Wednesday, April 05, 2017

I’ll Tell You Later

Not everything is instant ...
We live in the age of instant gratification.

If I want to watch a movie, I can skim Netflix and play one in seconds. It takes me longer to make up my mind than it takes to start playing my selection once I’ve decided. If I want to listen to the Strolling Bones’ hot new CD, I don’t have to rush to the mall (assuming I can find a record store still in business) or wait for Amazon to deliver it to my front door, I can stream it right now or download it from iTunes in seconds. If I want dinner, I can microwave something in five minutes, or, assuming I have unusual patience, have it delivered in forty-five.

Spiritual insight isn’t like that. Not at all. Sometimes God says, “I’ll tell you later.”

The Things Prepared

Sure, God wants us to experience the blessings he has prepared for us, but he also wants us to appreciate them, and human beings have an unfortunate tendency to undervalue things we can acquire instantly and with minimal effort.

A good, home-cooked meal is often most prized by people who spend their lives eating takeout. Sure, it takes longer. But it says, “I value you” in a way that ordering in Swiss Chalet for your dinner guests does not.

Likewise, a girl who refuses to have sex on the first date is more prized than a girl who gives in, and a girl who still remains obdurate about her chastity on the tenth date is more prized still. And yes, despite the lies Hollywood tells about what men want, the girl who won’t sleep with you at all until you put a wedding ring on her finger remains the gold standard of male desire.

That’s just how we are. Nobody values things that are easily and instantly available. If we have learned anything at all, it’s that we are willing to wait longest for the things that are most worth having.

Between Promise and Preaching

Paul tells Titus that God’s full revelation about eternal life didn’t come instantly to mankind. I suspect it was simply too valuable to be disclosed to people who couldn’t yet grasp it and wouldn’t truly appreciate it. There was a gap of thousands of years or more between promise and delivery, so that Paul can speak of:
“… eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted.”
The promise came first. The preaching came much, much later.

Asleep in the Dust

If you want a full, clear exposition of what happens after we die, you pretty much have to go to the writings of the apostle Paul. That’s where you’ll find it. Oh, there are lots of hints and suggestions in the Old Testament. Job could say, “after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God.” Isaiah says, “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise … the earth will give birth to the dead.” Daniel is even more explicit: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.”

The promise of eternal life is certainly well preserved back there in ancient revelation if you really want to go looking for it.

That doesn’t mean that everything the prophets said was understood by their audiences, and it definitely doesn’t mean that everybody alive back then had an opportunity to hear the prophets. The average Persian, Egyptian or Babylonian living hundreds of years before Christ had no clear promise of resurrection to anticipate. Even in Israel, where God’s law had been given and his word was most readily available, there was tremendous ignorance of the truth about resurrection.

No Thanks in Sheol

This should not surprise us, as written revelation used to be a rare and precious thing. You didn’t come across a Gideon Bible in the night table drawer of every local Israelite inn; there was no printing press to produce them. For the most part, to hear the word of God you needed to encounter a godly Israelite or go to worship at the temple in Jerusalem. Sadly, if you happened to live in the time of a wicked king like Manasseh, you’d be more likely to find Baal being worshiped in Solomon’s temple than Jehovah.

Good luck getting details about the afterlife in such a spiritual climate.

Thus even good King Hezekiah wept bitterly at the prospect of his own death:
Sheol does not thank you; death does not praise you;
those who go down to the pit do not hope for your faithfulness.
The living, the living, he thanks you, as I do this day;
the father makes known to the children your faithfulness.”
It’s a pretty gloomy picture. Hezekiah may have had Isaiah around, but he obviously didn’t spend enough time talking to the prophet about what God had in mind for those who love him. He preferred the safety of the shadows he knew well to the reality he didn’t. And if the king of God’s people was largely ignorant of what’s in store for those who love God, imagine how little was known out in the world.

The Proper Time

In Jesus’ day, a significant faction in Hebrew scholarship claimed to believe the scriptures but denied the reality of resurrection. Jesus himself strongly affirmed it, but was not clearly understood even by his own disciples, so they “kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean.”

Turns out it meant … rising from the dead. But the promise and the preaching were separated by many generations.

There was a “proper time” for the truth to come out, as Paul puts it, and many, many believers lived and died before that time. After all, eternal life could never really be fully explained to mankind until the Word of God was incarnated, lived, died and rose again. John says:
This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
That’s the whole thing right there. Any vision of life after death that does not revolve around the person of Jesus Christ is bound to be primitive, superstitious, self-centered and insubstantial. It cannot be any other way.

The Preciousness of the Promise

There are truths we will never fully comprehend in this life, expressions of love we will never adequately give or receive while in these bodies, relationships that will never be what they ought to have been while sin is all around us, and glories in God’s creation that we will never fully appreciate so long as Satan rules it. When we get old enough that these realities start to dawn on us, the preciousness of the promise of eternal life begins to sink in.

Anyone who has watched a woman hurl herself on the casket of a loved one wailing out her grief and loss knows something about the preciousness of that promise.

How real is eternity to you? Do you think about it? Do you talk about it? Do you look forward to it? We should. After all, we wait longest for the things most worth having.

And if God says, “I’ll tell you later,” there’s always a good reason.

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