April 13

“When Santa Shared the Gospel” – a sequel

“When Santa Shared the Gospel”

A sequel to “When Santa Learned the Gospel”.


When Santa shared the gospel, he went first to Easter Bunny.

He wasn’t sure how he’d respond – if he would find it funny.

He wasn’t sure if he would scoff, or if he’d turn his back.

In truth, he had just no idea how Bunny might react.

But Bunny was a friend of his and so what could he do?

The gospel had transformed his life. It could bless Bunny too.

The gospel had led him to Christ and he’d been born again.

So Santa knew he couldn’t keep this good news from his friend.

He loved his friend and had to share he was a new believer,

But he didn’t want to jeopardize their solid friendship either.

And so when Santa knocked upon the Easter Bunny’s door,

His heart was filled with hope and fear (but fear a little more).

The Easter Bunny greeted Santa with a smile of joy

“What brings you ‘round?” He laughed, “Or have I been a ‘naughty boy’?”

“Well funny you should say that.” Santa said as he sat down,

“I’ve actually had that whole system of thinking flipped around!”

“I’ve got something to tell you. I feel awkward. A bit scared.

I know I don’t know all that much, but what I know, I’ll share.”

So Santa shared the gospel. It was simple. It was short.

And when he stopped he couldn’t tell at all what Bunny thought.

He worried he had caused offense. Was their long friendship wrecked?

But then his friend said something Santa didn’t quite expect…

“That’s great.” smiled Easter Bunny. “Yeah, I’m really glad for you.

You probably didn’t know, but guess what? I’m a Christian too!”

“What news!” cried Santa joyfully, “This must be brand new, is it?

How’d you learn about the gospel? Did my elf friend pay a visit?”

The Easter Bunny laughed, “Nah, my folks are Christians too!

I was brought up with the gospel. I’ve always known it’s true.

I attend my local church each week, and mid-week Bible Study.

Hey! Now that you’re a Christian, we can be church-going buddies!”

At this Santa was puzzled. He’d known Bunny now for ages.

He’d never seen him go to church or turning bible pages.

He’d never heard him talk of Christ or sharing the good news.

And Bunny said, “Look Santa, I can see you’re quite confused.”

“See, I’m not much of a talker. Definitely no evangelist!

I’ll answer questions if I’m asked, but if not, I won’t insist.

My philosophy is simple. It’s a saying I once heard:

Preach the Gospel at all times. And if needed then use words.’”

“I like that motto. Words are hard! I’d rather preach through deeds.

And so instead of talking I’ve been sowing subtle seeds.”

“Like, you know how every Easter I make you a hot cross bun?

Well, I hoped that cross might vaguely point you the ‘Jesus’ one.

And the eggs I paint each year are symbols of the resurrection.

I guess I hoped you’d see the subtle gospel-rich connection.”

“Why didn’t you just tell me?” Santa asked, shaking his head.

“Well, I didn’t want to force my faith upon you.” Bunny said.

“I had really hoped to ask you if you’d come to church with me.

But for years I’ve just been waiting for the opportunity.”

“Oh Bunny”, Santa sighed, “I’m sorry that you felt that way.

I understand you feeling awkward but there was no need for delay.

The gospel has the power to save, you shouldn’t feel ashamed!

You’re the Easter Bunny after all. The gospel’s in your name!”

“When I first learned the gospel, I was told it by an elf.

Her example showed me all you need to do is be yourself.

There’s no need to be clever. Don’t have to try to sell it.

You don’t have to be subtle. All you have to do… is tell it.”

“Look, I’m all pretty new to this, so don’t think I’m comparing,

But if Jesus is alive, my friend, that’s good news that’s worth sharing!”

“You’re right,” said Bunny sheepishly, “I’ve wasted time I know.

I could have shared the gospel with you years and years ago.

“Well, no regrets!” smiled Santa, “Let’s go out and celebrate!”

The Easter Bunny grinned and said, “You know what? That sounds great!”

His bunny eyes were twinkling as fresh joy brightened his face,

“And while we’re out how ‘bout we go swing past Tooth Fairy’s place?”

(614)

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March 29

Palm Sunday & the Unexpected King

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Today is Palm Sunday. It’s a day we remember the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. It’s a relatively small and seemingly insignificant story in the Bible, so why do we stop to remember it? Well, have a read of the text from John’s gospel below and see what’s happening…

The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!”, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”, “Blessed is the king of Israel!”

Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:

“Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.”

At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.

(John 12:12-16)

So, a fairly simple story. Jesus is coming to Jerusalem, lots of people get all excited, calling him the king and shaking palm branches (hence, “Palm Sunday”), and Jesus gets on a donkey and rides into town. In verse 16 it says, “At first his disciples did not understand all this.”  Well, at first, you also might not understand all this either. Here are a few thoughts to help you see the significance of this event.

“Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem”

This line has two major points of significance. Firstly, from Jesus’ perspective. From other parts of the gospels we learn that Jesus had been planning to go to Jerusalem for a while and his purpose was to die. Jerusalem was (and is) the central city of all Judaism. It was where all the powerful leaders were. Jesus’ claim to be the prophesied king of God’s kingdom and the Son of God, was not that big a deal as long as he stayed to the little country towns in Israel. But if he went to Jerusalem that was like walking into the lion’s den. And Jesus knew it. So did his disciples. There is a key moment in Jesus’ ministry when he turns to head towards Jerusalem and his disciples are shocked and scared, but Jesus very clearly explains his reasoning for going. Read 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 was going to Jerusalem in order to be captured. He was going there to die. He was going there to be resurrected. He was going there to bring about the first Easter.

