February 21 2015

Baptism & the Sinner’s Prayer

river-baptisms-112

As some of you may know, I have been reflecting on baptism for a while now, especially considering the issue about whether or not to baptise my daughter who is due in June. You can read my previous blog on why I am thinking about this issue HERE.

As I’ve been reading, researching and reflecting on the appropriateness of infant baptism, I have started with a simple question… What is baptism? When Jesus said to his followers who were mostly simple fishermen, “Go, make disciples and baptise them” (Matthew 28:19) they understood what he meant. So in my research, I didn’t want the super theological, highly complex, only can be understood if you have a Masters Degree of Divinity, understanding. I wanted the simple fisherman’s version. When they went out and said to someone, “Hey! You should become a disciple of Jesus and get baptised!”, when the other person said, “Why should I get baptised? What’s that about?”, I wanted to know how they would answer.

How would YOU answer?

 

BAPTISM THEN

One thing I’ve noticed is that for the first Christians, baptism was part and parcel of becoming a Christian. Right at the beginning of the Church’s mission to the world, after the first ever public evangelistic sermon, those that wanted to respond to Jesus asked the very simple question…

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. (Acts 2:37-41)

They asked, “What shall we do?”, and Peter answered “Repent and be baptised.”  And that’s what they did. It was fairly simple.

This is the pattern all the way through the Book of Acts as well:

When they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptised, both men and women.
(Acts 8:12)

As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptised?”
(Acts 8:36)

Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptised.
(Acts 9:18)

The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptised, she invited us to her home.
(Acts 16:14-15)

The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptised.
(Acts 16:29-33)

Crispus, the synagogue leader, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul believed and were baptised.
(Acts 18:8)

‘And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptised and wash your sins away, calling on his name.’
(Acts 22:16)

baptism-photoNow, it may seem (to those who know the different sides of the debate) that I am trying to put forward the case for credobaptism or “believer baptism”, but I’m not. I’m simply showing how, for the early Church, baptism was the way people responded to Jesus. What happened in their heart? God helped them believe the message. What happened in their mind? They repented from their sin and put their trust in Jesus. And what did they do with their body? They got baptised.

Baptism is so intimately connected with the response of believing and repenting that Paul recalls in his own story, how Ananais had said to him, “And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptised and wash your sins away, calling on his name.” (Acts 22:16) The act of baptism, the miracle of being forgiven (having your sins washed away) and the response of calling on Jesus’ name are all in the one package. This is why Peter in his first epistle, says that we are saved through the waters of baptism (1 Peter 3:21). This passage use to confuse me, but he goes on to describe baptism as “not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God.” Baptism was the handshake that sealed the deal. It was the signature that signed the contract. It was the step over the line in the sand. It was the pledge of a clear conscience towards God.

Now, to be very clear, the Bible never says that baptism itself is what saves us or forgives us of sin. That would be to commit the mistake that the Catholic Church sadly has fallen into (I make mention of this in my previous blog on baptism). Even after Peter’s potentially confusing statement about being saved through baptism, he clarifies that it is actually “the resurrection of Jesus Christ” that saves you (1 Peter 3:21). It is Jesus that saves us, through his work not ours. We don’t even prompt Jesus to save us by our faith. As shown in many of the episodes in Acts, it is God who opens people’s heart to respond in faith. Our faith is a gift, so that our salvation is from God and by God from start to finish. As Paul writes so succinctly in Ephesians 2:8-9, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this faith is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”

So baptism doesn’t have any magical saving powers, but it is still tied very intimately to our response and to God’s salvation. They are all wrapped up together. Can you be saved without baptism? Of course! Think about the thief on the cross (Luke 23:38-43). But what should we do to respond to Jesus? Repent and be baptised. Simple as that.

 

BAPTISM TODAY

The sad thing I see today is that much of the church seems to have lost this simple approach to baptism. Both sides of the baptism debate have made it more complex than it needs to be. Pedobaptists churches can sometimes turn baptism into a highly complex, theological statement about the seal of God’s promises and the sign of the new covenant. I fear, they can sort of kill it with theology at times, like a joke that stops being funny after you have explained it in too much detail.

Credobaptists churches on the other hand, should be all for a simple “believe and be baptised” approach, but many of them can make it overcomplicated as well. Because they are committed to not baptising children from Christian homes unless they are really believers, they have developed systems for establishing this with supposed certainty. Many make people partake in several week-long baptism courses which you have to register for and in some churches they get you to wait until Easter when they do a mass baptism of lots of converts. In most churches, baptism is also connected with the idea of becoming a “member” of that particular church and so it begins to take on even more complexity. If you’re thinking about becoming baptised, you might be encouraged to wait until an appropriate date on which you can invite your friends and family along. It gets put off to an available Sunday service that isn’t too busy. And then there’s your testimony. Of course, you have to give a public testimony explaining how you came to trust in Jesus. And because of this, help in how to write a clear testimony is often worked into a baptism course, and people are given time to feel comfortable with standing up in front of a crowd and sharing their story. I know of Christians who have put off their baptism indefinitely, purely due to their fear of public speaking.

Where did it go so wrong? When did we lose the simplicity? When did baptism turn into such an event? In the New Testament, baptism is like a shotgun wedding. “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptised?” the Ethiopian in Acts 8 says when he believes in Jesus. Nowadays, it can be more like a big ceremony, that looks like a wedding but the couple made their marriage vows a month or two earlier. People get baptised weeks, months or even decades after they repented and believed in Jesus. I think it’s weird. I think it’s sad. I think we’ve missed the point of baptism. It’s not just that it loses the excitement of the moment of conversion. It also loses the connection with the act of conversion itself. Remember, the passages from Acts? Conversion and baptism were part of the same package. You repented and were baptised. At the same time. On the same day.

This is maybe why we get so confused about what baptism is and how we should administer it. We’ve turned it into something with more complexity, more theology, more process and more red tape than it ever was meant to have. Now, I’m not saying that we should take it lightly or encourage people to do it willy nilly. But we don’t encourage people to repent and believe lightly either. Jesus tells us that we must count the cost of being a disciple (Luke 14:25-33) and he also warns us not to be one of those people who respond to the gospel with superficial enthusiasm, but who dump it all when times get tough (Matthew 13:20-21). Becoming a disciple of Jesus is huge. It is giving up your autonomy and your sin and your allegiance to anyone or anything other than Christ. It should not be done for foolish or selfish reasons. Like wedding vows, becoming a disciple of Jesus is a life-long commitment that should be entered into “reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God” (“The Form of Solemnization of Matrimony” from “The Book of Common Prayer”).

Having said this, the call to repent and believe in Jesus is an immediate call. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 6:2, “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favour, now is the day of salvation.” We are all called to respond to Jesus now. Not to wait or put it off. True, we must count the cost, but count the cost now. The warnings are generally not about responding to God too quickly, but too slowly. Like the man in the story Jesus told in Luke 12:16-21, who stored up his wealth and put off being rich towards God, and then one night God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you.” We are told to respond now. And baptism, I think, was meant to be part of that response.

 

THE SINNER’S PRAYER

The role baptism had in the response of a brand new believer, has today been replaced in part by what’s known as the “Sinner’s Prayer”. The “Sinner’s Prayer” is a simple prayer that acknowledges our sin, asks Jesus for forgiveness and accepts Jesus as your Lord. There are no strict formulaic words to the “Sinner’s Prayer”, but at the end of every evangelistic tract you’ll find one. If you’ve ever been to a big evangelistic rally or event and they ask people to come to the front if they want to become a Christian, the prayer they get everyone to say is a version of the Sinner’s Prayer”. It is a decisive, verbal prayer of repentance and commitment. It is quite useful in evangelism because it has a beginning and it has an end, so you can say to people who have prayed it (if they truly meant it) that they are now saved and that they are now part of God’s family.

Sinners-Prayer-card_f_improf_629x495Some Christians are strongly against the idea of the “Sinner’s Prayer” (like Paul Washer who brings up some great points in this VIDEO). Mainly, their criticisms are about people’s confidence in their salvation being based on the prayer they said once, rather than the daily reliance on the work of Christ. I agree that the “Sinner’s Prayer” has a danger of being treated like a magical spell that once said with conviction, compels God to forgive you and make you born again. But I don’t think it has to be that way. When I repented and believed at age 16, it was through saying the “Sinner’s Prayer” around a kitchen table with some Christian friends who had shared the gospel with me. I can’t really remember all the words I said, but it was a clear moment to that reminded me that I had crossed the line and given my life to Jesus. Now I am under no illusion that it was the “Sinner’s Prayer” that saved me. It was Jesus who saved me. And like Lydia in Acts 16:14, I know that God was the one who opened my heart to accept the gospel, without any prompting from me. In fact, it was that opening of my heart that prompted me to want to say the “Sinner’s Prayer”.

Some people critique the “Sinner’s Prayer” because they say it is unbiblical. Nowhere in the bible do we see people reciting a particular prayer in their moment of coming to faith. When the men came to Peter and asked, “What must we do?”, Peter didn’t say, “Bow your head and repeat this prayer after me, line by line.” No, he said, “Repent and be baptised!” Now, although that is true, I do think there is biblical precedent for the idea of a prayer being the physical act that shows repentance. In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a parable about a Tax Collector who beats his breast and says, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner’ and then goes home justified before God. Surely, that is as close to the “Sinner’s Prayer” as you can get. Also, in Romans 10:9-13, Paul writes: “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” This “calling on the name of the Lord” has been maybe made a bit too formulaic in the “Sinner’s Prayer” but it seems their is definitely biblical for encouraging people to talk to God as part of the mark of their repentance.

The thing I think is unfortunate about the “Sinner’s Prayer” is that it seems to have replaced the role of baptism. Today, if you were asked by a friend you have shared the gospel with, “What must I do?”, would you answer with “repent and be baptised” or the “Sinner’s Prayer”? Part of the role of baptism I think was to give the convert a clear and decisive moment in time when they make the decision to become a disciple of Jesus. In the act of going into the water, they were identifying themself with Jesus and their acceptance of the gospel message. Today, we use the “Sinner’s Prayer” functionally in the same way, and baptism is left as this strange ritual that we do a long time afterwards, or for some, we never get around to doing at all!

 

WHERE TO FROM HERE?

