Friday, February 14, 2014

Why the doctrine of Heaven is crucial for the Christian

Luke 23:33 When they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left.

The last guy you would expect to see going to Heaven
Yesterday we looked closely at the doctrine of hell. We noted "The Rich Man" in Luke 16 as being the last guy anyone in Jesus' time would had expected to go to hell. The Rich Man was wealthy and would had been considered by all human standards to be blessed by God due to his opulence. Today we are going to consider a second man, the thief on the cross who hung beside Jesus, who in many ways is a contrast to the rich man. The point of this post is to consider why the doctrine of Heaven is so crucial for the Christian. Before getting to the thief on the cross, we will first briefly survey the Bible's teaching on heaven.

What Jesus and the Bible teaches on Heaven
As we travel through Genesis, we see 30 or so mentions of the word "heaven" with most references to either the first heaven (sky) or second heaven (universe).  In Genesis 28:12 we read: "And he (Jacob) dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to the heavens. And behold, angels of God ascended and descended upon it."  Jacob's incredible experience shows the activity of the third heaven touching down here on earth.  According to John 1:51, what Jacob saw was none other than an Old Testament appearance of Jesus Christ.  It is in 2 Corinthians 12 that the Apostle Paul refers to this realm as the "third heaven" (hence the reason for terming the first two realms of the sky as "1st heaven" and the universe as "2nd heaven"). 

According to Strong's Exhaustive Concordance, the third heaven or "current abode of the redeemed" is described as a place of:
1. Joy. Luke 15:7,10
2. Rest. Revelation 14:13
3. Peace. Luke 16:19-25
4. Righteousness. 2 Peter 3:13
5. Service. Revelation 7:15
6. Reward. Matthew 5:11,12
7. Inheritance. 1 Peter 1:4
8. Glory. Romans 8:17,18

Further reflection upon heaven demonstrates it to be literally:
1. Place - John 14:1-3
2. Prioritizing Jesus - Acts 7:55
3. More beautiful than the natural mind can comprehend - 1 Cor 2:9; 2 Cor 12:2
4. Palatial entryway for every Christian. 2 Peter 1:11

With that brief survey of the believer's destination that is called by the name "heaven" or "paradise" in the scriptures, now we are going to meet the thief on the cross.

The last guy anyone would had expected to had died and gone to heaven
To all people witnessing the crucifixion, many would had assumed that the thief on the cross was soon going to die and go to hell. Luke gives us this touching portrait of God's grace working that day in the life of a man that would have no chance of ever giving back. Crucifixion was reserved for the most vile offenders. Yet the thief gives us a portrait of a man who avoided hell.

Without a doubt he is a contrast to the rich man in Luke 16.
The rich man was a man of influence, and was considered by some to have had some measure of righteousness based upon his wealth. Even though he was considered to be most likely to die and go to heaven, instead he died and went to hell.  The thief on the other hand, who had neither wealth nor influence, was afforded access into Heaven. Why?  Whenever you compare him to the rich man in yesterday's post, you find two completely different hearts:

1. The thief believed God's Word Luke 23:38-39
Unlike the rich man, who was unconvinced by God's Word (Lk 16:30), the thief on the cross was convinced, evidencing the Spirit's work of saving grace in His heart.
What had they written on the board above Jesus' head? "THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS". By fulfilling prophetic scripture, Jesus Christ indeed was the crucified King. The soldiers mocking and the other thief's taunts were in response to the words written. The Jews had begged Pilate earlier to take it down, but Pilate told them in John 19:22 "what I have written, I have written". The repentant thief had a quite different response. In seeing and hearing those words, which undoubtedly were to become part of sacred scripture, the thief's attitude was changed from one of ridicule to repentance. 

2. The thief was repentant Luke 23:40-41
Unlike the rich man who died unrepentant and remained so in hell (Luke 16:24), the thief states in Luke 23:41 "And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." Only God's Sovereign grace could show this thief the awfulness of his own sin and the awesomeness of Jesus Christ. (2 Timothy 2:25-26) This thief repented, ignored the crowd and the other thief, and chose to look to Jesus.

3. The thief relied on Jesus. Luke 23:41-42
Sadly the rich man remained unchanged in hell, ever relying more on his own abilities. He still though of himself as the master and Lazarus as the begger.
What did the thief come to believe about Jesus and himself? That Jesus was without sin (Luke 23:41), The King (23:42) & Savior (23:42). Meanwhile the thief saw himself deserving his punishment and being a beggar in need of the Master's touch.

4. Thief was regarded justified by faith, thus gaining entry Luke 23:43
The declaration of Jesus: Today you will be with me in paradise" would not had been stated to a man who was still remaining guilty in the sight of God. By grace through faith and repentance this man was declared fit to have entryway into heaven or paradise! He avoided Hell by believing on Jesus for the forgiveness of his sins.

Why the Doctrine of Heaven is crucial for the Christian
Much like yesterday's post, we see similar benefits for the Christian in considering more closely the reality of heaven:
1. Eternal perspective. It puts into sharp focus eternity and the need to trust in Christ. It should raise the burden to get the gospel to as many people as possible. 

2. Emphasizes the need for Grace. For the Christian, Heaven has the positive benefit of helping us praise God for His grace and to rely ever more on such grace. 

3. Emphasizes Christ's righteousness, not my own. Only through Christ can I have confidence before the Just and Holy God.  The thief on the cross evidenced the Spirit's saving work through his faith and repentance in Jesus Christ.

4. Emboldens perseverance. The wonderful truth about Heaven emboldens perseverance. Peter writes in 2 Peter 1:11-12 "
for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you.
12 Therefore, I will always be ready to remind you of these things, even though you already know them, and have been established in the truth which is present with you."

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