Christianity provides the most comforting and comprehensive way of life which addresses the fundamental aspects of human life. Some of the major questions we ask are: Where do we come from? It’s a question of human origin. The Bible says that God created humanity in the beginning. Who are we? It’s a question of human identity. Christians are children of God. What is the meaning of life? Why are we here and what is the purpose of human existence on earth? It’s a question of human purpose. Where are we heading? And where are we going? It’s a question of human destiny. Christianity doesn’t only provide a reasonable answer to these questions for believers alone, but it addresses every human being. Is this post we look at the last topic: Where are we going? What is our destiny? This blogpost is a summary of a presentation on this topic by Dr. Xavier Lakshmanan.
Heaven and hell
It’s very important for us to understand that the question of human destiny is based upon the question of the Jesus’ identity. Who Jesus is and what He is doing for us is determining human destinies. If someone believes in Jesus and His sacrificial death for human sin, then their destiny is fixed with Him. But if someone doesn’t believe in Jesus and His death for human sin and for the destiny of the world, then that person’s destiny is fixed without Christ for the whole of eternity. So Jesus is the decisive person here and now. The choice we make here in relation to Jesus and in relation to the good news (gospel message) in Scripture is going to decide our future destiny.
What does the Bible generally say about the destiny of human life? In this post, we will not look at what happens immediately after death or future events such as the tribulation or the millennial reign of Christ. But we are going to focus on the final destiny of human life. The Bible says that “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27NIV). So death is certain. It’s like we all have a terminal disease. Some will die early and some will die later, but we will all die. This is a consequence of Adam’s rebellion against God. And after death there is judgement. There are various kinds of judgements described in the Bible. But God’s final judgement is going to divide everyone who ever lived from Adam down to the end of time into two groups. “Then they [unbelievers] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous [believers] to eternal life” (Mt. 25:46). The first group is unbelievers (who don’t trust in Jesus Christ) who face eternal punishment (hell). And the other group are believers saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, who face eternal life (heaven). This post describes heaven, and the next one describes hell.
The Bible addresses human need, but not human curiosity. For example, it doesn’t tell us what Lazarus experienced after death. The Bible is like a love letter from a Father to His children saying that I am in control, trust me as we pass from death to eternity. We are excited about heaven. But heaven isn’t a surprise. Instead it is an outcome of all the decisions and the choices we make today. A small, simple, clear decision and encounter with Jesus we make is going to decide that destiny.
What is heaven?
According to the Bible, heaven is where Jesus is. It’s a place that God promised to prepare for us where there is no sin, no disease and no death. But is heaven going to be a place? It can be a spiritual place. We understand things through comparison, and analysis, and verification, and through examples. We don’t have realities in this world to compare with the heavenly. But we have symbols to express these realities like parables, similes and metaphors, which are the language we use to speak about the eternal and the heavenly and things that we do not know but are revealed in the Bible.
The word “heaven” is used in the Bible for three main purposes. It’s meaning in a particular passage is determined by the context. It’s “shamayim” in the Old Testament Hebrew language and “ouranos” in the New Testament Greek language. It is used for the atmosphere (sky), the universe (stars and galaxies) and the abode of God (the third heaven). In this post we are looking at the third meaning of heaven. The Bible says that this heaven is:
It’s a spiritual home. A place of God’s being. When Jesus was teaching His disciples to pray, He said “This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven …’” (Mt. 6:9). So, heaven is a place where God is. It’s God’s home. And in the Bible the word heaven is synonymous with God Himself. And Jesus told them, “My Father’s house has many rooms” (Jn. 14:2). So, heaven is our Father’s home.
The believer’s promised home
Jesus told His disciples “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (Jn. 14:2-3). So heaven is also a place for believers. Jesus promised to return and take believers to be with Him in heaven. What a great promise to encourage us when we face the pain, struggles, tears, weakness, and challenges of life.
The believer’s citizenship
Paul told the Christians in Philippi, “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables Him to bring everything under His control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body” (Phil. 3:20-21). We are travelers and sojourners here. Our life is very short. It’s temporary. The brevity of life is going to give way to the permanent citizenship of heaven. Are we happy to be a permanent citizen of heaven? Mortality will be swallowed up in immortality. Corruptibility will be swallowed up in incorruptibility. And the temporal will be swallowed up in the eternal. Are we waiting for these joys of heaven?
The believer’s eternal home
After Paul described the rapture of the dead, he said “After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them [resurrected believers] in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we [all believers] will be with the Lord forever” (1 Th. 4:17). At the rapture all believers will leave the earth to live with the Lord. It will be an endless life in heaven. It’s a great destiny which is described in the Bible as follows.
A place of inheritance
An inheritance is kept in heaven for those who trust in Jesus. Peter writes, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In His great mercy He has given us [believers] new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you [believers], who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time “ (1 Pt. 1:3-5). Its been said that “he is not a fool who gives away what he cannot keep for the sake of what he cannot lose”. Believers are not fools. They give up the perishable things of this world to secure, gain and keep forever the imperishable things to come. It’s an eternal inheritance. In heaven, God will deliver all believers from the presence of evil and sin.
A place of hope
Paul often thanks God for the faithfulness of His people, “we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people—the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven” (Col. 1:4-5). This hope is not a virtue or an attribute. Jesus Christ is our hope: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). It’s the assurance of eternal life in heaven (Tit. 1:2). Jesus Christ is returning to take His followers to be with Him. Are we ready to meet Him with confidence?
A place of God’s presence
A passage about the eternal state says, “God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and He will dwell with them” (Rev. 21:3).
A place of perfection
John wrote, “now we [believers] are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 Jn. 3:2). They will not become gods or semi-gods. But they will be like Jesus in His risen body. In His resurrected glory. Christlikeness is their destiny.
A place of joy
A passage about the eternal state says, “‘He [God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4). Everything will be new. No more suffering or physical ailments.
A place of glory
A passage about the eternal state says, “The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp” (Rev. 21:23). God provided light so that the Israelites could travel by night (Ex. 13:21-22). But this eternal light will be more glorious than that. We can’t imagine what it will be like. There will be no time, space or mass.
A place of resting
Believers are promised eternal rest. “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from His. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience” (Heb. 4:9-11). What a great prospect for those who live in a restless world.
A place of worshipping and serving
But what are believers going to do in heaven? There will be plenty to do. There is worship. In this passage three groups of people are worshipping God 24/7. They are the multitude of believers, the 24 elders and the four living creatures. And the elders, “lay their crowns before the throne”, showing that God alone is worthy of praise and worship (Rev. 4:10).
In a coming time when God defeats those who persecute His people, there will be praise and worship in heaven. “After this I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting: “Hallelujah [Praise the Lord]! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are His judgments. He has condemned the great prostitute who corrupted the earth by her adulteries. He has avenged on her the blood of his servants.” And again they shouted: “Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever.” The twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God, who was seated on the throne. And they cried: “Amen, Hallelujah!” Then a voice came from the throne, saying: “Praise our God, all you His servants, you who fear Him, both great and small!” Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give Him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb [Jesus] has come, and His bride [believers] has made herself ready” (Rev. 19:1-7).
A place of fellowship and celebration
In contrast to the law of Moses [the old covenant], the new covenant is described as, “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:22-24). Believers are not alone in heaven. They are with a crowd of angels and human beings who are resurrected, restored, and enjoying the presence of God in celebration. Heaven is a place of celebration and joy and fellowship with God. Are you excited? Live up to that. Then one day Jesus will call, “Come on! I’m ready. Come out of your graves! Come out of your bodies, and pain and tears and suffering. Servants of God, who have put their trust in Jesus. Come home. Enjoy your rest”. May God keep us focused on the fellowship and celebration of eternal glory. May we cherish the eternal heaven of God which is our home, promised for us forever and ever.
Heaven is our destiny if we trust in the death of Christ on the cross to forgive our sins. It’s God’s home, the believer’s promised eternal home, and the believer’s citizenship. It’s a place of eternal inheritance, hope, God’s presence, perfection, joy, glory, resting, worshipping and serving, and fellowship and celebration.
Let’s not forget our faith or our journey with Jesus. And never lose the enjoyment of God in our life because that’s what’s going to keep us going until we reach our heavenly home.
Acknowledgement: This blogpost was sourced from a presentation by Dr. Xavier Lakshmanan on this topic. Dr. Lakshmanan is Head of Theology in the Australian College of Christian Studies.
Written, October 2018
In the marshmallow test a researcher places a marshmallow in front of a pre-schooler and tells them that if they can wait about 15 minutes before eating it, they will get a second marshmallow. The choice is: one treat right now or two treats later. It demonstrates the power of habit and willpower (or self-control).
Our habits affect or control our lives. A habit is something we do regularly and that tends to occur subconsciously. It involves our attitudes, behaviors, characteristics and customs. Old habits are hard to break and new habits are hard to form. But it is possible to form new habits through the repetition of new actions in small steps (that take no more than 5 minutes). And It takes at least 60 consecutive days to establish a habit.
