Idols.

Christianity, Religion

 “Little children, guard yourselves from idols.” 1 John 5:21

The Three Epistles of John are traditionally believed to have been written by the Apostle John, the same author of the gospel which bears his name, and the Revelation. The letters were likely written near the end of the first century A.D. to encourage believers in the faith, and to help them combat false teachings. John, by this point in time, was advanced in age and of the twelve disciples, was the only remaining living one. In these letters, he was giving the next generation of Christians invaluable doctrinal teaching upon which they can rely after he is gone. The constant refrain of “little children,” found throughout these epistles, helps reinforce the image of a beloved elderly figure–much like a grandfather–instructing his grandchildren how to live.

The first epistle, or letter, is primarily focused on reinforcing orthodox and accepted doctrine, as well as refuting heretical doctrines which were beginning to emerge at this time. Even at this early point in Christian history, there were views of Christ beginning that contradict what the Apostles and the churches taught. Such beliefs often focused on Christ and his human nature.  Some heretical views taught that Christ was just a spiritual being and that He did not have a physical body. Other views rejected His deity and taught that He was merely a man who had been incredibly enlightened by God. John uses this letter as an opportunity to combat these false teachings while also teaching the believers how to test for sound doctrine.

Throughout 1 John, there are cycles of repetition, which are to drill into the minds of the believers the sound doctrine to which they must cling, and use to combat false teaching. This repetition comes through in a series of tests; John most commonly presents these tests in an “if, then” format. We see this occur in several places in 1 John, such as in 2:3-4 where he writes “By this, we know that we have come to know Him if we keep His commandments. The one who says ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” John presents a test of proper belief– that if we know Christ, then we will keep His commandments. Those who do not pass these tests are not living as Christ taught.  

The tests that John presents to his audience are focused on three specific areas:  the first being righteousness– showing that the true Christian will seek to live a godly life. The second test focuses on love– demonstrating that the hallmark of the true Christian is that they will love others as Christ loved them. Lastly, there is the test of belief–meaning that the true Christian will adhere to and hold orthodox beliefs about Christ, such as His literal coming to earth in the flesh. If believers encountered anything which did not pass these tests, they would know that those teachings such be avoided and refuted. 

John ends the first of his letters with the line “Little children, guard yourselves from idols” ( 1 John 5:21). This plea appears out of nowhere; up to this point, there has been no mention of idols or idolatry. Why then would John mention this, seemingly in passing, at the end of his letter?

Certainly, idolatry would be something which confronted Christians of this time. The Mediterranean world, in which the early church emerged, was a hotbed of pagan religion; one need look no further than the cultures of ancient Rome and Greece to understand this. Pagan temples were everywhere, and worship of idols would be just as plentiful. The cultural situation in which early Christians found themselves was not entirely different than that in which Israel found itself in the Promised Land–surrounded by people who worshipped a plethora of gods. Knowing how idolatry plagued ancient Israel throughout its history, John certainly wanted to encourage the next generation of Christians to avoid this same tragic pitfall.

Even this understanding of John’s call to avoid idols doesn’t fit the overall scope of the letter. This face-level reading does not take into account the three tests that he continually relied upon throughout the letter. To get the full meaning of the message that John is communicating to his audience, we must read this command in the light of those tests. When we take this approach, John’s call takes on a whole new and deeper level of significance.

John’s call to avoid idols is best understood as avoiding twisting the gospel to fit what we want it to mean. For example, John previously demonstrated that sound doctrine could be determined through the test of righteousness–that the true believer in Christ will seek to live a godly life. However, what if one who professes to be a follower of Christ,  and continues to indulge in sin and does not seek to live as Christ commands? According to John, that person is preaching and practicing a false gospel. In other words, they’ve constructed for themselves a practice which is not the gospel of Christ, and that is idolatry.

What if one professes Christ and does not exhibit love for their brothers and sisters?  John taught that love was a hallmark of the true believer. Claiming to follow Christ and not demonstrating Christ-like love is the same as creating a new gospel, which is no different than idolatry. Similarly, if one holds beliefs that are contrary to what the Gospels and the Apostles taught about Christ, they are worshipping a false Christ, and a false Christ is no better than an idol.

When we look at the plea to avoid idols through the lens of the tests John put forth in this letter, we see just how much more severe this command is. We also realize that this plea is just as applicable to us today in the twenty-first century as it was to Christians in the first century. All around us, we see how people have taken Jesus and His teachings from the Gospels and twisted and tweaked them to fit whatever agenda they have. Charlatans masquerading as teachers of the Word spew forth any number of fallacious messages about Christ. They teach that He is accepting of sin, or that Christ wants to bless you with prosperity and a bountiful bank account in this life, and people eat this teaching up. Such teachings make a god of something other than God. These teachings are not sound, they are not true, and in John’s view, they are idolatrous. 

