of where we stand with God.
In a similar way, it would be wrong to conclude that every poor person goes to heaven. We don’t have any reason to believe that Lazarus went to heaven simply because he suffered in this life. What I mean is, if we read this passage in light of the whole Bible, we shouldn’t come to that conclusion. The Bible makes it clear that all have sinned (Rom. 3:23), and that includes both rich and poor. I think that we’re supposed to conclude that Lazarus was like Abraham, the man of faith. If you read about Abraham in the Old Testament, you realize that he was a pagan for much of his life. He probably worshiped false gods, just like his forefathers did. But the true God called him, and Abraham believed in God’s great promises. Abraham wasn’t perfectly obedient. He could be afraid. And his trust in God’s promises wasn’t perfect. His fear was a reflection of some doubt. And yet, in Genesis, we’re told that Abraham “believed the Lord, and he [God] counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Abraham was not righteous, yet he believed God’s word. As a result, God gave Abraham the gift of righteousness, of a right standing before him.
This is the way that sinful people are reconciled to God. None of us are righteous (Rom. 3:10). All of us have rejected God and rebelled against him. Just think of how often you ignore God. Think of how often we haven’t sought him out. Think of how often we haven’t looked to God for direction in our lives. Many of us don’t wake up every day thinking, “God, how can I obey you today? How can I serve you? How can I bring you honor and praise today?” We often do what we know is the wrong thing to do, or we fail to do what we know is the right thing. God would be just to condemn us all. But the amazing thing is that God loves us so much that he gave us a way to be regarded as righteous in his sight. God didn’t say, “Clean yourselves up and you’ll become acceptable to me.” God knows we could never do that. And God knows that if we did do that, we would become even more proud—“Look what I did!” So, God sent his beloved Son into the world.
Jesus, the Son of God, is the only person who every lived a perfect life. He was never selfish and greedy. He always loved God the Father perfectly. He loved people so much he cared for their physical needs and he told them the truth about their condition. He warns us today not to be like the rich man, but to turn to him in faith. If you trust Jesus, if you realize that he is the Son of God, that he is the King of kings, that he alone can make you right in God’s eyes, that he alone is the gate of heaven, then you are credited with his righteousness. You are regarded as being perfect in God’s sight. But God is a perfect judge. He must punish all wrongdoing. He must punish sin. God punishes the sins of his people through the cross of Jesus Christ. Jesus was treated like a criminal, rejected, mocked, tortured, and crucified, not because he had done anything wrong, but because we have. On the cross, he descended into Hades. He endured the hell of God’s righteous wrath as darkness covered the earth. He did this so all who turn to him in faith have their sins forgiven. Jesus’ sacrificial death paid for all the sins committed by Christians. If you don’t know Jesus, you can turn to him today and be forgiven of all your sins, even the worst things you’ve ever done, not to mention the worst thoughts and desires you’ve ever secretly harbored.
None of us deserve heaven, yet God opened up a way to that place of rest, beauty, and comfort. That way is Jesus. If you haven’t put your life in his hands, do so now. I would love to talk with you about what that would look like in your life.
If you do know Jesus, consider what it would look like to show more concern for those who are in anguish in this life. We may not have a dying man lying outside our house, hoping for a few scraps of food. But we are aware of needs throughout the world, and there are ways that we can help the poor, by giving to agencies dedicated to helping them. There are many Christian organizations that help the poor.
But let us not forget that the greatest need everyone has is to be reconciled to God, to have their sins forgiven. We can feed, clothe, and house the poor in this life, but if they don’t know Jesus, then they will be poor, naked, and in a place of anguish for eternity. If we truly love God, we’ll truly care about where others are going to spend eternity. Heaven and hell are real, more real than this life, and we should see that every soul is bound for one place or the other. The chasm between those two places is one that cannot be crossed. Let us tell others to cross over to Jesus in this life while there is still time.
- James Poniewozik, “Louis CK Interview, Part 2: Money and Mortality,” Time, June 23, 2011, http://entertainment.time.com/2011/06/23/louis-ck-interview-part-2-money-and-mortality.↑
- All Bible quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- David E. Garland, Luke, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 670. ↑
- C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (originally published in 1946; New York: HarperOne, 2001), 139. ↑
- Ibid., 100. ↑
What happens after death? Jesus teaches some important facts about the afterlife in a famous passage, Luke 16:19-31. This passage doesn’t tell us everything about heaven and hell, but it tells us enough to warn us about how we live our days. To understand this passage in light of the whole Bible, listen to this message given by Brian Watson on August 4, 2019.
Imagine you’re trying to organize a family reunion. You have a large family with a history of not getting along. You want to make sure that everyone comes to this reunion, so you plan carefully. You’re very worried about what kind of food and drink to serve. First, you think about what snacks to serve. You know that a lot of people in your family love peanuts. But then you think of that cousin with the severe peanut allergy, and you want him to come, so you decide there can be no peanuts. That’s not such a big deal. People can go without peanuts for a day. So, you settle on some other snacks. You remember there are some people who have a gluten intolerance, but they don’t mind if other people eat gluten, so you make sure to have some gluten-free options. But then you think about the meal you’re going to serve. Traditionally, the family reunion has been a cookout, and you were thinking of barbecuing hot dogs, hamburgers, and chicken. You start calculating how much meat to buy when you remember that there are two people in your family who are vegans. And they’re not quiet, unassuming vegans. They are the zealous, nobody-should-kill-and-eat-animals kind of vegan. They refuse to be with people who eat meat. They won’t to go to any restaurant that serves meat. And if you’re barbecuing anything but corn on the cob, they’re not coming. Can you really have a family reunion without the barbecue? If everyone is eating no-pork-and-beans without hot dogs and veggie burgers, will everyone be happy?
You start to think that you can live with this vegan solution, and then you start to think about beverages. You’ll have bottles of water and soda, and perhaps some iced tea. But traditionally, reunions in your family have had beer. You start to calculate how much beer you would need to buy when you remember there are some recovering alcoholics—and perhaps some not-so-recovering alcoholics—in your family. And, like the vegans, if they know that alcohol is being served, they won’t come. You start to think about some other people in you family, the kind that expect to have a hamburger and a beer. How will they respond to an invitation promising them all the fun they can have with a black bean burger and a glass of iced tea? Will they come?
And, forget about food, the real issue is that some people in your family might not come to the reunion if they know that other people in your family will be there. They might not care if you’re serving liver and onions; but they do care if your uncle Sal will be there.
The point of this story is to show not that it’s impossible to please everyone. We already know that. It’s to show that it’s pretty much impossible to include everyone. In our time, the idea of inclusion has become very important. Exclusion is a dirty word. We don’t want to exclude anyone. No child is to be left behind. Some people don’t think anyone should be excluded from entering our country. In sports, people are afraid of excluding transgender women, biological men who identify as women. So, in some cases, biological men are beating biological women in track and field and in weightlifting, among other things. In that case, the desire to include transgender women ends up excluding biological women from winning these events.
The reality is that in nearly every case, there will be always be people excluded. And that is certainly the case in the kingdom of God. The reality is that not every human being will enter the kingdom. Not every person will be included among God’s people. This is a very clear principle, from nearly the beginning of the Bible all the way to the end. And we see this in the passage that we’re looking at today, Luke 13:22–35. But though there will be some people who are excluded from God’s kingdom, it is not because God doesn’t care or because he’s cruel. No, we’ll see Jesus lamenting over the fact that some people will not enter. God may be an exclusive God, but he longs to include everyone, even though he can’t.
