In a world where people often experience their life as a random, meaningless series of disconnected stories, God’s epic story brings a message of hope and purpose. The gospel that John the Baptist primed, then Jesus proclaimed, then his disciples spread to all the world is simple: “God has a story of redemption, and you can be part of it!” The story brings richness and meaning to the cross. It rejects easy believism, individualism, and narcissistic fire insurance. The story challenges all Christian formulas that are overly simplified or overly dogmatic, preserving instead a glorious mystery. The story magnifies Jesus as the hero, the lover, and the rescuer who calls us back to himself and the way he’s created us to live. The story calls us not to live for heaven, but to live out heaven on earth.
As we come to understand the Grand Story that gives our lives meaning and purpose, the countercultural nature of God’s people begins to take root.”
(See Webber’s profound obit here).
A good story ends with “and they lived happily ever after.” God’s eternal story calls his people to be able to say daily, “Today we truly lived.”
No matter how much we screw up, God won’t disinherit us. We may make choices that hurt or even anger God, but he’ll never abandon us. It’s not like some dysfunctional family in which the kids always have to kiss up to the parents. God adopted us, and that makes us his heirs, always.
In John 10:27-29, the “disciple Jesus loved” asks us to consider these foundational truths and questions:
- Jesus loves you, died for you, has adopted you, and has made you an heir.
- God, who always keeps his word, promises you an amazing, rich inheritance— salvation, a relationship with him, eternal life, blessings in heaven.
- Do you live like an heir to an awesome inheritance?
- You are secure in God’s love—he’ll never disinherit you. No matter what you go through, God is always there for you.
- Do you take that security and that love for granted?
- How can you thank God for the sweet riches of the inheritance he promises you?
In Matthew 24:1-31, Jesus’ disciples ask about when the end times will happen and what the signs of it will be. Jesus lists some hardships and struggles that seem to characterize every age—“wars and rumors of wars,” “famines and earthquakes,” persecutions and betrayals, and “false messiahs and false prophets.” He also says we won’t know “on what day your Lord will come.” And at first glance, it appears that one of Jesus’ answers is confusing: “This generation will not pass from the scene until all these things take place.” But there are three main options for interpreting what Jesus said. First, the Greek word genea, translated generation, can also be translated “race” in reference to humanity. Second, genea could refer to the present generation—the disciples. Or, third, “this generation” is a reference to the final generation, the one that will witness “all these things” (24:33).
The best way to understand Matthew 24:32-35 is to view “this generation” as a reference to the final generation; when we read it this way, it helps us take our focus off the guessing game of “when will it all happen” and causes us instead to zero in on the truth that Jesus’ “words will never pass away.” This comforting assurance serves as a crescendo to all the frightening things described in the passage. We can be positively, absolutely, 100 percent sure that what Jesus says is going to happen will happen. Jesus shared this information about the end times—even the really frightening stuff—to assure his disciples of his providence over all history. He is always in control, even though it doesn’t appear so sometimes. (View a pamphlet that explains the four primary views of the End Times).
Our faith as Jesus-followers must be based on more than good feelings, others’ expectations, or on our basic desire for life to go smoothly for us. Instead, our faith must be built on the rock-solid assurance that Jesus—our King—is also the King of all human history. Revelation 22:13 reveals this truth: Jesus always was and always will be King, from the beginning of time to the end times. Jesus is still King when our personal lives get turned upside down. And he’s still King when the events in the world become frightening, horrifying, or even hellish. He’s still King even when the heavens and the earth pass away. His words—his Truth—will never pass away.
In Matthew 24:36-44, Jesus concludes not by telling his disciples specifically what they ought to look for as signs of the end times, but by focusing on how they ought to wait. His shift of gears is crucial. “Keep watch,” Jesus says in verse 42.
It’s easy to laugh at modern-day soothsayers who predict an exact day for Jesus’ return—and then that day comes and goes, like this. But are we keeping an eternal perspective throughout our day-to-day lives? Are we actively praying, as Jesus’ modeled, “May your Kingdom come soon” (Matthew 6:10)?
