Death is the Enemy

There are some specific things that Paul says in his letter to the church in Corinth that we don’t give as much attention as we probably should.

And this relates specifically to how we think about death.

I want to issue you a specific challenge: If you disagree my reading of these teachings, how do you read them differently?

Don’t just default to whatever you were told or taught or think. Try to discern what this passage of scripture is saying.

“Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

1 Corinthians 15:24-26 NIV

Read through those verses a few times. Ideally open a bible and read the whole chapter.

What does Paul say about death here?

Does he say it’s just something that’s a natural part of God’s good creation?

Does he say that it’s no big deal because believers will be in Jesus’ presence at death?

No.

He says directly that death is the enemy.

Death is that terrible reality in the fallen world. Not a feature of God’s initial good creation but the tragic result of the sinfulness and brokenness of our fallen world.

Death is an enemy and God, through his Son Jesus is out to destroy it.

Another significant feature of Paul’s teaching here is the relationship between the reign of Jesus currently and the presence of death in our world.

We often make the assumption that because Jesus reigns-

because he is Lord,

because he is on the throne,

that everything that happens including death, is under his specific direction.

But this teaching specifically says that this is not so.

“For he must reign UNTIL he has put ALL enemies under his feet.” 15:25

Are all ememies totally and completley under his feet yet?

No.

“The last enemy to be destroyed (future tense) is death.”

The outcome of victory is sure, but there is still rebellion against the total rule of Jesus. When his kingdom fully comes and his will is fully done.

Now let’s add more teaching from this chapter in 1 Corinthians 15 to our thoughts.

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.

1 Corinthians 15:54-56

According to this scripture, the destruction of death will only be fully true, manifest, fulfilled and completed in the future.

When? When Christ returns and we – all those in Christ – are resurrected with new, imperishable bodies. (See 15:52)

Only then – in the future – will death be totally swallowed up in victory.

Going to heaven now is not the ultimate defeat of death, but rather the wonderful confort for believers until this day comes.

Only then, Paul says here, will it come true that death is swallowed up in victory.

So our struggle with death.

Our hatred of death.

Our screaming out in the face of death is NOT a lack of faith.

It is a feature of robust Christian faith – so long as it is in the hope of victory yet to come.

And here is the good news: we are assured of that victory because of the real, bodily resurrection of Jesus as a historical reality.

He is the firstfuits – the tangible reason for our hope. It’s not a pipe dream.

And so the earliest Christians were less asking the question ‘why did my friend die at this particular time, age or cause?’ and instead crying out, “Come Lord Jesus!” Put an end to this.

Because death is a feature of this fallen world, not of the reign of Christ.

When his reign is full and complete, death will be no more.

Yes, believers were to be comforted by the word that their loved ones would not miss out on this future event, nor would they be without the presence of Christ until that day.

But that Day was the focus of their hope.

When death -the last enemy – will finally and fully be defeated.

Come Lord Jesus.

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Love as Working for Good

To love someone is – at least in part – to desire and want for their good.

In that way, we have the opportunity to extend love to every person, even those who might currently be considered enemies.

It also seems to me that the more we love someone, the more active we become at ‘working’ for their good. That might mean that we are more diligent in prayer for them. It often means that we are more likely to give our own time and money for them. We are likely to advocate for someone we love.

As a common example, many of us can think of our children. If we are honest, the amount of time, energy and money that we are willing to invest in our children (even adult children) usually far exceeds what we are willing to do for others.

Because of that, one of the marks of a local church that really understands church as family is the amount of care, concern and personal sacrifice they are willing to invest in these ‘brothers and sisters.’

One of the painful lessons of love is that we can’t fully protect those we love from hurt. Little children can be physically protected to an extent, but that doesn’t last long. We go to school. Hang out with others. Eventually drive and go to work and make our own (sometimes foolish) decisions.

There is so much that we can’t control about our world. We can’t control the actions of bullies. We can’t control the actions of drunk drivers and selfish ‘friends’ and the secretly abusive or controlling spouses.

But what we can do is work for the good of those whom we love. We can guide them, support them, listen to them, teach them, go help them when they mess up or someone else does something that messes them up.

We realize that life is messy, but we hope and pray and guide and help those we love through the complexities of life, hoping that they navigate it well and grow to maturity along the path.

I believe that our human experience gives us a touchstone to the way that God loves us. The way that he desires for us to grow and mature and navigate the complexities of our lives.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Romans 8:28

Some people read this statement to mean that every thing that happens is somehow filtered into the world so that only things that are for our good are allowed to happen.

But Paul’s statement here in Romans is not that everything that happens is good. Or even that there’s a ‘reason why’ this or that was particularly allowed to happen.