God lists three habits in the Bible that go together like the layers in a sandwich.
When he wrote a letter to encourage the Christians at Thessalonica who were enduring persecution, Paul said, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Th. 5:16-18NIV). This is comprised of three commands: to be joyful, to be prayerful and to be thankful. It would have been easier if the Bible said, “Rejoice sometimes, pray occasionally, and give thanks when you feel like it”. Instead the standard is higher than that: always, continually, and in all circumstances.
These three commands cover our past, present and future. We rejoice in the present, pray for the future and give thanks for the past. Paul repeated them to Christians in Rome, “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer” (Rom. 12:12).
The first command is to rejoice always.
“Rejoice always” means to be cheerful or joyful all the time, not just sometimes. This includes good and adverse circumstances. Paul was joyful when he heard about their ongoing faith in the Lord (1 Th. 3:9). But the Christians at Thessalonica were to rejoice although they were being persecuted (Acts 17:5-9; 1 Th. 2:14). And Paul and Silas sang joyfully in prison (Acts 16:25).
When we face difficulties, we have a choice: either we can focus on our trials and lapse into self-pity. Or we can set our minds on the things above, where Christ is at the right hand of God, and rejoice. Paul also said, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4). So to rejoice always means that we must make this deliberate choice to focus on the Lord and the inheritance that we have in Him, not on our difficult circumstances.
Joy is different to happiness. Joy is an inner attitude whereas happiness is an emotional response to good circumstances. Because it works from the inside out, joy does not depend on our circumstances. God and Jesus are the source and subject of our joy. Biblical joy comes from who God and Jesus are and what they do. And we know that God is in control of the circumstances. As joy is part of the fruit of the Spirit, it’s a consequence of a godly life (Gal. 5:22-23). It depends on our relationship with God.
So there is some truth in the Monty Python comedy song “Always look on the bright side of life”. For a Christian, there is always a bright side of life. And that’s eternal life.
The second command is to pray continually.
“Pray continually” means to pray at regular times and to be persistent in prayer. Our prayers should be frequent and persistent. It includes always being willing and ready to pray as the need arises. This indicates one’s dependence on God.
Paul, Silas, and Timothy continually prayed for them and Paul asked them to pray for him and his companions (1 Th. 1:2; 5:25). Likewise, we need to pray for one another.
Our communication with family and friends is hindered if our cell phone is switched off or the battery is flat. Likewise, our communication with God is hindered if we don’t pray continually.
The third command is to give thanks in all circumstances.
“Give thanks in all circumstances” means to give thanks in all circumstances because “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him” (Rom. 8:28). Note that it is “in” the circumstance, not “for” the circumstance. If we gave thanks “for” everything that would mean that we give thanks for Satan and his plan for the world!
Instead we thank God no matter what happens, as long as we don’t excuse sin. Whatever comes in our lives comes in by the will of God. Like joy, our thankfulness depends on our relationship in Christ rather than on the circumstances of life.
Paul also said, “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:20).
Paul usually includes thanksgiving at the beginning of his letters. In this case, Paul thanked God continually because they accepted the message that he brought from God (1 Th. 1:2; 3:9).
Thanksgiving is the time of year when North Americans spend time with family and friends and reflect on all that they are grateful for. But God wants us to be thankful every day of the year.
Each of these three commands are God’s will for us in Christ Jesus.
In Christ Jesus
“God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” means that that God wants His people to be joyful, prayerful and thankful. In these areas of life we can know God’s will without a doubt. This part of God’s will is also especially revealed by the example of Christ Jesus. But we can only obey them if we are “in Christ Jesus”. Christians are in union with Christ because they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. And they are empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Paul told them that as Christians they are collectively and individually “in Christ” (1 Th. 1:1; 2:14; 4:16). And their hope was “in our Lord Jesus Christ” – they were waiting for His return (1 Th. 1:3).
Lessons for us
It’s God’s will for His followers to rejoice, pray, and give thanks. God wants us to do these three things regularly. Every day of our life. Jesus taught about them. And He modelled them in His daily life. Let’s imitate Him in being joyful, prayerful and thankful.
Written, March 2018
Joy to the world
All the boys and girls
Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
Joy to you and me
“Joy to the world” was a silly singalong song with a catchy melody released by Three Dog Night in 1971. It’s silly because some of the words are nonsensical. In her 1994 Christmas album Mariah Carey changed the third line of the chorus to “Joy to the people everywhere you see”. Although this song sounds joyful, the only sources of joy and happiness it mentions are drinking and sex, which are fleeting. But at Christmas we remember a source of “great joy”, which is enduring. A hymn writer expressed it as: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” According to the Bible, the joy of Christmas is Jesus.
On the first Christmas night, an angel told the shepherds, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk. 2:10-11NIV). The Greek word translated “joy” chara (Strongs #5479) means joy, gladness, delight, and a source of joy. So the baby Jesus would bring great joy to humanity as the Jewish Messiah who would enable people to have their sins forgiven so that they could be reconciled with God.
This feeling of joy is conveyed in the Christmas carol that’s not a Christmas carol! The words of “Joy to the World” were written in 1719 by Isaac Watts (1674-1748). And the melody was derived from portions of Handel’s (1685-1759) Messiah. It’s based on the Psalm 98:4-9, which celebrates Christ’s triumphant second coming, not His humble first coming. Watts published it under the heading “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom”.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.
Joy to the world, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.
In verses 1 and 2 Watts writes of heaven and earth rejoicing at the coming of the King. In Psalm 98 and Psalm 96:11-13, all of creation is called upon to make a joyful noise before God, for the Lord has come to “judge the earth,” and restore His creation. Verse 3 of the song speaks of Christ’s blessings extending victoriously over the realm of sin. In Genesis 3, a great tragedy occurs when Adam and Eve sin against God, and are banished from the garden as God puts a curse upon the ground (Gen. 3:17-18). Verse 4 of the song celebrates Christ’s rule over the nations.
Psalm 98:4-9 says:
4Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,
burst into jubilant song with music;
5 make music to the Lord with the harp,
with the harp and the sound of singing,
6 with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn—
shout for joy before the Lord, the King.
7 Let the sea resound, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it.
8 Let the rivers clap their hands,
let the mountains sing together for joy;
9 let them sing before the Lord,
for He comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples with equity.
Psalm 96:11-13 is similar:
11Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
let the sea resound, and all that is in it.
12 Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;
let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
13 Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for He comes,
He comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples in His faithfulness.
So the Bible associates true joy with both the first and second advents of Christ. True joy comes from God, and not from our circumstances. That’s why the joy of Christmas is Jesus.
The distinction between the two advents of Christ was unknown until the New Testament era. For example, Isaiah 9:6a described the first advent, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given” and it’s followed by a description of the second advent, “and the government will be on his shoulders …” (Is. 9: 6b-7). And when Jesus read in the synagogue from Isaiah 61 (Lk. 4:16-21), He only read about His first advent (v.1-2a) and not the second advent (v.2b-3). That’s why many Jews failed to recognize their Messiah when He came as a humble servant instead of a powerful king. It’s interesting that the Magi (Wise men) recognized that Jesus was a king (Mt. 2:2). And Matthew, Mark, Luke and John record that the notice on His cross was “The king of the Jews” (Mt. 27:37; Mk. 15:25; Lk. 23:38; Jn. 19:19).
The first advent is when the Savior came to die sacrificially, and the second one is when He comes to reign on earth. The first is the precursor (predecessor; something that happens before something else) of the second. And the second is the consequence of the first. We live in the period in between the two advents when people have the opportunity to have their sins forgiven.
We can have true joy by looking back at the first advent and looking ahead to the second one. Jesus is the joy of Christmas and the joy of the future peace on earth during Christ’s reign.
I have just seen The “Lights of Christmas 2016” screened on St Mary’s cathedral in Sydney. This was a spectacular lightshow to “Celebrate the magic of Christmas”. It was advertised as follows:
“The theme we have chosen this year is Joy to the World and it is revealed through nature. The audience will be taken on a dream-like journey of enchantment and imagined worlds. Fireflies lead us on our expedition through underground caverns, then rising up to the skies and returning to the ocean. Along the way we meet a family of animals, all bringing colour and joy to the world!”
So this show, screened on a gothic church, depicts animals and nature as bringing “joy to the world”! What a comparison! The temporary joy from animals compared to the eternal joy available through Jesus! Secular joy compared to true joy. A person’s idea of joy, compared to God’s idea of joy. But the true joy of Christmas is Jesus, not animals or any other part of the celebration.
God’s Christmas gift
Jesus is God’s gift to humanity. God sacrificed His own Son so that we could have eternal life and be spared from judgment. The coming of the Savior, which we remember at Christmas, brings “great joy” because:
– It’s “good news” for sinners like us – He came to save people from their sins through His death and resurrection. That’s why He was named Jesus (Mt. 1:21).