Only God the Father knows when Jesus will return (Matthew 24:36). But that doesn’t mean we adopt a complacent attitude about the Lord’s return. Jesus warns us to keep watch and be ready because he’ll come back like a thief in the night. The early believers greeted one another with the word “Maranatha!” which means “Rejoice! He’s coming!” With the constant awareness of Jesus’ earthly return in front of them, these Christians viewed their daily lives from a sharply eternal perspective.
Ask yourself, “In light of the Lord’s return, what decision should I make?” Pause to think, “Rejoice! Jesus is coming!”
The big story of humanity and God has a conclusion. Heaven is where our deepest longings are fulfilled—we’re forever in Jesus’ presence, and all that’s wrong in the world is put right.
John, in Revelation 21:1-7, describes heaven this way:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”
And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children.”
Focusing just on heaven isn’t the full biblical message about how things wrap up in God’s big story, however. It’s incomplete—because the Bible’s story of God’s powerful love and ultimate justice involves hell, too.
John follows with this, from Revelation 21:8:
But cowards, unbelievers, the corrupt, murderers, the immoral, those who practice witchcraft, idol worshipers, and all liars—their fate is in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”
Scripture’s message about humanity’s eternal destiny isn’t all positive and rosy. Hell is a horrifying reality that the Bible directly addresses. Hell involves eternal separation from God, ongoing suffering, and loss of hope.
We may not like the idea of hell. After all, it’s horrifying and can be difficult to accept. But a heaven-focused, hell-less narrative is not the conclusion to God’s big story that the Bible reveals. God’s Word reveals an ending of heavenly joy but also of ultimate, divine justice. We can find a strange peace in the truth that God will deliver justice for the terrible wrongs done in this world. Evil doesn’t get away with it; sin doesn’t triumph.
Not Everyone Goes to Heaven
We simply can’t just select, believe, and build a faith around the teachings of Jesus and Scripture that we like. We cannot ignore, erase, or evade the teachings of Jesus and Scripture that we don’t like.
We can’t create a god—a “Jesus”—in our own image. We can’t write God’s ultimate plan to fit what we like best. And this is especially true when it comes to what Jesus said about the afterlife.
According to the concept of universalism, all people will go to heaven as a result of God’s love and through the redemptive power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Although that may seem appealing and kind, it’s not biblically sound. Jesus clearly, directly, and repeatedly made clear that not everyone is going to heaven.
In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus says:
You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it.”
We may want to believe that everyone goes to heaven and no one ends up in hell, but if we take Scripture seriously, Jesus just doesn’t let us. We can’t pick and choose the truths of Jesus to believe. We can’t define for God what his love must look like at the end. We cannot create the “grand finale” of our own choosing. God is the one penning this Story.
Goats and Sheep
Consider these key points from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25:31-46:
- Neither the sheep nor the goats recognize Jesus.
- The “goats” are shocked by the outcome, much as in Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:21-23. In both passages, Jesus emphasizes obedient action as a mark of true faith. This is a sobering message that we all ought to take seriously.
- Jesus’ teaching about the goats’ condemnation to eternal punishment mirrors God’s judgment described in Revelation 20:11-15.
- The actions of the “sheep” reflect God’s heart of compassion and justice for the needy and vulnerable (Isaiah 58:6-7; Micah 6:8).
- Reading this passage in isolation would seem to indicate that one’s actions determine one’s salvation; however, solid interpretation requires that we understand it in the fuller context of Scripture. Clearly God’s grace saves us, not our action (Ephesians 2:8); faith in Christ enables us to experience eternal life (Romans 6:23). However, we must not let our understanding of grace and faith sell short the convicting power of Jesus’ teaching here: doing God’s good work on earth (Ephesians 2:10) is an essential expression of faith (James 2:17-18).
- • Our love for Jesus can motivate us to treat others as we would treat Christ himself. Mother Teresa described this motivation in her ministry: “I comfort Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poor.” None of us can respond to every need in the world—that’s an impossible and guilt-inducing standard! But we can trust God to lead us toward specific needs he’s inspiring and equipping us to respond to.
As this paraphrase from The Message states:
Saving is all his idea, and all his work… It’s God’s gift from start to finish! He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing” (Ephesians 2:8-10).