Friday, June 27, 2014

"The unexpected occupants of heaven …"

Day #182:  Daily Bible Reading Plan - June 28th

Scripture Reading:  Luke 15 - 16 …

When things are going well and life is good and prosperity abounds people often declare, "I am so blessed."  But is that really what it means to be blessed?  Is it really a matter of your social position or status, or the amount of material possessions you have accumulated?  There is a lot of controversy in some Christian circles today concerning these things.  In His teaching, however, Jesus left no doubt about the path to heaven and the journey of those who would arrive there.

In His parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son in Luke 15, Jesus makes one point by telling three parables (stories of common, ordinary things that had spiritual applications).  In the first two parables Jesus states the point of the parable at the end:  "In the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent" (15:7) … and "In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents" (15:10).

In view of the rest of Scripture we know that NO ONE is righteous (Romans 3:10).  Jesus is drawing a contrast between the "tax collectors and sinners" (15:1) who were flocking to hear Jesus teach, and the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who muttered about Him welcoming sinners and eating with them.  ALL needed to confess their sins and turn from them (repent), but the Pharisees and teachers of the law didn't recognize their need to repent, while the tax collectors and other "sinners" were convicted of their sin through Jesus' teaching and put their hope for forgiveness in His mercy and grace.  The same lesson is repeated in the parable of the lost coin.  Heaven rejoices when a sinner … ANY sinner, repents and believes in Jesus.

The contrast between the self-righteous and those who were convicted of their sin and who had a godly sorrow leading to repentance is declared once more in the parable of the lost son.  While I and others have pointed out that both sons are lost and estranged from the father, simply in different ways, the emphasis is on the younger son who APPEARS to be more of a sinner than the older son.  He squanders his inheritance, disgraces his father's name and ends up in circumstances that he could not have imagined he would ever be in.  Sin sneaks up on you that way when you are focused on yourself and your own desires.  But by God's grace, the convicting power of the Holy Spirit is able to reach people no matter how far they have strayed.

"When he came to his senses," (15:17) describes the beginning of a spiritual awakening.  The young man was not yet aware of the depth of his father's love, but he had begun to realize that having little with his father was better than having everything without his father.  Meanwhile, the father had been praying and perhaps even keeping track of his son through others, for on the day his son returned, he was watching for him and with love and compassion "ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him" (15:20).  It reminds me of Romans 5:8:  "God demonstrated His love for us in this:  while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."

We know what happened.  The father prepared a celebration (remember - there is rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents!).  Enter the older brother … a picture of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law.  Some try to make this out to be all or most Christians in the Church, but such is not the case.  The older brother represents people who don't see their need for repentance - both those inside and outside the church.  Pride is not confined to self-righteous hypocrites who may have found their way into the church and who are trying to justify themselves by their own "goodness."  Everyone who does not come to the Father through faith in Jesus Christ is in some way self-righteous, trying to earn God's favor.  It doesn't work!

The older son was as lost as the younger son, but he didn't know it.  Heaven rejoices in the work of the Spirit that opens blind eyes to see sin for what it is and moves the heart to turn away from it to follow the path of righteousness.  The Bible makes it clear that only the blood of Jesus pays the penalty for sin and only those who trust in Him will receive God's forgiveness and enter His perfect presence.  So what about Chapter 16?  If we are not saved by our own righteousness, but by the love and compassion and grace of the Father, who moves us to repent and believe, what is Jesus teaching in the parable of the shrewd manager and the story of the rich man and Lazarus?

First, we need to understand that the Master does not approve of the shrewd manager's tactics.  It is similar to Jesus' parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18 … Jesus is revealing the principle that those who are put in charge of earthly possessions should realize that their use of what God has entrusted to them has eternal rewards.  The shrewd manager was not thinking of heaven; he was thinking of how to have enough wealth for this world, so he didn't have to work or beg.  Jesus says that those who follow Him should "store up treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal" (Matthew 6:20).

The use of our material possessions in this life reveals where our hearts are.  "No servant can serve two masters. … You cannot serve God and money. … God knows your hearts.  What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight" (16:13, 15).  To illustrate the point further, Jesus tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus.  Once again, some have twisted the meaning of the story to teach that all poor people are received into heaven, while all rich people go to hell.  Of course, that is not the case.  Even here Abraham is seen in heaven and he was certainly a very rich man by the standards of this world.  Jesus is explaining that those whose hearts are set on their things cannot and will not arrive in heaven because they are not rich toward God … they have not repented from their idolatry, from their worship of money and things.

Repentance again comes to the forefront - a genuine sorrow for sin and trust in God.  Lazarus, the poor beggar, was in heaven … not because he was poor, but because in his difficult circumstances he knew he was a sinner in need of God's forgiveness and he trusted in God's love for him.  How do I know that?  Because all of Scripture teaches the same thing.  No one is righteous, no one is saved by their own goodness, rich or poor or in between.  The point of the story of the rich man and Lazarus is that God calls us to use whatever He gives us for the welfare of others, not only ourselves.  This, too, is a principle God reveals throughout His Word.

The rich man begged God to send someone to give him water, but the eternal destinations of all who die are set at death.  God has given everything we need to make the right choice:  "They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them … If they don't listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead" (16:29,31).  The Spirit of God uses God's Word and God's Law to convict people of sin.  Deep inside people know they are sinners in need of forgiveness, but they suppress the truth in their unrighteousness and so the just judgment of God falls upon them (Romans 1:18-20).  The consequences of sin and self-righteousness are eternal.

Most in the world and many in the church today believe that you can be good enough to earn your way into God's presence.  Even those who claim to believe in Jesus often rely on their religious deeds to get them to heaven.  But Jesus says, 'Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven (those who BELIEVE in Jesus!).  Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you.  Away from me, you evildoers!'" (Matthew 7:21-23).

Thank God for His love and compassion in welcoming the humble sinner home!  Trust in the love of God in Christ and let go of the things of the world, for it is those who appear to have little in this world who are the unexpected occupants of heaven.  If God gives you much, use it for Him.  Give it away in the service of others in the name of Jesus.  If God gives you little, use it for Him, giving thanks for the opportunity to offer even the smallest gift in the service of the King.  In so doing you will be "laying up treasures in heaven" and you will be the cause of rejoicing in heaven!

"Father, it is in confessing my need and in experiencing your love and grace that I find comfort, assurance and true and lasting joy.  Help me to understand that the things of this world can easily become idols.  Open my heart and my hands to give freely, knowing that all I have is a gift from You to be used for Your kingdom, to draw others to place their trust in You.  Thank You for Your Word and Your Spirit in me, Father.  In Jesus' name, Amen"

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