The Ladder to Love

The apostle Peter in his second letter, in the context of what divine power has provided us Christians, gives us what might be called a ladder to love (2 Peter 1:5-11). The purpose of his instruction is that we might “participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2 Peter 1:4 NIV).

Faith is the first rung on the ladder, as we might expect. Everything given to us in Christ is based on our belief in him and the Father.

Next, we are told to add goodness to our faith. It is a great help to us in our lives if we both be good and do good.

Knowledge comes after goodness. We might think the order here should be reversed. However, if we waited until we had great knowledge of God, Christ and the Holy Spirit we would be postponing the exercise of the knowledge we already have about things that are good to do.

After knowledge comes self-control. One of the things we will learn through increasing our knowledge ourselves is how difficult self-control is and on how many occasions it will be tested.

Perseverance is required of us because none of the steps on the ladder are easy and there are many times our feet will slip off the rungs. Without perseverance the ultimate promises given to us in Christ cannot be fulfilled.

When we think of godliness, we should think of the ability that is given to us to become more like Christ as we mature in our Christianity. We will not be perfected while still on the earth but we can hope to be markedly improved in being an image of God.

Kindness is of the nature of Christ. The Gospels tell of many instances when Jesus was kind to people who did not expect it, did not deserve it, did not understand it, and sometimes did not even thank him for it. As we come to be more like him, we will be kind just as he was to those he encountered.

When we come to the final rung, love, we are reaching what is the essence of the Trinity. Their love for us is what puts us at the foot of the ladder of love and provides the grace we need to ascend it. When we return the love given us by them, and love the people around us, we are as we were meant to be when we were envisioned before the creation of the earth.

Peter tells us that climbing the ladder of love will keep us from being ineffective and unproductive in our knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Then he adds a warning that if we do not seek to acquire the qualities described we are nearsighted and blind and are forgetting our cleansing from our sins.

He then goes on to tell us we should be eager to make our position in Christ sure as having these qualities will keep us from falling [into the corruption caused by evil desires?] and insure our welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior (2 Peter 1:8-11).

Fair Warning

I am always impressed by how well the English use their language. For example, American auctioneers typically say “Going once, going twice, sold!” The English say “Fair warning!” In both cases when the gavel comes down the transaction is settled. The warning given at an English auction says two things. One is that no further offers will be accepted. The other is that the highest bid must be paid.

The Bible contains many instances of God giving people fair warning. Prophecies of destruction tell that a time will come when the cup of God’s wrath will be filled with peoples’ iniquities and it will be too late for people to repent. There are also descriptions of the heavy price that must be paid when people reject God and his standards for human behavior.

Applying this idea to present-day American society is too easy and has been done too often by “premature prophets” for it to have any traction in our culture. Where it has not been applied is to American Christianity. Christians fail to remember that what was destroyed in Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70 was religious practices that had their origins in the desert of Sinai at the direct expression of God’s will. What happened there was no less powerful than what happened in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. Yet what had been founded in the very presence of the glory of God had become so corrupt that God destroyed it without a chance for repentance and without remedy.

The first three chapters of the book of Revelation give fair warning to the churches of the United States. If their various corruptions are not remedied they will cease to exist in their present form just as the seven churches of Asia Minor to whom John wrote have long since ceased to define the nature of Turkish culture. What are these defects that must be remedied of Christianity is to remain a shaper of American values.

My analysis of our present situation will take the form of descriptions of conceptual churches. These churches are not defined by denomination, institution, closeness to tradition or history but by their attitude concerning Christianity. They are not separate physical churches as one or more of these churches may be gathered at the same worship service. The accommodation of a variety of beliefs is a characteristic of present-day Christianity so individuals in the same congregation can be far apart in their thinking yet safe from any serious challenge to the quality of their faith.

The first and perhaps the largest conceptual church is the cultural church. It comes in several very different expressions. Its characteristic is that its members poll on social issues almost exactly the same as the general population. This means that its attitudes and behaviors are indistinguishable from society in general. The cultural church, by some sort of paradox, tends towards attendance in traditional (mainstream and Roman Catholic) churches and in mega-churches. It exists in traditional churches because they are part of the culture. The mega-churches tend to fit the culture because their purpose is to attract as many people as possible, so they avoid, as much as they can, anything like an emphasis on doctrine that might offend anybody or cause controversy.

