The Special Status of Martyrs

The word “martyr” gets in the news these days in the context of suicidal Muslim terrorists.  It is ironic that such people are called “martyrs”.  The word actually means “witness”.  What does their actions and their death say about their theology?  I hear, “God is full of hate”, “I am full of hate”, and “I will do anything to advance my selfish ambitions for the afterlife.”  Not exactly a compelling witness.

Christians have long used the word “martyr” for those who lost their lives because of their faith.  They did not commit suicide or even seek death, their lives were taken from them out of hatred for God or his message.  Their witness was “The gift of eternal life is better than this life”, and “I am not afraid to die because I trust God”.  That is a very different witness.

Martyrdom for Christians is not something isolated to the first century.  While the Romans took their share, genuine disciples of Jesus have been killed through the centuries, sometimes even by nominal Christian institutions.  Today, Christians are under the greatest threat of death in Muslim and Communist countries.

A strong theme, maybe even the main theme, of the book of Revelation is that martyrdom for the sake of Christ is well worth it.  Martyrs get special mention in Revelation 6:9-11, 12:11 and 20:4.  What do these passages teach us about this special class of people?

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had be slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.  They called out in a loud voice, “How long Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?  Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed. (Rev. 6:9-11)

This passage is important because it rules out the idea of soul sleep or that we go immediately to Judgment Day at our death.  It also lines out one of the criterion for the timing of Judgment Day–there are a preset or pre-known number of martyrs.  You might think this a strange and morbid standard, but to be a martyr is a high honor.  Those who experience this are chosen for this.  Their location “under the altar” brings to mind where the blood of the sacrifices was poured.  Only the sacrifice of Christ has merit in saving others.  But the death of the martyrs hasn’t historically deterred faith in Christ but it has counter-intuitively advanced it.  They are a sacrifice pleasing to God in the sense that they truly trusted him, and their deaths advanced the Gospel.

The gift of a “white robe” is common for all who die in Christ.  It is probably not clothing but a reference to a heavenly body that is pure.  The desire for judgment may be a surprise.  It doesn’t feel like love for your enemy.  Such judgment is just, however.  It doesn’t preclude the possibility of repentance and forgiveness.

In Revelation 12 the martyrs are honored and their praise is sung.  In Revelation 20 it speaks specifically of souls who were beheaded.  This is probably synecdoche and actually refers to all martyrs.  Here they have the honor of reigning with Christ.  What is that?  In this context, it would seem that they are part of God’s divine council, which actually participates in making decisions executable on Earth.  This honor would make sense since their lifetimes were cut short on Earth.

The Citizens of Heaven

We have a sketchy picture of what Heaven is like.  We have an even more cryptic description of who or what will be there.

As you read through the Old Testament it is never revealed that humans had any hope of being citizens of Heaven.  There are a few visions of Heaven, but nothing more.  Old Testament believers understood that they were heading first to Sheol (preferably a good part of it) and that their ultimate hope was their resurrection from the dead and a New Earth.

I don’t believe that this means that Heaven wasn’t in the plans for humans or that the idea of going to Heaven was a “development of theology” or borrowed from other cultures at a later time.  Our place in Heaven had to be secured before it was promised.  Satan held some leverage over us.  Our species were rebellious sinners just like he was and like a significant minority of angels.  As long as humans were “under the Law”, we were stuck.

Jesus’ fulfillment of God’s Law as a human and His sacrifice of Himself to reconcile creation to God caused some major reorganization.  Satan and his minions lost their legal leverage and being inferior in power to God were cast out (Revelation 12:7-10). Humans were lead in a victorious procession in.  (Ephesians 4:7)  So for now, Heaven is the destiny of redeemed humanity until Judgment Day and a New Earth.

Who else will we find in Heaven?  Angels are one form of resident.  It is said of angels that they are “spirits”.  What does that mean exactly?  I think it means that they are properly citizens of Heaven’s dimensional space and not properly a part of this universe.  They can take on a form here or not, but it is not necessarily their form.  So what does an angel in Heaven look like?  We don’t know.  How many are there?  Beyond saying that there are many, we don’t know.  What are their abilities?  We can say that they are intelligent beings and that in some ways have higher capabilities than we presently have.  The name by which we know them, “angels”, speaks more to their function as “messengers” than as a proper name of their species.  I would expect them to be human-like in many ways.