– It’s true news – fact not fiction, legend, myth or a fairy tale. It was a normal birth in an unusual location.
– It’s about the unique Lord Jesus Christ who reconciled sinful people to God. He was Savior, Messiah and Lord (Lk. 2:11). Messiah (or Christ) means “chosen one” and “Lord” is a synonym for God.
– It was for everyone – “a Savior has been born to you” was initially addressed to the poor uneducated shepherds.
– It has eternal value.
But a gift only brings joy if it is received. Have you received God’s Christmas gift? Do you believe that Jesus came for you?
We can seek happiness in many ways. But the Bible reveals the source of true lasting joy. At the first Christmas an angel announced that Jesus would bring “Joy to the world”. And the song by Isaac Watts describes the joy associated with Christ’s second advent. The joy of Christmas is Jesus. He came so that we could experience joy. Not always happiness, but an inner contentment of joy. The true joy of Christmas lasts all year long and for a lifetime. Do you know the joy that only Jesus can bring? May you have a joyful Christmas.
Written, December 2016
I went to a funeral yesterday, which had been postponed until after the birth of a baby. The safe arrival of a baby can bring joy amidst despair. It is good news. This was particularly true in the days before modern medicine when some mothers and babies didn’t survive child birth. It’s a significant event that is anticipated by the parents and their family and friends. But the birth we remember at Christmas was unique in bringing joy to both earth and heaven. We see that God changes despair into joy.
Joy on earth
At Christ’s birth the shepherds were told, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk. 2:10-11NIV). This was good news for a nation that despaired for at least 500 years when they were ruled by foreign powers and lacked a proper king (Herod was not a Jew). They were looking for the promised Messiah to lead a rebellion against the Romans and bring them lasting peace and prosperity (Is. 9:6-7; Lk. 23:2-5). They also knew that their Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2, 4; Jn. 7:42).
God revealed to two elderly people that baby Jesus was the promised Messiah. Simeon could now die in peace (Lk. 2:29). Anna thanked God and told others who were looking forward to being freed from foreign domination (Lk. 2:38).
But the good news was not restricted to Jews in Israel. Gentile astrologers from east of Israel came to worship “the one who has been born king of the Jews” (Mt. 2:1-2).
On 22 July 2013 a son was born to Prince William and Kate Middleton The birth of an heir to the throne, such as Prince George, brings joy to a nation. Because Christ’s was a royal birth, there was joy in Israel. But what made this event different to the birth of Prince George?
Joy in heaven
Prince George was given a family name. Jesus was also given a family name (the same as Joshua: “Jesus” is from Greek, while “Joshua” is from Hebrew), but it was “because He will save His people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21). The Jews wanted to be delivered from Roman rule. But instead they are promised to be saved from their sins!
There was also joy in heaven at Christ’s birth – the angels praised God, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests” (Lk. 2:14). They also declare that Christ is the source of peace on earth. This peace is available to those who repent of their sins and receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. That’s how people are saved from their sins. This joy continues today because there is rejoicing in heaven when a sinner repents and turns to God (Lk. 15:7, 10).
From despair to joy
Through the birth of a baby, God changed the Jewish despair into joy. However, Jesus wasn’t only a Savior for the Jews, but for all the people of the world (Jn. 3:16; 4:42). Through Jesus joy is available to those who accept His gift of salvation and this joy extends to heaven.
Do you realise the significance of Christ’s birth? The significance of His life, death, resurrection and ascension? Have you caused rejoicing in heaven? Let’s remember these things at Christmas (Lk. 2:19).
Remember God can change despair into joy.
Written, December 2013
In Scripture, the word translated “heaven” has three meanings: the atmosphere/sky, the universe, and the dwelling place of God and the angels. The meaning is determined from the context in which the Hebrew or Greek word is used. In this article we are looking at the heaven where God is.
Revelation 21:1 – 22:5 is the main Biblical passage about the eternal state, which we call heaven. This passage describes the change from time to eternity.
Everything is new
Chapter 21 begins: Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away (21:1NIV). Here we see that God will create a new heaven and a new earth. The creation of the first heaven and earth is described as the beginning of the Bible (Gen. 1:1-2:4). The change described in Genesis was from eternity to time, while that in Revelation is from our temporal world where there is past, present and future to eternity where time is meaningless. Of course, the heaven that will be renewed is not the place where God lives, but the universe that has been affected by the sin of mankind.
When we become a Christian, our soul is redeemed. It’s like a new life has begun – it has been called being born again (2 Cor. 5:17). It’s a new spiritual creation that is not completed until our bodies are also redeemed at the rapture. In fact all of God’s creation is looking forward to when Christ returns to the Earth when it will be changed and redeemed. In this part of Revelation we read about the final change into the eternal state. The old universe is transformed and replaced with the new. It will be free from death and decay, which are the results of sin (Rom. 8:20-21). It will be paradise, like in the Garden of Eden before sin entered. Also, believers will have new bodies, like that of the risen Lord (Phil. 3: 21).
God says I am making everything new! (21:5). Then He says It is done. When He has created the new universe, redemption is complete. God has finished His great plan of salvation. So, what is heaven like? It’s different to anything that we have experienced. One of the reasons it’s so hard to describe is that it is not just another place but another dimension, another creation.
No more …
The Bible says that in heaven, He (God) will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (21:4) and No longer will there be any curse (22:3)
In heaven there will be no more: pain, crying, sorrow or death (21:4). No more sin or its consequences – the curse of God (22:3). Everything that caused pain and sadness on earth will not be present in heaven. The old sinful world has passed away, and Satan, his demons and those who chose to follow him will have been cast away from God’s presence (Rev. 20:10-15).
Besides no more crying, sighing, or dying; there will be: No hospitals or graves! No aging or wrinkles. Nothing will ruin, rot, or rust. There will be no thirsting, or hungering. No itching, no blindness, no deafness, no diabetes, no cancer, or heart attacks, or scars, no witchcraft, no drugs, no alcohol, or tobacco! No divorce, child abductions, accidents…and no more bills! What a place to look forward to!
So pain is replaced by peace and joy. Heaven is a place of relief. There will be no need to worry. As we found out earlier, it’s different to anything that we have experienced.
John wrote The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city (22:3) This is the city in heaven, which we will look at shortly.
“The throne” is mentioned four times in this passage and 39 times in Revelation. When John was taken to heaven, the first thing he saw was the awesome throne of God the Father (Rev. 4). The throne is central in heaven and in the book of Revelation. From it God reigns over the whole universe; both physical and spiritual. He is the Lord God Almighty (21:22).
“The Lamb” is mentioned four times in this passage and 26 times in Revelation. In heaven John “saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the centre before the throne” (Rev. 5:6). It symbolises that the Lord Jesus Christ was a sacrifice for our sin. He receives honor and praise because he died so that many people can be in heaven. He paid the price for their entry.
So heaven is God’s home.
The home of the redeemed
An angel told John, Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb (21:9)
“The bride” is mentioned twice in this passage and 4 times in this context in Revelation. It refers to “God’s people” or those whose names are written in the “book of life” (Rev. 19:7; 22:17). This metaphor illustrates the close intimacy we will have with the Lord in heaven, who is the bridegroom. They will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads (22:4) – just as a bride bears her husband’s name and sees his face, the redeemed have a close relationship with the Lord.
This intimacy is also shown by Him calling us His children (21:7). God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and He will dwell with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God (21:3). Like in the Garden of Eden, they will be able to walk with God in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8). It will be Immanuel, “God with us” and us with God; forever.
Paul wrote about the rapture: “After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Th. 4:17). Heaven is being with the Lord forever.
So heaven is also the home of the redeemed, our common home with the Lord.
The new Jerusalem – city of light
Jesus told the disciples “I am going there to prepare a place for you” (Jn. 14:2). This place is described in our passage as a spectacular city. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband (21:2) and One of the … angels … came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God (21:9-10).
As the city comes down towards the earth from heaven where God lives, we see that in the eternal state the distinction between heaven and earth loses its significance. God now lives with the redeemed and the redeemed live with Him.
It (the city) shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal (21:11). Is this literal or symbolic? I think it is both at the same time. God loves to use literal things as symbols. For example, the prophecy of Joel in the Old Testament opens with a vivid description of a plague of locusts that ate up every green thing. Joel describes them in dramatic and accurate terms but his description soon becomes a description of the invasion of a great army from Babylon that would come into the land. So the plague was also symbolic of the invasion.
God also pictures something invisible by means of a literal event. For instance, the sun is literal, but it can be a symbol of light, knowledge and truth. Likewise, fire is literal, but it can be symbolic of torment, torture and judgment.
Revelation is an unusual blending of the literal and the symbolic– many events and things in it are both literal and symbolic. Fortunately, most all of these symbols are given to us elsewhere in the Bible.
