Was Jesus “Efficient”?

Increase Efficiency

I read the other day (can’t remember where–maybe an audiobook?) that if Jesus had walked the earth in our day, He would have been super busy. The author argued that Jesus was so well-loved and so important, that everyone wanted a piece of Him. He (my author friend) predicted, “If Jesus had lived in the days of mobile phones, His would have been ringing off the hook!”

That didn’t sit well with me then, and when this morning in one of my classes a much younger fellow M.Div student commented that Jesus was all about efficiency, I felt I needed to think this through and comment.

Industrial RevolutionI’m on campus this week taking a class about carefully considering society and culture in the interpretation of Scripture. Among other topics today, we discussed modernism and its effect on North American Evangelicalism. The professor had asked us to think through the theological implications of various elements of the industrial revolution, specifically…

  • Measurabililty of productivity — the transition from measuring quality to measuring productive efficiency
  • Reproducibility — the interchangeability of parts and workers on an assembly line, as well as the fact that you could build the same identical widget in two factors if you had a process for doing so
  • Knowledge of a hierarchy of experts — the specialization of skills, such that instead of crafting something from start to finish, a worker builds (and specializes in) only part of it, and answers to a hierarchy of management to orchestrate the components being built into a coherent whole
  • And so on.

A group of 3 fellow students and I were embroiled in a conversation about the first of these (“measurability of productivity”), discussing what the Bible / Christian theology might have to say about the trade-off that has occurred in the last 100 years between the quality of a product and the efficiency with which that product was produced. As we talked, I was thinking through the possible implications of that question on the culture of Jesus’ day. Is our fixation on efficiency a byproduct of our culture only? Did it exist in middle eastern culture at the time of Christ? Is it a tendency that the Bible would speak to (either for or against) in some direct way? So, half wondering aloud, I asked the group if they felt that Jesus was “efficient”.

Almost everyone I’m in seminary with is younger than me, but the 3 folks I was sitting with for this conversation, I would estimate, were all in their mid-20’s … so much younger. Without a moment’s hesitation — clearly, he’d thought this through before –, one of the guys responded, “Absolutely! Jesus had 12 disciples and 3 were his inner circle. And Moses appointed judges to manage the people of Israel after they fled Egypt.”

I was astonished. That was quick and easy. But I wasn’t at all as certain as he seemed to be, so I pressed him. He went on to imply that essentially Jesus had established a ministerial staff to multiply the effect of his ministry. Jesus clearly didn’t have time to do all the work of preaching, teaching, baptizing, ministering to the poor, feeding the hungry, etc. that he wanted to do. So He appointed a two-tiered management team to run the ministry. Peter, James and John in the inner circle (in my terms, maybe the “executive team”), and the other 9 disciples as the next tier of management (again, in my words, maybe “middle management”).

I found that fascinating. And having had two people speak so confidently about this to me in the very recent past, I wanted to weigh in…

Moses Appoints Judges

I thought I’d tackle this reference first. In my mind, it’s the easiest. You can find the story in Exodus 18:13-27. God had just used Moses to lead a few million Jewish slaves out of Egypt and destroyed the Pharaoh’s army (and half of Egypt) in the process. Moses is now the leader of an extremely large, fairly grumpy group of people who (due to their rebellion before God) end up wandering through the wilderness of the Middle East for 40 years before settling in the land God had promised them.

As time went on and the number of people grew, Moses has begun to be occupied day and night with settling disputes between the people. Your ox trampled my petunias! Your goat ate my dinner! You stole my phylacteries! I’m sure it was getting on Moses’ nerves.

So, Moses’ father in law sat him down and advised him to establish a government — to appoint judges to hear the concerns of the people. They could handle small matters themselves, and bring only the most significant issues to Moses, who could then take them before God. (BTW, wouldn’t it be awesome if every government leader took the people’s concerns before God!?)

So in a way, I do see this as an efficiency play. Moses was trying to scale up. He needed to share the burden of leadership. And this does in fact sound to me a little like our concepts of modern production. However, I don’t think it was “efficiency” per se that Moses was after, but rather “scalability”. He needed to build a structure to handle the number of people, but I don’t think he would have related to the idea of quantity over quality. In other words, if Moses had later written about “grading” this new system of government, I don’t think he would have done so in terms of the number of requests handled, or the number of people serviced per hour, or the % drop in requests that came to him in a week. I think he would have asked questions like, “Do the people feel they are getting justice? Is God pleased? Does this system bring Him glory?” I don’t think there would have been any spreadsheets or bar graphs involved.

So, scalability. Is that what Jesus was after too?

Jesus’ Ministry Leadership Team

My seminary colleague is correct that Jesus spent his entire earthly ministry surrounded by and investing pretty exclusively in twelve (12) disciples. He had other friends and undoubtedly met thousands of people, but his focus was on “the twelve”. And of these men, three (3) were his inner circle: Peter, James and John. They were his closest friends, and Jesus poured into them in a very special, exclusive way.

But I do not agree that these men were selected to “scale Jesus up”, as Moses’ judges had been, or that they formed a “management team” of some kind. I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind. As I read the gospels, it seems that these 12 men spent pretty much every waking moment with Jesus. Sometimes, Jesus would go into the synagogue or stand on the lake shore and teach vast crowds (with the disciples by his side), but much of the time we see Him explaining some spiritual truth to the twelve directly or having a personal interaction with a random person Jesus met on the road while the twelve looked on and tried to understand what Jesus was talking about. It’s true that at one point (see Matthew 10) that Jesus “sends out” the twelve to do ministry without Him, but by chapter 13, they’re back together. And with the exception of that brief three-chapter episode, they pretty much went with Him wherever He went.

I can’t hear Jesus saying, “Peter, come with me and we’ll cover Galilee. Phillip and John, you guys take the Decapolis. I need Thomas down in Perea. And everyone steer clear of Samaria. We’ll meet back here in 90 days. Have your Q2 reports ready at that time for the board meeting.” And if that was the plan, certainly none of the four gospel writers got word of it. If the goal was to have the disciples scale Jesus to give the ministry a broader reach, then it seems like that plan was a dismal failure. Instead, they went together. Looking at the twelve as men to whom Jesus could delegate ministry implies that they were far more equal (to Jesus) than they were and invalidates the entire concept of not sending them out until the Holy Spirit comes upon them that we see in Acts 1-2.

Woman at the Well

What I do see is Jesus (while His disciples watched and learned) tirelessly focusing His energy on the individual person. By my reading, He spent countless patient hours meeting with one or two (or 12) people. I picture their having His complete attention. I imagine Him looking into their eyes with a mixture of heartfelt compassion and unyielding commitment to God’s glory and truth. And I see Jesus walking wherever He went, not running around getting tasks checked off His busy agenda’s checklist. Where in the gospels do you see Him racing between meetings, delegating tasks, or receiving a status report from a team just back from detached assignment? Where do you see His disciples acting as His secretaries, or shuttling him out of one appointment early to ensure he gets to the next? Even the few times they tried to “handle” Him, He rebuked them. On the contrary, when I read the gospels, I see Jesus 100% of the time deliberately, and I think slowly, being with people … especially the twelve. Walking down the road discussing His Father, reclining at the table with friends and enemies alike, taking the time to bless little children, sitting to talk to a woman at a well, and countless hours of prayer alone on a hill. This does not sound to me like “Chief Executive Jesus”, but it does sound like Good Shepherd Jesus.

If efficiency of production (eclipsing quality of product) is a hallmark of modernization, then Jesus was anything but modern. In no way do I see Him treating His ministry like a business to be run. In fact, I think the picture we’ve drawn is the exact opposite. And I think that leads us back to why Jesus had twelve disciples. Jesus wasn’t creating a tiered ministerial leadership hierarchy, He was investing in a small group of people, knowing that the depth of their transformation (not the size and strength of their numbers) would change the whole world. Jesus wasn’t thinking in terms of production capacity or repeatable process, He was thinking in terms of life-changing power. Not, “go and repeat the 8-step process of discipleship I taught you well”, but “go and be my witnesses and I will still be with you” (Matthew 28:19-20). And beyond that, wait for the Holy Spirit to empower you to do it (Acts 1:4-8). Message, not technique. People, not production. Quality, not quantity. Relationship, not efficiency. And dependence on God, not independent agents.

Jesus Joins the Mobile Age

And that brings us to the whole cell phone thing.

