September 9 2014

How the Virgin Mary led me to Christ

Rosary

 

Becoming a Christian was for me a bit like getting married. I can remember the a specific day, the specific moment that I put my trust in Christ and was reconciled to God. But, like any relationship, there is often a long relational process before a commitment is made. The process that takes us from being a stranger (or even enemy) of God to being a friend, is often a very interest journey of wooing and being wooed, of exploring and asking questions. Every Christian I have ever met has an interesting and unique story of how they came to know Jesus. God brings people into our life and circumstances along our path in order to lead us to understand and respond to the gospel. I definitely had that experience. One of the interesting things God used in my journey was… the Catholic Rosary.

I was brought up going to Catholic Mass every Sunday and was sent to both a Catholic Primary and Secondary School. I didn’t know much about the finer points of Catholic theology, but I did come through that time with an understanding that God existed, that he was all powerful and that he loved me. In regard to Jesus and the gospel, I knew some of the very basic elements of the story, but that was it. If you had asked me “Why did Jesus die?” I would have responded faithfully with the answer, “He died for my sins.” But I would have had absolutely no idea what that meant, why that was necessary or what impact that should make to my life.

monty-python-meaning-of-life-god-and-earth-terry-gilliamAround the age of 16, God began to prompt me and I started asking some of the big questions about the meaning of life. I started to wonder what the point of everything was and if God had anything to do with it. I had no problem believing that God existed, but it started to seem odd to me that, if he existed, why didn’t he feature more prominently in my life? Wasn’t God the biggest thing there was in the Universe? How could he just be a small character in my story – almost just an extra in the background? I concluded in the end, if God existed and there was a meaning to life, then those two things HAD to be inextricably linked. God had to be what it was all about, or else, God wasn’t really God.

Now, I know, many people who are brought up in the Catholic Church take that last option and conclude that the God that they were taught about as a child was just a fairy tale like Santa that you should just grow out of. That was not my story. My own experience didn’t include God, but my worldview did. I thought then, as I still think now, that the world makes much more sense with God than without God. Some see this inconsistency with worldview and their personal experience as a sign that their worldview is faulty. For me, it was a sign that what needed to change was my personal experience.

So I began to explore more about God, asking questions, talking to people and generally being more interested in spiritual things. I could share all the things that God brought into my life during this time, but I want to share just one of the key moments that was quite a turning point for me.

At the Catholic High School I went to we did Religious Education (or RE as it was called). Now we didn’t always learn about Catholic teaching and practises, but during this season of spiritual rosary002searching I remember one class where we were learning about the Catholic Rosary.

If you don’t know what the Rosary is, let me try to explain it to you. It’s a set of beads linked together in a necklace, that is used as an aid for prayer and meditating. There is nothing magical in the beads themselves, it’s just that each bead represents a prayer and so you feel along with your fingers one bead at a time and pray the appropriate prayer as you go. You travel around the circle of the necklace which is broken up into five sections. Each section has ten beads in it and is called a “decade”. There is also one single bead that separates each “decade”. Every time you come along to one of these single beads, you pray the “Our Father” (or “The Lord’s Prayer” as it is otherwise known). Then you move through the “decade” and for each one of those ten beads, you pray the “Hail Mary“.

Now, I’m not going to comment here about what I think about the Hail Mary prayer, or about devotions to Mary in general, even about the dangers about repetitively praying the Our Father (other than to say that I obviously have problems with them all). At the time, during this RE class back in High School, I was more intrigued by what you were expected to do during each decade. Apart from praying the Hail Mary 10 times, you are also meant to meditate and reflect on a particular religious story. These are called “Mysteries”. Every time you do a circuit of the Rosary, you think about five different Mysteries. In Catholic tradition there are four different types of Mysteries – the Joyful Mysteries, the Luminous Mysteries, the Sorrowful Mysteries and the Glorious Mysteries. You can see what they all are HERE.

So, to conclude (in case you’re losing track), to completely pray the Rosary, you will go around the necklace 4 times, each time reflecting on 5 different Mysteries, so that in the end you have thought about 20 different religious stories (and prayed the Hail Mary over 200 times!) Now, as a teenager just starting to look into the bible, I was interested in these “Mysteries”. I wanted to look up these stories and investigate them myself.

I remember I had a little pamphlet which included all the Mysteries next to a religious picture depicting the story. Underneath each one was the Bible reference where you could find the story recorded. It looked like the picture below…

 

mary card

 

I was going through them all and noticing how each bible passage clearly referred to the Mystery. This was, until I got to the last two “Glorious Mysteries”. You can see them above in the bottom right hand side of the picture and from the bible passage listed there, you might be able to see what I mean. These two stories are called The Assumption and The Coronation.

