Thursday, July 8, 2010

His Many Mansions - Day 1

NOTE: As this and the next chapter was unfolding, the impression was that they should be presented as a dialogue between two people, such as might be found in a novel. Therefore, they are presented in that manner. I pray the reader finds from their reading not only an interesting change of pace, but benefit and continuity of thought without distraction.

Both Tom and Ed are not only professed followers of Christ who happen to attend the same church, but they have been good friends for quite some time. There are, of course, some differences between the two. Tom has always been more of a student of scripture, one who likes to study things out instead of taking them for granted; whereas, Ed has generally been an easygoing guy, simply believing what he hears from over the pulpit rather than searching truth for himself.

On one of those casual days the two got together for lunch; and as it often happens, their discussion turned to a religious topic. This particular day, however, the subject fell upon some Bible verses that each interpreted a little differently. At one point in their discussion, because of these differences, Ed questioned Tom on a subject that came up in their Sunday School class the previous week.

“Tom, do you remember when Brother Whitney quoted Jesus from John 14 and 2, who said, ‘In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you’?”

“Yes,” Tom answered while munching the last portion of his sandwich, “what about it?”

“What do you think that means, exactly? I always thought that Heavenly Father’s house was heaven, and that everything was the same for everyone who goes there. What did Jesus mean by ‘many mansions’?”

As he crushed up his sandwich wrapper and stuffed it into a trash container next to where they were sitting, Tom chidingly said, “Oh, you mean that you thought that everyone in heaven will be sitting around on a cloud playing a harp, is that right?”

“Not quite that, smartaleck,” Ed responded, with a somewhat disappointed look on his face.

Sensing the seriousness of the situation, Tom asked, “Ed, do you believe there are any conflicts in what the Bible teaches?”

“No, I don’t believe there is.”

“Then I would like to ask some serious questions,” said Tom. “Is heaven and paradise both the same place?”

“Yes, I believe they are,” Ed responded confidently.

Tom continued, “Then when Jesus said to the thief on the cross next to him, ‘Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise,’ as recorded in Luke 23:39-43, I guess that meant the thief was to be in Heaven with Jesus that very day as Jesus said, is that right?”

“Of course! Jesus always speaks the truth.”

Tom went on: “I assume, then, that heaven is where the Father dwells. Is that correct?”

“Yes, I think you are accurate there, too.”

“Then I am confused,” Tom continued. “You recall in John 20, verses 1 through 18 when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw the stone rolled away, and later, while she was still there, our resurrected Lord, whom she first thought was the gardener, appeared to her. Now my question is this: If heaven is where the father is, then what did the resurrected Jesus mean when He said to Mary, ‘Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.’?”

“He meant He was going up to heaven to be with Heavenly Father. I think that’s quite clear. Don’t you?”

“Well, when you take this scripture by itself, it sounds that way,” stated Tom. But that was three days after he told the thief on the cross, ‘TODAY shalt thou be with me in paradise.’ Now if paradise and heaven are both the same place, then Jesus either lied to the thief on the cross, OR, heaven and paradise are NOT the same place. What do you think?”

“Now I’m rather confused, considering what I have always believed,” declared Ed, with a perplexed look on his face. “I have another question, then. If Jesus did not go to heaven with the thief that day, where was he for those three days?”

“That is a good question, and perhaps we can discover that answer by reading what Peter had to say about it. I have a pocket-sized King James Bible here; would you mind turning to 1 Peter, Chapter 3, and read what Peter said in verses 18 through 20?”

“I would be glad to,” Ed replied. “It reads here: ‘For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.’”

After Ed read the scripture, Tom continued: “Here Peter teaches us that after Jesus died He went and preached to the spirits in prison. Now of course this prison is not a place with stone walls and bars, but simply a place of confinement. Those who were in this spirit prison of confinement were those who had been disobedient to God, such as during the days of Noah. The Savior said that a time would come when the dead would hear His voice. This can be found in the fifth chapter of John. Verses 25 through 29 give the complete idea, but for brevity why don’t you read only verses 25, 28 and 29:

When Ed turns a few pages, Tom hears him read: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live. Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.”

“That is quite interesting,” Ed replied. “But, wait a minute. I thought only the righteous will be resurrected. It sounds here that the wicked will also be resurrected. Isn’t it true that all those who don’t confess Jesus are to enter hell for eternity?”

Skeptically, Tom asked, “You mean to tell me that the most vile, foul, despicable man who has ever lived can be saved in heaven just because he confesses Jesus with his mouth, or kisses the cross as some Catholics believe, and at the same time the most loving, kind, and charitable man will be damned to an eternity of burning hell because he never did? How cruel and unjust would be such a God?”

