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.

High Places.

Christianity, Religion

“Abijah slept with his fathers, and they buried him in the city of David. And Asa his son reigned in his place. In his days the land had rest for ten years.  And Asa did what was good and right in the eyes of the Lord his God. He took away the foreign altars and the high places and broke down the pillars and cut down the Asherim and commanded Judah to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, and to keep the law and the commandments. He also took out of all the cities of Judah the high places and the incense altars. And the kingdom had rest under him.” II Chronicles 14:1-5.

The books of I and II Chronicles are often, sadly, overlooked by Christians. Following the lengthy narratives contained in the books of Samuel and Kings, the Chronicles appear to merely do just what their name implies—be an entire chronicle of the history of Israel back to the time of Adam. The Chronicles retell much of the same information initially mentioned in other texts, and significant passages Chronicles almost match passages in other books word-for-word. 

Chronicles, like the other Biblical books,  are inspired and in the canon for a purpose; however; that purpose may be a little obscured when looking at Chronicles outside of a Hebrew Bible. For the Chronicles, as in real estate, location is everything. In the order of the Hebrew Canon, the Chronicles are the final book of the scriptures. The repetition of information is for a purpose; it is to drive the information home and ingrain it in the mind of the believer. For example: throughout the Chronicles, the phrases “did what was good in the sight of the Lord,” or “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” are repeated again and again to describe the various kings of Israel and Judah. This repetition was intentional; God was hammering into His peoples’ minds the traits of the godly leaders for which to look, and the traits of the evil leader to avoid. This emphasis on being able to recognize a godly ruler was also for a purpose. The Chronicles conclude with Cyrus of Persia conquering Babylon and allowing the Jews to return home and rebuild the temple to their God. With the Babylonian Exile coming to an end, there was hope for restoration, and there was hope that a new king like David—a Messiah—would be sent to rebuild the temple and restore the kingdom. The final book of the Hebrew Bible concludes with a high degree of messianic expectation, and the Chronicler wanted to help the people of Israel remember the good rulers of the past so they would recognize the perfect ruler to come.

King Asa, who lived centuries before the Exile, was a prime example of the good, David-like king for whom Israel longed. He lived up to the high standard left by his great-great-grandfather, David. Asa was a man who feared God and sought after Him with his whole heart, and because of this, Asa was a good king. He is, tragically, one of only a few good kings described in the Chronicles.

During the reign of Solomon, Asa’s great-grandfather, pagan worship once lured Israel away from God, and this occurred at the encouragement of Solomon. Idols and altars to false gods appeared all over the land, and the people forsook their God. We often wonder how this continually happened in the Old Testament narratives, but when reading the Hebrew Scriptures, we must remember it is a minority report of sorts. It is an account of Israel’s spiritual history written by the faithful, and the faithful were never the majority. Two points prove this fact: first, the Babylonian Exile–had the majority of Israel and Judah been loyal to God, such judgment would not have been necessary. Secondly, acceptance of pagan altars was so widespread that it took an act of the king to remove them. The broader society of Israel and Judah at this time was so accepting of the pagan practices that it took action by the highest official in the land, the king, to get the people to realize their faults.

But Asa did remove the pagan high places, and he worked to turn his kingdom of Judah back to God. He led by example. He did not tolerate pagan worship, even though the masses did. He took a stand for God and did what was right. Asa lived as God expected His people to live; he made no excuses, and he did not sweep sin under the rug. As a result, Asa and the Kingdom of Judah experienced a time of peace. Asa’s reign is one of the few high points of the period of the Divided Kingdom. His people would remember him as a king who sought after God, and who led his people to worship God. In this regard, Asa very much resembled his shepherd ancestor, David.

Things have not changed very much since Asa’s day. Society-at-large worships at the pagan altars and high places today still, just as they did so many centuries ago. Idolatry and sin go uncondemned and are encouraged. All of humanity’s darkest, basest, most carnal desires get flaunted for all to see and to accept. There are still today those who–as they did in Asa’s day and later in Christ’s day– put their faith in the cultural association they have with God. They have convinced themselves that since some righteous ancestor, perhaps a grandmother or great-great-grandfather was a firmly-believing and sincere follower of God, that their salvation is secure as well, and they continue to live as they so choose. Cultural Christianity is no more an appropriate approach to following Christ than were the nominal religious practices of those in Asa’s day who gave lip service to God and continued to worship false gods in the high places. Being a sincere follower of God is no more en vogue today than it was in Israelite society at any point during their history.  Thankfully, for the committed believer, God never changes and He remains just as firmly committed to those who seek Him as He has always been.

