Tag Archives: Heaven

Ambassadors for Christ.

You may recall the controversy that erupted several years ago when an employee of the National Security Agency (NSA) leaked extensive details about an intrusive government surveillance program that spied on Americans. Considerable debate centered on whether the leaker acted responsibly in releasing such specifics.

One segment of the country believed his actions amounted to treason and argued he compromised America’s interests; and therefore violated his obligations as a citizen of the United States. Another segment contended his actions exposed an illegal program that violated the privacy rights of millions of Americans and viewed him as a heroic whistleblower. Regardless of perspective, though, both sides agreed on one point: individuals have an obligation as citizens.

The same principle holds for Christians. The apostle Paul tells us “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). We belong to the kingdom of God and our heavenly citizenship ought to inform and influence our priorities, interests, and decisions.

In a similar vein the apostle Peter refers to believers as “sojourners and pilgrims” (2 Peter 2:11, NKJV). This world represents a temporary destination – a nanosecond relative to eternity. Consequently, we ought to avoid establishing a lifestyle commensurate with the citizens of this world – who chase after the temporal to the detriment of the spiritual.

Paul’s words are instructive on this point, informing us, “we are ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20, NKJV). Webster’s dictionary defines an ambassador as an ‘official envoy’ who acts as a ‘resident representative of his sovereign state.’

Jesus appoints each of us to represent Him in this world. As His official emissaries we speak on His behalf – in our speech and with our actions. The world understands the character, attributes, and priorities of the Lord as they interact with and observe us. Rather than read the Bible to ascertain who Jesus is, they simply watch His followers.

So what does the world learn about Jesus when they examine your life? Do they learn He is merciful and forgiving; that He comforts the downtrodden? Do they discover He is holy and righteous, and focuses on the heart and not on outward appearances? Do they learn that He cares deeply for people, not things? As God’s ambassador do your actions reveal unbridled excitement about a future heavenly home or a passion for securing the approval, treasures, and success of this world?

Spend some time reflecting on these questions and evaluating whether your life accurately represents the one you serve as ambassador. Then identify one lifestyle change you can make that will more effectively point people to Christ.

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Jesus Offers Eternal Life – Not Condemnation.

Ask ten Americans to describe Jesus and you’re likely to get ten different answers. Teacher. Healer. Prophet. Good. Wise. Redeemer. The list goes on. Some have a favorable view of Him, others not so much. Some hold an accurate depiction, others a flawed one. And that’s unfortunate because an erroneous understanding of Christ represents one of the biggest barriers to people placing their hope and trust in Him.

One common misunderstanding about Jesus is particularly treacherous: the belief that He came into the world to condemn mankind. This distorted view paints Jesus as a stern authoritarian who scrutinizes the world for sinners and castigates them for the slightest misstep or infraction. He gleefully administers judgment against those who fail to meet God’s standards and secretly roots against them. It is an austere and inaccurate portrait of Jesus. Fortunately, none of it is true.

Scripture tells us this: “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:17, NKJV). Jesus didn’t come to condemn mankind; He came to provide salvation. That’s glorious news, but it gets better. The eternal life Christ offers is available to every person and only requires belief. It cannot be earned.

That truth confounds the world. How can a holy God allow people into heaven without working for it? The staggering simplicity of grace seems too easy, too risky, and too good to be true. But God’s word does not equivocate. John 3:15 says, “Everyone who believes in Jesus will have eternal life.” Perhaps anticipating the world’s skepticism the next verse reiterates the point. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.”

That’s not to say that a steep price isn’t paid for salvation. It is. But Jesus paid that price on the cross. He offered His perfect life as a sacrifice for sin. All sin. Yours, and mine. Peter’s first epistle tells us that Jesus bore our sins in His body while on the cross and that by His wounds we are healed. His physical death gives spiritual life to all who believe.

Are you working feverishly to earn God’s favor, hoping to merit a place in heaven? Do you feel trapped in a religion that demands you work your way into paradise? Have your efforts to find God left you unfulfilled and racked with despair?