First, I think Jesus very intentionally planned His time on earth to be in an age of no iPhones, no cameras, no video blogs, no CNN, no Internet, and no selfies. I don’t think He had the slightest interest a YouTube video of His raising Lazarus from the dead going viral. Where would be the need for faith in that?

And on top of that, the theology of God’s sovereignty is at stake. God doesn’t arbitrarily do things. He has a plan. He is for sure a God of order. So, whatever the reason, God didn’t get lost in the space-time continuum somewhere, take a wrong turn, and accidentally get Himself incarnated in the wrong century. Whether we can “figure it out” or not, He walked the earth precisely when He planned to.

Second, if Jesus had chosen to live bodily in our day, I seriously doubt He would have owned a cell phone. Why would He? What other “tools” and “technology” did Jesus invest in to multiply the effect of His ministry (or for any other reason)? Other than sandals, I’m not sure I can think of any. No horse. No weapon. No farming tools. No quill and scroll.

And how would Jesus have used a cell phone if he’d had one? How many times in the gospels do you see Jesus getting interrupted in the middle of a conversation by another eager petitioner, or sending people ahead to make arrangements so He could squeeze an extra meeting in on a layover in that city, or changing his plans to visit a place halfway there, or jotting out quick letters (no more than 140 characters of course) to random disciples scattered around the countryside and sending them off via the fleet of couriers He always had in His entourage? Very few if any of these happened, and certainly not often. Because all of Jesus’ interactions were measured, deeply personal interactions. I don’t even see Him making plans to go to more than one place at a time. When Mary and Martha wanted Him to come and rescue their brother, He went to them, even though it was a multi-day journey (John 11:1-44); with modern tools at hand, would He have rather just sent a card or emailed condolences? He was ready to walk to the Centurion’s house to heal his servant, until he said it was unnecessary (Luke 7:1-10); do you envision that exchange having taken place by phone if that had been an option? Etc. I just can’t see Jesus investing in email, smartphones, or blogging. And I don’t think He’d have considered “following” on Twitter or “friending” on Facebook to constitute real relationship.

Jesus did nothing in the gospels to expand the scope of His ministry, to grow His follower base, or to squeeze more into a day. If anything, I see Him warning people off (e.g. Matthew 16:24). I never see Him rushing, never see Him frantic, never see Him late or concerned about not being able to be two places at once. If there was ever a person who was fully present with you when He was with you, I bet it was Jesus. It seems inconceivable to me to imagine Him checking His watch or answering a text in the middle of a conversation.

Efficiency

So what?

Believe it or not, I didn’t write this post to somehow “win an argument”. In fact, I don’t have any more ability to somehow “prove” a position than my colleague did this morning. In many ways, this is all speculation. In truth, this post is more about impressions I have of God based on broader personal engagement and reading of Scripture over time than anything else. Very few passages deal directly with Jesus’ choice of cell phone carrier (or lack thereof).

That said, I think there are two concrete applications at stake…

The first is seeing God for who He really is — taking time to think about questions like this concerning His nature. It can’t go anywhere good to layer our cultural constructions on top of Jesus, because I think that drives a wedge between us (Him and me). It’s much harder to have an intimate relationship with a figment of your cultural imagination than with a real person. We can’t just make up who Jesus really is. So, even if it’s speculative, I think it’s healthy to really try to place myself in HIS cultural context (not mine) when trying to understand what He was like when He walked the earth.

Secondly, if as Christians we want to be like Jesus, then we need to accurately understand who He is and follow Him. If Jesus took a “more is better” approach to ministry, then I want to too. But if Jesus was disinterested in “more” and “efficient”, and rather placed an extremely high value on being present with people in the moment, then I want to as well. I want to learn from Him and be like Him.

As I said, I think “quantity of production over quality of product” is very “modernist America”, but I don’t think it’s very Christlike. I think Jesus would be much more fixated on really being with and making a difference in a few than in figuring out a high-output factory-assembly-line approach to discipleship. Again, that is why He only had 12 disciples. I think Jesus tried to meet fewer goals each day than we do. And I think His goals were about people, not production.

So, no, I don’t think Jesus was very efficient. I think He was effective. And I’m pretty sure that distinction was an intentional part of His strategy, not a failing to reach His maximum productive capacity. I doubt lean manufacturing efficiency experts would find very little of value in studying Jesus. But for those want a foretaste of Kingdom living, modeling after His life is the best it’s going to get.

Jesus and His disciples

 

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The Lesson of Abraham

My wife Faith gave me the most amazing Christmas present last year. She knows I have weak eyes and that reading is a bit difficult, so she purchased for me a subscription to Audible.com, so that I could “read” more and more easily. I absolutely love it! Since then, I have listened to dozens of books, from theological tombs to science fiction novels. I’ve been particularly caught on the Honor Harrington series by David Weber. The series is a magnificent blend of the life of a deeply honor-bound military hero, complex interwoven plot lines and deep characters, political intrigue, and drawn out explanations of the physics behind futurist space warfare. So nerdy! So me!

At the moment, I’m listening to The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Far from the arcs of missile acceleration curves under gravitic drive power, Pillars is (evidently) a cult classic about the lives of men who built great cathedrals in the middle ages. It gets pretty raw in places, and I find myself fast-forwarding through some parts, so I can’t really recommend it outright. But I find the story and the concept fascinating. It’s plot is complex, it’s characters are interesting, it necessarily weaves in a ton of church history (which I just finished studying), and it’s about engineering (of cathedrals, not spaceships) at its core, so of course, I’m hooked. Plus, if I don’t slow down on my David Weber habit, I’ll have the entire series digested by the end of the summer, and that won’t do at all.

The Pillars of the Earth

(Evidently, Pillars, was made into a TV mini-series that isn’t very appropriate for my kind of audience. Bummer. Won’t be watching that one. Sigh.)

So, anyway…

The other day, as I was stealing a few minutes for my audiobook fix with Pillars, one of the main characters — Philip, the Prior (leader) of a monastery — was explaining to another main character — Tom, a master mason whose dream is to build a cathedral in his lifetime — why God would accept Tom’s building a cathedral in payment for the sins of his wife, who has died. Tom hopes that this will make up for the fact that she was not buried properly. Philip relates to Tom the story in Genesis 22, in which God calls Abraham to sacrifice (literally kill) his son Isaac, whom he loves with all his heart. Philip explains that we no longer offer blood sacrifices to God, because Jesus has paid our debt to God in full — “the ultimate sacrifice”, as Philip puts it. This is true (and I was impressed; the novel is written by a man who claims explicitly not to be a Christian), but he then explains that the story of Abraham’s sacrifice still carries meaning … that God expects us to give Him our best, “that which is most precious to us”. Philip asks Tom, “Is this design (of the cathedral) the best thing you have to offer God?”

Tom assures Philip that it is. So the prior assures him, “Then God will accept it!” … implying that once He has accepted Tom’s gift, God will forgive the sins of Tom’s wife.

It’s not my intention to dive into the deep end of Catholic theology this time, which we could easily do. Instead, my question is simple… To what degree is Philip (and behind him, Ken Follett) accurately portraying God’s view of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac?

Philip is right… Jesus is the final sacrifice for sin

cross1On this point, Philip is spot on. When He laid the foundations of the earth, God associated the blood of a creature — people and animals — with its life force. Sin (violating God’s perfection) earns us death, and only the shedding of blood (the pouring out of that life force) will pay the penalty for that. Not burying people “correctly” or building Cathedrals or saying the right prayers, but blood! So, day after day, year after year, people in ancient times brought rams and lambs and doves, and sacrificed them to God, spilling their blood so that — in a very temporary, inadequate way — the sins of the person would be covered. The whole thing was an exercise in…

  1. Making sure we aren’t confused about how guilty they were before a righteous God,
  2. Teaching us how serious it is to approach and try to relate to a holy God, and
  3. Pointing us toward (condition them to receive) the Messiah someday.

And eventually, the long-promised, long-awaited day came, when God Himself stepped into space and time in the form of a man, Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Messiah. This Jesus lived a perfect life, which we couldn’t live, and died to make payment for the sins of all mankind. In an instant, the sacrifice of bulls and goats became unnecessary, a relic of a past era. The perfect Lamb of God had been sacrificed, once for all. So, Philip was right that Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for all who would receive Him, and permanently dismantled the Old Testament sacrificial system.

