Today, I would like us to conclude our four-part series of exploring how Jesus colored outside the lines of worldly thinking and hollow religious traditions. We have explored how Jesus came to talk about the kingdom of God as something far different than people thought it was and far different from the kingdoms of the world. For in the kingdom of God there is forgiveness, mercy, and grace for each person. In the kingdom of God, there is an inverted order to things where the first shall be last and the last shall be first. In the kingdom of God, women and men are equal in God’s eyes. And so today, I would like us to explore one final dimension of Jesus coloring outside the lines.
Today, I would like us to explore what Jesus had to share with us about the afterlife, heaven, and hell. We may not realize it but what Jesus had to say was deeply surprising to his audience. For some people, what Jesus said about the afterlife was deeply disturbing and for others what Jesus said was wonderfully encouraging. The same is true today. For some of what Jesus said is disturbing and some it is encouraging. Our hope is that we are encouraged by what Jesus said and be strengthened to share our good news with those who may be disturbed by what Jesus said.
As we begin, we might want to know where we and our neighbors stand on the idea of heaven and hell. A survey in the United States, revealed that about 70% of the people believe in some form of heaven. About 60% of Americans believe in some form of hell. Americans hold that heaven is a good place and hell is a bad place. Apparently, we like the idea of heaven more than the idea of hell.
The balance of Americans, about 30%, believe that life only exists in the present time as living human beings. They believe when we die, that is it. There is nothing, no future, nothing beyond this immediate life.
I share this snapshot of views of contemporary thinking in our country because in many ways these same concepts existed in Jesus’ day. Different groups had differing beliefs. The Sadducees, one of the main Jewish religious groups of Jesus’ day, did not believe in an afterlife or a resurrection of the body. The believed that once you were dead, you were dead. There beliefs came about because they only followed the first five books of the Bible, and little is said in those books about an afterlife.
The Pharisees, the other main religious group in Jesus’ day, believed in the afterlife. It just wasn’t clear the afterlife was all that great as many believed everyone went to the same place.
Jesus entered the scene, and he had some very definite ideas about the afterlife. Jesus began sharing about the afterlife and his words created great emotions in his audience. Some of those who heard Jesus speak were moved to joy, others to sadness, and others were moved to mock Jesus for what he said. Well, what did Jesus have to say about the afterlife?
One time, Jesus was teaching his disciples about the kingdom of God and Jesus wanted to talk about the subject of the afterlife. As we previously talked about, Jesus acquainted people with things they did not know by telling a story about things that they did know. The Gospel writer, Luke, recorded one of Jesus’ stories about the afterlife for us.
Jesus said, “19‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day [Many in Jesus’ day saw wealth as a sign of God’s blessing.] 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. [Many in Jesus’ day saw poverty and illness as a sign of God’s disfavor.] 22 The time came when the beggar died, and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he [the rich man] was in torment, he [the rich man] looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he [the rich man] called to him [Abraham], ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ 25 ‘But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us’” (Luke 16:19-26).
Jesus’ disciples could understand the story. They knew of rich people and poor people. The disciples could understand living and dead. The disciples knew Abraham was called by God, loved by God, and was the father of the Hebrew people. Finally, Jesus’ disciples could understand the difference between comfort and misery. We also understand these elements to Jesus’ story. So, from what Jesus said the disciples and we had no difficulty understanding the context of the story. With that in place, the disciples, and we, can make some sense of heaven, hell, and eternal life. Let’s look at four points.
First, Jesus taught that all human life is eternal. There are no exceptions. There is a time of living in human form and a time of living after death. The Pharisees would have liked hearing that and the Sadducees would have been disturbed by that truth.
Second, Jesus taught that there are two destinations in the afterlife. One is pleasant and comforting and the other is not. I think the Pharisees who saw themselves as being favored by God for their religious adherence to worship activities would have liked to hear that news.
Third, Jesus taught that each person’s destination is fixed by their conduct in this life. Those who are first shall be last, those who are last shall be first. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who are humble will be exalted. The kingdom of God is open to each person but what way we choose to live could prevent our own entry to heaven. Heaven was not for the wealthy and selfish it was for the faithful. That news would have disturbed many.
Fourth, Jesus taught that our destination is fixed for eternity. There is no movement from one destination to the other. Those in comfort cannot now help those in misery and those in misery cannot later move to the place of comfort. This news would have terrified many. Redemption was not possible after death. Redemption was only for the living in the present.
In one simple story, Jesus wiped clean all the conflicting ideas of existence and destiny. Did Jesus clear up all the questions we could ask about heaven and hell? Of course not. He did not intend to do that. What Jesus intended to do was to put to rest the question as to whether there is an afterlife. Short answer, “Yes, there is an afterlife.” Jesus then put to rest the question whether in that afterlife was there but one place for all or were their two places, a place of comfort and a place of misery? Short answer, “There are two places, one of comfort and one of misery.” Jesus was not trying to give a description of heaven or of hell. He was speaking to the character of heaven, with comfort and fellowship, and the character of hell, as misery and loneliness.
Jesus’ words were probably unsettling to everyone who heard them because his words would cause everyone to reflect upon their beliefs and behaviors. Right now, some of us might be reflecting on our past or about the past of a loved one. Is there something in our past or in their past that set their destination for something other than heaven? It is a frightening thought.