Then stop relying on yourself. No amount of good deeds will secure you a place in heaven. God’s grace, through faith in Christ, is the only path to salvation. For there is no other name under heaven, by which we are saved, than the name of Jesus.

Too Busy for God.

I wonder how many of us fail to follow God’s plan for our lives because we convince ourselves that in the absence of egregious sin, any morally neutral activity or ambition enjoys God’s approval. As long as our pursuits don’t violate explicit biblical commands we assume God allows us enough latitude to do what we want. This thinking drives many of us to spend our days enjoying hobbies and chasing pleasures that do not directly contravene God’s Word.

However, avoiding obvious disobedience does not necessarily indicate actual obedience. Often the reasonable and adequate diverge as much from God’s plan as the scandalous and perverse. The Parable of the Great Supper illuminates this truth. In it those invited to enjoy the great supper (a metaphor for heaven) decline to attend.

One guest explains, “I have bought a piece of ground and must go and see it.” Another says, “I have bought five oxen and am going to test them.” A third excuses himself with good news. “I have married a wife and therefore cannot come.”

Most of us would agree that these explanations are reasonable. There is nothing morally defective about surveying your investments or validating the value of a purchase. And wanting to spend time with your new bride seems rather admirable. Yet on hearing their excuses the host proclaims that none of those invited would enjoy the feast. Why? Because they prioritized reasonable and admirable activities over something of greater importance: fellowship with the host.

So it is with us. When we allow good and practical pursuits to consume us then they become distractions from our primary purpose in life: developing a vibrant relationship with Christ. A lifetime neglecting that purpose (or just giving it lip service) jeopardizes our seat at the table of the marriage supper of the Lamb. We simply won’t recognize Christ when He returns. Worse, He won’t recognize us.

That theme emerges again when Jesus chastises a pair of potential disciples for delaying their obedience to His call, despite legitimate motives: one wants to bury his deceased father and the other wants to say goodbye to his family. No rational person would consider those explanations unreasonable. Yet Christ does. Not because those things are bad or inappropriate, but because they preempted faithfulness to Christ’s call. The men prioritized family commitments above immediate obedience to the Lord.

Take time this week to read these passages from the ninth and fourteenth chapters of Luke. Ask God to reveal their application in your life and reveal what good or practical pursuit you’ve allowed to displace your relationship with Christ, and what reasonable activity or ambition has distracted you from immediate obedience to the Lord. Then take steps to put those disruptive undertakings in their proper place.

A Glimpse of Heaven.

Most of us have some idea of what to expect when we arrive in heaven, though views are as varied as the people who hold them. Many anticipate an eternal reunion with friends, family, and loved ones. Others plan to spend eternity playing golf, relaxing on the beach, getting a deep tissue massage from some angelic host, or hiking, biking, and kayaking the heavenly outdoors.

On arriving in heaven many of us expect to enjoy the same activities we did in this world, but without the suffering, sorrow or stress associated with it. In essence, we believe heaven offers everything we liked on earth with none of its problems. But some of what we believe about heaven finds little support in Scripture and at times contradicts it.

While the entirety of heaven will remain a mystery until God calls us home, the Bible offers a brief glimpse into what we can expect. In particular the book of Revelation provides a few pieces to the puzzle. Here are some activities it records in heaven.

#1) Praising God: The apostle John declares that all angels, living creatures, and elders, who number in the hundreds of millions, sing throughout heaven, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12, NKJV). John later informs us that everyone in heaven praises God saying, “Blessing and honor and glory and power, be to Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, forever and ever!” (Revelation 5:13, NKJV). Praising God in speech and in song represents an integral part of the heavenly experience.

#2) Serving God: John states that God rewards the saints who “come out of the great tribulation” by allowing them to come into His presence and “serve Him day and night in His temple” (Revelation 7:14-15, NKJV). According to John, the reward for martyrdom is the opportunity to serve God daily. Later, in a detailed description of heaven and God’s presence he announces, “the Lamb shall be in it and His servants shall serve Him” (Revelation 22:3, NKJV). These verses reveal that serving God is a fundamental feature of heaven.