But God still calls for sacrifice

However, that doesn’t mean that the concept of sacrificing to God now lives in the past. It’s true that we no longer spill animal blood on an altar, and that, for all those covered by the blood of Christ, God no longer requires our human blood to be spilled for sin either. Jesus took care of all that. Nothing we can do adds to it or takes away from it. Sacrifice of any kind on our parts is completely unnecessary to pay for sin.

But sacrifice is necessary.

Not our blood for the atonement of sin, but our lives in submission. We offer a sacrifice of humility, a sacrifice of surrender, a sacrifice of praise. Not just music or song lyrics, not just money or time or participation in a church community, not just prayer or reading Scripture. These are all great. I’m sure God loves it when we “build Cathedrals too”. But none of this is the “sacrifice” God wants. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17). God wants our very lives!

Living Stones

We are living stones (1 Peter 2:4-6). Incredibly, God gives us the power to defy Him and choose to build our own house. But instead, we could also chose to allow God to build us into something greater — His spiritual house. God gives us the right to chose exclusion from the building — to crawl off the altar and back into the fire (as Caedmon’s Call puts it). But His desire … and call … and command … is that we would turn from our sin and be saved. All we have to do is give up fighting to make our lives all about us, and to submit to God. And in one regard, this is very much a sacrifice. We give up everything we could possibly (temporarily) eke out for ourselves in this life, and accept what God (quite permanently) offers to give us instead.Dryer Lint

Now, if you have the eyes to see, you will quickly notice that this is like asking someone to exchange a smallish wad of pocket lint for 5-6 million metric tons of 24 carrot gold. But if you really love your pocket lint, and are blinded to the ability to see the mountain of gold right in front of you, then you might be tempted to call that sacrifice … and rage against the one demanding your pocket lint from you. “My precious!!!”

Dwarven GoldActually, the analogy is severely flawed. In truth, you’re trading in your filthy, disease-ridden orphanage and the poisonous snakes that lives there and are trying to kill you … for formal adoption into the King’s family, a lavish room in His house, an infinitely large pile of gold, a new perfect body, a new name, royal robes that accompany your becoming heir to the Kingdom, and the invitation to enjoy all of the above for all eternity with the God who made and adores you.

But I thought the pocket lint-gold thing was a bit more succinct, so I led with that.

At any rate, if you could see all that, then you would hardly call surrendering to God to become heir to all He wants to give you a “sacrifice”. But many can’t see it, and even if you do, you still do have to sacrifice your killer orphanage snake and your pocket lint to get it. Even Christians — who are born again, signed and sealed — sometimes have a terrible time giving up things in their lives that interfere with their being with God the way He desires it … which is what life is all about in the first place.

So, what about Abraham?

The original question was: Why did God tell us (in Scripture) the story of Abraham and God’s command to sacrifice his son Isaac?

Philip (from Pillars) says that it’s to demonstrate that God wants our best. I disagree. I believe God had several specific things in mind when He ordained that Moses would record the history of this story, but I don’t think that was one of them.

Abraham Surrenders Isaac

Here’s what I’d say…

First, we’ve already talked about God’s putting a lot of energy in the Old Testament into pointing forward to Jesus. This story certainly does that. The father of God’s people on earth (Abraham) loves his son, but out of his greater love for God, he is willing to sacrifice his son (Isaac). Sounds familiar. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) The Father of all of us (God) loves His people so much that He is willing to sacrifice his own Son (Jesus). Amazing.

Secondly, God was forcing Abraham to choose. He created a scenario where only one of them would get their way. God does that alot. Would Abraham worship his son and sacrifice his God, or would he worship His God and sacrifice his son? Most read this story and fixate on God’s call for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. But God was never going to allow Abraham to do that, and in the end stopped him from doing so (literally, an angel caught his arm in mid stroke of the knife — cool!). God wasn’t really asking him to sacrifice his son, he was asking him to sacrifice himself. What had to die was Abraham’s borderline-idolatrous view of Isaac. What had to die was Abraham’s perceived control over / power to produce the destiny God had promised to him. God had told Abraham He would make him into a great nation, and now Abraham had to trust God enough to slay his only heir. It was Abraham’s demand to understand (even control) how God’s plan would work that was on the altar. Questions of trust and worship, not human blood, hung in the balance. So, not Isaac per se, but Abraham was absolutely called to sacrifice.

And so are we.

What is the manner of my life in regard to these things?

Choose

What about you? What are you sacrificing to God? What are you refusing to put on the altar?

If you’ve committed your life to Christ, then ask yourself… what’s still hidden in the corners of your heart and mind that you’re unwilling to let him have? If we could see your spiritual hands, would they be open, palms-up in worship, or in a ninja death grip around some stupid lifeless wooden idol? Whatever it is, throw it on the altar, and set it on fire!

If you’re earning your way to heaven, then I’d start with sacrificing that. God is never going to love you because you work hard, play nice, give money, go to church, fly the American flag, or make sure you’re “better” than the next guy. Only Jesus earns God’s love, and He has extended it to you. Will you accept it? Which sounds better, the poisonous snakes or being adopted as the son and heir of the King? Because you have to choose.

As we said, you cannot have this life AND that one. God’s kingdom has rules… there are no poisonous snakes allowed in the house. One of you has to go. You can’t cling to your sin (your way, your pride, your idol) and expect God to look the other way. You must choose! And while choosing Christ will cost you everything you have in this life. The alternative costs far more. Pocket lint, or gold? Snakes or sonship? Death or life?

God takes this incredibly seriously…

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)

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The Internalization and Radicalization of the Law

Jesus Teaching

“You have heard it said…  But I say to you…”   – Jesus

To say Jesus of Nazareth was a controversial figure is a gross understatement. Loved by some, hated by others, but extremely hard to ignore … and considered by almost everyone to be one of the greatest teachers who has ever lived.

Jesus was famous for statements like the one above in the way He taught people who God really was. We see a number of them in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), for example, addressing issues ranging from anger to lust, divorce to serving the poor, murder to swearing oaths, and dozens of others. Jesus was forever pushing on and questioning the status quo and the traditions of the religious elite in His day. And those same religious leaders, who had staked so much on that same status quo, hated Him for it.

So, what was His deal?

In my view, there are at least two important points that fall out of Jesus’ penchant for controversy in his teaching style…

Jesus claims a radical authority

First, to really get Jesus and the reactions He invoked, we have to understand that His audience heard the things He said much differently than we do. In our world, centuries later, teachers and the teaching profession are cut from the Greco-Roman mold, blended with the radical wealth, individualism, and self-reliance of the modern Western world. We teach others by focusing on the future – primarily to hone a skill or gain some knowledge which we believe will advantage us toward greater production or the next big accomplishment. In Jesus’ day, however, Jewish rabbis (teachers) focused “backwards” on history and heritage. Their goal was to “protect a stream of tradition” – a phrase I first heard used by Dr. Dana Harris, who taught a New Testament survey class I attended last year – that gave their Jewish students a powerful sense of belonging to something greater than themselves… specifically, to God’s promise to make them a (His!) nation and family. The Jews believed that the authority to teach was passed down from rabbis to their disciples through the centuries, and could be traced in an unbroken line all the way back to Moses himself, who was the only rabbi in history to receive his authority to teach God’s Word directly from God at the Moses and the Burning Bushburning bush (see Exodus 3). Therefore, the teachers of the law in Jesus’ day “sat in Moses’ seat” (see Matthew 23:2) and drew their authority from the line and tradition of the rabbis who “sat” before them.

In their eyes, Jesus was a total nobody. To them, he was the (probably illegitimate) son of a poor teenage peasant girl, and a local carpenter. Other than an uncanny knowledge of the Scriptures He demonstrated even as a child (see Luke 2:41-52), he had no authority. No formal education. No credentials. And certainly no right to contract the professionals. But that didn’t stop Him. Over and over again, Jesus stepped unapologetically into the carefully-protected and long-preserved rabbinical structure, and exerted Himself … even over the well-respected, even feared, Pharisees and teachers of the law. Jesus “not only behaves like a rabbi, but he [takes for Himself] disciples and extends his own authority to them. He even interprets the traditions, contrasting his own views with Moses [in interpreting the law].” [1] His repeated statements, “You have heard it said… But I tell you…” were extremely inflammatory and controversial to traditional, contemporary rabbis. But those “who had ears to hear” (Matthew 11:15) found their hearts opened in a way never before experienced by the Truth Jesus taught them with new sense of authority (c.f. Matthew 7:28-29, Mark 4:31-32, etc).