Idolatry didn’t disappear with the ancients; it is more prevalent than ever. Heed John’s plea; avoid the idols which are seeking to lure us away from the truth. 

Artwork: “Moses Indignant at the Golden Calf,” William Blake, c. 1800.

Take Heart.

Christianity, Religion

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

After leaving the upper room with His disciples on the first night of Passover, Christ and the Eleven made their way through the streets of Jerusalem to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Judas would later arrive with soldiers to betray Jesus. During the trek to the garden, Jesus gave the disciples His final teachings, and told them what they would endure in the future. The disciples were still not understanding everything that Jesus was telling them, their understanding would come with time and seeing the resurrected Christ, but for now, He was telling them that it was time for Him to return to the Father. Very soon, the series of events that would culminate in His crucifixion would begin to unfold; very soon the very moment that Christ was sent to Earth for would be upon Him.

The future that Jesus spoke of to the Eleven was on which promised hardship. The world had never been a friend of Christ, so the disciples should not expect the world to treat them any differently. There would be sorrow and pain, and there would be tribulation. These things were all experienced by Christ, and since the follower is not greater than the master, those who follow Christ were to expect these same things.

Despite this, Christ promised His disciples and followers joy and peace. The Christ-follower will experience the peace–the assurance of knowing–that God is in control and with them, despite the trials of the world all around them. Jesus is quick to point out to the disciples that following Him is not an immunity against tribulation; in fact, following Christ is the reason why believers are at odds with the world and why believers experience tribulation at the hands of the world. But the believer can find comfort and take courage from one fundamental fact: Christ had conquered the world.

Here, even before going to Calvary, Christ had already overcome this fallen and rebellious world. Jesus gave His word of personal assurance to the Eleven to further reinforces this fact. The battle had yet to be fought, and Christ was already victorious. He had lived a perfect and blameless life for thirty-three years. He had endured every snare and trap set before Him by the Adversary and withstood each and every single one without sin. He did what we could not do so that He could give us that which we could not attain–deliverance from our sins. With His crucifixion and death, this victory would be fixed, and there would be nothing that could change it.

The question for us today is this: do our lives reflect the level of confidence that Christ gives us? Do we take heart in His victory? Do we live with the peace that He promised us, regardless of the situation in which we find ourselves? Or do we anxiously fret ourselves away, drawing more and more grief and sorrow from the current events of the world around us, and lament the hardships that we see the culture imposing on us because of our religious beliefs? Christ promised tribulation; if you want to avoid them, follow the world instead of Christ. You can’t believe that Jesus already overcame the world and still continue to worry about everything that the world throws at us. You either believe Jesus at His word, or you don’t. You either take heart in the victory He already claimed and delivered upon, or you put your confidence in something else to deliver you. The heart that claims Christ as its King cannot simultaneously give itself over to fear and worry about the things of this world. 

Living in this world is not easy; bad news and heartache are around every corner. But this broken world and its broken system have been defeated and overcome. Trust in Christ– the One who overcame it–and He will give you joy that no one or nothing can take away from you.

Artwork: “Christ in the Grapevine,” Natalya Rusetska. 

Freedom.

Christianity, Religion

“So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” ‭‭John‬ ‭8:31-36‬

Today is Independence Day in the United States; it is the day in which Americans celebrate self-rule and all the many freedoms that those who founded the country fought to obtain for it. This is a day filled with family gatherings, cookouts, and fireworks. For people in the US, it is the high holiday of the summer.

What good, though, is being politically free if one is still enslaved to sin? The freedoms afforded by one’s citizenship ends at death; being born in one country or another never saved anyone’s soul for eternity. One can live as freely as they choose, that will not grant them entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven.  Attaching eternal significance to one’s nationality is idolatrous—it is no different than the Pharisees in Christ’s day who said “we are children of Abraham and have never been enslaved.” Salvation does not come through national origin, or heritage.

Christ corrects this wrong thinking, and His words are no less true today than they were then. Unless one has been set free by the Son, they are still shackled to their sins. The freedom granted by Christ is the only one of eternal significance; this is the only freedom that matters, or that can grant one citizenship in the Kingdom.

The freedom given by Christ can only be found in submitting to Him and declaring Him the Lord and King of your life. It is only found in being washed in His blood that He freely shed to save humanity from being damned and eternally enslaved to sin and death. His freedom comes when we say that we are not free on our own; that we are lost and trapped in the chains that we have forged link by link in our fallen states. It is only when we realize that we must be dependent on Christ that we become truly independent.