Let’s begin by reading Luke 13:22–30:
22 He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. 23 And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, 24 “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. 25 When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ 26 Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ 27 But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ 28 In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. 29 And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. 30 And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
Luke begins by stating that Jesus was headed towards Jerusalem. This has been the case for about four chapters now. Luke’s main concern isn’t about geography. If Jesus wanted to get to Jerusalem from Galilee, it would only take three days of walking. He could have been there by now. But Luke is more concerned about what Jerusalem means to Jesus. Jerusalem is where Jesus is going to die. And Jesus knows that. That’s why, in Luke 9:51, we read: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Jesus knows what’s coming, and this is Luke’s way of reminding his readers what Jesus is going to face.
As Jesus is making his way through towns and villages, teaching people about the kingdom of God, someone asks an important question: “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” This question makes sense in light of Jesus’ teaching that unless you repent, you will perish (Luke 13:1–5) and that there are barren trees that will be cut down (Luke 13:6–9). Will many survive the judgment of God and enter his kingdom, or will it only be a few?
Jesus doesn’t answer the question directly. He turns it around to say, “Don’t worry about the numbers. Make sure that you enter the kingdom!” He says that the door to the kingdom is narrow. Many will attempt to enter it, but they won’t be able to get in. And there will be a time when it is too late for them to enter. The master of the house will shut the door, and at that time it will be impossible to get in. Still, people will say, “Let us in!” Then the master of the house, who is surely Jesus, will say, “I do not know where you come from.” Jesus doesn’t mean that literally. Jesus, as the Son of God, knows everything. But he means, “I don’t know you. I don’t have a personal relationship with you. You’re not on my team. You didn’t accept the invitation to the family reunion while you still had time to come. And once the party has begun, it’s too late to come in.”
The people who are shut out will say, “We ate and drank in your presence, you taught in our streets.” It’s their way of saying, “But we spent time with you. We hung out with you. We even had meals with you. We heard your words.” But for Jesus, it’s not enough that you spend some time with him. It’s not enough that went to church for some time, or even took the Lord’s Supper and were baptized. Jesus wants faith. Faith is trusting in him, not just knowing facts about him. Real trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior leads to obedience. It leads to a changed life. It’s not enough to say you believe in him. Anyone can do that. You have to mean it, and if you mean it, there will be things in your life that demonstrate that truth.
Jesus says that this master will say, “Depart from me, all you workers of evil.” The line comes from Psalm 6:8, a Psalm in which David says that his enemies will be ashamed (Psalm 6:10). You may think it’s strange that these people, who apparently want to get into the party, are called workers of evil. But to ignore Jesus’ calls to repentance is evil. To reject Jesus is to reject God. Rejecting God is evil because he is the very reason why we exist.
There’s a great illustration that by a pastor and author, Tim Keller, that I would like to read. This is what he says:
Imagine a widow has a son she raises and puts through good schools and a good university at great sacrifice to herself, for she is a woman of very slender means. And as she’s raising him she says, “Son, I want you to live a good life. I want you to always tell the truth, always work hard, and care for the poor.” And after the young man graduates from college he goes off into his career and life—and never speaks to his mother or spends time with her. Oh, he may send her a card on her birthday, but he never phones or visits. What if you asked him about his relationship with his mother, and he responded: “No, I don’t have anything to do with her personally. But I always tell the truth, work hard, and care for the poor. I’ve lived a good life—that’s all that matters, isn’t it?”
I doubt you would be satisfied with that answer. It is not enough for the man to merely live a moral life as his mother desired without having any kind of relationship with her. His behavior is condemnable because in fact she gave him all he has. More than just a moral life, he owes her his love and loyalty.
And if there is a God, you owe him literally everything. If there is a God, you owe him far more than a morally decent life. He deserves to be at the center of your life. Even if you are a good person but you are not letting God be God to you, you are . . . guilty of sin. . . . You are being your own savior and lord.
We often ignore God. Though he has given us life, and though we exist to know him, love him, worship him, and serve him, we take him for granted. That is wrong. And because we do this, the world is cracked. We fight, we argue, we’re selfish, we’re greedy. Things are not the way they ought to be.
And that puts us in a bind. If God is going to fix the world, he has to remove all evil. If we’re evil, God would have to remove us. Is there a way for God to remove the evil from us without removing us?
That’s where Jesus comes in. Jesus lived the perfect life that we don’t. He always put his relationship with God the Father first. He was never selfish. Yet he died as a criminal. He was literally regarded as sin (2 Cor. 5:21), so that when he died, God could destroy sin without destroying all sinners. And if you have a right relationship with Jesus, your evil has already been punished. And God has given you the Holy Spirit to start changing you from the inside out, to start replacing evil desires with good ones.
Jesus is telling these Jewish people that they should have known that he is the promised Messiah, the one that was prophesied to come. The Old Testament promised there would be a descendant of Eve, of Abraham, of Judah, and of David, who would be the anointed King, the one who would defeat the enemies of God’s people. But the Old Testament also promised a suffering servant of God, someone who would come and take the punishment that God’s people deserved for their sin, so that they could be healed and delivered from condemnation. They should have known that Jesus fulfilled these roles. But so many didn’t. And Jesus warns them here that while their faithful forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, will be in the kingdom of God, along with all the prophets, not every Jewish person will be there. No one gets an automatic ticket to the kingdom of God. It’s not based on your genes, or whether your parents had faith. It’s not based on church attendance or how many good works you’ve done, because even your best acts are tainted with selfish motives, and we have all sinned in many ways. The one thing that gets us a ticket to the great family reunion, when we are reunited and reconciled to God the Father, is whether we know Jesus. Or, more accurately, whether Jesus knows us.
Last weekend, I was in Washington, D.C. I happened to walk by the White House, but I didn’t get in. I admit I didn’t try to get in, but if I had tried to get in, I wouldn’t have been allowed in. I wouldn’t have been allowed in even if I said, “I know the president. I’ve seen Donald Trump on TV! I’ve watched The Apprentice! I’ve stayed in a Trump Hotel! I even went to one of his rallies!” (Those last two things aren’t true, by the way.) None of that would matter to the Secret Service agents. But if, while I was standing outside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Donald Trump came out of the White House and said, “I know him,” then I would get in.
That’s how it’s like with Jesus. If he knows us because we trust him and have been following him, he will let us in to the kingdom. He has the keys to the kingdom of God. Or, as it says in Isaiah, he has “the key to the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open” (Isa. 22:22). Jesus says that many others will enter into the kingdom and eat. They will come from east and west and north and south. He’s probably referring to Jews who were scattered throughout the world, but also Gentiles—anyone who has faith in him.
Some who are last will be first, and some who are first will be last. It’s not how you start out in life; it’s how you end up. We all know the story of the tortoise and the hare. They have a race, and the hare starts out fast. Quite naturally, he’s faster than the tortoise. But he is arrogant and proud and perhaps lazy, so he takes a nap. And when he finally wakes up, he realizes the tortoise has won the race. Some people appear to start out life quite well. They may have been raised in the church and baptized at an early age. But then they grow up and don’t go to church and don’t really seem to be obey Jesus. They don’t care that some people don’t know Jesus. They don’t obey Jesus in ways that only Christians do. Some people start out life poorly. They’re the obvious sinners, the people who do terrible wrongs, the people whom you might consider to be the real “workers of evil.” But if they turn to Jesus in faith, knowing that he alone can bring them forgiveness and reconciliation with God, then they enter into God’s kingdom.
