Don’t be satisfied with the appetizers
Amy Winehouse, an enormously talented and deeply troubled singer, was found dead in her apartment yesterday at the age of 27. Though no official cause of death has been cited, family and friends agree that her early demise was undoubtedly the result of years of binge drinking and drug abuse.
This iconic young woman was part of my children’s generation. I found her story compelling in its stark tragedy. Here was a passionate and profoundly damaged soul who took the wrong prescription for her inner pain.
The real tragedy, however, is not that she died young. It’s that she died without Jesus. Had she laid her grief and torment on His shoulders, she could have been a free woman, a daughter of the resurrection. Instead, she died a miserable and seemingly pointless death.
In our church we often talk about how Jesus is the answer to life’s problems, the one who brings joy, peace and restoration to our souls. And of course all this is true. Had Amy Winehouse met Jesus and surrendered her life to him, she could have found rest for her soul, and she could have lived a longer, more peaceful and productive life.
She would, however, still have died.
“Of course”, you say. “Everyone dies. That’s just the way things are. Death is natural.”
No, it’s not. Death is a usurper and an intruder. We were created to be eternal beings. That’s part of what it means to be created in God’s image.
In the Christian cultures of the West, the traditional view has been that death is the moment of liberation, the time when the souls of the faithful, who have had their sins forgiven by the blood of Jesus, are set free to fly away to their eternal home. This way of thinking is often seen as a Christian belief, but it’s actually contrary to the Biblical message. The Bible nowhere states that heaven is our home.
More recently, a view has sprung up that when Jesus spoke about the Kingdom of God coming on earth as in heaven, he was saying that what God really cares about is giving us a better life on this earth, in this age. According to this view, the good news of the Kingdom is that we can have transformed lives — forgiveness, peace, healing and prosperity — and transformed communities — social justice and even renewal of the created order — now, in this age.
Both these views distort the Biblical gospel, even though they both contain a kernel of truth. It is true that there are many benefits in this age for those who have put their hope in Jesus, and that communities can experience a significant degree of transformation when the gospel is widely accepted. It is also true that those who have put their hope in Jesus can be confident that they are going to be with Him when they die. But neither of these truths represents the full scope of the salvation for which Jesus offered up His life. What we need to ask ourselves is why Jesus went to the cross. What goal did He have in mind? Why exactly did He willingly die such a horrible death?
He didn’t die so that at the end of our earthly pilgrimage we could leave this “vale of tears” and fly away to our true eternal home. Neither did He die so that we could have a somewhat improved life, with signs and wonders, joy and peace, and improved communities, on an earth where death still prevails.
He died so that we could share in His resurrection, have glorious new bodies, and live forever with Him on a fully restored earth that will be full of His glory and ruled over directly by Jesus. When Jesus rose from the dead, even though He was still the same person, His risen body was so glorious that His disciples were afraid of him and at times they didn’t even recognize him. We are destined for a degree of glory that is difficult for us to imagine. Let’s not become distracted by waiting, and settle for thinking that our true destiny must be in this age after all.
On the same day that Amy Winehouse died, Isak Wall and Allison Brailsford were married. They are a wonderful couple who love living life with Jesus, and their wedding was a joyous celebration.
While the bride and groom were occupied with photos and the guests were waiting for the wedding feast, appetizers and cold drinks were thoughtfully provided for the wedding guests. The appetizers and drinks were great – I was glad they were available. They helped to fill the gap between the wedding ceremony and the feast. You could think of them as a sign or foretaste of the feast that was to come. They were not, however, the feast itself. When the feast began, the appetizers were forgotten.
When we speak of the gospel as though it’s all about the joys of living life with Jesus in this age, or the joys of being with Jesus after we die, we are focussing on the appetizers instead of the wedding feast.
Is our life improved by coming to Christ? Of course. We have a new identity, and the Holy Spirit lives within us giving us peace, joy and power. But the New Testament is clear that these things are signs of what is to come – like the appetizers before the wedding feast. Not only that, our life is also made more difficult by coming to Christ. The gospel does not exempt us from suffering in this age – in fact, for some it leads to a life of increased suffering, and for all of us it means laying down our own will so that we live for the purposes of the One who called us. But in the age to come, all that will be done away with.
Don’t get me wrong – the sacrifices are worth it. But if we try to tell people that they should come to Christ because their life in this age will be so much better, we are not preaching the Biblical gospel.
So why is the reality of eternal judgment, the resurrection of the dead and the restoration of all things no more than an afterthought in most presentations of the gospel? If we believe these things, why do we so rarely talk about them? Our culture is so preoccupied with the works of man in this age that it’s almost as though even in church we are a bit embarrassed to talk about the age to come – or maybe we just don’t really believe it’s all that important. But that’s not how Paul saw things. He said that if for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we have been deceived and are to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:19).
We had a guest from Cuba at our Life Group meeting this week. Orlando spoke powerfully of six foundational truths, listed in Hebrews 6:1-3, that every disciple of Jesus needs to have built into their lives. He told us that in his church-planting ministry in Cuba, every new believer is taught all six of these things. The fifth truth is the resurrection of the dead, and the sixth truth is eternal judgment. In other words, of the six foundational beliefs laid out in Hebrews, fully one third have to do with the end of this age and the life of the age to come.
Should disciples of Jesus seek to influence the world around them? Of course. Should we be confident that if we die before the Lord returns, we will be with him? Of course. But neither of these is our hope. Our hope is in the resurrection of the dead and the Kingdom that Jesus will establish openly on the earth when He returns. The other blessings are foretastes, signs, appetizers. They’re good, but they aren’t the wedding feast.
Maybe we need to rethink our priorities in how we present the gospel. Maybe we need to talk more about the feast and less about the appetizers.