Jesus referred directly to what Moses (and the line of teachers descending directly from him) had taught, and overruled it. He instructs His disciples to “obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20), with no mention of the Law. He said, “Moses said this…  But, I tell you that…”. He was overtly superseding centuries of tradition and placing Himself above even those ordained by God to teach God’s Word (Moses and the Levitical priestly line), not to mention displacing / nullifying their own personal authority in the process. No wonder the religious authorities of the day were utterly incensed (and threatened) by Jesus. Jesus claimed a higher, second-to-none authority that surpassed any earthly teacher. And of course, as the very Son of God, He had that authority, and the right to use it … in spades. But only the very Son of God would have such authority, and for those who couldn’t accept that truth, Jesus was consequently the ultimate blasphemer (which is why they executed Him). But for those whose eyes God has opened, Jesus is to be worshipped above any other and unequivocally obeyed as Lord and King.

Jesus demands a radical application

And that brings me to my second point…

When Jesus restated the law with new (actually, it was eternally ancient) authority, He always stepped up its intensity. Jesus never dialed down the level of expectation on His listeners. Whereas He loved and accepted people, no matter their circumstances, in his personally interactions with them, everywhere He went into teacher mode, people walked away burdened under the heavy weight of the unattainable expectation of a perfectly righteous God.

Modern Western Christians are fixated on Jesus’ easy burden and His light yoke (Matthew 11:30), and rightly so – for those who have been saved by grace and born again. But I think many jump to this passage a bit too early. (Plus, I think we’ve over-emphasized grace vs obedience in our extremely licentious and highly distracted culture.) Remember, we’re reading the story after its climax. Jesus’ listeners didn’t know what we know, as we look back on the empty tomb and the NT epistles, which explain to us what for them was yet to come. When they listened to the Sermon on the Mount, what they heard was Jesus’ calling them to an incredibly high standard — one that A) would have made the Mosaic law wholly unnecessary, B) was totally impossible for them to achieve, and C) was probably somewhat exasperating. And you thought the hundreds of crazy ceremonial rules of the Pharisees were bad!? Whatever hope anyone had, no matter how slim, of maintaining their standards (those of the Pharisees) … Jesus took things to a whole new level.

This is what Dr. Harris called “the internalization and radicalization of the law”.

Internalization

Where the Pharisees focused on an external following of the rules with your hands and feet and mouth, Jesus focused on an internal unity with God in your mind and heart.

You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder; and whoever murders [with her hands] will be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother [in her heart] will be liable to judgment.  (Matthew 5:21-22a)

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery [with your body].” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent [in his mind] has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28)

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, “Do not resist the one who is evil.” But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:38-39)

And on and on He went.

Don’t worry about cleaning the outside of the cup, if the inside isn’t clean. Don’t worry about beautifying the outside of the tomb by painting it and laying flowers on it. No amount of external beautification can address the reality of a rotting corpse inside the tomb. (c.f. Matthew 23:25-28)

So, I guess in Jesus’ economy, it doesn’t at all work to put lipstick on the pig, as it were.

Radicalization

And where the Pharisees focused on doing what it takes to “fool” the critical-but-flawed eyes of men as they imperfectly (but quite willingly) judge you, Jesus focused on assuaging the righteous fury of the God who judges perfectly and only by the standard of His own holiness.

No negotiation, rounding off, or grading on a curve. (Matthew 5:48)

No second chances once you’re standing before the throne of judgment. (Hebrews 9:27-28)

No claiming ignorance. (Romans 1:18-23)

No “close enough”, or “at least I didn’t do what she did”. No one to blame. No one to rescue. Just me and God and God’s measuring rod of absolute purity.

Jesus fulfills the Law

So, with the authority that only God could have, Jesus makes demands of His followers that no man could meet. Or woman. Then or now. Everyone in the same boat… utterly helpless before an utterly perfect God. And if the story stopped here, the “gospel” would be pretty bad news.

But God didn’t stop there. As He planned from before the foundation of the earth was laid, Jesus walked straight into the clutches of the very same Pharisees who ignorantly and arrogantly accused Him of blasphemy, and humbled Himself unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8). Like a lamb to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7). For our good and His glory.

So, God-sized authority and God-sized requirements for perfection met the God-sized capacity to fulfill those requirements in the God-man, Jesus Christ. Jesus not only re-interpreted (clarified? amplified?) the Law, He fulfilled it. The Law was and is still very much in effect, but its requirements have been wholly and completely satisfied by Jesus (Matthew 5:17). When Jesus talked about coming to fulfill the Law, which He did frequently, it reminds me of two things…

Aslan and the White WitchFirst is the CS Lewis classic, “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe“, in which Aslan angrily rebukes the white witch (who pretends to rule Narnia the way satan pretends to rule God’s world), “Do not quote the deep magic to me, witch. I was there when it was written.” And second, it reminds me of God’s rather sharp question to Job after a bit of a temper tantrum (on Job’s part) at not understanding what God was doing in his life (in Job 38:4), “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”

You could say that Jesus was there when the Law was written or that He did lay the foundations of the earth. But really it’s more than that… Jesus doesn’t know the Word of God; Jesus is the Word of God. And not just the law, but its fulfillment. The Alpha and the Omega. Everything begins and ends with Jesus.

Our task isn’t to turn God’s Word into a bunch of externals we have to get right in order to earn our way into heaven. It’s the impossible standard that drives us to our knees in grateful, worshipful submission before the cross of Christ. It’s the way we understand how to even begin to relate to God. And it’s the measuring rod that shows us the best way to live, even if we can’t live up to it entirely.

Just walk with God

Walk with God

Anyone who rejects Jesus Christ as their personal Savior, stands condemned by a Law they cannot possibly fulfill. That person has by definition challenged God’s uncompromising authority and lost, badly, whether they realize it or not.

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name … to those whom He gave the right to become children of God … the Law is not your judge. Jesus has fulfilled the Law in your place with His perfect life. And you are His.

Don’t let that become an excuse to sin or for careless living. What kind of lover whores around with worthless idols? Can that person really be in love? Hardly!

But neither can you make the Law into a burdensome set of rules by which you judge your cleanness before God and others. If the Law is your measuring stick, then there’s only one possible outcome of measurement: filthy and condemned. You will never be made clean by the Law. Period.

Instead, look directly into the radical, extreme, perfect, unattainable Law of God (the outward expression of His blinding purity and incomprehensible majesty), and see the cross and the blood and the victory of Christ … not rules to try to follow. Internalize that. Make it about your heart. Fix the eyes of your heart on Jesus. Love the Lord your God with everything (Deut 6:5). God is always at work. God is the author of the story. And it is God who will do the perfecting (Phil 1:6).


[1] Gary M. Burge, Lynn H. Cohick and Gene L. Green, The New Testament in Antiquity, (1st ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 150.

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You belong to Christ!

To the Christian, specifically my fellow seminary students…
A sermon manuscript on Colossians 2:8-15, prepared for my homiletics class at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

slavery

“See to it that no one takes you captive…” (Colossians 2:8a)

Introduction

How many of you have a smartphone? Personally, I’ve been an iPhone guy for awhile. I love this thing. I’m old enough to remember the Mesozoic era before mobile technology, but I can’t remember how we survived without it. But that means I’m also old enough to remember when our lives weren’t dominated by our phones.mobile-devices

A growing number of people seem to be totally helpless without their smartphones. They can’t seem to add two numbers or find the grocery store or decide where to eat unless Siri or Google or Yelp tells them what to do. A recent USA Today article stated that 1 in 4 accidents in the US is caused in part by cell phone usage while driving. There are members of my extended family who are barely present at family gatherings because of the critically-important need to harvest resources on 14 different Facebook games 24 hours a day. And I know people who seem more interested in posting memories to Instagram or chatting on Facebook at any given moment than actually making memories by talking with real people in the same room with them.

So, it’s clear that for some, they no longer own their phones, their phones own them.

But distractions powerful enough to enslave us were not invented by Apple. In our passage today, nearly 2,000 years ago, Paul is writing on this very subject to the Colossian church.

Invitation to Turn to Passage

Open your Bibles with me to Colossians 2:8-15.

Introduction to the Text

While you’re turning there, let me refresh us on context. We are picking up where we left off after our last time together.