Jesus makes it clear that there will be some excluded from the great party that is eternity with God. For them, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, a terrible fate we don’t want to know personally. Those excluded are those who didn’t put their lives in Jesus’ hands in this life, while there’s still time to turn from sin and turn to the Savior.
This idea of exclusion is rejected by some people who claim to be Christians. They believe in what is called universalism: somehow, in some way, everyone will be saved. But this goes against the grain of the whole Bible. God is continually making a division between his people and those who are against him. On Wednesday nights, we’re reading through Exodus, and we saw this in chapter 8, when God makes a distinction between his people, living in Goshen, and the Egyptians. The Egyptians suffer the fourth plague and the Israelites don’t (Exod. 8:20–24). The tenth plague is the worst, the one that causes Pharaoh to let the Israelites out of slavery. That plague had the firstborn of all families die—unless they obeyed the word of God and sacrificed a lamb and placed the blood of the lamb on their door frames. This was a sign that they trusted in God’s word. This trust led to obedience. And it was also a sign of atonement. The Israelites and anyone who joined with them were sinners, but a substitute could die in their place, taking the penalty they deserved for sin.
As the story of the Bible progresses, God makes divisions within Israel itself. It is clear that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel,” to use the apostle Paul’s words (Rom. 9:6). Not everyone in Israel had faith in God and his promises. God knew that. We’re told in both the Old and New Testaments that Lord knows who are his (Num. 16:5; Nah. 1:7; John 10:14, 27; 1 Cor. 8:3; 2 Tim. 2:19). Jesus says that he is the only way to the Father (John 14:6). In John 10, he says that he is the shepherd who brings his sheep through the gate. The gate keeper opens to him, and he leads his sheep, who follow his voice, into safe pasture (John 10:2–3). There are others who try to sneak into the sheepfold by another way, but they are thieves and robbers (John 10:1). Jesus says, “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved” (John 10:9). He says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14–15). He tells the Jewish people he has other sheep—Gentiles—and they will be become part of the one fold of God. He says that those who don’t pay heed to his voice are not his sheep (John 10:26), but, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).
Jesus clearly includes some and excludes others. The irony is that if a pastor disagrees with Jesus and says that all will be saved, he is including a Jesus of his own making and excluding the real Jesus. And he will be including people into his church who don’t believe in the real Jesus, and he will exclude ones who do, for they will seek out a church where the truth of the Bible is taught. Even attempts to create a “radically inclusive Jesus” end up excluding people.
To some, the idea of an exclusive Jesus might seem cruel or cold. But even though Jesus does exclude some, we can never accuse him of not caring, of being indifferent or unloving. We see this in the next few verses, verses 31–35:
31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 And he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. 33 Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.’ 34 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’”
Some Pharisees, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, tell him that Herod Antipas wants to kill him. Herod was the ruler over Galilee, and he will eventually figure into Jesus’ death. Jesus gives them a message: “Tell that fox Herod that I’m not afraid. I’ll continue to do my work until it’s done.” Jesus will continue to perform miracles, to cast out demons and heal people. He will continue to teach. And his course will be finished on the third day. That could be just a figure of speech. But it’s also an allusion to his resurrection. Jesus knew he wouldn’t die in Galilee. He would die in Jerusalem, where prophets and apostles are killed. He would die on the cross, because some Jewish leaders wanted him dead, and because neither Pilate nor Herod stepped into rescue an innocent man. He died because Satan wanted him dead. But ultimately, he died because it was God’s plan to rescue sinners. The Father sent the Son, his dear, loved, one-of-a-kind Son to die in the place of sinners. And Jesus came to lay down his life, since it was no less his plan than the Father’s. Jesus knew what was coming, and he wasn’t afraid of any man who might get in his way. He knew that his course included death on the cross and resurrection from the grave.
But even though he knew what was coming, and that many people would not enter the kingdom, he still laments. Jerusalem stands for the whole nation of Israel. Jesus laments that not all of Israel would come under his wings. He yearned to protect them the way a hen protects her brood. But they were not willing to come under his wings.
Now, the truth is that no one is willing to come under Jesus’ wings unless they are first changed by God. Paul says that no one seeks for (Rom. 3:11), and the fact is that no one would seek after him were it not for the work of the Holy Spirit. And some may wonder why God doesn’t change everyone’s heart through the work of the Holy Spirit. Some might say that such a thing would violate free will. But the Bible never says that. In fact, the Bible says: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Prov. 21:1). God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exod. 4:21; 9:12; 10:1; 14:8). And God has hardened and softened other hearts as he sees fit. So, it’s not as though God is helpless. Yet, for some reason, God has chosen to bring some people to faith and not all. In a similar way, Jesus chose to let his friend Lazarus die. He did this so he could later bring Lazarus back to life. This was all for God’s glory and to show what Jesus could do and what he would do by dying and being raised back to life himself (John 11:4, see also John 11:21, 37). But Jesus still wept (John 11:35). And then he raised Lazarus back to life.
We might say that God, in one sense, wants all people to be in his kingdom, but in another sense, he wants something else, something greater. Again, some people would say that this greater thing is to respect a person’s free will. But the Bible doesn’t say that clearly, and I don’t think our will is as free as we sometimes think it is. But the Bible does say, in different ways, that God desires his own glory above all else. And this is a good thing. God is the most glorious being. If God glorified someone else more than he glorified himself, God would be an idolater, and therefore a worker of evil. But God doesn’t just love and glorify himself. He loves sinners, and he has chosen to bring some sinners to glory through the door that is Jesus. We can accept that truth, and trust Jesus, or we can complain about God and show our true selves, that we don’t love him and trust him. We may not understand all God’s ways. In fact, if God is God and we are finite beings, we shouldn’t expect to understand God completely. But we should trust that God is good and wise and that he always does what is right. And we should run under the protection of Jesus, because he is the only way to get into the kingdom. He is an exclusive God, but he’s also a God who cares, who loves so deeply that he would die for sinners, and who even laments that other sinners will not be part of his kingdom. This is a God you can love, a God you can trust, a God who is worth following.
This message of exclusivity is one that challenges our society. And it challenges all of us. It’s heavy. We should feel the weight of it. Some people will be shut out of the kingdom of God. And this is their own choosing. They didn’t want to enter under God’s terms. They thought that they God would allow them to do whatever they wanted and respect what they believe are their rights. This should cause us to lament. It should cause us to warn other people about this reality, to urge them to trust in Jesus.
And it should cause us to make sure that we are following Jesus. The truth is, we don’t know how many will be reconciled to God. It may be very few. But Jesus doesn’t want us to speculate about that. He wants us to consider if we’re entering the narrow gate. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt. 7:13–14). He gives salvation as a gift, but it’s a gift that’s hard to receive. Receiving it means acknowledging that we’re sinners who can’t rescue ourselves. It’s a blow to our pride. And the way of Jesus isn’t easy. When we follow Jesus, some people will hate us. We have to continue repenting, turning away from the allure of the world and all the things it promises us will make us happy. It means putting our old selves to death so Jesus can make us into new people, the people we should be.
