Recently, someone pointed out to me that Christian Universalist’s have no reason to share their faith if there is no such thing as eternal torment.  My response was to point out that he and I have something in common, that is, we both want to see people reconciled to God.  That’s why we have both felt motivated to share our faith.  Although his primary motivation (fear of people going to hell) may be different from mine (the joy of seeing people reconciled to God), we were able to find our common ground and cooperate with one another with an attitude of love, respect, and unity of purpose.   Because of the love of Christ in us, two people with very different views about Who God is and what God does, we did not view each other as enemies.

Unfortunately, things don’t always work out that way.

People who believe God eventually reconciles everyone to Himself through Christ see the devastating consequences of the doctrine of eternal torment as:

  • People are unable to love God, Who created their loved ones even though He knew they would spend eternity in hell.
  • People are unable to trust God, because His best plan for doing away with moral rebellion makes the Holocaust look like a picnic in the park.
  • People have committed suicide, homicide, or have been hospitalized with nervous breakdowns because of the fear of eternal torment.
  • There is a long, dark church history of spiritual abuse, exploitation, and even torture or murder, based on the belief in the doctrine of eternal torment.
  • People spend all their lives in fear and dread about whether they are really saved, the “unpardonable sin,” or losing salvation.
  • Christians live with a sense of frustration and defeat because, despite their best efforts, the majority of mankind spends eternity in hell.
  • Christians live with a sense of guilt over NOT spending more time, effort, money, etc on witnessing to people who are going to hell.
  • Christians, believing certain variations in doctrine will result in people needlessly going to hell, condemn and shun one another for “false teaching.”

People who believe in eternal torment in hell see the devastating consequences of the doctrine of universal reconciliation as:

  • People have a false sense of security about their eternal destiny, and then they die and go to eternal torment in hell.
  • People have no fear or judgment or sense of accountability, so they feel like they can do whatever they want.
  • Universalism takes away the sense of urgency Christians ought to feel over people who will die and go to hell.
  • Christian universalists deny orthodoxy, therefore causing division in the church.
  • Hitler, Stalin, Bin Laden, murderers, child molesters, and other evil people will be saved, diminishing the significance of salvation.
How can people who affirm that Jesus Christ is Lord, whether they be people who believe God eventually reconciles everyone to Himself through Christ or people who believe in eternal torment, ever hope to see the prayer of Jesus Christ come to fruition?  Jesus prayed:
“that they will all be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. I pray that they will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. The glory you gave to me I have given to them, that they may be one just as we are one— I in them and you in me—that they may be completely one, so that the world will know that you sent me, and you have loved them just as you have loved me.

 

Here’s how.  Trust God, that He knows what He’s doing.  His Plan of the Ages cannot be thwarted.  The end result will be exactly as He has purposed it to be, and there’s nothing that any person can do, not do, or undo that will ruin His plans.

So, here’s how that translates into real-world application.

If you believe God eventually reconciles everyone to Himself through Christ, then trust that God will clear away misconceptions about Who He is and what He does, vindicating His name.  Remember that He is the Good Shepherd, Who “is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.”  Trust that He “will judge the world with justice by the man He has appointed.”  Remember that Jesus will “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death,” in His own time and in His own way.  Pray for those who live with a sense of frustration and defeat because they believe that, despite their best efforts, the majority of mankind spends eternity in hell.  Love and do good to your brothers and sisters who live with a sense of guilt over NOT spending more time, effort, money, etc on witnessing to people who are going to hell.  Forgive and ask God to bless those who condemn and shun you for “false teaching.”  You can wholeheartedly disagree with someone without being hostile or arrogant. You can treat people with love and respect, even if you believe they are wrong or feel that they have done wrong to you or your friends.  Make an effort to remember what is good and right in others and identify the goals or interests you have in common.

If you believe in eternal torment, then consider that God, in His boundless wisdom and righteousness, will not entrust the eternal destiny of any human being into the fallible hands of another human being.  Trust that God will give people a sense of accountability and an awareness of the true consequences associated with bad choices.  Pray for those who are complacent or apathetic in their faith.  Remember that Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful.”  And when you think about the possibility of Hitler, Stalin, Bin Laden, murderers, child molesters, and other evil people will being with you in heaven, remember that God “will judge the world with justice by the man He has appointed,” and He has promised that “Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”  You can wholeheartedly disagree with someone without being hostile or arrogant. You can treat people with love and respect, even if you believe they are wrong or feel that they have done wrong to you or your friends.  Make an effort to remember what is good and right in others and identify the goals or interests you have in common.

When the believers are united in love, the world will believe and know that Jesus came from the Father, Who loves the world just as He loves His Son.

This is another installment in the blog series on Erasing Hell, by Francis Chan.  If you would like to start at the beginning of the series, the first blog is Book Review: Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell « www.whatgoddoes.com.  Primarily, this blog series refutes, point-by-point, the errors in Chan’s book.

Chapter Seven: “Don’t Be Overwhelmed”

This chapter serves as a confessional of sorts, for all believers who hold to the doctrine of eternal torment in hell yet don’t act like they truly believe their own doctrine.  Chan writes,

A sense of urgency over the reality of hell should recharge our passion for the gospel as it did for Paul, who, “knowing the fear of the Lord,” persuaded people to believe (2 Cor. 5:11).

The unsuspecting reader might assume that Paul hints at the prospect of eternal torment in hell for those who do not believe, and that this dread is what motivates Paul or gives him a passion for the gospel.  This is impossible, for several reasons, but before we explore these reasons, we must first look at the context in which Paul’s words, “knowing the fear of the Lord,” appear.

Paul writes about the temporary nature of the human body,

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God

Paul writes about the destiny of the human body,

…what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God…

Paul writes about how believers benefit from understanding the destiny of the human body,

Therefore we are always confident…

Confident about what?  Paul writes,

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.  Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others.

“Aha!”  I can almost hear Chan say.  “There it is!  Judgment!  Fear God!  Be afraid!  Warn everybody!”  There are scriptures that refer to a healthy fear of the Lord, the kind of respect and awe that naturally brings one to his or her knees in worship.  And there are other scriptures that refer to an unhealthy fear of the Lord.

Before I address this judgment and fear, we need to continue looking at the context.  Context includes both before AND after.  So for now, let’s move on.  Paul writes,

What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience… Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.  And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

What does it look like, to live for Christ instead of ourselves?  Paul writes that God “gave us” believers “the ministry of reconciliation.”

What is the ministry of reconciliation?  Paul explains,

…that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.  And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.