Remember today the only Independence Day that matters—the day that Christ died to emancipate you from sin and death. The freedom He provides is eternal and sure. It can never be taken away from you. It is upheld not by force or arms, but by His love and His mighty hand. Be washed in His blood and enjoy your new citizenship, and the true freedom it brings.

Artwork: “Resurrection,” Natalya Rusetska

Each and Every Day.

Christianity, Religion

“And remember, I am with you each and every day, until the end of the age.” Matthew 28:20.

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, the author presents the reader with the resurrected Jesus, now gloriously victorious over the grave, and bestowed with all authority in heaven and earth, as He gives His final words to his disciples. It is in this final scene that Jesus demonstrates His power by commissioning–entrusting with authority–His disciples to go make more disciples.

While making his ascent back into heaven, Christ also gives His disciples–the Eleven then, and all future ones–a promise of reassurance and hope. Christ promises His followers that “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” How beautiful and sweet that promise is, to know that Christ is always with us, no matter what. What strength we can draw from that assurance.

But there’s so much more to this promise than what meets the eye.

The vast majority of English Bible versions translate Matthew 28:20 just as was discussed above– “with you always.” This is a paraphrase of what is in the Greek texts. According to the Greek manuscripts, what Jesus said was literally, “I am with you all the days until the end of the age.” Consider how much more emphatic this makes His promise. Each and every day, Jesus is with us. He isn’t just with us ‘always,’ in some sort of abstract concept of time, He is with us all day every day. He is there through the good times and the bad; through the trials and sorrow, during the times of feasting and of famine, through joy and mourning. He celebrates with us, He grieves with us, He consoles us, He comforts us, He strengthens us, He encourages us, He carries us. We are not alone; He is in the trenches with us. He never quits, He never leaves, He never forsakes us.

The Old Testament reaffirms this promise made by Jesus. As David wrote to the Choir Director (remember that ‘choir director’ could also be translated as ‘the One Who is Eternal,’ ‘the Conquering One,’ or ‘the One Who Directs All Things’):

Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the dawn, If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, even there Your hand will lead me, And Your right hand will lay hold of me. If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me, And the light around me will be night,” Even the Darkness is not dark to You, And the night is as bright as the day Darkness and light are alike to You. (Psalm 139:7-12)

Or as God said to Jeremiah: “Am I a God who is near,” declares the LORD, “And not a God far off? “Can a man hide himself in hiding places So I do not see him?” declares the LORD “Do I not fill the heavens and the earth?” declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 23:23-24).

Jesus proved, again, to be literally what Isaiah prophesied He would be–Immanuel– God with us. Here, at the end of Matthew, He promised to be God always with us, every single day.

Do not be disheartened; do not be discouraged. Jesus of Nazareth–The Eternal One, The Conquering One, The Christ, The Alpha and Omega, the One through which all things came into being and apart from whom nothing has been created that was created, the Firstborn of the Living and the Dead, the Son of Man, the One who humbled Himself to death on a cross, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the One who crushed the head of the serpent, the One who defeated sin, death, and the grave, the Son of God–is with you each and every day, until the end of time. He promised you this; He gave you His word–and He never breaks his promises.

Artwork: “Ascension of Jesus,” by Natalya Rusetska.

Son of Man.

Christianity, Religion

“I kept looking in the night visions,

And behold, with the clouds of heaven

One like a Son of Man was coming,

And He came up to the Ancient of Days

And was presented before Him.

And to Him was given dominion,

Glory and a kingdom,

That all the peoples, nations and men of every language

Might serve Him.

His dominion is an everlasting dominion

Which will not pass away;

And His kingdom is one

Which will not be destroyed.” Daniel 7:13-14

“Jesus heard that they had put him out, and finding him, He said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘Who is He, Lord, that I may believe in Him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have both seen Him, and He is the one who is talking with you.’ And he said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshiped Him.” John 9:35-38

While he was living with his people in exile in Babylon, the prophet Daniel had a vision in which he saw into heaven. In this vision, Daniel saw two figures, one which he called the “Ancient of Days,” and one which he said was “like a Son of Man.” Both of these figures were in heaven and had very distinct roles. The Ancient of Days is depicted as a wise ruler, taking his seat in his throne, being attended to by his innumerable servants. The Ancient of Days is full of power and wisdom, and it is only he who can bestow power and dominion upon others. The figure of the Ancient of Days in Daniel’s vision is a depiction of God the Father, the eternal Creator and Ruler of the Universe.