The Assumption is the idea that Mary didn’t actually die, but was assumed into heaven. This stems from the Catholic idea that Mary was sinless and so could not have died – as death is a punishment or consequence for our sinfulness. The Coronation is the idea that because Catholics see Mary as the Mother of God, after she was assumed into Heaven she was then crowned as Queen over all creation. This is how the Catholic Catechism puts it: Finally the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things”.

Now, even as a teenager who didn’t know the bible from a bar of soap, that seemed to be a bit of a stretch to get to from the passages referred to in the Rosary pamphlet. Look at the passage that get used as a “proof text” for The Assumption. It says: “You are the glory of Jerusalem … You are the splendid boast of our people … God is pleased with what you have wrought. May you be blessed by the Lord Almighty forever and ever!” (Judith 15:9-10)

Now, not only is Judith an Old Testament book (and so is not a story about Mary), it is one that is disputed as to whether it is actually part of the Bible (Protestants refer to these books as “apocryphal“, meaning “obscure” or “non-canonical”). Also, look how many time the quote uses an Ellipsis (the three dots “…”). This refers to the quote being majorly edited.

judithI noticed this and so looked up the passage in the book of Judith in my Catholic bible. The whole section reads: “The high priest Joakim and the elders of the Israelites, who dwelt in Jerusalem, came to see for themselves the good things that the Lord had done for Israel, and to meet and congratulate Judith. When they had visited her, all with one accord blessed her, saying: ‘You are the glory of Jerusalem, the surpassing joy of Israel; You are the splendid boast of our people. With your own hand you have done all this; You have done good to Israel, and God is pleased with what you have wrought. May you be blessed by the Lord Almighty forever and ever!’ And all the people answered, ‘Amen!'”

You can guess how amazed I was when I saw that the passage wasn’t about Mary, but about about a woman named Judith in the Old Testament! And even Judith wasn’t being assumed into heaven due to her sinlessness. She was being congratulated for her assistance in winning a battle. This was a very poor proof text to use, I thought.

The passage used for The Coronation story wasn’t much better, but at least it was from a non-disputed book from the New Testament. The verse was Revelation 12:1 which read A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” Well, that at least sounded like it could fit a picture of a coronation with the whole “crown of twelve stars”. But as I read the passage and the verses around it, I realised it was a prophetic vision and that the woman being talked about wasn’t referring to a real woman like Mary, but, as the verse calls it, a “sign”. There was no crowning ceremony taking place, no bestowing of Queen-like authority over all creation. 

I was very confused. Surely, I had missed something. Clearly, I just didn’t know my Bible well enough.

I went to my RE teacher and asked her about it. I said, “The verses given don’t really talk about Mary being assumed into heaven or crowned Queen of all things. If it’s not in the bible… where did the story come from?”

Without a hint of concern, my RE teachers casually said, “Oh, they’re things the Church developed later.”

I was floored. A little bubble of trust burst in my 16 year old brain.

“Developed later??” I thought to myself, “So, they’re not in the Bible? Why should I trust it then? Why did they even try to use a bible verse to back it up? What else do I believe isn’t in the Bible? What else have I been taught isn’t actually true?”

It was like a reversal of the epiphany that Martin Luther had about Romans 1:17 which was the catalyst for the Reformation. For Luther, he discovered something that was in the Bible which he hadn’t been believing. With me, I discovered that something I had been believing, wasn’t actually in the Bible.

And with that, my own journey of reformation began. It involved a lot of questions and hours of conversation and lots and lots of reading the bible.

group-prayerA few months later, this journey led me to a point where I turned to the Christian I was sitting next to at a Christian event and asked, “Ok… So what do I have to believe in order to be born again?” This guy, who I didn’t really know that well, calmly and clearly took me through a few passages in the book of Romans (which I have since learned is something called “The Romans Road“).

With each verse I nodded and said, “Yep, I believe that” and when he got to the end I said, “Is that it?” “That’s it.” he replied. And so, that very night, I sat around a kitchen table in Coburg with a small group of Christian friends and I thanked Jesus for dying for me and asked him to become the Lord of my life.

My life has never been the same since.

Now, nearly 20 years later, I reflect back on that RE class and my little “reformation” moment. During that whole journey, I never felt like I was rejecting the Catholic Church or the faith I was brought up in. In fact, quite the opposite. I was discovering the Jesus that I had always been taught about, I was learning what it meant for Jesus to “die for my sins” and I was beginning a real, personal relationship with the God I always knew existed.

