As college freshmen, a friend and I spent some evenings handing out booklets about Jesus. Walking up and down Guadalupe Street next to the University of Texas campus, the reactions we encountered ranged from genuine interest (rare) to open hostility (common). We were ignored. Called names. Threatened. Some self-designated “Satanists” even tried to hex us.
So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. “Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’ Luke 16:22-26
Carved into the side of the iconic UT Tower in Austin, John 8:32 is clearly visible. Every day hundreds of students pass by these words of Jesus: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” As a way of launching a conversation, we often posed the question, “Do you know what’s inscribed on the Tower and who said it?” Some said Abraham Lincoln or Theodore Roosevelt. A few said Gandhi or Buddha. On discovering it was Jesus, most were surprised, and a few would stop and talk with us awhile.
As one guy exited a bar, clearly having had too much to drink, I walked with him for a few steps and gave him a booklet. As he staggered away, I said “Hey, do you know what will happen to you after you die?”
The man hollered back over his shoulder, “I haven’t planned on that yet. I’ll decide when the time comes.”
A few weeks earlier in the Jester Center cafeteria, I was washing dishes side-by-side with a Buddhist co-worker from Taiwan. When I mentioned the possibility of spending eternity in heaven, he said, “Eternity? That’s living forever and ever in heaven?”
“Yes! Heaven is a place where there is no more death, only life,” I replied.
“Sounds very boring to me,” he said flatly. Well, that was not what I expected to hear, but I realized later he was right. I had left Jesus out of my description of heaven! A heaven without Jesus would be boring.
Two conversations with two very different young men were causing me to think more deeply about my relationship with Jesus. My Buddhist buddy made me realize that it is the presence of God that makes heaven amazing. The guy out on Guadalupe Street assumed he could maintain his personal autonomy after death. As I thought about that, I realized he was right. You can do this life — and eternity — without Jesus. You can. But you’ll regret it. It is the absence of God that creates hell.
If I asked you to describe what life is like with someone who loves you, you would probably describe your relationship in terms of a series of experiences and effects. He makes me feel safe. She makes me laugh. He makes me happy. She makes me want to do my best. You can live without that person, but your life wouldn’t be the same.
When you have a relationship with Jesus, He impacts your life in the same way. He said, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). Knowing Him intimately and personally dramatically affects your life, and because the relationship is eternal, so is the quality of life Jesus described. A relationship with a friend or spouse may falter and fail, causing you to lose the life you enjoyed with that person. Not so with Jesus.
God is an infinite Being, perfect and measureless in all that He is. To have a relationship means that any experience with Him — the byproducts of being in communion with Him — will also be infinite. Infinite meaning… and joy… and completion… and satisfaction. It is impossible to enter into an open and intimate exchange with God, and not experience eternity as an endless succession of these things. This is heaven.But what if you do NOT have a relationship with Him? Instead of infinite intimacy with God, you are exposing yourself to the effects of an infinite “non-intimacy.” Your sense of loss and isolation will never be erased by His nearness. Your pain and sorrow will never be eliminated by His healing and comfort. Your sin and selfishness will never meet His grace and the transforming presence of His Holy Spirit. Your anger and resentment will never be melted away by the unceasing revelation of His justice and mercy.
Before you die, you can know something of the love and goodness of God that He has hardwired into creation, without having any connection to Him. But if you die like that — never entering into a relationship with Him by placing your faith in His Son — you will discover that those earthly hints of God’s presence are all gone. The god you served in life will be the only god you have in eternity… just you. The only resources available to you will be those you are able to provide for yourself, like a drifting soul in a limitless ocean with no relief in sight. This is hell.
The great gulf between heaven and hell is the eternal gap between experiencing or not experiencing an infinitely abundant relationship with God — the difference between life in His kingdom, and life within the boundaries of your own kingdom. Hell is a place of your choosing. A soul fortress composed of walls you construct… a place where you can call the shots… a kingdom with exactly one citizen, one companion, one preoccupation, and one sovereign: self.
Want to know more about how to have a relationship with God? Start here: How Jesus Changed My Life
The kingdom of God is not an amusement park seeking to distract me occasionally from the daily grind. His kingdom is not a self-improvement program, working to make me a superior person, and the world a better place.
No. It’s a kingdom arising from a battlefield.
