I find it interesting to look at odd statistics about people who live in the United States or perhaps it is statistics about odd people who live in the United States.  Either way, I looked at statistics about how many those living in the United States own cats.  The data suggests that one in every four American households has one or more cats. In fact, of those households with cats, they have an average of 1.8 cats.  I am not sure what a 0.8 cat looks like.  Of cats, many owners will say, their cat has nine lives.  The idea of a cat having nine lives is an old idea likely coming from ancient Egyptian religious beliefs.  It is an interesting thought that a cat could have more than one life. But we know they have only one life.

          Whether you are a cat owner or not, we all share this same trait with cats.  We too only have one life.  We are born from our mothers only one time.  We had no say over being conceived or being born.  But each of us came to receive our one life. Despite what some celebrities might say about having lived in a prior life, we do not possess the myth of the cat in which we have nine or more lives.   Believing that we can comeback in a new body and live our life over again is a delusion.

We have only one life.  While we share with the cat that we each only have one life, there is a substantial difference between our life and the life of a cat.  A cat has a physical life only.  But our life is composed of two parts: a physical being, we call the body, and a spiritual being we call the soul or spirit.  When a cat dies a physical death, the cat’s life is complete. When we die a physical death, our bodies cease but our life defined by our soul continues.  Upon the death of our body, our soul or our spirit continues.

Earlier this year, in the Thursday night Bible study, we explored what happens to our soul or spirit upon the death of our bodies.  Early Biblical beliefs found in the Old Testament, suggested that upon death, the souls of all humanity came to rest in Sheol, a shadowy place of eternal nothingness.  Sheol was a place to be avoided because whether you were faithful or disobedient, existence was the same, a complete separation from God.  The Old Testament prophet Isaiah described Sheol this way, “18 For the grave cannot praise you [God], death cannot sing your praise; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness” (Isaiah 38:18).  It was thought that death was hell for all.

While the view of death and the destiny of the soul changed somewhat over time, it was not until the coming of Jesus, God in the flesh, that the truth was made plain.  And the truth Jesus revealed was mind-blowing.  We read a little insight from Jesus about the soul’s destiny earlier today when Jesus said, “32 Whoever acknowledges me before others [other people], I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before others [other people], I will disown before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:32).  Jesus brought forth a new revelation that changed everything.  Acknowledging Jesus in life before our physical death meant that Jesus would acknowledge us to God in heaven.  Renouncing Jesus before our physical death meant Jesus would renounce us to God in heaven.  Jesus’ point was that there is something other than Sheol that awaits those who believe.  That other thing is heaven.  Jesus would also say:

  • For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16).  For the believer there is not eternal nothingness, there is eternal life.
  • I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live (John 11:25).  For the believer there is life not death.
  • “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am (John 14:1-3).  For the believer there is not nothingness for the soul, there is something exciting awaiting, a home with God.

Jesus revealed that what we believe in our one life as body and soul had a direct bearing on what became of our soul upon the death of our body.  For all souls were destined to Sheol, later named hell or Hades, unless acknowledgement of Jesus was made prior to physical death.  In acknowledging and following Jesus, then it is not death that awaits the soul but life.

Jesus explained this revelation to one of Israel’s teachers of Scripture, Nicodemus, this way.  “Jesus replied [said], ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’  ‘How can someone be born when they are old?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!’  Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again’” (John 3:3-6).  We sang the substance of this passage earlier when we sang: “A ruler once came to Jesus by night, to ask Him the way of salvation and light; The Master made answer in words true and plain, ‘Ye must be born again.’”

Jesus’ message confounded the learned teacher Nicodemus.  How indeed can a person be born again?  “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” (John 3:4b). Nicodemus was, of course, correct. We cannot be physically born again. Jesus was not talking about a physical rebirth.  He was talking about a spiritual rebirth.

The exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus left open the question, “How does someone experience a spiritual rebirth?” 

In the natural life cycle, birth precedes death. Logically then rebirth, a second birth, must follow a death.  Jesus explained the spiritual rebirth this way, “39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39).

          I suspect when Jesus revealed this truth to his disciples, his followers, and even his detractors, people hearing Jesus’ words had to take a moment and think about what Jesus said.  We can think of Jesus’ words this way.  “If we never look beyond [our physical] life, we will die twice.  First, the body eventually dies, then the soul suffers a second death as it is cast away from God forever.  But if we die to self and trust in Christ, then we live twice.  We live in this life first, and then, when the physical heart fails, our spiritual ‘heart,’ having loved God is united to him forever.”[1]  Thinking in the context of two lives or two deaths is a way of understanding Jesus’ words, “39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39).

          Jesus spoke again of these two deaths and two lives just before his own physical death.  “23 Jesus replied [said], ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me’” (John 12:23-26).

To live twice, we must lose our life to Christ.

