Sunday, September 26, 2021

When Jesus Spoke About Hell

Here's the video of today's second worship service at Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. Below the video, you'll find the script of the message.

Mark 9:38-50
We Lutherans don’t talk much about Hell.

It does come up in the Apostles’ Creed on most Sundays of the Church Year when we respond to God’s Word by confessing our faith in the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We confess that after Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried, “He descended into hell,” bearing the full consequence of separation from God that we all merit for our sin.

But we’re shy about talking about hell as a destination for those who spurn Christ and His Gospel.

Jesus had no such shyness.

He talked about hell quite a bit, but not to everyone. As one Bible scholar has written, “Jesus...spoke of hell to professed saints, and of heaven to acknowledged sinners…”

In other words, Jesus didn’t speak much of hell to people like the tax extortionists and prostitutes to whom He was always reaching out; He had no desire to scare them into following Him. Fear-driven faith never lasts!

But Jesus did speak of hell to those who claimed to be devout believers in God. He did this lest their spiritual pride lead them away from God.

When I was a boy, I remember reading Irving Stone’s book, They Also Ran. It profiled all the losing major party candidates for president up until the time Stone wrote the last edition of his book in 1966. Stone talked about William Jennings Bryan, who was nominated for president three times and lost each election. Bryan wanted to mix his Christian faith with his politics. Stone says that Bryan went through phases that began with a simple faith and culminated in megalomania. As Stone tells it, the phases went like this: “God is with me, God is for me, God is in me, God is me; I am God.” When our life with God leads us to self-congratulation bordering on self-worship, we are in deadly trouble!

That’s why in the middle of today’s Gospel lesson, Mark 9:38-50, Jesus talks with the disciples about hell. He sees self-righteousness threatening their faith.

Our lesson continues the narration of events that took place right after Jesus returned from the Mount of Transfiguration which we’ve been following over the past several Sundays.

On the mountain, Peter, James, and John, the three apostles Jesus had taken with Him, had been slow to understand that Jesus is God the Son.

When they came to the base of the mountain, Jesus entered a scene of conflict and confusion occasioned by the fact that when a man approached Jesus’ disciples for help with His demon-possessed son, the disciples were powerless.

Jesus, you’ll remember, is initially stern with the twelve for their failure to pray, then, after exorcising the demon from the boy, instructs the disciples more gently.

Jesus concluded last Sunday’s Gospel lesson by telling the disciples that whoever welcomes a child, children being the lowest of the low on the social scale of first-century Judea, were really welcoming Him. Jesus always identifies with the humble and lowly, not the arrogant and powerful.

Now John, one of the sons of Zebedee the fisherman, steps forward.

John is often called “the beloved disciple.”

He’s the guy who seems to “get it” much of the time.

He’s the disciple to whom Jesus, from the cross, entrusts His mother.

He’s one of the inner circle of three disciples into whom Jesus poured the most intense teaching and training.

But in our lesson, John acts like a Pharisee, certain of his own holiness, disdainful of others.

“Teacher,” says John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” (Mark 9:38)

The irony is lost on John: This entire section of Mark’s gospel begins with nine of the apostles unable to use prayer in Jesus’ name to cast a demon from a young boy. Yet, here’s John saying that the apostles told someone not part of their in-crowd who trusted Jesus enough to cast out demons in Jesus’ name to stop. Jesus tells John that if someone believes in Him and His name enough to cast out demons in His name, that person won’t later speak against Jesus.

Then comes Jesus’ warnings against spiritual pride in verses 42-48. And here Jesus speaks clearly of hell.

There are three main words that we translate from the Greek in which the New Testament was written as hell. The word  that Jesus uses in today’s lesson is gehenna.

It takes its name from the Hebrew place in Jerusalem called the valley of hinnom. In Old Testament times, the valley of hinnom was a place where faithless kings had offered human sacrifices, including child sacrifices, to the false idol of Moloch. This practice was condemned by God, of course.

The valley in which it happened became so notorious that faithful people cursed it. It later became the city dump in Jerusalem, a place where the flames from burning refuse smoldered all the time, twenty-four hours a day.

That’s how it came to give its name to the place reserved for the dead who in their earthly lives spurn faith in the God now revealed to all the world in Jesus Christ.

Jesus uses a series of vivid “it would be better” statements to underscore how much every human being should desire paradise over hell, life with Him in eternity over sliding into gehenna through spiritual pride, indifference, and the failure to daily repent for our sins and trust in His grace.

Jesus says that it would be better for us to be fitted with millstones around our necks and thrown into the sea than to cause “little ones”--like children or those of immature faith--to sin or turn from God.

He says that if our hand, foot, or eye, cause us to sin, to turn from Him, it would be better to get rid of them and enter paradise maimed than to die and take up residence in gehenna, in hell, “where, [quoting Isaiah 66:4], ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched’” (Mark 9:48)

Of course, Jesus is using hyperbolic language to make a point here. Neither our hands, feet, or eyes cause us to sin. It’s our sinful natures that make sin so attractive to us. Jesus says elsewhere that it’s from our hearts that “evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witnesses, [and] blasphemies” come. (Matthew 15:9)

What Jesus is telling us is that if there are habits of thought, life, or associations that readily entice us to sin, we need to get those things out of our lives. They will otherwise lead us to hell.

This is troubling talk, especially since we try to domesticate Jesus, turning “the Lion of Judah” into a pet who bends to our wills and whims.

But it isn’t as if Jesus wants anyone to go to an eternity of torment in hell.

First Timothy 2:3-4 tells us that Jesus, “God our Savior” “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”

As Jesus tells Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:16-18)

Jesus came into this world to save us from sin and death and hell. That’s what His cross and resurrection are all about. But He will not force us to enter eternity with Him. God created us with the capacity to say no to Him.

As C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity: “​​There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’"

The lesson that Jesus is trying to teach the disciples (and us) is that we  human beings shouldn’t be confident in our own righteousness.

John, as our lesson begins, seems to think that He’s righteous enough to merit a place in Jesus’ eternal kingdom. But eternity with Jesus only comes to those who recognize their need of Christ, His cross, His resurrection, His forgiveness, His righteousness. It is belief in Jesus, and belief in Jesus alone, that allows us to enter the place in eternity that Jesus has prepared for us.

And knowing that, by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, we belong to God forever, will change the way we face our lives...and our deaths. Nobody wants to die. As has been said, “I don’t mind dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

Having been with many people just before they die or at the moments of their death, I can tell you there is a qualitative difference in the way people who trust in Christ face death and the way those who don’t trust in Christ face it.

You’ve heard me talk about my father’s death. He had received all the treatments for COVID-19 short of going on a ventilator. The medical folks explained that even if dad went on a vent, his condition wouldn’t improve in two weeks’ time. His lungs and the rest of his body were too ravaged. They could, though, make him comfortable as COVID did its worst. When Dad indicated that he didn’t want to go on the ventilator and chose the second option, the nurse asked again to clarify his intentions. Dad told her crisply, “I’m good to go. I know where I’m going.”

“I know where I’m going” could be the motto of every person saved by grace through faith in Christ. And knowing where we’re going will surely change how we live until we get there! Christians know we need Jesus.

Hell will be filled with people who thought they didn’t need Jesus.

Our model should be the thief on the cross. When He cried out to Jesus, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” Jesus answered, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:42-43) 

At His death, Jesus Christ descended into the very fires of hell so that all who believe in Him will never have to.

Paradise with Jesus, eternal life, belongs to all who, imperfect though we are, keep turning to Jesus and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, trust only in Him. Amen