When it comes to entering into eternity it is possible to categorise people into 5 types:
Those who never heard the gospel;
Those who heard but didn’t understand it;
Those who heard, received it and when the going got rough, gave up;
Those who heard, received it and got worn down or deceived;
Those who heard, received it and produced multiplied fruit.
This categorisation is based on the parable of the sower in Matthew 13, Mark 4 and Luke 8 as well as other Scriptures.
Category 1: Never Heard
The first category is those billions through the ages that never heard the gospel during their lifetime. Scripture says this about them (Romans 2:14-16, NLT):
“Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it.15 They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right.16 And this is the message I proclaim—that the day is coming when God, through Christ Jesus, will judge everyone’s secret life.”
Evangelicals can hold some strange positions when it comes to those who haven’t heard the Gospel. They often categorise them as the “unsaved” which makes no sense in the context of 1 John 2:2 (see also John 3:16-18, 1 Peter 3:18):
“He himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins—and not only our sins but the sins of all the world.”
According to Matthew 25:31-46 God and the saints (1 Cor. 6:2) will judge them according to their works and their relationship to the saints and God in their hearts (inasmuch as you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to Me). Some will be shown to be sheep destined for eternal life and some will be revealed as goats destined to the second death.
Jesus said that the people of his time were like children playing a game in the public square (Matthew 11:16-19 NLT). This could probably translate to a schoolyard in our time just as well. In the passage he describes the reactions of the other children to John and himself. They are playing the normal games and these guys just won’t fit in.
I’ve tried to paraphrase it a bit, bring it up to date and look at it from a neutral observer’s point of view:
[A few days in] “So the other day we were playing the usual games of tag and the new guy – John – starts going on about something. He not only doesn’t want to play but he starts up a new thing of his own over near the drinking fountain. He doesn’t dress like the rest of us and he doesn’t go along with the gang. I think he has special needs.”
[Sometime later] “John has managed to get a surprising amount of people to put their heads under the drinking fountain! The teachers are getting involved now. He has even been telling them they are wrong in what they are teaching in religion class! Apparently he doesn’t agree with evolution. Keeps going on about judgement coming. I don’t think the teachers like it much. I still think he has special needs.”
[Later still] “John’s cousin turned up today. The first thing he did was to go up and put his head under the drinking fountain.”
[Later] “John has got expelled. His cousin is hanging out with all the druggies, drinkers and girls who everyone knows have slept around. It seems like he has gone the complete opposite direction to his cousin. I don’t think the teachers like him either though.”
So I guess we all know how this ends. But at the time Jesus drew up this analogy this was roughly where things were at.
Interestingly, it wasn’t that either John or Jesus were wrong even though they both had such polar opposite ways of approaching their relationships with their peers. John is confrontational, Jesus is winsome (at least at this point – that changes later). Jesus ends his little analogy with the comment that there is wisdom in both approaches.
I think teenagers in particular struggle with that breadth of acceptance of those they perceive to be different. But they are not the only ones.
We’ve only been to a few churches and we have usually spent a long time at each. The last church I attended for 18 years and my wife was there for longer. This current one we have been at for over 11 years now.
The two churches in many ways could not be more unalike. There are many differences but the one difference I want to look at today was their approach to the character of Christians/ God. Holiness v. Grace.
One church very strongly emphasized something that I believe is true from Scripture: It is possible to be “perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” as Jesus commands us to be in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:20, 48). In fact the Scriptures tell us how. First be born again (otherwise you can’t even see the Kingdom of God), second consecrate yourself to do the will of God only, third walk in the Spirit, or as John puts it, abide in Him (John 15). And, despite doing this, if you do sin, and everyone sins, then confess your sins and you will be cleansed and can start afresh (1 John 1). Simple really.
The other church very strongly emphasizes something else that I believe is true from Scripture: Jesus died for the sins of the whole world for all time so you can stand before God unconditionally unashamed. It is by believing in your heart that Christ died for you and confessing with your mouth that you are saved (Romans 10:9-10). This is typical evangelical doctrine and, inevitably, there will be a proclamation of that simple Gospel at every service so that people have a chance to encounter God. The hope is that the encounter will then change everything for the person who has it – and very often it does.
Emphasis is the main difference here. An over emphasis on walking in the Spirit or your behaviour as in the first case, can lead to that being the criteria that you are assessed by. The danger is that on entering that church you would first have to behave in a certain way and then show the right beliefs before you (might) be accepted.
However the emphasis in the second church also has its problems. In this case you are accepted no matter what your behaviour is like with the hope that you will believe and then God will then work with you to change your behaviour. However you can be left wondering what difference there is between those going to the church and those who don’t. In some cases their behaviour can seem indistinguishable. It is very messy.
Personally I think the second emphasis is better than the first. But then who wouldn’t prefer grace to holiness?