The high places are not limited to the broad culture; even believers continue to wrestle and struggle daily with sin. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans, “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live,” (‭‭Romans‬ ‭8:12-13‬). Yes, we have been bought and redeemed by the blood of Christ. But our flesh is still fallen, and we wrestle with that. As Paul said, we must put to death the deeds and sins of the body, for they will lead us to death. This process of confronting our sin is on-going and will never end in this life. We will wrestle daily with sin. But, we must also confess that sin to God and ask His forgiveness for it. For a believer to live with unconfronted and unconfessed sin in their life is just as much of an affront to God as were the pagan altars in ancient Israel. We can not be like Asa and tear down the high places in the culture if we are unwilling to first tear down the high places in our own hearts. We cannot change society if we are not radically different from that society.

Sin is a serious topic; it should be of our utmost concern. It seeks to burrow itself deep into our innermost being and to define us and control us. It is a ravenous beast, crouching at the door of our hearts, and its sole desire is to destroy us. Christ died to liberate us from sin, and to remove its grip from our lives; He died so that He might kill that beast which was seeking to kill us. He took our sins—all the ones we’ve committed and will ever commit—upon Himself, and He paid the price of those sins for us. He sent His Spirit to live within us so that we might be empowered to avoid sin and temptation, and to strengthen us as we wrestle daily with the sinful desires of our fallen flesh. Christ died to enable us to remove the high places and the sins in our hearts. The question before us is this: will we rise to the occasion, much like Asa of the Old Testament, and daily tear down the high places and altars of sin hidden in our hearts? Or will we choose to be like everyone else, and wallow in and celebrate our sin, and keep the high places in our hearts intact? Will we choose to be radically different, or will be like everyone else? Will we choose to follow God in such a manner that we become that minority at odds with the broader society, or will we seek to glorify ourselves and mock our crucified Savior, just as the rest of the world does? 

What are the high places in your heart? What is keeping your heart from fully submitting to God? Confess to Him your sins and tear down those secret altars of sin in your heart. Then live radically different. 

Artwork: “The Man and the Wooden Idol,” Marc Chagall, circa 1927.

Living Sacrifices.

Christianity, Religion

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Romans 12:1

The offering of animal sacrifices was common practice in Paul’s day. The Jewish tradition he came out of was heavily steeped in that ritualistic observance, as were many of the Gentile cultures of this era. The religious practices of the Greeks and Romans and many near-eastern societies shared animal sacrifices as a common practice.

For these societies, sacrifices were offered to appease any number of a pantheon of gods and deities who could become displeased with humanity. The sacrifices were used to buy favor with the gods, and hopefully to avert vengeful behavior. In the case of the Hebrews, the sacrifices had a two-fold ritualistic purpose: to atone for sin and to worship God. In the religious system of the Hebrews, sin required the shedding of blood to make one blameless before God, and when sins were committed, a sacrifice must be made to amend the wrong. The Hebrew observance of the Day of Atonement is a prime example of this. On this particular day, a goat would be sacrificed for the sins of the nation, thus atoning the people for their sins.

Elsewhere in the Old Testament, we see sacrifices used as a form of worship to God. Throughout the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures, we see people building altars to YHWH, and offering sacrifices to Him as forms of sincere and reverent worship. Abel does this, as do Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, to name a few.

Offering a sacrifice was one of the most sincere ways in which to worship God, so much so, that God only allowed this form of worship to be carried out in the Temple in Jerusalem once it was completed, and they could only be carried out by temple priests. Making a sacrifice to God was also a grave matter; it required something living to die, and it required the one making the sacrifice–especially before the institution of the priesthood– to get up close and personal with death. Offering a sacrifice was not a clean and sterilized form of worship; it was not one in which participants could opt-out. It was dirty and brutal, and there was blood. This form of worship was not for the faint of heart; it was for those who were serious about seeking after God and serious about offering genuine and sincere worship to an awesome God. Only those who took God seriously took the time to slaughter a beast to Him.