And even though I do believe the Catholic Church has many things wrong with it, including some of its unbiblical ideas about Mary, the only reason why I questioned that Rosary pamphlet was because, even as a teenager, I had a deep conviction that the Bible was where the truth about God would be found. I thought, if it wasn’t in the Bible, then why should we believe it?

Now, where did that idea come from? Well, it came from the Catholic Church, of course. The Catholic Church instilled in me such a respect for the Bible as God’s Word, that in the end, it challenged me to read the Bible for myself and it led me to the gospel of Jesus.

And for that I will literally be eternally grateful…

 

 

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September 1 2014

Pain, grief and the muck in the lake

Recently, some of the deep pain I experienced during the breakdown of my first marriage has resurfaced and I am going through a journey at the moment to process some of this pain and see what God has for me to learn through it. It has been over five years since my divorce, and it is around 8 and a half years since my first wife and I separated. God has done great healing in my heart over many of the griefs associated with the end of my first marriage, including providing me with forgiveness and grace for my sinful part in what caused it to collapse. Even so, many years later, I am still working through the pain, trauma and wounding that the long period of separation brought into my life and heart.

I once heard an analogy about pain and grief that has stuck with me and continues to ring true to my experience. I thought I’d share it with you.

Pain is like muck in a lake. As the waves settle after a traumatic event, it may seem like the water becomes clear and still, but often it is just that the muck sinks deep down to the bottom of the lake and rests there for a while. We might know it is there, but the clarity of the still waters is so refreshing it is better for a time to let it be.

Digging worms2Sometimes we might be tempted to go digging around in the deep part of our lake looking to dislodge the muck that needs to be dealt with. We might be worried that we are simply avoiding pain and keeping it repressed and that that would be unhealthy. Sometimes that may be true, but generally, I would discourage digging around in your pain. God knows the right time and season that we are prepared to work through our grief. The most important thing to do is keep seeking God and listening to his Word and letting his Spirit convict you and teach you and guide you.

Psalm 139 is a great reflection for this. Verses 1-4 says: You have searched me, Lordand you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely.” God knows our hearts so much better than we do. He knows everything that is going on at the bottom of our lake and he knows when and how we should deal with it. Rather than digging around trying to dislodge something you might not be ready to deal with, the best thing to do is to pray the words at the end of Psalm 139: Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

Seek God and always allow him to search and lead you. God knows when it is the right time for the muck to be brought up from the bottom of your lake. He may do that directly through the prompting of his Spirit, or he may do that through life circumstances. God is sovereign over every part of your life. He will use an event or a conversation or some interaction as a stick that goes down into the water and stirs up the muck at the bottom. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, you may suddenly feel overwhelmed with the pain and emotions you thought were long gone, or at least, deeply buried.

When this happens, don’t fight it. In fact, see it as God’s kindness as he has sovereignly allowed for this muck to be stirred up at this time rather than any earlier when you may not have been able to deal with it. When the stick of life stirs up the muck in your lake, know that God probably has some healing in store for you. The important thing is to not ignore it. Let yourself feel the pain and be free to express it without embarrassment. The water that just recently looked so clear and still, now is swirling around with brown muck. It is unpleasant. In fact, it is really shitty. You may just want the pain to end, but don’t ignore it. This is just a season that you have to go through. Give read-holy-bibleyourself some time and make space in your life to allow God to do his work. Spend time in prayer and the study of the Bible, seeking God for what he wants you to reflect on or realise. Journal, draw, write, paint or even blog about what you are feeling. Talk through it with a wise and godly friend who can sit with you in your pain and continue to point you to the truths of God as they become relevant. It may be worth seeking professional counselling or meeting with your minister to give yourself the time and space to work through the pain.

Most importantly, keep bringing your muck to God. As it is dislodged from the bottom of the lake and comes to the surface, scoop it out and give it to God. Allow the truths of his Word to speak into your pain – to vindicate injustices done, to correct lies we believe about God, ourselves and others, and to remind you of the promises of God’s redemptive work, both in this life and especially in the New Creation, where God says, He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)

Then, as God brings you healing, insight, comfort and redemption, eventually that season will end. The waters will calm down and once again they will become still and clear. God will not have removed all of the muck. He knows us and knows how much of the process we can take. As he allowed the muck to come up, he will also allow some of the muck to sink back down. Be content with this. Not everything will be dealt with at once, and even if you spent your whole life in daily counselling, not everything will be dealt with in this lifetime. Pain and loss are a part of this broken world, and it is only when Jesus returns that this “old order of things” will have fully passed away.

Pain is like muck at the bottom of a lake. It is messy and unpleasant. It takes time to work through. It makes us long for the New Creation.

