Marriage, Death, Resurrection, Reunion

I was out at Lakewood Manor this afternoon, preaching a sermon called “Will We Meet on That Beautiful Shore?”  It was a sermon inspired by a conversation I once had with a man who had been told that he wouldn’t know his deceased wife in heaven, and the “proof” he was given was a passage from Luke 20 where the Sadducees (who don’t believe in the resurrection) come to Jesus with a hypothetical question:

“There were seven brothers,” the Sadducees began.  “The first married a woman and died, childless; and then the second, and likewise the third married her; and so in the same way all seven died childless and finally the woman died, too.  In the resurrection of the dead, therefore, whose wife will she be?  For the seven had married her.”  Jesus said, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage” (Luke 20:29-35).  And that’s what somebody had told this man: that he wouldn’t be married in heaven, that he might as well just get over that idea.  He told me about it through tears.  It was this idea—the idea that he would someday be reunited with his wife—that had kept him going.  Now what was he supposed to do?

I sat with that man in his car for a long time, looking at that passage, and then I said, “Look, it doesn’t say that you won’t be married in heaven.  It just says that in the resurrection people don’t get married, see?  ‘They neither marry (present tense) nor are given in marriage.’  It’s another way of saying there are no weddings in Heaven.” 

That seemed to help him.  But I made the mistake of reading on to find out why there aren’t any weddings in heaven and the reason Jesus gives is because there won’t be any death there, as if the only reason to get married were to make babies, to replenish the population, and thus ensure the survival of the species.  “I don’t know if that’s why you got married,” I said, “but when I got married the survival of the species was not really the first thing on my mind.”  I had love on my mind, as I think most of us do these days.  But if you read closely you will find that’s not really the biblical view of marriage.  Marriage, in the Bible, seems to be little more than the creation of a stable social structure in which children can be born and reared. 

So, when we talk about marriage in America these days we had better be careful not to embrace too quickly the biblical model of marriage in the same way we want to be careful not to embrace “biblical family values.”  When people begin to talk to me about those values I say, “Which biblical family did you have in mind?  Cain and Abel?  Lot and his daughters?  Jacob and Esau?  David and Absalom?”  Those biblical families had some terribly twisted values.  And when it comes to marriage it’s true that if marriage is all about making babies then, yes, it has to be marriage between “a man and a woman.”  We are human beings, after all; we reproduce sexually.  But it wouldn’t necessarily have to be marriage between “one man and one woman.”  Not in the Bible anyway.  If making babies is the point then the more wives you have the more effective your efforts, right?  Look at Jacob: he produced twelve sons and at least one daughter through his two wives and their two maidservants.  Solomon—who set some kind of record—had 300 wives and 700 concubines (he practiced nation-building the old fashioned way!).

The problem comes for the Sadducees when they try to imagine one wife with seven husbands rather than the other way around.  If wives were considered property, which they were, whose property would she be?  The seven would be fighting over her in the resurrection, making the whole notion seem ridiculous.  That’s just what the Sadducees wanted to do, they wanted to make the whole notion of resurrection seem ridiculous, but Jesus sees things another way.  They don’t marry there, he says, neither are they given in marriage, because there isn’t any death there.  Remember that child’s letter to God that says, “Dear God: Instead of letting people die and having to make new ones why don’t you just keep the ones you got now?”  In the resurrection that’s just what God does—he keeps the ones he’s got.  And so there isn’t any need for a social structure in which children can be born and reared just so the species can be preserved. And there isn’t any need to have children so you can secure your social status or achieve some small measure of immortality.  And I’m going to bet my bottom dollar that those women who are considered worthy of the resurrection are not going to be treated as anyone’s property ever again.  Things are different there, thank God.

And resurrection is real.  Jesus proves it to the Sadducees be referring to a story from Exodus, one of the few books in the Bible they accepted as authoritative.  It was that story from Exodus 3, the one about the burning bush, where God identifies himself to Moses as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  He doesn’t say he was their God.  He says he is, right now.  For he is not the God of the dead, but of the living.  “You want to know if there’s a resurrection?” Jesus asks. “Take that!”

