“1 Corinthians 15:55″

A song by Johnny Cash, taken from the Apostle Paul:

O Death, where is thy sting?
O Grief, where is they victory?
O Life, you are a shining path.
And hope springs eternal, just over the rise,
When I see my redeemer beckoning me.

Oh row my ship over the waves of your sea
Let me find a safe port now and then
Don’t let the dark one in your sanctuary
Until it’s time to pack it in

O, row, row my ship
With the fire of your breath
And don’t lay a broadside on your ship as yet
Blow ye warm winds
When it’s chilly and wet
And don’t come to soon yet
For collecting my debt

O Death, where is thy sting?
O Grief, where is they victory?
O Life, you are a shining path.
And hope springs eternal, just over the rise,
When I see my redeemer beckoning me.

Oh let me sail on
With my ship to the East
And keep my eye on the North Star
When the journey is no good for man or for beast
I’ll be safe wherever you are

Just let me sail into your harbor of lights
And there and forever to cast out my night
Give me my task
And let me do it right
And do it with all of my might

O Death, where is thy sting?
O Grief, where is they victory?
O Life, you are a shining path.
And hope springs eternal, just over the rise,
When I see my redeemer beckoning me.

Divine Irony on the Way to Emmaus

In Luke 24:13-35, Jesus takes a seven mile walk with a few disciples. The passage drips with irony. Irony, as a literary technique, occurs when the full significance of a character’s words or actions are clear to the audience or reader although unknown to the character. In Luke 24, we readers get to eavesdrop on Jesus talking with a couple clueless disciples. Luke—and ultimately the Holy Spirit—wants to turn our attention to the blindness of the two disciples and the truth that spiritual sight only comes when we see the all the Scriptures as a testimony to Jesus.

  • Irony 1. Verse 18: Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” Jesus lived what happened.
  • Irony 2. Verse 19: And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people.” Jesus is more than a prophet; he is the Messiah.
  • Irony 3. Verse 21: “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Jesus death did redeem Israel.
  • Irony 4. Verse 22: “Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened.” Jesus himself predicted he would die and rise after three days.
  • Irony 5. Verse 24: “Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.” They see—yet don’t see—Jesus who walks alongside them. 

The climax of this exchange is, of course, this:

And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself (vv. 25-27). 

Only when Jesus interprets the Scriptures in light of himself are the ironies blown away. The disciples eyes are opened (v. 31) and their hearts burn within them (v. 32).

Why is irony so effective in getting our attention? Can you find other ironies in the passage that I missed?

Heaven is for Real and I don’t need a 4-year old to tell me

Full disclosure before you read: I have not read or seen Heaven is for Real, and I probably will not in the future.

Today, the feature film Heaven is for Real hits theaters across the country and it will, no doubt, make a box-office splash. The film is based on the book of the same title—a book which is the #1 selling so-called “Christian” book of the past decade. Everyone, including Evangelicals, are going ga-ga over this movie. “Finally,” some think, “something’s gaining traction that shows heaven and God are real!”

No, it is not evidence. This is not good for the church or the culture.

Heaven is for Real (and books and movies like it) are not helpful. They are harmful and discourage people from trusting God’s word in Scripture. Now, hear me on this: I am not saying that these people know they are portraying a fanciful account as reality. They very well may have seen or experienced something. I can’t say one way or the other on that. But what I do know is that they have not died and been to (the real) heaven (or hell) and come back to tell about it.

How can I say this?! Isn’t their experience valid? Who could deny an experience? If Christians are going to uphold the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, then we must validate our experiences based on Scripture, not validate Scripture (or add to it) based on our experience. Scripture is an objective standard outside of me. Everything must be judged by it, not the other way around.

The question is then, does the Bible have anything to say about this? There’s not much, honestly, about near death experiences and trips to heaven, but what it does say is incredibly insightful. Let’s start with the Man who came from heaven.

Jesus said, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:12-13). Jesus is speaking with Nicodemus, describing what it means to be born again, and he uses an earthly illustration to describe a heavenly reality (i.e. the work of the Spirit in the new birth is like wind, which you can’t see or hear). But Nicodemus doesn’t get it. In saying, “No one has ascended into heaven…,” Jesus’ point is that while Nicodemus doesn’t comprehend heavenly things, Jesus does, because he has a unique qualification to speak on heaven. Theologian D.A. Carson comments, “Jesus insists that no-one has ascended to heaven in such a way as to return to talk about heavenly things…But Jesus can speak of heavenly things, not because he ascended to heaven from a home on earth and then descended to tell others of his experiences, but because heaven was his home in the first place” (The Gospel According to John, 200-201). Jesus has authority to talk about heaven. We do not.

There’s another place where Jesus speaks to this issue. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31, he says that the testimony of people who have come back from the dead is useless. In the parable, the rich man begged Abraham to send the deceased Lazarus to his family’s house, for he reasoned, “If someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent” (v. 30). But Abraham responded, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (v. 31). This is an secondary point in Jesus’ parable, but it’s still a point: if someone neglects the testimony of the prophets in Scripture, then the testimony of a dead man is pointless.

