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Tuesday, February 27, 2018

What’s Across the Finish Line?

Christianity Today’s Todd Billings on people who have “too small a view of heaven”:

“A pastor in my home state of Michigan mentioned to me that many members of his congregation assume that there will be plenty of woods and deer in heaven. So naturally, they fantasize about shooting a 39-point buck in the heavenly woods.”

It’s a thought provoking article, worth a few minutes of time if only to draw attention to the extent of what seems like a massive blind spot in modern evangelicalism.

Pity, Eh?

Sure, to know Jesus Christ and live for him is immensely profitable. But Paul makes it clear that “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

Any benefit we experience from the Christian life in this world is inextricably tied to the next. That being the case, how can an impoverished, caricatured, trivialized view of eternity (and, by extension, the purposes of God and therefore the character of God) serve to inspire the joy, drive, purpose and sheer endurance necessary to really participate in the life to which God has called us in Christ, let alone drag our sorry carcasses across its finish line?

“Pitied” indeed.

What exactly IS across that finish line anyway? In the New Testament, our prospects are held up to the light like the many facets of a well-cut gemstone. Here are just a few aspects of Christian hope.

The Hope of Resurrection

At Pentecost, Peter quotes David, expressing his confidence that Messiah would not “see corruption”, and affirming that in fact he did not:
“Therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope.”
But packaged into the resurrection of Christ from the dead is the long-held hope that all who believe will be raised up from death because of and along with him.

Cavorting through the heavenly woods of one’s imagination equipped with a well-oiled Springfield M1903 may be evidence of a failure to latch onto the wonders of eternal life. I know pie-in-the-sky theology is roundly mocked these days even within Christendom, but maybe — just maybe — a solitary reference to resurrection on Easter Sunday provides insufficient fuel for the spirit the other 51 weeks of the year.

It’s not enough merely to be raised from the dead. Nope, we need a little something extra to jazz it up.

The Hope of Redemption

Well, scripture provides that, though hardly in the form of a never-expiring, all-season hunting license. What it does tell us is that the whole creation is waiting to obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God, deer included:
“We wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.”
The Christian hopes not merely for endless existence, but for a redeemed existence, in which our bodies are transformed into the likeness of the Lord Jesus’s own resurrection humanity, no doubt with all its attendant capacities and marvels. More than that, we hope for a redeemed creation.

I mean, come on: when the wolf dwells with the lamb, what kind of hard heart fantasizes about taking out the wolf with a Sierra hollowpoint?

Or eating the lamb, for that matter.

The Hope of Personal Transformation

One thing would-be heavenly hunters fail to take into account is that, assuming they are really Christ’s, they will not always be the men and women they are today. They (and we) are to be transformed eternally and internally, starting right now:
“Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Peter speaks of hope in “the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” Here I think “selves” is a better translation than “souls”. Peter is not talking about endless survival, or even about the joys of being equipped with a marvelous, never-deteriorating resurrection body, but about transformation of character. He goes on to instruct his readers to begin living consistently now, hoping for the day the transformation process will be complete: “Do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.”

Even here and now, in the process of being so transformed, we begin to get in touch with a whole new range of desires and pleasures. These may well eventually eclipse our current set. It is not outrageous then to posit a moment in time in which a formerly devoted hunter might find himself without the slightest interest in hunting, not because he has been lectured into submission by politically correct types or because he is ashamed of the pleasures of hunting in its appropriate setting, but because he has discovered better things to do, both with his time and his eternity.

The Hope of the Transformation of Others

The Father of glory has called us to participate in his “glorious inheritance”, and that inheritance is not silver or gold but a great unity of transformed people:
“… that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints.”
The Church is the Body of the Lord Jesus, the “fullness of him who fills all in all”. God’s purpose and desire is not just to remake me into the likeness of his Son, but to remake everyone I love in the same marvelous way. Part of the glory of our heavenly calling is to experience Christ himself revealed in the hearts and lives of others. Imagine that!

The Hope of Justice

Paul speaks of “A hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust.”

Those men Paul referred to so charitably were unregenerate religious theologians with murder in their hearts. The fact that such men accepted the same hope he did reminds us that resurrection is the universal desire of all right-thinking human beings … and, along with them, a few who have yet to work through its implications.

Why would anyone hope for the unrighteous dead to be raised anyway?

The only good answer is that we hope for justice to finally be done in this world, and thus Paul says he “always takes pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man.” Rightly so.

The Hope of Harmony

One major object of the redemption for which we wait is the healing of the massive fractures that divide men and women from one another. Our political landscape is littered with lunatics, utopian idealists, nihilists and idealogues; with entrenched pessimists working themselves up to dragging the West back to the Fifties by force; and with proponents of the status quo trying to convince themselves that principled negotiation with institutionalized lunacy is a viable option. Harmony has never seemed so unlikely.

Still, Paul says:
“Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”
Resurrection brings with it the assurance that we will one day be able to look one another in the eye with love despite our differences in experience, intellect, culture and understanding. In the meantime, Paul says we are to “bear with the failings of the weak”, “live in harmony with one another”, and “with one voice glorify the Father”. Our hope is a hope of harmony, of unity and of reconciliation.

The Hope of Eternal Riches

The Christian ought to long to take hold of “that which is truly life”, to “store up treasure” as a good foundation for the future:
“As for the rich in this 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.”
Real treasure is not the false security established by piling up worldly goods but the security of relationship with and knowledge of God himself, the source of everything that truly matters. True riches are found in understanding Christ, and it is only in constantly knowing him better that true joy is realized, both in this life and the next.

The Hope of the Glory of God

Suppose for a moment there was nothing for us to look forward to but the prospect of a ticket to the biggest event in history. That in itself should be enough:
“We rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”
That’s the Superbowl of Superbowls, and then some.

God, persistently vilified by his own creations and characterized as petty, vindictive, harsh, unfair, indifferent and even malign, will finally receive his due. He will be glorified as he ought to be. The whole world will fall on its face before him and recognize its folly. What a great moment! To be present at the climax of human history is something to which every believer should aspire and every believing heart desire … and that entirely apart from the hope that we too will be glorified in and with him.

If you can’t find in your own heart even a trace of the wish that Ultimate Truth will one day be revealed and Ultimate Grace will one day be enthroned in this sorry universe, what precisely CAN you wish for?

I’m stopping here not because I’ve run out of New Testament hope, but because I’ve run out of blog post. If you can’t find something more meaningful in these verses than the prospect of finally running out of ammo out in the Happy Hunting Grounds, I’m not sure a longer list is going to help much.

So what’s across the finish line for you?

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