Monthly Archives: August 2015

In Paradise

When Jesus was dying on the cross, one of the robbers crucified along with him that day asked Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus’ answer was, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:42-43). Jesus promised that the hours of agony on the cross would end and that paradise would come right afterward.

The word “paradise” came from Persian into Greek and then into English. It refers to an enclosed garden, a sanctuary full of beautiful flowers, fruit trees, and herbs, with flowing water and pathways and shade. A paradise was a place of life, romance, abundance, beauty, safety, and peace (see Song of Songs 4:12-16). Such

gardens were built by people of wealth and power, and the word “paradise” became emblematic for the Jews of the “Garden of God,” the original Eden provided to Adam and Eve (Septuagint version, Genesis 2:8), and also the destination of righteous souls in death. When Jesus spoke to the thief of paradise as their mutual destination, he promised they would shortly be together in a place of rest and comfort with pristine pleasures for those privileged to enter.

Jesus’ promise to the penitent son of Abraham was immediate. “Today,” he said. This was not a promise of distant future reward in the resurrection after the judgment, but immediate consolation when they left the flesh behind. And certainly, “paradise” evoked the idea of being welcomed into good things that they would be aware of and participate in, not mere slumber and certainly not oblivion. The penitent man would be together with the Lord that day, they would know each other and they would be in a garden of serene beauty with every need satisfied.

Jesus had previously spoken of such a place in the story of two men, a sick and poor beggar named Lazarus and a rich man who was utterly selfish (Luke 16:19-31). In that story, the rich man died, his body was buried, but he himself was then in Hades. (Hades was the abode of the souls of the dead, both good and bad, also called Sheol in the Old Testament, and was Jesus’ destination when he died, before he overcame death and arose on the third day, Acts 2:25-31, grave/hell = hades.) In Hades the rich man was very much aware of his own miserable circumstances, being “in torment.” That word, “torment,” refers to “the instrument of torture by which one is forced to divulge the truth, trial by torture” (Complete Word Study Dictionary of the NT). What the rich man was experiencing was like the torture Jesus experienced on the night of his betrayal before he was charged or tried by the governor (and see Acts 22:23-26). The other character in Jesus’ story, the poor man Lazarus, had also died and he himself, out of the body, was carried by the angels to the side of Abraham, a place reasonably identified as paradise, accessible only to the chosen few. Abraham and Lazarus were far away from the rich man, impossible to come together, but he was aware of them, and cried out to Abraham. The conversation between Abraham and the rich man demonstrated that the personality of the dead is intact, the rich man had his memories and his attitudes were unchanged. Abraham likewise was completely cognizant and reasonable, knowing himself and those around him. The dead are able to recognize one another, and speak of past life and experiences. Lazarus, meanwhile, was enjoying the comforts of his circumstances, unlike the rich man in torment. The comforts that Lazarus was enjoying at the side of Abraham, quite different than his experiences on earth, fit what Jesus called “paradise” when he hung on the cross. While Lazarus was consoled, the one who had been a rich man in this world knew that the physical world continued, that he had living siblings who were behaving as badly as he had, and dreaded that they would face the same fate he did, if they didn’t change.

When Jesus told the story of Lazarus and the rich man, he was warning his people against unbelief and selfishness, urging them to believe the law and the prophets and so to believe in himself, the prophesied

Christ. The story is fraught with warnings against dying unprepared, but also, like the thief dying at Jesus’ side, it is full of assurance for those who die in faith, putting trust in the Lord and his promises. Those who die in faith arrive, promptly, in paradise, in comfort, personalities and memories intact, together with the faithful who have gone before, including Abraham the friend of God (see also Hebrews 11:39-12:3, 12:22-24), free from the “bad things” experienced in the world of flesh, comforted and provided for in every good way.

To be a guest at Abraham’s side, to be in paradise, is a great life outcome, full of assurance and worth any price, but the scriptures are clear that in itself this is a step toward future glory, which has even more in store for those faithful to the Lord when the resurrection comes and death is destroyed, when the saints are clothed in the immortal body (1 Corinthians 15:35-58), when Jesus comes again and the wedding supper of the Lamb begins (Revelation 19:6-9), in the Heavenly Jerusalem, the home of righteousness (Revelation 21:1ff).

Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them” (Revelation 14:13).

~ Charles Fry

Our Tychicus

Few men have influenced my life so much as Richard Riggins. He radiated something which made it impossible to merely say one liked him. One had to think of him in terms of love.

As a dirt poor boy in Charleston, Illinois, Richard went into a used book store and bought a dilapidated book for six cents. He took it home and stitched it together with a needle and thread his mother had. And that was his Bible for the next several years.

When Richard talked about the Bible, he made you want to find a quiet corner and read it. He communicated his love of the word. You accepted that love as valid and were inspired to possess it for yourself.

One time Richard was meeting with a young couple he was soon to marry. The young man asked, “Is there anything we should read before we get married?” Richard replied, “Yes, read the Bible. You have three months.”

As a younger man, he was a force of nature. When he was speaking, his jet black hair fell down in his face, he worked his mouth so hard his lips turned purple, and his arms flailed. He was the only man who could comb his hair, clean his glasses, and blow his nose during a talk, and make it all seem perfectly natural–vintage Richard.

He was an artist painting a biblical fresco, like Michelangelo, strapped to his scaffold and hurling tremendous brushstrokes onto the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. His attention to detail was staggering. He could take a verse of the Bible and pull out thread after thread.

Richard saw a world in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour. He had a keen intellect and enormous curiosity. In college, he read a book a day for three years. He had an amazing ability to concentrate, and when doing it, he lived in an interior world.

Wilford Landes told me that one time he was taking Richard somewhere. He heard a mumbling from the passenger seat. He said “I asked him, ‘What are you doing?’. Richard said, ‘I’m supposed to teach the book of Hebrews, and I don’t have time to study it, so I’m memorizing it.’”

Years ago I asked him a question. It was months before I saw him again. When I did see him, he met me in the congested center aisle of a meetinghouse. Amidst lots of people and lots of noise, with no prompting from me, Richard began answering my question from months earlier. It seemed that none of our surroundings existed for him. He was fully focused on answering the question. And I thought, “Man, this is the coolest guy in the world.”

Richard took the Lord’s work with the seriousness it deserves. Over forty years ago he had the responsibility for a certain congregation. I was holding a meeting there. About halfway through my Sunday morning speech, Richard walked in and sat down. I never did know why he was so late. But I had the impression when he came in that he had been in the entryway listening to what I was teaching when I didn’t know he was there. If so, that was a very wise and responsible thing for him to do.

Richard was instant in season and out of season. On one occasion he was called on to help with a troubled situation in a congregation. It was one of those things that nobody prefers to be involved in. Richard had already passed his threescore years and ten. He had a lot of trouble hearing. His wife was in ill health. He could have used several excuses not to go do that work. But when he was called on, his immediate response was five words: “Tell me when and where.”

After I’d been in the work long enough to get knocked down a few times, and had been working in some problem places, I said to Richard, “I hope you live a long time, because I’m not sure what’s going to happen to the church when your generation is gone.” I won’t say he looked at me with disdain. But he did look at me with those piercing eyes of his, and as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, he said, “Well, the young men will just have to grow strong in the Lord, that’s all.” And I knew he was right.

I heard him say once that “there are no great men in Jesus, but there are men in whom Jesus is great.” I agree with that, and I say that if you knew Richard Riggins, you brushed with greatness.  Jesus Christ lived in him.

Richard united the simplicity of a child with the dignity of an ambassador. I called him Tychicus, because Tychicus delivered the Ephesian letter. More than any other man, Richard delivered the Ephesian letter to my generation. And no one will ever be able to take that away from him.

This world will be a lot less interesting to me without Richard in it. It will go on without him, though not as well. This humble, unassuming man went way beyond what some thought him capable of, and somehow pulled it off. I found that extremely inspiring and endearing. There is no way to convey the loss. I have known no better man.

~ Rick Sparks

Who Do You Love?