Remember that Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians to remind them of Christ’s supremacy and sufficiency in all things. They were trying to blend other, lesser philosophies into their Christian worship, and in response Paul is pleading with them to abandon distractions and trust fully in Christ. He has already stated that Christ is everything, as we saw last time, and he builds on that argument in this passage.

Prayer for Illumination

So, let’s pray and then dive into the passage together. Please bow with me…

Reading of Scripture

Okay, Colossians 2:8-15. Please follow along with me, as I read (from the ESV):

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

Primary Claim

In this passage, Paul gets at the heart of the matter right out of the gate. He exhorts us that if we belong to Christ, then we must not let anything enslave us! The Spirit is saying, through Paul: You are mine. You belong to Christ. Don’t let anything else take you captive!

We see this in v8: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” As we said, the Colossians were beginning to embrace “other philosophies and empty deceit” – hollow arguments that could trick them and lead them away from God’s truth. These were human ideas, not from God. Paul refers to them as the “elemental spirits of the world”. This term is also translated “principles, rudiments or elements,” particularly in a spiritual sense. It refers to the fundamental building blocks of all worldly philosophies – basic human ideas, which are the opposite of the gospel.

What might some of these look like in our day? We talked about smartphones, and that might be a little comical for some of us, but I’m convinced it’s a real problem for others. And it certainly doesn’t stop there. Anything that would threaten to sit on the throne of our hearts in God’s place is no joke.

How many people in our day believe that God is obligated to materially bless you if you have enough faith, or that all roads lead to God, or that God only approves of those who look or act a certain way — or go to a certain church? Many in our day deny Biblical authority and objective truth altogether.

Perhaps hitting a little closer to home…

Do we believe that our success is measured in the number of people in the sanctuary on Sunday morning? Do we value the approval of certain people more than the approval of God Himself? Are we tempted to believe that the gospel needs to be more inclusive or tolerant? Do we leave it to someone else to care for the widow and orphan because we have important ministry of the Word to attend to? Do we fill our days with activities we feel like we must do, and effectively treat time in Scripture or prayer as optional or regularly give God our leftovers?

I could probably go on all day, and I think Paul would qualify every one of these idea as “philosophy and empty deceit”. These are distracting and deceptive ideas. They ring in our ears, because they’re absolutely everywhere. They are the “elemental spirits of this world”, and lead us away from the truth of the gospel. In response, Paul claims freedom for us in Christ. To both the Colossians and to us, he issues a clarion call: Do not be taken captive by these ideas! You belong to Christ!

Organizational Sentence

Paul then proceeds to give us five (5) compelling reasons why we should flee enslaving distractions and fully embrace Christ.

Main Points

torrentFilled by God

I. God has filled us. (9-10)

First, in v9-10, Paul reminds us that we have been filled by Christ. He writes, “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.” All the fullness of the divine power of God dwells in the physical person of Jesus Christ. He is fully God and fully man. As such, He both knows what we need and has the infinite capacity to provide it for us. And He exercises both that knowledge and that power, because He loves us. Although Paul doesn’t spell it out, he clearly implies that it is God who does the filling, and if God fills us, is there any doubt that He wouldn’t fill us to the brim? I say no. God does everything in abundance. What God fills is always pressed down, shaken together, and running over!

Note that we have not just been filled by Christ, but we are also filled in Christ. Other translations say “complete in Him”. He has provided everything we need for life and godliness, filling us all the way up. Nothing else is necessary or useful in addition to what God has supplied to us in Christ. Can there be any room for anything else in the person’s heart which God has filled with Himself?

What if I were to set a five gallon bucket on the table here, and begin to fill it with rocks? We could add large rocks and small rocks. When no more of those would fit, we could poor in gravel or even sand to “fill” the bucket. But it would only appear full. This is man-made fullness. God is not like the rocks, He’s more like water. With or without rocks, there is always room for water in the bucket. Even if I had a bucket with rocks and gravel bursting over the top, I could likely still pour gallons of water in it.

And here’s the question… Knowing the amazing love and exceeding goodness of God, who would want anything to fill their bucket other than God Himself? Don’t forget that, with God, everything is in abundance. God doesn’t just have five gallons of water that He cobbled together to fill our five gallon bucket. He has an infinite supply of water at His disposal … and the authority and desire to use it on our behalf.

What if I could install a faucet in this room that would pour 500 gallons of water an hour into our 5 gallon bucket? In an hour, the water would fill this room. In a day, the whole building would be underwater. Now we’re getting a better picture of the way God fills things. God’s filling is a deluge. And under that kind of pressure, what possible room or need could there be for a few rocks? I wonder if Paul had a similar word picture in mind when he referred to “rudimentary elements of this world” (another way to translate “elemental spirits” in v9). I wonder if he was picturing the Colossians clutching a few pebbles in the face of God’s tidal wave of potential filling.

Then in v10, Paul also makes this an issue of authority. God has made Christ “the head of all rule and authority”, and then turned around and filled us in Christ. One of the things God fills us with is Christ’s authority. We are His representatives. Christ is Lord over all things, and amazingly He has decreed that we will rule with Him as co-heirs in His Kingdom. Paul and the other apostles talk about this extensively elsewhere in the New Testament. So if God fills us in radical abundance and is preparing for us to rule with Christ, what could human philosophies have to offer us? We must turn our backs on them, and receive our fullness from Christ alone. Who wants a bunch of rocks, when the bucket could be entirely filled with the water of Christ!?

The Potter and ClayConsecrated by Christ

II. God has consecrated us. (11)

Secondly, God consecrates us. In v11, Paul says, “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ.” To be consecrated is to be set apart for special or specific use. In the Old Testament, God ordained that men would be physically circumcised as a very obvious, very outward sign that they had been marked for God – set apart or “consecrated” for Him.

But Paul makes the point that in Christ, God has marked His people with a mark far more significant than physical circumcision. God’s consecrating work is in our hearts. Paul says our circumcision is “made without hands,” meaning that it’s not physical, it’s spiritual. This is the work of Christ on the cross. It’s the work of our dying to self so that we can live to Christ. It is the mark that says we belong to Him.

God is calling us to step into our roles as consecrated vessels for the Lord’s use. This means we consider our lives to belong to God. We therefore lay down our own purposes and plans, discount the demands of human wisdom, and pick up what God has on His agenda for our lives. He has a specific purpose for each of us, and He has set us apart for that purpose since before we were born.

In this room, each of us has been called by God to pursue seminary, each from his or her own unique background. For me, God called me out of a 20 year career in the marketplace to devote whatever time and energy that remains in my life to the ministry of the Word.

I can’t speak to God’s calling in your heart, but I know it’s there if you have ears to hear. It’s different and personal for each of us. We all have a story. It must begin with submission to the Lordship of Christ, so that it becomes His story, not ours. And then wherever that story takes us, God expects us to bring the filling we just discussed to those around us, and to allow God’s torrential pouring to overflow into the lives of those uniquely positioned in our individual spheres of influence.

Whatever the details of our calling, Paul would exhort us, as he did the Colossians … Don’t get distracted. Don’t let anything in this world pull you away from what God has for you, because no matter how attractive it might seem, it will amount to slavery. Christ died that you might know God and be set apart for His use. And whatever that looks like for you personally, make it your laser focus, because it’s the only thing worth spending yourself to achieve.

phoenixResurrected by Christ

III. God has resurrected us (12-13a)

Thirdly, God has resurrected us, and given us an altogether new life in Christ. Look at vv12-13. “You have been buried with [Christ] in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Christ.” God has called us heavenward away from all the earthly things that could have been our focus or our life’s ambition — away from all our earthly gods. He has enticed us by His glory and beauty and love out of a quagmire of earthly passions that desired to enslave and destroy us, and called us to something so much greater. And it isn’t God’s intention that we keep our old lives, our old sins, or our old gods in some closet somewhere in case we get bored or lonely and want someone to play with. Instead, we are to put them to death. As in, stake through the heart. God calls us to burn the ships. We have slain and buried our old lives, and new life in Christ rises from those ashes, just as baptism outwardly demonstrates.

I can’t say it any clearer or better than Paul did: “We have been raised with Christ through faith in the powerful working of God!” God raised Jesus from the dead, so that He could raise us from the dead. And make no mistake…  we were dead – not slightly wounded or somewhat ineffective. We were dead, and now we are alive! Praise the Lord!