Romans 8:28 tells us that in all things – at all times – God is working for our good.

Not all things are good. Not all things that happen in our lives are good.

Some are the results of our own unwise or downright rebellious choices.

Others are the result of the fallenness of our world – sickness and disease and ‘natural disasters’

But in all things – the good the bad and the ugly – God is working for our good.

That’s what love is.

Those of us who are parents have probably thought (or joked) that we could do a much better job protecting our kids if we just made them stay home. No driving. No dating. No contact sports. No school where there are potential bullies or mass shooters.

In in a way, we could, for a time, ‘protect’ our kids from those risks.

But they would never grow up. They would never mature.

And for us as Christians, our maturity is God’s top loving purpose for us.

It always has been.

The very next verse in Romans tells us that.

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son

Romans 8:29

God’s loving desire is that those of us who have responded to and believe in Jesus would grow to become like him, our master teacher of life.

To be conformed to the image of his Son. Jesus.

Notice that this passage particularly isn’t talking about God destining some to go to heaven someday. He is saying that those he knew would respond to Jesus he destined to become like Jesus – in life and love and character.

As humans, we ask a lot of why questions. Why did this or that specifically happen?

Personally, I’m less interested in the whys of the individual circumstances that are all ultimately aspects of the fallenness of our world currently.

The bigger question is why we continue to be in this messed up world?

There are probably several aspects to answer this question but one of them seems to be that God’s priority isn’t our ease but our maturity.

We can’t align the road of life perfectly to allow a smooth path for our kids. Even if we could, it wouldn’t be good for their growth, would it?

You’ve likely head the saying, smooth seas never made for a skilled sailor.

Folks, I really don’t think God is somehow lining up every particular fallen aspect of our world precisely perfectly for each of our paths. Every injury, car accident, insult, injustice, rape, murder, domestic abuse, cancer. God isn’t pulling the strings on sin.

But in ALL of these things, God is with us. Emmanual – God is with us.

And God is ALWAYS working for our good.

He’s showing us how to be fully human. How to follow Jesus.

He’s showing us how to fight for justice and advocate for those who have no voice.

He’s offering us the peace that passes understanding.

Jesus is actively interceding for us. The Spirit is helping us pray.

God is helping to heal our pain and brokenness to allow us to help others.

He’s bringing us to people and communities of healing – brothers and sisters who will walk alongside us through thick and thin. Laugh and cry and sometimes give away our ‘going out to dinner’ or ‘vacation’ money to those who really need it.

The beauty of the ways God is working for our good makes me weep with overwhelming joy even as I type these words.

How God works these things together does have a mystery to it, but it’s often a mystery that comes to be seen over time. It takes on flesh in real people and community that God brings into our lives. People who help us in ways we never dreamed of. People we never would have thought we’d even meet now holding us up at our most vulnerable.

Friends God is always at work for the good of those who love him.

That’s how love works.

Does God Determine When We Die?

This is a subject of great practical importance in our lives.

When we lose a loved one, particularly at what seems to us a young age or in an accident or act of violence, we often have this deep desire to try to make sense of what seems to us to be senseless.

In this post I want to briefly explore and question an assumption that we often have about death.

“The Lord called him or her home…”

How many times have you heard or said this? This statement is fully intended to be encouraging and tied with the true affirmation that those who trust in Christ are promised to be with him in some very real sense when they die. (2 Corinthians 5:8, Luke 23:43) But it also seems to imply something more.

The statement seems to infer that God has determined that this is that person’s particular, pre-determined time to die.

Part of God’s plan.

We are asked to trust in the great mystery of God’s wisdom here, but if we’re really honest, God doesn’t seem very wise at all in this plan. Sometimes he seems downright cruel. Thinking of particular situations we know of can bring this to the forefront – children dying in accidents or of rare medical conditions.

I would like to suggest to you today that this view that we commonly hold is not particularly well supported by the Bible.

Instead, I propose that it has more connection to either a greek view of inevitable fate or a view that God is controlling all of the details of the world. While some Christians do hold the latter view, I do not find it compelling. That will be for another blog post though.

Although so much could and should be said about this subject throughout the Bible, I’m going to limit our inquiry today just for the sake of brevity and to start you thinking about this subject matter.

For today, let’s just take a look at how Paul writes about how believers should think about loved ones who have died, or as he prefers ‘fallen asleep’ and what God’s role in that might or might not be.

In particular, I really want to focus in on what he says by way of encouragement and what if anything about God’s role in the timing of their deaths.

“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14

The letter to the Thessalonians was written early and obviously people in the church are struggling with having lost loved ones.