The New Jerusalem seems to be a great visible magnificent city which will also illustrate activities and relationships of the redeemed (21:12 – 22:3). What can it symbolise?
|City||A community; filled with people who interact with each other|
|High wall||Protection; separation from others; intimacy|
|Brilliant appearance (eternal light, no darkness)||God is light|
|12 Gates (entry and egress; always open)||None of God’s people will ever be shut out from His presence; Widespread service|
|Names of tribes of Israel on the gates||A reminder that salvation came from the Jews (Jn. 4:22)|
|12 layers of foundations||Stability; permanence|
|Names of the apostles on the foundations||Taught the gospel; enabled it to spread across the world.|
|Number 12||The number of government (12 tribes; 12 apostles)|
|Shape (maybe a pyramid; symmetry)||Perfect proportions; harmony|
|Building materials (precious gemstones)||Valuable|
|Pearl gates (beauty out of pain)||Christ sacrificed His life for the redeemed (a pearl of great value; Mt. 13:45)|
|River||Holy Spirit (Jn. 7:38-39)|
|Tree of life||Jesus; spiritual nourishment|
What a wonderful place! A place of great beauty.
What will we be doing?
You may wonder if we don’t have to work to pay the bills, what will we do in heaven? Here are three things that are mentioned in Revelation.
First, offering thanks and praise. Worship and praise to God characterise all the descriptions of heaven in Revelation (Chs: 4, 5, 7, 11, 15, 19). For example, after God has dealt with sin and the fall, He will be honored universally (Phil. 2:10-11; Rev 5:13). Second, serving the Lord (22:3). The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and His servants will serve Him (22:3). We will be active. Third, reigning with the Lord (22:5). As God reigns over the whole universe, I’m sure there is a lot to look after.
So in heaven we will be worshipping, serving and reigning.
Before the eternal state begins, Jesus promised to return for His people at the rapture and then to return in power and glory to judge the sinful world and usher in his millennial reign over the earth. Although believers look forward to this time, we don’t know when it will occur. Later in Revelation 22, Jesus says three times “I am coming soon”.
But you may think, John wrote Revelation about 1,900 years ago and the Lord hasn’t come yet. Remember, we have just looked at our destiny and the transition from time into eternity. For us, this transition happens the minute we die, which could be very soon. Although there may be some time before the events described in Revelation occur, it will not be long before each of us leaves time and enters eternity. In this sense, heaven and hell could be a breath away.
Lessons for us
John has given us a glimpse into what Heaven is like. In the Bible, future events are always foretold in order to bring about changes in our present actions. What does this mean to us today?
Firstly, will you be there? The Bible clearly states that heaven is only for God’s people; those who have trusted in Christ’s sacrifice for their sin. The rest are said to be outside suffering in the lake of fire. They are unbelievers and their names are not written in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev. 20:12; 21:27). If this is your case, please consider God’s gift of salvation and eternal life in heaven. The Bible says that God loved the people of the world so much that He gave His one and only Son, that everyone who believes in Him will not perish in hell but have eternal life in heaven (Jn. 3:16).
Christians have a wonderful destination. Knowing our destination is important because it provides direction for the journey of life, makes it meaningful, and fortifies us when the journey is difficult. It doesn’t matter what we face, if we have the hope of heaven, we don’t have to give in to fear.
All the above is a promised inheritance for the redeemed; it’s also called “the heavenly prize” (21:7; Phil. 3:14). Peter calls it a living hope for an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade (1 Pt.1:4).
Heaven means being forever with the Lord; Paul says it’s being “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:6). Peter wrote: “we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (2 Pt. 3:13). Are we all looking forward to heaven?
Written, May 2010
See the other article in this series:
– What is hell like?
Surviving difficult times
Life doesn’t always go smoothly. We all face times of sadness, sorrow, struggle and disappointment. However, for the believer the sorrow of difficult times should flow into joy. This is an important principle for the people of God.
The Promised Messiah
The Holy Spirit made revelations to the Old Testament prophets which they didn’t always understand. Nevertheless, these were recorded for the people of God down through the ages. Many prophecies concern the Messiah who would restore Israel as a nation, judge wickedness and rule over the earth (Is. 9:6-7). Peter said they “predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow” (1 Pet. 1:11TNIV). This is also what Jesus told the two on the road to Emmaus (Lk. 24:25-27). With hindsight we see that passages such as Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 describe the sufferings of Christ, but this may not have been evident in Old Testament times. In particular, they didn’t know that the suffering would occur during His first visit to the earth and the glories during His second visit to the earth. However, Daniel was told that the Messiah would be put to death (Dan. 9:26).
When the long-awaited Messiah was born in Bethlehem, the angel told the shepherds “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk. 2:10-11). The Jews were waiting for the Messiah to come and release them from the oppression of the Roman Empire. Instead they had to learn that honor and glory is preceded by suffering.
Although Peter recognized that Jesus was the Messiah, he could not accept the idea that Jesus would be rejected and killed (Mt. 16:16, 21-22; Mk. 8:31-32). Because their concept of the Messiah was one who would be a victorious leader, the disciples didn’t understand when Jesus told them that He would suffer (Lk. 9:45; 18:34). They were looking for a Messiah who would release them from Roman domination and set up His kingdom immediately (Lk. 19:11; 24:21; Acts 1:6).
Near the end of His ministry Jesus told His disciples: “Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy” (Jn. 16:20-22). He foretold that they would experience sorrow at His crucifixion, but this grief would turn to joy after the resurrection. This transformation would be like the pain of a mother giving birth being replaced by joy. They were assured “no one will take away your joy”.
Jesus said that the reason for this teaching was: “so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33). The prospect of joy enabled the disciples to have peace of mind amidst their troubles.
Today we can learn from these examples in Scripture. When we face sorrow and grief let’s remember that Christ had to go through the sorrow before He will experience glory, honor and joy at the second coming. The sorrow is temporary, while the joy is eternal.
Unlike the disciples, we don’t have to wait for the resurrection to experience joy. Instead we look back on the resurrection as the basis for our joy. Likewise, we don’t have to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit to indwell us to experience joy. Instead we rejoice that He is always present within us (Gal. 5:22). That’s why we can have peace with God despite the trouble in our world. But we do look ahead to the second coming as another basis for our joy. Until Christ comes to reign on earth, God’s people anticipate His final victory.
Written, December 2007
In this Series on 1 Thessalonians we have seen that Paul visited and preached in Thessalonica and a church was established. Because he couldn’t visit them for some time, he wrote a letter of encouragement. From 4:1 to 5:11 Paul reminded them how to please God – avoid sexual immorality and excel in holiness and brotherly love. Instead of grieving for those who had died, they were to look forward to being reunited with them and to be awake and sober as they looked forward to the Lord’s return. Paul ended his letter with practical guidelines on Christian living. He addressed godly attitudes and behavior in relationships with the elders, other believers and God.
Living With Church Leaders
“Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.” 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 NIV
These verses address leadership in the local church. The Bible teaches that each church is to be led by a group of qualified elders who share this responsibility. Several characteristics of elders are mentioned here. They are to “work hard” at caring for people. They are to be “over” the congregation, meaning that they are to maintain or rule. In other letters Paul said that they “direct the affairs of the church” and “lead” (1 Tim. 5:17; Rom. 12:8). Both Paul and Peter likened their care to spiritual parents caring for a family (1 Tim. 3:4,5,12; 1 Pet. 5:2-3). Elders are also to “admonish” or gently reprove the congregation. Paul used the same word when he told them to warn anyone who didn’t obey his instructions (2 Th. 3:15). Elders are to remind the church of God’s truths and the dangers of living a self-centered life.
In this passage, the congregation was given two responsibilities with respect to the elders. It was to “respect” them. This Greek word is translated as “acknowledge” (TNIV), “know” (KJV), “recognize” (NKJV), “appreciate” (NASB) and “honor” (NLT). The congregation needs to know the elders if they are going to trust and follow them. They are also to “hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.” This means to value them because of their important work, not because of their personality, spiritual gifts, wealth or anything else.
In this context Paul encouraged Thessalonians to “live in peace with each other.” Harmony should be characteristic of all Christian relationships, as peace is a fruit of the Spirit and we follow the God of peace (1 Th. 5:23; Gal. 5:22). There is a need to value all the elders, as favoring one divides the congregation. Also, elders should serve the whole congregation, not just part of it. Paul wrote elsewhere that we should “make every effort to do what leads to peace” and “as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 14:19; 12:18).
Living With Believers
“And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.” 1 Thessalonians 5:14-15
Here Paul shows us how we are to live with three types of people. We are to “warn those who are idle.” Apparently, some Thessalonians had stopped working in order to prepare for the second coming of the Lord (2 Th. 3:10-11). They lived off others, were disorderly and became busybodies disrupting the local church. Paul’s solution was that they get back to work to support themselves and their families. He warned that “anyone who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” Paul said don’t help them by feeding them; instead let them experience the consequences of their behavior (2 Th. 3:10-13). This admonition is followed by two examples of caring.