Daniel notices something unique in his vision of the throne room of the Ancient of Days; he sees that there is more than one throne (Daniel 7:9). Even after the Ancient of Days has been seated in His throne, there is another seat reserved for someone else; for a co-regent. This other figure is introduced in the figure of the Son of Man, one whom Daniel says was already in heaven with the Ancient of Days, though he has the appearance of a human. Daniel witnesses the Son of Man be presented before the Ancient of Days, and the Ancient of Days gives the Son of Man power and authority over the earth; “to him was given dominion, glory, and a  kingdom that all the peoples, nations, and men of every tongue might serve him.” This bestowal of power and dominion over all the earth upon the Son of Man by the Ancient of Days is eternal; for eternity the Son of Man would be co-ruler of all things with the Ancient of Days.

As the Scriptures were handed down from generation to generation and studied and taught, the figure of the Son of Man was often the subject of much debate. Many believed this enigmatic figure to be a representation of the promised Messiah who would come to Israel and who would make all things right, and who would ultimately rule over Israel as God’s anointed perfect king. By the time of Jesus’ life and ministry in the first century, this was a popular idea, that the Son of Man in Daniel’s vision was the Messiah.

During Jesus’ ministry, He performed many miracles. On more than one occasion, He healed the blind–a deed that Isaiah prophesied the Messiah would do. In one such instance, Christ healed a man who had been born blind, and He did so on the Sabbath, much to the dismay and disgust of the Pharisees. The Pharisees questioned the formerly blind man about the nature of his healing and who did it, and because the healed man would not speak ill of Christ, the Pharisees kicked the man out of the temple. The healed man was cut off from his religious community because he believed that Jesus was from God and doing God’s work. Though this man had once been physically blind, it was the Pharisees who were blind to the great work God was doing.

Jesus heard that the formerly blind man had been kicked out of the temple, so He goes to see the man. Christ asks the man a simple question, one which tied directly back to Daniel’s vision, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Christ was asking this anonymous man if he believed in what Daniel saw; if he believed that there was a messiah who would come and be co-ruler with God. The man asks Jesus who the Son of Man is so that he could believe in him. The previously blind man’s faith had already put him in opposition with the religious establishment in Jerusalem and here he was now needing hope and reassurance in the things that he had been taught. It was in this moment that Christ made one of His most direct revelations of His identity; He told the man that “you have seen him and he [the Son of Man] is the one talking to you.” Christ revealed to the man that He is the Son of Man, therefore, He is the Messiah. The formerly blind man understood the magnitude of what he had just been told, he proclaimed his belief, and he worshipped Jesus.

Throughout the gospels, the Pharisees and the multitudes demanded that Jesus tell them outrightly if He was the Messiah or not, to provide some sort of sign that they might see and believe in who He was. Repeatedly Christ refused to do so because those demanding signs had no faith and were spiritually blind since they couldn’t see the power of God being put on display through Christ. This blind man, however, who had faith in Christ and believed Jesus was a prophet doing God’s work–a belief that resulted in him being kicked out of the temple–to this anonymous blind man was the identity of the Son of Man revealed. This man saw what Daniel saw; he saw what Abraham and Moses and what all the prophets would have given anything to see: He saw the Son of Man–the Messiah, God’s co-ruler–in the flesh. More incredible than that, this man who was once blind saw Immanuel–God with Us–God Incarnate–God Himself face-to-face.

Jesus is the Son Of Man and He is the Messiah. To Him was given all power and authority in heaven and on earth. He rules alongside God the Father–the Ancient of Days–, and of their kingdom, there will be no end. We must have a faith like that of the anonymous blind man who was healed; a faith which recognizes these facts about Jesus. We must not be like the faithless and spiritually blind Pharisees who let their traditions and practice of their religion become an idol which usurped their love for and devotion to God. We must be disciples of Jesus; not of Moses, not of Paul, or of anyone else.  We must be Christ’s disciples, no matter the cost to us, for He saved us from our sins despite what it cost Him.

Artwork: “Jesus Christ,” by Laur Iduc

Nowhere Else To Go.

Christianity, Religion

After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.’  “John 6:66-69

There are few chapters in the Bible that are more moving than John 6. In this lengthy and action-packed chapter, Jesus’ deity and humanity are on full display; it is here that we are given accounts of two of His most famous miracles, as well as where we witness a critical moment in which Christ reacts to how people respond to His teachings.