Now, this was Jesus’ perspective. But the crowds who greeted Jesus had a different idea.

From their perspective, Jesus coming to Jerusalem was him finally putting his money where his mouth was. He had been talking about the kingdom of God and how he was the prophesied “Son of Man” from Daniel 7, and it was well known that he was a prophet and a miracle-worker and even called the Son of God. Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, the promised king who would establish God’s kingdom, destroy the Roman Empire and allow the Jews to rule the world in prosperity and harmony with God forever! But until he came to Jerusalem, all his talk of being a king was just talk. It would be like if someone said, “I am the rightful Prime Minister of Australia!” but they always stayed in Coober Pedy and never went to Canberra.

From the people’s perspective, Jesus coming to Jerusalem was his triumphant entry where he was truly saying “I am king! And now I will take over!”

That’s why they were waving palm branches like it was a ticker tape parade and cheering battle cries: “Hosanna!”, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”, “Blessed is the king of Israel!” The word “Hosanna” means “Lord, save us” and it shows the crowd was basically quoting a couple of verses from Psalm 118…

“Lord, save us! Lord, grant us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. From the house of the Lord we bless you.” (Psalm 118:25-26)

They saw Jesus’ arrival as a king coming to assume his throne. Jesus saw his arrival as a dead man walking coming to be executed. Two very different perspectives.

“Jesus found a young donkey”

Why did Jesus enter Jerusalem on a young donkey? Was it because he was tired of walking and donkeys were easier to find than a horse and chariot? Well, the text doesn’t suggest that. In Matthew’s account of the story it gives even more detail about how they got the donkey. Jesus says to his disciples before they get to Jerusalem: Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.” 

It seems the donkey is something very, very deliberate for Jesus. So what is he trying to say? Well, both accounts of this story tell us that Jesus is using the donkey so that he would fulfil a prophecy made by the prophet Zechariah hundreds of years earlier.

In Zechariah 9:9-11, God spoke through the prophet to give a picture of what it would be like when his promised king would come to Zion (or Jerusalem).

“Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.
As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit.”

The picture is definitely of a king. He is righteous and victorious. His rule will extend to the ends of the earth. And he will bring peace to all the nations of the world and freedom from those imprisoned. This is definitely a king. But it is an unexpected king.

His righteousness and victory doesn’t appear as strength or brute power. He comes lowly and riding on a young donkey. You can’t go to battle on a donkey! You can’t destroy the Roman Empire on a donkey! You can’t fight your way to the throne, destroying all your enemies in your way, and claim your rightful role as king of Jerusalem, if your warhorse is a donkey!

But that is the unexpected king. He takes away all chariots and warhorses and battle bows. He is the one who proclaims peace to the nations, not war.

Now, this act of weakness and lowliness, doesn’t mean he will not be victorious in establishing his rule. As the prophecy says, his rule will extend from seas to sea, and his lowliness does not jeopardise that one bit. In fact, his lowliness will be the very means by which his kingdom is established, peace is brought to the world and the prisoners are set free from the waterless pit.

You see that alluded to in verse 11 of the prophecy. It is because of the “blood of the covenant” that all this will happen. If you want to explore deeper as to what that phrase means, have a read of another blog I wrote on this topic HERE. To summarise though, it is pointing to the atoning sacrifice that was made on behalf of the people that established their relationship with God in the Old Testament (the story is found in Exodus 24:4-8).

For those that know the Easter story, they will remember that on the night before Jesus was crucified, he told his disciples that his own death would be the new “blood of the covenant”. Jesus saw his death as the ultimate atoning sacrifice that would free people from the pit, bring peace to the world and establish an everlasting relationship between God and all those who trusted in it.

That is why he comes lowly and riding on a donkey. That is why Jesus came to Jerusalem at all! He came to die. But not just to die. He came to die as an atoning sacrifice for people. Even his enemies. That’s why he doesn’t come on a warhorse. He doesn’t want to destroy his enemies. He wants to rescue them and embrace them into God’s kingdom. He wants to die on their behalf. He wants to save them.

The crowds were right.

So the crowds were right! They were right to praise Jesus as king – for that is who he is. They were right to say “Hosanna!” which means “Lord, save us” – for that is what he came to do. They were right to expect that he had come to Jerusalem to establish God’s kingdom and reconcile people to God. But they were wrong in how they expected he would do it.

The story finishes with the disciples being confused: “At first his disciples did not understand all this.” But then it tells us that, like us, they eventually understood what was going on: “Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.” When it says Jesus was “glorified” it is referring to Jesus’ death and resurrection (see John 12:23 & 17:1).

At first, the disciples were confused by what was going on. There was a juxtaposition. Jesus was the king, but he came to Jerusalem on a donkey. Jesus was supposed to be the Messiah, but he talked about dying. How did it all fit together? Well, after Jesus was glorified in his death and resurrection, then they realised that “these things had been written about him”. It was only after Easter that they remembered the prophesy of Zechariah and the puzzle pieces fit together.

Fortunately, we live in the time after Jesus has been glorified. And every Easter we can remember the great work on the cross he did to die for sinners like you and me.

For today, let us grab our palm branches and praise the king. Not having a false expectation of him establishing his rule through aggression and force, but seeing the mission from Jesus’ perspective, pointing to the cross as the great moment that reconciled God and people.

Let us remember that our king came lowly, riding on a donkey, and join in the cry, “Hosanna!

(1436)

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April 19

Jesus’ death & Isaiah 53

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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 22:371 Peter 2:21-25Acts 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

  (2148)

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April 16

The Cry at the Crucifixion

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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.

  (3231)

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March 30

The Last Supper & The Meaning of The Cross

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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!

  (4217)

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