“Encourage the disheartened.” Those who are disappointed with life are to be encouraged by individuals coming alongside and empathizing with them. Circumstances can cause people to think they don’t belong and have nothing to contribute. But we all have God-given gifts. We need to help such people find their place in the church and encourage them in their work.
“Help the weak” refers to those who may not be sure of their salvation because of their past, or who may doubt God’s power. Paul also taught that we shouldn’t stumble those who are weak in the faith (Rom. 14:1-15; 1 Cor. 8:13). They need our encouragement, friendship and help.
Paul then mentioned three attitudes required when warning, encouraging and helping others: First, “Be patient with everyone.” This means trying again and again even though there may be no response from those you are warning, encouraging and helping. Second, “Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong.” Christians are called to forgive, not retaliate (Mt. 18:21-22; Rom. 12:17). When someone hurts us, we should not get angry and retaliate, but rather seek reconciliation (Mt. 18:15-17). Be patient and continue to show Christian kindness and love. Third, “Always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.” The goal of warning, encouraging and helping others should be to achieve what is best for them in the Lord.
Living Before God In All Circumstances
“Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
It is God’s will that believers be characterized by joy, prayer and thanksgiving. Paul began with “Be joyful always” to encourage us not to let things get us down. In Philippians 4:4 he added that our rejoicing should be “in the Lord.” This joy is to be shown in all circumstances including suffering and persecution (Jas. 1:2-4; 1 Pet. 4:13). The Thessalonians were persecuted (1 Th. 1:6; 2:14; 3:3-4). Paul sang while in prison (Acts 16:22-25). How can this be? Their joy was an internal attitude that was not overtaken by external circumstances; it is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), with Christ as its source and subject. He controls our circumstances and through Him we have victory. We develop joy by focusing on God’s promises and spending time with joyful believers. Joy is contagious.
Then Paul urged them to “pray continually” – at regular times and as needed. When trials come we need to pray our way through them. For example, when Peter was in prison, the believers prayed and he was released (Acts 12:1-19). We should “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests … and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people” (Eph. 6:18).
Paul also told believers to “give thanks in all circumstances.” Believers should be “overflowing with thankfulness” (Col. 2:7) even in the trials and difficulties which mature us. We don’t have to give thanks for everything that happens to us; it says “in” our circumstances, not “for” them. But we shouldn’t complain or grumble. Thanking God is not a feeling, it’s a choice. Daniel prayed three times a day, “giving thanks to his God” even though his life was in danger (Dan. 6:10-12). We can develop an attitude of praising God in all circumstances.
Living Before God As He Guides
“Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22
“Do not put out the Spirit’s fire” is a metaphor for hindering or extinguishing the operation of the Holy Spirit in an individual or the church. This may be caused by sin, disunity or suppression of the Spirit’s gifts. Instead, we are to keep the Spirit’s fire burning by following Paul’s instructions to be joyful, prayerful and thankful, and by following the Spirit when He prompts us to do what is right or stop doing what is wrong.
“Do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything.” The early Church did not have a completed Bible so the gift of prophecy was God’s way of getting His message to His people. Now that the canon of Scripture is set, this takes place as His Word is taught and preached. Instead of despising prophecies, the Thessalonians were to evaluate them. Paul also said that those listening to prophets should discern or “weigh carefully” what they say (1 Cor. 14:29). They were to test them against the apostles’ teachings. Then they could accept what was good and reject what was bad. In Acts, Luke told the Jews in Thessalonica to learn from the Bereans who “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).
“May God Himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The One who calls you is faithful and He will do it.” 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24
The Thessalonians couldn’t live like this in their own strength, so Paul prayed for them as only God could make their efforts successful. There are different aspects to sanctification (holiness), and here he addressed progressive sanctification. Paul prayed that their sanctification would extend to their whole being – spirit, soul and body. The spirit is our link to God, the soul is our mind, emotions and will, and the body is the physical part housing the spirit and soul.
It is God who makes us holy, and Paul was confident that He would complete what He began (Phil. 1:6). He is faithful to keep His promises. The end of this progression is the coming of our Lord, at the judgment seat of Christ, when each Christian’s life will be reviewed as he/she stands before Him.
“Brothers, pray for us. Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss. I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:25-28
After he prayed for them, Paul asked the Thessalonians to pray for him. The kiss was a normal greeting of that day, similar to a handshake in western countries. It expressed friendship with fellow believers. Paul wanted “to have this letter read to all” brothers and sisters, a statement not found in any of his other letters (5:27); he thought it was that important. We should read it with this in mind.
Three keys to living together as Christians alluded to here are prayer, fellowship and Bible reading. Paul ended this letter with a benediction of grace for the Thessalonians – God’s unmerited favor through the saving work of Christ.
Lessons For Us
Let’s develop godly attitudes and behaviors in our relationships with church elders, with other believers and with God. Get to know the elders of your church, and value them because of their work. Obey them and encourage them in their work. The same principle applies to ministry leaders within the church. Believers should serve one another through encouragement, practical help, patience, peaceable living, and by treating everyone as equals in Christ. Our attitude toward God should be one of joy, prayer and thanksgiving in all circumstances. We should not stifle the work of the Holy Spirit in an individual or in the church. The standard by which we should test all preaching and teaching is the Word.
May we use the resources God has provided to live for Him until the Rapture when Christ returns to take us to be with Him forever.
Published, June 2009
See the next article in this series: Encouragement during trials and suffering (2 Thessalonians 1)
In this series we have seen that Paul preached in Thessalonica and a church was established. These people turned from idols to serve the living and true God and to wait for His Son from heaven. They were also a good example for all believers in Greece. Paul loved new believers like a mother caring for her baby, and coached them like a father training his children. He was a hard worker. He knew the opposition the Thessalonians faced because he had faced it as well.
In Part 3 we look at Paul’s joy, which is mentioned three times (1 Th. 2:19,20; 3:9). We will see his priorities in life and his attitude towards new believers.
“But, brothers, when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. For we wanted to come to you – certainly I, Paul, did, again and again – but Satan stopped us. For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when He comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy.” (1 Th. 2:17-20 NIV)
Paul explained his failure to return to Thessalonica (2:17-18). Perhaps his critics accused him of being afraid to go back because of the opposition he faced, but Paul said that his separation from them was like being “torn away.” He felt like an orphan – their close relationship was like family.
His concern for the Thessalonians is clearly evident. Although he was forced to leave the city, he still thought about them regularly. In fact, he had an “intense longing” to know how they were doing, and did all he could to visit them again. He tried at least twice, but his plans were blocked by Satan (2:18). But God always overrules Satan’s opposition, and in this case He used Paul’s delay so this letter would be written and believers in all eras could benefit from Paul’s example.
Satan wants to hinder the spread of the gospel and the spiritual growth of believers. When we face hindrances in God’s work, Satan is often behind them. Paul wrote: “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against … the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). Satan and his demons are the real enemy, not the people or circumstances that they use. Satanic opposition is permitted by God. Remember how Satan got God’s permission before he afflicted Job. It is God’s way of getting our attention. Nothing happens by chance to Christians.
Paul believed that his most important work was helping new believers grow in the Christian faith (2:19-20). As his spiritual children, they were his hope of reward and great rejoicing in heaven. He also said that the believers in Philippi were his “joy and crown” (Phil. 4:1).
The believers at Thessalonica were also Paul’s “glory and joy” on earth (2:20). His investment of time with them resulted in believers who would praise God forever. Such investments are the best we can make because the reward extends into eternity. What a great incentive for this type of work!
“So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. You know quite well that we were destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know. For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter had tempted you and our efforts might have been useless” (1 Th. 3:1-5).
Paul had heard no news and wanted to find out how they were doing (3:1-2). He sent Timothy, a spiritual brother and co-worker in God’s service (1 Cor. 3:9), to accomplish three tasks: strengthen and encourage them in their faith (3:2); ensure they were not being unsettled by persecution (3:3); and check their progress in the Christian life (3:5). Paul was afraid that they may have been seduced by Satan to escape persecution by giving up their faith. The choice was loyalty to Christ or personal comfort. If they chose personal comfort, the church would wither and die and Paul’s work would have been in vain.
Hardship And Opposition
Paul had already reminded them to expect persecution (3:4). When he revisited Pisidia he said, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). The journey for believers before they share in Christ’s glory involves suffering (2 Tim. 3:12; Jn. 16:33). The Lord warned His disciples that to follow Him meant facing opposition: “If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you also” (Jn. 15:20). We know that Christ and the apostles were persecuted (1 Pet. 2:21). Timothy would have told them to expect opposition and to persist through it. He would have also reminded them of the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the fact that God was training them through their hardship.
God uses opposition, persecution, suffering and trials to discipline and train us (Heb. 12:7-11). They can test and prove our faith and weed out those who profess but don’t have true faith (Mk. 4:17; 1 Pet. 1:6-7). As we experience God’s comfort, we can encourage others who are going through difficult times (2 Cor. 1:4). Difficulties also develop character (Rom. 5:3; Jas. 1:3) and make us more zealous in spreading the gospel (Acts 8:3-4).