In summary, Paul’s message to the Corinthians is:

  1. Both believers and not-yet-believers have mortal bodies, which will be “swallowed up” in life.
  2. Believers are confident about the judgment seat of Christ, because they understand #1.
  3. Believers understand what it is to fear the Lord.
  4. Believers are compelled by the love of Christ.
  5. Believers are ministers of reconciliation with a message of reconciliation: God is not counting people’s sins against them.

Now let’s examine two concepts: Fear of the Lord and the judgment seat of Christ.

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Does Paul flee from God because he feels inadequate?  Is Paul suggesting that the Corinthians withdraw from the Lord and His will, because they dread God?  No.  Of course not.  So, what is Paul saying?

Paul is saying that believers understand what it is like to avoid God, to live in dread of judgment, because this is exactly how Paul, the Corinthians, and other believers they used to feel, before they understood that their mortal bodies would be swallowed up in life.  They do not feel the need to run away from God once they understand, “What we are is plain to God…”  God already knows who they are, and He is not counting their sins against them.  Armed with this knowledge, they become confident about the judgment seat of Christ, something necessary and beneficial.  The result?  They are compelled by the love of Christ.

What is the judgment seat of Christ?

First, judgment is not about God counting people’s sins against them so He can send them to hell.  Gary Amirault of Tentmaker Ministries writes,

Paul represented the free gift of life as extending equally with sin. “As, by the offense of one, judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one, the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.” (Rom. 5:18) This is a very important passage. It teaches us, that the free gift of eternal life shall extend equally with sin. On the one hand we are told, judgment came upon all men by sin; on the other we find, that “the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.”

Second, judgment, although dreadful for those who enter into it believing God sees them as enemies, ultimately results in something good. The lyrics of a song, accompanied by stringed instruments, cymbals, and trumpets, are recorded in 1 Chronicles 16,

let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad

let them say among the nations, “The Lord reigns!”

let the sea resound, and all that is in it

let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them

let the trees of the forest sing

let them sing for joy before the Lord

for he comes to judge the earth

Third, judgment belongs to Jesus Christ, who reconciles all things to Himself.

…because in him were the all things created, those in the heavens, and those upon the earth, those visible, and those invisible, whether thrones, whether lordships, whether principalities, whether authorities; all things through him, and for him, have been created… through him to reconcile the all things to himself – having made peace through the blood of his cross – through him, whether the things upon the earth, whether the things in the heavens. (Col. 1)

Now that we’ve taken a brief look at fear and judgment, let’s look once again at what Chan writes,

A sense of urgency over the reality of hell should recharge our passion for the gospel as it did for Paul, who, “knowing the fear of the Lord,” persuaded people to believe (2 Cor. 5:11).

According to Chan, Paul has a sense of urgency over the reality of hell, and this is what charges his passion for the gospel.  To find out whether this is true, all we have to do is read what Paul writes. What motivates Paul?  I searched through some of his writings to find out.  Here’s some of what I found, in his own words:

  • I am obligated… That is why I am so eager…
  • For I am not ashamed of the gospel… For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed…
  • I am convinced that [nothing]… will be able to separate us from the love of God…
  • …my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved…
  • I take pride in my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them.  For if their rejection brought reconciliation to the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?
  • I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery…: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved.
  • I have written you quite boldly on some points to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles. He gave me the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
  • I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known… “Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.”
  • …to win as many as possible.
  • I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings… so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
  • For I do not want you to be ignorant…
  • I do not want you to be uninformed…
  • Therefore I want you to know…
  • I want to remind you of the gospel… that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…

*If you want a bit more context, you can read extended excerpts at the end of this blog, or you can read whole chapters, linked after the references.

What motivates Paul?  He is obligated to God, eager, and not ashamed of the good news.  He’s convinced, he hopes to arouse his own people (Jews) to envy the salvation of non-Jews, and he doesn’t want people to be ignorant, or uninformed, so he writes boldly and reminds people of the good news.  He feels it is his priestly duty.  Paul’s ambition is to “fully proclaim” the good news where Christ is not known, to win as many as possible, to enable people to know “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”  But why?  Why does Paul do this?  What charges his passion for the gospel?

In the gospel, the good news, the love and righteousness of God are uncovered – the idea that nothing can separate us from the love of God.  Paul gets it.  He understands that his own people, who were “God’s people” according to the law, have been rejected by God, not so that God can send them to hell, but so that the law, fulfilled in Christ, becomes obsolete, and the door of salvation swings wide open to include all people in a new and better covenant of grace.  But Paul knows that only he and a handful of others really understand this amazing concept.  He wants the whole world to know that Israel’s rejection ushers in “reconciliation to the world,” which ultimately results in “life from the dead” for everyone.  Paul’s message is the good news that in Christ’s death and resurrection, the “full number” of Gentiles are reconciled to God and “all Israel will be saved.”

It is not the urgency of hell that motives Paul, but “the grace God gave [Paul,] to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles.” He proclaims the good news, not to save people from hell, but to save people to the love and righteousness of God, “so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”  When people trade their ignorance about God for the good news, then Paul gets to “share in its blessings.”  If he were to throw in the towel, he would miss out on this, he would be “disqualified for the prize.”

If a sense of urgency over the reality of hell is what charges Paul’s passion for the gospel, then he sure does waste a lot of time talking about peripherals and nonessentials.  If his audience is in danger of eternal torment in hell,  then Paul’s writings should look more like this:

  • I am full of dread… That is why I am so eager…
  • For I am worried because of the gospel… For in the gospel the eternal wrath of God is revealed…
  • I am convinced that ignorance about hell… will be able to separate people from the love of God…
  • …my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved from eternal torment in hell…
  • I have a sense of urgency in my ministry in the fear that I might fail to arouse my own people to envy and save some of them from eternal torment in hell.  For if their rejection brought reconciliation to a small minority of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead for a handful of them?
  • I am desperate because you are ignorant of this mystery…: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until a small percentage of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way a small percentage of Israel will be saved from eternal torment in hell.
  • I have written you quite boldly on some points to remind you of them again, because of the urgency God gave me to be a minister of saving people from hell. He gave me the priestly duty of proclaiming eternal torment in hell, so that the Gentiles might not go there.
  • I have fully proclaimed the dreadful intentions of God. It has always been my ambition to warn people about hell where hell was not known… “Those who were not told about hell will go to hell, and those who have not heard will go to hell.”
  • …to lose as few as possible
  • I do all this for the sake of the rescuing people from hell, that I may have their blood on my hands… so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be sent to hell.

