Heaven Is Not Enough

Views about heaven abound. Some are helpful. Some are not. When it comes to the Bible, some passages about heaven come with surprises. One of those is the vision of the martyrs in Revelation 6:9-11. Now a martyr is by definition someone who has died and gone to heaven. They loved Jesus more than life, and so they were “slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given” (Rev 6:9). What’s surprising about this passage is the attitude of the martyrs. Most people think of heaven in terms of eternal joy and bliss. After all, if you’ve entered into the presence of God, what more could you want? Apparently, that isn’t how these martyrs view the situation. They have a complaint. And they’d like it resolved quickly. From their position under the heavenly altar they are said to cry out in a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” (Rev 6:10). They’ve died and gone to heaven, but heaven isn’t enough. They want more.

Dissatisfied with Heaven

So what are they waiting for? To answer that question we need to look more closely at their appeal. Their complaint revolves around the wrong done to them. They did nothing wrong, yet they’ve lost their lives. They were perfectly faithful, but they suffered deep injustice. They died for their faith. And from their perspective, entrance into heaven does nothing to make things right. They want to be vindicated. So they appeal to their “Sovereign” to do something about it, and they’ll be dissatisfied with heaven until he does.

Resurrection as Vindication

But we still haven’t answered the question. If heaven isn’t enough, what is? What does vindication look like for the faithful dead? The answer comes later in Revelation. After Babylon falls to God’s judgment (in Revelation Babylon is a symbol of the forces that oppose God and oppress his people), the martyrs are raised from the dead and participate in Christ’s reign. This is what they’ve been waiting for – the resurrection of the body. After all, if the body is killed, that wrong cannot be made right as long as the body is in the grave. To say they’ve died and gone to heaven is to say their bodies are still dead. The injustice of their deaths can only be rectified by bodily resurrection. Their bodies must rise from the grave for the wrong to be made right. And this is true not only for the martyrs. It is an affront to God any time a creature made in God’s image dies. That’s why the hope for resurrection permeates the New Testament. Heaven is great, but if we’re talking about a disembodied spiritual experience, it’s not the goal. Ultimate redemption only comes with bodily resurrection.

Check out this Seven Minute Seminary for more on what the Bible says about life after death.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.

Book Notice: Beauty, Order, and Mystery: A Christian Vision of Human Sexuality (@cenpastheo, @IVPAcademic)

When it comes to sex, evangelical Christians tend to be known for what we’re against rather than what we’re for. That’s why we need this new book and why I’m grateful to have had opportunity to contribute a chapter. The book is Beauty, Order, and Mystery: A Christian Vision of Human Sexuality (IVP Academic), and it’s a collection of essays from the 2016 Center for Pastor Theologians Conference. Contributors consider the topic in light of scripture, history, theology, aesthetics, and culture. One recurring theme is the need for those who take a traditional view of marriage and sexuality to spend more time working on a positive theology of marriage. This book makes a significant contribution to that endeavor. You can read the contents at the IVP Academic site. Here are the endorsements:

“Pastors minister; theologians seek-and minister-understanding. Ministering understanding of how the Bible addresses real-world issues is the great privilege and responsibility of the pastor theologian. Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson have put together a whole ministry team that ministers understanding worth its weight in gold on one of the most socially complicated, politically fraught, yet existentially unavoidable issues of our day or any: human sexuality. In an age where the male/female duality is in danger of becoming extinct, these essays serve as salient reminders of the beauty and mystery of God’s created order: ‘Male and female he created them’ (Gen 1:27).

-Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Research Professor of Systematic Theology, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, IL

For Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson, the ideal of the pastor-scholar is not merely theoretical but intensely practical. The example they set through their Center for Pastor Theologians is an invitation to practice ecclesial theology. So is their new volume of thoughtful essays on God’s beautiful, well-ordered, and yet mysterious purposes for human sexuality-a book that demonstrates the value and relevance of having a community of wise scholars ‘do’ theology in the service of the church.