“But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you. Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord. How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you?” (1Th. 3:6-9).
Timothy’s good report from Thessalonica filled Paul with joy. His labor was not in vain. Their faith and love were clearly evident. They had pleasant memories of Paul’s visit and longed to see him again. His response was to write this letter.
They were living according to his teaching and showing this by loving one another (3:6). They had the right attitude towards God, towards others and towards Paul. To the Galatians Paul wrote: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6). And to the Ephesians he wrote: “Since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints I have not stopped giving thanks” (Eph. 1:15-16).
Although he was suffering “distress and persecution,” Paul was greatly encouraged because of their faith (3:7). He was relieved to know they were doing well (3:8). In fact, words couldn’t express His thankfulness to God (3:9). His attitude was like John who wrote, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 Jn. 4).
“Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith. Now may our God and Father Himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May He strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all His holy ones” (1 Th. 3:10-13).
When it’s hard to know what to pray for Paul wrote: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with God’s will” (Rom. 8:26-27).
When the Thessalonians were persecuted, Paul prayed most earnestly, frequently and specifically. “Most earnestly” is a compound Greek word meaning “most exceedingly.” He knew what they were going through and prayed night and day. It’s not surprising that they were “standing firm in the Lord” (3:8). He also wrote, “Rejoice always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Th. 5:16-17).
Paul mentioned four things specifically in his prayer. First, he wanted to see them again. Second, he wanted to teach them further truths from God. Third, he wanted God to “clear the way” for him to come to them. God answered this prayer when he returned to Thessalonica (Acts 20:1-3). Fourth, he prayed that their love for others might increase.
In Chapter 1, Paul noted their “labor prompted by love” (1 Th. 1:3); they had made a great start. Their love was to include both believers and unbelievers – and even their enemies. This was the kind of love that Paul modeled. It is a love that is to be practiced continually.
Our expression of love in this life leads to blamelessness in the next. If we love one another and all humanity, we will stand “blameless and holy” when Christ returns to reign on earth. The Greek word used to describe believers in the New Testament means “holy one” or “saint.” Positionally, believers are holy (set apart for God), and practically should be becoming more holy in character by the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:15-16).
Lessons For Us
This is a lesson in the importance of follow-up work. It is not enough to lead sinners to the Savior; they must also be discipled towards maturity. Remember that Paul revisited many of the cities where he had preached and established a church. He sought to build up the believers in their faith, especially teaching them the truth of the Church and its importance in God’s program. The aim of such missionaries is to establish self-sustaining churches.
The Lord’s command to His disciples was, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19-20). Making disciples was Paul’s passion.
Are we like Paul? Do we encourage younger believers? Do we long to know how they are doing? Do we rejoice in their progress? Do we pray for them? Do we train them like Timothy, and then release them to do God’s work?
Are we like the Thessalonians? Do we stand firm in the Lord? Is our faith strong in the midst of suffering and temptation? Do we trust God despite the difficulties of life? Is our love evident and increasing? Are we living godly lives?
This was Paul’s desire for the Thessalonians, and for us.
Published, March 2009
After the apostle Paul rescued a slave girl from demon possession, her owners realized that they could no longer make money from her fortune telling. So, they seized Paul and Silas and accused them before the magistrates (Acts 16:16-24). A crowd joined in this attack and Paul and Silas were stripped, flogged and thrown into the inner prison. This disappointing and painful situation could easily lead to depression and disillusionment. How did Paul and Silas react? Luke records: “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25 NIV). In a seemingly hopeless situation, they sang praises to God. Where did their joy and encouragement come from?
God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are the sources of encouragement for the believer (Acts 9:31; Rom. 15:5; 2 Th. 2:16-17). This kind of encouragement is not something we have, but something we get from God. The Greek words translated “encourage” and “encouragement” in the New Testament are paraklesis and parakaleo. The most common ways to get encouragement are to meditate on certain Scriptures, on the gospel message of salvation through Jesus Christ, on Christ’s return and on our Christian faith shared with other believers.
The Bible is encouraging because it is God’s special message to humanity. Paul wrote, “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). This means that the Scriptures are encouraging, and following them brings hope into our lives.
Paul taught that a local church was to be led by a group of elders (Ti. 1:5-9). One qualification of an elder was that “he must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Ti. 1:9). The “trustworthy message” that was taught by Jesus Christ, Paul and the other apostles has been recorded in the Bible. An elder encourages the congregation by teaching and following the sound doctrines of the Bible, the truths of Scripture.
After urging the believers to “stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter,” Paul wrote, “May our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who loved us and by His grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word” (2 Th. 2:15-17). Also, prophets brought the message from God before the New Testament was available in a written form; and their messages “encouraged” the believers (1 Cor. 14:3,31).
The Gospel Message
The gospel is encouraging because it is the key to forgiveness of sins and eternal life. When the synagogue rulers said to Paul and Barnabas, “If you have a message of encouragement for the people, please speak,” Paul preached the gospel (Acts 13:15). He began with the Old Testament and concluded with, “I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” (Acts 13:16-41). The gospel of Jesus Christ is always encouraging.
Paul described his mission this way: “My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ” (Col. 2:2). Here we see that encouragement is linked to an understanding that all believers are part of the Church (Col. 1:26-27). Paul also wrote, “We sent Timothy … God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith” (1 Th. 3:2).
Christians “may be greatly encouraged” because they “have fled to take hold of the hope offered to them” in the gospel (Heb. 6:18). In this image they are fleeing to heaven from a world bound for judgment.
The return of Christ to bring all His followers into heaven is encouraging because it means an end of the sorrow, suffering and disappointment of this sinful world. Believers are commanded to encourage each other with the fact that they “will be with the Lord forever” (1 Th. 4:18). The promise of Christ’s return so believers “may live together with Him” is a great encouragement (1 Th. 5:10-11). In view of Christ’s return and the resurrection of the dead, believers should “meet together” to “encourage one another” (Heb. 10:25).
The Christian faith is encouraging because it is the practical demonstration of living according to the Bible, the gospel and Christ’s return. Paul longed to visit the believers in Rome so they could be “mutually encouraged by each other’s faith” (Rom. 1:11-12). The encouragement here is from each other’s faith, not any external circumstances. He also wrote, “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus” (Rom. 15:5). Here, encouragement and unity are associated with following the Lord. Paul was also encouraged when he heard about the faith of the believers at Thessalonica (1 Th. 3:7). Likewise, John had “great joy” when told about believers who continued to “walk in the truth” (3 Jn. 3-4).
Let’s be encouraged by God’s promises in the Scriptures, in the good news of salvation, in Christ’s return and in the faith we share with other believers. These are all linked, with the gospel being the core message conveyed by the Scriptures and Christ’s return being the hope of the gospel. It’s interesting that these facts do not depend on our circumstances, but in fact bring encouragement amidst struggles and suffering.
Also, let’s “encourage one another daily” in the faith so we will not be “hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Heb. 3:13). We are told to use these same means to encourage others (2 Cor. 1:4). Those with the gift of encouragement should exercise their gift amongst believers (Rom. 12:8). It seems as though Barnabas had this gift as his name meant “son of encouragement” and he encouraged the church at Antioch (Acts 4:36; 11:22-23).
When life is difficult, remember Paul and Silas in prison. Don’t follow your feelings or seek encouragement only from circumstances, as you soon will be disappointed. Don’t forsake the Lord when life gets tough. Instead, encourage yourself and others by remembering all that God has done.
Published, April 2008
The message of the first Christmas carol
Christmas is a great time of festivity, celebration, exchanging gifts and expressing love and goodwill toward one another. It is one day of the year when conflicts and wars are often suspended and there is a semblance of “peace on earth.” The spirit of Christmas is expressed in the words joy and peace. We sing “Joy to the world, the Lord has come” and “O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.”
The Need For Carols
But life is not always joyful and peaceful. We have uprisings in African nations, strife in the Middle East, guerrilla warfare in South America. These bring fear rather than peace. Even in democracies, governments can act like dictators. And so can people.
My wife and I usually go to a restaurant to celebrate Christmas with our friends. On one occasion after most of us had eaten, we were rudely asked to leave to make room for more customers. The manager acted like a dictator; there was no joy, peace or goodwill in his attitude.
Of course we all face troubles and barriers to peace from time to time – at work, among friends, within marriages and families. How do we react? Do we ignore them and battle on, like an ostrich putting its head in the sand? Do we attack like a dictator, always wanting our own way? Or do we try to resolve the matter by removing the barrier and restoring peace? This is the approach we should use, as we are reminded at Christmas of how God reacted to our troubles.