Why didn’t Paul plainly state, at every opportunity, the horror in store for his audience?  Why didn’t he write,

  • For I do not want you to be ignorant about eternal torment in hell…
  • I do not want you to be uninformed about eternal torment in hell…
  • Therefore I want you to know about eternal torment in hell…
  • I want to remind you of eternal torment in hell… that you will die in your sins, your body will be buried, and your disembodied soul will experience eternal anguish in utter darkness, forever without hope.

For the love of God, Paul could have at least ONCE, said the word “hell” as he “fully proclaimed” the gospel.

Chan writes,

We should not just try to cope with hell, but be compelled – as with all doctrine – to live differently in light of it.

So if Chan wants to use Paul as an example for believers regarding the doctrine of eternal torment, then Paul should serve as an example of WHAT NOT TO DO.  Don’t waste time like Paul did, writing about looking forward to visits, how to get along with others, the importance of love being the source of motivation in all that you do, and all that other stuff that has nothing to do with the urgency of snatching souls from the gaping chasm of death while there’s still time.

Chan’s message is that believers, being”constantly mindful of a fiery place of torment,” “shouldn’t just go on with life as usual.”  Instead, “a sense of urgency over the reality of hell” should be what motivates them to share the “good news.”  If we are to take this very seriously, then there should be no more non-urgent activities: no more little league practice, no more vacations, and no more birthday parties for believers.  Believers are wasting valuable time that could be spent preaching the good news to hell-bound people.  How can you just sit there jabber-jawing with your friends, when the men around you are about to burn in hell?  That stranger you cross paths with could die today.  And you didn’t share the good news.  God has placed the eternal destiny of her soul in your hands, and you are going to just carry on, as if she doesn’t matter?  How dare you!  You should be ashamed!  You should be afraid for all of them!   You should be urgent!

Some readers may think that I am making fun of Chan or other believers who see life through this lens of sickening dread and laboring-in-vain.  If all believers were to do as Chan suggests, the not-yet-believers of this world would be repelled, not drawn in.  I mean to shed light on the absurdity of attempting to shape one’s approach to life and relationship with others on a doctrine of fear.  I am in no way overstating my case.  If anything, I am understating my case.  Think about it. If eternal torment in hell is what is at stake for the majority of humanity, what right does any believer have to waste time doing anything other than preaching this so-called good news? (Other than what is absolutely necessary to survive, of course – go to work so you can buy the necessities like food, shelter, and clothing, take time to sleep, bathe, etc.)

Chan sets believers up for a life of depression, anxiety, and hopelessness, because it isn’t the urgency of believers that draws people to Christ.  It is Christ Who draws people to Himself.  All people.  He says so Himself, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw everyone to myself.”  The attraction of the Good News is the love and righteousness of God, Who has purposed to reconcile all to Himself, Who is not counting people’s sins against them.  The knowledge of His glory in Christ Jesus transforms people.  The urgency is not fear-based, it is love-based.

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18)

If you win the lottery, the first thing you want to do is tell someone – your spouse, your kid, your parent, your friend.  You would feel compelled to do so, because keeping something like that yourself is liable to make you burst at the seams.  The gospel, the Good News, works in the same way.  You realize that you are on to something so profound, so amazing, that you can’t help but want others to know.  You love them, and you want them to share in your joy.  There’s a huge difference between fear-based and love-based living.  One causes people to run from God (and rightly so, because this version of God is distorted by doctrine and tradition), the other draws people to Him.

 

 

*These are the references from earlier in the blog:

I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed…

…we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved.  For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own…

I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I take pride in my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them. For if their rejection brought reconciliation to the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches.

I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved.

I myself am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another. Yet I have written you quite boldly on some points to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles. He gave me the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Therefore I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done— by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. Rather, as it is written: “Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.”

For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me.

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.

I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings… so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

For I do not want you to be ignorant… I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.

I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…

(Rom. 1, 8, 10, 11, 15, 1 Cor. 9, 10, 11, 13, 15)

 

Next blog in this series: Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell: Final Blog in This Series

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But the foolish children of men do miserably delude themselves in their own schemes, and in their confidence in their own strength and wisdom; they trust to nothing but a shadow. The bigger part of those that heretofore have lived under the same means of grace, and are now dead, are undoubtedly gone to hell: and it was not because they were not as wise as those that are now alive; it was not because they did not lay out matters as well for themselves to secure their own escape. – Jonathan Edwards

When I read Francis Chan’s book, Erasing Hell, I experienced grief over how many people would read the title and the back cover and think that there might actually be some good news in the book.  Instead, what they get is a repackaged and modernized version of Jonathan Edward’s infamous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  Chan is very careful with his word choices, and he does a good job of being at least minimally respectful toward those who may disagree with him, but his message boils down to the same fundamental fear as that of Edwards.  Chan writes,

The thought of hell is paralyzing for most people, which is why we often ignore its existence – at least in practice.  After all, how can we possibly carry on with life if we are constantly mindful of a fiery place of torment?  Yet that’s the whole point – we shouldn’t just go on with life as usual.  A sense of urgency over the reality of hell should recharge our passion for the gospel [...] We should not just try to cope with hell, but be compelled – as with all doctrine – to live differently in light of it.

Many Christians mistakenly believe that Jesus talks about hell more than any other subject in scripture, because they heard this from a trusted friend who heard it from a friend who heard it from another you’ve been messin’ around… no, wait, that’s an REO Speedwagon song.  My point is that if one has studied the etymology of the word “hell”, then one ought to be embarrassed to make such a claim, since the word “hell” did not even exist in the first century.  But that’s another blog for another day.  Today I would like to take a look at one particular claim Chan makes at the beginning of chapter two of Erasing Hell:

The only way we’re going to understand what Jesus said about hell is to soak ourselves in the Bible’s own culture.  Breathe its air.  Feel its dirt.  [...]  So to this world we turn.  What we find in this context is that hell was seen as a place of punishment for those who don’t follow God.  In fact, so ingrained was the belief in hell among first century Jews that Jesus would have had to go out of His way to distance Himself from these beliefs if He didn’t hold them.

The obvious question is, did Jesus “go out of His way to distance Himself” from the beliefs of the Jewish religious leaders in the first century?  Instead of offering peripherals and conjectures, I’ll let Jesus speak for Himself.

When Jesus healed a paralytic, He prefaced the healing with the words, “Child, thy sins have been forgiven.”  This did not rest well with the scribes, who asked, “Who is able to forgive sins except one – God?”  Jesus replied, not to them, but to the paralytic, “[...]the Son of Man hath authority on the earth to forgive sins.”  His reassurance was not given to the religious leaders, but to the common sinner.  To me, Jesus is saying that the scribes have totally underestimated Him.