-Philip Ryken, President, Wheaton College

There’s a public conversation about human sexuality happening nearly everywhere today, but this book helpfully locates it right at the intersection of the pastoral and the theological. Beauty, Order, and Mystery provides a remarkably easy introduction to a vexed set of issues because the chapters are approachable and accessible even as they display deep reflection and up-to-date learning. In this particular multitude of counselors there is much wisdom.

-Fred Sanders, Torrey Honors Institute, Biola University

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.

Getting Grace (@pastorjoei, #UMC)

umc_webban_graceseries_wk3-690x353I very much enjoyed the recent opportunity to be interviewed by Joe Iovino for a series of articles on grace for UMC.org. Joe did a great job articulating the Wesleyan understandings of prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace. In particular, he made it clear that we are talking more about different seasons of grace than different kinds of grace. There’s only one grace. The distinction is more of chronology than substance. Here they are:

  1. God at work before we know it: Prevenient grace
  2. By grace we are forgiven: Justifying grace
  3. God’s power over sin: Sanctifying grace

These are the kind of resources you could share with a friend as an intro to Wesleyan theology. Pastors and others will find them very useful.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.

Bodily Resurrection and Identity Formation in Paul

What does future bodily resurrection have to do with present life in the body? Do Paul’s pastoral goals shed light on his attitude toward resurrection? Does hope for resurrection bear on the formation of group identity in the Pauline communities? These are the questions that energized my doctoral research, which is now available electronically from the University of Gloucestershire Research Repository. Here’s the abstract:

This study investigates how Paul’s attitude towards future bodily resurrection functions in relation to his expectations for believers’ use of their bodies in the present, both as individuals and as a community. I argue that embodiment is essential to Paul’s anthropology, and that Paul understands future bodily resurrection primarily in social terms. Drawing on insights from the social sciences and rhetorical studies, I also argue that future bodily resurrection functions in the letters under consideration as a future possible social identity that contributes to Paul’s persuasive strategies with regard to his expectations for believers’ behavior. In general, it will become clear that Paul expects his recipients to use their bodies in ways that stand in continuity with the resurrection-oriented future social identity. After an introductory chapter orienting the reader to questions, method, and relevant scholarly discussion, chapter 2 sheds light on the social dynamics of Paul’s attitude toward future bodily resurrection in general and the function of the resurrection-oriented future identity in particular through a close reading of 1 Cor 15:12–58; 6:12–20; and 2 Cor 4:7–5:10. Chapter 3 offers a detailed analysis of the relationship between resurrection and practice in Rom 6:1–23 and 8:9–25 to argue that Paul’s understanding of that relationship provides a framework for understanding table fellowship as bodily practice in Rom 14 and 15. Chapter 4 takes up Phil 3:12–4:1 and argues that Paul’s language of resurrection fosters a common ingroup identity that serves the letter’s double goal of mitigating faction and strengthening the recipients to persevere in the face of persecution. A final chapter synthesizes the overall findings of the research.

If that strikes your fancy, you may want to read the whole thing.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.

Happy Aldersgate Day! (#umc)

May 24 is something of a holy day for the Wesleyan-Methodist family. On this day in 1738, John Wesley experienced his evangelical conversion, and the world hasn’t been the same since. Here’s the experience in his own words from his journal:

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

I began to pray with all my might for those who had in a more especial manner despitefully used me and persecuted me. I then testified openly to all there what I now first felt in my heart. But it was not long before the enemy suggested, “This cannot be faith; for where is thy joy?” Then was I taught that peace and victory over sin are essential to faith in the Captain of our salvation; but that, as to the transports of joy that usually attend the beginning of it, especially in those who have mourned deeply, God sometimes giveth, sometimes withholdeth, them according to the counsels of His own will.