It’s a good answer.  At least it works for them.  In the very next verse the Scribes who were listening burst into applause.  And after that no one dared ask him any more questions.  But I’ve got one: I accept the fact of the resurrection but what about reunion?  Will we meet on that beautiful shore?  Will that man who wept in his car that day be reunited with his wife?  And in what way?  Will they have a little cottage right there beside some golden street in heaven where they can sit on the front porch in their rocking chairs as they hold hands and watch the sun set over the crystal sea?  And if so what about the second wife that same man later married?  Where will she sit?  And whose hand will she hold?

As far as reunion goes—I’m sure of it.  Not only from this passage in which Jesus speaks of the eternal family reunion of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but also in that passage from John 14 where he tells the disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them so that where he is there they may be also.  If that’s not reunion I don’t know what is!  And as far as the kind of relationship we might enjoy in that place?  Is it possible that the most loving and intimate relationships we have known in this life are but a foretaste of the relationships we will enjoy in the life to come? 

I can imagine that man seeing his first wife in heaven and embracing her with tears in his eyes, telling her how much he missed her and how glad he is to see her again.  I can imagine that all the best memories of the life they lived together would be fresh and new for him there.  But I can also imagine him introducing her to his second wife without any fear that she would be jealous or angry.  All that small and fearful, greedy and grasping, love would be gone, replaced by the kind of love God has for us—abundant as the ocean and just as full of grace.  Maybe the two of them would go strolling off hand in hand—those two wives—the first one saying to the other, “Boy, have I got some stories to tell you!” while he watched them walk away, shaking his head with wonder.

Who knows?  Only God.  The best we can do is speculate.  But we can know this much at least, thanks to Jesus: that resurrection is real, that reunion is real, and that in that resurrection reunion things will be really . . . heavenly.

Warning: Not for the Faint of Heart

A friend forwarded this e-mail from a pastor’s daughter who is working in Haiti with a medical mission team from Missouri.  Her description of what she has seen since her arrival is graphic; reader discretion is advised.  But this first-person account brings home the reality of the Haitian earthquake in a way nothing else I have read or seen has.  As I wrote to my friend in reply: “It drove me to my knees.”


You just would not believe the things i have seen.  people everywhere with missing limbs. 2 babies died today.  one man died with a pulmonary embolism (blood clot) bc they ran out of heparin.  our team brought heparin.  they are sick and lying on stretchers and bleeding. one nurse broke down today and said that last tuesday they were just cutting people limbs off that were crushed and they had nowhere to dispose of the body parts so they stacked them in front of the hospital for days.  when the smell became too much someone took care of them.  these people are young.  younger than me.  i havent seen an old person yet.  avg life expectancy is 51.  i feel so horrible.  they don’t have what they need and we are watching them die.  the nurses in haiti are terrible.  they don’t know how to care for their patients.  i have worked since we arrived at 2 with a short break to eat at 8.  i went back to check on my icu patient’s and the nurse that was caring for them was fast asleep.  i am learning pediatrics quickly.  so many babies that are sick.  some patients don’t have food to eat.  the hospital cannot feed them so if family does not bring food they simply do not eat.  i dont even want to eat.  the smells and sights have been overwhelming.  it is so primitive and i am having to be creative with supplies.  today i made a tourniqet with a rubber glove as i pinned a whaling 9 year old down.  they shaved skin from her thigh to graft skin to the lower section of her leg.  she left the or with no iv access.  i had to get a line in her to medicate her.  her parents were no where to be found.  i wanted to talk to her to calm her but i can’t understand the language.  even those fluent in french say it is no help.  the creole and slang is way too different.  i finally took a shower.  it was a slow drip and cold, but it was water.  i have sweat all day.  the hospital is a humid and hot building.  i think my comfort at this point is so menial.  pray for us and that more supplies will arrive.  we are in desperate need of medicines.  pray that i can be quick on my feet.  pray that my headache will go away and that the nausea will stop.  

i love you all.  i will try to keep in touch.  the internet is patchy here.


Ripping Pages Right Out of the Bible

Back in the days when the Southern Baptist Convention controversy was raging I was told that it was a “battle for the Bible.”  There were rumors that “liberal” seminary professors were ripping pages right out of the Bible, and otherwise dismissing or ignoring the parts they didn’t care for. 