I think for us to regain the purpose for baptism that is pictured in the Bible, I have a few thoughts:

  • Include baptism in our evangelistic call.
    • It may seem weird, but when we encourage our non-Christian friends and family to turn to Christ, I think we should encourage them to be baptised as part of that call. If we are worried that they would be turned off by such a tactile and public display of commitment, then maybe we don’t trust that God would be at work in their hearts. God is the one that opens people’s eyes and hearts to the beauty of the gospel. Maybe, when God does that, the idea of baptism wouldn’t be such a weird idea.
  • At evangelistic events and Youth Rallies, there should not be an alter call without baptisms.
    • altar-call1Either be ready to do baptisms when you want people to turn to Christ, or, probably more appropriately, don’t do alter calls. I asked one friend why he thought they thought they didn’t do baptisms at Youth Rally evangelistic events, he said it was because they expected that some kids were only responding due to the hype of the moment, and so they shouldn’t get baptised just in case it wasn’t genuine. If that is the case then why do an alter call? Why do the “Sinner’s Prayer”? What assurance can you give the new believer if you doubt that they truly are a new believer?
    • Some also think it’s simply impractical to call people to be baptised at such a large event, but that issue didn’t faze the early Church. When Peter told his hearers to “Repent and be baptised”, it goes on to say, “Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” (Acts 2:41) Can we even fathom an evangelistic event where thousands of people respond to the gospel and do so by being baptised? I’m not saying if we don’t have baptisms, the converts aren’t real Christians. It’s just that when baptism is left out, I feel it loses its meaning and intended purpose.
  • Stop putting up so many barriers to baptism.
    • This is a controversial one, but hear me out. I’m not saying we shouldn’t care about who gets baptise and I even think we should refuse baptism to anyone who is doing it without “counting the cost” or wanting it for non-gospel reasons. But some churches have drowned the process of baptism with process and paperwork. There is no biblical reason why baptism has to be done at church. There is no biblical reason why it has to wait for Sunday. There is no biblical reason why it has to be done by an ordained minister.
    • I’m not saying that it’s wrong to wait to do it if you want to have family and friends present. There can be something very special about that. But it should be easy. It should be a natural response to Jesus, and pretty much, whoever wants to repent and be baptised should be allowed to. Think about the “Sinner’s Prayer”. If a friend told you they want to be saved and asked if you could pray with them, would you get them to do a “Sinner’s Prayer” course? Would they have to do it at a Sunday Service after they shared their testimony? Would you call the minister to do it for you? I really hope not! Sure you might ask them some “counting the cost” type questions to make sure they understood what it meant, but once you were fairly convinced that their desire to respond to the gospel was genuine, you would probably pray with them there and then! I think we should do baptism in the same way. Like the enthusiastic Ethiopian in Acts 8:36, we should encourage people to say, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptised?”
  • Get baptised!
    • This last point is for those Christians who have never been baptised. Get baptised! There are only two rituals that Jesus commands Christians to do – partaking in the Breaking of Bread and baptism. If you have never gotten around to getting baptised, go and get it done. Speak to you minister today, talk to a Christian friend. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. You can do it at church, or at the beach, or in a lake, or in your bathtub! It is sad that it is so far removed from your initial act of repentance and conversion, but the truth of the symbolic act is still as true today as it would have been if you had done it then. Getting baptised is a wonderful physical response to Jesus, and it is something that he commands, so doing it shows everyone your submission to and love for the Lord.

 

BAPTISM & CHRISTIAN KIDS

Now, all this talk about baptism being part and parcel with our response to Jesus, doesn’t necessarily answer the question about what Christian parents should do with their kids. A credobaptist may have read this blog and be saying, “It’s obvious! The call is to repent and then get baptised! Not to baptise and then hope they repent!” But I don’t think it’s that easy.

Child-with-Bible1As I have already mentioned, many credobaptist churches turn the process of baptism into a convoluted series of hoops that you have to jump through to prove that you are really truly genuine in your repentance. But the child born into a Christian family has a unique experience. They are not being called to convert, they are not being called to repent. They are (hopefully) being brought up with the truths of the gospel. They don’t come to respond to Jesus. They’ve been taught to respond to Jesus right from the beginning. Ideally, they have grown up knowing and believing the gospel and relating to Jesus as their Lord and God as their Heavenly Father.

The question remains, if this is their experience and they have no conversion “moment”, then when should they be baptised? Some credobaptists might argue that kids should be encouraged to get to a time when they “own” their faith and publicly profess themselves to be a Christian, and that that is the appropriate time for them to be baptised, but I don’t see any clear biblical basis for that as much as I don’t see any clear biblical example of infant baptism. The biblical model is that, for first time believers, they should repent and be baptised. For those that are brought up in a family that has already repented, there really is no clear biblical model. I have questions and concerns about infant baptism, but I think I have more of a problem with the uniquely credobaptist “ownership of faith” baptism.

This blog isn’t my final thought on baptism. In fact, it is really just the starting point. Repentance and baptism are supposed to go hand in hand. That I am clear on. Maybe I should ditch the terms “pedobaptist” and “credobaptist” and call myself “repentobaptist”. In any case, I will continue thinking about how this starting point relates to what I should do with my daughter that is due in June. Getting this initial understanding about the place of baptism is for now, enough for me to chew on.

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August 7 2014

The Black Letter Gospel – Miracles

black letter gospel

In some Bibles the words of Jesus are printed in red. These “red letter” bibles are well meaning, encouraging us to consider Jesus’ teaching by drawing attention to his words, but it’s also a bit of a misleading thing. It implies that the red letters somehow hold more authority as the “Word of God” and that the black letters are somehow less important. Nothing could be farther from the truth…

Back in July, I posted on Facebook this question: “What do you think is the best way to clearly explain the gospel (the message that is at the heart of Christianity)? If you’re not a Christian, what would be the most helpful way that it could be explained, if you ever wanted to get your head around it?” My cousin posted a great response that I took as a wonderful challenge. He wrote: “I’d love to see something based on Jesus’ actions, with contextual discourse. As opposed to the usual focus on what he said.” It was a wonderful insight and revealed to me how many people hear Christians talking about Jesus.

Sometimes, we can focus on Jesus as simply a moral teacher. Jesus said this, Jesus said that. It all nice to hear someone talk, but what did he DO? How did he live? Did his actions back up his words? What can we learn about Jesus and his message and his mission, from what he did rather than what he taught? It’s a great challenge. It encourages us to look at the black letters, not just the red. Well, this four-part blog is a summary of my thoughts on that topic.

niner-slapA word of caution: Now, as much as the old saying, “actions speak louder than words” is very true, I will not completely ignore Jesus words in my exploration of his actions. If someone suddenly gives you a slap on the head, the words they say next might be vitally important. If they say, “You’re an idiot!” then you know the intention behind the action. But if they say, “You had a spider crawling on your head!” you might respond with thanks rather than a punch in the nose. Likewise, Jesus’ actions sometimes can be confusing or easily misinterpreted and so his words of explanation can be very insightful.

Ok, now there’s lots that could be said about Jesus’ actions and it’s pretty hard to go through each one (as wonderful an exercise as that may be), so I’ve summarised them under four categories: MIRACLES, MEALS, DEATH & RESURRECTION. You might be able to find many actions that he did that don’t exactly fit under these categories, but when it comes to the most significant actions recorded in the gospels, I’d say these four pretty much cover them all.

In this first of four blog posts, we will look at: Miracles.


MIRACLES

Possibly the most memorable actions that Jesus is known for is the miracles he performed. Ask the average guy on the street and he might remember the stories about how Jesus turned water into wine, healed people, fed the 5,000 and walked on water. But what were his miracles all about? Were they like super powers that he used when he saw someone is trouble?

Well, the word that is often used alongside (or instead of) the word “miracles” is the word “signs”. The apostle Peter, when he summarises the life of Jesus before his crucifixion, says: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.” (Acts 2:22) In fact, in the New Testament, supernatural actions are called “signs” around three times more often than they are called “miracles”.

The reason why Jesus’ miracles are called “signs” is because they weren’t simply super powers on display. They were a sign pointing to or SIGNifying something. Jesus’ miracles were deliberate demonstrations of the authority and identity of Jesus. They showed that he was from God. 

You see this very clearly throughout the gospels. In John 3:2, when Nicodemus the Jewish religious ruler met with Jesus, he says: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” When Jesus calms a storm with his word in Mark 4:35-41, his disciples are terrified and wonder, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”  Also, when John the Baptist was in prison and starting to lose faith about whether Jesus was who he said he was, Jesus pointed to his miracles as proof. Read the following passage from Luke 7:18-23…

“John’s disciples told him about all these things. Calling two of them, he sent them to the Lord to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’ When the men came to Jesus, they said, ‘John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?’’ At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. So he replied to the messengers, ‘Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.'”

Jesus’ saw his own miracles as signs that pointed to the fact that he truly was “the one who is to come”.

turning-water-into-wineThe very first public miracle that Jesus performed is probably his most famous – turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana. You can read the whole story in John 2:1-12. Now, you may think that Jesus may have done this miracle in order to help out the thirsty wedding guests or the bride and groom who were embarrassed by running out of booze, but the text says something different. It says in verse 11, What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” The point and purpose of the sign was to reveal his glory, and the response Jesus expects is for us to believe in him. This is the point of all the miracles, as John writes at the end of his gospel account: Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

The miracles are supposed to be a signpost pointing to the identity of Jesus. Jesus performed them to show us that he has divine authority over nature, over sickness, over evil and over death. He is God in human form and we should respond to him as such. But how should we respond to someone who is demonstrating the authority of God? How should we respond to God?

Well, when Peter first saw Jesus perform a miracle, his response wasn’t joy or amazement – it was fear for his own soul. In Luke 5:1-11, after Jesus has just caused a miraculous amount of fish to be caught by Peter, it says, “When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!'” Peter knew he was in the presence of God his Creator – the one who was holy and perfect, the one who knew the darkness of his heart and the one who one day would judge all the world. This is the response that the miracles should inspire – A deep awareness of our own sinfulness before a holy God. It should inspire repentance.

This is what Jesus expected. You see that in Matthew 11:20-24 where Jesus rebukes the people who had seen lots of his miraculous signs: Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.'” 

So the miracles of Jesus show us that Jesus is more than a mere moral teacher – he is God in human form. Those, like Peter, who are honest with themselves do not find Jesus’ miracles good news. When God shows us that means that you and I will be held accountable for our sin. The expectation of Peter is that Jesus has come to bring God’s wrath.