After my return home, I was much buffeted with temptations, but I cried out, and they fled away. They returned again and again. I as often lifted up my eyes, and He “sent me help from his holy place.” And herein I found the difference between this and my former state chiefly consisted. I was striving, yea, fighting with all my might under the law, as well as under grace. But then I was sometimes, if not often, conquered; now, I was always conqueror.

Don’t miss the last line in that first paragraph. This was the first time Wesley trusted Christ alone to do something for him that he could not do for himself. In that crucial moment, Wesley was no longer attempting to add to the work of Christ. On this day, he experienced afresh the perfect and sufficient grace of Christ to atone for his sin and give him assurance of salvation. Thanks be to God.  
Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.

New Book Notice: "Listen, Understand, Obey: Essays on Hebrews in Honor of Gareth Lee Cockerill" (@wipfandstock, @wesleybiblical)

I’m excited to announce the publication of a new collection of essays written in honor of Prof. Gary Cockerill on the occasion of his retirement. The book is called Listen, Understand, Obey: Essays on Hebrews in Honor of Gareth Lee Cockerill (edited by Caleb T. Friedeman). Dr. Cockerill has been a mentor to me for several years now, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute to this volume as an expression of gratitude for his kindness. Dr. Cockerill is a scholar with the heart of a pastor, and he’s impacted countless students during his 35 years of teaching at Wesley Biblical Seminary (WBS) in Jackson, Mississippi. He’s served the last four years as Academic Dean and Professor of Biblical Interpretation and Theology, a role which has been instrumental in the growth and increasing strength of WBS. 
All of the essays in this book deal with Hebrews, which has been a central focus of Dr. Cockerill’s scholarship throughout his career. In 2012, his commentary on Hebrews replaced F.F. Bruce’s volume in the NICNT. Grant Osborne called that commentary one of  “the top three ever written” on that book of the New Testament. Dr. Cockerill has also written on Christian Faith in the Old Testament (2014). You can read about that book in the author interview on this blog (part 1 and part 2). The title of this new collection of essays comes from Dr. Cockerill himself, who would often exhort his students while lecturing on Hebrews to “listen, understand, obey.” Here’s the publisher’s description:

“This volume brings together a diverse group of scholars, including biblical, systematic, and historical theologians, to honor Gareth Lee Cockerill, longtime professor of New Testament at Wesley Biblical Seminary (Jackson, MS) and distinguished scholar of the book of Hebrews. The essays focus on various aspects of Hebrews’ theology, ranging from the nature of -rest- in Hebrews to the interpretation of Hebrews in early Methodism. Readers will find resources to hear and comprehend Hebrews afresh and will be challenged to draw near to the throne of grace with confidence (Heb 4:16).”

Here are the endorsements:

“This fine collection of essays by both senior scholars and our junior colleagues makes a worthy contribution to the scholarship of Hebrews and a fitting tribute to its honoree.”

–Karen H. Jobes, PhD, Gerald F. Hawthorne Professor Emerita of New Testament Greek and Exegesis, Wheaton College

Dr. Cockerill is one of the truly fine exegetes of our day, and his commentary on Hebrews is among the top three ever written. This Festschrift is a goldmine of fine material that will aid the cause of Christ for years to come. I look forward to using this work in my own writing and ministry.

–Grant R. Osborne, PhD, Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

A big word of thanks goes to Caleb Friedeman, a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament at Wheaton College, who did the hard work of editing the volume. He did an excellent job keeping the project on pace and bringing it through to completion. Get your copy from the publisher or Amazon.
Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.

Unlikely People, Surprising Results

When you serve as pastor of a local church, you pick up on things. You don’t pick up on everything. But you do pick up on some things. One of those things is a perception held by many people in more than a few churches. A lot of people have it in their heads that God cannot work through them. Now this could be for any number of reasons. Maybe they think God is hindered by their lack of training or education. Maybe they are convinced that they don’t have the right gifts or talents. Maybe they are so immobilized by the shame of their past that they are sure God wants nothing to do with them, let alone use them to make the world a better place. If you are one of those people, then I’ve got some good news for you. God uses unlikely people to do surprising things. In fact, the more unlikely you are, the more God is pleased to work through you.