When the Pharisees saw Jesus having a friendly sit-down dinner with sinners, they asked the disciples, “Why – that with the tax-gatherers and sinners he doth eat and drink?”  Jesus overheard and replied, “[...] I came not to call righteous men, but sinners to reformation.”  To me, Jesus is saying that the Pharisees have no idea who “qualifies” to sit at His table.

As Jesus and His disciples were traveling through some cornfields on Sabbath Day, the disciples were picking and nibbling along the way.  The Pharisees took note and accused, “Lo, why do they on the sabbaths that which is not lawful?”  Jesus came to their defense by reminding them of a story from their own scriptures, about David.  The modern-day equivalent of this story would be that David and his buddies have the munchies and decide to raid the church-room where the bread (or those little wafer things) and wine (or grape juice) is stored for communion or mass!  Jesus’s concluding remarks shut them right up, “The Sabbath for man was made, not man for the Sabbath, so that the Son of Man is Lord also of the Sabbath.”  To me, Jesus is saying that the Pharisees have misinterpreted/mistranslated the scriptures.

Jesus went to the synagog, where there was a man with a deformed hand, and Jesus knew that the religious leaders were watching to see if He would heal the man on the Sabbath Day (break the rules).  Notice that Jesus is the one to pick the fight, so-to-speak, by saying to the man with the hand, “Rise up in the midst.”  He didn’t say, “Come over here, where we can meet privately.”  He didn’t do His dealings behind closed doors with the good ole’ boys, smoking and joking in the safety of anonymity – He made a point to distinguish Himself and His Truth from the teachings of the Pharisees.  He said, while everyone was watching and listening, “Is it lawful on the sabbaths to do good, or to do evil? life to save, or to kill?”  I am totally pumped about what happens next:

And having looked round upon them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their heart, He saith to the man, “Stretch forth thy hand;” and he stretched forth, and his hand was restored whole as the other; and the Pharisees having gone forth, immediately, with the Herodians, were taking counsel against him how they might destroy him.

Jesus clearly threw down the gauntlet, and the Pharisees reacted accordingly.  To me, Jesus is demonstrating that the Pharisees see the true power of God as a threat to their current understanding and practice.

Some scribes and Pharisees found fault with the disciples because they didn’t do the regular ceremonious hand-washing.  The modern-day equivalent might be that someone goes to church and asks the pastor a question in the middle of the sermon instead of calling the church office to make an appointment with the pastor.  Basically, the disciples didn’t bother with religious protocol, and it really annoyed the religious elite, who asked, “Wherefore do thy disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but with unwashed hands do eat the bread?”  Jesus called them hypocrites and gave them a painfully honest answer, saying among other things, “[You are] setting aside the word of God for your tradition that ye delivered [...]”  To me, Jesus is teaching the onlookers (and us) that through religious protocol and practice, hypocrites deliver a different message than the one that comes from God.

When the Pharisees picked a fight with Jesus, demanding He perform a miraculous sign for them, Jesus, “having sighed deeply in His spirit” turned them down, flat.  He then warned His disciples, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod.”  To me, Jesus was warning that many of the decision-makers in religion and politics use their positions of prestige and authority to spread corruption.

I could go on and give many other examples of Jesus butting heads with the first century Jewish religious leaders, beliefs, and practices, but instead I will offer some anticipated opposition to this blog, that is, Jesus never explicitly addresses “eternal torment” or “hell” in any of these examples.  If I may speak for the person who holds this perspective, it is likely that he or she might say, “Show me, in a very specific way, how Jesus distances Himself from the first-century Jewish view of hell.”  And to this I respond, all in good time.  Chan delves into this in chapter three, and since I’m on chapter two right now, I’ll conclude this blog with this final observation:

What are the reasons for Churchians’ rejection of the Glorious Truth of the Amazing Hope we have in the Victorious Savior of the all mankind? How do they justify their mistreatment of those who have Amazing Hope?  By totally underestimating Jesus Christ, by selfishly and judgmentally deciding who “qualifies” to sit at His table, by misinterpreting/mistranslating scripture, and by seeing the true power of God as a threat to their current understanding and practice.  Through religious protocol and practice (all the while breaking their own moral boundaries), they deliver a different message than the one that comes from God concerning His intentions toward mankind, namely, eternal torment in Hell.

Next blog subject matter is NOT: What did the first-century Jews believe? since Chan covers this in his book, but the next blog asks: What is the source of and the result (fruits) of first-century Jewish beliefs?

*Scripture references are from the gospel of Mark.

Next blog in this series: Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell: Abomination

Exposition on the Reign of God: Narrow vs Wide

Posted: 1st January 2012 by admin in Uncategorized
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“Taking the bunny trail” is a euphemism associated with getting off subject, wasting time and energy, or pursuing something that will likely be an exercise in futility.  But in studying scripture and/or being open to the Spirit of God, it is sometimes best to explore.  Since my last blog post, I have been traveling down the rabbit trail in the “Kingdom (or reign) of God” and “Kingdom of Heaven” sayings of Jesus.  It started with the “narrow” gate or door in Luke 13, as well as the “many” versus the “few” referenced in Francis Chan’s book, Erasing Hell.  As I read the context, I see much in common with what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, a well-known message Jesus gave to a crowd of people including the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, and other messages Jesus taught.  I realize that it is beneficial for me to formulate a “big picture” understanding of how the “narrow” way relates to Jesus’s other teachings.

Many theologians believe that Jesus taught the same or similar messages over and over again, wherever He went.  For example, in Luke 6 we read:

And it came to pass in those days, he went forth to the mountain to pray, and was passing the night in the prayer of God, and when it became day, he called near his disciples [...] and having come down with them, he stood upon a level spot, and a crowd of his disciples, and a great multitude of the people [...] who came to hear him [...]  And he, having lifted up his eyes to his disciples, said: “Happy the poor – because yours is the reign of God [etc...]“

But in Matthew 5, we read:

And having seen the multitudes, he went up to the mount, and he having sat down, his disciples came to him, and having opened his mouth, he was teaching them, saying: “Happy the poor in spirit – because theirs is the reign of the heavens [etc...]“

So did Jesus give His sermon on the way up the mountain or on the way back down?  Do Matthew and Luke have their times and places confused?  Why does Matthew quote Jesus saying “the poor in spirit” while Luke records Jesus saying simply “the poor”?  What is the difference between the “reign of God” and the “reign of the heavens”?  Perhaps Jesus gave the same message, although not word-for-word, twice, once on the way up and once on the way down.  What is important here is the message itself, and how the hearers received it.  One regular blog reader, Mary Vanderplas, sums up the situation nicely in her comments on the previous blog, “Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell: Croissants Falling from the Sky“:

I like what you say about Jesus’ frequent use of metaphorical speech and about the need to interpret such speech rightly. I think you’re right, too, in asserting a connection between the preceding parables in Luke 13 and this text in verses 22 and following, though I doubt that the person’s question was prompted by the parables. It is far more likely that Luke arranged the materials thus as part of his “Travel Narrative,” which begins in 9:51. (Matthew has them in separate places – Matthew 13:31-33; 7:13-14, 22-23; 19:30.) At any rate, I think you’re right to see here a connection between Jesus’ teaching in these parables – which call into question conventional ways of thinking about God’s kingdom – and Jesus’ response to this questioner. Specifically, the images in these parables shatter commonly-held views of how God works, much as the final salvation of God will overturn the expectations of those who assume that they are guaranteed a place in the kingdom.

