Given for the Saints at Medicalodge, Neosho, MO on 05/07/2006
"So the last will be first, and the first will be last" (Matt. 20:16).
The occasion for this writing is a little brochure entitled "Rapture Ready" we received from a man who wanted to share with us his "burden for the body of Christ." As I read it, the Lord's words echoed in my brain: "Are you ready to go back to church?" (See link to "Repentance and the Kingdom," at end). The writer's burden is this: "I desire to see many rise in the first resurrection rather than miss it for failing to meet the QUALIFICATIONS." Though he quotes Paul as saying "Cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (II Cor. 7:1), he never elaborates on what this filthiness might be, though we can guess it has to do with sex somehow, but more importantly, he never says how we hope to cleanse ourselves if we have so engaged in it. Briefly put, the brochure represents all the reasons God took me out of church in the first place. If ANYTHING concerning my salvation, justification, sanctification or holy status depends on me, I'm toast. I can't do it. The bus will leave without me and I'll be stranded here with all the other suckers who miss out on the first resurrection, and oh horrors, maybe the second one as well. I exaggerate to make a point, of course.
Though I have long been delivered from this kind of thinking, and from the delusion that God needs me to do something to be worthy, to qualify for anything He has to offer, nevertheless, I tell you the truth. The brochure made me squirm. Why? Have you ever had a wound that appeared to be healed, but for a while afterward, was sore whenever you touched it? That's the best explanation I can come up with, but more importantly, I'm probably not alone in my feelings of inadequacy which surfaced in the face of this kind of fear mongering rhetoric.
We frequently get e-mail from folks who have been so wounded by religion's inference that everything depends on them, that they can barely function. There is a whole category of scriptures which the self-righteous love to quote, to prove that only they will be acceptable to God. I call these the "scary scriptures" because they are used to scare the flock into faithfulness, dedication, and an ever more vigorous pursuit of godliness, holiness and righteousness.
One such scary scripture is Jesus' parable of the wheat and the tares (weeds) found in Matt. 13:24-30. In the story, a man planted good seed (wheat) in his field, but while he was asleep, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat seed. When the man's wheat sprouted, so did the weeds. His field hands came and reported the situation and asked if he wanted them to pull out the weeds. His answer has been used to frighten the flock for generations: "'No,' he answered, 'because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn'" (Matt. 13:29-30). Over the centuries, preachers have pounded the pulpit and thundered at us that our sins numbered us among the tares and at the harvest (Judgment Day), we would be burned in eternal hell fire.
How that filled me with dread, because as a kid listening to this, how was I to know if I was a stalk of wheat or a weed? What qualified one to be wheat, I worried? What did the weeds look like? For all the good religion has done, and I don't deny it has done some good, how much damage has been done by these threats of everlasting punishment? Some have become so disoriented and discouraged by fear that they gave up, "Why even try? I can't make the cut, so I might as well do what I want to do." The world has listened from afar at fire breathing rhetoric and concluded, "This religion business hasn't done Christians any good. I want no part of it."
Another way to look at this parable is that it is a metaphor, a symbol, in which each of us is the wheat field, and we each have wheat and tares inside of us. To rip out the bad stuff before the harvest would kill us, which may be why God doesn't remove our neurotic stuff now, but that's another writing.
Thank God for Paul who put our fear of fire in perspective. He said that our work, "...will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames" (I Cor. 3:12-15). In other words, far from being something to fear, the fire is what saves us. That may surprise you until you remember that "Our God is a consuming (refining) fire" (Heb. 12:29). What does a refining fire do? It burns off the dross, which is NOT a comfortable experience to go through: "But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner's fire or a launderer's soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness" (Mal. 3:2-3). It is the Lord who purifies us. Scripture is very clear about this. We can no more purify ourselves and make ourselves holy than we can save ourselves from sin. The man who wrote the brochure has failed to grasp the most basic tenet of the gospel. It is a God job from start to finish!
You certainly do NOT have to wait until you die to reap the benefits of the refiner's fire. Having experienced many of God's refining fires, parts of me are pure gold and that's a fact, not because of anything I did, but because of what Christ did for us on the cross and in the resurrection! He prophesied, "But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw ALL MEN to myself" (John 12:32). I'm told that the Greek word translated "draw" there has the implication of "drag." He will drag ALL MEN to Himself. There is no hint in the Savior's prophecy of the need to qualify for this process. He will do it. "As in Adam ALL die, so in Christ shall ALL be made alive" (I Cor. 15:22). This is written in indicative mode, a statement of fact, in which there is no qualifying!
The interpretation of the many statements which sound like there is something we must do to clean ourselves up more often comes from the traditions of men than from the Spirit. People read statements in the imperative (command) mode when they actually are in the indicative mode (what is). One such verse which filled me terror is, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48). I'm in recovery from being a perfectionist, but there was a time when that verse filled me with horrible anxiety. I KNOW full well, always have known, how flawed I am. So, how could I ever be perfect? Jesus never said, "You can be perfect because I, in you, am perfect," but thanks be to God, Paul said it. He calls it a mystery, this truth that "Christ in you, (is) the hope of Glory" (Col. 1:27). And that, dear friends, is the ONLY hope of glory we have.