What we should do today is consider if we’re entering the narrow gate. Are we truly following Jesus? Are there ways that we have been following the world, walking that broad path that leads to destruction? If so, it’s not too late to turn around and get on the right path. As long as there is life and breath in a person, it is not too late to change paths, to walk toward heaven’s gate, Jesus himself. He stands waiting. If we knock on his door in faith, he will let us in. Those who truly seek him will never be excluded. If we know this, we should tell others. In that great feast of heaven, there is room for more.
On a weekend in April, millions of people around the world will gather together in congregations to consider a story. It’s the story of how evil, an enemy, death itself, will be defeated by good in an unlikely way. It’s a story that has captivated millions, a story that has led millions to pour out their passion, their time, and their money. I’m not talking about Easter and the resurrection of Jesus Christ; I’m talking about Avengers: End Game. Yes, the latest Marvel superhero movie is opening next weekend, and it is expected to take in about $300 million in the United States in that first weekend alone.
In case you’ve been living in a cave in Afghanistan, the Avengers are the Marvel Comics superheroes, including Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk. Spider-Man has also joined the group. And in the last Avengers movie, which was released a year ago, the Avengers were up against the most powerful enemy they’ve faced, an otherworldly villain named Thanos. Thanos is the Greek word for death, which is fitting, because Thanos wanted to kill a lot of people in the universe. I don’t want to spoil too much of the movie in case you’ve missed it. Suffice it to say, Thanos succeeded in killing a lot of people, including some people whom the Avengers love. In this new movie, they will try to reverse the effects of death and even destroy the enemy named death.
Now, it may be silly to reference action movies on a day like this, but these movies are extremely popular. The last Avengers movie, Avengers: Infinity War, made $2 billion worldwide. That’s the fourth highest-grossing movie of all time (if you don’t adjust for inflation). The first Avengers movie made $1.5 billion and the second made $1.4 billion. Black Panther, another movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, made $1.36 million. Three other Marvel movies have made over $1 billion worldwide. So, people do pour out their money to watch these movies. And they pour out their time. I saw on Facebook a meme that suggested that fans should watch all of the twenty-one Marvel movies in their chronological order (according to time line) to gear up to watch this next movie. That would take over forty hours! And I’m sure there are more than a few people who are doing that.
It’s amazing that millions of people will spend all that time and money to watch fictional tales of superheroes defeating evil—and hopefully defeating death—and yet most people will not take the time and effort to consider what, if anything, they can do in the face of the real enemy, the real death that awaits us all. Is there any hope of life after death? Can we really rest in peace? If so, do we all rest in peace, or only some of us? How can we know such things?
I find that most people don’t spend much time asking these types of questions. They don’t think about why we’re here, where we’ve come from, and what the meaning of life is. Most people have some idea about what is wrong with the world, but I don’t think many people have correctly identified the root cause of evil. And few people seem to look ahead and think carefully about death and what comes after. Yet anyone with a well-thought-out worldview should think about these questions and should have answers that are coherent and true.
This morning, we’re going to hear about some of the most important parts of the Christian worldview. We’re going to consider what the Bible says is good news, and we’re going to think about the core events of that message. We’re going to look at some of 1 Corinthians, a letter that the apostle Paul wrote to Christians in the Greek city of Corinth in the year 54 or 55, a little over twenty years after Jesus died and rose from the grave. Specifically, we’re going to look at parts of chapter 15.
We’ll begin by looking at the first two verses:
1 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
Paul wants to remind his readers of the gospel, which means “good news.” It’s the central message of Christianity. It’s a word that’s found in the book of Isaiah, from the Old Testament (Isa. 40:9; 41:27; 52:7; 61:1). Roughly seven hundred years before Jesus came to the world, God promised that he would comfort his people, that he would provide a way for them to be forgiven of their sin, and that he would even remake the world into a paradise, where there is no more evil and death. The problem with our world is that we sin, which is a rebellion against God, a failure to love him and obey him. God made us to love him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. He made us to live under his rule, which is good because God is a good King and a loving Father. He made us to worship him and obey him, and to relate to him as children. He made us to love one another. The problem is that we don’t do those things, certainly not perfectly. And as a result, our sin separates us from God (Isa. 59:2). Because of sin, the first human beings were kicked out of a garden paradise and put into a wilderness where there is evil, fighting, wars, diseases, and death. All the bad things we experience in this world can be traced to our sin—the sin of the first human beings and our own sins. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that God has provided everything we need to be reconciled to him, to have that separation between him and us eliminated. And he has promised that one day in the future, he will restore the world so that it once again is a paradise, where God and his people dwell in peace, harmony, and happiness.
Paul says that it is by this gospel message that people are being saved—if they hold fast to it. Salvation isn’t a one-time experience. It is an ongoing experience, an ongoing relationship with Jesus. If you don’t have a deep, abiding faith that has changed your life, you really haven’t believed in Jesus.
Now let’s look at the content of the gospel. Let’s read verses 3–8:
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
Here is the heart of the Christian message: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” and “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” The Bible states that Jesus died on a cross, an instrument of torture, shame, and death reserved for enemies of the Roman Empire, and that he died while Pontius Pilate was governor. This squares with all the early historical knowledge of Jesus that we have outside of the Bible. But only the Bible, God’s written word, tells us why he died—to take the penalty for our sins that we deserve. Though Jesus is the only perfect person who has lived, though he never sinned, he died because our sin deserves the death penalty. He also rose from the grave on the third day, to show that he paid for the sins of his people in full, to demonstrate that he has power over sin and death, and to show what will happen to all who trust in him—they, too, will rise from the dead in bodies that are immortal and imperishable. All of this was in line with Old Testament prophecy. (Jesus’ death was prophesied in Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53, particularly Isa. 53:5, 12. His resurrection was prophesied in Ps. 16:10; Isa. 53:10–12.) In short, God promised this would happen, and it did.
Not only that, it was witnessed by hundreds of people. Paul here is probably quoting some early type of creedal statement about Jesus’ death and resurrection. The parallel clauses that begin with “that” indicate it was structured in a way that made it easy to be memorized and recited. The language of “delivering” and “receiving” suggests this was a statement that he received from the apostles within the first few years after Jesus died and rose from the grave. And that’s important, because that means that this was the message about Jesus from the beginning. This isn’t some myth that was created many years after Jesus lived.
Also, Paul is writing an open letter to people in a very cosmopolitan city. If Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross and rise up from the grave, and if all these people didn’t see him, someone could easily refute Paul. In fact, Paul would have to be the boldest liar to say such things if they weren’t true. If there were people who knew that Jesus didn’t die on the cross, or that he was killed and his corpse was still in a tomb, they would have challenged Paul. But we don’t have any documents from the first century that contradict the Christian message. Paul is stating that these key events of Christianity are not just religious beliefs—these are historical facts, and hundreds of people could bear witness to these facts, though some of the witnesses had already died. (“Fallen asleep” is a euphemism for “died.”)
Paul is stating in the strongest way that Jesus’ resurrection is true. He goes on to say that if it’s not true, Christianity is false. Let’s skip ahead to read verses 12–19:
12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
Here’s what Paul is saying: Consider what would be the case if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. If there’s no resurrection of Jesus, Paul says, our preaching and your faith is in vain. It’s all a lie. It means that we’ve been misrepresenting God, which is a great sin. And it means that we’re all still in our sins. If Jesus didn’t rise from the grave, there’s no salvation, there’s no future resurrection for Christians. If Jesus didn’t rise from the grave, Christianity’s all a sham. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, Christians are fools, because they give up so much to follow someone who clearly wasn’t the Messiah and the Son of God.
