Not Rapture, Rescue (It’s Good to Be Left Behind)

Plenty of people are expecting the rapture, an event in which Christians are all taken up from the earth into heaven. The problem is that the Bible knows no such event. Yep, that’s right. There’s no rapture in the Bible. And the passages sometimes thought to be about the rapture are about something else entirely. In this video, Dr. Matt O’Reilly walks us through one such passage – Matthew 24.36-42. He explains why these verses teach that it’s actually a good thing to be left behind.

Interested in more? Here are two books that critique the rapture.
The Rapture Exposed by Barbara Rossing
The Problem with Evangelical Theology by Ben Witherington

And here are two books for an alternative (and optimistic!) biblical eschatology.
Heaven Misplaced by Douglas Wilson
Deep Comedy by Peter Leithart

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary.

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.

Deep Happiness, John Wesley, and the Beatitudes

“Failure to thrive” is a medical diagnosis for children who aren’t growing as they should. If you’ve ever taken a child to the pediatrician, you know about growth standards. Every parent is eager to see which percentile their kids are in. 75th percentile? We may have a ball player on our hands! Every parent gets excited when their kids are above average. Kids who are low on the chart are diagnosed with a condition called  failure to thrive. It’s not a disease. It’s not a disorder. It usually has to do with environment. Maybe a kid isn’t properly nourished. Maybe he’s experienced some deep emotional stress or trauma that’s affecting his development.

As a pastor, I can’t help but think how many Christians might – at one time or another – diagnose their devotional (un)health with failure to thrive. It’s easy to imagine. You’ve experienced the new birth. You’re excited. You’re growing in your newfound faith. Then a little time passes. Maybe you get out of the habits that fueled your experience of grace in the beginning. You don’t read the Bible like you once did. You haven’t gathered to worship with the church in a while. Maybe life has dealt you unexpected  circumstances that left you struggling to hold on. You haven’t given up on following Jesus. But you sure wouldn’t say you’re thriving.

Beatitudes as Growth Chart

The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most famous passages of scripture. The Beatitudes are one of the most famous parts of the Sermon. There are two approaches to the Beatitudes. Some say they are ordered steps on the path to Christian maturity. Others say they are each always presents to some extent in every believer. John Wesley saw no reason to pick one approach over the other. He took a both/and approach:

It is undoubtedly true, that both poverty of spirit, and every other temper which is here mentioned, are at all times found, in a greater or less degree, in every real Christian. And it is equally true, that real Christianity always begins in poverty of spirit, and goes on in the order here set down, till the “man of God is made perfect (Sermon XXI).

So if the beatitudes are intended to be taken in order, then perhaps we can think of them as a spiritual growth chart. And as you develop along the growth chart, you grow into a thriving follower of Jesus and a full experience of human life. Want to escape the failure to thrive diagnosis? Spend some time in the beatitudes. Immerse yourself in Jesus’ vision of flourishing.

Absolute Helplessness

If the Beatitudes are all about thriving, then the first one might seem counter-intuitive. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). We don’t normally think of poverty as thriving. So what does it mean to be poor in spirit? And how does poverty of spirit lead to a full and thriving human life? Let’s start with the notion of poverty. Poverty means a person doesn’t have the resources to meet their basic needs. It means they are helpless. And it’s not just a matter of finances. There are plenty of people with plenty of money who are impoverished relationally, emotionally, psychologically, or in other ways. This helps us understand poverty of spirit. To be poor in spirit is know we don’t have the resources to meet our spiritual needs. We don’t have the power to atone for our sins. We don’t have the ability to free ourselves from slavery to sin. We come into the world spiritually destitute, and we don’t have what it takes to fix our problem. When Jesus talks about “the poor in spirit,” he’s talking about the people who understand that.  Here’s Wesley again:

Poverty of spirit then, as it implies the first step we take in running the race which is set before us, is a just sense of our inward and outward sins, and of our guilt and helplessness.