          Jesus was laying out a revolutionary thought about physical life and eternal spiritual life.  Jesus’ revelation carried risk and danger.  To place faith in Jesus meant people had to abandon the religious practices of their families and society.  To place faith in Jesus meant people of no faith must abandon the world of doubters and skeptics and come to belief.  Jesus’ revelation was an announcement that spiritual warfare had begun.

          Jesus said to accept him is to engage in warfare against everything else in life. Jesus understood that his message was so revealing and radical that at first to follow him would cause strife not peace.  We read earlier today that Jesus said, “34 Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household’” (Matthew 10:34-36).  Jesus understood to become his disciple would not be universally accepted by family and friends.  Becoming Jesus’ disciple was not then and is not today universally accepted. 

In fact, today there is a growing intolerance to Christians even in the United States.  I read last week an editorial in the Los Angeles Times that non-religious parents are a growing segment of the American population raising non-religious children.  The editor acknowledged that America is becoming less moral as it becomes more secular but that should not worry anyone because there are societies such as Japan and Scandinavian that do not embrace Judeo-Christian values but are peaceful societies.  The editor seems to want to ignore data coming from societies that alternately persecuted, outlawed, or widely reviled religion in which over 90 million people were killed in such places as the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, North Korea, Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Afghanistan.  The spiritual warfare Jesus spoke about first occurs in the family setting but eventually plays itself out in the politics and moral practices of governments.

          Jesus knew his message of hope would cause tension because we must continually choose to follow Jesus even if members of our own family are opposed to our choice. Our life must be guided by the wishes of God over the wishes of our own loved one.  Jesus said, “37 Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). 

Jesus’ words seem harsh and hard to hear and they may be hard for us to fully comprehend.  Jesus explained what he meant this way.  As Jesus was walking along the road one day, several people were following him, interested in becoming a disciple.  “One man said to him [Jesus], ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’  58 Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’  59 He [Jesus] said to another man, ‘Follow me.’ But he [that man] replied, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’  60 Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God’” (Luke 9:57-60). 

Let’s focus on the second conversation the man who wanted to bury his dead father, but Jesus said, “Let the dead bury the dead.” Jesus’ words on one level seem harsh. The man’s father is dead, and he would like a moment to bury his father before continuing his journey was Jesus. That seems reasonable.  But Jesus rebuffs that idea and offers the man a seemingly ridiculous solution, “Let the dead bury the dead.”  “Let the dead undertaker bury your dead father.”  And we walk away confused by this exchange unless we realize that the man’s father is not dead but very much alive.

Let’s look at this exchange again in that context. Jesus said to a man walking with him, “Follow me.”  That man replied, “Lord, let me go and first bury my father.  As long as my father is alive he would never bless or accept my decision to follow you.  Let me wait to follow you after he is dead and buried.”  Jesus replied, “Let the dead bury the dead.  Your father in refusing to accept me is and will remain spiritually dead.  Let those like your father who are also spiritually dead bury him when he dies. But you, to accept me means that you are alive.  You who are alive must go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”  In this context, we see that the man was struggling to accept Jesus because his family would not accept his decision or him.  We now see what Jesus meant when he said, “35 For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father’” (Matthew 10:35a).

Jesus said to his disciples, and he is saying to each one of us today, choose to follow me that you may be born again into that second life.  It is a life in which Jesus’ becomes the guide of our life now and our advocate before God.  And our choice matters not just to us but matters to the society in which we will live out our physical life.  But discipleship in Jesus is costly.  To follow Jesus means we have so test ourselves and see if our heart is committed to Christ.  Is Jesus really the most important thing in our life?  Is Jesus more important than money, sports, leisure activities, travel, friendships, work ethic, prayer, and study?  Or is Jesus so important to us that he informs every aspect of our life? Are we proclaiming the kingdom of God as we walk through life?  Does our belief in him inform the ways we spend money, engage in sports and leisure activities, travel, friendships, work, prayer, and study?  Have our beliefs cost us anything?

We have before us today a choice of two deaths or two lives.  What determines the difference between death and life is whether we publicly accept Jesus before others and live that choice sincerely.  If you have publicly accepted Jesus, blessings on you.  You have chosen the path of two lives, now live it out by proclaiming the kingdom of God in everything you do.  If you have never been invited to publicly accept Jesus or was hesitant to accept previous invitations, today is the day for you make a choice for two lives.  Don’t hesitate.  Don’t say, “I’ll do it is someone else goes first.”  There may not be another opportunity to publicly express your faith in Jesus and know with certainty that you have passed over from death to life. If this is where you are today, then as we sing our next hymn, just come and stand next to me as we sing our praises together.  Jesus’ words call to you, “Come, follow me.”  Amen and Amen.

[1] Doriani, Daniel M., Matthew: Volume I: Chapters 1-13; Reformed Expository Commentary, (P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ), 452.