I was a student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in those days, a school that was once described to me as “a bastion of liberalism,” but I never saw a professor rip a page from the Bible.  In fact, my experience was just the opposite.  I had never met people who treated the Bible with such reverence, who helped us dig down into its truth as if it really mattered, as if it really could change the world.  Their prayers before each class were humble and holy, thanking God for the high privilege of studying his Word.

But that’s not what Southern Baptists were hearing.  In their imaginations, at least, they were hearing the sound of pages being ripped from the Bible.  And so they came to those annual conventions (by the busloads!) and voted for the conservative candidate for president, who appointed the Committee on Committees, who made sure that the “conservative resurgence” spread to every part of the Southern Baptist Convention.  By 1990 their work was completed—the “Battle for the Bible” had been won.

You might assume, then, that the boards and agencies of the Southern Baptist Convention would be especially careful to honor the clear teaching of Scripture, and to ensure that their policies are consistent with what the Bible says.  But not long ago I learned that one of the guidelines for hiring at the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention has to do with “glossolalia.” 

Glossolalia is a good Greek word.  Literally, it means “tongue speaking,” or “speaking in tongues.”  It comes from the 2nd chapter of Acts, where the believers who were gathered on the Day of Pentecost began to speak “with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (vs. 4, KJV).  But it wasn’t only on the Day of Pentecost that believers spoke in other tongues.  Apparently it was a regular feature in the worship of the early church.  Paul said, “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues” (1 Cor. 14:5), and names glossolalia as one of the spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:10.  But look at what the North American Mission Board says about it:

“Glossolalia:  No person who actively participates in or promotes glossolalia shall be employed by NAMB in an exempt staff position. This includes having a private prayer language. A representative of NAMB shall counsel any exempt staff member who becomes involved in glossolalia. Continued participation will result in termination” (from the “Employment Guidelines” page of the North American Mission Board web site).

I’m not trying to pick a fight with the North American Mission Board, and Paul himself would warn that speaking in tongues can lead to trouble in the church (as he explains in 1 Corinthians 14), but he ends his teaching on the subject by saying, “Do not forbid speaking in tongues” (1 Cor. 14:39), and that’s exactly what the North American Mission Board has done.  I take offense because I’ve spent some time with Pentecostals—dear brothers and sisters in Christ who cherish the spiritual gift of “tongues.”  For them it is an edifying personal prayer language, a way of talking to God without words getting in the way.  And as a boy in West Virginia I was deeply impressed by the fact that God would shower this gift on people who had almost nothing else in the world (cf. Matt. 11:25).  It made me think of him as a God who was surprisingly generous and kind, even if he did show it in a rather strange way.

So it irks me to think that some of the same people who launched the “Battle for the Bible” and denounced those “liberal seminary professors” could so easily dismiss the troublesome parts of Scripture—rip them right out of the Bible, really.  It makes me wonder what they might do with the truly troublesome parts, like the ones about loving your enemies.

How to Read the Bible

I don’t usually preach “how to” sermons, but I did on Sunday and several people have asked that I post my suggestions here.  And so, with acknowledgments to Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart (whose book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth is one of the most helpful in my personal library), here they are:

  1. Start with a good translation of the Bible.  My personal preference is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), which strives to be as inclusive as possible while maintaining a faithfulness to the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic languages.  The HarperCollins Study Bible has almost as many notes as it has text, providing ready answers to most of my questions.  Fee and Stuart recommend Today’s New International Version (TNIV). 
  2. Get ready to read.  Sit at a desk or table where you can spread out a little, where you can open the Bible and also take notes.  Make sure you have adequate lighting and reading glasses if you need them (I seem to need them more and more).  If you are working on the passage I recommended for next Sunday (Luke 4:14-30), take some time to read the introduction to Luke in your study Bible.  Find out who Luke was, and when he wrote, and what he was trying to accomplish.  Find out how a Gospel is different from other kinds of literature in the Bible (history, poetry, prophecy, epistles, etc.) and think about why it makes a difference. 
  3. Say a prayer for illumination.  If it was the Holy Spirit who inspired the biblical authors to write (and it was), it will be the Holy Spirit who helps us understand what they wrote.  Ask the Spirit to open your mind, heart, and soul to the truth of God’s word, and to teach you through the words of the text.  The meaning of a passage is often found not in the words themselves, but in that space between the words and the reader where the Spirit does its work.
  4. Read the text.  Read it several times, slowly.  Let it sink in.  Make sure you don’t add anything that isn’t there or subtract anything that is.  I talked to someone recently who said he was amazed at how Jesus just “disappeared” at the end of this reading from Luke 4.  “Disappeared?” I asked.  “Yeah!  He just–poof!–disappeared!”  Fortunately I had my Bible with me, and when we looked at the text it said that Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (Luke 4:30).  That’s not really the same thing as “disappearing,” is it?
  5. Write down your questions.  If you are reading for understanding (and not just inspiration) you will have questions: What was that synagogue in Nazareth like?  Did they have other scrolls, or just the scroll of Isaiah?  Why did Jesus sit down to teach?  Where was his mother when all this happened?  Why did the people try to throw him off a cliff?  Write down all the questions you have.  Don’t hold back.  The Bible can take it (smile).
  6. Look up the answers.  This is when you consult a good Bible dictionary or a commentary.  Not before you’ve written down your questions—after.  Otherwise you will read answers to questions you have never asked, and yawn your way through the commentaries.  If you are looking for answers to your own questions, however, it can be like going on a treasure hunt: exciting.  I keep the Mercer Dictionary of the Bible on my shelves and try to keep a commentary on each book of the Bible written by the foremost scholar on that book.  Bible dictionaries and commentaries are always available in your church library, and many of them are excellent.

This is a different way to read the Bible than the devotional reading I do during my “quiet time.”  This is serious study.  But if you read the Bible this way from time to time I think you will find it richly rewarding, and maybe, like those people in yesterday’s Old Testament reading, you will go your way “to eat and drink…and make great rejoicing,” because you have understood the words of the Bible (Neh. 8:12).

Arguing About Who Believes the Bible More

Today’s sermon was all about the Bible: what it is, how to read it, and why it matters.  It began like this:


What is the Bible?  When people ask me for a definition I usually say the Bible is “the word of God for the people of God,” and that it is “authoritative in all matters of faith and practice.”  Sometimes people want to argue with me at that point.  They want to say the Bible is inerrant rather than authoritative.  They think of inerrant as a stronger word.  But I remember that deacon at my first church who would point to the Bible on his coffee table and tell me he believed it was literally true from cover to cover, and yet I couldn’t see much evidence in his life that he had ever read it.  He would tell me sometimes, “The Lord helps those who help themselves,” and I would ask, “Where is that in the Bible?”  He would tell me sometimes, “There ain’t nothing free,” and I would say, “What about grace?”  It’s not hard to make claims for the inerrancy of God’s word.  Anybody can do that.  What’s hard is reading the Bible, listening for God’s word, and then letting it have authority over you, so that if it tells you to stop doing something—like hating your enemies—you’d better stop, and if it tells you to start doing something—like loving them—you’d better start.  You tell me: which of those two ways of thinking about the Bible is more likely to change your life?  And tell me this: isn’t changing your life the point?


As I was shaking hands after worship someone asked, “So, are you saying the Bible isn’t inerrant?”  “I’m not saying that at all,” I countered.  “I just find you can make a lot of claims about Scripture without ever reading it, without ever letting it change your life.  I don’t think that’s what God had in mind.”  That seemed to satisfy him.  He nodded thoughtfully and moved on.

In the sermon I described the Bible as a ladder extending from earth to heaven, and said that the question to ask of such a ladder is not whether it is inerrant or authoritative, but whether its rails are straight enough, it’s rungs sturdy enough, to get us where we’re going.  In other words, is the Bible a reliable way to get to God?  The church’s answer through the centuries has been an unqualified yes.  Time after time God’s people have climbed this ladder and gotten a fresh glimpse of his glory.

At the conclusion of the service I recalled hearing someone say that Baptists like to get together and argue about who believes the Bible more, and I’ve been to those kinds of meetings.  Some of them got pretty ugly.  But I can’t imagine it pleases God to see us arguing with each other about the ladder.  I think what would please him is watching us climb the ladder, word by word, rung by rung, until we peek over the edge of heaven…

…and behold his glory.