The pseudo-Christian church is an expression of ideological liberalism. Like secular liberals it assumes it is the reality and other expressions of Christianity are deviants that can be labeled evangelical or fundamentalist or some such. The pseudo-Christian church is where religion becomes an expression of rationalism. Everything in traditional Christian belief that requires the supernatural is removed as a reality but is given a spiritual significance. For example, the bodily resurrection of Jesus did not actually occur but it signifies something we can have good feelings about.

The pseudo-Christian church closely follows the secular spirit. Thus its big concern now is homosexual rights, before this it was sexual liberation, feminism, environmentalism, world peace, and other liberal causes. It accepts the theory of evolution and whatever else falls into the realm of the popular. You might ask why the pseudo-Christian church continues to affiliate itself with Christianity. The answer is simple, Christianity provides them with tenured professorships, social respect, sources of funding, and keeps them able to think they are something they are not.

The hyper-Christian church ignores the warning C.S. Lewis gave us in The Screwtape Letters about adding things to Christianity. The pseudo-Christian church believes too little, the hyper-Christian church believes too much. It adds worship of the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, and miracles as essential elements of the Christian life. It can be given some applause for bringing some fire and spirit, through the charismatic movement, to parts of the cultural church. However, in “amping up” Christianity it raises expectations higher than can be maintained thus causing disillusionment among some of its adherents.

The social-activist church should have longevity as there is a never-ending list of things needing to be done to make people’s lives better. One problem with this church is that it became a social-critique church and many of its members went from seeking to relieve poverty to criticizing the acquisition of wealth. A more serious problem from a spiritual standpoint is a conceit: If we were in charge of the world we could set everything right. The pride revealed in this mode of thinking shows up particularly in the peace and justice part of this church. The foundation of Christianity, for Christ and all believers, is humbleness before the purposes of God the Father.

The self-centered church comes directly from our self-centered society. The core of the self-centered church is an inward-looking view of what Christianity is meant to be. In this church what matters is that God thinks of them highly and lovingly. Their songs contain a lot of I, me, and my instead of second and third person pronouns such as you, he, and his. Their self-centeredness can go as far as to think that God’s happiness depends on their performance as a Christian. They think a lot about their time, their possessions, their safety and their personal peace. Obviously this church does not think much of others except in what way helping them might increase their own self-esteem.

The self-made church has two denominations. One branch believes that we can make Christianity be what we want it to be. Thomas Jefferson, who edited the New Testament to make it say what he wanted to believe, was not the founder of the first denomination but he is a good example of its members. The members of the this branch of the self-made church “cut out” the parts of Christianity that do not suit them or are not in accordance with their lifestyle or social beliefs.

The second denomination of the self-made church seems, at first, to be very unlike the first. Its members generally take the Scriptures very seriously and do their best to follow them. Where they are like the others is that they believe their Christian life and practice have to come from their own efforts. They have to make a choice, sometimes in conjunction with the saying of a prayer, to become a Christian. They are told in this part of their church there are many things they must do as a Christian in their own efforts. These directions, such as reading the Bible, praying, and doing good works, may seem good. However, this do-it-yourself sanctity can prove exceedingly difficult, often leading to the rejection of their Christianity. Or if they are successful in following the directions they are given for leading a Christian life, they can be led into self-righteousness. You can see that participation in either denomination of the self-made church is hazardous for people hoping to find completion in Christ.

There are two other churches that relate to modern philosophy. There is the rationalist church that believes that reason can create a form of Christianity compatible with modern philosophy. The literalist church began as a defense against modern philosophy by trying to make its interpretation of the Bible “scientific.” There will undoubtedly come into being, if one does not already exist, a post-modern church.

There is, as there has been since the first century, a heretical church. The length of time this church has been in existence makes it hard for it to create new heresies but its members keep trying. There is the new deist Church that seeks to allow the compatibility of Christianity and both Judaism and Islam by removing faith in the deity of Jesus Christ and eliminating the Holy Spirit. There is the new-age church that melds Christianity with both new and old forms of spirituality.