Well, Peter was right to respond to Jesus with fear of being condemned. But Jesus does something spectacular. In Luke 5:10, Jesus responds by saying “Do not be afraid” and by inviting Peter to follow him. That’s how Jesus responded to sinners. He doesn’t run away in disgust or turn away in anger, like Peter thought he would. In fact, he draws near and extends the offer to follow him. This actually a simple definition of what it means to be a Christian – someone who knows they are a sinner, but believes in Jesus and takes up his offer to follow him.

Jesus, even though he was our Creator in human form, did not come to condemn sinners. He came to welcome them and call them to repent and come back into friendship with God. This offer to sinners of mercy and reconciliation is demonstrated no more powerfully than by the second category of Jesus actions – meals.

 

Post on “Meals” coming soon…
Please ask your questions about this post or make a comment below.

 

 

 

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April 19 2014

Jesus’ death & Isaiah 53

4youUntitled-2

There are many passages in the Old Testament that help us understand what Jesus was on about and why he died, but none is clearer than the 53rd chapter of the Book of Isaiah.

Isaiah was a prophet who lived around 1,000 years before Jesus. He received many visions and messages from God, some of which were fulfilled in his own lifetime, some which point to the end of the world, and some that point to the promised Messiah, Jesus.

The vision recorded in Isaiah 53 is so strikingly accurate to the suffering and death of Jesus is it hard to ignore it. Definitely the New Testament writers and even Jesus saw the connection.

Not only are the parallels in Isaiah 53 interesting, they are also very helpful to explain the purpose of Jesus’ death. There is a fairly recent philosophical movement in some circles to argue against the idea that Jesus died as a substitute for sinners. This theological idea – known as “Substitutionary Atonement” – is I believe at the very heart of the Christian gospel and is supported not only throughout the New Testament epistles, but also the gospels as well.

There are some though that argue that this concept was made up many years after Jesus by the apostle Paul and is not found at all in the teaching of Jesus. I met a minister in the States years ago who told me that the idea that Jesus took our place on the cross and died on our behalf was nowhere to be found in the gospels. He challenged me to think of one place where it could be found, and at the time, I was nervous and didn’t know the bible as well as I do now, so I went blank.

If I had my time again, I would have pointed this minister to Isaiah 53 and all the places in the New Testament that say that Jesus’ death was a fulfilment of it. If you are interested in looking up some of those references you can check out: Luke 22:37, 1 Peter 2:21-25, Acts 8:26-40 and Romans 10:16.

If you want to understand the message of Christianity, if you want to get your head around the Good Friday and the purpose behind Jesus’ death, I could point you to many places in the New Testament, but I’d say you could read the Old Testament prophecy found in Isaiah 53 and that would be sufficient.

I will not write a big explanation of this passage. Rather, I will simply post it below for you to read yourself and reflect on how it helps you understand Jesus’ death:

ISAIAH 53

Who has believed our message
    and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
    and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and afflicted,
    yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
    and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
    Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
    for the transgression of my people he was punished.
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
    and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
    nor was any deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
    and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
    and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
After he has suffered,
    he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
    and he will bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
    and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
    and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
    and made intercession for the transgressors.

 

May you reflect on this passage this Easter and know that when it says “he bore the sins of many” that not only is the “he” referring to Jesus, but that you may be included in the “many”.

That is the offer of the gospel and the message of Easter.

If you’d like some reflection questions, read through Isaiah 53 again and think about the following:

  • What are the parallels in this prophecy to the suffering and death of Jesus?
  • What does this teach me about WHY Jesus died?
  • What is God’s part in all of this?
  • What does this prophecy teach me about the sort of people Jesus died for?
  • Do I think of myself in the terms described in this prophecy?
  • If Jesus died for me, how should I respond to his death?
  • Do I think this prophecy gives any hint about the resurrection?

Write your answers, reflections or further questions in the comments below…

HAPPY EASTER!

BC

 

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April 16 2014

The Cry at the Crucifixion

At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.” Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 

These words found in Matthew 15:33-34, record an incredibly powerful moment in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. The gospel writers Matthew and Mark record the words, “Eloi, Eloi lema sabachthani?” as one of the final words of Jesus before breathing his last. They are words that, as the story shows, can be misunderstood, as some standing nearby mishear the word “Eloi” and make the assumption that Jesus is crying out to the Old Testament prophet Elijah to save him from the cross. Fortunately, the gospel writer gives us the correct translation of the Aramaic words and so points us to what was going through Jesus’ mind as he approached death.

The words, we are told, are translated into “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” As with those standing nearby, a superficial reading of these words could easily lead us to a wrong understanding. We could think Jesus was wondering why God had not saved him. It could seem that Jesus was confused after all the good stuff he had done as to why God seemed to had forsaken him and left him to die. Wasn’t he the Messiah? Shouldn’t he be rescued by an army of angels, proving that he was who he had claimed to be? Only now, as he struggled to breath, knowing death was near, it dawned on him that rescue wasn’t coming and all he could ask God was “why”.

Well, if you read these words in complete isolation to the rest of the Bible, you could be forgiven for concluding that’s what was happening. But as with most confusing verses in Scripture, having a wider knowledge of the Bible is often very helpful. The fact is, these words of Jesus don’t just come out of nowhere. They are actually a direct quote from the opening line of a very relevant ancient poem… Psalm 22.

The 22nd Psalm is an emotional poem written by King David during a time where he faced intense persecution and danger. The suffering that Jesus was experiencing during his execution, powerfully echo the events described in Psalm 22. I recommend reading the whole of Psalm 22 to get all the context, but here are a few highlights, along with the parallel texts from the crucifixion story:

“But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
‘He trusts in the Lord,’ they say, ‘let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.'”

(Psalm 22:6-8)

“In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him.
‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel!
Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.
He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’'”
(Matthew 27:41-43)

“Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet.
All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.”
(Psalm 22:16-18)

“When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
And sitting down, they kept watch over him there.”
(Matthew 27:35-36)

It is amazing that the events described in Psalm 22 were written over 1,000 years before the events described in Matthew 27. Maybe their parallel is not just a coincidence. Maybe Jesus saw all these things taking place before him and quoted the first line of Psalm 22 as a way of expressing this connection. Jesus often described events in his life as “fulfilling” events described in the Psalms an other places in the Old Testament. In fact, Jesus said that much of the Old Testament is really all about him (Luke 24:25-27). Maybe Jesus knew that Psalm 22 was not simply a record of events similar to his own circumstance, but a type of prophecy that pointed to this moment in history? David’s kingship pointed to its fulfilment in the “Son of David” – the Messiah. Maybe David’s sufferings pointed to Jesus’ as well.

Now, although Jesus may be expressing some theological point in quoting Psalm 22, we should not forget that Jesus was also in incredible anguish. The words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” shouldn’t be read as simply an interesting Bible cross-reference. They also speak of the suffering Jesus was going through. I mean, if Jesus just wanted to point us to Psalm 22, he could have chosen a much more uplifting quote like verse 24: “[The Lord] has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.” or verse 26: “The poor will eat and be satisfied; those who seek the Lord will praise him - may your hearts live forever!”

the-passion-of-the-christ-imageNow, when reflecting on the crucifixion of Jesus, our first instinct is to think that Jesus’ suffering is primarily physical. Watch a movie like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and you’ll get a graphic picture of Jesus’ physical suffering. But interestingly, the gospel writers don’t actually focus on this at all. The crucifixion, which was a long, brutal and bloody form of torture and execution, is never described in any detail. In all the gospels it is simply mentioned in a rather matter-of-fact sort of way: ie. “When they had crucified him…” (Matthew 27:35) We are not given a blow by blow account of what is happening to Jesus’ body, but rather, the focus is put on everything that is happening around Jesus. Why? Because the real suffering that Jesus was enduring was not physical, it was metaphysical – it was between him and God the Father. This suffering was unseen and so the gospel writers tell us about everything around the cross, that points to this reality.

The crowd’s mock. Jesus is rejected as the Messiah. Yet ironically, the sign above the cross declares that “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” Darkness covers the land for three hours in the middle of the day. And at the end of this, after Jesus cries out the words from Psalm 22, he finally breaths his last – which brings a whole new series of events. The thick curtain in the temple that separated the people from the Most Holy Place was torn from top to bottom. There was an earthquake that split rocks. Even some dead people were raised to life and entered Jerusalem!

Now, there’s lots of ideas about what each of these events mean and I’m especially moved by the powerful symbolism of the temple curtain being torn in two, but at the very least it highlights that Jesus’ suffering and death wasn’t anything ordinary. Jesus’ crucifixion wasn’t simply an unfortunate act of injustice. It wasn’t an object lesson by Jesus as he taught us to “die for what we believe in”. Something majorly supernatural was taking place. The testimony of Jesus’ words, the gospel writers, the Old Testament Prophets and the New Testament Church all points to one simple and powerful word – substitution.

When Jesus suffered, he was suffering on behalf of sinners like you and me. Jesus suffered and died in our place. He is our substitute.

cupOn the night before his crucifixion, Jesus explained this during the Last Supper (I explain this in more detail here) and during his prayerful agony in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus is grappling with the reality that he is about to drink the cup of the wrath of God spoken about in Isaiah 51:17-23. It’s not physical pain that he fears. It’s the wrath of God. That is the “cup” that Jesus wants the Father to take away from him.

During the crucifixion, Jesus bears the wrath of God that we deserve. As Jesus’ closest friend, the apostle Peter writes: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24) The idea that Jesus is our substitute is the heart of the message of the gospel. It is the reason why Good Friday is called “good”.

Surely, in Jesus’ cry of “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” we should not only hear the echo of Psalm 22. We should also hear the cry of someone experiencing the wrath of God. It’s unclear exactly how Jesus (the incarnate Son of God) could be “forsaken” by God the Father, but his words are a little window into the supernatural suffering he was facing on our behalf.

As Good Friday approaches, and we reflect on the events and words that took place in the last moments of Jesus’ life, may we be filled with awe, with grief and with humble wonder. But most of all, I pray we may be filled most of all with gratitude. It is because of Jesus’ death, you can be free of fear and guilt and condemnation. It is because of Jesus’ death, you can be reconciled with your Creator both now and forever.

