Which Christian view of the afterlife is correct?

Christians have at least three views of the afterlife, which is disturbing, because how can Christians differ on what happens to us after we die? But we do.

The first view is that we go to heaven after we die and that’s where we stay forever. It’s our ultimate hope, that one day “Jesus takes us home” – as so many hymns and funeral services state.

The second view is that we go to heaven (or paradise) immediately after we die, but only until the resurrection. During our temporary stay in heaven, or paradise, we are conscious. The resurrection then occurs and we are given new bodies and back to the earth we come again.

The third view is that we go to the grave when we die where we remain unconscious until the resurrection, at which point we receive new bodies and come back to the earth. At no point in this third view are we conscious in either heaven or paradise.

So which of these three views is correct, especially when all three views find their support in Scripture?

The first view uses Philippians 3:20 which says “our citizenship is in heaven,” and Hebrews 11:16 which talks of us “longing for a better country – a heavenly one.”

The second view has no trouble with either of those verses, or all the other verses that talk of us being seated with Christ in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 2:6), being raised with Christ to sit with him at the right hand of God (Colossians 3:1), or Jesus preparing a place for us in his Father’s house (John 14:2) – BUT – Christ then returns to the earth at the last day (John 11:23-24) and brings all those in heaven with him back to the earth to live and stay here (Colossians 3:3-4, Revelation 5:9-10).

The third view, meanwhile, quotes John 3:13, which says, “No one has ever gone into heaven” (including King David, Acts 2:34), so there’s no way any of us go to heaven at any time after we die. Instead we stay in our graves unconscious until Jesus returns to raise us from the dead and we live with him on the earth forever (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17).

So which of those three views correctly describes what happens to us after we die? Is it escaping off to heaven after we die to live with Jesus in heaven forever? Is it spending time in paradise awaiting the resurrection and then living with Jesus on the earth forever? Or is it staying unconscious in the grave until the resurrection and living with Jesus on the earth forever?

It can’t be all three, so which is it?

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Victory on Earth Day – part 1

The victory Jesus won for us on the cross

As Christians, we believe that Jesus won a massive victory for all humanity when he died on the Cross. It was a VE Day for us, a Victory on Earth Day.

The original VE Day, Victory in Europe Day, harks back to World War 2 and the celebration on May 8, 1945, when victory at last was won over Nazi Germany. VE Day was all about victory, which fits in perfectly with Christ’s death being a great victory too. But his victory was even bigger. He won a victory for the whole Earth. So rather than the ‘E’ in VE Day meaning Europe, or even ‘E’ standing for Easter, can we use the letter ‘E’ instead to pinpoint what Jesus accomplished for everyone on the day he died. It was very much a victory on ‘E’ for Earth day.

It was the day the dark forces that had been ruling this planet since the time of Adam and Eve were soundly defeated, never to rise again. It was the ultimate VE Day when the evil powers BEHIND the likes of Adolf Hitler and his cronies were dealt a final and permanent death blow.

Every time we take the bread and wine, therefore, or set a week aside at the traditional ‘Easter’ time to commemorate the death of Jesus Christ, we are celebrating our very own VE Day. And when I say, “OUR very own VE Day,” I mean humanity as a whole, not just us in the Christian Church – because Jesus died for everyone. So while the world as a whole isn’t celebrating Jesus’ VE Day yet, we can celebrate it for them in the meanwhile, until they too understand what Jesus accomplished for all humanity on the Cross.

But what happened on the Cross, amazingly, was a victory no one actually saw coming, even though it was clearly spelled out in the Scriptures, and by Jesus himself. It even took Jesus’ very own disciples several weeks after he died to catch on to what he’d just done on the Cross, and then it needed the help of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost to make it clear to them. None of the Jewish religious leaders saw it coming either, nor did their scholars of the Scriptures, nor did the other Jewish leaders, and – most importantly – NOR did the dark evil forces. They were ALL caught completely by surprise. It was all done and dusted before anyone realized what had happened.

As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 2:8, “None of the rulers of this age understood it; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”

There it is, plainly stated by Paul, that the powers controlling the world had no clue as to what they would be unleashing by killing Jesus. And notice how it’s the “rulers” who wish they’d never killed him? THEY were the ones who took the greatest hit from his death, which offers us a tantalizing clue as to what happened when Jesus died, and what he died for.

Jesus died because he was in a battle for rulership of this planet. He came to topple “the rulers of this age,” the age that began when Adam and Eve let the dark forces take control. His death, therefore, was actually a massive POLITICAL victory, that threw the ruling dynasty of dark forces out of power, and in their place Jesus launched the Kingdom of God on Earth instead.

But why didn’t the dark forces – WITH all their cunning – see it coming? How they did bungle things so badly? Well, that’s God’s genius, because who would have guessed that by Jesus dying evil would be defeated, or that death would bring victory? On the surface it made no sense at all.

It made no sense to the disciples either. When Jesus “began to speak plainly to his disciples” in Matthew 16:21, “about going to Jerusalem and what would happen there, that he would suffer at the hands of the Jewish leaders, be killed, and three days later would be raised to life again,” Peter yelled out, “Heaven forbid (Jesus); this is not going to happen to you.” Why on earth did Jesus have to DIE? But as Luke tells us in Luke 9:45, the reason for Jesus dying was still hidden from them, and they were too scared to ask Jesus for further explanation because what he was saying didn’t sound good at all.