John 6 unfolds in a rather dramatic fashion. At the outset of the chapter, there are huge crowds following Christ around the countryside of Judea waiting and watching to see what great miracle He will perform next. It is because of these large crowds that Christ can perform one of His most famous miracles: the feeding of the 5,000, in which He feeds a multitude with only five loaves of bread and two fish. This miracle helps reveal Christ’s deity and highlights Christ’s identity as God through its parallels to God’s provision for the Israelites in the wilderness during the Exodus. During those forty years, God provided for His people bread and meat each and every day–except for the Sabbath–as they wandered through the wilderness. We see Jesus do the same thing in John 6; the people have followed Him into the middle of nowhere to listen to Him preach, and they are growing hungry. To meet the needs of the people, Jesus did just as God had done during the Exodus– He provided bread and meat. The echoes of the wilderness provision were not lost on the crowd that day; they see the connection to the Exodus and to Moses and identify Jesus as the Prophet that Moses spoke of in Deuteronomy 18.

After the feeding of the 5,000, Christ performs another miracle which identifies Him as God: walking on water. His disciples had left Jesus up on the mountain and sailed across the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum. Christ was not with them when they left; instead, He walked upon the water to them in the middle of the sea. This miracle also has Old Testament parallels; Christ walking on water mirrors the Genesis 1 account of God’s spirit hovering over the waters before the creation of the world. Furthermore, Christ identifies Himself to His terrified disciples in a manner which has deep Old Testament connections; He says in the Greek text, “ἐγώ εἰμι,” (ego eimi), which is translated as “I am.” To calm the disciples down, Christ revealed Himself to them with the same name that God revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush.

It was at this point that the nature of John 6 began to turn. Jesus began to teach the multitudes that were following Him “hard things,” that they didn’t want to hear: that He is the “bread of life,” (John 6:35), and that they must eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to receive eternal life (John 6:54). Christ was referring here to His sacrificial death, not to the literal eating of his flesh and drinking of his blood as the crowds perceived.

 This teaching caused many to stop following Christ. They were eager to see Him perform miracles and incredible feats, but when He began to teach that salvation is only achieved by submitting to Him and being washed in His blood,  people turned away. They chose to put their faith in the blood of the covenant that Moses had sprinkled upon their ancestors, not in the blood that would be shed for them at Calvary. So, they walked away from Christ.

While He watched the crowds leave, Christ turned to the Twelve and asked if they too were going. Here Christ the man was feeling the rejection of His people that the prophets had foretold, and God was once again feeling the rejection that His chosen people had repeated again and again throughout the Old Testament. Just as Israel had turned away from God after they ienetered into and settled the Promised Land after He sustained them for forty years in the wilderness, they again turned away from Him as He provided for them and taught them how they could gain entrance into the Kingdom of God.

Peter, as always, spoke up. He told Christ that there was nowhere else to go that only Christ had the words of eternal life. Peter reaffirmed what he and the other disciples believed—and what all followers of Christ believe—that He is the holy one, the Messiah, of God. Christ is the only pathway to eternal life; there is no alternative.

We must live each and every day with the same commitment and level of conviction of belief that Peter embodied. We cannot be like the crowds who turned away when the excitement wore off, and the teachings got tough. We must remember that only Christ brings eternal life. Without Him, we have nothing; without Him, we are lost. There is no other name under heaven by which we can be saved. There is no one else to turn to, there is nowhere else to go. 

But God.

Christianity, Religion

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),” Ephesians 2:4-5.

After reminding the Ephesian believers that they had once been dead in their sins and transgressions, the Apostle Paul penned what would become two of the most famous verses in all of Scripture. In doing so, Paul presents the entire Gospel in just a few short words, and he highlights the drastic change that was brought about in each believer. What is truly amazing is that Paul’s entire treatise, the whole of his incredible argument and exposition, can be summarized with two words, “but God.”

We were wretched and despicable, and we sought only to please ourselves, but God was rich in mercy. We were enslaved to sin and death, but God loved us. We were fallen and broken, but God chose to restore us. Despite all of our many sins and failures and shortcomings, God loved us; not only did He just love us, but He loved us with much love–with great love. While we were still broken and tarnished–while we were still dead in our sins–God saw in us the creation which He had made and which He had said was good. We deserved eternal separation from Him, but He withheld from us the punishment which we deserved; He showed us grace.

Adam and Eve’s sin in Eden required two things: 1-something had to die to cover Adam their nakedness, and 2- Adam and Eve had to be removed from God’s presence. Due to His incredibly holy nature, God cannot be in the presence of sin; sin–and those containing it–are destroyed by His very presence. God could have required Adam and Eve to die for their sins; He could have made them remain in His presence and be destroyed. God could have done these things, but He did not. Instead, He spared them from what they deserved; He showed them grace. He loved them and did what was best for them. He sent them away from His presence, but with the promise that one day, the broken relationship between Him and mankind would be restored.