Jesus was forsaken so that we all could be forgiven, and it is because of Jesus’ death, I will never have to cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

Those words will never be mine. Jesus said them for me.

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March 31 2014

Jesus’ review of “Noah”

Noah movie

There’s lots of movie reviews about the new film “Noah” by director, Darren Aronofsky. Some praise it, some can it, some grieve that it’s not a close enough depiction of the actual Bible story, and some have even said that the film is “the least biblical biblical film ever made”. Actually, that last quote is from the director, Darren Aronofsky himself (see here), so I don’t know what some Christians are getting so offended by. It’s not a biblical film. End of debate. The film has even been released by Paramount with the following clarifying statement:

“The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values, and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.”

NoahAndTheFloodWell, I think it’s maybe a bit of a stretch to say the story of Noah is a “cornerstone of faith”, but at least they point to where you can actually read the biblical account.

Some people debate whether the story of Noah is true history or just a fable. Whether it can be adapted with rock monsters, or whether it is just totally irrelevant for modern audiences. What interests me, as a follower of Jesus, is whether Jesus has anything to say on the topic.

You might not worship Jesus as I do, but most people have a general respect for Jesus and his teaching. Christians are criticised if they ignore things that Jesus clearly taught on, like caring for the poor, and they are also criticised if they focus too much on topics that Jesus didn’t specifically talk about, like homosexuality. And rightly so, I say. Jesus’ teaching matters, and if he taught on something clearly, it should be acknowledged as a core part of Christianity.

Now, Jesus didn’t give a movie review of Aronofsky’s film, but it may surprise you that he did give a commentary on the source material. In both the gospel of Matthew and the gospel of Luke it is recorded that Jesus referred to the story of Noah and taught how we should apply it to our own lives. Aronofsky, said in an interview with MTV (see here) that the biblical story of Noah is “the first apocalypse story – it’s about the end of the world” and Jesus picks up on this exact theme. When Jesus reviewed Noah, he uses it as an analogy of the last apocalypse story – the actual end of the world – referring to his Second Coming.

Now, if you have never read the actual original story of Noah, you should probably read it before you hear Jesus’ review of it. It’s not that long and you can find it in Genesis 6-9. But if you are familiar with it, let’s read Jesus’ teaching from the gospel of Matthew (you can find the same account in Luke 17:22-36).

“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” (Matthew 24:36-42)

Now, for a bit of context, this passage fits in a larger section where Jesus is teaching about the “coming of the Son of Man”. This is referring to the idea that jesusbrb-434 copysome time after his death, resurrection and ascension, he will return as judge and saviour of the world. If the idea of the Second Coming of Jesus or “Judgement Day” is new to you, then you might want to read other places in the Bible that talk about it (like the whole of Matthew 24-25, or much of the Book of Revelation, or even the end of the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament) Hebrews 9:28 sums up the first and second coming of Christ very nicely I think: “Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”

So if Jesus is teaching about the “Second Coming”, why does he talk about the story of Noah? What do they have in common and what aspects of the Noah story does Jesus apply to us as relevant for our lives? He says in verse 37, “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.” So basically, he uses it as a simile. It’s a sermon illustration. Jesus is saying, experiencing his Second Coming will be like experiencing Noah’s flood. But in what way? Well, Jesus mentions 3 aspects:

1. It will be unexpected.

That seems to be Jesus’ main point. He stressed that only God the Father knows when the Second Coming will happen and concludes with the warning to “keep watch because you do not know on what day your Lord will come”. The story of Noah is used by Jesus as an analogy of this. People were just going about their daily lives (eating, drinking, marrying etc.) and were completely unprepared for the flood to come. In the verse after the passage above, Jesus uses the analogy of a thief coming to rob a house to make the same point. And what is the point? Don’t be like them and be unprepared. You won’t know when it’s going to come, so make sure you are ready for Jesus’ Second Coming. Everyone around you may be unprepared, but don’t you be.

2. Some will be taken away for judgement.

Jesus isn’t in any way afraid or embarrassed to talk about an ultimate final judgement. The idea that God will one day separate all of mankind into two groups – one to live with God forever and one to be separated from God forever – is a reality that is spoken throughout the Bible, both in the Old and New Testament. Anyone who wishes to engage with Jesus’ teaching (and especially anyone who calls themselves a follower of Jesus) must engage with the fact that Jesus taught very clearly about Judgement Day. He spoke about hell. It’s unpleasant. It’s unfortunate. But you can’t argue that it’s un-Jesus. The most foolish thing to do would be to simply live your lives – eating, drinking and marrying – without engaging with this part of Jesus’ teaching. That would really miss Jesus’ point! Jesus uses the story of the flood that took some away to point us to a future event that will also take some away. Not all will be saved and Jesus is warning us to so that we might not be in that group.

3. Some will be left.

The other parallel to the story of Noah and the Second Coming is that not all will be taken away. Some will be left. Some will be spared. Who are these people? Well, in the story of Noah Jesus says it’s those who “entered the ark”. This is quite similar imagery to the parable of the “Ten Virgins” that Jesus tells in the very next chapter (you can read it in Matthew 25:1-13). In both this parable and the story of Noah, those who are prepared go inside something and those who are unprepared are stuck outside the door. Jesus links both of these as analogies of his Second Coming. In the parable of the Ten Virgins, Jesus is represented by the returning Bridegroom. In the Noah story, who is Jesus? Is Jesus saying he is like Noah, ushering people into the place of safety in preparation for the coming judgement? Or is Jesus saying he is the ark itself, and that only in him are we protected from being taken away? Either way, he uses the story of Noah to point to himself as the one who can bring salvation.

JusticeandMercyIn his MTV interview, Darren Aronofsky said of his film, “It’s about justice. And over the course of the film, mercy and grace are learned.” Now, I know as a staunch Atheist he has taken a lot of liberties with the text and probably doesn’t care what Jesus thinks about the message of the story of Noah, but I think the above quote is pretty on the money. Both the story of Noah and the Second Coming are not simply about judgement and justice. They are about mercy and grace as well. That is what the Christian gospel proclaims. That is why Jesus came. That is what we see in the crucifixion of Jesus. Justice as God condemns sin in the sacrifice of Jesus, and mercy as Jesus dies in our place and we are offered forgiveness.

I might be seeing Aronofsky’s interpretation of Noah later this week. If you want a review of it, there are tons on YouTube (here’s one I like). But in the end, I’m more interested in Jesus’ interpretation of Noah. Jesus’ review is that the biblical story of Noah is an action-packed, dramatic morality tale that also has a redemptive theme and makes relevant commentary for a modern audience as to how they should live and what their future may hold.

I think Jesus would give the biblical story 5 Stars.

 

 

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July 18 2013

Fear Full Circle

20130718-115645.jpg

 

The fear of God
is the beginning of wisdom…
(Proverbs 9:10)


The wisdom of God

is the gospel of Jesus…
(1 Corinthians 1:24)


The gospel of Jesus

is the perfection of love…
(Romans 5:8)


The perfection of love

is the end of fear.
(1 John 4:18)

 

 

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May 15 2013

Can a Christian lose their salvation? (a study)

hazardous-cliffs-warning-na-pali-coast-trail-

 

This question gets asked several ways…

Will a true child of God ever renounce their faith?

Is a Christian “eternally secure”?

Is it biblical to say: “once saved, always saved”?

 

I have my own thoughts on the matter and I might share them in another blog some time, but I just thought I’d provide you with the key passages that Christians use to argue either side of the debate.

I do believe in every one of these verses and so, no matter which side of the debate you fall on, I encourage you to reflect on them all and seeks God’s wisdom and guidance as to how they might be reconciled.

 

10 PASSAGES THAT SUGGEST THAT YES, A TRUE CHRISTIAN CAN LOSE THEIR SALVATION…

  • John 15:5-6
  • Matthew 13:20-21
  • 2 Peter 2:20-22
  • 1 Timothy 4:1
  • Colossians 1:22-23
  • Galatians 5:4
  • Romans 11:22once saved
  • Revelation 2:4-5
  • Hebrews 6:4-6
  • Hebrews 10:26-31

 

10 PASSAGES THAT SUGGEST THAT A TRUE CHRISTIAN CAN’T (OR WON’T) EVER LOSE THEIR SALVATION… 

  • Philippians 1:4-6
  • John 10:27-29
  • 1 John 2:19
  • 2 Corinthians 1:21-22
  • Ephesians 1:13-14
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24
  • 1 Corinthians 1:7-9
  • 2 Timothy 2:11-13
  • Romans 8:28-39
  • Hebrews 6:17-20

 

Read these passages and weigh them up. The following questions might help your reflection…

thinkingWhat are the dangers of believing either view too strongly?

What might you miss if you feel insecure about your salvation?

What might you miss if you feel too confident in your salvation?


If I said that you are guaranteed to get into heaven and that no matter what you did you couldn’t lose your salvation, would that inspire you to persevere in the faith with joy or would it inspire you to sin as much as you wanted to?


If a Christian can’t lose their salvation, why does the Bible warn us against apostasy (falling away)?


You might know friends who have thrown in the faith and now no longer call themselves Christians. How do the passages above help us to think about that?


Can you hold a view that reconciles all the passages above?

 

Write your thoughts in the comments below!

 

For my non-Christian friends reading this, you may be more interested in some more fundamental questions: What constitutes a “Christian” that you could say they would or wouldn’t “lose their salvation”? What is this “salvation” that might or might not be “lost”?

If these are more your questions, I encourage you to seek the answers and send me an email if you want and advice as to where to look.

thebackyardbard@gmail.com

 

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March 30 2013

The Last Supper & The Meaning of The Cross

One thing that can’t be denied when reading the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life is that Jesus’ death was no accident. Jesus was not just going about his business, teaching people to love and performing miracles; and one day, out of the blue, he was kidnapped and crucified. All the accounts explicitly tell of Jesus’ resolute and deliberate plan to go to Jerusalem where the Jewish authorities were waiting to kill him. Consider Mark 10:32-34…

They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”

Jesus’ death, was for Jesus the climax of his short 3 year ministry. It was where it was all heading. It was the point.

