Believe it or not, many good people who are involved in doing wonderful things will not make it to heaven. Worse yet, many who consider themselves Christians and who are convinced they are going to heaven will be shut out - even though they aren't indulging in gross sin or bad things of any kind!
The Christians I'm referring to do not use drugs or alcohol. They don't gamble. They don't indulge in pornography or sexual perversion. They aren't numbered among the wicked and vile. In fact, you may find many of them in church on Sunday morning. And they spend most of their free time with friends and family, enjoying good things. They are family people, with family values.
Having said this, I want to make an even bolder statement - one that may offend some. Yet I say it in loving concern for those in the church of Jesus Christ who can't see they are headed for disaster: Some may be in danger of losing their very soul - even though they sit in church, absolutely convinced they are on their way to heaven!
This whole idea may seem like a paradox to you. But I want to prove it to you from Scripture. If ever you heed any message the Holy Spirit speaks to you, let it be this one.
Here is my point: Some believers will be shut out of heaven not because of the bad things they have done - but because they have become so preoccupied with doing good, legitimate things they neglect the things that really count - eternal things.
Their zeal for good things has pushed aside the things of God!
Such people have become so engrossed in the here and now that they literally have no time for the deeper things of the spiritual life. They're sweating away to build their business, advance their career, provide for their family - but their focus has become completely out of order!
The Bible says: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you" (Matthew 6:33). These are Christ's own words - and they are not a suggestion, but a commandment. Jesus means what he says here, promising: "If you seek the Lord first, he will take care of all the things you're toiling over - career, business, home, family. But you must make him your primary focus!"
The apostle Paul adds: "Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God" (Colossians 3:2-3). Again, this is not a suggestion, but a commandment. In Greek, the meaning is, "Set your focus, or interests, on things above." In other words: "Set your focus - like iron, like concrete - on the things of God. Make it immovable, intractable."
Please understand - God has never demanded that we all sell our houses, land and possessions; he has never said we must quit our jobs and become monks, giving ourselves completely to meditation and Bible study. (Yes, Jesus did say this, but only to one man - because that man's possessions had become his idols. God does not say this to everyone.)
People have said to me, "God told me to leave my spouse and children to go into ministry." I look these people squarely in the eye and say, "God didn't tell you that. It was either your own mind or the devil. The Lord isn't in the business of breaking up marriages!" God will never ask you to do anything like that. But he does insist on being the center of your life, around which everything else revolves. He demands that his interests, his church, his things take priority. He has to be the center!
The greatest indignity any Christian can commit against the Lord is to put him in a secondary place. That is a slap in God's face. You may think you are not guilty of such an affront to him - but how do you prioritize your time? For instance, how many times have you missed church to conduct business? In those times, your clients weren't the ones put on hold - God was. They were put first, above his interests!
I realize you cannot help missing church if you have a job that prevents your attending - say, if you're a nurse or a night worker. But I'm talking about people who do have a choice - who run their own company, for example, and who choose to do business over going to God's house. The Bible warns: "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching" (Hebrews 10:25). This is yet another commandment of the Lord. Yet, what takes priority in your life? Who does the waiting - your business, or the Lord?
If we do not heed these commandments, we will face awful consequences. Indeed, I never knew that Jesus gave so many warnings on this subject. I want to unfold to you three passages in particular:
"As it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man. They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all. Likewise also as it was in the days of Lot; they did eat, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded; but the same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all. Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man is revealed" (Luke 17:26-30).
Look again at this list Jesus gives us, and consider the things people were doing during those times. We know there was violence such as the world had never seen, along with gross immorality such as sodomy and homosexuality. But Jesus doesn't talk about any of those things here. Nor does he bring up alcoholism or perversion. Rather, note carefully what he says people were doing just before judgment fell: eating, drinking (yet he doesn't mention drunkenness), marrying, getting engaged, buying, selling, planting, building. There is not one sin on this list. These are all good, legitimate things.
In fact, everything Jesus lists here is recommended in God's word to those who would be faithful family people and servants of the Lord. Take marriage, for example. Paul says: "...if thou marry, thou hast not sinned..." (1 Corinthians 7:28). Elsewhere scripture says, "Marriage is honourable..." (Hebrews 13:4).
In addition, Proverbs 31 tells us that a virtuous wife "...considereth a field and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard" (Proverbs 31:16). Since the time of Joshua, when Israel moved into the promised land, God had moved on people to plant fields and build edifices for his glory. There is nothing wrong at all with such activities.
Why, then, does Jesus focus only on the good, legitimate things people were doing in the days just prior to judgment? It is because He is trying to tell us something vital: He is warning us of our total inattention to his word while we have become completely absorbed in our own interests!