There is a great need for peace in our world. The main purpose of the United Nations is to maintain international peace and security. They have peace-keeping missions in many places around the world including the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa, East Timor in Asia, Haiti in the Greater Antilles, Kosovo in Eastern Europe and Iraq in the Middle East. Like the peace at Christmas, these places show us that peace in our world is often very temporary.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa deals with racism, discrimination and the human rights violations that had occurred under the policy of apartheid (strict separation of races). Its aim is threefold: to uncover the truth of what happened in the past, to enable national reconciliation, and to prevent more racial and ethnic strife. They had the right idea – find the truth and seek reconciliation. But they found that reconciliation is difficult: when the guilty refuse to apologize because they say they have done nothing wrong; when there are others who wish they could forgive, but feel too deeply hurt; and when there is little conviction of wrongs and the need for forgiveness when God is left out.
We all need to face the truth and seek reconciliation if there is to be any lasting peace in our lives. At Christmas we remember the coming of the Savior who brought truth and reconciliation to our world (Jn. 14:6; Rom. 5:11; Col. 1:20).
Carols Are Songs Of Peace And Joy
There is much truth in Christmas carols; they are not all about snow, sleigh bells and reindeer. The word “carol” means “a song of joy and peace.” And so we sing, “Come sing a song of joy, for peace shall come my brother” and “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.”
But singing about peace will not bring peace. One Christmas carol is titled “The Tradition of Christmas.” Traditions do not bring lasting peace either. We can’t have peace without involving the Peacemaker. Jesus Christ is known as the Prince of Peace and we sing “Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace.” He came to make peace (Isa. 9:6; Jn. 16:33; Eph. 2:14-17). True and lasting peace only comes when the Prince of Peace is allowed to control our lives.
Christ’s birth was announced as “good news of great joy … for all people” (Lk. 2:10). That’s unusual. How could so many benefit from the birth of a baby? The answer is given in the very next verse of Luke 2 which tells us that this baby was the Savior and the promised Messiah.
Another response expressed in Luke 2:14 was, “Glory to God … and on earth, peace, goodwill toward men.” Peace and goodwill are part of the “good news.” In a sense Jesus was “Peace on earth,” as He is the Peace-maker; He came to earth to destroy the sin barrier so we may have peace.
Later, Jesus promised His followers the gift of peace, and Christians are said to have “peace with God” (Jn. 14:27; Rom. 5:1 niv). Do you have this peace? Do you know “the way of peace” (Rom. 3:17)? Are you willing to seek this peace? It takes two parties to make peace. God has done His part. What about you?
Many of the Christmas carols contain the secret to true joy, peace and goodwill. They concern historical events that occurred about 2,000 years ago, that are recorded in the Bible as the life of Jesus Christ, whose birth divided all history into B.C. and A.D. These carols speak the truth about our need to be reconciled to God and to one another.
The First Carol
The words of the angels after Christ’s birth, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Lk. 2:14), can be viewed as the very first Christmas carol. The angels told of Christ and the salvation He came to bring to earth. This is a salvation that brings glory to God and peace to mankind. It is the theme of later carols such as “The First Noel,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Gloria In Excelsis Deo” and “Angels From The Realms Of Glory.”
The angels announced “peace on earth” – a place where there had been no peace since Adam and Eve disobeyed God. Real peace can only be found in the message of Jesus. It transcends all understanding and will guard our hearts and minds as we live in relationship with Him (Phil. 4:7).
And they announced that peace to “those on whom His favor rests” (Lk. 2:14). They are those who respond to the Good News by repenting of their sins and receiving Christ as Lord and Savior. They have accepted God’s generous gift of salvation.
The angels announced Christ’s birth with gladness and rejoicing, and the shepherds responded by glorifying and praising God. Likewise, Christians should be glad and rejoice in God’s salvation that was achieved through Jesus. Christians should be full of joy and rejoicing at Christmas time and all during the year (Phil. 4:4). Similarly, they should communicate the good news with a joyful confidence.
This first carol of the angels also has a future aspect. Today, very few people praise and honor God, and trouble seems more prevalent than peace. But there is a time coming when God’s kingdom will come and His will will be done on earth as it is in heaven, and there will be peace on earth (Mt. 6:10). Also, in the future everyone will offer praise, honor and glory to God (Rev. 5:13). Why not praise Him now and be one of His agents for peace and reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-21)?
Your Own Carol
How can you put Christ in your Christmas, making it one of true peace and joy? The first and most important thing you can do is make peace with God. Admit that you’re less than perfect and decide to turn away from your sin. Ask Christ to forgive your sin and control your life. After doing this, make peace in your family and peace with others (Rom. 12:18). Then remember that regular prayer, confession and repentance are needed to maintain inner peace (Phil. 4:6-7; 1 Jn. 1:9). By doing this, you will come to share the joy, peace and goodwill of the Christmas carols, and have a real reason to celebrate Christ’s coming.
How our view of the future can influence the present
Some people are optimistic about the future – they see advances in science and technology, so they hope for the best that can happen. Others are pessimistic – they see damage to the environment and social and economic breakdown, so they fear the worst that can happen.
The bad news is that there is a lot of evil and despair in the world and some people are frightened by the future. But there is good news as well: it is clear from the Bible that God offers hope for the future if we follow Him.
Let’s consider some facts about the future, their consequences, and the impact they can have in our daily lives.
We All Have A Future
How can those facing death due to a terminal illness or an accident have a future? Like a criminal facing execution, they seem to be in a hopeless situation. But Jesus actually told a criminal facing execution, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk. 23:43 NIV). This gives us a clue – no matter what the circumstances, there can be a bright future for those who trust in God.
The Bible teaches that there is a future beyond our current lives. Death is not the end of our existence, but a doorway between this life and a future destiny. So in this sense, we all have a future.
This is illustrated by the example of the rich man and Lazarus, whose lives are shown to continue after death, with consciousness, communication and memory (Lk. 16:19-31). They were in two different places – heaven and hell – and the rich man wanted his brothers warned so they would not end up in the place of torment. This wish was denied, illustrating that decisions made on earth can have eternal consequences.
Also, God will raise everyone from death (Acts 24:15). In fact, there are two resurrections, the first for God’s people and the second for the judgment of those who have rejected God (Rev. 20:5-6).
Paul looked forward so much for this future that he considered dying better than living, because it meant he would be with Christ (Phil. 1:21-23). Elsewhere he wrote, if we have hope in Christ only for this life, we are the most miserable people in the world (1 Cor. 15:19). This is because it would mean that there was no raising from death and no hope beyond death (1 Th. 4:13).
Lasting Hope Comes From God
The Bible was written so “we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). In the Old Testament God promised this to His followers: “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” And again He says, “There is hope for your future” (Jer. 29:11; 31:17). So, if they followed God and not false prophets, they were assured of a future filled with hope.
In the New Testament, He is described as “the God of hope” because He is the source of hope, and those separate from Him are said to be “without hope” (Rom. 15:13; Eph. 2:12). The believer’s hope is in God because He has given them a hope that lives on, and an inheritance that awaits them in heaven (1 Pet. 1:3-5,21).
The “hope” of the Scriptures is a confident expectation of a future event, not just a possibility or a desire. This is because God has a perfect record for keeping His promises.
A New Heaven And A New Earth
The eternal inheritance of Christians is to be “with the Lord forever” in paradise, and they will all be transformed to be like Christ (1 Th. 4:17; Phil. 3:20-21). Their main purpose in heaven will be to celebrate, praise and worship Jesus Christ and God – it will be like a great wedding feast (Rev. 19:6-9). At this time they will receive rewards, they will see God glorified, and they will reign with Him (Rev. 22:12; 1 Jn. 3:2-3; Rev. 20:6). God is in the business of destroying the effects of sin such as decay, sadness, evil and death. He wants to renew all His creation. At the end of time He says, “I am making everything new” (Rev. 21:5).
One of my favorite verses is: “We are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness” (2 Pet. 3:13). It is described as a place where “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4). What a great prospect to be a part of this!
It is important to realize that this aspect of the future of believers does not depend on their efforts or their success in life. It is a gift to be accepted from God (Eph. 2:8-9).
The Fruit Of Hope
Our view of the future affects our daily lives by influencing our attitudes, feelings and behavior. Hope is a vital attitude for the Christian that is associated with faith and love and that should result in encouragement for the journey of life (1 Cor. 13:7,13). Its fruit include security, strength, perseverance, holiness, an eternal perspective and joy.
- Security: The hope that God offers us is described as being like “an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (Heb. 6:18-19). It is also likened to a helmet and believers are “shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Th. 5:8; 1 Pet. 1:5).
- Strength: The Old Testament promised, “those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isa. 40:31).In the New Testament Paul wrote: “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe” (Eph. 1:18-19). So God’s great and mighty power is available to believers.Those whose hope was in the Lord remained strong in the faith. For example, when everyone deserted Paul, he said, “The Lord stood at my side and gave me strength.” This was his hope: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom” (2 Tim. 4:16-18).
- Perseverance: Paul praised the Thessalonians for their “endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th. 1:3). Then, after considering the resurrection body he wrote, “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).Knowing some of God’s plans gives us purpose and motivation to persevere and to “hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.” Believers are urged “to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised” (Heb. 10:23,36).