Right after the verse we've already looked at about being saved as through the flames, Paul exclaims, "Don't you know that you ourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you?" (I Cor. 3:16). No matter how we see ourselves, God sees us as His dwelling place. What a sublime concept. Could we put the Holy Spirit into ourselves by right living? Hardly. Not only does Paul testify that it is a "God job" (Phil. 2:13), but he declares that it is not because of our efforts, but because we are "IN Christ": "For he chose us IN HIM before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight" (Eph. 1:4). The incredibly good news is that not only was Christ the "Lamb slain before the foundation of the world" (Rev. 13:8), but we were in HIM as well! AND, we are holy and blameless in HIM. In Him, we qualify for all God has for us!
When you begin with the premise that God is angry with us, and we have to work hard to appease Him in order to qualify for the inheritance he has for us, you always come to a false conclusion. In Romans 8:29-30, Paul states that those God foreknew, He predestined; He called; He justified and glorified. Following those glorious statements, he asks three questions: 1) "What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?" 2) "He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also, along with him, graciously GIVE us all things?" 3) "Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies" (Rom. 8:31-33).
Verses like this thrill me and shore me up if I start to sag when someone casts doubt on my position in Christ or on my eternal salvation. People who engage in this kind of fear tactics to make their points apparently have never met the Father personally, because "GOD IS LOVE!" (I John 4:8).
The carnal mind interprets the Bible literally, failing to realize that much of it is symbolic. The man who wrote the brochure gets his theory from the Book of Revelation, which is full of symbols from one end to the other. John wrote it to be a comfort to those being tortured and killed for following Christ. The Apostle wrote in symbols which, in many cases, were the same symbols that Daniel and Ezekiel had used, symbols familiar to the Jewish reader, but not to the Romans. If the events in the book were not to happen for another 2,000 years or so, as so many believe, how would that bring comfort to ones hiding in the catacombs awaiting their fate of being thrown to the lions or killed by the gladiators' sword? If, on the other hand, he was telling them that God is glorious, all powerful, and He Himself will wipe away their tears, and bring them victorious back home to Him, they would rejoice at the faithfulness, awe and power of the King of kings and Lord of lords, who riding a white horse, would lead them to victory over their enemies. Hallelujah!
When we were in Israel, we went to Mount Carmel, which overlooks the Jazreel Valley where the infamous battle of Amegeddon is supposed to take place. Our Israeli guide pointed out that the last battle between good and evil will be fought there. I don't know why anyone would be afraid of that event, for the Book of Revelation itself tells us how the battle ends: "They (the devil's minions) marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God's people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them" (Rev. 20:9). Oh yes, and it goes on to say that the devil "was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever" (Vs. 10). If you are feeling squeamish or nervous about the lake of fire, don't. Remember that God HIMSELF is a Refining Fire. Also, remember that Jesus said the eternal fire was prepared for the devil and his angels, not for the children of God! (Matt. 25:41).
I realize that no matter how many pages I may write about this topic, I cannot take away your fear and anxiety over whether or not you qualify to make heaven and avoid hell, for "fear has to do with punishment" (I John 4:18). We have been fed a steady diet of fear over the years, and only the unconditional, the perfect love of God will take away your fear of fire and failure.
Fear reveals another difference between the church and the kingdom, which is that you no doubt, will have to qualify to become a member of any church you can name, but you never need to qualify for the kingdom of God.
As I was pondering this writing, the ending of it came to me as soon as I had written the title, "Qualifying for the kingdom." Human beings have always worried about qualifying for rewards, or messing up and losing same, which may be a result of having been tossed out of the Garden of Eden in the beginning. The Spirit reminded me of the beautiful scene recounted in Revelation, Chapter 5, where John is shown the scroll sealed with seven seals. An angel asks, "Who is worthy (who qualifies) to open the scroll? But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside" (Rev. 5:2-4). John wept and wept because he knew there was something wonderful written upon it, or perhaps he wept because he himself was not qualified to open it. Either way, he was devastated, and he may have known by the Spirit that it is the same scroll which Daniel was instructed to "close up and seal the words of the scroll until the time of the end" (Dan. 2:4). Daniel was not the one chosen to reveal Christ.
The angel in the throne room told John not to cry because "The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David has triumphed. He is able (he qualifies) to open the scroll and its seven seals" (Vs. 5). The scene that follows is certainly One of the most thrilling in the entire Bible. The Lamb took the scroll from the One who sat on the throne, whereupon the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb and worshipped Him. They sang a new song: "You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth" (Vs. 9-10). Christ qualifies to open the scroll because He has paid the price in blood, and we never need worry about qualifying, because we are IN HIM! The ones singing were joined by thousands upon thousands of angels, singing, "Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise" (Vs. 12). Oh, blessed mystery, the Lamb lives in us.
Father we lift our voices with the heavenly host in adoration and worship, for You are worthy of praise and honor and glory and power for ever and ever. We give you our eternal thanks for making all things new. Amen. Jan Antonsson
Jan and Lenny Antonsson
17178 Highway 59, Neosho, MO 64850 (Snail Mail)
Repentance and the Kingdom
The Glory Road
This writing was uploaded to the web 05/04/06,
by Jan Antonsson, webmeister,
and last updated 10/06/08.