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In John 3:16, Jesus tells us that whoever believes in him has eternal life.
That’s quite a promise. I mean, the demons believe that Jesus is the Holy One of God – the Messiah – so does that mean the demons have eternal life?
Of course not. We know that the demons are on their way to the eternal lake of fire, despite their knowing beyond a doubt who Jesus is.
What, then, does it mean to believe in Jesus? It can’t simply mean to believe that he’s the son of God and the Messiah because, again, the demons believe that for sure (scripture tells us so), but they’re not saved.
So what does Jesus mean by believing in him?
Let’s think about this for a minute.
What else in life do you believe?
I believe that if I walk out in front of a bus that’s barreling towards me, I’m going to get run over by that bus and likely killed. I don’t want to be run over by a bus and killed, so I operate in my belief and I don’t walk out in front of any buses that are barreling towards me. I act on my belief.
I think Jesus meant the same thing when he said that those who believe in him have eternal life. Many people say they believe in Jesus, but they go about their everyday lives as if they don’t: They unapologetically break the Commandments, they never open a Bible to read what’s in it, and they essentially live the life of unbelievers, even while claiming that they “believe”. In other words, they purposely walk out in front of countless spiritual buses barrelling towards them and still think they’re spiritually safe. Surely the reward of Heaven can’t be won that cheaply? Surely Jesus meant that it took more than just to say (or sing) “I believe” to get into Heaven?
I am certain that Jesus did indeed mean that it took much more than that to get into Heaven. I am certain that, in God’s economy, to believe means not just to think something is so (like holding an opinion), but to live that belief. It’s not a superficial mental or emotional state that’s referenced in John 3:16; it’s a whole-body, whole-soul, whole-mind, core position that, once adopted, guides everything you do and say. Your belief is so deeply entrenched within you, so inseparable from who and what you are, that it molds your thoughts and actions, mostly without your even having to think about them in advance.
Belief is not the steam rising from a teacup full of tea, but the tea leaves themselves resting at the bottom of the teapot. There can be no tea without tea leaves, though there can be steam from any number of sources. Genuine belief is like tea leaves infusing and informing and flavoring the water in which they rest, whereas superficial belief is like steam that looks the same whether it rises from a teacup or a sewer grate.
I would wager that the belief steam rising from most Christians these days comes from a sewer grate. Belief that is stated but not lived is not what Jesus meant in John 3:16. How do we know that? Because Jesus, in other parts of the Gospel, clearly explains that it takes a certain amount of doing this-and-that and of not doing this-and-that to make it Home. Think of the parable of the sheep and goats. Think of the parable of the virgins and their lamps. Think of the rich young ruler. Think of Jesus outright stating that those who believed they were fast-tracked to Heaven based solely on their belief of being a certain tradition and heritage were destined to remain on the outside, gnashing their teeth for all eternity. Think of Jesus stating that you’ll be held to account for every word you utter. Think of Jesus stating that you have to be born-again.
John 3:16 is a great comfort to those who truly believe and whose lives – both outer and inner – reflect their belief. But for those who mistakenly assume that just saying “I believe!” is their ticket Home, a hard awakening awaits them, like it did the goats and the foolish virgins and the children of Israel who assumed Heaven was their reward simply for being children of Israel. Think of how many who were of age (20 years and up) at the start of the exodus actually made it to the Promised Land. In case you’ve forgotten, only two made it all the way.
That’s a sobering statistic if ever there was one, and that’s just for the temporal reward of the earthly Promised Land.
Why would the eternal reward of the heavenly Promised Land be any easier to obtain?
When Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell what he has, give to the poor and follow him, he was using him as an example of how attachment to worldly possessions can get in the way of going to Heaven. The few times I’ve heard this scriptural passage preached in a mainstream church, it’s always along the lines of “that message doesn’t refer to us; that was just for the young man because he was rich and cared too much for his wealth. We don’t have to give up anything to follow Jesus. We’re not called to do that.” The preachers don’t use those exact words, but the spirit is the same: They imply that Jesus preached two messages on the same topic – one for the rich young ruler, and one for us.
Only Jesus didn’t do that. When he told the rich young ruler to give everything up and follow him, it was the same message he had given earlier to Peter and to James and to John and to Andrew and to all his disciples, without exception, and they all did what he asked them to do. To claim that Jesus gave one message to one person and another message to everyone else is to preach another gospel.
This is one of those hard Truths that I wrote about a few weeks ago. I would guess that nearly every Christian knows this scripture, but very few actually do what Jesus advises. Jesus did it himself when he left Nazareth, got baptized by John, and then went into the wilderness for 40 days and nights. There’s no indication that Jesus ever did his carpentry work again or that he returned to Nazareth for more than a brief visit. We can only assume that Jesus sold what he had, gave the proceeds to the poor, and hit the road as an itinerant preacher with little more by way of belongings than the clothes on his back.
He was no hypocrite in that regard (Jesus was no hypocrite in any regard); he practiced what he preached. When he told his disciples to leave everything behind, he’d already done it. He not only knew what was required to do it, he also he knew the rewards of doing it. He knew that anything that was not directly contributing to his ministry work was detracting from it, so it had to go, whether possessions or jobs or people.
Have you done it yet? Have you sold what you have and given the proceeds to the poor in order to genuinely free yourself up to follow Jesus? Or do you still have a house and land and possessions and a job and entanglements in a relationship with someone who is not born-again? Do you have a bank account with more money than you need for the next few days or weeks? Do you have investments? Do you have a pension plan? Does even the thought of giving any of these things up – let alone all of them – fill you with fear and dread?