I will end my rather long list of churches with the miscellaneous church. This is the place of worship for people who withdraw from society or other Christians, people whose beliefs are so far from normal Christianity that they are a church unto themselves. Their problem is that, and the members of the other churches described here share in it, is that they violate the unity of the one church of which all Christians are meant to be members.

At this point you may be wondering why I left out the good church—the one like your local congregation—from my list. It is a principle of Christian sanctity if we think we are good enough, we are not. If you think your particular body of believers does not need reformation, it most likely does.

What all the churches on my list have in common is they have, in one way or another, turned Christianity upside down. They have made Christianity about people—church leaders, poor people, oppressed people, us, and so forth—rather than about Jesus Christ. We have come to think that it is God’s job to supply the seed, fertilizer and water so we can cultivate our own gardens. We find this much more to our liking than the idea we should be servants in the Lord’s garden.

The second problem with these churches is that those who still believe in the kingdom of God in some way misunderstand its meaning. They are much like the religious rulers Jesus spoke to. They want, and expect, a political kingdom. Someone said something like “Jesus preached the kingdom of God and what we got was churches.” And we do have a multitude of churches. What we do not have is an understanding of the proper role of these churches The function of churches is to serve the body of Christ by evangelism, exhortation, comfort and many other things not to be the be-all and end-all of Christianity. They were intended to be way stations, outposts, hospices and so forth for Christians so they could be fully equipped to live in the kingdom of God.

I do not think there can be a remaking of American society on Christian principles unless there is a return of American Christianity to the truth of Scripture. That will not occur until many, many members of most of the churches are turned right-side-up. That is, they become focused on Jesus and his kingdom as the object of their faith, love and learning rather than anything else.

If the regeneration of a significant part of American Christianity occurs, it will be the work of the Holy Spirit. What we who see the need for this change can do is allow Christ and the Holy Spirit to work in us so we know quite certainly that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. As that happens, we will be freed of our illusions, delusions and ignorance so we can see what is upside-down in American Christianity and rightly work and pray for its becoming as Christ would have it. Thus, if the Holy Spirit choses to honor our efforts, and if Christ’s purposes include a reformation at this time, we will be participants in, and celebrants of, a great revival of Christian belief, and be able to rejoice in the righting of what has gone wrong.

Otherwise, let what I wrote constitute “Fair Warning.”

What Died on Good Friday?

We commonly say that Jesus died on Good Friday. This is a great simplification of what happened. It took the Church until the fifth century to figure out a defining doctrine of the nature of Christ. In the end it was decided that he combined the human and divine in one person. The human and divine are not of the same substance because the divine is spiritual and the human contains a spiritual and a physical element. So what part(s) of Jesus died on Good Friday?

The only part of Jesus that could die on Good Friday was his physical body. His spiritual being (human and divine) apparently left his dead physical body for a period and during that out of time and body existence he “preached to the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:19). This is a difficult passage that is supported in some sense by Jesus telling Mary Magdalene when she first encountered him after his resurrection that he had not yet returned to the Father (John 20:17). It would seem that while the spiritual parts of his person were out of his physical body they were someplace other than what we think of as heaven.

When unbelievers to ask the question, “How could your God die?” they are not only expressing an ignorance of the Trinitarian nature of God but of their own duality. Our human bodies die, of course, but our spiritual part will live until the last judgment and then after that possibly forever. Jesus temporarily sacrificed his bodily life for those who believe in his deity. His human spirit did not die any more than ours will when we die physically. This is evidenced by his resurrection body having the knowledge and memories he had before his death.

What else died on Good Friday was a simple understanding of the relationship between God and the human race. Christians have been trying to figure it out for a long time now. However, an eternal loving relationship is available to all who in faith seek it.

Rulers and Priests

There is a verse in the book of Revelation, and parallel passages elsewhere in the New Testament, that tell Christians that Christ “has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father” (Revelation 1:6, NIV). This appears to indicate we are to have, in addition to other things, a particular duality in our role as Christians and in how we exist as individuals. We appear to be part of a collective (kingdom) consisting of a vast diversity of people who all have two common functions.

There are all kinds of people who due to their new birth in Christ have become citizens of the kingdom of God. All of us are given a sovereignty that frees us from all competing claims of sovereignty. This does not mean we should not recognize and submit to legitimate forms of authority even though we are citizens of the kingdom of God. In most cases there are good reasons to obey and do what is good for us and for our society.