This is why the image of the cross is the symbol that represents Christianity. The death of Jesus is at the heart of what Christians are on about. It is at the core of our message. As Paul writes, “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified.” (1 Corinthians 1:22-23)

WHAT WAS THE POINT

The natural question that arises from this is… why? What’s the point? Couldn’t Jesus have done a lot more good if he stuck around for longer? I mean, he could have travelled the world preaching and healing and gaining followers. That’s true. So, we can rightly conclude that teaching and healing was not the primary goal of his mission and his ministry. Clearly, at least he believed, he could do more good by dying than he could if he lived. But what good did he do by dying? What did his death achieve?

Now, this question has been asked by many and is the source of some debate – especially more recently. But this debate does not arise from the New Testament being unclear on the topic. There are countless places in the New Testament (and Old Testament) that explain it. For now, I’m just going to include one reference. It comes from the writings of possibly Jesus’ closest friend and disciple, who was acknowledged as one of the key leaders in the early church. This is of course, the apostle Peter. As he explains, something supernatural was happening when Jesus died…

“He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; By his wounds you have been healed… For Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” (1 Peter 2:24 & 3:18)

Now as you may know, Paul the apostle has also written many epistles explaining the meaning of the death of Christ, and I’d love to include many of his great passages, but I decided not to. You see, for an odd reason, some people think that Paul single-handedly invented the idea that Jesus died as a sacrifice to atone for our sins. They claim that the idea of the atonement is not really found other than in Paul’s writings and that the gospels don’t mention this concept at all!

When I was first challenged on this idea by someone many years ago, it was by a Biblical scholar who was many years my senior and I really didn’t know how to respond. On the spot, I couldn’t think of too many places outside of Paul’s writings where Jesus’ death was described as a sacrifice or as something that bore our sins. I am now very sad that I can’t have that conversation all over again! The more I read and understand Scripture, the more I am utterly convinced that there is no way in which you can faithfully read the gospels about Jesus without accepting that this teaching is undeniably there. Passages like the one above are too clear and too frequent.

buddist-monk-self-immolation (1)So why do people claim it is not there? Well, initially it might be due to lack of knowledge about how the New Testament epistle writers like Peter and John back up Paul’s writing on the purpose of Jesus’ death. It may also be that they don’t know the places in the four gospels where this is explained as well. Despite this, more and more I see people who claim to know the New Testament and claim to be faithful to the gospels and its message, who are disregarding the atonement all together. They argue that Jesus’ death did not spiritually achieve anything, but was an act of courageous martyrdom or simply a great example to us about how we should die for what you believe in – like the Buddhists monk, Thich Quang Duc, who in 1963 famously committed self-immolation as a form of protest against the persecution of Buddhists in Cambodia.

The main reason why I think they feel compelled to do this is because the concept of “Jesus dying for our sins” raises lots of philosophical questions for people. How does it work? What does that say about God the Father? Or Jesus’ divinity? Or the reality of God’s judgement and Hell? Or even just the reality of sin? It brings up lots of tricky concepts that, in the end, are not very palatable for many people. And so, instead of grappling with the truth of these ideas or rejecting Jesus altogether, they ignore some clear parts of the New Testament to fit a more palatable message. No longer are we sinners who deserve judgment from a Holy Creator. No longer is Jesus’ death the sacrifice that pays for our sins and provides us with a way of reconciliation with God. The good news is changed so that it is no longer about something that Jesus has done for us, but it becomes about something that we can do… inspired by him.

This version of the gospel may be much more palatable and raise less philosophical questions, but it simply is not faithful to the New Testament. I’m not saying that Jesus’ death is not supposed to be an example for us of self-sacrifice, but to reduce it to that and not see the countless places the New Testament speaks of it as something much, much greater, is to be like someone spending $24 to admire the cup holders in the chairs during an IMAX movie. Worth acknowledging, but not really the point of it all.

But a question remains… What did Jesus think about his own death? Have the other writer’s of the New Testament like Peter and Paul just gotten Jesus wrong? Did Jesus ever talk about his death being a sacrifice for sin? Well, the answer is yes – several times. In fact, he never talked about his death being an example of loving self-sacrifice. If you want that concept, go to the story where he washes his disciples feet (John 13:14-15). When it comes to the cross, Jesus talks about it as a deliberate, purposeful and cosmically significant sacrifice. In his mind he was heading to Jerusalem to achieve something tangible. He was going to pay for our sins with his own death.

Now, I could write several blogs going through all the places where this is found in the gospels, but for now, I will just look at one. It is in one powerfully significant line that Jesus said during the Last Supper…

“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:28)

THE LAST SUPPER

doorpost-and-exodus-verse

If you don’t know the story, the Last Supper is the Passover meal that Jesus ate with his disciples on the night before he was crucified. The gospels record that Jesus had timed his arrival into Jerusalem perfectly so that the Passover would fall at the same time he would be arrested and crucified.

The Passover is one of the most significant festivals on the Jewish calendar, where Jews remember God’s great act of saving them from his own judgement. That’s right. Not saving them from the evil oppression of the Egyptians. The Passover commemorates the time God told his people he would judge every single household, other than those who had the blood of a sacrificed lamb painted on their doorposts. Sound gruesome, I know, but that’s the story. If you had the blood on your door, then it was a sign that a lamb had been sacrificed in your place and God would “pass over” your house.

Every year since then, Jews would sacrifice a “passover lamb” and have a special symbolic meal as an act of remembrance. This is why Jesus chose the Passover as the time to die. He was, as John the Baptist declares, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) and as Paul writes, “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” (1 Corinthians 5:7) Jesus was what the Passover was looking forward to. Jesus is the lamb that would be sacrificed in the place of anyone who would put their trust in him. He is the true fulfilment of the Passover.

wine and breadIt is during this Passover meal that Jesus decides to initiate a new symbolic meal. This new meal would no longer remember the Passover, but since the Passover was being fulfilled and replaced by Jesus and his death, this is what would now be remembered. This new symbolic meal is now commonly known now as “Communion” or “The Lord’s Supper” and is today celebrated by pretty much all Christians across the world.

As all four gospels record, at the Last Supper Jesus uses two elements of the Passover meal – bread and wine – as a visual aid to explain what was going to happen to him and what it was going to mean. He took the bread and broke it, explaining that the same thing would happen to his own body. “This is my body given for you.” (Luke 22:19) And then he took the red wine (a perfect visual symbol for blood) and said those potent and profound words, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:28)

From this, we can see Jesus explains three things about his blood. Firstly, it’s going to be poured out – as in, he’s definitely going to die. Secondly, his death is going to somehow achieve the forgiveness of sins. And thirdly, his blood is the “blood of the covenant”.

THE BLOOD OF THE COVENANT

The “blood of the covenant” is not just any old phrase. It is only used in one other place in the Bible. Jesus’ disciples would have known the story Jesus was referring to and how significant it was that he was using it in reference to his own blood.

After the events of the Passover and the escape from Egypt, the story of Exodus eventually leads up to another very significant moment in Jewish history. God has rescued his people from his own judgement and redeemed them from slavery. He now gives them the famous Ten Commandments and the law that instructs them how – as rescued people – they should now live and relate to God and each other. This is when what is called the “Mosaic Covenant” is established.

contract

A “covenant” is like an alliance or solemn relational contract that is made between two parties. Marriage, for example, is described in the Bible as a covenant (Malachi 2:14). More often though, a covenant is used when a commitment between God and his people is made and a new relationship is established. In the thousands of years of Biblical history, there were only very few covenants made. This is because they were so significant and they mark key moments in the ongoing relationship between God and mankind.

Each covenant usually contains a few elements. Like promises made between both parties, consequences for breaking the covenant, and a “sign” that would remind both parties of the promises made (think for example, “circumcision” with the Covenant with Abraham and the rainbow with the Covenant with Noah). Lastly, each covenant with God usually also involves a sacrifice. As we have already seen, a sacrifice was often a representation of the consequences of the judgement of God. The slaughtered animal reminded the person that their sin deserved death and that without a substitute to bear that death for them, they would face God’s judgement themselves. It wasn’t all gloom and doom though. A sacrifice also gave the people hope. Hope that even when they would inevitably break their promises, God would provide a way that they could be forgiven and remain in the covenant.

During the establishment of the “Mosaic Covenant” two types of sacrifices were made – burnt offerings and fellowship offerings. If you look up the Old Testament instruction manual on what these two sacrifices are all about (Leviticus 1 & 3), you see that those who perform the sacrifice would place their hand on the head of the animal – symbolically transferring the guilt of the person to the animal. The animal would then be killed in the place of the guilty party, and then, as God told them, “it will be accepted on your behalf to make atonement for you.” (Leviticus 1:4)

Read here what Moses did with the blood taken from these atoning sacrifices, as recorded in Exodus 24:4-8, and look out for the phrase the “blood of the covenant” that Jesus was referring to…

Moses then wrote down everything the Lord had said. He got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. Then he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the Lord. Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he splashed against the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey.” Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”

mudblood3

So, the “Mosaic Covenant” was established with the blood of atoning sacrifices being sprinkled over the people. Gross, I know. But what a potent symbol! The “blood of the covenant” marked this new relationship between God and his people, and was a stark and rather disgusting reminder that their promise to always obey everything the Lord has said would inevitably fail, and that atonement would be needed for forgiveness to be possible.

This was not an unfamiliar message for God’s people, as atoning sacrifice was a part of their every day life. Although God has shown the Jewish people particular favour, their ongoing relationship with God was not without cost. It was marked by daily sacrifices that reminded the people that there was a major ongoing problem between them and God. God wanted relationship but they could only come to him on the basis of blood and sacrifice.

If this idea seems odd and unnecessary to you, then you may not have ever realised how your sin separates you from God. You should hear what God is saying in the Old Testament sacrifices as a powerful wake-up call as to the seriousness of sin and the fact that we are in desperate need for an atoning sacrifice to provide the way for forgiveness.

In any case, this whole bloody episode with Moses and the phrase, “this is the blood of the covenant” is the concept that Jesus is referring to when he uses the same words in reference to his own blood the night before he died.

JESUS AND THE NEW COVENANT

Jesus is ultimately the fulfilment of all the Old Testament covenants and his death on the cross is the sacrifice that each covenant’s sacrifice is foreshadowing and pointing to.

jesus_crucifixion170411_03When Jesus talks of his own blood as being the “blood of the covenant” he is telling his disciples that a new covenant that fulfils the Mosaic Covenant is being established. As with the burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, Jesus is saying that it would be like we were putting our hand on his head and our guilt before God was being transferred to him. As Peter described it, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross.” So, in his death, he would be bearing our sins. He would be our atoning sacrifice and his death would be the blood of this new covenant.