Notice here, Paul does NOT say ‘the Lord called them home.” He does NOT say it was ‘their time’ or indicate in any way that God planned or wanted them to die at that particular time. Read that again please.

What he does say is, there is hope in the midst of your grief. God will bring them back at Jesus’ return and our resurrection. We all be with the Lord forever.

Both 1 Corinthians 15 and 2 Corinthians 5 have a lot to say about the resurrection and the assurance of our presence with Christ even now as we die. Please read through these scriptures and ask the question, does anything there seem to indicate that God particularly chose or ordained the timing of death of individual believers?

“But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.  But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. ” 1 Corinthians 15:20-23

In Philippians, Paul thinks about his own death.

“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” Philippians 1:21-24

Paul is very much thinking about the length of his life and the timing of his death here. Note that he’d prefer to ‘be with Christ.’ But he doesn’t use language of the Lord ‘calling him home’ or having a pre-determined time necessarily.

There is so much more to say and so many more questions for another day…

What about miracles? That’s a fantastic question I hope to write about soon.

What about indications in the Bible that God knows how long our lives will be or when we will die? This is another good question to which, for now, I’ll simple say, don’t conflate God’s knowledge of what’s going to happen with his will or desire for it to happen. Just because God knows something is going to happen, doesn’t mean he wants it to happen.

In summary today, I will say that God is the God of life and not death. The enemy seeks to kill, steal and destroy but Jesus has come that we may have life. (John 10:10)

One of the ways that the enemy can undermine our faith is by provoking us to question God’s goodness.

And let’s be real here, if God specifically chose to ‘take home’ an otherwise healthy child or young parent, we would likely be questioning God’s goodness – whether we’d admit it or not.

Does a good God ‘take away’ little children and their young parents because of some mysterious aspect of his will?

I think not.

Death was not God’s plan at creation and it will be absent from the resurrection new creation. We live in the in between with the wretched effects of sin and the fall that have messed up our desires and actions, messed up our bodies with disease and even messed up our entire world (Romans 8:19-24).

The good news that we can rely on is that in Jesus, we have the real hope that death is not the end. We have the promise that those who have died in Christ and in the ‘better’ of his presence now and will one day fully resurrected live again forever.

Let’s focus on the great promises the Bible does give us.

As Paul says to the Thessalonian church, “Encourage one another with these words.”

10 Things To Know About the New Testament Canon

I’m teaching a New Testament class this fall and will be blogging through a few things along the way to share some information that may be of interest.

Today I want to share 10 things about the formation of the New Testament.

  • Canon means ‘rule.’ It’s not a list of rules but like a ruler or a measuring stick. The New Testament texts collectively are the standard of Christian faith and practice against which other ideas, writings etc can be discerned.
  • The earliest disciples of Jesus had no New Testament! This is hard for us to imagine as we’ve had it for so many generations now. Imagine what questions and challenges the church would have had and you can see why the writing of letters, gospels etc became a priority.
  • The formalizing of some of the New Testament documents became really important as the eyewitness and Apostles began to die. During the first years, those who literally walked with Jesus were able to guide the church in the way and teaching and understanding of Jesus.
  • The ‘core’ of what today is the New Testament was written, circulated, and pretty much universally agreed upon as being reliable and useful from very early on. This refers primarily to the four Gospels and the letters of Paul. We have evidence of these circulating fairly widely by the second century (AD 100s). And thats the evidence we can find – so it likely goes back further.
  • Although the canon wasn’t formally ‘closed’ until the late 300s, that word formally is important. Again, most of the documents in the New Testament were never seriously contested by the first few generations of Christians.
  • Major factors in which books were included in the canon were not only apostolic connection and early dating but also helpfulness. For example, Paul wrote letters to particular churches, but other churches also read them (Colossians 4:16, 2 Peter 3:15-16) and profited greatly from them in the formation of their faith and discipleship.
  • One of the major factors that led to the priority of setting limits on the canon was the proliferation of other documents in the second century and following that were erroneously attributed to Apostles and contained beliefs and ideas about who Jesus was and what it meant to be a disciple of his that did not fit with those texts already deemed canonical (rule or norm or standard) Most of these problematic beliefs we call heresies. Many of these documents were associated with gnosticism.
  • There were other writings that were used by the church and considered helpful (edifying) but were ultimately not included in the canon, primarily because they were written at the turn of or into the second century and were considered dependent on the earlier apostolic writings – often exposition or commentary on them. These include The Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, and the Letters of Clement for example.
  • Some the books that are in our New Testament today were not universally agreed upon until relatively late in the process. These ‘disputed’ books included Hebrews, James, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation. For example, the church in the East questioned the usefulness of Revelation while the church in the West questioned Hebrews – primarily due to authorship concerns.
  • The the most part, the Councils in the later 300s merely represent the formalization of what the church universal already knew about the reliability, authenticity and usefulness of the documents that make up the New Testament. What was known to be true was formalized as such.