Paul was saying that because apparently some people didn’t believe in the resurrection. The idea that a dead man could come back to life in a body that can never die again was just as unbelievable then as it is now. People in the Greco-Roman world who believed in life after death didn’t believe that the afterlife would be physical. Today, it seems scientifically impossible that the dead could come back to life. But Paul swears that Jesus did rise from the grave.
Before we move on, I must stress how important it is to know that Christianity is based on historical truths. Some people tend to think religious beliefs aren’t real. They tend to think that if those beliefs make you feel better, well, that’s nice. But if Christianity isn’t true, it doesn’t matter if it makes you feel better. If it’s not true, you will still die, and there will be no rescue for you. That would make Christian preachers evil, for they are giving false promises. It would be like telling cancer patients that everything will be alright as long as they take this pill, which is nothing more than a placebo. If Christianity isn’t true, it’s useless. If any religion isn’t true, it’s useless. But Paul states that Christianity is true, that it’s the only way to be right with God. And I stand here telling you that same message.
Now, let’s move on and read verses 20–26:
20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
Paul says some amazing things here. First, he says that Jesus’ resurrection is proof that everyone who trusts in him will rise from the dead. The “firstfruits” was the first portion of the crop. It was the promise that the rest of the crop was coming. Jesus’ resurrected body was the first installment of a new creation. It was the deposit, the down payment, the first installment of a new creation that God promises is coming. One day, God will remove all evil, decay, and death from the world.
Paul then says that death came into the world through Adam. Adam and Eve, the first human beings sinned. But Adam was the head, the representative of humanity, and he sinned. And because he sinned, God put a partial punishment on the world, including death. Now, you might not think it’s fair that someone else would represent us the way Adam did. But we are represented by others, often by people we didn’t choose. Many people didn’t vote for our president, but he’s still their president. I’m represented in Congress by people for whom I did not vote. And all of us inherit things, specifically our genes, from people we didn’t choose to be our ancestors. Our first ancestor failed in the greatest way when he thought that he could be like God, and therefore didn’t obey God’s commandments. If we were in his place, we would have done the same, and we willingly sin against God. As a result, we all die.
So, Christianity tells us where we came from: God made people in his image, beginning with Adam and Eve. Christianity tells us what the purpose of life is, to know, love, worship, and obey God. Christianity also tells us what’s wrong with the world: our sin, which introduced all the evil we see in the world. And Christianity tells us the solution to that problem.
Jesus came to undo death, to defeat thanos. The first part of that defeat was when Jesus rose from the grave. But the victory over death won’t be completed until Jesus comes again. At that time, all who are united to Jesus by faith will be resurrected from the dead. Jesus will destroy every authority, every power that is opposed to God. Jesus is the King, and he will prevail. He will even destroy the last enemy—death itself. Death will die.
Now, many think that that’s just wishful thinking. Atheists don’t believe in a life after death. In fact, they don’t believe that life has any meaning or purpose. Here’s what Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most famous living atheist, once said:
In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.
Another atheist, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, believed that the world is “purposeless” and “void of meaning.” He says that we are “the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms,” that nothing “can preserve an individual life beyond the grave,” that “all the labors of the ages” and “the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.” In an equally cheery passage, Russell writes, “The life of man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain . . . . One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent death.”
Now, you have to give credit to these atheists. At these moments, they have the courage to embrace the less pleasant aspects of a consistently-held atheistic worldview. If there is no God, you can’t say there’s any meaning to life, any prescribed purpose. In fact, as Dawkins admits, you can’t say that anything is good or evil. We’re here today and gone tomorrow, and all our achievements—in fact, all of humanity’s achievements—will be swallowed up in death.
However, there is a problem. One, the atheistic worldview can’t account for things that are very important to us, things like rationality and intelligence, purpose and meaning, love and human rights. Two, the atheistic worldview isn’t livable. Elsewhere in their writings, both Dawkins and Russell say that there is good and evil, and they assume that there are purposes in life. They’re cheating on their own worldview, and borrowing from a Christian worldview, or least a theistic worldview, to fill in the gaps of their own belief system.
So, atheism can’t give us hope. What other worldviews are there? Well, there are many. And some do give us the promise of eternal life. Other religions like Islam or Mormonism promise eternal life. But eternal life in these religions is based on your works. You earn salvation in those religions. And these religions say very different things about God and Jesus. Islam talks about Jesus, but it regards him only as a prophet, certainly not the Son of God. And according to the Qur’an, Jesus didn’t die on the cross. That means there’s no atonement, no one who paid the price for your sins. And it means there’s no resurrection, so how can we be sure that we will rise from the grave in the future if Jesus didn’t rise from the grave in the past? Mormonism has its own unique beliefs, but it’s basically a religion of works. And both have historical problems. There is no historical evidence to support that Jesus didn’t die on the cross, and there is no historical evidence supporting the alleged ancient history that the Book of Mormon tells us about. And both religions were supposedly revealed to two men, who had private experiences of meeting an angel, or so they say. Christianity wasn’t revealed to just one man. As Paul says, many people saw Jesus, both before and after his death and resurrection. The truth of Christianity is supported by public historical events witnessed by many people, and we have different streams of testimony by people who bore witness to what they had seen, heard, and even touched (1 John 1:1–4).
I think most people aren’t atheists or Muslims or Mormons. I think most Americans are basically deists. A deist is someone who believes in a god who isn’t too involved with the world and who doesn’t place many demands on people. Over a decade ago, a couple of sociologists studied the religious beliefs of teenagers, and they concluded that most teens had a worldview that could be called “moralistic therapeutic deism.” These sociologists, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, summarized the beliefs of these teenagers in the following way:
1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
I think most Americans have that view of God and the world. But we must ask this question: who created that system of beliefs? Who says God is like that? That God places few demands on his creation. He’s like a doting grandfather who gives his grandchildren a little money and says, “Now go and play, and be nice to each other.”
The God described in that view is not the God of the Bible. The God of the Bible expects holiness and righteousness. Because he loves us, he wants the best for us, and because sin destroys us and the rest of his creation, God hates sin. It takes away from his glory and it ruins his creation. The Bible says that we can’t fix the problem of sin or earn a right standing with God. But God is merciful and gracious, and he has given us a way to be forgiven of our sin, to come back into a right relationship with him. That way is Jesus. Jesus is the only road that leads back to God and heaven. And we must follow that road, or we will remain in our sins, separated from God.
Salvation is offered freely. But once it is received, it changes one’s life. As I said earlier, salvation is a process, and real faith is one that perseveres and lasts. Real faith leads people to do hard things in the name of Jesus. Paul certainly did that. He was beaten, imprisoned, and shipwrecked, among other things. About a decade or so after he wrote this letter, he would be executed in Rome. He knew that if Christianity is true, then we can suffer a little while now, because in eternity we will be in glory. But if Christianity is false, then live it up now, for then your life will be extinguished forever.
Let’s look at verses 32–34
32 What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” 33 Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” 34 Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.