In any KINGdom there can only be one King! Not two. To enter His kingdom means I have been defeated, captured, and owned. Won by love and grace, I have surrendered my little “kingdom” and laid down my arms, abandoning my role in the ancient, ongoing rebellion. Christ the Victor has taken my heart as His dwelling place.
Yes, He is “mine.” But, more significantly, it must be underscored that I AM HIS! Won as precious spoil in a bloody battle for souls.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus included prayer as a priority topic for His disciples. Emphasizing that our most intimate interactions with God should be done secretly (Matthew 6:4, 6, 18), Jesus pauses to give shape and form to our personal prayer time. In the space of a few verses historically known as the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus outlines a series of petitions so we would know what we should be asking for. In the second petition, Jesus taught us to pray for the kingdom to come. Why? Because Kingdom Praying…
- Focuses on a King. Jesus began His ministry preaching this message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). The kingdom was the central message of Jesus and the early disciples, mentioned over 85 times in the gospels. The kingdom is not a place where God rules. The kingdom is not the church or a collection of churches. Properly understood, the kingdom refers to the active rule or reign of God—His Majesty in action. A kingdom requires a King! As I pray, I am speaking with a King who rules. I must repent and completely turn away from all other rulers and whole-hearted allegiances in my life—He is my King!
- Longs for the King to Rule. I am asking for something to change on earth so that my circumstances reflect more of heaven, where God’s rule is absolute. In heaven, there is no sin or sickness. There is no corruption. Everything is right and as it should be. When I ask for His will to be done on earth, I am asking for God to enter into my circumstances and exert His power. A kingdom that needs to “come” means it is not automatically here. This world and my circumstances do not reflect the rule of God—I need Him to come!
- Enters into an Ancient War. In verse 13, Jesus teaches us to ask the Father to deliver us from the evil one. A kingdom that is not already “here” implies that there is an opposing kingdom at work. This was the worldview of Jesus. Jesus calls the devil the “ruler of this world” (John 12:31, 14:30, and 16:11). When a person becomes a Christian through faith in Christ, God rescues that person from the enemy’s rule, and places him or her into the kingdom of God (Colossians 1:13). Asking for God’s rule on earth, we enter into an ancient conflict for souls.
- Understands the Assignment. Jesus teaches us to ask for His kingdom to come and for His will to be done on earth. This means it is not being done now. Here lies an awesome truth: in a world that desperately needs God to come and act, the King has chosen to link His activity to the obedient intercessor. If I do not pray, will the kingdom come? God wants to act, but if I do not ask… will He still act? Will He still come and show Himself strong in the midst of my circumstances?
Jesus was teaching us how to approach and talk to our Father in heaven (Matthew 6:9). I live in a broken universe that is at war with God. Every day I need His presence as I walk in this evil age (Galatians 1:4). Jesus explains that the Father is ready to exit the world I cannot see (Heaven) and come rule in the world that I do see (Earth). Will I ask Him to come?
- that God spoke creation into existence,
- that there was a first couple who sinned for the first time (Adam & Eve),
- that all human beings share a common ancestor and an inherited predisposition to sin,
- that there was a massive human attempt to resist God’s will at the tower of Babel,
- that evil grew so rapidly that God did indeed judge that generation sending a universal flood and rescuing one man and his family,
- that God began His great rescue with a man who trusted Him throughout his life (Abraham),
- that God spoke to that man’s descendants over many generations guiding their lives and fueling their hope for a “home” that transcended this existence,
- that God entered time to do battle with the demon gods of ancient Egypt to rescue His people and set them free to be… with Him,
- that God clarified who He is through the Law and every human being’s created purpose to love Him with all of the heart, mind, soul, and strength,
- that when God chose to elaborate on His true identity, He said that He was “merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty” (Ex. 34:6-7),
- that God gave a hint that life under His rule was desirable through the “shalom” (peace/wholeness) experienced in Israel through the two kings David & Solomon,
- that the prophets were allowed to see the coming kingdom that defied description, when all suffering, sin, and injustice will cease, and when death will die, and when God’s people will slip into His Presence with an eternal, childlike joy and a new never-ending mission to explore all that He is,
- that when God wanted us to know what He is really like, He came in person… He is Jesus,