Jesus Christ is our example in regard to living in the kingdom of God.as in all else He told Pilate that he was the king of the Jews (Mark 15:2) but that did not cause Pilate to make him a ruler over Israel. However, it was given to Pilate to acknowledge his kingship by putting an ironical sign over his head on the cross that read “THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Mark 15:26, NIV).

There are people who think of kingship in terms of telling other people what to do. I think we should think of it in the way it worked for Jesus when he was on earth. That is, it gave him the freedom he needed to do the will and to accomplish the purposes of God the Father. He possessed a higher sovereignty than any that could be used to cause him to deviate from his obedience to God’s will. It seems we are to possess that same level of sovereignty although it may bring with it the same or lesser consequences.

As for all of us being priests, how can that be so? The apostle Paul tells us in Romans 12:1 (NIV) “to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.” Who can offer a sacrifice except a priest and who can offer our lives to God except each of us as we chose to make the sacrifice. This is not a sacrifice for our sins. Jesus did that. This is a sacrifice of devotion, consecration and dedication. We are the only ones who can make this sacrifice for ourselves. Like the priests in the Temple, this is a sacrifice that must be done daily. I think it was C. S. Lewis who wrote that he arose each day full of his plans and ambitions and then each day came to the realization that his day belonged to God.

In 1 Peter 2:9 (NIV) we are told we “are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.” In this verse we learn that living out our identities as rulers and priests is not impossible because we are enabled to do so by God the Father though faith in Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit.

A Reformation of American Christianity

I think I would like to make a serious proposal for the reformation of American Christianity. It will be harder for me to get people to respond to the call than it was for Martin Luther. When he nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, there was already widespread discontent with the corruption in the Roman Catholic Church. The problem now is that the people in organized Christianity are, for the most part, happy with their situation, and those who are not happy pay a very small price when they abandon formal Christianity. The easy part for me to propose reformation is that I do not have to risk my life and my livelihood as Luther did.

American Christianity is also not like the situation in the churches of second-century Asia Minor when John wrote the book of Revelation. However, I think I can define my own list of seven contemporary churches in need of reformation. These are not identified by denomination, institution, closeness to tradition, or history but by their attitude concerning Christianity. They are not separate physical churches as one or more of these churches may be gathered at the same worship service. The accommodation of a variety of beliefs is a characteristic of present-day Christianity so individuals in the same congregation can be far apart in their thinking yet safe from any serious challenge to the quality of their faith.

You may be wondering what these seven churches are that I have experienced and that I would have you consider as needing reformation.

Self-Centered Church

As a member of the self-centered church, I found my life centered on me. It was all about my security, my relationship to God, what God thinks of me, how I might hurt him, my time, my possessions, my personal peace. Me, me, me! I needed some inspiration to lead a different life. I wanted to be surrendered to Christ and be doing things in the purposes of God.

Secular Church

When I was in the secular church I learned much about the Bible, but very little about the reality of God, particularly the Holy Spirit. The information was useful, but not transforming. It was easy to see “spiritual” success as living well. This agreed with my natural inclination. In fact, it taught me I was to do things in my natural ability.

Super-Spiritual Church.

In the super-spiritual church I waved my hands in the air, sang with joy and stringed instruments, heard people speak in tongues but grew little in the knowledge and practice of Christianity. It was just children’s church with grown ups.

Self-Righteous Church

The self-righteous church was set on saving the world, not from sin, guilt and eternal damnation but from poverty, disease and carbon dioxide. I didn’t feel up to the task.

Saintly Church

The saintly church saw holiness in self-sacrifice, abstinence and being different than others. I only measured up on the last count.

Pseudo-Christian Church

The pseudo-Christian church was nice, tolerant and very proud of having adopted the worst tenets of humanism. I found it had kept the name Christian while losing the reality. It would have come out well in a hypocrisy contest with anybody, because it professes to be what it is not.

Servant Church

The servant church was like C. S. Lewis’ good religious people. You feel they are good rather than them telling you so. They are full of love, joyful, peaceful, patient, kindly and self-controlled. You enjoy their presence, though I did not deserve to be there. They are not self-promoting, self-serving or boat rockers. They are what all the churches should be—and are ineffectual at reforming Christianity. Otherwise the other churches would not exist.