As Jesus’ disciples, and we think about this simple story, there seems to me to be a natural desire to want to be closer to Christ. For if Jesus knows the truth about heaven and hell, then certainly he share words that would lead each person to know the path to heaven.
In that reflection and desire to be closer to Jesus, suddenly words Jesus said in the past carried with them much greater significance. Jesus once told his disciples, “13 ‘Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it’” (Matthew 7:13-14). Jesus was saying the road to our eternal destination in heaven was narrow and only a few would find it. My goodness! You mean, we could miss the gate and the narrow path? Yes. In fact, Jesus said more people will miss it than find it! The wide gate and the broad road would be easily found and more comfortable to walk. And many would choose that gate and road. But that road leads to destruction not life. Jesus words would make us anxious. What are we to do? How will we find the narrow gate? How will we travel the narrow road? How will we know we are on the right road?
Jesus knew the anxiousness of the disciples as well as our anxiousness about finding the gate, the narrow road, and life eternal. So, Jesus gave a very simple instruction for those seeking the narrow gate and path. Jesus condensed his teaching to just two words, “Follow me.”
- Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
- Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21).
- My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).
- If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him” (John 12:26).
- Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
We could continue with examples of Jesus saying, “Follow me!” but I think you get the point. Jesus was making it clear; you have but one choice to make. That choice is to either follow Jesus or not. If we follow Jesus, then he will show us the narrow gate and keep us on the narrow road. Jesus was really coloring outside the lines of the world and religious tradition. Jesus was saying there is a heaven and hell and that he would show those who would follow him the right path to get to heaven.
Now accepting what Jesus said would mean that we believe that we are on the right path and that being on the right path we willingly respond in joy. Out of our joy we would do the right things for others. Doing right things on the broad road is nice but none of those nice things help us to find the narrow gate and the narrow road to life. Only Jesus can guide us to the narrow gate and narrow road.
I think the disciples were beginning to understand that they had a future in Jesus in this life and the next. Then everything seemed to change.
Jesus began speaking of betrayal and arrest. Then just moments before Jesus was arrested, Jesus accentuated the plan for eternal life through him. Jesus said to his disciples, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me” (John 14:6). Jesus was no longer talking in stories or parables. He was speaking plainly. Jesus was saying of himself, “I am the narrow gate. I am the narrow road. I am only voice that you need to hear in this life. For there is no other way to be with God except by following me.” What Jesus said was so powerful and so outside the lines that he was, as C. S. Lewis once wrote, either a madman or the Son of God.
No sooner had Jesus finished saying these words, men of the world and religion came in force, armed with swords, torches, and bindings. They came in great strength to arrest and bind Jesus and spirit him away for trial. These men could no longer stand for Jesus, coloring outside the lines of their beliefs. These men had no intention of following Jesus, and they were not about to let anyone else follow him.
We know the story quiet well. In a matter of a few hours, Jesus, this troublemaking preacher was tried, beaten, humiliated in the streets of Jerusalem, nailed to a cross, died, lanced with a spear, and sealed up behind a well-guarded rock tomb. Jesus public ministry of three years seemed to over in fewer than 12 hours. Those who did this to Jesus slept well believing the days of Jesus coloring outside the lines were finished.
And what about those who followed Jesus? There were men and women who had given their time, treasure, talents, and tears believing they had found the narrow gate and were on the narrow road. They believed in Jesus as the Son of God. But now what were they to do? Following Jesus’ arrest and execution, everything Jesus said seemed muddled and infinitely harder to believe. Jesus was dead. Fear abounded. There were so many questions and so many doubts. I am sure the disciples asked themselves, “Did we make a terrible mistake? How was it possible for Jesus to be taken and killed?”
Days passed. Then suddenly, without warning, exceptionally strange news began to emerge. Jesus was not dead. He had risen from the grave. No one rises from the grave. His women followers ran from the tomb with the news. His disciples ran from hiding to the tomb to see for themselves. Two other followers from Emmaus ran to Jerusalem with the news that they had seen Jesus. Everyone was running and excited. Could this be true? Then Jesus himself ended the questions. Jesus entered the locked room of the disciples and said, “Peace be with you!”
Suddenly the grief, the dread of another day, the anxiousness, and the horror of Jesus’ death was lifted from the men and women in that room. All those emotions were replaced with joy, abounding joy! With Jesus’ resurrection, all of Jesus’ words became so much more powerful and so much clearer. He was not a madman. Jesus was the Son of God and therefore his is all he said he was. He is the way, the truth, and the life. He is the narrow gate. He is the narrow path. He is the life eternal. He is the only way to the Father. All the lines of worldly thinking and hollow religious traditions that encumbered the disciples were shattered. These men and women became fearless and bold in their faith. You could not silence these people. Instead of just Jesus coloring outside the lines, now dozens of men and women were coloring outside the lines talking about the kingdom of God, salvation, and forgiveness all fueled by the resurrection of Christ. From those dozens, cane 500 followers, then 3,000 followers, and from there the number of followers began multiplying. They had found the gate and the narrow path.
“Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.’” Please do not leave to chance which gate you have entered and which road you are on. Listen to the words Jesus has for you, “Follow me.” For in following Jesus, we will live an abundant life now and a life of peace for all eternity. Now that is coloring outside the lines. Amen and Amen.