Friday, November 29, 2013

You Can Have My Spot

In Romans 9:1 Paul says something that really catches my attention. See if it catches your attention, too.
I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—
Why would Paul so strongly say that he isn't lying? This seems very close to Paul saying, "I swear by God (the Holy Spirit)."  Besides that, if he's inspired, why does he need to remind us that he's telling the truth? This verse has always intrigued me. 

In normal conversation when I hear something like "God knows I'm not lying," I immediately think that something unbelievable is coming soon. That's exactly what we have here. Paul is about to say something shocking. Notice Rom. 9:3.
For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh:
Wow! Did Paul just say that he wishes he could give up his own salvation for the sake of his Jewish friends? Paul in essence says, "I love these people so much that I wish I could go to hell for their sake." Let that sink in for a moment. Wow! What an outrageous claim! Indeed, he needed to precede that with "God knows I'm not lying".

If the essence of the gospel is "you can go to heaven," then Paul's willingness to give up heaven for someone else amounts to a rejection of the essence of the gospel for himself. Going to heaven isn't what it's all about.

In another place, Philippians 1:23-24, Paul says something similar. Rather than wishing himself accursed for someone else, Paul decides it's better to stay out of heaven a little longer to continue to serve people who are already believers. This context in Philippians 1 shows that it's good to desire heaven, to desire to be with God. Paul had a strong desire to be with the Lord. Heaven is good and important and something to desire. But getting to heaven was not Paul's top priority. His top priority was serving those around him.

He continues to expound on this idea in the next few verses, especially Phil. 2:5-8. In the same context of chapter 1 where he says "I'd rather stay and help you than to go be in heaven right now," Paul points us to Jesus's example of doing a very similar thing. Jesus was in heaven and He left that. Jesus left heaven at great risk. (If there were no risk, then the temptations are meaningless). He did not view heaven for Himself as top priority. No, His top priority was serving others.

And Paul says in very, very strong terms that we should think this way (Phil. 2:4). He basically says in Phil. 2:1-3 that if following Christ means anything, if love means anything, if God means anything to you, then put others above yourself. Putting others above yourself so you can get to heaven is one thing. It's paying a small price in the here and now for a huge payoff in the by and by. If getting a reward or avoiding punishment is our primary motive, then our primary motive is selfish. But to give up our spot in heaven for someone else? That's the depth of the service that God asks from us. Serve others because you genuinely want to serve them. Love others passionately even if that means complete self-sacrifice. That's the gospel call.

I admit. This is shocking to me. So often when we give and serve, it's for our own good in some way. Truly loving and serving takes our reward out of the picture and just loves and serves because loving and serving is good for others.

What happens after death is important. It's a beautiful promise that God has given us and it shows His love for us to give us such a promise. Part of faith is trusting God to make good on His promise. But when we make the gospel all about what happens after this life, we miss the point. By placing so much emphasis on getting ourselves to heaven, we change the focus of the message from others-oriented love to a self-serving something-for-nothing bargain contract. Reducing the message to "Jesus died so you don't have to go to hell; believe and be baptized so you can go to heaven" cheapens the gospel and it downgrades God. It turns the gospel into sin management to avoid punishment. It turns God into a petty tyrant who cannot forgive without legally extracting blood for every sin. This simplified message is unbiblical. The gospel message is a shining light that drives away darkness by enemy-loving others-oriented self-sacrificial love. It turns conventional wisdom upside down by teaching that it's better to give than to receive. It teaches of an almighty Creator who didn't use His power to force His will but rather demonstrated true power by radical self sacrifice and gave us a guarantee of the truth of this power by raising from the dead.

Peter Rollins tells about a friend of his who left the church. This friend told a parable upon his leaving the church. The exit parable goes like this (paraphrasing from memory).
I dreamed that I had died and was at the gates of heaven. I saw Saint Peter there and he said, "Hello and welcome in!" Just as I was about to step in, I noticed some of my friends there just outside. Some of them Buddhists. Some of them atheists. Some of them God knows what. And I said, "Peter, what about my friends?" Peter said, "Well, you know the rules." And just as I was about to step in, I remembered my reference point. Jesus. Jesus the friend of sinners. Jesus the friend of outsiders. Jesus who left heaven and became an outcast. And I said, "You know what, I'll just stay out here with my friends." Peter then looked at me with a huge smile and said, "At last! At last you understand! For God so loved the world that He forsook heaven!"
You see, following Jesus isn't just about getting myself to heaven. It's about driving darkness away and bringing heaven down to earth, like He did. I pray that I can be more about serving others for their good and not for my own good, more like Him.

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