In the rest of the Bible, there are only four men who were given glimpses of heaven: two prophets, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and two apostles, Paul and John. Here’s a glance at what they saw and heard:

  • Isaiah sees the Lord on his throne, hears a voice that shook “the foundations of the thresholds” (Is. 1:4), and his conclusion is, “Woe is me! For I am lost!” (Is. 6:1-7). (John later notes in his Gospel that Isaiah saw Jesus’ glory; see John 12:41).
  • Ezekiel sees a vision of heaven (Ezek. 1:1), and sees “awe-inspiring crystal” (1:22) and fire and brightness all around (1:27), and he hears the terrible “sound of the Almighty, a sound of tumult like the sound of an army” (1:24). He concludes, “Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD” (1:28b).
  • Paul is given a glimpse of heaven in a vision and he uses massive space to tell of it—three verses (2 Cor. 12:2-4). Hesitating to boast of his experience, he writes in third person: “And he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (12:4). Paul later says, “To keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.” (Notice that Paul was given a messenger of Satan for humility, not a book and movie deal.)
  • John was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10) and upon seeing Jesus he “fell at his feet as though dead” (1:17). In chapters 4-6, John sees a vision of Jesus on the throne, and all he sees and hears is glorious singing to the One who lives forever and ever (4:8-11; 5:9-14). John’s vision is radically centered on Christ, the Lamb who was slain and is now “worthy to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (5:5-6, 12).

There is extreme consistency in these accounts, and several similar themes arise. Let me mention four main themes. First, each of these men saw visions of heaven. They did not have near death experiences in which they went to heaven and were brought back to earth. (Sidebar: One could argue that for God to actually take someone to heaven (as in a near death experience) and then send them back to earth would be quite a cruel thing.) Second, these men labor to describe what they saw—Ezekiel and John reach to the boundaries of their vocabulary to paint the scene; Isaiah and Paul labor in that they are nearly left speechless (Paul, as I mentioned, is essentially told not to say anything about what he saw). Third, each of them express a sober and appropriate sense of awe, fear, and unworthiness because of the vision. Fourth, they are all fixated on God’s glory, holiness, or majesty—not family members, beautiful landscapes, or other incidentals. As John points out at the end of the Bible story, Jesus and his glory is the main focus. Heaven is, to be sure, Christocentric. If it weren’t, then it would not be heaven.

Books and films about near death experiences and trips to heaven are nothing like these visions. In fact, as one author noted, the books themselves do not even agree with each other on the details of heaven. These type of stories fail to draw people into adoring the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Instead, they draw people into conjecture, speculation, and exalting subjective experience and away from trusting the Scriptures. If you want to know if heaven is for real, then put down the popular book you picked up at the bookstore and read what God has written in his word. Heaven is real, and it is glorious—much more glorious than any so-called near death experience makes it out to be.

In the next few days, I hope to write a follow-up post about how the Bible describes heaven and, more importantly, how we can know if we are going there.

Review: The Third Day

Alex Webb-Peploe and André Parker. The Third Day: The Gospel of Luke Chapters 22-24. Surrey, UK: The Good Book Company, 2014. $6.29 (Amazon). 44 pp.

Teenagers and young adults read. Physics, chemistry, history, The Grapes of Wrath, economics. You name it. They are told to read it. And, for the most part, they do read (if they want to graduate high school or college!).  Academic reading is a pathway to adulthood. You just have to do it.

So if you have ever ministered to students, then you know it is a challenge to get them to read the Bible, much less enjoy it. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a student (high school or college) say to me, “I don’t have time to read the Bible because I have so much homework and I have to read x-amount of pages before Friday.” I get it. I use to be there. But we can’t be content this. If you don’t read your American history textbook, you may be clueless about the Boston Tea Party. If you don’t read your Genesis or Romans, you will be clueless about matters of eternal significance.

So the question comes up, “How do we get young people to read the Bible?” My answer is that we must start small and do our best to make the Bible exciting, compelling, dramatic, yet at the same time faithfully represent of the actual words of God. For many of us, we immediately think that this applies to teaching the Bible with words (in youth group, summer camps, etc.). That is good and helpful, but what if it meant actually illustrating the Bible graphically? You know, providing some teeth to the biblical story in a way that might resonate with a teen. Alex Webb-Peploe and André Parker have done just that with a new graphic novel titled The Third Day.

The Third Day is, what the authors call, a “graphic realization” of the Bible. It’s not a “comic book” (read here to learn the difference). The book tells the story of Luke 22-24, which traces Jesus’ last hours before his crucifixion and resurrection. The story begins with Judas’ deal to betray Jesus and ends, as the Gospel of Luke does, with Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. The novel uses the complete text of Luke 22-24 from the Holman Christian Standard Bible. No one can argue that the book is a compromise of the Holy Scriptures because it used the “worldly medium” of graphic novel. The words are the exact words Luke wrote down, only beautifully represented with graphics.

Now about that graphic representation. It’s superb. It’s gritty, raw, and dark—far removed from the sanitized representations in Sunday School material or Hollywood movies. Jesus and his disciples look like the rag-tag bunch the Gospels make them out to be. The scenes, most prominently people’s faces, draw out the pain, anger, heartache, fear, brokenness, sadness, and unspeakable joy of Luke’s tone. The Third Day brings the Passion narrative to life with a punch. It’s a refreshing reminder that the gospel, though timeless, actually happened in a specific historic context at a certain point in time.

One particular scene that was helpful for me was after Jesus shared the Passover meal and the disciples argued about who is the greatest. The authors depicted the “dispute that arose among them” as a physical confrontation, in which one disciple grabs the shirt of another (imagine grabbing someone to throw them up against the wall) as they stand nose-to-nose (see the first image below.). In the West a “dispute” is usually done across a boardroom table with a Starbucks in hand. I can’t know if the art represents reality, but it makes me stop, think, and reconsider my assumptions of the text. That’s what good art, not to mention preaching and teaching, is supposed to do.

I highly recommend The Third Day for young people who find the story of Jesus (or the church’s modern re-telling of it) boring, uninspiring, or unrealistic. If you’re a parent or a youth minister, get a copy (or many copies) and give them away. My hope is that God will use this graphic novel, and others like it, to help young people to take Scriptures and the gospel story within it seriously.

Here are a few sample pages (click to enlarge).