#3) Worshipping God: John portrays a scene around the throne of God and before the risen Savior in which “a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues” cry out with the angels, elders, and living creatures and “worshipped God” (Revelation 7:9-11, NKJV). Worship captures the essence of heaven. In fact, we observe all of heaven worshipping God numerous times in Revelation.

So how does heaven sound? Does the idea of praising, serving, and worshipping God for eternity excite, energize, and inspire you? I hope so, since those activities reflect a significant part of eternal life. As you head into the week consider this: we need not wait until heaven to prioritize these interactions with God. We can praise, serve, and worship Him today and every day of our lives – not just Sundays. In pursuing those activities, we not only enrich our relationship with the Lord, we also catch a glimpse of heaven.

Heaven’s Diversity: Nothing Compares.

For decades diversity has represented one of the defining pillars of modern liberalism. Progressives argue that diverse groups of students and employees create healthier campuses and superior work environments because they offer broader and more distinct experiences. In principle the idea makes a lot of sense. I’ve certainly witnessed its value at work and in school.

Unfortunately, in practice liberals tend to practice a discriminatory version of diversity – welcoming those moored to their political philosophy and rejecting those who subscribe to a conservative worldview. Rather than create truly diverse environments, then, liberals have used diversity as a club to bludgeon their political and ideological opponents and construct a very narrow and rigid worldview on campus and in the halls of progressive governments.

Perhaps the group most frequently targeted for exclusion and derision by denizens of diversity are evangelical Christians, whom the left loves to loathe. What’s ironic about liberalism’s antagonism for Christianity is that no academic institution, company, or community is as diverse as the body of Christ. More ubiquitous than Coke, Christians exist in every country and in the vast majority of towns and villages across every continent, including those openly hostile to the faith.

In fact, Christianity’s fastest growth this past century has occurred in places where opposition has been the most intense and brutal. For example, Christianity has exploded in China, despite governmental efforts and crackdowns, and is now home to more than one hundred million believers, many of whom practice their faith in small house churches to avoid the reach of government’s heavy hand.

Similarly, in the Middle East Christianity is experiencing a renaissance unseen for more than a millennium as more and more Muslims confess Jesus as Lord. Their embrace of Christ is not without risk, though, since conversion to Christianity is punishable by death in many Islamic countries.

Jesus’ universal appeal comes as no surprise to those familiar with the Bible. When the apostle John describes heaven in the book of Revelation he sees, “A great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb (Jesus), clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9-10, NKJV).

What incredible diversity!! Every people group, every dialect, every ethnicity will be represented in heaven. That’s exciting.

But Christianity doesn’t just thrive across dissimilar cultures, countries, and communities; it flourishes across every demographic imaginable, including economic status, political affiliation, social status, age, educational background, and profession. Moreover, it attracts those of every physical feature and every attribute, no matter how unique: tall/short, obese/slender, beautiful/ugly, genius/dimwit, athletic/clumsy, extrovert/introvert, leader/follower, successful/failure, popular/outcast, optimist/naysayer.

That list doesn’t even scratch the surface of heaven’s diversity. And no surprise since Jesus offers eternal life to everyone, without exception. No matter who you are or what you’ve done, Jesus is ready to accept you into His kingdom.

Scripture tells us God “is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9b, NKJV). Consequently, He exercises patience in drawing all of us to Him and giving us more time than we deserve to repent from our sins and surrender our lives to Him.

Paul reinforces this idea in his second epistle to Timothy, telling us God “wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4, NLT). And what truth does He want us to understand? He tells us in the next two verses: “There is one God and one Mediator who can reconcile God and humanity – the man Christ Jesus. He gave His life to purchase freedom for everyone.”

While these verses make clear that God makes salvation available to every person on the planet, they also demonstrate that only one path to eternal life exists – and that is through Jesus Christ. Sadly, much of humanity rejects the simplicity of the gospel, insisting they play a role in earning their way to heaven and demanding that God honor the teaching of other faiths. But on this point God is unequivocal. Jesus alone is the path to life; all others lead to destruction.