Paul wrote this letter in Ephesus, a significant city in the Roman Empire. And when he says he fought with beasts there, he’s using a metaphor to say he suffered persecution there. Now, why would a person suffer for something unless he thought it was true? Clearly, Paul knew that he was suffering for the risen Christ, the one whom he had seen. If Christianity wasn’t true, Paul would “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” In other words, if there’s no afterlife, just live it up now. Be selfish. Grab as much pleasure as you can. You only live once, so live large. Your best life is now. In fact, your only life is now.
But Paul knew that was false. He knew eternity was at stake. He knew there are two types of people: those who are associated with Adam, the first sinful man, the man of death, and those who are associated with Jesus, the God-man who gives life. Paul didn’t want to see people condemned, cut off from God and all that is good. That’s why he issues a warning here. He quotes a proverb of sorts, “Bad company ruins good morals.” Be careful who you’re hanging out with and what you do. If you’re truly a Christian, now is the time to wake up and stop sinning. Some people who are in churches, some people who have been baptized and confirmed and all the rest, have no knowledge of God. Their faith is in vain. It’s empty. It’s not real. And they’re not going to be with Jesus forever. Now is the time to wake up, before it is too late.
And I say that to all who are here. Do you know what will happen to you after death? How certain are you? Most people avoid thinking about death, which is a shame, because death will come. Perhaps death is too much to bear, so people avoid thinking about it. I think most people truly want to live forever. Last week, the news of a fire at Notre-Dame in Paris shocked and dismayed many people. Part of that is because the building is a priceless, historical treasure. But I think part of that response is because we assume that some things will be around forever. But the reality is that death will swallow up everything.
However, the good news is that God will destroy death. Christianity gives us amazing promises. Look at verse 53–57:
53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55 “O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
These great truths inspired John Donne to write the following lines:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so . . . .
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Don’t you get a sense of how amazing this is? Don’t you want this to be true? Don’t you ache for a day when death has no power? Don’t you want your lives to have meaning and purpose? Don’t you long for death to be destroyed? Don’t you long for a perfect peace that never ends? God himself is that peace, and he has made a way for us to be at peace. That way is Jesus.
Now is the time to wake from our slumbers, to think about the meaning of life and death. Don’t hear this message and shrug your shoulders. Spend some time looking at the evidence for Christianity. I would love to help you learn more about the Bible and why we should trust that its contents are true. I urge you to turn to Jesus, the God-man, the conqueror of death, and live.
And Christian, know for certain that you will experience that glory. You will receive a body that will never die. But in the meantime, work hard for Jesus. Don’t be like everyone else who says, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Say, “Let us work hard now, for in eternity we will rest.” Look at the last verse of 1 Corinthians:
58 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- “New Testament writers may have seen a pattern in God delivering or manifesting himself to his people on the third day (cf. Gen. 22:4; Exod. 19:11, 15, 16; Josh. 1:11; Judg. 20:30; Hos. 6:2; Jon. 1:17).” Thomas R. Schreiner, 1 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018), 303. ↑
- Richard Dawkins, “God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American 273 (Nov. 1995): 85. ↑
- Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” in Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (New York: Touchstone, 1957), 106. ↑
- Ibid., 107. ↑
- Ibid., 115. ↑
- For more on that subject, see Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (New York: Viking, 2016). ↑
- Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religions and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 162–63. ↑
Whenever a celebrity dies, without fail people get on social media and write “R.I.P.” or “rest in peace.” When someone’s loved one dies, it’s common for people to say, “She’s in a better place,” or, “Now he’s with his wife in heaven,” or something similar. These people write or say such things regardless of what the deceased believed or how the departed lived. It seems that most people think their loved ones go to heaven. Perhaps they can’t bear to think of the alternative.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been answering questions that people have submitted to us (in person at Park Day in West Bridgewater or online). One person submitted a very simple yet very profound question: “Am I going to heaven?” Another person asked a question related to losing salvation, and still another person asked a question about whether God would love them or not if they got a divorce. So, today I want to talk about salvation, and what that looks like.
I’m going to answer this question by looking at one chapter in the Gospel of John. The four Gospels in the Bible are theological biographies of Jesus. They explain who he is and what he did. John presents some of the clearest information about Jesus that relates to salvation and who has eternal life. You may wonder how this chapter relates to heaven, but if you hang with me, you’ll see that it answers the question of heaven and salvation.
So, without further ado, let’s turn to John 6.
I’m going to summarize part of this chapter, since it’s long. The chapter begins with Jesus being followed by a crowd of people “because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick” (verse 2). Jesus had the ability to heal the sick, and he did so in miraculous fashion. As you could imagine, this would draw a crowd.
We’re told that Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee and went up on a mountain, where he sat with his disciples (verse 3). It was the time of Passover, the Jewish holiday that commemorated the time when God redeemed the Israelites, bringing them out of slavery in Egypt (verse 4). On this mountain, Jesus performs another miracle. He feeds thousands of people with five loaves of bread and two fish (verses 5–13). When this happens, we’re told, “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!’” (verse 14).
A lot of the details of John 6 recall Moses and the exodus out of Egypt. Moses was the leader whom God used. He was the one who said to Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” So, it’s no accident that Jesus is on a mountain, miraculously feeding people bread at the time of the Passover. We’re even told that were twelve baskets full of bread left over, one for every tribe of Israel (verse 13). Moses foretold of a day when a special prophet would come, the prophet. Deuteronomy 18:18–19 says, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.” So, when the people see these miracles, they’re reminded of Moses, and they think, “Ah, so this is the Prophet Moses told us about!” They were expecting that just as Moses led Israel out of Egypt, this new Moses figure would free the people from the oppression of the Roman Empire. The Israelites were in their land, but they lived there under Roman occupation. They expected a political ruler, an anointed King, who would come and take care of their enemies. They thought Jesus might very well be that King.
So, we read this in verse 15: “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” This is a bit odd. We know from the whole of the Bible that Jesus is the true King. He is Lord. He is God. Yet when the people come to make him king, and to do so by force, Jesus leaves. Many people would want to be king, but Jesus knows they want him to be king for the wrong reasons. They don’t want a king who will lead the people in righteousness and holiness. They don’t want a king who will lead them to God. No, they want a king who will get rid of their enemies and give them prosperity. The fact that Jesus won’t become their king in that way shows that he doesn’t exist to serve our agenda.
In the next passage, we see who Jesus is. Let’s read John 6:16–21:
16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were frightened. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21 Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.
This passage shows that Jesus is unique. He has power over nature. He can walk on water and, when he gets on the boat, he is able to either overpower the strong wind or make it stop so they can get to the other side of the sea. This is just one of many ways that John shows that Jesus is God.
That paragraph also shows something else: to get where they need to go, the disciples need Jesus. That’s an important message for us. To get where we need to go, we need Jesus. It is impossible without him. We need him in order to reach the other shore safely.
I’ll skip over the next few verses, which basically say that when the crowds realize that Jesus had gone, they came looking for him. But they were still looking for him for the wrong reasons.
Let’s now read verses 25–34:
25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30 So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? 31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
I want us to see four things in that paragraph. First, Jesus calls out the crowd. He says, “You aren’t seeking me for who I am. No, you’re seeking me because I perform miracles and gave you bread.” That should cause us to question why we are seeking Jesus. Do we seek him in order to get things from him or in order to get him?
Second, Jesus says, “Forget the free bread I gave you. That’s food that perishes. But I can give you eternal food. So, work for that.” In other words, Jesus is saying, “Don’t get so caught up in things that fade away, that don’t last. He tells them that he can give them something of eternal value.