So the first step to thriving is understanding that we can’t thrive on our own. We are absolutely helpless. We need someone to do something we can’t do.

Ultimate Happiness

Now you may be thinking: If the beatitudes are all about blessing, why am I hearing so much about what a mess I’m in? Well, the blessing comes in what Jesus can do for people who are in a mess (and who know they’re in a mess). When our eyes are opened to our desperate state, he meets our poverty with the riches of the kingdom of heaven. He does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He forgives our sin. He frees us from slavery. He reconciles us to God. And he graciously begins to reproduce his own character of holy love in us. When Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven, he’s talking about the reality of the reign of God coming to bear on this world. “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). The will of God is done on earth when human beings surrender their bodies to God’s purposes for them. And as more and more people surrender more and more of themselves, the kingdom spreads. And it will continue to spread until that day when Jesus returns to make the kingdom complete and perfect. Participation in that project is happiness. Not the shallow and fleeting emotion of happiness, but the deep and abiding happiness that comes with the knowledge that we are living into God’s best for us, even if our circumstances are not what we expected or what we may have once preferred. The path to that deep happiness starts with embracing our spiritual poverty. Put differently, ultimate happiness depends on absolute helplessness.

For more on the beatitudes, check out the latest episode of the So What? Podcast.

 

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.

Introducing the So What? Podcast (@sowhat_podcast)

I’m excited to share with readers that I’ve recently begun contributing to the So What? Podcast, which is produced by People of Mars Hill here in Mobile. We are currently working through the Apostles’ Creed line by line. Episode 4 has just been released, which is on the creedal affirmation that Jesus Christ is God’s only Son and our Lord. I’m grateful to KyleDave, and Brad for the opportunity to take part in this, and I’m very excited about plans for upcoming episodes. So keep an eye out for future posts to stay up to date with the news. You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. And be sure to check out the website, especially if you might be curious to know what I look like as a cartoon. Here’s the audio stream for the new episode in which we dig into questions of what it means for Jesus to be both Christ and Lord. And why does it matter? How does our creedal confession about Jesus relate to what scripture says about him? And is the Creed simply a matter of mental assent? Or is something more going on? Be sure to listen to the end for a few extras. Enjoy.

Easter Means Mission

Our celebrations of Christ’s resurrection at Easter tend to be narrowly focused. The focus, all too often, drills down onto the individualistic issue that the resurrection makes personal salvation possible. Christ has been raised so that you can go to heaven. Now don’t get me wrong. I happily affirm that the salvation of each person depends on the historical bodily resurrection of Christ: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17). The problem comes when we fail to consider how the implications of the resurrection extend beyond individual salvation. And in doing so we don’t have to worry about overlooking or neglecting the personal saving power of the resurrection. To the contrary, we establish it. 
So, what is the resurrection about? If we turn to the Gospel of John, we soon discover that the resurrection of Jesus is the basis for the Church’s vocation in the world. Easter means mission. Consider the words of Jesus to his disciples on the evening of the day of his resurrection: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). The first thing Jesus does is set before his closest followers the task he intends them to fulfill. He is sending them out into the world with a mission, a mission that flows out of and is similar to the one for which Jesus himself was sent into the world. And what is this mission? John has at least two things in mind: reconciliation and new creation.
Mission as Reconciliation
Twice during this first post-resurrection meeting, Jesus tells the disciples, “Peace be with you” (20:19, 21). His mission to them is a mission of reconciliation. And rightly so, for all human beings come into the world estranged from God. To draw on John’s own language, “No one has ever seen God” (1:18). God is light. We stand in darkness. Jesus comes to make peace between God and us so that we can become the children of God, so that we can experience the pure and unqualified joy of seeing God’s glory. 
And he does this reconciling work in his own body. This is why the incarnation is so important. This is central to the significance of the Word made flesh. Because he is fully God and fully human, he brings the two disparate parties together in his body. God and humanity are reconciled in the very body of Jesus that died on the cross and was raised from the dead. Without the incarnation and bodily resurrection, there is no reconciliation between God and humanity. This is what the Father sent Jesus to do, and Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” If the Father sent the Son to work peace between God and the human race, then Christ sends his Church to be agents of that peace making mission to the rest of the world. 
Mission as New Creation