Aren’t you glad God extends His offer of everlasting life to everyone? Isn’t it great heaven will be the most diverse collection of souls ever assembled? In view of God’s diverse plan for heaven, let me leave you with a couple important questions.

What are you doing to fulfill John’s vision? Are you actively sharing the Good News of Jesus with those from other backgrounds, cultures, and languages, and those quite different from you? If not, how is God calling you to identify and communicate the Gospel to individuals, families, and communities who have yet to learn of Jesus’ sacrifice and love?

After all, what could be more exhilarating than introducing someone to Christ and contributing to heaven’s diversity?

Eternal Life: Bible’s Specifics About Salvation May Surprise You.

Scripture says a great deal about salvation and describes in detail the requirements for sharing eternity with God. And while the Bible illuminates a clear path to eternal life, over time the church has distilled the Gospel message to a dangerous degree. Specifics have been oversimplified (and mangled) to such an extent that many churchgoers now embrace a neutered version of what Scripture teaches. While the church’s motivation may have been (mostly) pure – to attract more people to the Lord and bolster church attendance – the results likely have produced an unprecedented spiritual disaster. So severe is this distortion of foundational, biblical doctrine it risks jeopardizing the eternal destination of many would-be believers.

To fully grasp the issue we need look no further than the most recognized verse in all of Scripture, John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” God’s mercy, love, and forgiveness are on full display in those twenty-five words, proclaiming salvation for all who believe. Sounds simple doesn’t it? On the surface, there doesn’t appear any room for ambiguity.

Of course, the crux of this truth hinges on the word ‘believe.’ How we define and interpret that word is critical to our understanding of the Gospel and the prerequisite to ‘everlasting life.’ Many churches teach that ‘belief’ is evidenced by a public profession of faith in Christ, by verbalizing one’s trust in Him, or by reciting some version of a sinner’s prayer. Representing a broad compendium of denominations, traditions, and doctrine, these churches share the view that salvation occurs the moment one orally articulates his or her acceptance of Jesus as Savior, irrespective of whether any life transformation occurs or any evidence of faith is subsequently manifested.

Scripture, however, adopts a decidedly different view on what it means to believe. The apostle Paul articulates a succinct but substantive definition in his letter to the Roman church. “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes to righteousness and with the mouth confession is made to salvation” (Romans 10:9-10, NKJV, emphasis mine).

Paul declares that the faith that leads to salvation involves two distinct components: professing Jesus as Lord with your mouth and believing with your heart that He is the risen Savior. Belief limited to an intellectual assent of Jesus’ lordship is insufficient. Authentic belief always flows from the heart.

This may sound like a distinction without a difference. What does it matter, some may wonder. Head or heart, it’s all the same isn’t it? The answer, of course, is that they are not at all the same. The distinction is absolutely critical; one yields a transformed life while the other produces only outward change (if any at all) and a religious veneer. The former leads to eternal life, the latter to utter destruction and ruin.

God’s Word highlights this distinction over and over again, from Genesis to Revelation. The Pharisees embodied the attitude of those who verbally proclaim faith in God but do not believe with their heart. Jesus called them hypocrites, noting “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrine the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:8-9, NKJV).

Steeped in religion, they commanded respect within the Jewish community. They said all the rights things and appeared to behave in a manner consistent with God’s commands. But they possessed an inauthentic faith, and Jesus quickly rebuked them for the spiritual frauds they were. He informed them that their faith was futile because it was manifested in words without a surrendering of the heart.

On the day of reckoning, Christ will engage fraudulent Christians in a similar manner. These are churchgoers who, like the Pharisees, say the right things and appear religious but have never abandoned themselves fully to Jesus. Despite their claims to the contrary, they don’t possess a genuine faith because they’ve never submitted to Jesus as Lord. The totality of their faith is limited to religious acts and Christian-esque language. In short, they excel at playing church.

This may strike some as judgmental on my part, suggesting that some churchgoers have an inauthentic faith. But the view is not mine, it is Jesus’. He said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you, depart from Me you who practice lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:21-23, NKJV).