Third, when the people ask, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus says, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” In other words, Jesus says, “If you want to earn food that gives you eternal life, believe in me.” He doesn’t say, “Do all of these good works to receive this eternal food.” The only “work” that people must do to receive from Jesus is to trust him. That means we don’t earn things from Jesus. We come as beggars with the knowledge that he has what we don’t have and what we need, and the only way we can get it is by receiving it as a gift.
Fourth, when the people ask why they should believe in Jesus, Jesus says, “Just as God sent manna (the bread from heaven that sustained the Israelites), he is sending bread from heaven now.” But this time, the bread from heaven doesn’t perish. It is eternal. As you can imagine, the people say, “Give us this bread!”
So, Jesus tells them about this eternal bread. Let’s read verses 35–40:
35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Jesus tells the crowd that he is the bread of life. He is the food they must consume in order to have eternal life. He is the one who can satisfy their spiritual hunger and thirst. Yet, they do not trust him.
Then Jesus says there are people who will trust him. They are those whom the Father has given him. Anyone who comes to Jesus in faith does so because the Father has already given them to Jesus, and they will never be cast out. This is the Father’s will, to save these people. It is the Father’s will that these people will not be lost, but will be raised up to eternal life on the last day, on judgment day. That is the day when Jesus returns to judge everyone who has lived and to usher in the age to come, when the world will be recreated to be Paradise. Everyone who believes in Jesus will have eternal life in that Paradise.
We shouldn’t miss the significance of what Jesus is saying. He recognizes that not everyone will believe in him. But there are people who will. And God already knows them, because he has chosen them and he gives them to the Son. All who are given to the Son will have true faith in him, and they will have eternal life. This theme runs throughout the Gospel of John. In John 1:11–13, we’re told that many Jews rejected Jesus but those who receive him become children of God, and this is because they are born (again) of the will of God, not the will of man. In John 3:5–8, Jesus says that in order to enter the kingdom of God, people must first be born again of the Holy Spirit, who, like the wind, blows where he wills. We can’t cause ourselves to be born again. In John 17, Jesus prays to God the Father. Jesus makes a distinction between people whom the Father has given him and the whole world (see John 17:2, 6, 7, 9, 24).
Some people don’t like that idea. In fact, some people didn’t like it in Jesus’ day. We see that in the next paragraph, verses 41–51:
41 So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. 45 It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me— 46 not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Some of the crowd grumbled at Jesus. (Keep in mind that Jesus and John were Jewish. So, when John says, “Jews,” he just means some of the people there.) “Grumble” is a loaded word, because the Israelites grumbled in Moses’ day (Exod. 16:2, 8–9; Num. 11:4–23). They complained that he was leading them to their death. They complained about the food that they received. Just as the Israelites complained then, so some Israelites complained during Jesus’ day. They couldn’t believe that a man who was born of a woman and raised by a carpenter could also be someone who came down from heaven. In other words, they say, “Who does this guy think he is?”
Jesus tells them not to grumble. He says that no one can come to him unless the Father draws that person to Jesus. And the that person will be raised to eternal life on the last day. In other words, Jesus is the only way to the Father, and the only ones who will put their trust in Jesus are those whom the Father has drawn to Jesus. And those people will be raised to eternal life. Jesus doesn’t say, “some of the people drawn to me will be raised to eternal life.” No, all whom the Father gives to Jesus will be raised. That means that salvation begins with God’s work and it ends with God’s work. Salvation can’t be lost, because God saves from start to finish. Jesus does not say, “All are drawn to me by the Father, and some will persevere to the end, and they will receive eternal life.” He doesn’t say, “All are drawn by the Father to me, and some will believe.” No, all that the Father gives to Jesus will believe and they will be raised to eternal life.
Jesus says this because there are clearly some people who don’t believe. In fact, it seems like most of the people there didn’t believe Jesus. This does not surprise him at all. He realizes that many will not believe in him. Many Israelites didn’t trust God. The manna they ate in the wilderness didn’t give them eternal life. But those who trust Jesus will live forever, because he is the true bread from heaven. In verse 51, he says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
That last statement confuses the crowd. They can’t understand what Jesus is saying. We see that in the next paragraph, verses 52–59:
52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” 59 Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum.
This is another example in the book of John when people take Jesus’ words too literally. The crowd thinks, “How can we eat this guy’s flesh?” Jesus doesn’t make things easy for them, because he goes on to say that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood. Those who do this will be raised to eternal life on the last day.
What is Jesus talking about? Surely, he’s not talking about cannibalism. And he’s not talking about the Lord’s Supper. I suppose Catholics take this literally. They believe that when they take the eucharist, the wafer and the wine don’t just represent Jesus’ body and blood. No, they believe that those elements have been miraculously transformed so that their substance is that of Jesus’ body and blood. I think that misses the point completely.
Jesus is clearly talking in metaphorical terms. After all, he was not actually a loaf of bread that talked. At one level, he says that is spiritual food. To live forever, one must “consume” him. We must live with a daily reliance on Jesus. But when Jesus talks about his body and blood, he’s already looking forward to the cross. Jesus knows that the only way he can give people eternal life is if his body is broken on the cross and his blood is poured out. His body was broken like bread. His blood was poured out like wine. When Jesus died, he received God’s righteous, holy wrath against sin. As Isaiah 53:5 says, “he was crushed for our iniquities.” References to his blood represent his life (cf. Lev. 17:11). His life was drained from his body on the cross so that we may have eternal life. Jesus died to pay for the sins of those whom the Father gives to him, and Jesus laid down his life willingly (John 10:14–18).
All of this may seem strange to us, just as it seemed strange to Jesus’ original audience. But we must understand a couple of things. One, the Bible talks about sacrifice for sin in very gory ways. All the talk of blood shed for the remission of sins shows how gross sin is. Sin is rebellion against God, and sin must be dealt with. God is a perfect judge, and a perfect judge makes sure that crimes are paid for. And the penalty for the crime is commensurate with the crime. If the penalty is death, it shows us that sin is a heinous crime. The fact that God sent his own Son to be a bloody sacrifice shows us the seriousness of sin. The fact that Jesus willingly came to die for his people, and that God would let his Son die, should cause us to wonder at God’s love.
The second thing we should understand is that all of us look to something or someone to give us life. We trust something or someone to give us security, meaning, and happiness. That is, we might say, our spiritual bread and drink. If we trust anything but Jesus, we’ll be left empty and we will die. Football or movies won’t give eternal life. Money won’t. Politics won’t. Power won’t. Good looks and health won’t last. Only Jesus endures. Only Jesus is perfect. And only Jesus dies for us, taking away our problem, our sin against God.
I suppose food is a good metaphor, because we need it every day. We spend a good amount of time and money on food. How much time do we spend on Jesus? We should ask God for our daily bread (Matt. 6:11), but how many of us give ourselves daily to God? Do our lives revolve around him, or do we expect him to revolve around us?
Let’s continue with the story by reading verses 60–65:
60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) 65 And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
Many of those who followed Jesus found his teachings to be hard—hard to understand and hard to follow. If they are offended by what Jesus has already said, what will they think when he ascends to heaven, where he was before? After Jesus died, he rose from the grave in a body that can never die again, and he rose to heaven. He is the Son of Man, the divine figure of Daniel 7. If they can’t accept that God sent him to be their spiritual food, what will they think of the idea that he is God?