Angels should be distinguished from Cherubim/Seraphim.  Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1 and Revelation 4 described these beings as “living ones”(cherubim) or “burning ones” (seraphim).  They are described as intelligent and powerful beings who surround the throne of God.  Their physical description may be more symbolic than actual.  The description includes multiple faces, four to six wings, and covered with eyes–a rather frightening appearance.  Satan is described as being a disowned, guardian cherub (Ezekiel 28), beautiful, part of the council of God, and blameless until wickedness was found in him.

The only other citizens of Heaven that are described in the Bible (that doesn’t mean that their aren’t others) are a mysterious group of 24 elders. Who are these beings?  What are they?  They could be humans.  They do not appear in the only other descent description of God’s throne room in Daniel 7.  They are described in Revelation 4.  Since Revelation is full of symbolism, this could be a group symbolic of a greater portion of humanity.  Or not.  It is intriguing to think about how the picture given in Revelation 4 (a New Testament if not future picture) relates to references to a divine council found throughout the Old Testament.  More about this in my next blog.

Is Heaven Somehow Incomplete?

Many people have a biblically naive understanding of the afterlife.  That is one of the motivations for this blog.  It is typical to believe that immediately at death you go to Heaven if you were “good” and Hell is you were “bad”.  Heaven is commonly viewed as “perfect”.  Whatever “perfect” is.  That belief is folk religion, and biblically wrong in so many ways.

Most importantly, you are not destined for Heaven or Hell based on whether you are good or bad.  To God’s standard we are all bad–all tarnished by sin.  We are saved based on whether we have forgiveness or not, and the only way to have forgiveness is to have Jesus’ sacrifice of himself apply to us personally.  Jesus died for all, but God has to also be able to connect us to Christ through faith and baptism.

Popular conceptions of Heaven and Hell are a bit muddled as well.  The Bible makes you aware that there is an intermediate state, which is essentially the time between your death and Judgment Day.  Post Judgment Day the destination of God’s people is a “New Heaven and Earth”  with resurrected physical bodies.  The post-Judgment Day destination of the unforgiven is described as:  a lake of fire, Gehenna (which evokes a picture of a burning garbage dump), and a condition of being forsaken by God.  God won’t hang around to torment you.  Rather, God will permanently forget you.  That place and condition is what I prefer to call “Hell”

So where is Heaven in all of this?  It is the current dwelling place of God and the angels.  It will persist until Judgment Day when Heaven itself will be modified.  It is the immediate destination of those who die (I don’t buy the “soul sleep” paradigm and address that in a later blog), but there are some things incomplete about Heaven and our experience of it.

Don’t get me wrong, the experience of Heaven will leave our experience of life so far in dust.  We will see God, be without sinful nature, have no exposure to Satan, possess a heavenly body and no longer experience the discomforts of the curse.  It is hard to even imagine how good all that will feel compared to current life, so it is even harder to imagine what will be lacking.  While we consciously experience Heaven, our earthly bodies will still be in some state of decay or ash, and our earthly bodies are a part of what makes us.  The final release from the consequences of sin will happen at the resurrection.

For that matter, it would seem that the same is true for Heaven, the place.  Heaven has not been perfect.  Heaven hosted Satan’s rebellion and the corruption of a large minority of angels.  Heaven has experienced war.  God isn’t just going to make a New Earth.  He is going to make a New Heaven.

If you search the internet on the topic of Heaven, you will get a wide variety of interpretations, including mine.  You will encounter quite a few who suggest that we never will see Heaven, rather we are destined only for the resurrection and the New Earth.  They are right in saying that this was the Jewish, Old Testament expectation.  They might also state that the idea of our souls inhabiting Heaven forever is a Greek idea.  I agree in part.  The folk Christian idea is heavily influenced by the Greeks.  The Bible shares God’s revelation, which is the only reliable source on this topic.  It does speak of Heaven, even a Heaven we can inhabit, but it is a temporary dwelling with something even better to follow.

Life That Is Truly Life

I have no experience beyond what we all experience as being alive:  I am self-aware, my body carries out its functions, I experience a range of sensations and emotions and so forth.  It is not all good, but it certainly isn’t all that bad either.  At present, given the choice, I would choose to remain alive.  But it doesn’t take too much imagination to image something better, and what if there are experiences that I can’t even imagine because I have no frame of reference?