Like the Pharisees two thousand years ago, Jesus sees beneath the façade of faux-Christians and exposes them as religious charlatans. They have no place in God’s kingdom because they choose to follow a false gospel – one limited to verbal professions and religious antics but never rooted in the heart.

So what does faith look like when it flows from the heart? What evidence can we expect to uncover if we follow the advice of the apostle Paul, who challenged us to, “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Prove yourselves” (2 Corinthians 13:5, NKJV). The short answer is: our lives will look a lot like what we see in Jesus’ followers as captured in the New Testament: flawed men and women who love God, desire His presence, and share the Good News of Jesus with others.

But if that response is too vague and not particularly enlightening, let’s consider a few specific points to help us determine if our faith parallels that of the disciples or that of the Pharisees. Again, these are just a few indicators of authentic faith, according to Scripture. There are others, to be sure, but these will help facilitate some healthy internal reflection.

1] Your treasure reflects the things of God. Jesus informed His followers, “Wherever your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). Genuine faith that springs from the heart stores up treasure in heaven by pursuing God’s will, advancing His agenda, embracing His priorities, and submitting to His leadership. It influences how we invest our time, direct our resources, and spend our income.

It is insufficient to simply say we treasure the things of God; the evidence ought to support our claim. This verse, then, represents a critical truth. It asserts that the one true love radiating from our heart is easily identified, because our heart and our treasure are domiciled together. Ask yourself what you treasure in life: the temporal things of this world or the eternal things of God’s Kingdom. What does the evidence show?

2] Authentic faith bears spiritual fruit. Jesus declared, “He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit” (John 15:5, NKJV). The form of that fruit will vary widely by individual and may include leading others to faith in Christ, discipling new believers, sowing a seed of faith in unbelievers, watering that seed, or restoring one who has fallen away from faith. Notice that Jesus indicates His disciples will not only bear fruit for His kingdom, they will bear ‘much’ fruit. Is your life marked by production of much spiritual fruit? If not, what does the above verse suggest about your relationship with Christ?

3] Believers obey Jesus’ commands. Those who possess real faith observe God’s commandments and they are not burdensome or a source of resentment. Jesus proclaimed, “If you love Me, keep My commandments… He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me… If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word” (John 14:15, 21, 23, NKJV). Do you desire to keep God’s commands? Is your obedience limited to those commands that don’t inconvenience you or disrupt your lifestyle? Do you pursue Jesus’ words with joy in your heart or begrudgingly, out of a sense of obligation? While we will never perfectly follow all God’s commands, our heart ought to yearn for victory over every area of sin in our lives. Moreover, we ought to observe sure and steady progress over time in becoming more like Christ in our obedience (the process of sanctification).

4] Genuine faith produces good works. While it is true we cannot earn salvation with good works, it is equally true that the absence of good works reveals the absence of genuine faith. In his epistle, James tells us, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead … For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:17, 26, NKJV). The apostle Paul echoes this perspective in his epistle to the church in Ephesus, “For by grace we have been saved, through faith, and that not of ourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10, NKJV).

Do you see the relationship between grace, salvation, and works? God’s grace alone saves us, but if we are indeed saved then we pursue the good works God prepared for us from the foundation of the world. Though the substance of those works will vary by believer (just as the spiritual fruit did above), they will adhere broadly to the principles outlined in the parable of the Good Samaritan and in Jesus’ Olivet Discourse (see Luke 10:25-37, and Matthew 25:31-46). Are you pursuing works of mercy, generosity, compassion, sacrifice, and love that help others and bring God glory?

5] A surrendered life manifests true faith. This is no mere throwaway concept but is foundational to authentic Christianity. Jesus communicated this truth on numerous occasions during His ministry and its essence is grounded in substance not superficiality.

He does not call us to express a willingness to surrender our lives or merely claim to do so. Rather, He calls us to actually and substantively yield our lives fully to Him – every nook and cranny, every thought, every dream, every act, every decision. The breadth of Jesus’ expectation in this regard perturbs many churchgoers and flat-out offends others. But Jesus does not make this demand optional for His followers.