Each of these churches will defend themselves against being the subjects of reformation and no reformation will happen in any of them until a crisis comes from outside themselves that forces them to be what God would have them be or cease to exist.

From the Present World to the New Creation

The book of Revelation, beginning from two points in the present world (the history we live in), tells us what happens to some part of humanity on their way to the new and final creation we find at the end of the book. This segment of people is those whose names are written in the book of life (Revelation 20:12). The destiny of the rest is to be thrown into a lake of fire (Revelation 20:15).

There are many people who object for many different reasons to the idea of everyone having to face a pass/fail situation to remain in existence. Thus we should look at how Revelation gets us to this point. The books starts with a man named John, most likely the apostle, on the island of Patmos in the Mediterranean Sea around AD 95. It is a Sunday and he enters into a condition of spiritual perception described as being in the Spirit. This state allows him to see spiritual realities with the same clarity and intensity as he normally saw physical realities. Thus begins a series of visions that continue to the end of the book.

The first vision concerns the seven churches in Asia Minor to which the book is addressed. In it we find that even in Christian churches there are people who may pass and also who may fail. If this surprises us we should remember Jesus told his disciples in the parable of the weeds (Matthew 13) that there were going to be people in the Christian churches until he returned who were sons of the evil one and who would then be thrown into the fire.

The next series of visions, collectively described as the opening of seven seals, are an outline of human history. The test here is how people react to the events of history. Those who have faith in Christ are meant to persevere in their faith while others are seeing only disasters and the wrath of God or, in our time, both the absence of God and any meaning to what happens. The “seal” visions go counter to the optimism in Western culture that has been a staple of secular, and much nominally Christian, thinking since the Enlightenment.

The “trumpet” visions provide us pictures of psychological disasters. The events that occur create fear, anxiety and other types of psychological pain. The last three of the seven trumpets produce such pain they are called three woes. Surprisingly enough the third woe is the return of Christ which means it is time for everyone to find out who has passed and who will be destroyed. Certainly, the highest of possible anxieties will be in those who do not have a true assurance of their faith in Jesus Christ.

This second part of Revelation starts at Revelation 11:19 or Revelation 12:1 depending on how those verses are understood. In any case, it is here that the visions enter the realm of the spiritual. This means that what occurs affects the world in a different way than the events of the first half of the book.

The first vision in this section provides us a vision of a beautiful woman descending from heaven. The immediate symbolism is that of the creation of the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai. The larger meaning is that of God’s good purposes for humanity. We see this in the birth of a male child who is obviously Jesus Christ. The steps between his birth on earth and his enthronement in heaven are omitted. The good promised to those who are faithful to Christ is expanded on throughout the remainder of the book.

Next there comes the bad news for humanity. John sees a war in heaven in which the good angels defeat Satan and his minions and cast them down to earth. We are told in 2 Peter 5:8 that the devil seeks out individuals to destroy but he also has larger projects for human destruction as we are told in various symbols.

The initial symbol is described as a beast coming out of the sea. Again there appear to be two aspects to what is represented by the beast. The concrete aspect of it could be as a symbol of the Roman Empire. However, just as the woman has ramifications all through history so does this first beast. The larger symbolism is that of nations that wage war against the people of God. The impetus that Satan supplies to these nations we may call “nationalism.”

The second beast is pictured as coming out of the earth. It supports the power of the first beast and insures that the beast out of the sea is continued to be worshipped, even though at some point it had been severely injured. We might see this beast as “secularism” because in it we find a worship of the natural world and the promotion of technology as an ultimate good. This beast may also be symbolized by the false prophet who is introduced in chapter 16.

The role of the beasts and the false prophet is to deceive people about the reality of God’s good purpose for humanity. This is done by the creation of false ideologies that people can serve and in doing so be kept from serving God, which is where their true interest lies. They also allow Satan to achieve the destruction of human life that is his main goal. There are many “isms” that Satan has used and is using, far more than can be listed. A new one is pathological altruism which is defined as doing good to feel good regardless if anyone is helped by it. It seems also that almost anything that is joined to Christianity, such as social activism, church unity or older causes such as temperance are probably deceptions created by Satan.