But the mission goes much deeper than any initial reconciliation between God and humanity. John also gives us a few clues to help us understand that our mission is to cultivate the new creation that God is working through Christ and the Spirit. We know John likes Genesis. No first-century Jewish writer starts out a book with the words, “In the beginning,” and does it on accident. He is intentionally drawing on the creation narrative in Genesis 1 to inform our reading of the Gospel. And if Genesis 1 is telling the story of creation out of nothing, then John 1 is telling the story of new creation out of the old. John 20 offers a couple more clues that Jesus has been sent to work new creation. Ever notice that John is telling us about the most important day in the history of the world and never says a word about anything that happens while the sun is up? The story starts in the dark of early morning only to jump forward to the dark of evening. Morning, evening; evening, morning. That John is drawing on Genesis 1 ought to be clear. If it isn’t, John repeatedly reminds his readers that this is the first day of the week. If Genesis 1 tells story of cosmic creation structured by seven days of evenings and mornings, John 20 sets up the story of the resurrection as the work of God on the first morning and evening of the new creation. And as the Spirit hovered in the darkness over the face of the primordial waters, so now the Spirit is at work in the darkness of that first Easter morn raising the dead as the first act of God’s new creation. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” If Jesus has been sent by the Father to inaugurate the new creation, the Church has been sent by Jesus to cultivate it. 
The Whole Easter Package

If our job, then, is to be agents of reconciliation between God and the world and to cultivate the new creation everywhere we go, then personal salvation is obviously included in that along with much, much more. And our vision of salvation is enlarged way beyond the old “go to heaven when you die” sort of “fire insurance” that has so often characterized American Christianity. The mission is to facilitate peace between God and the nations. That peace is part and parcel to personal salvation, but it is neither a salvation of mere forgiveness nor is it a salvation of escape. Rather, it is salvation in which we are made new creatures for life in the new creation. It is incarnational. It is transformational. It’s the whole package. Easter is mission.

Here’s My New Seven Minute Seminary: Resurrection and the Christian Afterlife (@OfficialSeedbed)

Here’s the latest installment of Seedbed’s Seven Minute Seminary series in which I discuss several questions related to life after death, bodily resurrection, and the pastoral significance of the Christian hope. Watch to the end to discover why this doctrine is so very near and dear to my heart. Be sure also to check out this great little discussion guide that the Seedbed team has put together to accompany the video for use in a small group setting.

Check out my other contributions to the Seven Minute Seminary project:

New Podcast: Body of Christ, Bread of Life @StMarkMobile #UMC

http://www.podbean.com/media/player/audio/postId/5402610/url/http%253A%252F%252Fstmarkumc.podbean.com%252Fe%252Fbody-of-christ-bread-of-life-john-11-5-10-18-648-58-1272014-rev-matt-oreilly%252F/initByJs/1/auto/1

When we want to read about the birth of Jesus, we usually turn to Matthew and Luke. After all, that’s where we find angels and shepherds, magi and the manger, Mary and Joseph, and, not least, baby Jesus himself. We don’t usually turn to the Gospel of John. John doesn’t have all the nativity stuff. Nevertheless, the opening chapter of John is telling a Christmas story, because it’s telling the story of the Word of God made flesh in the person of Jesus. It’s the story of the incarnation. And Christmas is about nothing, if it’s not about the incarnation. John is not quite so interested in who was there when Jesus was born. He is more interested in the implications of God taking a body in Christ. And one of the reasons John is interested in what it means for God to take a body in Christ is because John understands that the body of Christ is the bread of life. And John wants to be sure the sheep are fed. 
If you received this post through email, click here for the podcast.