Everything that occurs in the Holy Writings after Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden is the story of “but God.” For no other reasons than His great love, mercy, and grace, God continued to pursue a relationship with His creation. Despite the fact that man was enslaved to sin, God still sought him. God pursued mankind with the sole purpose of recreating that unity that had once been enjoyed in Eden. Throughout the Bible, God calls out to man; He pleads for man to return to Him. It is as though God was saying to humanity “You don’t remember how incredible our relationship once was, but I do. I remember that you were good. You can’t remember because of your sin; because you are dead. Come back to me, and I will make you alive. Come back to me, and I will make things even better than before.”

God did just that. He sent His son, Jesus Christ, to be the ransom demanded by the sin that was holding us captive. Christ’s death settled our account and broke our chains; His blood purified us of stains of our sins and made us able to enter God’s presence once again. God loved His creation so much that He transferred the punishment that we deserved to His one and only son. We were only able to receive grace–only able to avoid getting what we truly deserved–because Christ took God’s wrath for us. God loved us so much that He allowed someone else–His son–to take our punishment for us; Christ loved us so much that He actually took the punishment for us. God and Christ both did this to free us from sin and restore that Edenic relationship. That is love; that is a great love. That is love which requires our full devotion and thanks and adoration.

Paul–through the inspiration of the Spirit–encapsulated all of this in “but God.”

Remember that you were dead in your sins, but God made you alive.

Artwork: “Exodus,” Marc Chagall, 1952-1966.

Be Salty.

Christianity, Religion

“Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Luke 14:34-35

Salt seems relatively unimportant to us today; it is nothing more than something added to food to enhance its flavor. For the ancients, however, salt was much more than this; it was a precious commodity. In many cultures, this mineral was worth its weight in gold. In an era before refrigeration and medical advancements like antibacterial medications, salt was a wonder mineral that could do nearly everything.

One characteristic of salt that made it so valuable is that it has the unique ability to preserve meats and foods from spoiling. This is the result of the mineral drawing moisture out of the food to which it is being applied. Additionally, salt also has the ability to purify things to which it is applied, and this also aids in its preservation. The salt kills any bacteria which would cause the food to rot or spoil quickly. Salt removes impurities and preserves that which is worth saving. It removes the bad and preserves the good.

As valuable as salt was to the ancients, though, it was useless once it lost its “saltiness”—those characteristics which enabled it to do the numerous things it did. Once the salt became not “salty,” there was nothing which could make it salty again. It could not be thrown into the fields, because too much salt in the soil would ruin the soil and prohibit and future growth. In this regard, even manure was better than saltless salt, because manure had a use as fertilizer. In Matthew’s gospel, Christ says the only use for salt that has lost its saltiness is to be thrown out upon the roadways and trampled under the feet of people. In other words, it was useless and good for nothing–it had lost the qualities which made it such a precious commodity.

Christ compares those who follow Him—His disciples—to salt. The authentic follower of Christ–one who follows the hard teachings of daily taking up one’s cross, loving Christ more than their family or their lives, seeking to embody the qualities of humility and total reliance upon God depicted in the Beatitudes–acts as salt in this world; they purify and preserve. The true disciple preaches out against sin and seeks to teach others how to be rid of the their sins by submitting to Christ and being washed in His blood. Along with this, the disciple of Christ builds up fellow believers, seeking fellowship and further discipleship. In these ways, the disciple purifies and preserves, just as salt did.

We must recognize that there is nothing in us innately which empowers us to be “salty;” it is only through the indwelling of God’s spirit within us that we can be the salt of the world. Furthermore, we must remember that we must abide in Him to continue being “salty.” When we lose sight of either of these facts–when we begin seeking our glory instead of His, or when we think that it is our talent and strength that is changing people–we lose our saltiness. When we neglect our duty as disciples of Christ–to preach and teach and make new disciples–we lose our saltiness. When we sit back and not speak out against the sin that is so rampant in the world, and we do not build up our brothers and sisters in the faith–when we do not purify and preserve–we lose our saltiness. Remember what salt is good for once it has lost its saltiness–nothing.

Christ made it clear: you can’t be a neutral disciple. You can’t be a nominal follower of His. You are either salt, or you are not. You are either good for something, or you are good for nothing. You are either purifying and preserving, or you are being trampled underfoot by the world. The choice is yours. Be salty.

But I Say…

Christianity, Religion

“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,  bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.  And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.” Luke 6:27-28, 32-33

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lays out what it means to be a follower of His. He lists the characteristics that His followers are to embody, and He describes how His followers are to exhibit their commitment to Him in the way that they live. Christ presents a new paradigm, a new model, by which His followers are to base their lives. Christ’s Sermon on the Mount is the guidebook for living a Christian life.