But the prophets who made the actual predictions about the Messiah dying couldn’t put the two together either. As Peter wrote in 1 Peter 1:10-12, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to the prophets that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told to you by those who have preached the gospel by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.”

As soon as his suffering and death on the cross was all over, though, Jesus didn’t waste any time explaining what had just happened – first of all to the little group of ladies gathered at his tomb, and then with two men on the road to Emmaus. The two men were deeply saddened by Jesus’ death, because, Luke 24:21, they thought Jesus “was the glorious Messiah who’d come to rescue Israel,” but now he was dead. It was all thoroughly confusing.

It must have been quite a shock, then, when Jesus burst out with, “You are such foolish, foolish people,” verse 25 (Living Bible), because “you find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures. Wasn’t it clearly predicted by the prophets that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his time of glory?”

It was? But where in their Scriptures was the Messiah’s suffering predicted? Well, they didn’t have to wait long to find out because in verse 27, “Jesus quoted them passage after passage from the writings of the prophets, beginning with the book of Genesis and right on through the Scriptures, explaining what the passages meant and what they said about him.”

The two men were so excited by what was in their Scriptures all along that they asked Jesus to stay over that night to explain more. But during supper, when it suddenly dawned on them who Jesus was, he disappeared. So they packed their bags and headed straight back to Jerusalem, to report to the remaining eleven disciples what had just happened.

But half way through their report to the disciples Jesus appears out of nowhere (36). They don’t know whether to celebrate or to run. So Jesus asks for something to eat and while munching away he says, “When I was with you before,” verse 44, “don’t you remember my telling you that everything written about me by Moses and the prophets and in the Psalms must all come true?”

Well, yes, that IS what he’d told them, back in Luke 18:31, when he’d said they were all going to Jerusalem, and when they got there “all the predictions of the ancient prophets concerning me will come true.’” And in John 5:45-46 he’d also mentioned one of the prophets by name too, when he told the Jews who wanted to have him killed, “Your accuser is Moses,” because “he wrote about me, but you refuse to believe him, so you refuse to believe in me.” So again, it was in their Scriptures all along, starting with the writings of Moses, that Jesus would be coming – and what he was coming for.

It was in Deuteronomy 18:15, for instance, when Moses told the Israelites, “God, your God, is going to raise up a prophet for you. God will raise him up from among your kinsmen, a prophet like me. Listen obediently to him.” Moses then repeated those same words in verses 18 and 19 – so did Peter in Acts 3:22, and so did Stephen in Acts 7:37.

The Jews of Jesus’ day KNEW, therefore, that a great prophet like Moses would arise again. They were looking for him too, as we see in Philip’s excited shout to Nathaniel in John 1:45, “We’ve FOUND the One Moses wrote about in the Law, the One preached by the prophets. It’s Jesus, Joseph’s son, the one from Nazareth.” But even though Philip was absolutely right in pinpointing Jesus as the fulfillment of Moses’ prophecy, he, like everyone else, had no clue that the One Moses wrote about would also suffer and die, or why his suffering and death were necessary, or what would actually be accomplished by his suffering and death as well. It was still a total mystery.

But how did they MISS it, when only two hundred years earlier an amazing book had hit their Jewish bookstores specifically predicting the Messiah’s arrival, including actual dates they could work out for themselves, that also PREDICTED HIS DEATH as well? There it was in Daniel 9, that great prediction of an “Anointed One” who would put an end to sin and “set things right forever” (24), BUT who would also be killed (26).

Surely that had to ring a bell or two in their heads taking them right back to the prophecies they were already familiar with in Isaiah – like the one in Isaiah 49:5-6 that spoke of a great Servant whom God had chosen to “recover the tribes of Israel” so that Israel would become “a light for the nations to make God’s salvation global.” And how that Servant, in the process of saving Israel and the whole world, would also suffer and die – mentioned in considerable detail just four chapters later in Isaiah 53?

Did all these clear scriptures ring any bells? No, they didn’t. Even when Caiaphas the High Priest prophesied in John 11:51-52 that “Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for their nation but also for all the scattered children of God to bring them together and make them one” – it still didn’t ring any bells that what he’d just said was straight out of Isaiah as the sign pinpointing who the Messiah was, what he’d come for, and how his death would accomplish it. And Caiaphas was just about to have Jesus killed in fulfillment of that prophecy too, but it wouldn’t mean a thing to him. How could that be?

Well, we know from verse 48, that Caiaphas wasn’t really thinking about what Jesus’ death would accomplish for the whole world; he was thinking about what it would do for him. Caiaphas was in a difficult spot. If the movement Jesus began got any bigger the Romans might move in to crush it and in the process kick out Caiaphas and his cronies too. Jesus’ death, therefore, didn’t mean anything more to Caiaphas than saving his own skin. He said as much in verse 48, when he openly stated his concern that if too many people followed Jesus the Romans would remove “what little power and privilege WE (priests) still have.”

What Caiaphas saw in Jesus’ death, therefore, was the chance to save himself and his own political future. And that’s all he saw. But most of his fellow Jews were just as short sighted and self-centred as he was, because all they saw in Jesus was a great conquering hero who would save them from the Romans and make them a great nation again. In other words, they ALL saw Jesus in purely selfish terms, as to what he would do for them, personally.