One of the most widely recognized characters of Greek mythology is Narcissus. Narcissus, the Greeks tell us, was strikingly handsome and drew the attention of many admirers, but arrogantly rejected them all. Concerned about her son, one version of the story relates, his mother inquired of a seer as to what would become of him. The seer assured her that Narcissus would live a long life “if he but fail to recognize himself.” These words proved accurate. Years later, while one day walking alongside a body of water, Narcissus stopped to get a drink and for the first time saw his countenance reflected back to him. Not realizing he was only looking at himself, he was immediately taken with the face before him. Captivated by his own reflection, Narcissus pined away at the water’s edge, neither eating nor drinking, until he finally died.

Narcissus has given us the term “narcissism,” designating a mindset and group of behaviors that have long been observed in various people in varying degrees. Narcissism is characterized by excessive self-love, manifests itself in selfishness, a bloated view of one’s own importance, self-centeredness, and diminished empathy. It is contrary to what God desires for His people: “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself” (Philippians 2:3).

Significantly, narcissism began to receive a great deal of attention from psychological professionals in the 1970s, eventually finding its way into the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980. The growing interest appears to have been prompted by a growing problem in the population, one that only magnified in the past three decades. A recent study of 16,000 university students (aged 18-19 years old) found that 30 percent were classified as “narcissistic” according to a widely used psychological test. This number was double that found in 1982 (15%). This finding confirmed what had been revealed in a previous study in which 35,000 people of varying ages were interviewed about their own experiences. When participants were asked if they had ever had symptoms of narcissism, three percent of those in their sixties said they had, compared to ten percent of those in their twenties. Add to this another study that found a 40 percent decline in empathy among young people since the 1980s, and a rather disturbing picture emerges.

It all reminds one of Paul’s words to Timothy: “But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: for men will be lovers of themselves…” (2 Timothy 3:1-2a). Perilous times. Or as other translations render it: “difficult times” (NASB, ESV), “terrible times” (NIV), “distressing times” (NRSV). These are times that try men’s souls. Ours certainly isn’t the only age to see self-centeredness soar; other cultures have blazed that trail before us. But probably none of us has ever seen our own culture quite as self-absorbed as it now is. Times have changed. And in times like these, it behooves us not only to note what is transpiring around us (Matthew 16:3), but more importantly, to remember what ought to be transpiring within us.

On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being “Almost Always,” 5 being “Almost Never”), how would you rate yourself on the following questions? 1) When making a decision, I consider how the decision will benefit me, rather than how it will benefit others or glorify God. 2) I think a great deal about how others don’t love or appreciate me. 3) When people hurt or offend me, I tend to just write them off and have little or nothing to do with them. 4) When others are blessed with things that I dearly want, I find it difficult to rejoice. 5) When I meet a new person, I spend more time thinking about how to impress him/her than how to serve him/her. 6) I long to be noticed more than I long to be godly. 7) I am excessively competitive. 8) I am a taker rather than a giver.

Questions like these help us see what’s going on in our hearts and reveal to what extent the spirit of the age has impacted our outlook.

God calls us to selflessness, to a love that is directed outward, not inward. “Love…does not seek its own” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). He calls us to a love that is about giving, not getting. Jesus, who “did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28) showed us how this works. He “loved the church and gave Himself for her” (Ephesians 5:25). “Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us” (Ephesians 5:2). “[T]he Son of

God…loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 5:20). Jesus was a giver, not a taker. Love is not love until it’s given away.

God calls us to give up self-seeking (Romans 2:8), and instead seek the good of others: “We then who are strong ought to bear with the scruples of the weak, and not to please ourselves” (Romans 15:1). “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven…” (Matthew 5:44-45). The flesh balks at this approach to life, but we must let the Lord have His way with us. It’s the only way to enjoy His blessings.

God promises us that self-seeking will only bring trouble: “For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there” (James 3:16). Family troubles, marital troubles, troubles in the church—all have self-seeking as their common denominator. The only solution is to “[l]et each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). This is the mind of Christ. Let us make up our minds to think like Him.

~ John Morris