Think about it: The Bible never mentions one word about Noah being mocked, abused or persecuted during the 120 years he worked on the ark. Apparently, his work and preaching were never interrupted. God is telling us, "Yes, there was violence and corruption at the time. But the vast majority of people became so engrossed in doing good, legitimate things, they had no time to reflect on Noah's warnings. Everyone was so busy marrying, going out to eat, mixing with their friends and having pleasure, they had no time to listen."
Talk about pinning down the American lifestyle. I can write books and preach messages about coming judgments, but few outside a small remnant of believers listen and heed my words. The masses of Christians don't care. Why not? It is because they're wrapped up in their own plans for marriage, children, home, job, career. They have no time to listen to messages about the coming of the Lord!
"Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man is revealed" (Luke 17:30). Jesus is warning, "The last generation will be just the same. They'll be so busy, so wrapped up in their own interests, they'll put all my interests aside!"
It has been this way for centuries. Many people are convinced they are on their way to heaven. But week after week, they neglect God's house, God's word, prayer, worship. Yet they do not see their behavior as sinful: "...wherefore say my people... we will come no more to thee... my people have forgotten me days without number.... Yet thou sayest...I am innocent..." (Jeremiah 2:31-32, 35). Such people may be doing good, legitimate things - but the Lord is not first with them! He is not the center of their lives. If he were, they would not brush him aside. They would find time for him!
Jeremiah chided the people for "gadding about" (see verse 36). Everyone was running around, doing good things, busying themselves with legitimate works, even religious things. But they were neglecting God. They had no time to seek the Lord, no time to sit at his feet and learn.
The same thing is happening today throughout the body of Christ. People can be so busy running around for God that they don't have time to seek him. Too many can't sit and heed his word because they're constantly gadding about!
"Thus shall it be..." When Jesus spoke of his return, why didn't he talk about the crime rate? Why didn't he refer to our present immorality? He said nothing of our drug epidemic, our overcrowded jails, our sins of abortion. No - he only said, "Just as it was in those days, people will be buying, selling, eating, marrying - preoccupied with 'good things.' And they will be so busy, they will neglect their very soul!"
In October, our church will celebrate its ninth year of existence. During our first three years, there was such excitement. Many young professionals and businesspeople came to our services - lovely career men and women who were on fire for the Lord. They testified they had been starving spiritually, and that Times Square Church had rescued them from spiritual death.
These people were always there when the church doors opened. They took home taped messages of our services, listening to them again and again until the sermons sank in. They also were soul winners. Whenever they saw me on the street, they stopped and hugged me, beaming to strangers, "This is my pastor. You've got to come and hear him preach!"
Whenever I went to their offices and introduced myself to their secretaries, I was given VIP treatment. I was immediately told, "Go right in, pastor." When I walked into their offices, they would drop everything, hug me and say, "Oh pastor - Sunday was marvelous! When I went home, I could hardly sleep. The Spirit of the Lord was upon me all night."
Nowadays, I no longer see many of their faces in church. Little by little I have seen them backslide, going back to materialism. Today they are consumed with their job, career or business. Many attend churches that hold one-hour meetings on Sunday only, with a twenty-minute sermonette that has no conviction. When I see these dear people on the street, they pretend they don't see me. Some even turn and walk in the other direction.
Their rejection hurts me so. But how much more does God hurt over their rejection of him? How does he feel at being spurned by those who once walked, talked and cried with him? At one time these same people told him, "Lord, you saved my life from a godless hell. I'll never leave you!" But now they don't give him the time of day.
Have you given Jesus the cold shoulder? You may say, "I have to make a living. The Lord understands." Not so! He will never understand - nor will he ever accept - our putting him second to anyone or anything: "He [Jesus] is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence" (Colossians 1:18). The Greek word for "preeminence" here means "first place." Jesus must have priority!
This parable is important - because Jesus is the man who is giving the great feast! The feast being spoken of here is the gospel, and the table being spread is the cross. And Jesus' invitation is for everyone: "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28).
Simply put, our Lord is inviting us to intimacy with him. We have been urged to come into his presence to sup with him, to get to know him, to enjoy his company. He says, "Come and find a table spread for you. All things are now ready. You will find full satisfaction in me!"
Indeed, Jesus has already accomplished everything necessary to give us full satisfaction in this life. All our hunger - everything having to do with holiness and godliness - is wrapped up in him: "...his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue" (2 Peter 1:3). The table has been spread. Dinner is ready!
Yet, the parable tells us that when suppertime came and the table was spread, nobody showed up. When the servants looked down the road, they couldn't see anyone coming. The master had hoped his invited guests would drop everything to be there early and expectant, anticipating fellowship with great joy. But nobody had come.