For me, in this season of swirling, muddy waters, I am daily feeling the pain of griefs that hurt me years ago. But I am also going through this season with great hope. I know that God loves me and will walk me through this time. I know God will not allow me to face anything that would completely crush my faith and joy as I keep putting my trust in him. I also know that God will do powerful and redemptive things through this time. I’m actually looking forward to it. The healing may be small. It may not deal with everything. But it will be exactly what I need for this time and this season. In that hope, I can walk through the pain rather than avoid it.

In fact, in the midst of this pain, I can scoop out the muck in my lake with joy.

a-man-looking-across-a-lake-into-dawn-kish

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.” Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

(2 Corinthians 4:6-18)

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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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June 30 2014

On the Road – What God cares more about

on the road

 

Think of the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32. Imagine there are three points in the story – The Father’s house, the pigsty and the road in between the two.
At one point, the son is in the pigsty, far from his father’s house, and at another point he is closer to his father, on the road.
Which of these two is a better place for him to be, do you think?

“On the road” you might say, because the closer you are to the father’s house the better.

Well, it would be understandable to think that, but you must consider this most important question… Which way is the son facing?

You see, at one point of the parable he was on the road, quite close to his father’s house, but he was walking away from the father. Being close to the father was no help to him because his direction was leading him further and further away.

But in that moment in the pigsty, when he came to his senses and turned back to begin his journey back home, he was in a much better position. He had repented. His direction was set and even though he was far from the father’s house, bankrupt, hungry and covered in mud, he was better off than that point on the road when he was facing away from his father.

wrong wayJesus uses this story as an analogy to the moment when someone turns in repentance back to God and he says, “there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10)

There are many stories throughout the gospels where Jesus makes the point that the most important thing to God is not your position (how “good” or “close” you are to God), but your direction (which way you are facing and the direction you are travelling in). He often challenged the outwardly “good” religious leaders of his day about how God was actually more pleased with “bad” people who had turned to God in repentance. He’d say things like, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.” (Matthew 21:31-32)

It’s not that God doesn’t care about how godly we are. It’s not that he doesn’t care about whether we lead a sinful or a holy life. It’s just that he cares about our DIRECTION more.

If you didn’t know, I run a little ministry called Elephant Room, where I have the privilege of supporting Christian guys as they journey out of an addiction to porn. The truth that God cares more about the direction they are travelling than exactly how much progress they have made, is a great encouragement to them. They can feel so overwhelmed by their failures and so far from where they know they should be as a Christian. It is important for them to be reminded that every time they repent, all of heaven throws a party! Every little step walking in the right direction is worth it, no matter how far the journey seems and no matter how small the step. God is glorified greatly by us facing the right direction. As King David wrote as he repented over his own sexual sin: “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17)

Back in 2007, I came to learn this great truth on my own road out of an addiction to porn. To express it, I wrote a song called, “The Road”, which has these words in its first verse:

“When I wonder whether I am travelling fast enough I just remember, I am on the road.
Cos speed is not the key to be freed, the priority’s the direction that you go, there on the road.
I might fall and I might stumble, but I am on the road.
And my hope it won’t crumble, if I am on the road.”

 

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April 16 2014

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.

 

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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 24 2013

death – a poem

Jesus tombstone

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


death

a poem by Simon Camilleri

I’m not afraid of death

I have no fear to take that final breath

I have no need to clasp

And clammer to hold my life within my grasp

Death has no sting

When your life is held by life’s King

See, I have already faced

My death when Jesus died in my place

He died my death for me

Exhausting my sin’s deserved death penalty

What could I do

But repent from my allegiance to

The sin that caused his death

Opening my empty hands to receive this gift

In the blinking of an eye

My life estranged from Life did die

And it was then

That my new life was born again

And so I now fear not

That my body will one day begin to rot

My end already came

My death certificate already framed

My funeral is done

And now my everlasting afterlife has come

And though I still

In some sense live in wait until

Jesus returns again

I do not live in fear of the end

When I farewell mortality’s strife

I won’t face death – but more and better life

So now I am free to live

A life where I am free to give

Free to bless

With blissful self-forgetfulness

Without a thought

Of holding on to what I’ve bought

For Jesus’ sacrifice

Has bought my life and paid the price

That I could never pay

And so for him I live today and every day

Free of fear

Even as death draws daily near

.
“Jesus shared in our humanity so that by his death

he might break the power of him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil —

and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”

(Hebrews 2:14-15)

.

“Listen, I tell you a mystery:

We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed –

in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.

For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality,

then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.

But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

(1 Corinthians 15:51-57)

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July 18 2013

Fear Full Circle

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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

wine blog

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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