But let’s lift this up to us today, because at some point in our lives WE were faced with Jesus dying on a cross as well. And what did that register in OUR heads? Was it along the lines of something like this: – that we sinned and brought down the penalty of eternal death on ourselves, but God unleashed his wrath on Jesus on the cross instead, so that our sins could be forgiven, and if we led a reasonably good life after that our souls would be taken up to heaven?

That, as we hear often in Christian hymns, sermons and funerals, is the prevailing belief of many Christians today. But what difference is there between that belief and what the Jews and Caiaphas thought? What Jesus represented to the Jews, either in his conquering hero outfit or in his death, was the saving of their skins and the hope of a secure and glorious future for their nation. But the picture of Jesus being presented by much of Christianity today is remarkably similar, that he’s the Saviour of our skins from hell, and the provider of a one way ticket to a secure and glorious future in Heaven. In other words, just like Caiaphas and the Jews, we Christians can be into Jesus for selfish reasons too.

Missing in this picture is the great victory Jesus won over the dark forces, how he won it by dying on the Cross, and what new and wonderful things began to happen on this planet because of it. The focus of much of Christianity by contrast is on our sinful bodies and this troubled Earth being such a mess that God is going to wipe them out forever; he’s going to burn the Earth up, pack all the bad people off to hell, but whisk the souls of all the good people off to Heaven to live forever with Jesus.

Fortunately for us humans that’s NOT what Jesus died for. He didn’t die to get us OFF the Earth; he died to give us victory ON the Earth. He died to give us a great political victory over the dark forces ruling Planet Earth, because everything on this planet comes down to rulership. It’s not about dumping our responsibilities of ruling this Earth and disappearing off to Heaven; it’s about getting back to the business of rulership that God created us and this planet for, and that’s why Jesus died.

Jesus died to win back rulership of this Earth for us humans again. We lost it in a cunning political manoeuvre by the dark forces that offered us instant self-gratification and self-fulfillment off a tree. And we fell for it. We happily handed over the reigns of rulership to a serpent in exchange for chasing our own dreams of grandeur. We were just like Esau, trading our birthright for a bowl of soup.

And from that point on our focus has mostly been ourselves, and what this planet and our God-given abilities can do FOR US. We became utterly and horribly selfish, and like leopards we haven’t changed our spots much since. Even Christianity has largely become a quest for self, of saving our skins and feathering our nests with the best reward and position we can get in Heaven, much like Jesus’ disciples wanting the best positions in his Kingdom.

The idea that Christ died to win back our rightful position as kings and priests and administrators of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth – as God’s very own children too – is almost as foreign to many Christians as it is to the rest of the world. We’ve been cleverly distracted from our Father’s amazing purpose for us – right here on the Earth – into treading water until “God calls us home” to our eternal reward in Heaven. And for some odd reason we prize that over what God made possible through his Son’s death. We’d rather strum harps and sing in choirs in some far off, distant “heaven” than think about what being restored BACK to our job as kings and priests on this Earth means, and what possibilities that has opened up for all humanity right in the here and now.

One has to wonder why we as Christians became so focused on leaving this Earth and going to Heaven, when Jesus’ focus was on the Kingdom of Heaven coming here. Right at the start of his ministry in Mark 1:15 he announced, “At last the time has come; God’s Kingdom has arrived,” and from then on, Matthew 9:35, he “went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the Kingdom.” And in Luke 4:43 he said, “I must preach the Kingdom of God, because for this purpose I have been sent.” And did the Jews immediately interpret that as, “Great, we’re all going to heaven”?

No, they didn’t. The mention of the word ‘Kingdom’ – in the minds of the people Jesus was talking to – was the great Victory ON EARTH predicted in the book of Daniel two hundred years earlier. There it was in Daniel 7:13-14 that spoke of “one like a son of man,” a human being no less, who “was given authority, glory and sovereign power” – the power, that is, to create and rule an unending Kingdom involving “all peoples and nations” here on the Earth. When the Jews heard the word ‘Kingdom’, therefore, that’s what it meant to them, that God was setting up his Kingdom here under the rulership of humans again, just as he originally intended.

JESUS’ focus, in other words, was on the VICTORY for God’s Kingdom on this Earth that his arrival brought. Never did Jesus traipse round the towns and villages yelling out, “OK everybody, gather round, I’ve got great news; the time has come for you to repent of your sins so you can all go to Heaven.”

His focus was entirely on the launching of God’s Kingdom here, not saving souls for Heaven. But for many Christians the announcing of God’s Kingdom is a bit of a mystery, because if we’re all going to heaven one day, why does it matter what happens down here, except that by doing good works and being good church members we get ourselves a decent-sized reward when we arrive at the Pearly Gates?

We’re living in a Christian culture where little attention is being given to the connection between Jesus’ preaching about the Kingdom and why he died on the Cross. That’s not meant to condemn anybody because we all make mistakes, and Christians all through the ages have said and done some really stupid things, and we’d readily confess our own embarrassing contributions to that too, right? But admit it; we’ve got ourselves in a pickle, and painted ourselves into a corner, because entire denominations representing the heart and soul of Christian preaching, and many well known preachers on TV too, have got stuck in a groove that leaves out a whole chunk of why Jesus came here and why he died.