(*Readers can access most of the texts, in context, that I will examine in this blog by clicking this link.)

The audience consists of a large number of people, whether this is two similar sermons or only one.  Some people might argue against this point, which is fine, but I’m not spending too much time defending the idea in this blog.  (For further information, study internal evidence for a single event with two accounts and reference Matthew 5:1, 7:28 and Luke 6:13 & 17-18 for descriptions of the audience.)  Jesus’s audience can be divided into three groups – the twelve disciples chosen from among Jesus’s many other disciples, the disciples who are not included among the twelve, and the “multitudes” of Abraham’s descendants (possibly including a few curious Gentile onlookers).

Jesus describes what kind of people enter into the reign of God – the poor in spirit, the meek, the hungering, the peacemakers, those persecuted for righteousness sake, etc.  This is not a list of qualifications or rules for admittance into the reign of God.  Jesus is simply creating a picture of the attributes one might expect to find among those who possess the life He gives.  By human standards, this is a sad, sorry group of unimportant, unsuccessful people.  By God’s standards, these people have discovered their salvation, they are not preoccupied with important positions in life, and they measure their success in the perfect life of Jesus Christ.  This called-out group of people have a function in the world – to be salt and light to the others.  In Jesus’s time, these two words packed more of a punch than they do now, because back then, there was no electricity, hence, no instantaneous flick-of-the-light-switch and no refrigeration to preserve meat (they used salt).  Check out any long-term survival guide, and you will find salt and lighting supplies on the list of must-haves.  There’s a bit of humor in the salt metaphor for the in-your-face-super-religious types of people, that is, salt is essential to animal life, but in excess, it is harmful.

Jesus describes the difference between what people have been taught by religious leaders regarding the law and the actual law itself.  Elsewhere in scripture, Jesus says “It is written,” but here, he says, “You have heard it said…”  For example, Jesus said:

Ye heard that it was said: “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth;” but I – I say to you, not to resist the evil, but whoever shall slap thee on thy right cheek, turn to him also the other; and whoever is willing to take thee to law, and thy coat to take – suffer to him also the cloak. And whoever shall impress thee one mile, go with him two, to him who is asking of thee be giving, and him who is willing to borrow from thee thou mayest not turn away.

The law to which Jesus refers, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth,” was established for these and other good reasons: to maintain through fear of punishment the general peace and order in society, to ensure that the punishment was neither too lenient nor harsh- that it fit the crime, to ensure that wealth or race or social status did not result in legal bias, and to prevent the violent chaos of disproportionate personal revenge.  The Scribes and Pharisees perverted this law through sophisticated arguments, taking the civil laws into their personal lives, applying the “Eye for an eye” concept to exact emotional, physical, and financial retaliation outside of the court system.  It was used as a means of justifying not only racial inequality, but the outright abuse or even death of non-Jews (Gentiles).  Heathens were not considered “neighbors”, therefore the law did not apply to them, and punishment for crimes against them were more lenient than punishment for crimes against fellow Jews. (*See note 1 at end of blog.)

I did not randomly choose “Eye for an eye” as an example of Jesus’s teaching, I chose it because it is a smooth segue into the next portion of the blog regarding the political climate during Jesus’s ministry.  Martin Luther King Jr. was asked in an interview to explain passive resistance, and he replied:

It was the Sermon on the Mount, rather than a doctrine of passive resistance, that initially inspired the Negroes of Montgomery to dignified social action.  It was Jesus of Nazareth that stirred the Negroes to protest with the creative weapon of love. [...] The method is passive physically but strongly active spiritually. It is not passive non-resistance to evil, it is active nonviolent resistance to evil.  It does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.  The attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing evil. [It] is a willingness to accept suffering without retaliation, to accept blows from the opponent without striking back. [...]  The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent, but he also refuses to hate him. [...] the use of violence in our struggle would be both impractical and immoral. To meet hate with retaliatory hate would do nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe. Hate begets hate [...] We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love [...]

(*See Note 2 at the end of the blog.)

It is too bad that Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t around to influence the Jewish religious zealots of early first century.  But if they didn’t listen to Jesus, they surely would not have listened to King Jr.  The political situation between certain sects of Jews in Jerusalem and the Roman law enforcement was volatile.  Had these people taken Jesus’s dire warnings seriously, they might have avoided the bloody, violent end Jesus described:

[Jesus said,] “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that is killing the prophets, and stoning those sent unto her, how often did I will to gather together thy children, as a hen her brood under the wings, and ye did not will.  Lo, your house is being left to you desolate [...]”  And when he came nigh, having seen the city, he wept over it, saying – “If thou didst know, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things for thy peace; but now they were hid from thine eyes.  Because days shall come upon thee, and thine enemies shall cast around thee a rampart, and compass thee round, and press thee on every side, and lay thee low, and thy children within thee, and they shall not leave in thee a stone upon a stone, because thou didst not know the time of thy inspection.”

When Jesus spoke to the Jewish multitudes, His audience was God’s covenant people, people who God had promised to cleanse of sin.  Their blindness and stubborn rebellion came as no surprise to God.  Yes, Jesus wept, because He knew what was about to happen to them, how they would suffer the consequences of their decision to take up arms against the Roman soldiers.  But Jesus also knew that God’s glorious Plan of the Ages would result in not only the salvation of Israel, but the salvation of the whole world.  Paul explained this concept in Romans 11:

For I do not wish you [the church in Rome, mostly Gentile Christians] to be ignorant, brethren, of this secret – that ye may not be wise in your own conceits – that hardness in part to Israel hath happened till the fulness of the nations may come in; and so all Israel shall be saved, according as it hath been written, “There shall come forth out of Sion he who is delivering, and he shall turn away impiety from Jacob, and this to them [is] the covenant from Me, when I may take away their sins.”  As regards, indeed, the good tidings, [the Jews who persecute Christians are] enemies on your account; and as regards the choice – beloved on account of the fathers; for unrepented of [are] the gifts and the calling of God; for as ye also once did not believe in God, and now did find kindness by the unbelief of these: so also these now did not believe, that in your kindness they also may find kindness; for God did shut up together the whole to unbelief, that to the whole He might do kindness.