Are you a rich young ruler in spirit?
If you haven’t yet done what Jesus advised the rich young ruler to do, I’m setting a challenge here. The challenge is to read the scriptural passage about the rich young ruler and think about it. Pray about it. Talk to God and Jesus about it. But I’m setting this as a challenge for all those who haven’t yet done what Jesus advised the rich young ruler to do. Born-again Christians claim they want to radically follow Jesus, but at the same time, they cling to their lives. In particular, they cling to the material aspects of their lives. They cling to their job and everything that goes with it. And they cling to their blood relatives and to lovers who do not share their love for God and Jesus.
In his ministry, Jesus’ first order of business was to choose his disciples and to ask them to walk away from their life and everything that had previously defined them. There is no indication in scripture that Jesus chose a disciple who refused to give up his family or his possessions or his job. They all did precisely what Jesus asked of them, and they did it without hesitation. The same process took place after Jesus’ death and resurrection – his disciples directed the members of the early church to sell their possessions and give the proceeds to the church leaders to disperse according to need. Those who didn’t do as they were instructed suffered accordingly.
This is a hard Truth, to apply this scripture to ourselves today, but it is a Truth nevertheless. Jesus clearly meant it to apply to all his followers, as he later went on to assure Peter that everyone who gave up their livelihoods and possessions to follow him would receive a better livelihood and better possessions in this world, and eternal life in the world to come. Jesus did not make a distinction between the rich young ruler and his disciples, so neither should we make a distinction between the rich young ruler and us. The teaching applies equally to everyone, whether rich young rulers or not, if eternal life is the goal.
It is worth noting that, when the young man asked Jesus what he should do to gain eternal life, Jesus told him he had to keep the Commandments and treat others as he wanted to be treated, in addition to selling his possessions and giving the proceeds to the poor. This is worth noting because Jesus didn’t simply say “You just have to believe in me” or “You just have to have faith in God”. No, he very clearly stated that the young man had to do specific things, namely to keep the Commandments and to treat others as he wanted to be treated. The icing on the cake (or what Jesus called “being perfect”) was to sell his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow him.
Like the rich young ruler, most Christians do their best to keep the Commandments and treat others well, but that isn’t enough. Those things are important, but they’re not enough. If they were enough, Jesus would not have had to leave Nazareth and all it represented and the disciples would not have had to leave their lives. If keeping the Commandments and treating others well were all it took to inherit eternal life, then Jesus’ ministry was in vain and his sacrifice on the cross superfluous. But we know that Jesus’ ministry was not in vain and his sacrifice was not superfluous because everything Jesus did and said during his ministry years was directed by God, and God would not have sent Jesus on a wild goose chase. If Jesus, by God’s direction, instructed people to give up their possessions and worldly relationships to follow him, then that’s what people need to do. And not just some people – everyone who wants to inherit eternal life.
I pray that you take this challenge to heart. Jesus’ teachings don’t change because fashions change or seasons change. The teachings remain the same and are equally applicable to Jesus’ followers today as they were 2000 years ago. The scriptural passage that I’m challenging you to read and pray over is the one about the rich young ruler. It appears in three of the four Gospels:
If inheriting eternal life is your goal and you’re still clinging to people, places and things that are getting between you and Jesus, then you know what you need to do.
And the sooner you do it, the better.
One topic that makes many born-agains intensely uncomfortable is earthly possessions.
You know – your stuff. Your belongings. The ‘treasures’ you cherish and the things you use daily that you can’t imagine doing without, like your car, your furniture, your pots and pans, your dishes, your phone.
Jesus had no stuff. Whatever he’d accumulated in Nazareth before leaving home to preach, he likely left behind in Nazareth. He had only the clothes on his back when John baptized him. As a preacher, he roamed from village to village, using what he found along the way but taking nothing with him.
Jesus is our model on how we are to live our lives. All born-agains accept this as God’s truth, but when it comes to earthly possessions, some get very touchy.
People can get really attached to their stuff.
The rich young ruler was attached to his stuff, too, and Jesus saw that it was preventing him from doing God’s will. That’s why he told him to get rid of it.
All of it.
Some of you reading this are probably feeling distinctly uncomfortable right about now. Maybe you’re thinking that getting rid of your stuff doesn’t apply to you because you can do God’s will well enough WITH all your stuff in tow, thank you very much.
That’s between you and God, but Jesus is our example, and he had no stuff. Before he left Nazareth, he likely had lots of stuff, but as soon as he started preaching, he let it all go. It would have slowed him down and redirected his energy and attention. Stuff can do that to you. Possessions can possess you even more than you possess them.
Better to live each day as if it were your last, because it could be. We came into this world empty-handed, and we’ll leave empty-handed. When we become born-again, we die to this world. What does that mean, to “die to this world”? When you die, you no longer have any stuff. Other people get what had been yours. If we are to live our born-again lives as if we died to the world, then our stuff has to go, just as the cursing, the fornicating, the lying, the stealing, the coveting, etc., also have to go.
When we become born-again, we leave the world spiritually and enter into a transition zone between Heaven and Earth. Our body is still in the world, but our spirit is not. What the world holds dear, we no longer value. That includes our and everyone else’s stuff.
I know this is hard for some of you to read. You might even point to clever arguments that show you can have your stuff and still do God’s will, have your cake and eat it, too. As long as your possessions don’t possess you, you can keep them, right?
Jesus is our example. He had no stuff.
“Sell what you have, give to the poor, and come follow me.”