- that Jesus chose to live as an ordinary human being, walking by faith and depending on His Father to guide & empower everything He did & said,
- that Jesus breathed the same air, drank the same water, felt the same pains & joys, encountered the same kinds of people & problems that I do… but never, ever offended or disobeyed His Father,
- that Jesus announced that God’s Presence & rule are available right now — the very same, marvelous kingdom of insurmountable & indescribable life that is coming at the end of time — for every soul that surrenders its poverty and broken throne to Him,
- that Jesus not only announced the rule of God, but He demonstrated it — putting things back to the way He intended, showing what life looks like when He comes — restoring health, expelling demons, and calming killer storms,
- that Jesus called people to repent before the face of this present Ruling One, learning to agree with His evaluation of what is true and right, learning to accept His estimation of our worth, learning to pursue what He made us to be and do, and succumbing to His grace… falling down before Him in worship and deep desire for Him,
- that Jesus took my place, carrying every sin — every offense in my past, my present, and my future — to the cross where He died my death and endured my shame, rescuing me from an eternal separation from God, from hell,
- that God was speaking love to me at that moment… forever,
- that I still… don’t… fully… “get”… why… but I have millennia ahead of me to let that fact sink in,
- that God raised Jesus from the dead, proving the reality that my endless punishment was ended, and that all my ugliness and actual wrongness was erased, and that there were no more reasons to die anymore,
- that He saved me, forgave all my sins, and began changing me when I abandoned my life into His hands in 1978,
- that He is not finished with me… or with you,
- that He continues to walk the earth announcing good news through His people… they are the “called out ones” — the “ekklesia” — the actual church,
- that He has preserved everything He wants me to know about Him on this side of heaven in the Bible,
- that He wants me to experience Him every day, me following… Him leading,
- that this life is the “fullest” kind of life — the most clear, the most correct, the most intense, and the most fun,
- that time is expiring and every moment counts, and
- that He is coming.
Oh yes, I really do believe.
“You can build a great church or you can build a great people. I’m not sure you can do both.” The older pastor looked at me steadily as his words settled into my thoughts. Hyperbole to make a point? Perhaps, but his point was well-taken.
Now, decades later, I recognize how easy it is for church leaders and pastors to become preoccupied with what they can do to make the church grow numerically. Don’t get me wrong: I am a cheerleader for churches that are attracting and reaching people with the gospel! Church gatherings should be well conceived and led with excellence. We should abhor mediocre, boring, and repetitive programming. However, stimulating small groups and stunning Sunday morning services may draw a crowd, but they also may have little or no effect on the heart. In a way that they can’t quite identify or describe, many church members sense something is missing.
Jesus is all about changing hearts — the core desires and dreams that bubble up and out into our words and actions. He is not satisfied that you should merely avoid committing sins like murder and adultery. He wants you to become a person who doesn’t hate or lust. He calls people “blessed” who ARE meek, merciful, and pure in heart. How can you change your heart? You can’t. But He can.
The central message Jesus preached was “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” The kingdom of God is breaking into an unruly and chaotic realm of billions of individual fiefdoms – each one struggling for dominance over… something. The world you are living in is not the world God originally created.
The Bible credits the broken and dulled state of our universe to a single event at the inception of human history. It was a moment in time when a man and a woman abandoned the directional control of God in their lives, choosing instead to believe a lie promulgated by the ancient Adversary–that freedom involves living outside of God’s kingdom. It was sin… it was stupid. The lie-infected race continues to stumble along, either hailing scientific advance or hawking some religious, self-absorbed contemplation as evidence of enlightenment. With each succeeding generation, the corruption of the universe is a horrific reflection of the shredded remains of every human heart. Destructive. Diseased. Demented. Demonic. The “survival of the fittest” is not the driver of evolving and superior forms of life, but it is a constant reminder of the incessant, downward spiral of all creatures towards oblivion and anomie.
It will stop. It will change. That Day is coming. The diseased will be healed, the marred images will be wiped clean, the damaged will be restored, the rebels will be subdued, the evil one will be destroyed, and the darkness will give way to the light. The apostle Paul explains: “Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:24-26).