So I have to ask us all, myself included…

Is there anything about your life that God cannot have? Are there toys or trinkets, philosophies or empty deceit that you won’t turn over to Him? Is there something distracting you that you know you need to hand to the Lord, even if it’s painful, so that He can have your entire heart?

What about money? What about success? What about the approval of others? Or relationships in general? Is there a sinful pattern that only you know about, and the truth is that, way deep down, you absolutely love that sin? Is there something you’re afraid of or proud of or clinging to with a kung-fu death grip?

Whatever it is that tempts you, don’t let anything else sit in God’s place in your heart. The life your perfect Father intends for you is only possible when Jesus sits on the throne in your heart that He alone was meant to occupy. Anything else that would promise you the fulfillment Jesus would bring you is lying to you. Remember last time we talked about the vine and the branches. The branch that remains in anything but the vine might look alive, but the fact is that it’s not. So were we … dead in our trespasses and the uncircumcision of our sinful nature, but God has made us alive in Christ!

He has filled you with power and authority.

He has set you apart for service. He intends you to be unencumbered by your old sinful life.

And God has literally given you resurrection power over sin and death, distraction and idols, anything that might enslave you … that you might slay them in His Name, bury them, and rise to new life without them.

Who in their right mind would give up that kind of radical freedom to voluntarily return to slavery!?

acquittedAcquitted by Christ

IV. God has acquitted us (13b-14)

Next, God has acquitted us. Look at vv13-14. “You, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” Our new life wasn’t cheap. It came at the heavy price of the blood of the Son of God. Our sin created an unpayable debt, and stained us with obvious guilt before a majestic and perfectly holy God. Our independence and rebellion stand witness against us, formally charging us before God, the righteous Judge, with crimes punishable by death. We are literally unable to comprehend how completely without hope we would be in this world without Christ.

But God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him might not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)

The debt created by our sin is staggeringly large. But Jesus steps between us and the Father, and offers His infinite resources to pay that debt on our behalf. In the insignificance of our personal power and worldly philosophies, we would quickly drown in the vast ocean of our sin. But in the abundance of Christ’s sinless perfection, our guilt is completely washed away — if we die to ourselves, cast off other gods, and trust completely in Him.

For those of us who have turned from our sin and thrown ourselves on Christ in faith, God has done the unimaginable. Where we once stood bankrupt, we now enjoy abundance. Where we once stood formally accused with no right to mercy and no hope of even a reduced sentence, we are now declared innocent and set free.

It was for this freedom that Christ bled and died and rose again. Paul’s goal in this passage is to shine a spotlight on that, so that we can see its incomparable value. And if we truly grasp that, then what could possibly be enough to entice us from Christ’s freedom back to the bondage that is all the empty philosophies of this world have to offer!?

jesus-crush-serpentVindicated by Christ

V. God has triumphed for us (15)

God has filled us, consecrated us, resurrected us to new life, and acquitted us of our guilt. And in v15, we see that He has gone so far as to “disarm the rulers and authorities, and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in [Christ].

Friends, the reality is that there is an enemy of our souls. He rules this world and wars against us. He lies to us about who we are and about what’s important. He whispers in our ears that God is not good and that He cannot be trusted. He accuses us before the throne of God, and makes it his goal to see us chained, devoured and destroyed.

But he is also already defeated. Christ has triumphed over him.

God has declared us righteous, and declared our accuser impotent. God has set us free, declared that we are his adopted children and heirs. And then turned on our enemy, stripped him of all authority, and subjected him to open shame. We are rescued from the shame of our sin, but satan will never escape his shame and guilt. He may be the master of lies now, and his voice is very seductive. But God is assuring us in this passage that every lie satan has ever told will someday be exposed, and we will see him for the small and shameful and utterly defeated thing that he is. We need not fear him, and we certainly need not be drawn to him. Instead, we are called to victoriously resist him in Christ’s name.

God’s triumph over evil is so complete that evil will someday be subjected to ridicule and open shame. But perhaps even more important is that these “rulers and authorities” have totally lost their power. God has disarmed them. Imagine ripping the fangs out of a poisonous snake. The greatest power that satan and his demonic hordes have is what you give them in your own heart.

So don’t listen to the enemy. Don’t be deceived! Don’t get distracted! And don’t let him convince you that anything is valuable if it would position itself between you and Christ. Satan’s goal is to make you a slave. But you are NOT a slave. You’re the child of the King!

the-kings-and-queens-of-Narnia

Primary Claim Statement (Restatement)

In Christ, all the fullness of deity and all authority dwells in bodily form. You have been filled in Him, consecrated to His service, given a new life, acquitted from your guilt, and witnessed His triumph over your enemies! God says: You are mine! Don’t let anything else capture your heart!

Conclusion

Paul knew that we are easily deceived, easily trapped, easily enslaved. The Colossians faced subtle and attractive ideas. And so do we. But we must not be distracted, and we must not let anything enslave us. We fix your eyes on Christ, because we belong to Him!

Throughout His ministry, Jesus saw many followers walk away because His message was too difficult for them. At one point, Jesus ask the 12 if they too wanted to turn back – to turn away to other things. And I’d like to You-belong-to-Jesusclose with Peter’s response from John 6:68, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!”

As it was with Jesus and His disciples and with Paul and the Colossians, so it is with us. I ask you tonight, “Where else would we go, when Jesus alone has the words of life?”

Closing Prayer

Let’s pray…

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Oh, Love of God!

the-love-of-god

“To write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry”

The love of God is greater far than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star, and reaches to the lowest hell;
The guilty pair, bowed down with care, God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled, and pardoned from his sin.

Oh, love of God, how rich and pure! How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure, the saints’ and angels’ song.

When hoary time shall pass away, and earthly thrones and kingdoms fall,
When men who here refuse to pray, on rocks and hills and mountains call,
God’s love so sure, shall still endure, all measureless and strong;
Redeeming grace to Adam’s race, the saints’ and angels’ song.

Could we with ink the ocean fill, and were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill, and every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole, though stretched from sky to sky.

Oh, love of God, how rich and pure! How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure, the saints’ and angels’ song.

— Frederick M. Lehman, 1917

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On Life

shoot_stump

“… God made you alive with Christ.” (Colossians 2:13b)

People get just about everything backwards. It’s one of our strongest “gifts”. Maybe “propensities” would be a better word. As a broken and sinful people, we have the seriously unfortunate tendency to call light “darkness” and up “down”. We call cynicism “wisdom” and pessimism “realism”. And we are constantly focused on the wrong things. We’re experts at distraction and deceit, because our hearts are desperately wicked. (Jeremiah 17:9)

Such is the case in the very story of man. For so many of us, when we survey our history, all we see is death and darkness. To be honest, I think we have a bit of a preoccupation with death … perhaps because it is the most natural part of life. It’s the one thing that is certain; the destination of every person, perceived as a looming enemy who marches relentlessly toward us or lies in wait to attack without warning. But on this most auspicious, most important, most glorious day of the Christian calendar, I am convinced of and preoccupied with better things concerning us. I think we can do better than our routine fixation on death. Instead, today, let’s talk about light and life and the God who makes all things new!


In the beginning, there was nothing but God. God is life, the source, the origin, Alpha, the ultimate backdrop for concepts let alone things. Keep zooming out, and eventually you’ll be able to see “all things”. God is He who stands beyond “all things” and gives them meaning. He Himself has no context, but is instead the context for all things. Aristotle called Him, “the unmoved mover”. Thomas Aquinas called Him, “the first cause”. The Apostle John called Him, “Light and life” (John 1:4-5). He called Himself, “I Am”.

sunriseThis great God hovered in the midst of the lifeless nothing, and commanded that light come forth from it. Of course, it obeyed. This light was the second life, modeled after God Himself, who is the true light. The Word of John 1 wasn’t modeled after the light, the light was modeled after the Word.

After light, God spoke into existence matter and energy, rocks and water, air and space – the containers for life. All that would ever walk, swim or fly would do so in these vast spaces – magnificent in their beauty and shear, incredible scale – whether to the nearly infinitely large or small. And then God created that life. Orchids and amoebas, walruses and sunflowers, oak trees and insects, lions and hummingbirds, killer whales and bald eagles, deep sea urchins and red sequoia, grape vines, tree moss, cute little puppies, and even cats! The skill and creativity of all the artists and engineers, sculptures and poets who have ever lived adds up to the finger paint of an infant compared to the majesty and diversity of the life God commanded to inhabit His world. And it was amazing. And beautiful. And totally inadequate.