If we closely examine Jesus’s words, we can see the beginning of the revelation brought to light by the apostle Paul regarding the future of those Jewish zealots who died between 66 and 70 AD.  For example, Jesus said, “If thou didst know, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things for thy peace [...]” Notice how He clarifies that at this time they did not know the things for their peace.  It may be a stretch for the evangelical mind to see the implications – that Jesus longed for them to know now instead of later.  I realize that this portion of the text, alone, does not fully support the point I am making, but if we keep reading, it will become more obvious.  Jesus said, “Lo, your house is being left to you desolate, and verily I say to you – ye may not see me, till it may come, when ye may say, “Blessed [is] he who is coming in the name of the Lord.”  There will come a day when these people, who persecuted the “few” and rejected the “narrow” gate in favor of the “wide” path leading to destruction, will see their Messiah.  Jesus even prophecies the words they will speak, words which indicate a change of heart.

Some readers may be questioning whether those who died in 70 AD can be rightly identified as the “many” to whom Jesus referred in the Sermon on the Mount, so let’s take a look.  There are three points we should examine.  First, the admonition to enter the narrow gate is immediately followed by a warning against false prophets.  Second, there is an urgency to enter the reign of God while there is still time, before the door is closed, because the reign of God was “about presently to be made manifest”.  Third, the two groups (“few” and “many”) are clearly described: those who enter in before the door is closed and those who are shut out.

The warning against the false prophets is a theme repeated throughout the gospels and scripture in general.  Jesus said that the few would know who the false prophets were based on their “fruits” or results of their actions, and He uses similar language to describe hypocrites and Jewish opponents – it may be that the “many” include all these people groups, who exhibit the same “fruits”.  For example, Jesus says,

Take heed your kindness not to do before men, to be seen by them, and if not — reward ye have not from your Father who [is] in the heavens; whenever, therefore, thou mayest do kindness, thou mayest not sound a trumpet before thee as the hypocrites do, in the synagogues, and in the streets, that they may have glory from men; verily I say to you – they have their reward!  But thou, doing kindness, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doth, that thy kindness may be in secret, and thy Father who is seeing in secret Himself shall reward thee manifestly. And when thou mayest pray, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites, because they love in the synagogues, and in the corners of the broad places – standing – to pray, that they may be seen of men; verily I say to you, that they have their reward.

It is obvious, based on the way Jesus describes them, that the “many” are more concerned with appearing righteous than they are with actually being righteous.  Matthew records Jesus’s scathing, open rebuke of the “many”, highlighting their bad fruits for His audience:

On the seat of Moses sat down the scribes and the Pharisees

Jesus identifies the many directly – they are those religious leaders who do the following:

they say, and do not; for they bind together burdens heavy and grievous to be borne, and lay upon the shoulders of men, but with their finger they will not move them. And all their works they do to be seen by men, and they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the fringes of their garments, they love also the chief couches in the supper, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and the salutations in the market-places, and to be called by men, Rabbi, Rabbi. Wo to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye shut up the reign of the heavens before men, for ye do not go in, nor those going in do ye suffer to enter.

When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the many were more concerned about the political ramifications than they were with whether Jesus actually was Who He claimed to be.  Instead of using their powerful and influential positions to champion Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, they worried about what they might stand to lose because of this miracle.  They held a meeting, as follows:

[...] the chief priests, therefore, and the Pharisees, gathered together a sanhedrim, and said, “What may we do? because this man doth many signs? If we may let him alone thus, all will believe in him; and the Romans will come, and will take away both our place and nation.” And a certain one of them, Caiaphas, being chief priest of that year, said to them, “Ye have not known anything, nor reason that it is good for us that one man may die for the people, and not the whole nation perish. [...] From that day, therefore, they took counsel together that they may kill him.

What seemingly better way to “shut up the reign of the heavens before men” than to do away with the One Who is ushering in the reign?

Jesus continues to describe the many to His audience:

Wo to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye eat up the houses of the widows, and for a pretence make long prayers, because of this ye shall receive more abundant judgment. Wo to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye go round the sea and the dry land to make one proselyte, and whenever it may happen – ye make him a son of gehenna twofold more than yourselves.

Remember in the Sermon on the Mount, how Jesus said:

I say to you, that every one who is angry at his brother without cause, shall be in danger of the judgment, and whoever may say to his brother, Empty fellow! shall be in danger of the sanhedrim, and whoever may say, Rebel! shall be in danger of the gehenna of the fire.

Jesus knew that the judgment of Israel was quickly approaching.  God would very soon remove His hand of protection from them, creating a vacuous space for their enemies to destroy them.  Not only would those who follow the false prophets be subject to judgment by religious leaders (sanhedrim), but they would also be subject to the gehenna of fire (Jerusalem, 70 AD), a spiritual garbage dump.  In this way, the Scribes and Pharisees make the proselyte “a son of gehenna twofold more than” themselves.

Jesus continues to rebuke the religious leaders in the presence of His audience, the masses of Jewish listeners:

Wo to you, blind guides, who are saying, “Whoever may swear by the sanctuary, it is nothing, but whoever may swear by the gold of the sanctuary – is debtor!” Fools and blind! for which [is] greater, the gold, or the sanctuary that is sanctifying the gold? And, whoever may swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whoever may swear by the gift that is upon it – is debtor! Fools and blind! for which [is] greater, the gift, or the altar that is sanctifying the gift? He therefore who did swear by the altar, doth swear by it, and by all things on it; and he who did swear by the sanctuary, doth swear by it, and by Him who is dwelling in it; and he who did swear by the heaven, doth swear by the throne of God, and by Him who is sitting upon it. Wo to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye give tithe of the mint, and the dill, and the cumin, and did neglect the weightier things of the Law – the judgment, and the kindness, and the faith; these it behoved [you] to do, and those not to neglect.