We can’t criticize the Jews, then, can we, for missing the connection between the Kingdom and why Christ died, when many of us Christians have missed it too. The Jews knew about the Kingdom, yes, but they didn’t connect it to Jesus having to die. We Christians, meanwhile, believe in Christ’s death, but we can’t see how it connects to his preaching about the Kingdom. The Jews, therefore, got a huge surprise when Christ died, but Christians get a huge surprise too, on discovering that Jesus’ death has nothing to do with going to heaven.

And on both scores the surprise happens because the connection between the Kingdom and the Cross is STILL a bit of a mystery. How would you answer the question, for instance, “Why did Jesus die on the Cross?” If you say, “He died to forgive our sins,” yes, that’s true, but what if you were then asked, “What has the forgiveness of sins got to do with the setting up of God’s Kingdom on this Earth?” What would you say then?

For many Christians the forgiveness of sins has nothing to do with the setting up of God’s Kingdom on the Earth. Instead, they say, our sins are forgiven so our souls get a free ticket to Heaven. To the Jews, however, forgiveness of sins had nothing to do with saving their souls for Heaven. To them, forgiveness of their sins was totally connected to the setting up of God’s Kingdom – because who was God setting up his Kingdom through? It was through them. But Israel had sinned badly and put a halt to God setting up his Kingdom through them. For God, therefore, to continue his work of setting up his Kingdom through Israel, Israel was in desperate need of forgiveness. The future of the entire world now rested on Israel being forgiven.

Which explains why Jesus’ death was such a great victory, because it was through his death that Israel’s sins were forgiven.

But even though the Jews knew that forgiveness of their sins was the key to God’s plan getting back on track through them, they still didn’t connect it to Jesus’ death. We see that in Acts 1:6 – which is now several weeks after Jesus died on the Cross – and the main concern of Jesus’ disciples is: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the Kingdom in Israel?”

They still didn’t get it, that when Jesus died to forgive their sins, it meant the Kingdom had ALREADY been restored in Israel. That’s what Jesus had died for. That’s what their sins had been forgiven for. His death meant their sins had been forgiven, and that meant they were back on the job God had called them to do, of spreading God’s Kingdom to all nations.

But it took the Holy Spirit to get that through their heads, as we see in Acts 3:17, when Peter acknowledges the Jews’ ignorance in killing Jesus, “BUT,” he adds in verse 18, “this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer.” It was the death of Christ that had flung open all those prophecies in the Old Testament about God’s Kingdom being restored for the whole world through Israel. That’s why Christ’s death was such a victory, because the Kingdom promised through Israel had begun already.

Thanks to Peter, we can now see the connection between the Kingdom and the Cross, because it was Christ’s death forgiving the sins of Israel that launched God’s Kingdom. And thanks to Peter again, in Acts 3:26, he made it clear where it all began: “When God raised up his Servant, he sent him first to you (Jews) to bless you by turning each of you from YOUR wicked ways.” God’s Kingdom had been launched afresh in Israel because God had dealt with THEIR sins first.

And how had God dealt with Israel’s sins? Through Christ toppling the dark forces that had caused Israel to sin in the first place.

And how did he do that? Three things won the battle for Jesus: First off, as Israel’s representative, he did what Israel didn’t do – he stayed utterly loyal to God and never strayed from his purpose. Secondly, he took the death that Israel had brought on itself, from chasing other gods, on himself. And thirdly, by his death the sins of Israel were forgiven. All three dealt a deathblow on the evil forces, but the third one especially, forgiveness, because forgiveness destroys evil’s power.

Evil has no power left where there is forgiveness. If you’ve done something horribly wrong to me, for instance, but I forgive you, the power of evil to make me bitter and angry at what you’ve done is broken. That’s the power of forgiveness, and through Jesus’ death forgiving Israel’s sin, the power of evil over Israel was broken too, freeing them up to fulfill their calling again. And they got off to a great start too, because thousands of Jews responded to Peter’s message, launching the Kingdom of God in the Church, that reached out next to the Gentiles, just as God promised to Abraham.

It was a great victory that now includes us Gentiles in it too, because all nations would be blessed through Israel after Israel’s sins were forgiven. So now it’s our turn to ask, “What has Christ’s death got to do with the good news of the Kingdom?” And if it’s a tough connection to make, it’s understandable, because the evil powers didn’t make the connection either. If they had they would never have crucified him.

But we now have the key that unlocks the connection between the Kingdom and the Cross: It’s in that word ‘Forgiveness’. Through Christ’s death we’re all forgiven, but the purpose of that forgiveness is to free us up from the dark forces so we can live the ways of God’s Kingdom that Jesus launched at his death, and by doing so prove in our own lives that his victory was real.

Do we play a part in our spiritual formation and growth?

A New Year dawns and with it a determined resolve to get our spiritual lives in shape. Echoes of 1 Timothy 4:7 come to mind, perhaps, when Paul told Timothy, “Train yourself to be godly.” Ah yes, we say to ourselves, it’s time to get rid of those embarrassing spiritual cobwebs and get back into spiritual training again, back to the spiritual disciplines of prayer and Bible study, turn over a new leaf, make a plan for spiritual improvement and get serious about our spiritual growth, etc, etc.

But is that what Paul’s talking about in 1 Timothy 4:7?