Physical life was something, but only a stepping stone – not befitting the glory of the God of Angel Armies. Physical life, as wondrous as it is in our eyes, was just another vestment on creation, an adornment of God’s sanctuary. There was not yet someone to lift their hands in worship. That was were God was really heading. For the “container”, God simply spoke, and it was so. But for man, God stooped down to form us from the dust of the earth and breathed into us … life.

“The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Genesis 2:7).

God had done something amazing! We were alive like the hummingbirds and the tree moss, but we were also alive like God. Sortof. Both physical and spiritual life – unique in all creation. Special. Not equal to God (for what would that even mean!?), but made in His image.

But this perfectly tranquil picture wasn’t to last long. In an instant, we used our godlike freedom to doubt God’s goodness, trample on His gifts, and spit in His face. We rejected Him, and set out from Eden cold and alone. Still physically alive (for at least a while, but continually winding down in decay), but now spiritually dead. Trapped. Slaves to sin. Destined for hell.

large_treeSo death entered the world, and seems to have permanently captured our attention. But it shouldn’t. God is not dead; not even hidden, for those with eyes to see. The Great I Am created all life from Himself. He was the source of the first grasshoppers and sugar maples, and He is the source of their life still. Though they die, their death is in the context of ever-regenerating life. True, sugar maples would likely have just stood there forever had Adam and Eve not sinned, but even though sin entered and broke the world, and death seems to be running roughshod over creation, there are sugar maples still. Now, instead of a sugar maple that stands indefinitely through the eons of time, there are sugar maples who drop their seeds to the ground, where they die, and are raised – I would argue, by the life of the Eternal God, as much as any technical description of the process of germination – to new life. And a new maple tree grows up to replace the old.

And so it is with us. God’s life was not diminished or incapacitated in any way by our sin and the death it causes. It is, however, now called upon to restore and renew us. And it has always been strong enough to do so. It was no difficult thing for God to create all physical and spiritual life. It is no difficult thing for God to pass down the life of one sugar maple to the next through death and rebirth over the millennia. And it is no difficult thing for Him to regenerate our lives as well. We die, but like the maple seed, that is what is required in order that we be raised – again by the life of the Eternal God – to new life.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get back to the story of man.

rainbowWhen remembering that God sent a flood to destroy the world in the days of Noah, many fixate on the flood and ask how a loving God could destroy the world. But I say, how loving God must have been to make sure that in Noah, a new shoot of life would come forth from the decaying stump of mankind’s corruption! God chose Noah to bring out of death new life. And set a rainbow in the sky to remind us of it.

When remembering how God chose Abram to be the father of a great nation, many recoil from God’s exclusion of some to the benefit of a chosen few others. It violates our pluralist cultural tendencies. Those outside the circle call foul, and those inside the circle flaunt their self-perceived superiority. Don’t any of them realize that God’s purpose was to bring life to the whole world through His people?

When remembering that God gave Moses the Law, many obsessed over God’s judgment. How harsh, how restrictive, how unfair is this God! Truly a buzz killer! And if He’s so loving, how could He hand down this unattainable standard that condemns us to death!? But I say, how gracious God is, and how loving, to send a tutor to watch over us … a servant to make sure we would bow our knee in humility before God even when we didn’t want to! (Galatians 3:24)

In a world broken by sin, without the Law, we would have nothing to cast us to the ground unto death. Some might think there should have been a better plan. What better plan would they have for the maple seed? The law is what casts down to death. Without death, there can be no new life. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it [is raised to life and] bears much fruit (John 12:24). What you sow does not come to life unless it dies (1 Cor 15:36).

Seeds

Don’t you see? The grain of wheat, the maple seed, and the sons and daughters of Adam… They are all, in reality, without life … at least not life as it was meant to be. On a table, in your hand, or in a world without the Law, they possess only the potential for life. They are alone. They … we must fall to the ground and die. Then, and only then, will the life and resurrection power of God act upon us. And then… we are born again. In a very rudimentary sense for the seed, as it completes the circle of life. But for us – men and women born into sin, born under the law – it is the second birth, this time from the Spirit. (John 3:5)

Assuming there’s a Savior.

And as if on cue, then came Jesus.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:10-13)

The timeline here might be a little confusing. It’s hard to wrap our heads around eternal stuff, for sure. But in the same that the light of creation was modeled after Jesus (not the other way around), so does the model of seed falling in death to spring up in life follow after Jesus, not before. The world broke along the lines that God had scored into it. It was always the plan for Christ to “fall to the ground and die”, so the model of death leading to life was in play before there was any other life but God’s. God doesn’t react to man’s shortsighted choices – not in the garden, and not now. From eternity past, everything looked forward to the cross and the empty tomb.

So, Jesus was born of a human girl and walked among us in bodily form, displaying the very glory of the Father, full of grace and truth. He was too beautiful. Too glorious. And we killed Him for it. Of course, they … we meant it for self-serving evil, but God open-doormeant it for ultimate good. Nobody took Jesus’ life. He laid it down, because He knew that His death was the step immediately preceding resurrection.

And when He stepped forth from the tomb, the door to new life – which our sin had bolted shut – was flung open wide. In His atoning sacrifice, He set us free from sin and death, darkness and slavery. There is now nothing keeping us in our cage. We need only step out by faith … arise, and go to Jesus.

And if we do, upon being received by Him, we are spiritually born again – united with Christ as His bride, adopted by God as His children, acquitted from our guilt, and impugned with His righteousness. Made whole.

In order to receive Christ in faith, we die to ourselves. We agree with the Law and bow our heads in humble worship as it casts us to the ground. And we die. But Jesus’ blood has already soaked and fertilized the spot where our seed comes to rest, and we are by it germinated into new life. God’s power raises us from the dead. And we are a new creation. The old baptismhas passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Cor 5:17)

In this resurrected state, we are united with Christ. The Spirit dwells within us. And we have life and power we couldn’t have known before. Augustine said we are “posse peccare et no peccare” (“able to sin and not to sin”). We stand between two worlds. Alive, but at war. But alive none the less. We are newly aware of our dependence on Christ, mindful of our desperate need to remain in Him for life. Not precarious, but firmly planted. Rooted. Being built up by God. (Colossians 2:7)

Lastly, what are we being built up into? What exactly is God building? What does He have in mind for this new life of the believer?

As in everything else, we find the answer when we look to Jesus. Paul (in Colossians 1:18) and John (in Revelation 1:5) called Jesus, “The firstborn of the dead”. He is the example, the archetype of our future selves. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him. (1 John 3:2)

The empty tomb means more than that Jesus was raised from the dead. It means we will be too. Our destiny is for a wholeness in fact greater than that in the garden of Eden. Evidently even then Adam’s life was more potential than I think we realize. There is a new physical and spiritual reality waiting for us in heaven that is even better than our initial state in the garden, because we will have passed through death and resurrection to receive it. To complete Augustine’s picture, we will finally be “non posse peccare” (“not able to sin”).

walk in the parkI don’t fully understand this, and neither do you. God has made it clear that no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love Him (1 Cor 2:9). But whatever it is, it looks like Jesus, and it is true life. Jesus called it “abundant” life (John 10:10). And knowing how well God does “abundance,” that sounds pretty great to me.

This Easter, remember that life flows from God. In creation. In history. In the plan of salvation. In the church. In heaven. In your mortal body. And in your very soul. Don’t let death capture too much of your attention, except to be seen as life’s handmaiden.

Luther said it this way,

See how divine majesty is at hand in the hour of death. We say, “In the midst of life, we die.” God answers, “Nay, in the midst of death, we live.”

Paul said,

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)

Happy Resurrection Sunday!

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On Death

Cemetery

“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh…” (Colossians 2:13a)

The eternal God gave us life. “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Genesis 2:7). In the beginning, we were both physically and spiritually very much alive. And we were able not to sin. Augustine famously said it this way: We were “posse non peccare” (Latin) – “able not to sin”.

