When the Fear of Life After Death Scares the Life Out of a Christian. Thinking Through John 10:22-30.

Does the fear of death scare the life out of you? Or perhaps the question is, does the fear of life after death scare the life out of you?

There is plenty to worry about in our day, but this nagging worry about the afterlife has plagued people across generations and societies. Will we be okay when we die?

Some say there is no God, and so therefore no afterlife, so don’t worry about it. Indeed there are those who have embraced that line of thinking and have come to peace with the idea of not existing forever. Others who think death is the final end fight it tooth and nail.

Some say there may be a God or spiritual realities we know nothing about, but who knows? Many would say that not only do they not know, but that they believe no one can really know. So as for the afterlife, don’t worry about it, because who can know anything about it? Some are at peace with not knowing, some are scared to death of the great unknown.

Now we come to the Christian who of course believes there is a God, and the best way to know God is through Jesus and the Bible. So no Christian fears death, right? Actually, many do. Many Christians have a nagging worry about not being okay when they die. It is tragic that many atheists and agnostics worry less about death and life after death than many Christians.

The nagging worry that we will not be okay when we die often comes down to one of three thoughts:

  • I’m worried I don’t have enough faith.
    • “The person on the other end of the pew is a shining example of faith, while I struggle with doubts.”
    • “Sometimes I think I trust what scientists tell me more than what Bible teachers tell me.”
  • I’m worried I don’t know enough.
    • “I don’t have God and the Bible all figured out.”
    • “Some people know so much about God and the Bible, and I don’t. They are so much more deserving of a place in heaven than I am.”
  • I’m worried I’m not good enough.
    • “Some people are so such better than me. God will be pleased with them, but not me.”
    • “I’ve tried, and failed, at being better in this one area of my life. God must be greatly disappointed with me.”

There is a problem with each of these lines of thought, a problem easy to miss. In each case the focus is on ourselves, our our faith, our knowledge, our goodness, or rather our lack of each.

Worry takes centre stage when we take centre stage.

The solution, of course, is to get out of the spotlight. Instead of being focused on ourselves, and ourselves in relation to others, let’s focus on God and where we stand in relation to God, according to God:

My sheep listen to my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish; no one will snatch them from my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can snatch them from my Fatherʼs hand. The Father and I are one.”

John 10:27-30 (NET emphasis added)

Notice where we are; in the hand of Jesus, secure in the hand of God.

Okay, but how do we know if we are one of the “sheep” secure in God’s hand? Jesus said “My sheep listen to my voice, I know them, and they follow me.” Jesus did not say “My sheep have superlative faith, deep knowledge, and are shining examples of perfect people.” We can listen to the voice of Jesus, follow him, yet still have doubts, gaps in our knowledge, and messy flaws.

Jesus also said,

Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven

Matthew 18:3 (NRSV)

A young child is dependant on someone loving them. The Christian knows their dependance on God loving them.

We can become stuck in thinking of God as loving us, but not really loving us. We can paint the picture of God being totally disgusted with us, of harbouring a disdain for us. Then even when we talk about God’s forgiveness of us, we think of God as merely tolerating us. We know God loves us but we can not bring ourselves to think that God might actually like us.

The law court may be our go to image of our relationship with God. We are on trial, guilty, while God is the judge. The good news is that the judge grants a pardon, that Jesus paid the debt. The difficulty is that we have trouble thinking that the judge will want to have anything to do with the accused following the trial. Sure, I might be forgiven, but given my doubt, my gaps in knowledge, and how imperfect I am, surely I am on the fringes of the Kingdom, kept at a distance from the King. The good news is better than that. Jesus challenged us to think of God as our Heavenly Father. We can think of God as loving us so much that he has us in his hand, and wants us there!

You can be in the hand of God and still have doubts. Doubt may not always be a lack of faith, but of faith seeking understanding. In fact sometimes our doubts may not be a lack of faith in God, but a lack of faith in those who tell us about God. That is not always a bad thing. No Bible teacher or preacher is perfect, including me of course.

You can be in the hand of God and still have much to learn. While Christianity is not anti-intellectual, it is also not about our ability to figure it all out. It is simply about trust. When we were young, too young to know much at all about anything, all we could do is trust our parents or those who took a parental role in our lives to make sure we were okay. In Christ we trust God.

You can be in the hand of God and still have room for growth in character, thinking, and behaviour. A common theme for those of us who are motorcyclists is that it is not about the destination, but the journey. To make Christianity about the destination of heaven and how you get there is missing the point. The Christian life is a journey of growing as a Kingdom person, all the while being secure in the hand of God.

Are you a Christian but you have a nagging worry that you won’t be okay when you die? If you focus on yourself and how good you are, especially in where you stack up against other Christians, your worry may continue. If you focus on God and where you stand with God in Christ, then no worries! In Christ you are in the hand of God, and will be. Instead of stressing about life after death, let’s concern ourselves with life, with our next best step in our relationship with God right here, right now.

What Does Greater Devotion to Jesus Get You? Thinking Through John 21:15-19.

If we are more devoted to Jesus than others, we should get more privileges, right? Or perhaps we don’t want to compare ourselves to others. If we are more devoted to Jesus than we were five or ten years ago, there should be advantages, right? The following conversation between Jesus and Peter will help us discover what a greater devotion to Jesus does, and does not, get us. So here we go:

After breakfast Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” Peter replied, “you know I love you.”
“Then feed my lambs,” Jesus told him.
Jesus repeated the question: “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord,” Peter said, “you know I love you.”
“Then take care of my sheep,” Jesus said.
A third time he asked him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt that Jesus asked the question a third time. He said, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Then feed my sheep.