I ask you: How would you feel if you'd cooked a wonderful meal, invited guests who'd said they would come, but when everything was spread on the table, no one showed up? Wouldn't you take that as total rejection - as meaning your invited guests had no interest in you?
This master decided to send out a servant to remind his invited guests that all was ready. It was a last call: "Supper is ready. Why haven't you come?" But, Scripture says,"They all with one consent began to make excuse..." (Luke 14:18).
The first invited guest excused himself because he was preoccupied with a real-estate deal: "...I have bought a piece of ground, and I must needs go and see it: I pray thee have me excused" (same verse). This man probably was a land speculator, who had bought the land without seeing it. Or, maybe he simply wanted a plot of land on which to build a house for his family.
Now, it is no sin to speculate in land. Nor is it a sin to build a house. Both are good, legitimate things. After all, just before judgment fell on Judah, Elijah bought a piece of land because of a revelation he had received.
But buying land is not the point here. The point is, this man had the wrong focus! He focused on his interests - his business or his family interests - and he put aside the invitation for intimacy with the master. He said, "I'll take care of that later. I'm going to take care of my interests first." But the fact was, that land was not going anywhere. He could have gone the next day!
The second invited guest speculated in cattle. He told the servant: "...I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to prove [test] them: I pray thee have me excused" (verse 19). This man might have been in the cattle business. It appears he had seen the ten oxen before buying them, and they probably had looked good at the time. But now he had to test them, to see if he'd gotten a good deal.
There is no sin in what this man did. Testing his oxen was a legitimate and even responsible thing to do. Abraham and Job undoubtedly had done the same thing many times, being rich in cattle. This man was only doing what God's word recommended to any diligent provider.
But again, that is not the point. Where was this man's sin? He acted as if going to the barn was more important than going to God's house! Those oxen could have been tested the next day. But he wouldn't make them wait; instead, he made the master wait!
The last invited guest said, "...I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come" (verse 20). Now, nothing could be more legitimate than getting married. The Bible says that a man who finds a wife finds a good thing (see Proverbs 18:22).
But once more, marriage is not the issue. This man sinned in that he put his family first! The Lord says, "Devotion to family is good in its time and place - but not when it takes my place!"
This man could have brought his wife to the feast. That would have been a good way to start his marriage. He could have said: "Honey, the Lord has always been first in my life. Nothing takes his place. Whenever his doors are opened to me, I always go to have intimacy with him. His interests take priority in my life. Now, I want my values to be your values. So, let's make his interests our priority."
This sin of putting family before the Lord is one of the most hindering sins in the church today. I know housewives who find it hard to come to church on Sunday morning, much less to any other service. But they have plenty of time during the week to gad about! They're on the run constantly, doing special things for their children. They make time for dance classes, music lessons, school functions, parties, picnics, sports, shopping. The list goes on and on. But they make little time for the things of the Lord. The message coming through is: "My kids come first!"
I tell you, if you neglect God's interests and put your children first, you will damn them! That's what happened with Hezekiah and Manasseh. The Lord gave Hezekiah fifteen extra years of life - years he should have spent on his face before God and in bringing renewal to Israel. Instead, Hezekiah spent those years playing with adult toys - collecting jewels and cattle and constructing buildings. The son he raised during those years, Manasseh, watched as his dad put toys and family first. The result? Manasseh became one of the most wicked kings in the history of Israel.
What was the sin of the three men in this parable? It was that land, oxen and family interests all pushed aside the call to intimacy and fellowship with the master. Don't mistake me - the things they were doing were all good and perfectly legitimate. But they became sinful - unforgivable - when they robbed these men of time with and reverence for the master!
Now let me make another important statement: You are not truly a lover of Jesus if you are not protective of your time with him! You have to come to a place where you consider everything an intrusion if it robs you of precious time in Jesus' presence. Once you put him off or give something else priority, it can easily become a habit. And you will end up as Jeremiah said - neglecting him "days without number" (see Jeremiah 2:31- 32).
What happens when a master is neglected? He becomes angry! The master in this parable said, "I say unto you, that none of those men which were bidden [invited] shall taste of my supper" (Luke 14:24). In other words: "All right, gentlemen - you have shown me you're all too busy for me. You've put your work, your families, your land, your cattle before me. You don't want to sup with me and get to know me. Now I tell you - you will never know me. You will never enter my gates!"
Likewise, many will come to Jesus, saying, "Lord, we did mighty works in your name. We cast out devils and healed the sick, all for your glory." But he will answer: "Those are all good things - but I never knew you! You were too busy to be intimate with me. You never put everything aside and sat in my presence. Now all your busy works have proven to be in vain. Depart from me, stranger!"
