I am working through the book of ACTS at the moment and came upon two contrasting stories but with the same ultimate ending. One story involved Stephen, a faithful man of God who was chosen by the disciples to help out in practical matters as they focused on prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:1-6). Stephen wasn’t afraid to tell others about the good news of Christ. He even did great wonders and signs as testimony to the grace and power of God (Acts 6:8). However as expected there was opposition and Stephen was seized and taken before the high priest. He called the high priest and Jewish council a “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, resisting the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:51) as the the Jewish leaders relied on rituals to gain acceptance before God whilst their hearts remained cold to the message of Jesus as Saviour. Naturally the council were enraged at Stephen and had him stoned to death. As he was stoned to death, he murmured the words of prayer to God “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”. Sound familiar?
Then we read of Saul. He approved of what happened to Stephen and saw to it that great persecution came upon the church in Jerusalem. He was instrumental in having men and women thrown into jail for their faith in Jesus (Acts 8:1-3).The cruelty towards the early church was horrific, and it was Saul who was on the front line seeing it’s demise.
If I was to ask you at this point, who do you think would find their final destination in heaven, how would you answer? Surely Stephen would, as he was praying to God to take him just as he was stoned to death (Acts 7:59). As for Saul, the cruelty and barbarism would surely mean the fiery flames of hell would be his destination, and justly so! How could a just and holy God allow such an evil man into heaven?!
A number of years ago I remember having this chat at work with a doctor about what is just and fair in society and how God views it. I can’t remember how we got onto the topic, but it was intriguing where it went. He basically said that those in jail deserve what they get because of their crimes. Surely God would view them more harshly then those who didn’t commit the jailable offenses. I then said to him ‘what is the measuring stick you are judging these people by?’ What is the level of morality you are determining to be ‘good’ as opposed to ‘bad’. We all tend to naturally judge others according to our own level of morality and perception of good and evil. We tend to look at those who we perceive are worse or more guilty then us, so that we feel better about ourselves. I asked this doctor the question, ‘what if we judged all these people according to God’s required level of morality, ie perfection?’ How would the ‘scum of society’ in jail and the rest of us now compare? Would any of us be deemed ‘good’?
As we read through Acts we discover that this wicked and cruel man Saul is in fact the great apostle Paul, who one could argue becomes the most influential Christian in all of history proclaiming the good news of Christ!! How could this be? How could Paul be such an effective man for God when he was so crooked? Why would God use such a man???
It was to show him and us two things:
1) It’s God that saves, not us. God chose to use Paul. Paul didn’t deserve it by any stretch of the imagination. God alone has the right to do with this creation what He likes as He is Lord over all. In His mercy He chose to save Paul and use him to spread the good news of Jesus to the Gentiles (non Jewish people) (Acts 9:15).
2) To humble Paul so that he would completely rely on God for all his ministry needs. Paul knew too well that he didn’t deserve to be saved, let alone used for God’s work. He was broken by God, convicted of his sin and reborn a man of faith in Christ (Acts 9). Throughout his journey he faced huge obstacles – beatings, being thrown in jail, persecution, ship-wrecked etc. However he always came back to the simple truth that it was by God’s grace alone that He was saved, and it would be by God’s grace alone that he could persevere on.
Everyone is guilty of wrong doing before our holy God. In fact everyone falls short of His glory (Rom 3:21) and deserves to be judged accordingly like anyone who is found guilty of breaking the law. We are all by our very natures rebellious against God, no matter how good we think we are. When we see this truth, we realise that none of us deserve to go to heaven, but it’s only by God’s grace alone. We see our sin for what it is, and are convicted of our rebellion against God. The only way to redemption is to trust in what God has done for us… offering us salvation through the sacrifice of His perfect Son, Jesus Christ, so that we can be justly forgiven and given eternal life in heaven.
So the answer to the question of ‘who deserves to go to heaven?’ is….. whoever trusts in the work and sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and follows Him. Only then will we be seen by God as morally perfect and without sin, with no charge to answer for. Only then will we be eligible and suitable to be in our holy God’s presence. Only then will we be able to walk through heaven’s gates and say ‘I am home’.