This is why Jesus says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” It can not be clearer that Jesus saw his death as being a sacrifice for our sins. His death would make the way, once for all, for our sin to be forgiven. No longer would animal sacrifices be needed. No longer would the Passover be required. Jesus was establishing a new covenant and his death was the means that makes it possible.

This is why Jesus believed that he could do more good if he died than if he lived. This is why Jesus’ death was the goal and climax of his mission. This is why the sign of the cross is the symbol of Christianity. It is the death of Jesus that pays for our sin and establishes a new relationship between God and mankind for those that would trust in it.

CONCLUSION

Now, you may not believe any of the things I have written about. I hope you do, but I understand there are a lot of concepts like covenants and sacrifices and sin that build upon each other. If you don’t understand one (or if you have a big problem with one) then all the others may not make sense either. For you, I have not written this blog to try to convince you of their truth. I only hope that you see that the old idea that “Jesus died for your sins” is actually faithful to all the writers of the New Testament. More important than that, it is faithful to Jesus’ own understanding of why he was so determined to die for you. You may think Jesus was mistaken, but at least you will be able to see that those who claim that the idea of the “atonement” is not there, are just not reading the text.

Also, I hope that if one day you chose to consider the claims of Christ, you will know what Jesus honestly taught about the meaning of his death in your place.

hands-bread-wine-stockFor those who are already disciples of Jesus – who have accepted Jesus death for what Jesus said it would be, and who know the joy of forgiveness and reconciliation with God – may you do what Jesus asked you to do at the Last Supper… May you remember him and his death for you. Not only when you take “communion” and hold those elements of broken bread and red wine in your hands, but every day, and especially at this time of Easter when these words and events are retold and we are reminded of their reality and significance.

FURTHER STUDY

product_permalinkI acknowledge that my blog here focusses on only one verse in the Bible that explains why Jesus died, so if  you want to understand more about what the death of Jesus was all about, I can recommend an ebook by John Piper called, “Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die”. It will give you heaps more to think about! Download a FREE copy: HERE

If on the other hand, you are intrigued by the connections between the Old Testament sacrifices and the work of Jesus, I highly recommend you take a look at the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament. It is written specifically to explain how Jesus fulfils the Old Testament and Chapters 8-10 especially help to explain how Jesus fulfils the Old Testament sacrificial system. There may be lots of ideas that are weird or confusing, but it’s well worth the study.

I’ll leave you with some wonderful words from Hebrews 13:20-21…

Now may the God of peace,
who through the blood of the eternal covenant
brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep,
equip you with everything good for doing his will,
and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ,
to whom be glory for ever and ever.
Amen.

HAPPY EASTER!

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January 13 2013

Signs from God – a response to “two jars”

God's existence

My brother Tony recently performed an experiment to see if God would prove his existence to him.
He describes what he did and what his experiment taught or confirmed for him.
If you have not read his blog entitled, “Two Jars”, you must stop reading now and click HERE,
as this blog is a personal response to my brother’s blog.

Tony, your blog was really interesting, moving and caused me to reflect on my own experience of God.

Honestly, I am sad God did not move the stones. Unlike the hypocritical theists you refer to in your blog, I do not have any problem with the idea that God could or would do such a thing. In fact, one of the first questions I asked after reading your blog was, “Why didn’t God do it?”

For you, I can see that the experiment and its result was very significant and genuine. I also see that for you, the result does not prompt in you the same question it does for me. For you, it “puts to rest my belief in a particular type of God” and “It was like I had asked if this world was actually the matrix. The answer was that this is real; the earth, sky, my family and me are all very real.” In this blog, all I would like to do is encourage you to be cautious about what exactly you “put to rest”.

Before performing the experiment you prayed this prayer:

“Yahweh, if you are there and real please grant me this sign. Please empty the jar I have filled with stones and fill the empty jar next to it.”

paint cornerYour prayer was simple and innocent and I believe genuine. But by praying this prayer did you think that you were painting God into a corner? Or even, painting yourself into a corner? What I mean is, was your prayer a question or a test? Read your prayer again. Did you allow for God to simply say, “no”?

Now, I don’t mean this as if you were being petty or childish, but was the subtext of your prayer something like, “Yahweh, if you are there and real, then you will give me a sign. I ask that the sign that you use to prove your existence to me be to move these stones from one jar to another.”?

Again, I don’t imply that you prayed that mockingly like the Pharisees saying to the crucified Jesus, “Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.” (Matthew 27:42). I only suggest that, by concluding that a particular type of God was put to rest by your experiment, you had some huge expectations behind it all. And by your “Matrix” analogy, these expectations were as great as if you were questioning reality itself.

The reality is, all you have done is put to rest the particular type of God that proves his existence to us on command with experiments that we set up for him to complete. Did you allow for the possibility of God saying, “I want to prove my existence to you another way.” or “Despite your noble motives, it will not be good for you or others for my existence to be proven to you through such an experiment, so I’m going to answer no on this occasion.” Have you joined in with Nick Cave singing, “I don’t believe in an interventionist God” a little too soon?

no godYou experiment actually reminds me of Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union in the early 1960’s, who argued for an atheist state (not that I’m saying you’re doing this) by suggesting that if God was real then the first man in space would have seen him: “Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any god there.” (this is often misquoted as something the astronaut, Yuri Gagarin actually said himself). But like you, only a particular type of God was put to rest by this experiment – the type of God that is visible to those who travel beyond the earth’s atmosphere. But to throw out God completely by this experiment – or by yours – is sort of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The first issue I want to address is, are you right to expect that if God exists he will prove his existence to you by an experiment like the “two jars”?

This seems fundamental to the whole experiment and your acceptance of this premise seems to come from a couple of biblical examples of people doing similar “testing prayers”.

In your blog you refer to Kings and Judges, obviously referring to the stories of “Elijah and the prophets of Baal” in 1 Kings 18, and “Gideon and the Fleece” in Judges 6. You flesh these examples out a bit more in your previous blog, “Pray em if you got em”, where you also include a third example from Isaiah 7:10-14, where God actually rebukes King Ahaz for being reluctant to ask for a sign. You write, “In fact the testing prayer is very biblical. In the Old Testament such tests are common.” I’d have to disagree with this. These are three of thousands of examples of prayers throughout the bible and I would have to say that “testing prayers” are actually exceptionally rare. They are never commended as a general way in which we should pray and these three examples are quite unique.

In your “Two Jars” blog you ask the question to the Christian reader, “How can they claim the truth of books like Kings and Judges while predicting from the get go that I would not find the stones moved?” Now, I didn’t predict that the stones wouldn’t be moved, but I will answer why I think these stories from Kings, Judges and Isaiah, should not be used as a template for us to ask similar “testing prayers”.

Elijah’s Testing Prayer

mt carmel elijahFor those who don’t know the story, Elijah is a prophet who sets up a test. There are two bulls. The prophets of Baal can pray to Baal. He’ll pray to Yahweh. Whichever “god” sends down fire from heaven to burn the sacrifice – they are the real God. This is Elijah’s prayer as found in 1 Kings 18:36-37:

At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “O Yahweh, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O Yahweh, answer me, so these people will know that you, O Yahweh, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”

The most obvious thing to note from this story is that this whole episode is not about testing God, it is about the people. Elijah is not unsure of who is the real God. He knows Yahweh is God and throughout all the stories of Elijah, including this one, he goes where Yahweh tells him to go, says what Yahweh tells him to say and does what Yahweh tells him to do. That’s what the “prophets” did. He even says in the prayer that the whole two bulls experiment was something he set up at the “command” of Yahweh. This is God’s test, not Elijah’s. It’s something God told Elijah to do because he intended to answer it in the dramatic way he did – not to prove to Elijah that he was real, but to show the people of Israel that he was real. This is much more akin to the story of God turning Aaron’s staff into a snake in Exodus 7:8-12:

Yahweh said to Moses and Aaron, “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Perform a miracle,’ then say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh,’ and it will become a snake.” So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as Yahweh commanded. Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts: Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs.

Basically, my point is, God did not tell you to set up the “Two Jars” experiment and so you shouldn’t use 1 Kings 18 as an example of an equivalent “testing prayer”.

 Gideon’s Testing Prayer

Gideons fleeceThe story of Gideon and the fleece from the Book of Judges is much more interesting and seems to be more of what you based your test on (in the fabricated part of your blog, you talk about doing the test twice, each time overnight, and the second time in the opposite direction – just like Gideon).

Unlike Elijah, Gideon’s tests are his own idea and they are specifically set up because of his own personal doubts that God is speaking to him. As he says in Judges 6:17, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, give me a sign that it is really you talking to me.”  Gideon wants to know if God’s Word to him is real and he actually tests God three times (before the fleece tests, he asks to set up an offering which God then causes to be consumed by fire).

Describing it this way, it’s seems a perfect example of your “Jars Test”, but I question whether Gideon’s is a good example of us to follow. All three of Gideon’s tests are done in the context of Gideon being uniquely visited by God and being asked by God to perform a very specific task (“Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand. Am I not sending you?” – Judges 6:14). There are may parallels in the commissioning of the reluctant Gideon in Judges 6:1-24 and the commissioning of the reluctant Moses in Exodus 3. If you keep reading Gideon’s story, after the fleece tests God has a couple of tests of his own (see Judges 7:1-7). He whittles down Gideon’s army from 32,000, down to only a measly 300 men. Why does he do it? Well, in 7:7 he explains that he want to make sure in this battle it is abundantly clear that God is at work. This seems to be a big theme in the entire Gideon story and it may be why God is so gracious to Gideon to grant his request during “testing prayers”. It is not the Gideon doubts that God exists. Gideon doubts himself: “How can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” (Judges 6:15). God specifically wanted to show Gideon that God will go with him and God will win the battle that Gideon is being commissioned to lead.

