When I was preparing a talk for a certain church a few years ago, I phoned a friend and said: “I’m worried about preaching this sermon because I’m not sure it will be very popular with this particular church.” My friend replied: “You should ask, ‘Will it be popular in heaven?’ That’s what matters.” It was a timely word that I needed to hear.
Then I remembered a sermon I’d heard preached over 50 years ago by Rev Rolfe Barnard – a rugged Southern Baptist evangelist who became one of my early mentors. He preached a message entitled, ‘A man who was known in hell’, based upon Acts 19:15: “One day the evil spirit answered them, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?’”
This scenario took place when some Jews thought that casting out demons would be a fun game. They noticed that Paul was successfully casting out evil spirits in Jesus’ name. So they tried to do the same, but soon realised they were out of their depth. When the evil spirit answered them, the man who had the evil spirit “jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding” (Acts 19:16). These Jews then realised that casting out demons was not a fun game to play.
Rolfe’s point was that Christians should aspire to be known in hell. “I want to be known in hell,” he said as he wound up his sermon. This word moved me no end. Jesus was known in hell. Paul was known in hell. But am I? I fear that I am not.
Would you like to be known in hell? To be honest, I would be honoured to think I am known in hell. My fear is I have not been that much of a threat to Satan that the demons would be aware of me. Yes, I would love to be famous in hell. The degree to which you and I are a threat to the devil will determine whether we become famous in hell.
Hell in this case comes from the Greek word tartarus – translated “hell” in 2 Peter 2:4, the place where evil spirits presently abide. This is a word also found in the Iliad (c700 BC), allegedly written by Homer, which says tartarus is: “as far beneath Hades as heaven is above the earth”. Peter says that it is the present abode of fallen angels.
Most of us would like to be popular, if we are honest. But where would you like to be popular? With your friends? With the rich and famous? With those well-connected – in Buckingham Palace or at 10 Downing Street?
Recently I got on a mailing list of some of my old classmates from Ashland, Kentucky High School – Class of 1953. Only around 20 of us are still alive. What grips me is recalling how important it was for me to be popular in those days. I wasn’t. But I wanted to be. And now – some 65 years later – all I used to crave seems so unimportant. The closer we get to eternity, the more we should want to be popular in one place – heaven.
This goes to show how meaningless being popular on earth today is – whether you are best friends with royalty, members of parliament or the Archbishop of Canterbury. These things will mean so little when our time comes.
What makes you popular in heaven? Step one: repentance. Jesus said that “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who do not need to repent” (Luke 15:7). Feeling righteous in yourself will make you unpopular in heaven, but anybody can be popular in heaven who is willing to admit they are sinners – and repent!
Nothing is more precarious than choosing popularity on earth
Jesus went on to say that repentance will make you popular with the angels (Luke 15:10).
But the main focus, of course, should be on seeking the praise and honour of God himself. Jesus asked the Pharisees: “How can you believe since you accept glory from one another but do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44). In other words, you can’t; you are unable to have genuine faith when your main goal is popularity with one another. Jesus’ question reveals why the Jews missed their Messiah. The Pharisees and Sadducees chose popularity on earth rather than being popular in heaven. Nothing can be more precarious than choosing popularity on earth rather than popularity in heaven – you will miss what God is up to.
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Puritan revivalist preacher Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) taught us that the task of every generation is to discover in which direction the sovereign redeemer is moving, then move in that direction. The only way to know in which direction God, by the Holy Spirit, is moving nowadays is to focus on his approval rather than popularity with people. I certainly would hate to think that God is at work before my very eyes but that I miss it because I care more about what you think than what he thinks.
Jesus was incalculably popular in heaven: “This is my Son”, said a voice from the cloud of glory at the Transfiguration, “…with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 17:5). This was also because Jesus did only what he saw the Father do (John 5:19). “I always do what pleases him” (John 8:29). Following in Jesus’ steps is what will make you and me popular in heaven.
Satan trembles when he sees the weakest saint upon his knees
It could, however, make us unpopular on earth! If popularity on earth is our priority, I’m afraid we forfeit being popular in heaven. Can we not have it both ways? I’m afraid not – if popularity on earth is what we primarily seek. If, however, you and I seek God’s praise, honour and glory and we happen to be popular here below, fine. It is what God has done. He did it for Billy Graham. But Billy got it because what he said in speaking to millions was before an audience of one.
Jesus was most famous in hell. His reputation with Satan and all evil spirits consumed their thinking and outlook. They were preoccupied with Jesus. His very presence on earth upset the demonic. “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” (Mark 1:24). On another occasion, they shouted: “What do you want with us, Son of God…Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?” (Matthew 8:29). What an interesting comment! It shows demons know their final destiny. This coheres with what is said of Satan: “He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short” (Revelation 12:12).
Another reason the devil was angry can be traced to the best-kept secret from the beginning of time: God’s plan to save humankind by the death of his Son on the cross. The crucifixion of Jesus was, of course, God’s predestined plan (Acts 2:23). But the devil thought it was his idea. This is why Satan entered into Judas (John 13:2, 27). When Jesus uttered the words: “It is finished” (John 19:30), the devil thought he had won. But Satan was blinded from seeing God’s purpose: “None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:8). It was Satan’s worst moment – up to then.
Paul was also famous in hell. “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about,” said the evil spirit (Acts 19:15). When one perceives what the demons thought of Paul, this should give us all pause. We are in an era in which people still say: “Jesus yes, Paul no.” Some claim to admire the teachings of Jesus but not Paul. When we learn that both Jesus and Paul were famous in hell, it should cause us to take the man who wrote two-thirds of the New Testament very seriously indeed. After all, Jesus said that Paul was his “chosen instrument” (Acts 9:15).
How do we get famous in hell?
Becoming famous in hell begins with making popularity in heaven our top priority. All who are famous in hell are popular in heaven. But are all that are popular in heaven also famous in hell? I doubt it. Not all who repent of their sins – the first step in being popular in heaven – turn into being a threat to the devil. Some Christians grow faster than others.
Not all are given the same measure of faith (Romans 12:3). And, sadly, not all Christians finish well. But all who make their aim primarily to be popular in heaven certainly qualify to be famous in hell.
I am sure that Peter was famous in hell. People sought just to get in his shadow as he passed by (Acts 5:15- 16). This would not have pleased Satan. But do you have to be an apostle to perform a miracle? No.
The well-known Christian teacher and author Jennifer Rees Larcombe was confined to a wheelchair for eight years owing to a viral infection. Countless people prayed for her. I suspect that many people in Britain who thought they had the gift of healing prayed for her. Then one day a young lady – converted only for three weeks – asked Jennifer if she could pray for her. Lo and behold, Jennifer was instantly healed. She carried her wheelchair home.
Consider the anointing that was on Stephen, one of the original seven deacons of the early Church. He was not an apostle. But the anointing on him was so strong that his face shone like that of an angel (Acts 6:15). Not only that, his knowledge of the Bible was vast. His statement before the Sanhedrin takes up nearly all of Acts 7 – and it is made up almost entirely of Old Testament history.
Do you want to be popular in heaven and famous in hell? How well do you know your Bible? How much do you pray? William Cowper (1731- 1800) said: “Satan trembles when he sees the weakest saint upon his knees.”
Any of us can be popular in heaven and famous in hell.