Jesus knows that for them to believe his words, they need the Holy Spirit. His words give life, but they can only be understood, received, and trusted through the power of the Holy Spirit. “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” In a sense, it is miraculous that anyone believes in Jesus, because it is the work of God.
After Jesus said this to the crowd, many turned away from him. We see this in concluding verses of the chapter. Let’s read verses 66–71:
66 After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. 67 So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” 70 Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.” 71 He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray him.
This paragraph is both sad and hopeful. It’s sad because people who had followed Jesus, people who were his students, his disciples, left him. They didn’t believe. It is true that people can appear to trust Jesus for a while, only to later turn their backs on him. These are not true believers. They are not the ones the Father has given to the Son, the ones who will be raised on the last day. Even Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, would reject and betray Jesus.
But that paragraph is hopeful, too. When Jesus says to the twelve apostles, “Do you want to go away as well? Peter says, “Where are we going to go? Only you have the words have eternal life. Only you are the Holy One of God.” I think that Peter might have been confused by some of Jesus’ teachings. He probably wouldn’t disagree that Jesus taught some hard things. But he also knew that Jesus was his only hope.
This shows us that we may not fully understand or even fully like what Jesus teaches. But if we trust that he is who he says he is, then he is our only hope, and we must follow him. We must trust him. Who else but Jesus can give us eternal life? There is no one. So, who are we to correct Jesus, or ignore him?
Now that we’ve gone through this chapter, I want to come back to the original question. “Am I going to heaven?” I actually think that question is a bad one. The question shouldn’t be, “Am I going to heaven?” It should be, “Will I be with God for eternity?”
A lot of people like the idea of heaven. They like the idea of eternal life, of an existence without pain or loss. But a lot of people don’t like the idea that God is the greatest reward possible. They don’t like the idea that Jesus is greater than heaven.
I said this on Easter, but it bears repeating. Imagine if God were to make a deal with you. Imagine if he said, “I will let you live in a world without pain, evil, disease, wars, hunger or thirst, and death. I’ll let you live with all your loved ones in that world forever. You will have all of the world’s greatest pleasures. But there’s only one condition: you won’t be with me, you’ll never see me, and you’ll never hear from me.” Would you take that deal?
If so, you don’t have real faith. You’re like the people who wanted the free bread from Jesus, but didn’t want to receive Jesus as their bread. God does not exist to give us stuff. We exist for God, and God gives us himself. Of course, God doesn’t say, “You can have me or Paradise.” No, if we want God more than anything, we get Paradise thrown in. But if we only want Paradise and not God, we won’t get either.
Are you going to heaven when you die? The better question is, are you going to be with Jesus when you die? And the answer to that question comes is a question: do you trust Jesus? Do you believe that he is who the Bible says he is and that he did (and does, and will do) what the Bible says he did (and does, and will do)? Do you know that he is the Holy One of God, the only one who can give you his righteous standing before God and the only one who can take away your sin? Is your faith in him one that leads to good works, to following him? We’re not reconciled to God by our good works, but once we’re saved—once we’re born again, or transformed by God—we start to live for him.
Jesus said, in John 10:27–29,
27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.
Do you listen to the voice of Jesus by reading the Bible? Does your listening to him lead to obedience? If so, you are one of Jesus’ sheep, one of his people, and you will never perish. No one can take you out of God’s hands because no one is greater than God.
And that leads me to answer another question we received. Someone asked, “What does the Bible mean by 1 Peter 5:8, 2 Corinthians 11:3, and 1 John 5:16 if once you are a believer in Jesus as Savior and you cannot lose your salvation?” Those three verses deal with Satan, false teachers, and a sin that leads to death. I suppose the question is, if you can’t lose your salvation, why are those warnings in the Bible?
I believe those warnings are in the Bible because they are the means God uses to keep his people on the right track. I suppose they are also there because God knows that there will be people in churches who aren’t true believers. God knows who his people are, and those who are his people will listen to these warnings and heed them. Those who are not his people won’t take these warnings seriously.
Many passages in the Bible teach what we might call “eternal security.” We have already seen that John 6 and John 10 teach this. Romans 8 teaches this, too. So does 1 Peter 1. The apostle Paul says that believers were not only predestined to be redeemed, but that they are sealed with the Holy Spirit when they believed the gospel (Eph. 1:13). He says that the Holy Spirit “is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:14; see also Eph. 4:30; 2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5). If you truly believe in Jesus, God has set his seal on you, just as the Father as put his seal on the Son (John 6:27). That means that nothing can take you away from God. You may stumble and sin. You won’t be perfect. But if you’re a believer, you will turn back to Jesus repeatedly. If you sin, you’ll confess and repent. But that sin won’t remove you from the love of God.
We shouldn’t want to sin, but if we do—and we will—“we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). We know that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross covers all our sins. Do you believe that? If you’re a Christian, you will. If you’re a Christian, you will grow in your love for God and his Son, and you’ll grow in your love for others, particularly other Christians. And if you love Jesus, you will do your best to keep his commandments (John 14:15), not to earn heaven or salvation, but as a new way of living that is right, good, and true. You won’t be perfect in this life, but you’ll grow more like Jesus.
The question is, “Am I going to heaven?” The answer to that question is found in the answer to this question, “Do you want Jesus more than anything else?” If you want Jesus, you get heaven thrown in. If he is your daily bread, you have eternal life. If you trust Jesus, you will be raised on the last day, because God has given you to Jesus’ care. And no one can separate you from Jesus, because no one is greater than God.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- “The crowds would have marched him to Jerusalem to crown him as their political Messiah. But he came to do his Father’s will: he would go to Jerusalem not to wield the spear and bring the judgment, but to receive the spear thrust and bear the judgment.” Edmund Clowney, “A Biblical Theology of Prayer,” in Teach Us to Pray: Prayer in the Bible and the World (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1990), 158. ↑
- An explanation of what the “sin that leads to death” is can be found in my sermon, “The True God and Eternal Life” (July 30, 2017), available at https://wbcommunity.org/letters-of-john. ↑
- Romans 8:28–30 shows clearly that salvation is of God, from start to finish. He foreknows people (not their future free decisions, but people he will save) in eternity past. He predestines them to salvation. He calls them to faith in Jesus through the preaching of the gospel. He justifies them, or declares them righteous, when they believe. He conforms believers to the image of Jesus, so that they live more and more righteously. And he glorifies them, bringing into eternity. Romans 8:31–39 makes it abundantly clear that nothing can separate believers from God. See also 1 Peter 1:3–5. ↑
- The book of 1 John was written to Christians so that they “may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). To learn more about how we know we’re Christians, visit https://wbcommunity.org/letters-of-john. ↑
Pastor Brian Watson answers the question, “Am I going to heaven?” He does so by exploring John 6. The question for us is, “Do we want Jesus, or do we only want the things he can give us?”
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 John 2:28-3:3. Those who are united to Jesus will strive to live righteous lives because Jesus is righteous. But we won’t be the people we ought to be until we see Jesus face to face. The great promise for Christians is that we will be like Jesus because we will see him.
Pastor Brian Watson asks and answers the following questions: What is evangelism? Who does evangelism? How do we do evangelism? Why don’t we evangelize?
Pastor Brian Watson preaches on Acts 17:1-15 in a message titled, “Examining the Scriptures.” The way people react to the Bible is the way they react to Jesus: People who follow Jesus use God’s written Word, the Bible, as their standard of truth.