The name Babylon is used four different times in Revelation as the description of a decadent entity. Far be it from me to be able to provide any certainties as to exactly what these entities are. One of the difficulties in interpreting Revelation is that we do not know where we are in all the things that are presented to us in a variety of ways.

There are far more things going on in Revelation than I have even mentioned. However, returning to my original purpose, it is time to take a look at how we get from our present world to the final creation and to do that we need first to see what this world is like.

Our present world is part of a universe that, as best we know, began with an immense amount of energy coming into existence. This energy was contained in a rapidly and constantly expanding four-dimensional entity called the space-time continuum. This energy is the source of all matter. We know, thanks to special relativity, how energy and matter are related. Matter and energy, and the forces that govern them, constitute the material universe.

Physics is always subject to revision but it seems now that gravity, which is produced by deformation of the space-time continuum, does not fit into the Standard Model of physical forces that includes the strong force, the weak force and electromagnetism. This appears to make it reasonable that gravity can be thought of as a part of the immaterial part of the universe constituted by space and time.

It was not too long ago that scientists did not know the universe was expanding, that time was variable and that gravity was a deformation of space. This did not prevent materialists from claiming that everything was matter and energy and nothing immaterial existed. They were obviously wrong about the universe but this did not prevent them from proclaiming the nonexistence of any spiritual realm. However, now it is reasonable to question any of their supposedly certain knowledge about the nonexistence of immaterial things.

Like the universe we humans have our material and immaterial components. Our immaterial part is often called our soul. Like space and time it is not governed by the laws of energy and matter. In its normal condition it, like the universe, is not eternal. However, unlike the universe, it has the possibility of becoming eternal through what is called a second birth. This new birth is a work of the Holy Spirit. In other words, here is a case of the spiritual realm entering the physical realm. And here we can see that immaterial things can influence our physical existence just as the space-time continuum shapes the material events of the universe.

The work of the Holy Spirit in those who will become eternal is the final creation coming into the present creation. It is what Jesus called the kingdom of God. However, this is only the beginning of the road to eternity. The next step which takes place in the present world is what could be called “solidification.” This is the process often called “sanctification” where people destined for eternity began to acquire the “being” required to live longer than nations, longer than the earth, longer than the universe. The step after this is physical death. There is no escaping it. Jesus had to go through it to lead others to everlasting life.

After physical death there is a state of spiritual existence. This seems to take several forms. It is sometimes thought of as a marginal existence in a place called “Hades” (the grave) or it can be, as in Revelation, participation in the eternal praise of God the Father and God the Son. The final stage of our existence is where people either receive a resurrection body in which they will live forever or they are sent to a second death where they cease to exist.

At this point we should ask ourselves why everybody does not urgently seek to become an inhabitant of the final creation. There are several reasons why this is so. Major causes are egotism, atheism, hedonism, intellectualism, and so forth, here are those isms again and they are all deceptions of Satan who seeks the destruction of individuals however he can.

There are reasons other than Satan’s deceits for people making the wrong choice. There are people who dislike the God of the Old Testament and/or the Jesus of the New Testament. We should pause here briefly and consider the mental state of people who think they are qualified to judge the being and purposes of God. Next, we can go on to those who love the things of the world too much. We are told in 1 John 2:16 that the cravings of sinful people, the ambitions for more, and the pride of accomplishments and possessions are not from God but from the world and as such cannot last. They and these things will have no place in the final creation.

Some traditional Christians think people make the wrong choice because of their rebellion against God. This may be flattery because what people seem to object to is the sacrifice of self that is required and the acknowledgment of fundamental defects in themselves. Some of those who go on to the second death are those who do not see any need to be any better than they are.

We do not know why Revelation shows so many people unable to acquire the eternal life that is to be found in Christ. Jesus, though, told his disciples in Matthew 7:13–14 that Christians needed to enter the final creation through a narrow gate and that there would be only a few who found the road to eternal life. He also said there was a wide gate that leads to annihilation. This is the road to the second death. The book of Revelation is a long and dramatic exposition of these words of Jesus. We may not comprehend many of the details but the message is clear. Our choice of the direction of our lives must be always, and in perseverance through all things, along the narrow road.