“The canonization of the early Christian writings did not so much confer authority on them as recognize an authority they had long enjoyed” – Harry Gamble

Deeper Prayers – Relinquishment

What do we ask for when we pray?

More specifically, what do we pray for ourselves?

I’d like to pass along some of the prayers of others that I’m ‘trying out’ myself. I resonate with these words (what the word ‘amen’ relates to).

Maybe they’ll help you pray deep, life changing prayers as well.

This one comes from Richard Foster in his book ‘Prayers of the Heart.’

————————————————-

A Prayer of Relinquishment

Today, O Lord, I yield myself to you.

May your will be my delight today.

May your way have perfect sway in me.

May your love be the pattern of my living.

I surrender to you

my hopes,

my dreams,

my ambitions.

Do with them what you will, when you will, as you will.

I place into your loving care

my family,

my friends,

my future.

Care for them with a care that I can never give.

I release into your hands

my need to control,

my craving for status,

my fear of obscurity.

Eradicate the evil, purify the good, and establish your

kingdom on earth.

For Jesus’ sake,

Amen.

What is the Good News? (Wednesdays with Willard)

Over the past 18 months or so, I’ve read and listened to several books by Dallas Willard. I’ve found his book “The Divine Conspiracy” quite helpful in deepening my own thinking in many areas of the Christian life.

I’m going to share some quotes and thoughts on Wednesdays that I’ve found stimulating. I may not always totally agree or want to add some nuance, but that’s almost always the case with books and quotes.

Willard challenges the common understandings of what the Christian life is about. He takes on common conceptions on both the ‘left’ and the ‘right.’

Here is his challenge to those on the ‘right.’ And this comes after a more extensive exploration…

“When all is said and done, the gospel for many on the right is that Christ made ‘the arrangement’ that can get us into heaven. In the Gospels, by contrast ‘the gospel’ is the good news of the presence and availablilty of life in the kingdom now and forever, through reliance on Jesus the Annointed.”

He goes on to remind us that the only description of eternal life Jesus gives is found in John 17:3:

“This is eternal life: that they know you the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

What’s been your experience? Do we continue to think about the core message of Christianity as being ‘the arrangement to get into heaven’ or a life of accessibility and reliance upon Jesus now that continues forever?

Should You Help Your Pastor?

Some churches – and some pastors -operate dysfunctionally.

Some congregations expect their pastor to do the bulk of the ministry and serve their needs and desires.

Some church administrative councils have a lot of expectations and sometimes criticisms of their pastor.

As we recognize these serious issues, we come up with alternatives that we think will help correct these problems.

The congregation (those we call ‘lay’ members or leaders) should help their pastor with ministry.

It’s a primary responsibility of the council to support their pastor.

These statements are surely much better than the frequent disfunction that we see, but they still operate somewhat within the broken system.

This reminds me of a personal epiphany that has changed the way I think about an aspect of marriage.

Several years ago, my wife and I were talking about chores and things around the house. If I recall correctly, she was frustrated because I wasn’t as helpful as I could have been.

I recall talking about dishes. Defensively, I said, “Hey, I help you with the dishes sometimes.”

She replied something to the extent of, when you do the dishes, you act like you are helping me out.

This was a huge realization for me. I had never thought about it in that way, but I somehow ASSUMED that it was her responsibility.

Often when we think about ministry, we act as though it’s the pastor’s job to do ministry, but we’ll be nice and help him or her out.

Kind of like me with the dishes.

I probably adopted this mindset with dishes because my mom always did the dishes. She didn’t seem to mind. She likes to serve.

In a similar way, some pastors enjoy taking on the bulk of ministry responsibilities. But that doesn’t mean it’s good.

Some Christians have lived within a certain system with certain expectations for so long, it’s all they know.

But the question we must as is, is this really a biblical approach?

Really, we don’t need to help our pastors do ministry.

What we need is to understand that we all minister together. All of us.

“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”

1 Corinthians 5:27

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

1 Peter 2:9

In the church, the head is Jesus. The rest of us are all on the team together. We have different gifts and play different parts, but none is merely a supporter.

Likewise, elders and deacons are a team, whether financially compensated or not. Sure, there are expectations that come along with both ministry roles and a salaried position, but spiritually speaking, we all support one another.

We don’t demand, criticize and complain.

We don’t think only about what someone else ought to do, but what God has called and gifted us to do.

We are all ministers.

We are a body.

We are a family.

We minister together. Serve together. Love together.

That’s the kind of support we all need.