He informs us, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies it produces much fruit. For whoever loves his life will lose it, but he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:24-25). Jesus’ metaphor is clear. We must set aside our own interests, desires, and dreams, and embrace His instead. Absent an abdication of our rights we cannot begin to fulfill the plans He has for us. Without surrender there is no salvation.

The above verses and biblical truths hardly scratch the surface of what Jesus taught about salvation and discipleship. But hopefully they rebuff the misperception that eternal life awaits those who merely verbalize faith in Christ in a single moment of time, no matter how insincere that commitment becomes. Hopefully the passages illustrate Jesus’ expectations for those who claim Him as Lord and profess their fidelity to Him. Hopefully they reveal that authentic belief flows from the heart and necessarily transforms the life of anyone who professes such faith.

Let me conclude with two critical points. First, the above elements are not requirements for salvation. In another words, God does not demand we bear spiritual fruit, keep His commands, or perform good works to secure salvation. Rather, those behaviors reveal the presence of authentic faith in our hearts, not just on our lips or in our minds. So although they do not precede salvation, they absolutely do proceed from salvation.

Second, don’t assume your salvation is sure and your faith real without looking at the evidence. What is at stake is far too important to trust to casual conjecture. Your heart may try to convince you that ‘you’re good with God’ and dismiss as poppycock the notion that any evidence will be made manifest in the life of a genuine believer. Resist that argument. Scripture makes clear that there will be overwhelming evidence of a transformed life in every believer. Remember, the Bible tells us, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9, NKJV). It is better to trust what Jesus taught and what Scripture communicates than to trust our own deceptive heart on the issue of faith and eternal life.

No topic is of more importance. I hope the evidence in your life supports your claim that Jesus is Lord. If it does not, or you have never surrendered your life to Him, take a moment to do so now. Admit you are a sinner and ask for His mercy and forgiveness. Ask Him to wash away your sin and fill you with the Holy Spirit. Let Him know of your desire to love Him with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. Place your entire life in His control to be used for His purposes. Inform Him of your desire to begin a lifelong relationship with Him and begin to develop that relationship by spending time with Him in prayer and studying His word. Finally, ask Him to direct you to a local church you can attend regularly and get baptized as soon as possible.

May God bless your decision and commitment to Him.

A Most Misinterpreted Bible Passage.

Throughout His ministry Jesus often used metaphors and parables to convey eternal truths. This was especially true when discussing topics His disciples would not fully understand until after His death (e.g. His reference to raising the Temple three days after it was destroyed). More often than not, though, He spoke in plain terms, particularly when sharing a truth His listeners might easily misinterpret.

One Bible passage, however, consistently confuses most Christians despite Jesus’ clear and unambiguous language. Even church leaders often fail to grasp the simple idea communicated and instead teach an interpretation that, at best, weakens Jesus’ message and, at worst, undermines it altogether. It is the passage immediately following Jesus’ dialogue with a rich young ruler about eternal life.

In that discourse Jesus directs the young man to the law in his quest for eternity and reminds him of six commands in particular. The young man assures Jesus he has kept the commandments, at which point Jesus tells him to go, sell his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Him. Upon hearing this, Scripture tells us, the man “went away grieved, for he had great possessions” (Mark 10:22, NKJV). His response to Jesus revealed that his love for the world exceeded his love for God.

As the man walks away, Jesus turns to His disciples and says something remarkable: “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23, NKJV). It is such a surprising statement that Scripture says, “The disciples were astonished at His words.”

I suspect many of us are astonished by His words as well and share the disciples’ view that Jesus can’t possibly mean what He said. We tell ourselves that His plain words must have a subtler, more nuanced meaning than what appears on the surface. Sensing the disciples’ incredulity (and ours), Jesus reiterates His point.

Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:24b-25, NKJV).