So Jesus didn’t die on the cross so we could go to a great church. The church is a vital and essential ingredient in your inner transformation, but it is not the ultimate end or the primary locus of God’s activity on the planet. Properly understood, the church is an expression of God’s kingdom, and His vehicle for calling others into the kingdom of God. But the church is not the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is the rule and activity of God Himself.
Jesus didn’t die so you could be a material or professional “success.” Your efforts to secure your life will never end and will never succeed. The most important thing you can do is find out what God is saying to you… and what He is prepared to do in you and through you. Jesus said, “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 6:31-33).
Jesus was sent on a rescue mission… for you and me. If God intends to eliminate rebellion, destroy evil, and recreate a brilliantly beautiful world, what do you imagine He wants to do in your heart? He wants to transform every motive, every decision, every desire, every thought — exposing and eliminating every hidden corner and dark space. You do not lose your will. You simply lose interest in broken ways of doing life. “Repent,” Jesus said… the kingdom is right here. Right now. The people who “get that” will be an active and vital part of the church, but their public life will be fueled by a wonderful and unseen inner journey with Him who is a King.
Originally Published by Baptist Press on April 18, 2007
It has happened once again. Evil has surfaced unmistakably in a form everyone can see. The world will struggle with this for days to come, asking “why would a good and loving God allow such evil to happen?” Meanwhile the parents and friends will weep, struggling with their own questions drawn from a darkened, bottomless well of unspeakable pain and disorientation.
For believers it is a harsh reminder that the world we live in is at war. Evil is not simply an idea or an act. Evil is fueled by an individual consciousness nearly as old as creation itself. The early Christians never asked “why did God allow…?” They knew better.
The world we see is profoundly affected by a world we cannot see.
- And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Ephesians 2:1-2
- Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Ephesians 6:11-12
- For we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, more than once—and yet Satan hindered us. 1 Thessalonians 2:18
- Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. James 4:7
- Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 1 Peter 5:8
We tend to see everything bad that happens in terms of something God allows or disallows. Yet, we also fiercely (and correctly) hold on to the idea of personal choice. We choose–which makes us responsible for our actions. We can be influenced by evil, but we are ultimately responsible for the evil we choose to do.
Angels make choices too, just like us. Millennia ago, the Bible explains that some of God’s creatures rebelled. The angels sinned. Man sinned. The world as God intended devolved into moral and spiritual chaos.
Jesus came to rescue us from the enemies of our soul, both in this world and the world we cannot see.
It is true that God is sovereign. He is the Lord of Lords. He is the King. Jesus came announcing the kingdom of God (Matthew 4:17). He taught us to pray that God’s kingdom would break through into this world, demonstrating that He is the King (Luke 11:2). He “bound the strong man” and demonstrated God’s reign by restoring creation and creatures to a condition reflective of God’s rule (Matthew 12:28-30), then expects you and me to “gather with Him” — doing the same kind of ministry today.
Jesus calls the devil the “ruler of this world” (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11). The devil tempts Jesus by offering Him the very kingdoms under his control in exchange for worship (Luke 4:5-7): if the devil does not control the kingdoms of the world, how could Jesus be tempted? He was tempted only if it was legitimate offer by the ruler of this world.
Jesus calls Satan a liar and a murderer (John 8:44), who steals truth from the hearts of people who do not know God (Matthew 13:19), keeping them blind to the reality of a living God (2 Corinthians 4:4). He animates evil in the world, influencing and empowering those who do not know God to reject God and do everything that is offensive to God (1 John 5:19).
In the face of clear, biblical teaching, the church too often slumbers on, fumbling around trying to answers questions about “why did God allow this to happen?” rather than running to the secret place, combating the mortal enemy of the souls of mankind. We are called to do battle.
When we are responsive to Jesus and doing life under His directional control, Jesus said the gates of hell would not be able to withstand the forward movement of the church (Matthew 16:18). Far from being on the defensive, the church Jesus builds goes on the offense against an unseen army of evil at work in this world.
C. S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity:
One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked so much about a Dark Power in the universe—a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease, and sin. The difference is that Christianity thinks this Dark Power was created by God, and was good when he was created, and went wrong. Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel. Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is.
Do you realize where you are living today? The horrific acts of violence at Virginia Tech are a reminder that there is no place where you and I can sit down, relax, and forget about the imminent threat of evil. You and I are doing life in the middle of a battlefield that is raging… all around us… every day… right now.