We must also take into consideration the cultural time period this story falls within. It is the time of the Judges. There is no king leading the people in God’s truth. There is no mention of the Old Testament  scriptures being accessible or read publicly or privately. Gideon is in hiding as a foreign enemy threatens his life, and God want to send him out to be the leader of the Jewish people. The parallels between Gideon’s situation and yours are pretty limited. You both doubt God (and maybe yourself). But that’s about it. Just because the “fleece” test is how Gideon responds to his doubt, does not mean that is how God expects you to respond. Just because God responded to Gideon’s test with a miraculous answer, does not mean God has set up a biding precedent in which anyone who ever sets up a similar test should expect to be responded to in the same way. There are many, many, many examples throughout scripture of people who have doubts about God and they respond to those doubts in a variety of ways. Some, like Abraham, take matters into their hands. Some, like the psalmists, cry out to God in confusion. Some, like Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 and Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (though his prayer is more about his anguish than his doubt), pray to God for a way out and receive the answer “No”. The problem, which I see many Christians do as well, is to come across an interaction with God mentioned in the Bible and apply it as prescriptive rather than descriptive.

Prescriptive vs Descriptive

To say an action of God is prescriptive is to say that God is promising to do this thing in the same way every time. An example of a biblical prescriptive text is something like 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” or Acts 2:38 “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” and if you want an Old Testament one, you can see Joel 2:32 which is quoted also many times in the New Testament: “Everyone who calls on the name of Yahweh will be saved.” These along with many other passages, are God’s promises. They can be relied on and I believe they will never fail.

ColesPromise_02The problem arises when you read a story like Gideon’s fleece and take it to be prescriptive. It is not. It is descriptive. When a passage is descriptive it means that it accurately describes what God truly did at a certain time in a specific circumstance. It shows that God is able to do that thing and so it may reveal something of God’s character, his power, his values, or his agenda. But it makes no promise that God will or should act in the same way, even if the exact same circumstance happens again.

For example, in Genesis 2, Adam needed a partner. So while he was asleep, God took one of his ribs and used it to form Eve. Now, that story is not prescriptive. If you are looking for a wife, you should not read that story and pray, “Yahweh, if you are there and real please grant me this sign. Please take one of my ribs while I am sleeping and make me a wife.” And if you do decided to do that, you should not conclude that the God mentioned in Genesis does not exist because you wake up and are still single. That may sound like a silly example, but sadly Tony, it is not! I have chatted with some Christians who have become completely disillusioned with God because they have prayed for a marriage partner and God has not provided one. But God does not promise that he will provide everyone with a marriage partner – even though the Bible includes many specific examples of him doing exactly that. This is the vital difference between understanding when a passage is prescriptive and when a passage is descriptive.

So why didn’t God move the stones when you asked him to so that you could have conclusive proof he exists? I don’t know. But I do know one thing. He never promised he would. Maybe he knows it would not have proved anything to you. Maybe he knows it would have developed in you a superstitious faith. Maybe he wants to prepare your heart and your motives before he revealed conclusively his existence to you. You seem to think God could not possibly have any good reason to not move those stones – unless he doesn’t exist or isn’t the sort of God that can move stones – but I would suggest the God of the Bible (if that’s who you were calling out to) is a God who knows all things, can do all things and works all things towards his ultimate goal. As Gandalf the wizard says, “Even the very wise cannot see all ends.” Well, that does apply to us, but it doesn’t apply to God. He sees all ends and he determined that it was best to answer your “testing prayer” with a “no”. That doesn’t seem out of character to me, and I have been walking in relationship with God for nearly two decades now. He has answered many prayers of mine, and he has said “no” to many others – like for example, my prayer for God to prevent my divorce. I had to remind myself that although God’s clear biblical intention is for divorces to never happen, he makes no prescriptive promise anywhere that he will miraculously prevent them, even though I know that he can and does for many Christian couples.

A Wrong Sign

wrong wayThe final suggestion I wanted to make was that God wants to answer “yes” to the first part of your prayer, even if he answered “no” to the whole “moving stones” experiment. It may be that God is saying “Yes, Tony. I am here and real and I will grant your request for a sign.” But God knows what the best sign for us is.

Think about if I said, “Tony, prove you love me by paying off my credit card!” Now, you definitely could pay off my credit card out a motivation of love, and you do want me to really know how much you love me, and you know that if you did what I asked I would feel loved by you… but you still say to me, “Sorry, Simon. I do love you, but I won’t pay off all your credit cards.” In fact you may chose to respond that way out of love – even if I didn’t feel it. Even if I felt hated by that response!

Now, apart from not simply wanting to bail me out of debt when I should work that out myself, one of the reasons why you might not play along with my testing experiment, is because you want me to know that you love me for other reasons. You do want me to be confident of your love, but not because you paid off my credit card, but because of your kind deeds, your thoughtful words and your genuine affection for me as your brother (I’m guessing here, by the way). You don’t want my confidence in your love to be based on the wrong thing – or an arbitrary thing. You don’t want it to be built on the wrong foundation.

Likewise, God may not want your belief in his existence to be based on a “stone moving” miracle. He may want you to be confident that he is real, but he may want the foundation of your faith to be something else. In fact, like the “love” analogy, he may be more content that you don’t believe in him at all, rather than you believe in him based on a sign like the “two jars”. Why? Well, maybe for God, believing in his existence is not really the be all and end all. Sure it’s important – vital even, but atheism doesn’t send people to hell. Think about it… even Satan is a theist. As Jesus’ brother, James wrote, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” (James 2:19) God is much more concerned about us being reconciled with him, and maybe moving the stones in the jars would have gotten you only as far as a demon – believing that God is there – but no closer than that.

The Promised Sign

maryThe third passage that you quote from in your blog, “Pray em if ya got em” as an example of “testing prayer” was from Isaiah 7:10-14. Here it is:

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.” Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”

Now here, God wants King Ahaz to ask him for a sign. Why? Well, not because “testing prayers” are something God wants us to experiment with. It’s because he has a sign that he wants to give him: The virgin will be with child and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel. As you know, the apostle Matthew picks up this passage and in Matthew 1:18-24, he says that this sign that God promised to give to King Ahaz is fulfilled in Jesus.

Maybe Jesus isn’t as immediately impressive as stones moving from one jar to another. Maybe from the outside, you can only investigate Jesus through old manuscripts that you have serious doubts about as well, and the experiences and lives of those that already have a relationship with him – which seems pretty shaky ground as well. I concede, the record and the testimony of the gospel seems pretty weak compared to a miracle in your own backyard. But that is what God choses to use and he uses it every day to bring people from being a stranger to God to a friend.

The Sign of Jonah

Jesus himself was confronted with people wanting a miraculous sign that he really was from God. Understandably so, as Jesus made crazy claims like, “Before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58). In all four gospels this issue of a “testing prayer” in regard to Jesus is discussed and grappled with. If you want to get your head around what does the God of the Bible say about asking for a sign to prove his reality, then these would definitely be passages you would have to at least factor in. I will include two times in Matthew that Jesus tackles this question:

Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you.” He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here.” (Matthew 12:38-42)

The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away. (Matthew 16:1-4)

Jesus calls the Pharisees, “wicked and adulterous” for asking for a sign, but clearly he doesn’t do this because God’s not keen on giving signs, as he goes on to say that he plans on giving them a sign – the sign of Jonah. I think their wickedness and especially their adultery points to their “wicked” motivation which is not inspired by a love for God, but a desire to test Jesus to see him fail publicly. Jesus sees through their motives and tells them that the only sign they will get is the sign of Jonah. And what is the sign of Jonah? Well, in Matthew 12:40 he makes it clear that it’s his death and resurrection. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and then emerged, and Jesus will be in the tomb for three days and will then emerge.

thomas_caravaggio

God understands our need for a sign. He understands that we can’t just swallow epic claims without testing them first. As you write, “I think if you are going to claim that ‘Magic happens’ for example then you ought to be able to show it happening.” I think Jesus gets that, but like the analogy of the “proof of love”, not just any sign will do. God has set up one major sign that he wants to be our primary foundation – the resurrection of Jesus. This is supposed to so be the base block of Christianity, that if you take it out the whole thing falls down like a theological game of Jenga. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:17, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.”

It is the Resurrection that is the sign of God’s existence (as raising the dead is far more impressive than moving stones), but at the same time, on top of that, it also points you to Jesus’ authentication as the one to be followed and worshipped. AsPeter preaches in Acts 2:32 & 36 “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact… Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”, and as Paul preaches in Acts 17:30, “[God] commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”

Now I know that the Resurrection of Jesus has never been a very compelling sign (especially as it is not happening today in your backyard, but happened 2,000 years ago in another part of the world). In a comment on my previous blog, “How God Proves His Existence”, you wrote, “I don’t really understand how to respond to the biblical accounts of the resurrection. I put them in pretty much the same category of documentation of witches and werewolves or demonic possession or all sort of eyewitnessed events that just don’t correspond with my reality.” I understand and sympathise with this. I wish I could show you some magic tricks to prove God’s existence. I wish Jesus would dance like a monkey at my command so I could get him to prove himself to you. But he’s not a trained monkey, he’s an untamed lion, and I trust him when he says, “no sign will be given except the sign of Jonah”. So, I will continue to bang on about Jesus and continue to point you to him and to the Resurrection, even if you never find it compelling.

My Prayer for You

I was very moved by your desire to give God an opportunity to prove himself to you. I know you expressed some form of relief and even joy at the fact that your experiment failed – which does lead me to maybe question the sincerity of your motives – but either way, I do think God hears and responds to our prayers, even when they are half-hearted or prayed with mixed motives. I’ve always been confident that what matters is not the strength of your faith, but the strength of the thing that you are putting your faith in.

And so, if there was an element of your prayer that was putting your faith in God to respond to you, God is big and strong enough to hear and answer.

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Also, despite everything I’ve just said about the Resurrection being the primary foundational “sign” of God, I do believe God is active in this world here and now. There are several experiences I have had that are, for me, clearly God working miraculously, and there are thousands more that I experience week in and week out, where I see God at work (though in a less miraculous way). God has proved himself to me, fully and completely, which is what makes me so sad that he hasn’t done the same for you.

But like unfairly-named “Doubting” Thomas, God sometimes provides us with a clear, undeniable sign of his existence and work in Christ. I don’t know if that’s what you really need in order to see and respond to the gospel. If it is, then you have my prayerful support.

To be brutally honest, I don’t think you were wise, biblical or fair to set up the “two jars” experiment. But I do believe God has heard the first part of your prayer: “Yahweh, if you are there and real please grant me a sign.”

I am praying that God will one day either give you a sign, or make the “sign of Jonah” compelling to you. I know you think that God spectacularly failed your “two jars” test and it has allowed you to “put to rest” the idea of a real, personal, interventionist, biblical God. But I am writing this blog to you to encourage you to let God answer your “testing prayer” in his own time and in his own way.