Let me demonstrate how the concepts Jesus taught, if they had been practically applied, could have saved the many from destruction.  Caligula (the cruel and likely insane Roman Caesar) decided that a statue of himself should be set up in the Holy of Holies in the Temple.  Petronius, the man Caligula put in charge of doing the deed, was impressed by the fact that the Jewish religious leaders would rather die, and in fact, let the whole nation die, before they would allow Caligula’s statue to be set up in the temple.  Although their angry tenacity seems to be commendable, we must remember that Jesus is “God with us”, and that the Spirit of God claimed the vessels (bodies, hearts, minds) of believers as the new “temple” of God.  The religious system and all its trappings were no longer the dwelling place of God among men.  They had become mere buildings, used by people who imagined for themselves elaborate lists of rules and regulations.  The Jewish religious leaders were unable to recognize that the reign of God was not in the Holy of Holies of their Temple building, the reign of God should have been within them!  How could Caligula possibly set up a statue there?  Caligula’s demands should have been disappointing to them, but it should never have been considered an act worth resisting to the point of the bloodshed and enslavement of millions of lives.  Clearly, they did, as Jesus said, neglect “judgment, and the kindness, and the faith” to let God be the One to judge Caligula’s stupidity.  Consequently, God did just that, because it was not yet the appointed time for the “abomination of desolation” to take place.  (I’ll explain this further shortly.)  Petronius decided to disobey orders.  Caligula found out about it and wrote an order for Petronius to be put to death.  But while the written order was en route, Caligula died at sea because of bad weather.  The letter arrived after the news of Caligula’s death, so Petronius was never executed.  Nevertheless, a rift between the Jews and Romans was created, and it would continue to grow…

Jesus said of the Scribes and Pharisees:

Blind guides! who are straining out the gnat, and the camel are swallowing. Wo to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye make clean the outside of the cup and the plate, and within they are full of rapine and incontinence. Blind Pharisee! cleanse first the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside of them also may become clean. Wo to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye are like to whitewashed sepulchres, which outwardly indeed do appear beautiful, and within are full of bones of dead men, and of all uncleanness; so also ye outwardly indeed do appear to men righteous, and within ye are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. Wo to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the sepulchres of the prophets, and adorn the tombs of the righteous, and say, “If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.” So that ye testify to yourselves, that ye are sons of them who did murder the prophets; and ye – ye fill up the measure of your fathers. Serpents! brood of vipers! how may ye escape from the judgment of the gehenna? Because of this, lo, I send to you prophets, and wise men, and scribes, and of them ye will kill and crucify, and of them ye will scourge in your synagogues, and will pursue from city to city; that on you may come all the righteous blood being poured out on the earth from the blood of Abel the righteous, unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the sanctuary and the altar: verily I say to you, all these things shall come upon this generation.

 

Jewish zealots violently raided Jerusalem, revolting against Roman rule, and for a while, they succeeded.  They raided the homes of local Jews and stole their food.  The Roman soldiers then destroyed the food supply, and people were dying of starvation.  The Jewish sects were vicious to one another in the fight for survival within the city, and the Roman army reorganized and gathered around the city, just as Jesus said.  The Romans gave the people an opportunity to surrender, but they would not – they were more concerned about the appearance of righteousness (having a temple and an orderly system of religious ceremonies) than righteousness itself (love your enemies… do good to those who hate you, etc).  By the time the Roman soldiers were able to enter the city, they were so enraged that they did not wait for orders; they immediately destroyed the temple and slaughtered many Jews.  All of this took place about within the Biblical generation (40 years) of when Christ made His prophetic pronouncement.  The bad/evil fruits of the false prophets, indeed, led to the destruction of the many who followed them along the wide path.

Jesus’s warning against entering the wide gate, accompanied by His description of the many as “false prophets, who come unto you in sheep’s clothing, and inwardly are ravening wolves”, say “Lord, Lord” but do not do the will of the Father, hear but don’t do Jesus’s words, are not known by the “master of the house”, believe that their association with the master (eating and drinking with the master, the master taught in their “broad places”) will be enough to secure their entrance into life, and are “workers of unrighteousness”.  By now, we should be getting a clearer picture of the many.

In contrast, Jesus’s admonition to enter the narrow gate is accompanied by His list of the attributes of the few, that is, they have a righteousness that “abound[s] above that of the scribes and Pharisees”, “seek first” the reign of God over physical needs, do the will of the Father, are known by the “master of the house”, and the progressive triplet – they come to Jesus, hear Him, and do His words.  We also have a clearer picture of the “few”.

Notice that both the few and the many do works.  The few hear the will of the Father from Jesus Christ and put what they hear into practice.  The many suppose or pretend they are doing the will of the Father, but their works are unrighteous.  The reason for this is not because the few are better or smarter or put forth a greater effort.  If this were the case, then we would have to assume that righteousness is a human effort, achievable apart from Christ.  The possibility of a fallible, spiritually dead human being possessing the inclination or ability to do the will of the Father comes only through Jesus Christ, because it is only through Jesus Christ that the Father reveals His will and establishes His reign in and among individuals.  His kingdom is not about average people trying to attain spiritual perfection.  His reign is a “life” relationship between Himself and His people, and it is also a “life” relationship between His people and others.  It is what Jesus calls “My Father’s will” – a new way to relate to one another and to God because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Robert Guelich, in his book, A Foundation for Understanding The Sermon on The Mount, writes:

Inherent to “my Father’s will” was the christological basis of Jesus Messiah, the fulfillment of the Old Testament promise for the day of salvation, that brought about a different orientation to the Mosaic Law.  Therefore, any “prophecy” that attempted to apply rigorously the Mosaic Law failed at precisely the same point where the Pharisees broke with Jesus’ ministry, namely, at the implications of his coming for the old order, the Law in Judaism.  Put another way, those seeking to live and to influence others to live under the “Sinai Torah,” the Law of Moses legalistically understood, had not accepted Jesus Messiah and the accompanying “Zion Torah” whose basis was the presence in history of the new age with its message of salvation and reconciliation between God and his own.  They had ultimately failed to hear the “gospel of the Kingdom,” which offered a new basis and power for conduct, “righteousness” as seen in [Matthew 5-7].

Let’s suppose that the early first century Jewish zealots experienced the same, life-changing spiritual birth as the disciples or the apostle Paul.  How might things have gone differently?  Perhaps they would have recognized the events foretold by Jesus as recorded in the gospels and by John in Revelation unfolding before their very eyes.

Jesus said, “Do ye not see all these [temple buildings]? verily I say to you, There may not be left here a stone upon a stone, that shall not be thrown down.”

The disciples asked, “Tell us, when shall these be? and what [is] the sign of thy presence, and of the full end of the age?”

Jesus answered,

Take heed that no one may lead you astray, for many shall come in my name, saying, I am the Christ, and they shall lead many astray,[...] Whenever, therefore, ye may see the abomination of the desolation, that was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (whoever is reading let him observe) then those in Judea – let them flee to the mounts [...] for there shall be then great tribulation.