No, it isn’t. There are many Christians of late who say it is, however, who use that verse to prove that spiritual disciplines are necessary for all Christians as our part in our spiritual growth and formation. But the context says nothing of the sort. In context, Paul is not issuing a general command to all Christians to discipline themselves for spiritual formation, he’s specifically advising a young minister, Timothy, in how to conduct his ministry.

He’s talking to Timothy, mentor to student, advising Timothy to “be diligent” (15) in both his life and teaching to help protect the people in his care from being deceived. He’s encouraging Timothy to be a “good minister of Christ Jesus” (6) by sticking to the “truths of the faith” and the “good teaching” he’d received to combat “deceiving spirits” (1) that were influencing people into believing and teaching “godless myths and old wives’ tales” (7).

This is an older minister’s personal advice to a young minister facing some real challenges in his churches. “So, watch your life and doctrine closely,” Paul tells Timothy in verse 16, “persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” – “save” in context here meaning protect the Christians in his care from deception by demons. Paul knows what Timothy is up against, so he’s encouraging Timothy to keep his life well-grounded at all times in the truths he’d been taught, because that’s what Timothy had been gifted as a minister for, to inspire the church by his example (12), his teaching (13) and his progress (15).

Unfortunately, 1 Timothy 4:7 – just like 1 Corinthians 9:27 – has been used to create the idea that we play a part in our spiritual formation and growth, and that it’s necessary for us to discipline ourselves to make ourselves godly. But that is not what Paul is talking about in either of these verses, and if it was it would contradict what he wrote in Galatians 2:16, “that a man is not justified by observing the law” – or any other discipline – “but by faith in Jesus Christ.”

It’s the journey that makes us grow

Jesus has us on a journey, just like Aslan the lion took the children on a journey in the land of Narnia, because it was the journey that grew them up. It wasn’t their efforts or their determination or “doing their part” that made them grow, it was simply what happened to them on the journey.

As we live in eternity with Christ right now, this is what happens to us too. It’s not our efforts that grow us up, it’s the journey. This is the stage where Jesus now saves us by his life. His death got the journey started for us, but “how much more shall we be saved through his life!” Romans 5:10. There’s a lot more to come, all of which brings us closer and closer to God, to the point we really begin to “rejoice” in him, verse 11.

That’s the journey Jesus now has us on, our very own “pilgrim’s progress.” His death began the journey but what follows grows us up. It’s like the children stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia. Their journey had just begun; it’s what followed that did wonderful things to them. It was tough at times, yes, but they grew, and every bit of what happened to them served some aspect of Aslan’s marvellous plan for them, that one day they would be kings and queens in his kingdom.

The children had no idea at the start that this was Aslan’s plan, or that the journey they were embarking on would perfectly prepare them for what Aslan had in mind. Nor do we. We have no idea what Jesus “saving us by his life” means, or any previous experience of it. Paul does give us a clue, though, that there will be “sufferings,” verse 3, so the journey will be tough at times, but it’s just as much a part of our salvation, because it grows us up in “perseverance, character and hope,” verse 4, all of which are perfect preparation for what Jesus has in mind for us. We can, therefore, “rejoice in our sufferings,” verse 3, knowing that they’re all part of the journey that’s taking us to the exact point Jesus has planned for us to be at.

And like Aslan, Jesus keeps us encouraged along the way, pouring his love into our hearts (verse 5) so that we never stop hoping and believing in him, that through all this mess we have to go through, there’s a marvellous purpose to it all. And what part do we play in all this? The same part the children played in Narnia. They lived life as it happened, because it was the journey that made them grow.

The 4 Gospels part 4 – If you were a priest in Jesus’ day…

     In Part 3, Jesus healed a man with a contagious skin disease, but then told the man in Mark 1:44 to “go, show yourself TO THE PRIEST and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing.”

And legally the man was required to do just that. According to the Law of Moses in Leviticus 14 the first thing a man or woman had to do, if he or she believed they weren’t contagious anymore, was to meet with a priest. The priest would then do a thorough examination of the person from head to foot, using Leviticus chapter 13 as a reference, where all the signs and symptoms of skin diseases are listed in great detail.

If the priest could see from Leviticus 13 that the skin disease had ended and the person was no longer contagious, he would then begin the process of cleansing in Leviticus 14 that would restore the man (or woman) back into full fellowship with his or her family and fellow Israelites, and assure them that atonement with God had been made, enabling them to meet with God again at the “Tent of Meeting” where God dwelt (Leviticus 14:11).

But it does seem a bit odd that Jesus would also require all that for a man he’d just completely healed. The man was no longer contagious, so why tell him to show himself to the priests as well? Because, as Jesus himself explained in Mark 1:44, the healed man would be “a testimony TO THEM” – the priests. In other words, it wasn’t for the sake of the man who’d been healed that Jesus sent him to the priests; it was for the sake of the priests themselves.

So, imagine yourself as the priest on duty that day, and in runs this man, still with the disheveled hair and torn clothes required of a person with a contagious skin disease, yelling he’s been healed. So you give the man a thorough check-up, and to your growing amazement, and possibly consternation as well, you find none of the swellings, rashes, boils, spots, sores, ulcers or discolouration of the skin or hair on the sores mentioned in Leviticus 13, meaning the man really has been suddenly and completely healed.