Jesus gives us a powerful parable in Matthew 25 - the parable of the ten virgins. You probably know this parable well: Only five of the virgins had their lamps filled with oil when the bridegroom came for them. The other five were shut out of the bridal party, because they were out trying to find oil when the bridegroom arrived.
Since the ten virgins in this parable represent the church, does this mean only half of all Christians will enter the marriage supper? I don't know. But I do know we had better take heed to what Jesus is telling us here.
I have no trouble with the fact that all ten virgins "slumbered and slept" up to midnight. First of all, those who had oil could sleep in peace, because they had enough to see themselves through till morning. (Some people say this oil is the Holy Spirit - and that the five foolish virgins had been walking carelessly and lost the Spirit's anointing.)
Second, the oil is not the heart of the parable. Yet we usually become so focused on it that we miss a very important aspect. You see, once the five foolish virgins replenished their oil, they came back and began knocking on the door, saying, "Lord, Lord, open to us..." But what did the bridegroom say to them? He didn't ask them where they'd been. He didn't reprove them for having lacked oil. He didn't mention their being late. He didn't list any of these things. No - he said very plainly, "Verily I say unto you, I know you not" (Matthew 25:12). He said, "I don't know you." And that is the heart of the parable!
Recently, after a service in our church, a woman and her daughter approached me. We shook hands, and then they stood there, smiling. After a moment, they asked, "Don't you recognize us?" I shook my head. They said, "We met you fifteen years ago, after a crusade in Los Angeles. You prayed for us. Remember? We're on your mailing list. We love your messages, and we've followed your ministry for years. How can you not know us?"
I hadn't seen them in fifteen years! I said, "I'm sorry, ma'am - I don't know you." The two women were strangers to me.
Certainly, Jesus knows who we all are. He is omniscient, all-knowing. But that's not the kind of "knowing" he's talking about in this parable. Jesus is saying, "You've never taken me seriously. You've never put me first. And that is not what my bridehood is about. Your heart is not in this relationship. You have neglected me. And I cannot recognize your spirit, your kind of walk. I cannot acknowledge you as part of my bridehood!"
Beloved, do you know Jesus in your secret closet as well as in church? Do you talk with him as you're driving to work, on the subway, riding the bus? When the church doors open, are you there as often as possible? When that final day comes, will Jesus know you?
A few weeks ago I took a walk just two blocks from our building, to pick up a newspaper from a nearby stand. As I stepped out onto Forty-Ninth Steet, I saw a sad-looking bag woman sitting on a stoop. She couldn't have been much older than fifty, but she looked eighty. She gazed up at me with a hungry, lost look, as if to say, "This is all that life has offered me." My heart broke. I thought sadly, "She is someone's mother."
Turning right onto Eighth Avenue, I saw a wild-haired young man. He was stoned on drugs, staggering past me, mumbling foolishness that no one understood. I thought, "He lives in hell in this life. And when he dies, he'll probably spend eternity in a fiery hell." It seemed so tragic to me - that someone would live in hell here, and then die and go to hell. I felt so sad and helpless.
After I bought the newspaper, I turned around and saw a pitiful young prostitute as she passed by. There was a vacant look in her eyes. Her body was broken and diseased, yet she was still trying to sell it so she could get another drug fix. I wondered if she'd ever known what a normal life was like.
I went back to my apartment grieving. I sat down in my chair, stared into space, and started crying, "Oh God, isn't this city hell enough? Will you not have pity on these poor people when they stand before you? None of them has heard the sermons our people at Times Square Church have heard. They haven't known the fellowship of saints. They haven't been touched by the Holy Spirit. They don't have the mental capacity to watch for your return. Oh Lord, sometimes I think you're going to have more mercy on these derelicts than on all the saints who have heard hundreds of sermons but keep putting you off!"
Indeed, Jesus said it will be more tolerable in that day for Sodom and Gomorrah than for those who once tasted the good things of God. I'm talking about people who have known the power of the Holy Spirit - who once pledged to love and serve Jesus till death, but who turned aside to covetousness, materialism and self-interests. Tell me - how can you watch for Jesus' coming if you're all wrapped up in the good things of this world?
If Jesus is not the apple of your eye - if you're not focused on him, his church, his word, his interests - you can't be his disciple. It would be better for you to be a derelict than to be such a hypocrite!
I say it again in love: Many of you who are reading this message are not going to make it - unless you make a commitment today: "Lord, from this moment on, I commit to you that you will be the center of my life. Everything else is going to take second place. You are everything to me, Jesus. And I know that if not, all else will be in vain!"