Paul, who had an out of body experience, throws out an intriguing phrase in 1 Timothy 6:

As for the rich in the present age, charge them not to be haughty,, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.  They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasures for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of life that is truly life.

What does God have in store for those that He saves?  Can there be a life so good that it would seem ridiculous to call our current experience “life”?  Imagine life free of pain, illness, hunger, thirst, exhaustion, boredom.  Imagine interacting with God face-to-face.  Imagine an existence with rich relationships with everyone: no conflicts, biases, loneliness or alienation.  These are just things readily imaginable.

There also can be breathtaking beauty.  Even in this world, you can see the creative genius of God and it is gorgeous.  Look into deep space and you can see God’s creative outlets, there for us to see from afar.  What beauty will surround us in Heaven and the New Earth?

The Timothy text speaks of “treasures”.  If you understand Scripture at all, you understand that we don’t deserve or earn a place with God.  We are sinners.  We deserve exile.  But the death of Jesus gives us a place with God.  It is a gift.  It is grace.  No further treasure beyond admittance should be expected, but the Bible frequently speaks of treasure and reward for faithful stewardship of what God gives us.  What could this treasure be?  Whatever it is, Jesus makes it clear that it is worth any sacrifice or suffering experienced here.

As we get closer to the end of our life on Earth, few of us are as forward thinking as we should be.  Because of our limited experience we long for the past and prefer to stay here, even if we are in pain.  The Words of the Bible try to turn us around to think about a future that is truly life.  Even the experiences of those who have had out of body experiences of Heaven affirm that the sights, sounds and feelings they had far outstrip the experiences of this life.

In length, in quality, in richness of experience, there is more.  There is life that is “truly life”, and Jesus makes it possible.

Check out my other blog, “Giving Christ”, which has many more articles about the role of Jesus and the power of God’s plan, the Gospel.Giving Christ

Salted with Fire

You only need to burn yourself once to know that you don’t want it to happen again.  This familiar experience is used by Jesus to describe the experience of those who are cast into Sheol (Hebrew)/Hades (Greek), which is the place of the unforgiven dead prior to Judgment Day; and also to describe part of the experience of Gehenna (Greek), which is the place of the damned after Judgment Day.  He says,

And if anyone causes one of these little ones to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone around his neck.  If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.  It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands go into hell (Gehenna), where the fire never goes out.  And if your foot causes you to sin cut it off.  It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell (Gehenna).  And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.  It is better for you to enter the Kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell(Gehenna) where

their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched”

Jesus is making a point about the seriousness of sin and damnation.  Unfortunately, maiming yourself will not keep you from sin, but you get the idea.  We all need a solution for our sinfulness.  Jesus is that solution.  He is the difference between being in Heaven and the New Heaven and Earth versus Sheol and Gehenna.

The passage continues,

Everyone will be salted with fire.

Is that everyone is Gehenna, or everyone everywhere?  I find most study bible explanations of this unsatisfactory.  It is a bit cryptic because Jesus goes from describing something negative to describing something positive, which in this case is salt as a metaphor for godliness.  The godly will not cause one another to sin, but will encourage each other to righteous living.  But what does it mean to be salted by fire?

Some want to make the word “fire” in this sentence into another metaphor, that for persecution or trial.  I think that this use of fire correlates with what John the Baptist says in Matthew 3:11:

He (Jesus) will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

And also what Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 3:12-14:

If any man builds on this foundation with gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light.  It will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work.  If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward.  If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through flames.

Jesus will put all through a Judgment Day trial by fire.  Those who are connected to Jesus will be saved.  Those who are connected to Jesus and have built on the foundation of Jesus in a worthy, Holy Spirit driven, fashion will be rewarded.  Those who have squandered their lifetime but remain in Jesus will be saved but without reward.

Through all the confusing metaphorical and literal language, the message is this.  You can’t save yourself.  If you could, it would be worth any cost.  But you are saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus.  You can build on the foundation of Jesus in a worthwhile way, however.  You can live salty.  Righteous living will have its reward and that is worth it as well.

 

Living with an Eternal Perspective

I suspect that most people think about their future.  How far out do you think?  I am 56 years old right now.  Sometimes I think about what it will be like when I am 70 something.  My dreams are far more glorious than the reality, I am sure.  Do you ever think farther out?  I am not talking about your 80’s or 90’s.  I am talking a 1000 years out.  You don’t, do you.  Without experience, death creates this impenetrable wall.  For many people’s thoughts, our existence ends.