Something extraordinary has happened. The infected man was probably well known too, as would be anybody with a highly contagious skin disease yelling “Unclean, unclean” wherever he went. But here he was, totally free of his infection and, what’s more, it was all due to this new chap, Jesus, who’d been announcing wherever HE went that “the Kingdom of God has arrived; time to repent, therefore, and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15).

But it’s how you react to that as a priest that’s so important, because the whole nation looks to you priests for guidance. You’re the shepherds of the sheep, with your ears to the rails picking up all hints and vibrations from God as to what he wants the nation to hear and do, and out of the blue you’re faced with this incredible healing by Jesus, the likes of which you’ve never seen before.

So what DO you do? Well, we never get to find out what you, the priest, might have done, because the man healed of his skin disease did not go to the priests like Jesus told him to, and “Instead,” verse 45, “he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news” of his miraculous healing by Jesus, the “result” of which, unfortunately, was Jesus having to stay away from heavily populated areas for fear of being mobbed.

But what if the man had come to you because, he said, Jesus had sent him? It would certainly get the point across that Jesus wasn’t some sort of maverick doing his own thing and ignoring the system. He wasn’t trying to elevate himself above the priesthood either, or get people to follow him instead. Quite the opposite, in fact: Jesus was honouring the system set up in Leviticus 14, and, what’s more, he was also honouring you as a priest too, because the reason he’d sent the man to you to have you officially confirm the healing was the effect it would have on you.

Jesus wanted to give you priests the chance to grasp what he was up to, and very early on in his ministry too. And what was he hoping you priests would do? He was hoping you’d do what he said everyone should do in Mark 1:15 on realizing the Kingdom of God had arrived: The very next word he mentioned in verse 15 was “Repent.” That’s what he wanted you priests to do.

But what did Jesus mean by repent? Well, judging by the next thing he said in verse 15 about believing the good news, it had to mean repent of being so negative. And that to a priest would certainly carry weight, because the priesthood had a lot to be negative about.

Look at the state of the nation for a start. It was just like the man with the contagious skin disease. Instead of being the great, glorious nation that God had called to rescue the whole world from the ravages of sin, Israel had become a pathetic, backwater nation of Jews being treated like rejects and outcasts by brutal pagan overseers. Which meant, sadly, that nothing had changed since the captivity of you Jews in Babylon five hundred years earlier. It was all bad news.

And who was to blame for that? Well, you priests, of course. It always came down to you priests. Whenever the nation started drifting away from God, and disasters always followed, God sent prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel to place the blame fairly and squarely on the priests and pastors (Jeremiah 10:21, 12:10, 22:22, 23:1, 50:6, and Ezekiel 34:2-10). And here you were again, a nation still in captivity, and this time in your own country.

It was very sad, because the whole nation felt lost and abandoned. You all longed to be close to God and God close to you – like the good old days of David and Solomon – but instead it was like having an infectious disease and being banished from the camp and away from God’s presence, just like the man with the skin disease.

The man with the skin disease, then, perfectly represented the whole nation, because it felt like God was treating you all like outcasts and lepers. The whole nation might as well have ripped its clothes, left its hair disheveled, and cried out “Unclean, unclean,” because it seemed like God was miles away and he wasn’t listening. Every day, year in year out, you Jews had been calling out to God for deliverance and rescue, but he’d never answered.

And as priests you feel so helpless. You’re the ones God holds responsible for the health of the nation – and the nation is sick. But then, all of a sudden, Jesus arrives on the scene crying out, “Repent,” meaning, “Come on, cheer up, God isn’t miles away at all,” and he immediately starts dispensing real cures for people’s sicknesses to prove it. And he does it with compassion too.

And then, to top that off, Jesus tells the man with the skin disease to go to the priests – to help the priests. So instead of condemning you priests for the mess the nation’s in, which Jesus was clearly in his rights to do, he offers you priests the chance to see that something wonderful is happening because of him, in the hope that you’ll believe it, repent of the malaise that’s infected all Israel, and get on board the good news that God has come to the rescue at last.

But what was it about the man healed of his skin disease that would shake you priests out of your slump? Well, let’s lift all this to us now, and what’s happening to us as we read through this incident. Is there a radical picture forming in our heads about God in what Jesus is doing, that shakes us up a bit too? It’s meant to, because that’s what God sent Jesus for. In everything Jesus said and did we see God, and all of it is such radical good news that we repent of all negative thoughts and ideas about God, and WE jump on board the good news too.

And since we’re just as much priests as they were back in Jesus’ day, I think it’s a great idea imagining ourselves in the Temple if the man healed of his skin disease had done what he was told and come to us. And as we stared at the man in amazement, how could we not think, “Wow, God is so compassionate”? That poor man had lived for years as an outcast with his disease, but he goes to Jesus and look what happens. First of all, Jesus reaches out and touches him, then heals him, then sends him to you priests for final cleansing, to show you priests that Leviticus 14 still applies, which is all about God never leaving his people out in the cold and out of his presence forever.

It was just the news the nation needed to hear, because for years now it looked like God HAD left you out in the cold and out of his presence forever. But here was Jesus saying the Kingdom of God was near, God was not far away at all, and to prove it Jesus sent an outcast to you priests to have him cleansed, which would put the man back into full fellowship with God and his family and his fellow Jews. It was the first really strong hint that even though you as a nation had totally messed up, God was bringing you out of the cold at last and bringing you close to him again.