Many things make Christ’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount unique, an example being the authority with which He spoke. Usually, when rabbis would teach, they would appeal to the teachings of earlier rabbis to support the claims that they were making. Many of the rabbinic commentaries would have long passages giving various interpretations of the text by different rabbis. These passages would often begin with “Rabbi so-and-so would say,” and then give that rabbi’s commentary. Christ makes no such appeal to the authority of others; He is God, and He wrote the law. As a demonstration of His authority on these matters, He began His teaching with “but I say.” Matthew makes this rejection of the rabbinic interpretations even more clear in his gospel; he quotes Christ as saying “You have heard it was said to the ancient ones…” (Matthew 5:21). He is not referring to what God commanded the ancient Israelites, but to the interpretations and teachings of the rabbis and teachers that had been handed down from generation to generation. In many instances, the interpretation that the teachers came up with was a far cry from how God desired His people to enact His law. Christ, however, gives the authoritative teaching on the law in the Sermon on the Mount.

Christ’s interpretation and application of the law also set him apart from the rabbis of old. Many of the past rabbis, and some of the Pharisees contemporary to Jesus taught that since they were only required to love their neighbor, they were justified in hating their enemies. Christ debunks this flawed teaching, and He calls upon those who wish to follow Him to do the unthinkable–to love their enemies.

This call to love one’s enemies was radical, and Christ did not stop there. He called on His followers to do good, bless, and pray for those who do harm to them and speak poorly of them. Each of these commands goes against everything in one’s human nature; we do not want to do good for those who wish us harm, we do not want to pray for those who abuse us. These commands require that the Christ-follower be filled with a special sort of love–agape–a love which loves unconditionally, regardless of reciprocation. This is a love that only comes from God, and without being filled with this love, we cannot treat our enemies the way that Christ has taught us.

The command to love our enemies is foundational; everything else which we are to do for our enemy is built upon our love for them. It is this ability to love those who do not love us in return that separates the Christian from the sinner; sinners love those who love them back because that doesn’t require anything of them. That doesn’t require submitting to God and being filled with agape. Loving one’s enemies, however, requires humility and meekness and being refilled daily with God’s love. Living this sort of life–one which models meekness and humility, submission to God, and a love for one’s enemies–is what identifies the true believer.  It is in living this sort of life that we demonstrate the change that God has made in our lives and reflect that we are His children.

“But I say, love your enemy. Do good for them, bless them, and pray for them.” This isn’t merely a suggestion; it is the command of God Himself.

Artwork: “Jesus Preaching on the Mount,” Gustave Dore, c. 1860-1870.

Coronation.

Christianity, Religion

“So Pilate asked Him, saying, ‘Are You the King of the Jews?’ And He answered him and said, ‘It is as you say.’” Luke 23:3

“The soldiers took Him away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium), and they called together the whole Roman cohort. They dressed Him up in purple, and after twisting a crown of thorns, they put it on Him; and they began to acclaim Him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’  They kept beating His head with a reed, and spitting on Him, and kneeling and bowing before Him. After they had mocked Him, they took the purple robe off Him and put His own garments on Him. And they led Him out to crucify Him.” Mark 15:16-20

“Now it was the day of preparation for the Passover; it was about the sixth hour. And Pilate said to the Jews, ‘Behold, your King!’  So they cried out, ‘Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but Caesar.’” John 19:14-15.

 “And when they came to a place called Golgotha, which means Place of a Skull, they gave Him wine to drink mixed with gall; and after tasting it, He was unwilling to drink… And above His head they put up the charge against Him which read, “‘THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS.’” Matthew 27:33-34, 37.

Coronation: (noun) the act or ceremony of crowning a king, queen, or other sovereign.

The climax of Holy Week, and of the Christian calendar, is Good Friday—“good” in this sense meaning holy. This marks the day on which Christ was crucified and died, offering Himself as the sacrificial atonement to save humanity from sin. It is easy to recognize the holy nature of this day: God’s love is readily on display as He proved He would spare nothing—not even His Son—in His effort to redeem His fallen creation, but the price that had to be paid to achieve that redemption defies any potential grasp of the mind. We know this story, and we see this moment coming, but we are caught off guard—just as the disciples were—when we reach this point in the gospel narratives. Nothing prepares us for the excruciating torment of Good Friday. We see the pain and suffering experienced, the blood and ripped flesh, the jeering and the mocking all contrasted with the humility and obedience of Christ. It is easy to read of Christ’s crucifixion on Good Friday and to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of what He endured. This day is holy because it is when our Savior died for us, but it is also holy for another reason: this was the day when He came into His glory; the day He was crowned and took His throne. His crucifixion was not only a sacrificial death; it was a coronation ceremony.