(The “abomination of desolation” in Daniel is a prophecy about a ruler causing sacrifices to cease for about three and a half years and the profaning of the temple – if it is to be interpreted literally.)

John, likely comparing the Roman Empire to a beast, writes, that a “beast with seven heads” that “was given to it a mouth speaking great things, and evil-speakings, and there was given to it authority to make war forty-two months, and it did open its mouth for evil-speaking toward God, to speak evil of His name [...]”

According to historical records, Nero Caesar (whose Hebrew numeric name-value is 666 and who was called a “beast” in his time), one of the most ruthless rulers ever, claimed to be the sun-god Apollo and demanded the honor of divinity.  He was the first ruler to institute the persecution of Christians, which lasted from 64 AD until he died in 68 – about three and a half years later.  The zealots rebelled and encouraged the general Jewish population to rebel against Roman rule, to rid Jerusalem of the Roman Empire by force. Eventually the temple was profaned, as described by Jesus in the book of Luke:

And when ye may see Jerusalem surrounded by encampments, then know that come nigh did her desolation; then those in Judea, let them flee to the mountains; and those in her midst, let them depart out; and those in the countries, let them not come in to her; because these are days of vengeance, to fulfil all things that have been written. And wo to those with child, and to those giving suck, in those days; for there shall be great distress on the land, and wrath on this people; and they shall fall by the mouth of the sword, and shall be led captive to all the nations, and Jerusalem shall be trodden down by nations, till the times of nations be fulfilled.

What if the zealots and warring Jewish factions had done the works they heard from Jesus Christ?

Love your enemies, bless those cursing you, do good to those hating you, and pray for those accusing you falsely, and persecuting you, that ye may be sons of your Father in the heavens, because His sun He doth cause to rise on evil and good, and He doth send rain on righteous and unrighteous. For, if ye may love those loving you, what reward have ye? do not also the tax-gatherers the same? and if ye may salute your brethren only, what do ye abundant? do not also the tax-gatherers so? ye shall therefore be perfect, as your Father who [is] in the heavens is perfect.

What if they had heeded the clear warning to “flee to the mountains” and “depart out” and “not come in to [Jerusalem]” when they saw that it was surrounded by armies?  Normally, when an area is under attack, the safest place to take refuge is within the city walls, but this is not true of Jerusalem in 70 AD.  Jesus knew it, and He warned His listeners to enter His reign while there was still time, before the door would be shut to them.  Few people understood this.  Many did not.  This sheds new light on the meaning of what Jesus said to His disciples when they asked Him why He always taught in parables (here translated similes):

To you it hath been given to know the secrets of the reign of the heavens, and to these it hath not been given, for whoever hath, it shall be given to him, and he shall have overabundance, and whoever hath not, even that which he hath shall be taken from him. Because of this, in similes do I speak to them, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor understand, and fulfilled on them is the prophecy of Isaiah, that saith, With hearing ye shall hear, and ye shall not understand, and seeing ye shall see, and ye shall not perceive, for made gross was the heart of this people, and with the ears they heard heavily, and their eyes they did close, lest they might see with the eyes, and with the ears might hear, and with the heart understand, and turn back, and I might heal them. And happy are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear, for verily I say to you, that many prophets and righteous men did desire to see that which ye look on, and they did not see, and to hear that which ye hear, and they did not hear.

Before I close, I must admit that I do not yet have a complete understanding of some portions of the scriptural texts to which I refer.  Undoubtedly, blog readers will comment or email me concerning apocalyptic language and parables and the like, which is fine, but I’d like to preemptively offer that many prophetic passages in scripture are fulfilled in a progressive, layered manner.  The more I learn and understand, the less tightly I hold to my former futuristic view of many scriptures.  I do not condemn those who hold to the rapture-seven-years-antichrist-one-world-government type of teachings, and although I have increasing doubts regarding such things, I do recognize my own ignorance.  For all I know, they could be right.  Regardless, I feel very confident that the things I have written in this blog are also accurate.

I also want to add that just because there was a first century fulfillment of the few and many and narrow gate and wide path, this does not mean that these scriptures are no longer applicable. Just to give one example, the many – do works “in the name” of Jesus Christ, yet those who rejected Christ and suffered destruction in Jerusalem probably did not claim the name of Christ for their actions.  This is definitely food for thought.

Matthew and Luke retell Jesus’s stories and teachings from different angles.  When I say different, I don’t mean that one is right and other is wrong.  They compliment each other, and lend support to the idea that the warnings Jesus gave to His immediate audience should also be taken seriously by modern-day hearers of His words, especially those who claim to be disciples of the Good Shepherd.  The larger context of His words should not be dismissed just because the immediate context of His words have already played out in history.

Matthew presents Jesus’s words in such a way that should make the religious leaders of today’s institutional church shudder.  Perhaps they were actually included among Jesus’s intended audience.  After all, Jesus knew His words would be recorded and read in future generations, didn’t He?  Jesus knew that people would seek to validate and legitimize their actions by doing them “in His name”.  Jesus knew that His name would be abused by those who want positions of honor and power as wolves among sheep.  Not everyone comes to Jesus in this age.  Not everyone who comes to Him hears Him.  And not everyone who hears Him enters into the life He gives, a perfect, righteous life that results in the hearer actually being willing and able to do the will of God.  The “leaven of the Scribes and Pharisees” is still working its way through the dough of humanity.  However, the kingdom of God or reign of God is “like leaven, which a woman, having taken, did hide in three measures of meal, till that all was leavened.”  The three measures (who I suspect are the believers who are overcomers, the believers who are not overcomers, and the unbelievers) will all be leavened, that is, subjected to His will, which is the only will that results in life – abundant life.

*Note 1: It is interesting that the concept of eternal torment in Hell as “just” punishment makes the practices of the Scribes and Pharisees look absolutely righteous.  In fact, if a Pharisee were to beat a Gentile to death for telling a lie, then he would be more merciful than the god-of-eternal-torment, because at least he brings the punishment to an end.  What does this say about the eternal torment doctrine?  If this were true, then don’t you think that God takes “eye for an eye” to a new and utterly brutal level?

*Note 2: It is interesting that if Martin Luther King Jr. were to have taught his followers to behave like the god-of-eternal-torment, then American history would be much bloodier than it already is.  Is Martin Luther King Jr. better at following the will of God than God Himself?  Why is Martin Luther King Jr. praised for responding to hate with love?  Because it is the right thing to do – what Jesus taught.  If Jesus said, “My message is not my own; it comes from God who sent me,” then doesn’t this mean that God has a loving way to deal with hate?  What does this tell you about the doctrine of eternal torment?