The final creation we should seek is a new heaven and a new earth. John saw a great and wondrous woman come down to the present world to symbolize God’s purposes for it. In a later vision, chapter 21, John sees a bride descending on the new earth. She is also spectacular. The woman symbolizes the permanent union of Christ with those who inhabit the holy city described as the New Jerusalem.

The symbolism surrounding the bride and the rest of the final creation is complex. It may be best understood as a negation of the present world. In it there will be no death, mourning, pain or any of all the other ailments of the present world. There will be no evil people. They are specifically excluded. The description of the new heaven and earth seems to preclude it being a remaking or repurposing of the present world. This is no return to Eden but an entirely new existence in a completely new reality. In it all is good and everything in it will last forever. It will allow the people there to be what God saw them to be when he envisioned their existence before the creation of the present world.

Some Keys to Christian Maturity

I am sure that somewhere in the television series “Doctor Who” (BBC) the doctor turns to the lovely Clara or another of his female time travelers and says, “Just because something is in plain sight does not mean it is not a secret.” Some keys to the secrets of Christian maturity are plainly outlined in the sixth chapter of Hebrews. This does not mean that many Christians have recognized these for what they are. There is good reason for this.

Verses 4 to 6 can appear to be a warning about Christians losing their salvation and the passage is commonly interpreted that way. However, it also can be understood as a statement that it is impossible for Christians who experience certain spiritual realities ever to fall away from their Christian faith because that would be like they were crucifying Christ again. These five spiritual experiences are the mark of a mature Christian. How do we know this?

The writer of Hebrews tells us at the beginning of chapter 6 that we are going to leave behind “the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity.” Some of the elementary things to be left behind are: “repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instructions about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.” Most Christians hardly regard these as elementary teachings so what are the ones that lead to maturity.

The first one is to “have once been enlightened.” This does not mean a onetime experience but that enlightenment comes to mature Christians and remains with them. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, prays that their eyes might be enlightened so they would know the hope to which they were called, the glorious inheritance of the saints and God’s incomparably great power for those who believe (Ephesians 1:18-19).

The second part of Christian maturity is to have “tasted the heavenly gift.” It is possible to think of this heavenly gift as God’s grace. However, it is more likely to be a taste of eternal life. We cannot fully experience eternal life now but we can taste it sometimes and know it is surely promised to believers as a gift of God (Romans 6:23).

Sharing in the Holy Spirit is the third experience related to Christian maturity. What Jesus told Nicodemus about the mystery of the action of the Holy Spirit in regard to rebirth (John 3:8) is illustrated by two events described in Acts, as well as in other instances that are described in the New Testament. The first instance was when Phillip went to Samaria. There he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ. Those who believed were baptized with water but the Holy Spirit had not come upon them. This happened when Peter and John arrived and laid their hands on them (Acts 8:12-17). The second example was when Peter preached in the house of Cornelius. The Holy Spirit came upon those who believed and then they were baptized with water (Acts 10:44-47). It would appear that there is no fixed way that the Holy Spirit comes to believers yet it seems that Spirit must come to any who would be spiritually mature.

The fourth part of Christian maturity is to have “tasted the goodness of the word of God.” Faith comes through the hearing of the word of God (Romans 10:17) but Christian maturity is found by tasting its goodness. And at the end of the list, we find Christian maturity is also shown by the believer tasting the “powers of the coming age.”

I think the writer of Hebrews meant by the coming age the era of the kingdom of God that arrived with the manifestation of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Peter quoted the last days prophecy of Joel (Acts 2:17-21) to the crowd who had gathered as the result of the presence of the Holy Spirit. From this passage we can see that the powers of the coming age that will be tasted by mature Christians include prophecy, visions and dreams. However, this is not the end of the promised abilities. We read throughout the New Testament of disciples having the ability to perform signs and miracles. Presumably people of Christian maturity will also have the power do signs and miracles when and if it suits God’s purposes.

In all these descriptions of Christian maturity there are none that are obtained through physical acts or by sacraments. They are all pictured metaphorically which means they must all be received spiritually. In other words they all come about through the work of the Holy Spirit in us. Paul told the Galatians in Galatians 5:16-26 a number of things about living in the Spirit. Toward the end of the passage (Galatians 5:25) he writes “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” It seems that the keys to Christian maturity involve learning to walk in several ways in the awareness and power of the Holy Spirit.