The first clue that the crucifixion was Christ’s moment of glory is found in Mark 10. James and John approach Jesus and ask to be with Him, to be on His right and left sides, when He comes into His glory. Christ tells them that they are not ready for such a request, because they are not ready to endure what He will suffer in that moment—death. They do not understand that Christ’s crowning moment will be on a cross.  Christ goes on to tell them that the spots on His right and left are not His to give; they have already been reserved. At the moment when Christ is on the cross, the moment that James and John requested to be with Him, only John is there to witness the event.

The events surrounding Christ’s crucifixion are presented with imagery that reflects a king’s coronation, and this is intentional.  For Christ to receive capital punishment, the case against Him had to be presented to the Romans as treason and rebellion. Thus, a case was presented that Christ was claiming to be the King of the Jews. When questioned by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, Christ never denied the allegations. He was, in fact, the King of Israel, descended from David. Hearing these charges against Christ, the Roman soldiers guarding Him mocked Him by dressing Him in purple—the color of royalty—and giving Him a crown made of thorns, along with a large reed to be His scepter. In some of the gospel accounts, the soldiers kneeled before Christ and yelled out “Hail the King of the Jews!” before beating Him and spitting upon Him. The humble King, who rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, took every blow. Though His accusers and captors attempted to discredit Him and humiliate Him, each step they took helped bring Christ one step closer to the moment of His crowning glory.

After being clothed in purple by the Romans, and crowned with thorns, Christ held court with representatives of two different governments. He spoke at length with Pilate, the Roman official, as well as King Herod, the tetrarch who ruled over Galilee. The issues surrounding Jesus ever repaired the state relations between Pilate and Herod.  Christ was paraded through streets packed with people who were mocking and cursing Him—yet they were there to see Him nonetheless.

The coronation ceremony reached its peak when Christ was placed upon His throne—the cross. This was the moment Christ was born for; this was the moment He was exalted—high and lifted up, so that He could draw all men to Himself.  At His right and left were two criminals, guilty of offenses worthy of death, being executed along with the innocent Son of God. These two unnamed criminals were with Christ, in places of prominence, in the moment of His exaltation. They were with Jesus when He was fulfilling what had been building up for millennia as God’s salvific plan unfolded.  Two criminals hung on either side of Jesus, the Son of God, the King of Israel, as He was saving humanity.

One of these criminals realized who Jesus was and asked to be remembered by Christ when He entered His kingdom. Christ promised the criminal something better, “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” (Luke 23:43).  Only a king who has supremacy over his kingdom can speak in such bold assurances. Christ, King of Heaven and Earth, gave this poor man such an assurance. While Christ hung from the cross, the throne of his glorification, a sign was nailed above His head. It was inscribed with the charges against Him, but in the light of what was happening at that moment, it was a sign of proclamation. The sign read ” Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” The Son of Man was now raised up for all to see, just as Moses raised the serpent up in the desert.  (John 3:14)

The words that Christ speaks from the cross reflect His kingship, even in his pain and agony. Of the seven last sayings of Christ, four are statements of proclamation ( “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” “I thirst,” “It is finished,” “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,”); and one is a command (“Woman, behold your son; son behold your mother,”). The remaining two are a request (“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,”), and a quote from His poet-king forefather, David (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)(Psalm 22). Though simple, Christ offers a coronation speech fitting of the humble King.

Nature shows its reaction to Christ’s glorification and death as well. From noon until 3 P.M., usually the brightest part of the day, darkness covers the land. The earth quaked, and the graves of the saints are opened, and the righteous dead walked out and appeared to many people.  Creation was both praising her King and mourning for Him. It was as Christ told the Pharisees, that “if these are silent, the stones will cry out,” (Luke 19:40). All of creation was crying out for her creator. All of this proved that Christ was much more than just the King of the Jews, or even the King of Israel; He was the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, God Incarnate, the Son of God. One centurion realized this after witnessing these supernatural events and exclaimed “surely this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54).

The world—and many Christians—see Christ on Good Friday and think “how sad.”  We focus solely on the terrible suffering that He endured for our salvation. Yes, we must never forget what Christ suffered to bring redemption and atonement to humanity; the things He endured are incomprehensible.  We cannot, however, allow anything to diminish Christ’s exaltation and glorification. Hanging there from the cross, beaten and bloodied, despised and dejected, hated and reviled was the moment He came into His glory. This was the moment He was exalted and lifted up. This was the moment He bought salvation for all mankind. This was the moment He was crowned the King. This was the moment the Son of Man, the Son of David, was sent to Earth for. This was the moment Christ took His throne, and He rules forever more. Remember that this Good Friday, and kneel before the throne.

artwork: “Man of Sorrows,” James Tissot, c. 1896.