whc weekly word – 12/31/20

Our Blessed Hope

If you asked most Christians what their final destination is, they would probably say, “Heaven”. 

Certainly, the apostle Paul anticipated that he would be in heaven after he died when he wrote, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.” (Philippians 1:21-23) Here the description of heaven is simple: being present with the Lord. But that’s not what the Bible says our final destination is.

Rather than the final destination, the Bible teaches that heaven is a holding place for Christians until Jesus reveals himself again. Titus 2:11-14 teaches us that Jesus’ return is our blessed hope:

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, instructing us to deny godlessness and worldly lusts and to live in a sensible, righteous, and godly way in the present age, while we wait for the blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for himself a people for his own possession, eager to do good works.”

According to the Bible, the hope of all Christians is “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ”. The Greek word “appearing”, epiphaneia, is used throughout secular Greek literature to refer to the manifestation of a god in normal earthly life. Occasionally, in pagan literature, like Homer’s Odyssey, the gods would show up on earth to engage with humans. But regarding Christ, it refers to his return from heaven to reign on earth.

In short, this is our hope: that Jesus will return in glory to personally reign over all the earth.

If Jesus’ return to earth is our great hope, why do we hear so much about heaven and so little about Christ’s second coming? In a recent chat about this, a good friend reminded me of the recent trend of people professing to have briefly gone to heaven and writing best-selling books about what they saw. Why are we fixated on going to heaven if it’s not our final destination?

First, I think we often focus on the immediate future. Heaven is where you go when you die as a Christian. This is true. And perhaps many people are satisfied leaving it at that, assuming that, whatever lies afterward, God will take care of it.

Second, I suspect it’s also because we often read Bible verses about the future without looking at their context. In his sermon this last Sunday, Pastor Bryan made a great point that we should never look at a Bible passage without considering the context of the chapter and book within which the passage occurs.

What verse could be behind the exclusive emphasis on heaven? If someone wanted to use the Bible to argue that heaven is our final destination, the main verse they would probably use is 1 Thessalonians 4:17, “Then we who are still alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” 

Let's look at the context of 1 Thessalonians 4:17.

Two verses earlier, Paul says he is talking about "the Lord’s coming". The Greek word Paul uses for “coming” is parousia, which is a technical term that describes a king’s official visit to a conquered land. In ancient times, before his royal parade through a city, a king would send messengers bearing the good news or gospel which celebrates the king’s conquest of that region. The gospel instructs everyone in that region to cease any past allegiances to a prior king and prepare to honor the new king. The king’s loyal servants gather outside the city to welcome him with shouts of praise and trust in him, like a worship service.

Likewise, after Jesus conquered sin and death by dying on the cross, rising to life, and ascending back to the Father, God anointed Jesus to be the rightful ruler of the world (Acts 2:36). Then God sent messengers (Paul, you, me, and every other Christian) into the world to announce the good news of Jesus’ victory (Matthew 28:16-20). We do this to prepare all people for the coming of Christ. 

Finally, one day, Jesus will “descend from heaven with a shout” (1 Thessalonians 4:16), the church will greet him midair, and return to earth with him as he begins his reign (described in 1 Thess. 5:1-11). From that point onward, we are on earth with him forever. This is our final destination.

Whether you are from a Methodist, Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist, or non-denominational evangelical church, our final hope is Christ’s return to reign on earth. 

What difference does it make whether you have the right hope? 

When you don’t have the right hope, you forget God’s purpose for your existence. The Bible teaches that God’s purpose for human beings, from the beginning of Genesis 1 until Revelation 22, is that he would be physically present with us on earth in a loving relationship. Although God can keep us with him while we are “absent from the body”, this is not his final purpose for us. 

Without bodies, we can’t do everything we were meant to do. Without a body, we can’t sing to him, create artwork and write music, build things, fix things, or use our hands to serve him and embrace each other. We also can’t enjoy his creation in the same way: eating food, surfing, or getting a hug from someone we love. These are things God created us to do. When you start thinking your final destination is a disembodied existence, it causes you to lose a very enjoyable aspect of our blessed hope. You miss part of God’s purpose for your life.

When we have a biblically accurate hope for the glorious, physical return of Christ to earth, Scripture says that this hope sanctifies us. It makes us more Christ-like.

“Dear friends, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that when he appears, we will be like him because we will see him as he is. And everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself just as he is pure.” (1 John 3:2-3)

I underlined that last sentence because it is important for us to realize how, just as misplaced hope distracts us, correctly placed hope will change us for the better. When we accept God’s purpose for our future, God changes us to be purer servants in the present.

Pastor David