And here was Jesus giving you priests the chance to catch on to that, since you were the ones who had the most influence on people. The big question now was: Would you repent? Faced with all these obvious hints from Jesus that God was fully aware of your demise and he cared, would you priests be the first to repent of doubting God and being all mournful and negative about him? Would you be the first to stand up and start spreading the good news pouring out of Jesus, that God’s back – he’s back in the business of rescuing you and restoring you, just like he did in the first Exodus from Egypt?

Well, what we see happening next in Mark’s gospel is people who DID catch on to that, when a “few days later” in Mark 2:1 Jesus returned to his home in Capernaum and word got out that he’d arrived.

People crammed into every nook and cranny inside the house, and crowded so thickly outside the house that no one could push his way in. That didn’t stop four very determined men carrying their quadriplegic friend on a mat from finding a way in, however. They shinned up the outside staircase to the roof, ripped off the top layer of clay, tore out several tiles and maybe a beam or two as well, and lowered their friend down through the hole to Jesus.

As the mat settled down in front of Jesus in a cloud of dust, the first thing Mark records Jesus saying is: “Son, your sins are forgiven.” It was said, take note, to a man who was completely helpless, again a perfect picture of the state of the entire nation that had been paralyzed into immobility as far as God’s purpose for them was concerned. They were supposed to be the bringers of salvation to the whole world (Isaiah 49:3, 6), but here they were in desperate need of being saved themselves, due especially to the selfishness and greed of their priests and pastors.

And here was a badly crippled man who pictured the helplessness and desperation of the nation perfectly. But he and his four friends had already seen something in Jesus that made them put aside their feelings of helplessness and desperation, put aside their doubts, and put aside all thoughts that maybe God wasn’t interested, or that he didn’t care.

All they could see in Jesus was good news, that in Jesus something amazing was happening and they wanted in on it. And look at Jesus’ reaction: He called the man, “Son,” or “My dear child” in our terms. Either way it was a term loaded with affection, which then stirred Jesus to make the most remarkable announcement that “your sins are forgiven.”

I imagine Jesus said that with great joy: The chance at last to tell the nation that the time of forgiveness had come. It was the perfect setting too – a man totally paralyzed picturing the nation’s helpless state, five men all putting aside their doubts and jumping on board the good news they saw in Jesus, which was exactly what the Father had sent him for. It was a great moment for Jesus, being able through these five men to show people that, despite the horrible mess the whole nation had made of God’s calling, God had forgiven them.

It was a crucial moment, perhaps THE most crucial moment in the history of the world up to this point, because if Israel was forgiven then God’s plan to save the whole world through Israel was back on track.

It was exactly what you Jews had waiting for to, the time predicted back in Isaiah 40:1-2 when God said, “Comfort my people, speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for.” And here was Jesus doing exactly that, speaking tenderly to the paralyzed man as a “son” and telling him his sins were forgiven. And all the sick man and his four friends had done was get a glimpse of what Jesus was all about and believed it. But look at Jesus’ reaction: Immediate affection and forgiveness.

Watching Jesus’ reaction must have been an eye-opener. You mean forgiveness of sins came through simple belief in him? But how many people in that room saw that as the clue to their own forgiveness, and the forgiveness of their entire nation? How many of them attached “the hard service” of this man living in his paralyzed body coming to an end with the hard service they’d ALL suffered as a nation coming to an end as well?

But that’s what Jesus had come for. It wasn’t just to heal people of their individual illnesses and diseases. God had sent him to the lost house of Israel, because Israel was the key to the salvation of the whole world. There’d be no salvation for anyone without Israel, meaning none of us would be here in a Christian church believing our salvation is assured if the sins of Israel had not been forgiven first.

The rescue of Israel from its own sins, therefore, was the crucial first step in God extending his salvation to the whole world – which makes this incident with the quadriplegic so vital. Jesus was offering the whole nation THE clue to salvation. Salvation was all about God’s total forgiveness of sin for nothing more than believing that’s what he’d sent Jesus for.

I doubt those five men knew at the time, though, that their simple belief in Jesus would be the catalyst for Jesus announcing forgiveness for the first time, nor that their story would help people all through the following centuries to understand and grasp the key to salvation, nor that what Jesus was doing was a clear sign that God was getting his plan back on track in Israel, which spelled nothing but good news for them and the whole world.

But that is what Jesus had come for, to show the world in God’s dealings with you Jews first of all, that he lets us go through a period of “hard service” for our sins, but it never means he’s abandoned us. The time comes when he lets us know we are forgiven, so the process of healing can begin.

And how encouraging this can be for all of us, because Israel was the one group of people on the planet who LEAST deserved God’s compassion and forgiveness. He let them suffer, yes, but he never rejected them. Instead he showed them through Jesus how much he loved them despite what they’d done. But that’s why God had sent Jesus in the first place, to reveal what he’s like through everything Jesus said and did. Every thought, reaction and feeling Jesus had reflected the Father perfectly, so that we could all see in Jesus what God is like, which hopefully stirs US to turn to him with the same “rip the tiles off the roof” attitude those four men and their quadriplegic friend had in turning to Jesus for help, realizing in Jesus’ reaction to those men that God deeply loves us for it.

