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Monday, February 24, 2014

Heaven Pt. 3: "This Hope" - 1 John 2.28-3.3


{You can listen to the audio file while following the manuscript. Mike}
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Heaven Pt. 3: “This Hope” 1 John 2.28-3.3
Mighty Conqueror, who has triumphed over death and the devil, who reigns magnificently, and will come again one day to save those who are eagerly waiting for you: As we hear this evening, prosper our hearing. As we learn tonight, enrich our learning. And may hope blossom into full flower, and be blown into full flame by your Spirit. Amen.

In 165 A.D., a terrible plague slashed through the Roman world. It was so bad that somewhere between 1/4th to 1/3rd of the Roman world died. Think of Oklahoma City suddenly missing 1/3rd of the population (roughly 200,000 inside the city alone); so what would the economy look like, the housing, the businesses? But this was disease. Everyone who had money, power and position fled. Who stayed behind? The poor, those too sick to leave – and the Christians. From this incident, both William McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, as well as Rodney Starks, The Rise of Christianity, say that Christianity grew bigger than ever before. The same thing happened less than 100 years later when the plague of 256 A.D. swept through, decimating up to 2/3rds of Alexandria, wiping out rural areas. So why did Christianity grow during these world shattering, disease-ravaging times? What does this have to do with heaven?

The Christian teaching about what happens to the Christian at death, and then latter when Christ returns, is pretty straight forward. We must remember, though, that the Scripture is not exhaustive. It simply gives us a few pictures to hint at and tantalize. 

When we die: God created us body and soul. Therefore, as much as I hate to say it, John Calvin (and others) was terribly wrong to call the body the prison house of the soul. Death rips the body and soul asunder. That is one reason death is called the last enemy. At that moment, we come, as souls agonizingly ripped from our bodies, immediately to God in glory: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain…My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1.21, 23). Children’s Catechism 144: “What happens to believers when they die? Our bodies will return to the dust and our souls will go to be with the Lord forever.” But for our non-physical side of us, our souls/spirits, to be able to come to God thru Christ, means he must radically change us – make us spotlessly perfect. “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12.14). “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5.8). The Westminster Shorter Catechism 37: “What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death? The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united in Christ, do rest in their graves, till the resurrection.” This is what the writer of Hebrews is referring to when he talks about those in heaven now as “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Hebrews 12.23).

Outside of Christ, death is part of the curse; those who die, die condemned. Yet, as you have been listening to Holy Scripture and the catechisms, death for the Christian takes on a whole other meaning. If you belong to Jesus, are united to him be faith, then condemnation has been swallowed up in the death and resurrection of Jesus. And so now dying and death are instrumental in the finishing out of our sanctification! It’s now a loving, fatherly, caring part of his “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1.6).Though death is still the last enemy, God has turned around what is grievous, to become now the final part of our earthly trek to glorification. 2 Thessalonians 2.13-14!

But this time, from death until the return of Christ, is a temporary disembodiment. It is a momentary, short-term season, a holding-pattern, until something greater, grander, and even more glorious happens.

At the Resurrection: 3.2; This is what makes us unique as Christians. Our Lord will return to rescue our bodies; to reunite our bodies and souls together – in the most splendid way; more splendid than you can imagine. Our bodies will be raised Magnificent! Even our bodies are part of Christ’s rescue operation Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6.19-20). We will be physically the same, and yet, exponentially different. “So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15.42-44). “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3.20-21)! C. S. Lewis: “He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us...a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot imagine.Mere Christianity. We will fully enjoy God – body and soul – and he will enjoy us fully. Why? v. 2-we shall be like him; and Romans 8:29 - we have been “predestined to be conformed to the image of his” Son of Jesus!

So what’s the big deal - here & now? 3.3. The outflow of this joyous, underserved, grace-fueled, hope-filled anticipation is that we – individually and jointly – declare war on sin (HC127). As John points out in our passage – the hope of heaven will inevitably lead to the hot pursuit of holiness. 2.28-29 and 3.3-10! Why? As Lutheran scholar, R. C. H. Lenski says in his commentary, “There is no exception. He who stops purifying himself has dropped this hope from his heart” (“Commentary”). And as John Calvin notes, “The meaning is that though we do not have Christ present before our eyes now, if we hope in him, our hope must excite and stimulate us to follow purity, for it leads us straight to Christ, whom we know to be a perfect pattern of purity" (“Commentary”). 

Listen, this is good news! If you heard this as defeat, denunciation, blame and shame then you didn’t hear it. It’s all about the gracious love of God for you (“he appeared to take away sins” and “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”); the gracious strength of God in you (“God’s seed abides in him” “born of God”); and the gracious hope of God that moves you (“we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure)!


Now, let me end, by taking us back to the beginning. Remember the plagues mentioned at the beginning. The Christians stayed, and gave basic nursing care to their neighbors (loving their neighbors – part of what it means to be holy!). They stayed because they had a hope that the pagans didn’t have. They had what McNeill called, “the vision of a heavenly existence.” St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, put it this way: “Many of our people die in this mortality, that is, many of our people are liberated from this world. This mortality, as it is a plague to Jews and Gentiles, and enemies of Christ, so it is a departure to salvation to God’s servants. The fact that, without any difference made between one and another, the righteous die as well as the unrighteous, is no reason for you to suppose that it is a common death for the good and evil alike. The righteous are called to their place of refreshing, the unrighteous are snatched away to punishment; safety is the more speedily given to the faithful, penalty to the unbelieving…Even although this mortality conferred nothing else, it has done this benefit to Christians and to God’s servants that we begin gladly to desire martyrdom as we learn not to fear death. These are trainings for us, not deaths: they give the mind the glory of fortitude; by contempt of death they prepare for the crown.” On the Mortality, para. 15 and 16. 

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