The Bible flatly denies that this is true.  We have an eternal existence, because we are made that way.  It will be with God or without Him.  Because God loves us and wants us, He has provided the way for our eternal existence to be eternal “life”.  An existence of joy, comfort, abundance, love, fun, relationships and knowing God.  Do you ever try to imagine it?

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:17-18:

For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Eyes are for seeing, obviously.  How does one set your eyes on what is unseen?  What Paul is talking about is becoming so certain of the promises of eternal life given in the Bible that we can look forward to our own death as just a milestone and not the end of us.  We can dream about future that is real, exciting, mysterious but comforting.  Such confidence comes with time spent reading the Bible.  It comes with prayer and experience serving God.  It is empowering.

Most people have to deal with their obvious aging by living in denial.  They imagine that they will be healthier and that their physical and mental limits will expand.  This is not realistic in the long-term.  We will become more aged and limited until we die.  That is a fact.  Science may modestly delay the process, but it won’t save us from the inevitable.  Jesus has already saved us from the inevitable.  Jesus makes our death nothing more than the small part of a mandatory sentence for sin, and in effect transforms death into a glorious transition–one you can count on.

Fixing your eyes on what is unseen is not wishful thinking.  It is taking God at His word, understanding our eternal nature, and planning for a glorious eternity that is not that far off.  It does not involve forsaking the here and now.  In fact, having eternal security gives meaning to what we doing now.  We are saved by our connection to Jesus, but our actions today are doing the work of God and are rewardable in Heaven and the New Earth.

Fixing our eyes on what is unseen also gives you power to handle the difficulties of this life.  Every problem is temporary.  Every problem is an opportunity.  God can use anything for an ultimate good.  There is no need to be discouraged, because you can see beyond the current situation.

Fixing your eyes on the unseen is one of the reasons I write this blog.  It is hard to imagine what we have never seen.  So we must rely on the little bit of information that we have been given, and try to create a mental picture.  Our picture may be somewhat inaccurate and our imagination not up to the task, but that will only make our actual arrival in Heaven more breathtaking.

So look to the future–the deep future.  In Christ, you actually have one.

Like the Angels

It is common axiom of what I call “folk Christianity” to believe that when we die we become angels.  This falsehood has been fostered by various movies and TV shows through the years, and probably has deep roots in history.  One such movie is the Christmas classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life”.  In it the character Clarence is some guy who died years ago, but was still struggling to earn his wings.  It’s a feel good movie with absolutely ignorant theology in it.  People don’t become angels.  There is nothing in the Bible to say angels have wings either.  They fly, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have wings.  The winged creatures of the Bible, who are found in the presence of God, are called Seraphim (burning ones) or Cherubim (living ones).  They are not angels either.

Angels are a species unto themselves.  They appear to be humanlike in appearance, though precious little is actually said about how they look. Nothing to suggest that they don’t look like humans is ever noted.  Angels serve God and help people.  They are often messengers.  In fact, the word “angelos” means messenger, so a person could literally be an angel in that sense.

Today I would like to focus on one particular passage in which angels are mentioned, Luke 20:34-36:

Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage.  But those who are considered worthy of taking part of that age and in the resurrection of the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels.  They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.”

Jesus’ reply is to a line of reasoning presented by the Sadducees who did not believe a physical resurrection of the dead was possible.  They reasoned that if a woman had multiple spouses during her lifetime, then at the resurrection there would be an unacceptable mess, because she would have multiple husband’s all at once.  Jesus’ statement says only this:  there will be no marriage after the resurrection and angels don’t get married.

Many people conclude that this means that there will be no sexuality or reproduction.  The text does not say this, nor can it be inferred.  We simply do not know what kind of situation exists with the angels.  Isaiah 65, which is a strange passage, says this about the New Earth (which is after the resurrection):  “They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune.”   At least on the surface, this would seem to suggest that there is procreation.

Jesus’ death and resurrection are the means by which we can have the eternal life that God has planned for us.  He is the only way one can be “considered worthy”.  We will not become angels, but angels will be among us.  Much of what life will be like is unknown, and it is difficult if not unwise to read between the lines of Scripture.  We can be sure of this, however, eternal life in Heaven and the New Earth will be awesome.