John 21:15-17 (NLT)

We might wonder what “these” refer to when Jesus asked Peter “do you love me more than these.” One possibility, since Peter had just been fishing, is “do you love me more than these things?” that is, this fishing gear. It could be “do you love me more than you love these disciples?”. Or it could be “do you love me more than these other disciples love me?”. This last possibility is seen by many Bible scholars as the best given that Peter always seemed to be first among the disciples. He was the one who asked to walk on water with Jesus, he was the one who at first refused to have his feet washed by Jesus, he was the first to say he was willing to die for Jesus.

Let us consider what Jesus did, and did not, say to Peter:

Jesus did not say to Peter “if you love me more than these then why did you deny you knew me when I was arrested and put on trial?”

Jesus did not lecture Peter about he should have done, or what he could do better moving forward. There was no interrogation. Jesus did not even mention Peter’s sin against him. But the fact that Jesus asked three times by a fire “do you love me?” would have reminded Peter of the three times he denied Jesus by a fire.

The message was clear; Jesus had not forgotten, but he had forgiven.

Jesus did say “feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, feed my sheep.” Jesus forgave and was ready to move forward in their relationship.

Greater devotion to Jesus does not get us greater forgiveness. Greater devotion to Jesus does open up the opportunity to move forward in forgiveness already granted.

Jesus did not say “since you love me more than these, then I will love you more than these.”

Jesus said “feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, feed my sheep.” Jesus called Peter to this task, not out of greater love for Peter, but out of great love love for all the sheep.

Jesus also said, “follow me.” Follow where? In the path of the shepherd, in the path of the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. If you love me more than these, then love them just as I do!

Greater devotion to Jesus does not mean we will be loved more by Jesus. It does mean we will love more like Jesus.

Jesus did not say “since you love me more, you will get special treatment.”

It is natural to think that if we love Jesus more than others, or more than we used to, then we should be rewarded with greater privileges. If we pray more, read the Bible more, do more religious things, and become better followers, we should receive a more privileged place, right?

Jesus said “feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, feed my sheep.”

Greater devotion to Jesus does not lead to greater privilege, it leads to the privilege of greater service.

Jesus did not say “since you love me more, you will get more power and authority.”

Jesus said “feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, feed my sheep.”

Jesus used a verb meaning “shepherd” which some may jump on as a reason to claim power and authority. After all, sheep need the shepherd to guide them to better pastures. The shepherd knows best, right? But it is translated here as “take care of” and in some other translations as “tend” since it should be taken more as caring for the sheep and being responsible for them, rather than ruling over them.

In fact Jesus pointed out the kind of power and authority Peter would enjoy in the future:

“I tell you the truth, when you were young, you were able to do as you liked; you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will dress you and take you where you don’t want to go.” Jesus said this to let him know by what kind of death he would glorify God. Then Jesus told him, “Follow me.”

John 21:18-19 (NLT)

You might think that Jesus, in establishing the Kingdom of God, would have called together powerful people and instructed them to grab after more power for the sake of the Kingdom. That’s how empires work. That’s not how Jesus works.

Jesus told Peter to “follow me.” Yes, Peter was called to be a shepherd, but he was called to remain a sheep, following the path of the Good Shepherd in the way of the cross, in the way of putting the needs of others first.

Greater devotion to Jesus does not mean greater power and control over others, it means greater opportunity to care for others.

Jesus did not say, “since you love me more, everyone should be just like you.”

Jesus did not say “create a community of Jesus-loving-Jewish-fishermen,” but “feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, feed my sheep.”

Peter would go on to discover that the sheep were all quite different from each other, especially so once it became clear that non-Jews were invited into the Kingdom! The sheep were people from all different kinds of backgrounds and situations. Some were rich, some poor, some Jewish, some not, some were male, others female, some were Pharisees and some were Romans.

Peter’s role was not to make everyone just like him, but to help everyone live out the Kingdom pivot in their lives, in their context, just as he was doing in his own.

In my years of being a pastor, a shepherd, and we are all shepherds to someone, I’ve discovered that the sheep are all quite different. Some of the sheep vote conservative, some liberal, some are introverted, others are extroverted, some have easily trusted the medical professionals, some have not, some think the government should provide more care for people, others thing the government should play a lessor role in our lives, some think abortion is the taking of life, some think abortion can be a means of health care, some drink only tea, some enjoy Guinness, some like long sermons, some don’t like sermons at all, some love the Bible, some have great difficulty making any sense of it, some are straight, some are gay, some are well off, some are not far from poverty. Jesus did not say “make everyone be like you,” but “feed my lambs, take care of my sheep, feed my sheep.” That means all of them. Even if we are not called to vocational ministry, we have the opportunity to take care of people who are different, and think different, from us.

In my years of being a shepherd, I have been grateful for sheep that have been different, and who have helped me to see things from different perspectives. Sheep can shepherd shepherds! In fact the sheep depend on the shepherds being sheep and following Jesus.

Greater devotion to Jesus does not give us the right to strong-arm people into becoming just like us, it means serving people, all people, helping them become more like Jesus even if they are nothing like us.

Do we love Jesus more than ever?

I hope we do, but it does not give us greater forgiveness, love, privilege, power, or make us the shining example of what following Jesus looks like.

Greater devotion to Jesus does give us the opportunity to move forward in forgiveness, and a greater opportunity to love.

Jesus asks us as he did Peter, “do you love me.” If so, let us commit to loving and serving others.