It is these verses (and the corresponding passages in Luke 18 and Matthew 19) that many misinterpret and which often lead to an unbiblical perspective on wealth and worldly possessions. The trouble begins when we go to great lengths to explain why Jesus’ plain words are not what they appear. Instead of focusing on what He is saying and gleaning insights from those words, we concentrate on what He is not saying:

1] Jesus is not saying it’s wrong to be rich.

2] Jesus is not telling us to sell our possessions to follow Him.

3] Jesus is not issuing a specific warning to the rich.

The problem with directing our attention to what is not being said is that it tends to undermine what Jesus did say. We turn Jesus’ powerful warning about the dangers of accumulating wealth and possessions into a toothless remark with plenty of caveats. We need not examine our lives through the lens of Jesus’ admonition because He does not mean what He says.

Even worse, many pastors adopt a similar approach when preaching from this text. But by ignoring Jesus’ penetrating counsel to the rich young ruler and instead preaching on what Jesus did not say, pastors proclaim their congregations free from the sin that plagued the young man. Parishioners need not examine their hearts for the presence of an idolatrous relationship with riches or the practice of poor stewardship. By focusing on what was not said, preachers reinforce the misperception many Christians have that the pursuit of wealth and accumulation of possessions align nicely with the call of Christ.

Another common misinterpretation insists that Jesus’ advice is not directed at the wealthy, per se, but instead represents a broader commentary for everyone. This view suggests that Jesus’ was articulating three big ideas:

1] Don’t allow anything in this world to become your god.

2] Don’t place your trust in material riches.

3] Nothing is impossible for God.

While all three of these points are biblically sound, they miss the most crucial point: that it is difficult for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God. In fact, that point is so critical Jesus mentioned it twice. He knew people would assume they had misheard Him or that He had misspoken. So to remove any ambiguity, He repeated Himself. And then, to prevent any misunderstanding of what ‘difficult’ means, He equated a rich man entering heaven with a camel walking through the eye of a needle.

Jesus directs His message squarely at those who possess the things of this world and almost certainly targets most of us living in this country. The difficulty lies not in the path required of the wealthy (for salvation is a gift of God, not of works) but rather in the fact that this world so easily distracts us from worshipping, loving, and serving God. And when we are entrenched in the things of this world they quickly supplant Jesus as the object of our worship, love, and service. Of course, even the poor can make material things a god and they, too, must exercise caution to avoid committing spiritual idolatry, but the danger is especially acute for those with financial means.

I wonder how many of us unknowingly mirror the rich young ruler. Like him, how many of us are confident in our eternal destination? He assumed (wrongly) that he had kept the law and therefore would spend eternity with God. How many of us (wrongly?) assume we have genuinely embraced Jesus as Lord and committed our lives to Him? How many of us, like the rich young ruler, have deceived ourselves so thoroughly that we are completely unaware of our spiritual blind spots?

In contrast with his spiritual self-assessment, the rich young ruler was far removed from God. Instead of being a spiritual giant, he was spiritually dead. His condition evidenced by his violation of the most important commandment, the one that forms a foundation for all others: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37, NKJV).

With one challenge Jesus revealed the dramatic disconnect between the rich young ruler’s perception of his spiritual condition and reality. With one challenge Jesus exposed the truth that he didn’t love the Lord at all despite his assertion to the contrary. With one challenge Jesus showed that someone could embrace a false god and not know it. I wonder how many of us would walk away and refuse to give our possessions to the poor if Christ presented us with the same challenge?

While it is true that all things are possible with God, that we ought not place our trust in riches, and we should never idolize anything in this world, none of those represent the underlying truth Jesus was communicating. This passage is first and foremost a warning about how wealth, possessions, and the lures of this world can quickly and easily corrupt our hearts and replace Jesus as Lord of our lives.

It is a message particularly pertinent for our nation, both within and without the church. It is a message courageous pastors must deliver to their congregations without diluting Jesus’ clear and unambiguous message. It is a message we must ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to us. And it is a message that, when embraced, will produce an outpouring of repentance, a reexamination of resource allocation, a significant shift in stewardship, and a revitalized relationship with God.