Tom, obviously rather incensed by the idea, continued: “Actually that doctrine is a carryover from the false Roman Catholic dogma that Protestantism continued to espouse just as it continued to embrace other false Popish concepts as well. Most everyone concedes that true conversion at the last moment is possible. The story Jesus told of the workers who arrived late in the vineyard and yet received the same pay as others could be adduced as scriptural authority. And there is, of course, what some believe is the clinching argument based upon Jesus’ statement to the thief on the cross, as we just spoke of earlier: ‘Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.’ However, the act of acceptance, simply confessing with the mouth, making the sign of the cross, or having the sacrament administered just before or after death is surely not the same as true repentance.”

As Tom started to sermonize, he said, “That dogma is one of cruelest doctrines Satan has perpetrated. If true, then God is a very unjust God, having allowed so many to be born into situations where they will never hear of Jesus Christ, therefore never have an opportunity to confess His name, and then be cast into everlasting burning because of a handicap that God, Himself, inflicted upon those individuals. No wonder there are so many who deny God’s existence. They just can’t accept that a loving God would be so unjust. No! Such doctrine cannot be God’s truth. He is a loving, compassionate, and just God. He does not inflict a handicap and then punish people for having it.”

Tom reminded Ed by saying, “Recall what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Saints in Rome. Here, let me see if I can find it and read it to you.... Let’s see.... Ah, here it is – Romans 4 and 15: ‘Because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression.’” Tom said, quietly mumbling to himself, “And there’s another one over here somewhere in. ... Yes! In Chapter 5, verse 13: ‘For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law.’ Do you understand what it says here? If people, regardless of who they are, do not have the law of Christ, they are not in sin; and if not in sin, we cannot judge them as going to hell.

“You see,” continued Tom, “we can’t go around being the judges of other people, be they confessed followers of Christ or not. God is the final judge in all such cases, whether repentance be because of a truly broken heart and contrite spirit, or convenient fearful desperation. But to go off into some euphoric elation just because some despicable child abuser, whoremonger, or murderer you preached to confesses Jesus on his deathbed, purely out of selfish desperation, is totally ludicrous.”

As Tom was ready to continue his clarification, Ed quickly interrupted and asked, “This is all interesting, but doesn’t it specifically say, I believe in Paul’s letter to the Romans, that if we confess Jesus with our mouth we will be saved?”

“Yes, Ed, it does say something like that,” Tom answered, as he flipped through a few pages of Romans. “If I remember right, I believe it’s here in the tenth chapter. Okay, here it is. In verse 9 it reads, ‘That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.’”

Pressing on with the topic, Tom rhetorically asked, “Do you recall what an unclean spirit said as the Master was casting out devils? We can read what one of those little demons said in Mark 5:7: ‘... What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the most high God?’ Here a devil confessed that Jesus was the Son of God. Now, can you truly believe for one moment that he was saved? I think you’re sharper than that. And what about ...”

“I think I understand,” interrupted Ed. “I remember what it says in James 2:19: ‘Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.’ Wow! I never thought of it quite that way,” he exclaimed.

“Let’s continue our discussion," Tom said, "by going back to First Peter and read again, but this time from the fourth Chapter, verse 6: ‘For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.’”

“Now, Ed, let me direct your attention to a scripture I know you are familiar with. It’s in the same tenth chapter of Romans we read from just a moment ago. Let me turn to it again. In verses 13 and 14 Paul wrote, ‘For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?’ Here Paul teaches that whoever calls upon the name of Jesus shall be saved. But He also adds a qualifier. He says they must first believe, and they can’t believe unless they have heard the good news, and they can’t hear the gospel unless it is taught to them. In verse 17, Paul let’s us know that ‘faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.’ Therefore,” Tom continued rhetorically, “unless people hear the word of God, they cannot have faith, can they?

“So, Ed, as we discussed earlier, we see that Jesus descended into hell to preach the gospel to the wicked who had died, that they might be taught and live spiritually, and then be justly judged upon the same basis as the living are judged. With this in mind, we get a better understanding of what Paul was saying when he wrote. ....” Tom paused, and in a whispering voice said to himself: “Let’s see, it’s here somewhere in Romans.

“Ah!” Tom exclaims, “Romans 14, I’ll read verses 10 through 13. ‘But why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God. So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God. Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother's way.’”

Tom excitedly said, “You see, Ed, ALL will eventually stand before the Lord and confess His name. But first they have to be taught about Him. If they are condemned to eternal damnation because of ignorance and not receiving the word, God would be an unjust God. But we know Him to be kind, loving, gracious, and just. He will not condemn any until they have been taught and had a chance to accept Him or reject Him. Then His judgment, not ours, will be just.”