But we did in fact choose to sin. We defied God, fundamentally broke the creation, and opened the door for death to mercilessly invade our lives. We wouldn’t have deteriorated and died in the garden, either physically or spiritually. But given our sin, now we will. Our rebellion has earned us death as a “wage” (Romans 6:23). We forced God’s hand. Thanks to our spiteful insurrection, God is now obligated to give us death, in the same way that your employer is obligate to give you a paycheck. Seriously bad news. And now we were trapped in our sin – now “non posse non peccare” (“not able not to sin”).

old_agePhysically, both our bodies and the world around us will now deteriorate and die. And all along the way, there would be pain and loss, suffering and fear. And hard labor to draw from the earth its fruit. What in the garden was just hanging on the trees for anyone to grab and enjoy, now requires back-breaking labor Adam and Eve had never dreamed of. Aching pain, blistered hands repairing / rebuilding worn-out tools, devastating crop failure, famine, drought, pestilence, the continual need to invest energy to achieve an ever diminishing rate of return…  All the price of the fall of man.

Spiritually, the situation was even worse. Adam and Eve were cut off from God immediately – thrown out of the garden (paradise), made to wander the earth apart from God. It took less than a generation for Cain to kill his brother Able, and within a few more generations, wickedness had increased to the point that God undertook his first act of re-creation in selecting Noah to start over. God would become famous for this approach… From the self-worshipping, sin-soaked, idolatrous masses, God selects one man on whom to rebuild. He calls that man to respond in faith, knowing that he will, and he does. And all of mankind is wiped out in the flood, while Noah’s family is saved and becomes the new seed of mankind. Out of a great and horrible flood of death, there is a single shoot of new life. A mustard seed that grows into a great tree.

But the world was still broken, and man became incredibly corrupt … again. So, God selected one man on whose shoulders to bring salvation … again. This time, the man’s name was Abram (changed by God to Abraham). God made this man the father of a nation – His nation. Through Abraham and his people, God gave the world His Law, by literally engraving it onto stone tablets and handing it to Moses, God’s faithful servant. Again, one man at the center of God’s plan. God’s Law served one major purpose: to be a tutor to man, to watch over him until God would redeem them fully.

ten-commandment-tabletsThe Law fulfilled this function in two ways. First, it demonstrated the hopeless condition of man. Compared to God’s greatness, man is corrupt and stained and ugly, wicked and helpless, condemned to be forever separated from God’s purity and perfection. The Law clearly shows us that it is utterly and completely futile to try to earn our way back to God. No matter how hard we try or how nice we are to that cranky uncle or difficult neighbor, we will never deserve to regain access to the garden. We will never, by ourselves, stem the tide of the onslaught of death. We will receive the wages for our sin, no matter what we do while “off the job”.

Secondly, the Law provided a way to have some kind of interaction – however imperfect or incomplete – with a holy and righteous God. Visiting rights, as it were. The Law couldn’t take us back to the garden, but it did provide a way for God to speak directly to a prophet or two to encourage or exhort His people, or to rest in a pillar of fire above the altar once a year. At least we could still see God every once in a while.

tabernacle

How did the Law accomplish this? What was the cost of God’s visitation rights? In a word, death. A whole lot of animal sacrifice and an endless river of blood. On our way to the grave, God’s people (and a few astute outsiders) spilled the blood of countless lambs and doves (doesn’t get more symbolic than that), rams and bulls on the altar to just get a glimpse of or a few words from God. Not because God is capricious, but because God’s holiness is that serious. Only in our day – when we all think ourselves to be the center of the universe – do we have the … um … guts … to declare that God must be pretty unfair to insist on a gap between us. What we should be acknowledging is how loving God is for making a way for us to see Him at all! What we deserved was to be booted out of the garden and left entirely for dead. But God made a way, as God always does.

lamb-sacrificeAfter centuries of blood pouring from the altar, God again brought salvation through one man. This time, for good. This was the plan from the beginning. “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). Jesus was this man. He was at the same time, the only begotten Son of God, second person of the Trinity, fully divine, “in whom all the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9), and fully man, born of Mary, under the Law, just like you and me. Note that all the fullness of deity dwells in Him … in bodily form.

In a future post, I’m going to come back to the significance of Christ’s nature as fully God and fully man, but for now, suffice it to say that this had to be. No other formula would work. Without this truth, there would be no Easter, no redemption, no salvation for man. For Jesus, once born as a man, like us, must die as a man. Death is a wage, not a gift. It has been earned by mankind, and therefore, God must pay it to mankind. Everyone born under the Law (and therefore condemned by it) must die if the Law is to be fulfilled. Even Christ.

And die He did. Over 2,000 years ago, a bunch of religious people like me (and probably you) couldn’t see past their own selfish desires and rampant god-complexes, so they paid a friend to betray Jesus, convicted Him of trumped up charges in a kangaroo court, coerced the people to demand the release of a murderer in His place, beat Him bloody, and brutally executed Him in the most horrible way the wicked heart of man could conceive. It turns my stomach just to write it.

cross2

And so, on “Good” Friday, c.AD 33, Jesus died physically. He did not deserve death, but chose it. No man took His life; He gave it away. Had He chosen to sin, He would not have had this choice, and His human nature would have been subject to spiritual death as well. But He didn’t. His perfection made Him exempt. Had he desired to claim for Himself the key to re-enter the garden, He would have had the right to it and entered without challenge.

But He was also God, perfect in love (for us) and for whom the concept of death is in fact a non sequitur … a fundamentally meaningless concept … not possible. Neither spiritually, nor physically, can the God of the Universe die. What would that even mean?

Again, I’ll dive further into this in a future post, but it means that the infinite resources of Christ’s divine nature were unleashed by His obedient perfection to underwrite the finite (though by us, unpayable) debt of the sins of all mankind. Jesus “filled up in His flesh” the suffering and wrath and death that was due to each of us. In so doing, He paid our debt to God and restored the honor we stole from God when we called Him a liar and spit in His face in the garden.

Tell of His salvationAnd so, the door that was closed behind Adam and Eve as they walked from paradise, was flung open wide by Christ through His death on the cross. Now we can choose. Death still looms before us, but faith can affect the all-important transaction through which we can trade places with Jesus. It’s a spiritual union. The very thing that marriage was modeled after in this world. Christ is the bridegroom, and He desires to be united with us, His bride. If we submit to Him and are united with Him, we will become one with Him. All our sin, He absorbs to himself. And all His righteousness is ours as well. Our sin is swallowed up in the infinite reserve of His perfection and divine holiness. With His perfect goodness, our cups runneth over. But not without death.

Jesus died, and His blood ran red, so that we could be washed white.

But still we too must also die. Submission to and oneness with the Lord does not stave off physical death. We’re all still aging, wearing out, and dying – the mortality rate has been holding at 100% since AD 33. But spiritually, our union with Christ also requires death to self. Like Jesus on the cross, in choosing Him, we are dying to one life that we might live to another. There is, in that moment, an important sort of death – as baptism demonstrates. Jesus laid down his plain old Adam-model of human life to pick up a new life, for which He (not Adam) was the template. He was “the first born from the dead” (Colossians 1:18). Jesus was not the same man on Monday that He was on Good Friday, including physically.

For us, the same is true. Our union with Christ requires the death of the “non posse non peccare” man. Jesus makes it possible, but we must choose it. This is the death that Adam earned for us and that we perpetuate with every wicked choice (whether deed or thought). It is the death of the slavery to sin. One way or another, Adam’s rebellion had to end in death. And so it will, whether now as we submit to God willingly or someday when we stand before God’s throne of judgment and bow in terror. One way or another, we bow and we die, for God is supreme over all.

If we hold on to this life, refusing to be parted from it, then with it comes the spiritual death that is the fulfillment of our sin. Someday it will be too late, and spiritual death will follow physical death. We will have spit both in God’s face in the garden, and on Jesus’ offer of new life on the cross. And no punishment will be too great for us. There will be no one left to restore the honor we have taken from God.

But if we choose to die now, we do so only in part, as Jesus takes upon Himself the brunt of that death and punishment – again, absorbing it into the infinitely deep well of His grace. For this man, from the ashes rises a new man who is “able to sin and not to sin” – “posse peccare et non peccare”, according to Augustine. We are new creations.

cross1But that’s an Easter message, and it’s Good Friday. On Good Friday, we focus on the death…

We chose sin in the garden, to purchase for ourselves slavery and suffering and death.

Countless animals died throughout the centuries, to purchase fleeting moments of clarity and comfort for God’s people.

Jesus died on the cross, to purchase redemption for any who would hear His voice, turn from their sin, and come to Him.

We now die to ourselves that we might belong to God.

And when our bodies fail someday, and we die physically in this world, we will rise…

But that will have to wait ‘til Sunday.

To be continued…

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