There is a scene in “The Bible” mini series, reproduced in the film “Son of God“, where Jesus reaches out to Matthew, a tax collector. If you have ever felt rejected by your peers, accused of being a traitor, or just generally outcast then it is not so difficult to identify with Matthew nor to respond to the glorious acceptance of the Son of God as expressed in these words from Matthew 9:
“Those who are well do not need a doctor, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” I haven’t come to call those who are righteous, but sinners.”
As Paul says in Romans 11: “God has given every one over to sin, so that He might have mercy on them all.”
The eight beatitudes are nearly the first thing Jesus says in the Gospels. They reveal His heart.
These are the types of people God has time for:
The poor in spirit. People with this attitude are the opposite to the pushy, showy type that is always in your face and who is full of self importance. We all know someone who is “poor in spirit” but filled with the Spirit. That’s because the Holy Spirit is, like Jesus, humble and gentle at heart. These are the type of people that get into heaven.
Those who mourn. In this life there will always be mourners. At some stage we all are likely to mourn the loss of someone we love. Jesus knows that and says He will comfort us.
Those who are humble. I’m not sure what the difference between these are and the poor in spirit. Nor do I know why they inherit the earth specifically. Perhaps there isn’t supposed to be a difference. The lowly in heart get both heaven and the earth.
Those who hunger and thirst for justice. Jesus knew these guys would be satisfied. He also knew at what cost that would be to Him. There will be justice also for those who refuse to receive the grace of God and create injustice.
The merciful. This is something we should all do. We will all need mercy.
The pure in heart. These will see God.
The peacemakers. Peacemakers are not looking out for their own wants, but are involved in reconciling opposing parties. Everyone can see that they are children of the God of peace.
Those who do what is right. You don’t have to explicitly do something in the name of Christ for this to apply to you. Anyone who stands up for the oppressed or does what Jesus would do might be persecuted for it. These also are the types of courageous people God wants with Him in heaven.
Jesus’ followers. Be prepared to be mocked, persecuted and lied about. But be very happy about it when you are!
“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” (Matt. 4:1)
So God decides to face the tempter head on immediately as a man. We shouldn’t think it strange when we face various trials. God is confident that we will overcome. Later on though Jesus teaches His disciples to pray “Lead us not into temptation”, which is a good idea. He probably remembered the trial of it and wouldn’t want us to go through that if it could be helped.
Jesus deals with all the temptations in the same way – He quotes the Scriptures. The devil does too but the heart of what he is saying is wrong.
Once Jesus passes through this He is ready to call disciples after Him. First tested, then trusted. That’s a sequence we all have to follow.
Matthew skips straight from the dream led wanderings of Joseph – Jesus’ step father – through the ministry of John the Baptist to the baptism in the Holy Spirit (and fire) of Jesus. And then the Father is recorded as saying, without more ado:
“This is My Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
I think Matthew is trying to bring out the point that the well pleasing of the Son was there anyway independent of anything He had done to that point. That is the way a son ought to be to a father, well pleasing. The beloved aspect starts at birth and goes on through all their mutual lives. The well pleasing isn’t always consistently the case for any normal father son relationship. In that way this particular relationship was different.
But if there was any thing that triggered the comment from the Father that He was well pleased with Jesus, it was His submission to all the righteousness of the Spirit of God through baptism. There is something significant about obeying God that way. In this case the baptism in water was accompanied by the baptism in the Holy Spirit and both could be seen happening.
When Herod was king of Judea, there were two great empires that disputed the ownership of his land. On the one side were the Romans who had conquered it some years earlier. On the other were the Persians who had been there long before the Romans.
Hundreds of years earlier (586 BC) Jerusalem had fallen to the Babylonians. Through a number of miraculous events that you can read about in the Book of Daniel, some Jewish exiles had risen to a place of great prominence in that empire. It wasn’t long before the Medes & Persians conquered the Babylonians. Remarkably, Daniel and his friends kept their positions of power through the transition.
Daniel was probably the first of the Magi, the kingmakers of the Persian Empire. There is some speculation here but it would appear that he knew what star (or events in the heavens) to watch out for and told his successors. You can read all about the Star of Bethlehem and the astonishing (and verifiable) astronomical events that surround the birth of Jesus at this site.
When the Magi of Herod’s day saw the signs they headed off to Jerusalem following the star. There were probably a lot more than three of them. This was the Persian empire setting off a Cuban missile crisis type of event with their arch enemies the Romans. They were laying claim to the land of Judah. Herod and all Jerusalem were disturbed with bloody results.
A King had been born. Wise men sought him. They still do.
Incomprehensibly constrained to the size of a pinhead, the Lord of the Universe marches down through the ages and arrives Immanuel in a young girl’s womb.
From the first glorious image of Adam through patriarchs and kings, Matthew parades the central march of God’s history before us and brings us to a place of wonder – a few cells in a wonderful dwelling.
“Did You wrap yourself inside the unexpected
So we might know that Love would go that far?”
That whole long march, funnels down and focuses like a laser on this tiny point.