... Pausing for a moment, Tom apologized by saying: “I’m sorry Ed. I didn’t mean to get in such a preachy mode. Sometimes I just get excited when I discuss the truths of the Gospel. So if I get carried away again, and I most likely will, just butt in and I’ll try to calm down. Okay?”

“I wondered if you were going to take a breather,” said Ed. “But that’s okay. I don’t have any specific questions at this point; I’m just trying to follow your line of thinking. Please continue.”

“Thanks,” said Tom. “Now, please bear with me as I refer you to the story in Luke 16, verses 19 through 31. I’m sure you recall the story of a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus. The beggar died and went to be with Abraham while the rich man died and went into torment. While being tormented, he could see Lazarus being comforted and asked for mercy from his torment. Between the two places, where the rich man and Lazarus were, there was a great gulf. Now I won’t finish the story, for I’m sure you know it, but the point I wish to make here is the “great gulf” that is fixed between the two places. The hell that the rich man went to was the spirit prison, and the place to which Lazarus went was paradise, the same place where the thief on the cross went.

“There is an important lesson to be learned here,” Tom said just as he began to read verse 26 of Luke 16: ‘... between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.’”

“Now this verse is often cited as solid proof that our decision for or against Christ is made before we die, and that a person’s eternal sentence is determined while he lives. Ed, if that is true, then why did Jesus go and preach to the dead during the three days between His ordeal on the cross and His resurrection as we discussed earlier? If one’s destiny is sealed at death, why did Christ waste His time in such a way?”

“That’s a good question,” responded Ed.

Tom continued: “The truth is that some have sealed their eternal destiny before they died by the choices they make, but others have not; they have not because they lack sufficient knowledge to make such a choice. If we truly consider Luke 16:26 we can come to understand that this passage of scripture implies that the rich man had a choice to make in life, although it is not specifically stated in those exact words. It appears that he made a decision to follow the ways of the world instead of the spirit of love and the word of God.”

Ed replied, “I have read the Bible quite a lot, but I never pieced it together quite like that. This opens up a whole new way of thinking.”

“That might be because many of us get caught up with the traditions of man,” Tom said, “many of which are erroneous. You see, it’s sometimes difficult to break old habits, especially those that have been inbred for many generations, and even centuries. For example, when the Berlin Wall came down setting free many who had been enslaved by communism, some of those people did not know what to do with themselves because all their lives they had been told, not only what to do, but how to think. After having been set free, however, they had to think for themselves, and they found it rather uncomfortable.

“So it is with a change in scriptural understanding, it takes people out of their comfort zone; and even though what they have discovered makes more sense, they still resist truth because it’s more comfortable going down the same old path that their parents trod and their structured religion or society expects. They haven’t the spiritual courage to stand up for truth. Remember Jesus said in John 8 and 32: ‘And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’ If we do not accept and stand up for truth we cannot be free, but remain slaves to unsound dogmas and false traditions of the past.

Ed was attentive as Tom continued: “You see, when we are not presented truth, or if we do not avail ourselves of it when the opportunity presents itself, we remain ignorant slaves to the whims of others as we choose to only follow their teachings, read only the books they say we should read, and use only the manuals and teaching material they foisted upon us. Truth has always been thwarted by such controls over people and, inevitably, false doctrines will appear in order to maintain that control. Without the availability of truth, we allow ourselves to remain stuffed in the pigeonhole they desire for us.”

Becoming somewhat passionate, Tom declared, “But TRUTH can free us from that box. Just remember this, no matter how dogmatic someone is about something, or how ardently they promote their ideas, a falsehood never becomes a truth, and truth, no matter how much opposed, will always remain truth in spite of its critics.”

Looking rather serious, Ed responded,“You are right. I know it can sometimes be difficult to change habitual thinking patterns. However, I’ll take it to the Lord in prayer, for He said, ‘Ask, and it shall be given you.’”

“That’s a good idea, I would be interested to know what you come up with.”

“Well, Tom,” Ed stated as he glanced at his watch, “it’s getting on and I’m expected to meet my wife in a few minutes. ... And look at those clouds that are rolling in; we just might be in for some weather.”

Shaking hands with Tom, he said, “It’s been, not only enjoyable, but very interesting. Perhaps we can do this again soon. In fact, I could stop by Nora’s CafĂ© on my way to work tomorrow morning, as I often do. Why don’t we meet there and pick up where we left off. I can get there earlier than usual so we can have a little more time for our discussion. That is, if you can make it. What do you say—about eight’ish?”

“I think I can make it about then,” Tom said, “so I’ll plan on it. See ya in the morning!”