An unlikely apostle

This reality emerges from the life story of the apostle Paul. If that name is unfamiliar to you, he’s responsible for writing a healthy chunk of the Bible. He’s was also one of the first and most important people to spread the good news of hope in Jesus Christ. What’s interesting about Paul is that started out hating Jesus. Not only did he hate Jesus, he hated the followers of Jesus. So, if you were one of the first followers of Jesus in and around Jerusalem in the first century, Paul was somebody you would have wanted to avoid. Paul tells part of his story in his New Testament letter to the Galatians. He writes about an earlier period of his life when he was, “violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it” (Galatians 1:13 NRSV). Now we have people today whose religious convictions motivate them to act violently. Sometimes we call those people terrorists. And it may surprise you to learn that analogy is not altogether out of place when considering Paul’s life before Jesus got hold of him. Remember what I told you. God uses unlikely people to do surprising things. 
Later in life Paul could look back and see that God was at work in his life, even though he didn’t know it. A little further on in that same letter to the Galatians he wrote that God “called me through his grace” and “was pleased to reveal his Son to me” (1:15 NRSV). Did you catch that? God’s grace was big enough to cover the sins of a man who behaved violently toward God’s church. If that’s true, I’m thinking God can pretty much handle whatever messes we’ve made. And what was the result for Paul? God ended up using a man who hated the followers of Jesus to proclaim the good news about Jesus to the nations. I don’t know about you, but I’d call that an unlikely person with some surprising results.

Get ready for change

Now if you want God to use your unlikely life to accomplish something surprising, you need to be prepared for change. Radical change. Just think about Paul. He went from persecuting Christian believers to proclaiming the faith he had tried to destroy (Galatians 1:23). That’s what I call 180 degree turn-around. That’s some serious change. And here’s the thing. No one ever surprised anyone by continuing to do the same things they’ve always done. That’s what we call predictability, not surprising. So God may be calling you to do something unexpected, but it will require you to do some things differently. It will require new habits, new disciplines, new attitudes, new passion, and probably some new courage. God does surprising things through unlikely people, but not while they are doing the same old things.

It takes preparation

Developing new habits and new disciplines and new passion does not usually happen overnight. It typically takes some preparation. When God called Paul to be a church-planting missionary, Paul didn’t get started right away. He reminded the Galatians that he went away for a while. A long while. This new and surprising vocation would require some essential preparation. Paul had to learn how to read his Bible again; he had to develop an eye for how God’s promises are kept in Jesus. Most of us don’t have the kind of dramatic conversion experience that Paul had. And even with that experience he still needed substantial time being trained and equipped for the mission God had planned. How much more for all of us?

It may seem crazy

Chances are that if God uses you to do something surprising, somebody is going to think you are crazy. God may call you to sell your house in the suburbs and move to the most dangerous part of town to bring the light of Jesus to that dark place. God may call you to move to Costa Rica and join the effort to rescue women and girls from the sex trade. God may call you to go plant a church in a part of the world where terrorists cut off the heads of Christians. Or God may call you to do something else. The point is this: God uses unlikely people to do surprising things. Often times, other people think those surprising things are also crazy things. But hey. If it seemed normal, it probably wouldn’t be surprising.

It’s God’s pleasure

What may be most surprising is that God does not begrudgingly work through unlikely people. He is not sitting around lamenting the fact that he has generally inadequate folks to work with. It turns out that God actually enjoys working through unlikely people. He gets a kick out of it. Remember a few minutes ago when we were talking about when God called Paul. Paul said God was pleased to reveal Jesus to him. God was pleased. Not only does God do surprising things through unlikely people, he is pleased to do it. The way I see it, being unlikely just keeps getting better and better. 
This post was originally published in The Call News on March 29, 2017.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.