- Holiness: After writing about the hope of eternal life, Peter urged believers to live a holy life: “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’”(1 Pet. 1:14-15). This means purifying ourselves from everything that contaminates body or spirit and working toward complete purity out of reverence for God (2 Cor. 7:1).The hope of being like Jesus when He appears makes us keep ourselves holy, just as Christ is holy (1 Jn. 3:2-3). In view of our heavenly home, “we make it our goal to please him” (2 Cor. 5:9).
- Eternal Perspective: Since heaven is the believers’ home, they are to live as foreigners on earth (1 Pet. 1:17). They are urged “as foreigners and strangers on this earth, to abstain from sinful desires” and to live such good lives that others will come to glorify God (1 Pet. 2:11-12).Similarly, the Old Testament people of faith lived as strangers on earth as they were looking forward to the heavenly place that God had promised to prepare for them (Heb. 11:9-10, 13-16).So, we are to put our hope in God and not in idols such as money (1 Tim. 6:17-18; Mt. 6:19-21); and we are to “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen” (2 Cor. 4:18). This means focusing on eternal things rather than those that are only temporary.
- Joy: Consideration of the believers’ lasting hope and eternal inheritance leads to great joy even if they are enduring trials. Christians are said to be “filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” because they can see the end result of their faith, their complete salvation (1 Pet. 1:6-9).
- Your Future:Is there hope for your future? The Bible says if you are without God, you are without hope for the future. In this case, your only hope is in this life, which can be very disappointing. Why not make heaven your eternal home? Then you will be with Christ when He returns, and will share in the coming new world.If you are a believer, are you letting the fruit of hope grow in your life as you anticipate what God has in store for you? This should be evident as security, strength, perseverance, holiness, an eternal perspective and most of all joy. Are you always ready to explain your hope to others (1 Pet. 3:15)? You should be.
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10NIV)
Don’t worry, He’s returning
News stories on the internet, radio, TV and newspapers often arouse our fears of impending danger, trouble and evil. They seem to feed on the fact that we all experience anxiety and worry. For example, we can be worried or alarmed about: unemployment, money, relationships, loneliness, security, crime, terrorism, illness, aging, climate change, technological change, cultural change, moral change, our circumstances, our choices, the future, or the unknown.
About 2,000 years ago, Mary lived in Nazareth, a village about 115 km north of Jerusalem, which was more than two days of travel. She was far from the capital city of Israel. One day God sent an angel to visit her: “The angel went to her and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored! God is with you.’ Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be” (Lk. 1:28-29TNIV).
Mary would have been surprised by the angel Gabriel, because she had never seen an angel before. Six months earlier the priest Zechariah was “startled and gripped with fear” when the same angel appeared in the temple in Jerusalem (Lk. 1:11-13). If an old Jewish priest was terrified by the angel, then it is understandable that a young woman would also be terrified by the appearance of the same angel. Being alone with an angel could be scary.
Mary was worried about what the angel’s message meant. She would have known that God used angels to proclaim important messages. Was it bad news? She would have also known that angels can be God’s agents of judgement. Was she feeling guilty? As this was a circumstance that she had no control over, she may have felt helpless.
Then she was told, “Don’t be afraid”. Why? Because she had found favor with God and would have a son named Jesus. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High” (Lk. 1:30-33). God had chosen her to be the mother of the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, who would establish the kingdom of God on earth. This was a radical change in her life, because a baby changes everything, particularly the first-born. Nevertheless, her fears and anxieties were allayed and replaced with joy which she expressed in a song of praise for all that God had done (Lk. 1:46-55).
The Shepherd’s Anxiety
Nine months later the shepherds at Bethlehem had a similar experience: “they were terrified” when an angel appeared to them and God’s glory blazed around them like a supernatural search light (Lk. 2:9)! An angel appearing in the countryside during the night with a bright light would be scary. This was totally outside their experience. What was going to happen next? Were their lives in danger?
They were given the same reassurance as Mary, when the angel said, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (Lk. 2:10NIV). Mary’s promised baby had been born and they were told how to find Him. After seeing the baby Jesus for themselves, they also praised God “for all they had heard and seen” (Lk. 2:20).
The Disciples’ Anxiety
According to the Bible, the baby Jesus grew up to be a man who was the unique Son of God who came to take our judgement. After Jesus told His disciples that He was about to die and return to heaven, they were “filled with grief” and wept and mourned and felt abandoned (Jn. 16:6, 20TNIV). After all, they would be without the leader that they had followed for at least three years. But like Mary and the shepherds, they were told, “Do not be afraid” (Jn. 14:1, 27bNIV).
Three reasons were given for not being afraid of their new circumstances. First, they were assured of a home in heaven if they trusted Christ – because Jesus was the only way there. Jesus said, “Trust in God, trust also in Me” and “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one can come to God the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:1b, 6). That’s why the shepherds were told that the baby was a Savior; one who could rescue them. Faith in Christ is necessary for eternal life which is the ultimate cure for our anxieties and worries.Second, Jesus would return and take them to be with Him; He said “I will come back and take you to be with Me” (Jn. 14:3, 28). Although He was going away, they could look forward to a reunion with Him. Third, in the meantime the Holy Spirit would always be within them – the Holy Spirit “will be with you forever” (Jn. 14:16). They would not be like orphans (Jn. 14:15-21, 25-27). This was like having Jesus with them all the time, not just sometime!
So, they had a Savior who was going to take them to heaven and God the Holy Spirit was always going to be with them. Like Mary and the shepherds, Jesus said that their grief would be turned into lasting joy (Jn. 16:20-23). The illustration He used was how a mother’s pain turns to joy after the birth of her baby.
The First Advent
At Christmas we remember the unique birth of the Lord Jesus Christ who was both divine and human. This was His first advent. He was sent to earth by God to die for us in order to enable us to be reconciled with God. The Bible says that God so loved the people of the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life (Jn. 3:16). After His death, Jesus was buried and He rose back to life three days later.
Those who accept His free gift have peace with God and an inheritance of eternal life. We must receive what Christ has done for us before God will give us eternal life. However, those who don’t accept the gift face God’s judgment of eternal punishment; that’s what the word “perish” means in John 3:16 above.
The Second Advent
Forty days after His resurrection, Jesus ascended back to heaven by disappearing in a cloud. Then the eleven apostles were told, “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11NIV). So, Jesus is going to return to the earth. This will be His second advent.
At Christmas we look back to the first coming of Christ and look ahead to the second coming of Christ. In His first coming He suffered and died; in His second coming He will conquer and reign. In His first coming He came as a baby and a suffering servant ((Isa. 52:13-53:12); in His second coming He will be a conquering king ( Rev. 19:16). That’s when He will be the king of the Jews. In His first coming He came to be a Savior; in His second coming He will be a Judge. The first is characterised by a cross and the second by a crown.
Did you know that all of God’s creation looks forward to the Lord’s coming reign over the earth? When the Lord returns to set up His kingdom, the creation will be released from the affects of humanity’s rebellion and re-created to be “very good” like it was in the beginning. The Garden of Eden will be restored (Acts 3:21). There will be harmony between all of God’s creatures. This is when, “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat” (Isa. 11:6-9TNIV).
All the wrongs will be made right. All evil will be judged. Satan will be bound and unable to deceive people (Rev. 20:1-3) . All environmental problems will be solved. There will be justice and no wars. That’s when believers will be blessed materially as they rule with the Lord. In the meantime, they are already spiritually part of this new creation. Those who believe that the Savior died for them don’t have to worry, because Jesus is returning.
Between the advents
What can we learn from this as we live between the two advents of Jesus Christ? Mary and the shepherds faced supernatural circumstances and the disciples faced the loss of their Master and closest companion. We may not face supernatural circumstances, but at times we all face difficult circumstances and the loss of those who are near and dear to us. Like them, there are circumstances that we have no control over. Like them, we can experience anxiety, fear and worry, which can lead to panic and depression. But in their case, God’s solution led to joy.
Do not be afraid!
Remember the message, “Do not be afraid”. The reasons given to the disciples also apply to us. If we have trusted Jesus as our Savior our fears can be changed to joy and we can look forward to eternal life instead of eternal judgement. If we have not , then we will face Him as our judge. If we are true believers, the Holy Spirit is in us all the time. This transforms our lives. As believers we can look ahead to the second advent when the Lord Jesus will come and rule over a restored creation.
Another way to remove anxiety and fear is to “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those that mourn” (Rom. 12:15). This involves sharing the feelings and the emotions of the good times and the bad times. This means listening to what life is like for others and validating their feelings. This means helping them realise that they are not alone. This means praying with them. This means talking about God and what He has done and what He has promised. These encouraging activities can help us get through all circumstances. He’s always with us and He’s always on our side, no matter how bad it gets. Believers are never alone; they have both spiritual and human resources to draw on.
So, don’t worry, Christ has been here once and He’s coming again to fulfill all of God’s promises.
Published, December 2011