I hope your testimony will be to one day recall your experiment with fondness and that you can share how you prayed a simple prayer that God heard and answered, even if it took longer than one night and was in a way you didn’t expect.

Until then, I will try to remember to pray on your behalf.

Yahweh, I know you are there and real. Please grant Tony a sign, so he can know that too.

I love you, my brother.

 

p.s. If you’re wondering what the image is from at the top of the blog, it comes from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Enjoy the video below.

 

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December 25 2012

The Message of the Magi

The Magi, (or as they are more commonly known, the Wise Men) are mentioned only once in the whole Bible. Their brief story is found in the first 12 verses of the 2nd chapter of Matthew’s gospel…

 

1After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: 6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

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Despite this story being quite short, the Wise Men have become a staple part of the Christmas nativity scene, inspiring one of my favourite Christmas carols, “We Three Kings”. Sadly however, this carol is a perfect example of how we so easily re-shape Christmas into something that suits our fairy tale version of the Bible, rather than reading and responding to what the gospel record actually says. Here are just a few ways we get the story of the Magi completely wrong:

MISTAKE #1: They weren’t kings.

The Magi are never referred to as kings. The concept of kings coming to see Jesus and pay homage is one that makes a wonderfully powerful statement about the authority of Christ over all human rulers. It just has no basis in the original story. I have even heard it said that God ensured that both the poor (represented by the shepherds) and the rich (represented by the “kings”) were present so that we knew that Jesus came for people of every demographic. But no, the Magi were not royalty. They weren’t even necessarily wise (To me, “Wise Men” gives them a sort of ancient guru-like feel). All the text tells us about the Magi is that they came from the East. That doesn’t even tell us much. Were they Magi from the far, far east? Were they gentiles? Were they Jews? Who knows? Read the text above again. Remember, that’s all we really have to go on.

Now, the term “Magi” is mentioned in several other cultures. Some Ancient Greek sources refer to a specific tribe of people  in Ancient Iran (then known as Media), but it also is used as a generic word for any sacred sect or mystical order. This is how we get the generic word “magician” (a “magi” person). Ancient Persian sources refer to the Magi being the religious sect that Zoroaster was born into, and some time before 6 BC, in the eastern parts of Ancient Iran, his teachings became the foundation of the religion, Zoroastrianism, also known as “Magianism”. This religion was alive and kicking at the time that the biblical story is set and this has led some to argue that the Magi were Zoroastrians (or at least converts from Zoroastrianism). If that is true, then they were just some religious guys who were seeking the Jewish Messiah. Now, I don’t want to downplay that. In fact we shouldn’t downplay that. It’s awesome! There’s no need to stretch the story to make them kings or even particularly wise (other than the wisdom they showed in seeking Jesus, but then we should equally call the shepherds “wise men”!)

 

MISTAKE #2: There weren’t only three. 

All the pictures, movies, nativity sets and carols about “We Three Kings”, suggest that the Magi were a small band of men riding camels, making a lonely trek across the sand dunes and joining the quiet and solemn scene, almost just slipping in at the back unnoticed. Over the year’s we’ve even invented names for them – Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. But read the story again and you’ll find the only reference to the number three is the fact that they brought three different types of gifts (“Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.”  Matthew 2:11). Also, the implication from the text is that it wasn’t just three gifts, but multiple amounts of gold and incense and myrrh as it was taken from their “treasures”.

The biggest clue that the Magi included more than three men, is found in the first 3 verses of the story. Verses 1 and 2 describe the Magi arriving at Jerusalem and asking where the Messiah was. If they were three religious men on camels, this arrival wouldn’t have made anyone take notice. Jerusalem was a huge city and it had a constant traffic of visitors from a variety of nations. But when the Magi arrive, what do we read in verse 3? “When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” 

The arrival of the Magi caused a disturbance across all Jerusalem which even reached King Herod himself, enough to make him fearful of losing his own royal position. How many people must have been part of the Magi’s procession for their arrival to have such an epic impact? It sounds more like there could have been hundreds of Magi! There could have been a massive pilgrimage of seekers with horses and elephants and musicians and an entourage of servants carrying loads of treasures for “the one who has been born king of the Jews“! Who knows? There is absolutely no description of the number of Magi who had come from the east or what their group was like. The only thing that can guide us, is the disturbing effect they had on the great city of Jerusalem and the security of Herod the King. Does that sound like three guys? Not likely.

MISTAKE #3: They weren’t even at the Nativity scene. 

That’s right! Every children’s Christmas pageant and that beloved family Nativity set that sits on your mantlepiece has got it wrong! The Magi were not there alongside the shepherds and the cattle by the manger. They weren’t even present at the event of the first Christmas! They came along possibly years later, after Jesus and Mary have moved out of the temporary emergency maternity ward mentioned in Luke 2:7 and moved into a house somewhere in Bethlehem (possibly staying with relatives, as Joseph had to go to Bethlehem for the census due to his family line. See Luke 2:4).

You can read where the Magi actually visited the child in Matthew 2:11-12: “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.” It clearly states that they came to a house, not the barn, stable or cave mentioned in Luke 2:7.

But is that the only reason why I think they were not there at Christmas? Not at all. The biggest clue is not emphatic, but it does make sense. This is the next part of the story found in Matthew 2:13-16…

13 When they [the Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” 16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.

Okay, if you’re getting confused, this is how the story of the Magi has gone: Around the time Jesus is born the Magi see a star appear and they somehow get the idea that this signifies that the Jewish Messiah has been born. The story doesn’t elaborate on how they learned this, but they at some point decide to make the journey from where they live to Jerusalem. When they eventually get to Jerusalem, they meet with King Herod who asks them exactly when they first saw the star. They then leave, following the star to the house where Mary, Joseph and Jesus are now living. They respond to Jesus as a king – bowing down to him, worshipping him, and paying homage to him with their treasures.

Now, they were supposed to report back to King Herod, but God warns them to go back to their home in the east without telling the King anything. The King is furious because he wanted to know exactly where Jesus is living so he can find him and kill him. He only knows two things: 1. Where Jesus is approximately (somewhere in or around Bethlehem), and 2. How old Jesus is approximately at this stage.

He works out Jesus’ age by how long it’s been since the star originally appeared (marking when Jesus was born). We aren’t told exactly when this is, but we are told that Herod orders the death of all the children in and around Bethlehem ages two years old and under. This means that Jesus is not a new born any more. In fact, Jesus could be up to two years old according to King Herod’s logic. Maybe Jesus was only one year old and King Herod ruthlessly wanted to just make sure that he got Jesus by killing children older than he needed to, just in case.

Now, this horrible story, traditionally entitled, “The Massacre of the Innocents” really deserves its own contemplation (my brother wrote a thoughtful blog on it which you can read here), but for the purpose of this blog, it points out that the whole story of the Magi and the star is not set at Christmas at all. Jesus is not a newborn baby lying in a manger when the Magi follow visit, he’s a one or two year old child and they visit Jesus at the house he is living in.

But so what? What’s the problem with tweaking the stories of the Bible so that they fit better into carols and nativity sets? Who cares if the Magi actually aren’t a part of Christmas? Who cares if the “We 3 Kings” were actually “We 300 Zoroastrians”?

Well, I think that’s the problem. We don’t care to read what the Bible actually says. Like in the video above, spoken by the Mayor of Orlando, we are happy to “celebrate the biblical story of the three kings”, without really caring if such a “biblical” story even exists. Although it’s still positive and a quasi-endorsement of the Bible, it’s actually promoting a way of changing the Bible to suit ourselves, rather than grappling the Bible as it stands to let it change us.

The best analogy I can think of to explain why this is an issue, is the Quentin Tarantino movie, “Inglourious Basterds”. You may not have seen the movie, but it’s sort of a fantasy re-telling of the events of World War 2, where a group of US soldiers plan to assassinate Hitler – and they succeed! Now, if you know you history, Hitler wasn’t assassinated by American soldiers, he committed suicide. Of course, one of the things that makes the movie, “Inglourious Basterds” such a clever movie is that this fact is known and so Tarantino can make this film as a sort  of “wouldn’t it have been cool if” sort of movie.

But imagine if that movie became the staple history of World War 2? What if all other historical records were ignored and that’s just how the Mayor of Orlando referred to the death of Hitler? What if sermons and songs were written about this fictional history, teaching us about the might of American soldiers and how they were even able to kill Hitler! Not only would this be a lie about America, it would also be an insult to the German resistance, who actually came the closest to assassinating Hitler on the 20th July 1944 with “Operation Valkyrie”. This is actually something I think Quentin Tarantino would hate to have happen, as the power of the fantasy of his film relies on the backdrop of the truthful history being known.

Likewise, when a false version of the Bible is told and re-enforced, it promotes the Bible, not as history, but as mythology and fairy tale. But I believe, more than any other religion, Christianity proclaims the Bible (and especially the gospels) as a record of actual, historical events that are real and true and have effected the history of the world. As Peter, the close friend and follower of Jesus wrote, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Peter 1:16)

The message of the Magi is one of non-Jews (like most of the people reading this blog) seeking the promised Jewish Messiah. Their message is to bow down and worship Jesus like they did. It is a message worth listening to and following.

But the message of the Magi is also that if we are to really grapple with who Jesus really is and respond to him as he truly is – rather than how we would like him to be – we must not simply listen to the carols and the Christmas Day TV special. We must go back to the source material. Read the Bible for yourself! Don’t trust what I say about it in these blogs. Pick it up and read the actual words that are on the page. It’s hard to throw out the baggage and the expectations you may have about Jesus, but I encourage you to try to do so.

If in the end, you choose to follow Jesus, I want you to follow the real Jesus.

If in the end, you choose to reject Jesus, I want you to reject the real Jesus.

Because in the end, you’ll be standing before the real Jesus, and I’d hate for you to get a shock.

 

To leave you on a lighter note, I’ll finish this will my all-time favourite example of how we like to design our own Jesus. This scene is from the pretty lame movie, “Talladega Nights”, but it includes a very relevant line for this discussion, especially at this time of year. Will Ferrel’s character, Ricky Bobby says, “I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I’m saying grace. When you say grace you can say it to grown up Jesus or teenager Jesus or bearded Jesus or whoever you want.”

Enjoy and have a wonderful Christmas!

 

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