We’ve got these stories in the book of Mark, therefore, to help us see God, that God is all compassion for us as we go through our period of hard service, and he’s all forgiveness and affection when we see in Jesus what he’s all about and we believe it, and believe it enough to rip the tiles off and totally trust ourselves to his care and healing like those five men did.

Unfortunately, for some people in Mark 2 all this meant nothing. Rather than rejoice at the quadriplegic’s sins being forgiven, they accused Jesus of blasphemy, because only God could forgive sins (verses 6-7).

“But what’s easier?” Jesus replies. “Is it telling this man his sins are forgiven or telling him to get up, roll up his mat and go home?” To Jesus either one was just as easy, because God had sent him to the Jews with both healing and forgiveness for them. But it was far more important for this squashed crowd of Jews to hear about forgiveness, because that’s what they needed to hear more than anything, that at last (Isaiah 40) the hard times they’d suffered for their sins were over. God had forgiven them, meaning he was getting them back on track to what he’d called them for, to be his instruments of salvation for the whole world. He was giving them a fresh start.

For a Jew there was no better news than that, that God was cranking up the gears – at that very moment too – to get the salvation ball rolling again through Israel. And to get that point through to the thick, resisting heads in the crowd, Jesus cranked up the gears another notch too, in verse 10, when he told the quadriplegic to get up and go home, because it would show everybody – including the snobby teachers of the law in verse 6 – that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”

What a shocking statement that was, because the teachers of the law would easily recognize who Jesus was referring to by that title, “Son of Man.” It was back there in Daniel 7:13-14 when the “Ancient of Days” gave “one like a son of man authority, glory and sovereign power,” and his “kingdom would never be destroyed.”

By telling that crowd of Jews, therefore, that he was that “son of man” Jesus was saying the never-ending Kingdom Daniel had predicted had begun. The salvation of the world through Israel, therefore, was on the road again. And to convince them that what he’d just said, and implied, was true, Jesus then healed the quadriplegic and sent him off home.

You’d think that would be enough to convince them that God had forgiven them, despite the mess they’d made of his calling. But what Jesus did next was explosive proof of it. Followed by a large crowd Jesus left the beach where he’d been preaching and went straight up to the customs office on the main road to Capernaum, where Levi son of Alphaeus was the officer on duty. Jesus went up to Levi (or Matthew as he’s also known) and spoke just two words to him: “Follow me,” Mark 2:14.

But Matthew was one of the most despised Jews in the nation. He was a tax collector, a flunkey for the Romans, and infamously well known among the Jews for siphoning off a sizable portion of the fees they paid into his own pocket as they went through customs. He was exploiting his office under the Romans to make himself rich at the expense of his fellow Jews.

Jesus, therefore, had just chosen the ultimate “sinner” in Jewish eyes to join him. It was not well received, as we see in verse 15 when Jesus sits down for dinner in Levi’s house with a whole crew of tax collectors and other “sinners,” and the teachers of the law are aghast (verse 16) that Jesus would mix with such people. But how would you feel if you turned up at my house for dinner and the place was full of members of City Council who’d just raised your property taxes by 5% to pay for a raise in their salary?

Why on earth, then, would the Son of Man, the ever-living King of God’s indestructible Kingdom want a louse like Matthew tagging along? Because, Jesus replied in verse 17, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” And if he could heal the mother of all sinners like Matthew then what would they make of that?

What they should have made of it was the mother of all celebrations, because it meant that even the worst of sinners wasn’t a stumbling block to Jesus. He even wanted the likes of Matthew in his company every day. But Matthew would act as a clear example wherever he went that God could forgive the worst of sinners – and love their company, and even invite them onto his team.

It was also noticeable that Jesus didn’t require anything to be on his team other than believing what God had sent him for. You could be the worst sinner in the world, like Matthew, but still be acceptable to God. It was an eye opener, that the priests should have grabbed onto and yelled about, that God had forgiven Israel, despite them being the worst sinners on the planet, and he was fully capable and willing to get them back on side and put them to rights.

This was great news because the Jews had tried so hard to put themselves to rights and it hadn’t worked – witness the Pharisees who tried to get people to obey in every tiny detail, because to them THAT was the key to the nation’s health. But God had allowed several hundred years to pass since the Jews’ return from Babylon, and despite them building a brand new Temple and restoring all the rituals and sacrifices, and despite the priests’ heavy emphasis on keeping the Sabbath, their hard service under pagan rulers had dragged on without relief.

And what that revealed was the Jews’ helplessness. Nothing they did made God answer. And God allowed that to happen for over four hundred years, during which time the nation actually got worse, not better. Many in the priesthood became power hungry and corrupt. Men calling themselves ‘messiahs’ rose up in violent revolution to topple their oppressors. Demon possession and horrible diseases plagued the nation. And people were totally blind to it too, until John the Baptist got people to realize just how bad things had become.

But that was all perfect preparation for Jesus announcing the great news that God was giving them a fresh start and the chance to get back to what he’d called them for, because instead of condemning them for the mess they’d made he showed them compassion. And instead of holding them accountable for their disobedience and weakness, he forgave them. And instead of leaving them in their misery and frustration he came to rescue, heal and restore them.

If you were a priest, then, watching all this unfold, what would you make of it? Well, we ARE priests, so what have we been making of it? Is it helping us repent and believe that everything about God is good news, and nothing but? It’s meant to, because that’s what God sent Jesus for.