3 Reasons for Reading Backwards with Richard Hays (@Baylor_Press)

After attending part of the review panel for Richard Hays’ new short book, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Baylor, 2014), I knew I had to get a copy and read it. So I did, and took the long plane ride from California as an opportunity to dig in to this treasure trove of accessible and robust biblical scholarship on the Gospels. Hays is currently the Dean of Duke Divinity School and is well known for his work on the interplay between Old and New Testaments. This book is the published version of Hays’ Hulsean Lectures at Cambridge in the fall of 2013 and spring of 2014, and it takes up that interplay as it relates to the canonical Gospels.
The central thesis of the book is that the Gospels teach us to read the Old Testament, and the Old Testament teaches us to read the Gospels. In particular, the Gospels are to be read figurally, that is with a view to the many ways Old Testament texts may signify or pre-figure the Gospel narratives about Jesus. Hays puts it this way: “we learn to read the OT by reading backwards from the Gospels, and – at the same time – we learn how to read the Gospels by reading forwards from the OT” (4, italics original). This is not simply to say we note the citation when a Gospel passage quotes or evokes an Old Testament passage. It means that the Gospel writers intend their readers to soak into the original context of Old Testament passage and to interpret what they say about Jesus in light of that context. So, when Jesus says things like, “I am with you,” or, “My words will not pass away,” he should be read with a view to the rich texture that those words have in the OT when they are predicated of God. Or when Jesus walks on water, it’s not just a neat miracle to illustrate his power over nature. It should be read with the understanding that in the Old Testament only the God of Israel “treads on the waves of the sea” (Job 9:8). And the narrative implication is that Jesus embodies the presence of that very God. These examples don’t begin to capture the many and varied ways the Gospel writers see the Old Testament pre-figuring Jesus. You’ll have to read the book. In the mean time, here are three reasons to do just that. 
1. Refreshingly Orthodox
A significant number of New Testament scholars insist that stories about Jesus’ divinity were invented by the later Church and read back onto the life of Jesus. Hays cites one of the more popularly known proponents of that view, Bart Ehrman, who says, “The idea that Jesus was divine was a later Christian invention, one found, among our gospels, only in John” (Jesus Interrupted, 249). In contrast, Hays shows that each of the Gospels were written to narrate how Jesus of Nazareth embodies the God of Israel. To be sure, the different gospels tell the story to emphasize different aspects of what that embodiment looks like, and the diversity of their portrayals should not be minimized. Nevertheless, when the Gospels are read figurally in light of the Old Testament, they unanimously insist that Jesus bears in his body the unique presence of the creator God. Hays makes his case with elegance and beauty, which is the main reason it is so robust and persuasive. When you come to the creeds after you read this book, their words will carry far richer meaning than you ever might have imagined.
2. Great resource for preaching
This reason for reading is directed more toward the preachers out there. Use this book as a resource for preaching the Gospels. If you are working with a passage in the Gospels, look it up in the index to see what Hays says about it. It will add a multiple layers of depth to your comprehension and preaching of the text. It will point you to features of the text that you had not previously observed. And it will equip you to lead your congregation into a deeper understanding of the connection between the Old Testament and the Gospels. It will make you a better preacher. 
3. Perfect for Advent
I’ll finish by saying that this book is an excellent read for the season of Advent, which has just begun. As we draw near to Christmas and our celebration of the Incarnation of God in Christ, what better book to read than one focused on deep clarity with regard to the way the Gospel writers portray the Incarnation? I was very glad to read this book when I did since I was reflecting on scripture and sermons for the season. It has impacted my experience of Advent both in terms of formation and as a resource for preaching. For this I am grateful.
Seldom do I say that I cannot recommend a book highly enough, but that is exactly what I will say about Reading Backwards.