With the crucifixion of Jesus, the temple-sacrifice system had been fulfilled. Christ was the once-and-for-all atonement for all humanity, and there would be no need to continue making sacrifices in Jerusalem, nor should Gentile converts continue to make sacrifices to deities at their pagan temples. Instead, Paul–under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit–made a bold statement about what Christians should now do regarding sacrifices: they should live their lives as continuous sacrifices to God. This is not a sacrifice of atonement; Christ already accomplished that for us. Instead, we should lay ourselves down upon the altar as sacrifices, just as the saints of old laid their animal sacrifices down upon altars to God in worship.

Our most sincere and genuine worship to God comes when we lay entirely upon the altar at His feet. It is when we wrestle with our fallen flesh–our sinful desires, selfishness, malice, greed, anger, everything–and we cast those things upon the altar to be sacrificed to Him. It is when we realize we must continually plunge deeply into and be covered by the blood of Christ to live correctly as His follower. The most genuine worship we can give God is by dying to ourselves, and offering ourselves as a sacrifice–a living sacrifice–to Him each and every day. It is when we fully and totally submit to living for Him and doing His will. This form of worship isn’t for the faint of heart; it is also only for those who are serious about seeking after God and worshipping the awesome God who died to save His people.

God does not want our worship with the blood of animals; He wants our hearts covered in the blood of His Son, Jesus Christ. People often cringe and complain about how bloody the Bible is. A word of warning: the Christian life, properly lived, is no less bloody. That blood is what ransomed your life.

Christ laid down His life as a sacrifice for you. Dedicate living yours as a sacrifice to Him. 

Artwork: “In the Slaughterhouse,” Lovis Corinth, 1893. 

For Good.

Christianity, Religion

“But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.” Genesis 50:19-21.

The saga of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis is a familiar one, full of family turmoil and division, bad blood, divisiveness, heartache,sorrow, and redemption. Joseph was his father’s favorite son, and also the son of his father’s favorite wife. Due to this, he enjoyed a connection with his father that none of his other brothers experienced. This favoritism, coupled with Joseph’s youthful boisterousness, caused his brothers to resent him, and lead Joseph’s brothers to seek to find a way to be rid of him. Their eldest brother, Reuben, would not let the younger brothers kill Joseph, so several of the brothers agreed to sell him as a slave to some passing traders. After this, the brothers told their aged father, Israel,  that his beloved son was dead, killed by wild beasts. To fully sell the deception to their father, they tore up the special cloak that Israel had given to Joseph and spattered it with animal blood.

After being sold to the traders, Joseph was taken to Egypt, where his story did not get much better. After rising to some prominence as a servant in the house of Potiphar, he was falsely accused of rape and imprisoned for several years. Even in prison, God was with Joseph and allowed those who were overseeing him see that he could be trusted and given responsibilities. While in prison, Joseph used his God-given ability to interpret dreams in an encounter with two disgraced members of Pharaoh’s court– Pharaoh’s butler and baker. This encounter with the butler would be significant, but only after the passage of much more time. 

After a curious turn of events, Joseph found himself before Pharaoh, interpreting for him a dream that none of Pharaoh’s court magicians and interpreters could understand. The meaning of the dream was that a famine was coming soon and that Egypt must begin stockpiling food for survival. Joseph’s ability so impressed Pharaoh that he pardoned Joseph of his crime–that he had never committed–and elevated Joseph to be his top deputy. There was no one in Egypt more powerful than Joseph, other than Pharaoh himself.

Fast-forward to the middle of the famine years. Hunger was widespread, and there was no food anywhere. Egypt, however, was flourishing because of the plans that had been put in place by Joseph. People came to Egypt from all of the surrounding lands to buy food. Even Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to buy food, for there was none in their land. After a tense series of back-and-forths between the two parties, Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers. He was the same Joseph who they had sold into slavery all those years before, and in so doing, unkowingly began a series of events that led him to be before them again that day. There was a beautiful reunion, and all of Joseph’s family–the brothers, Israel, everyone– was brought to Egypt to be together.

Everything was fine until Israel died. With their father dead, the brothers feared that Joseph would now take his revenge.

But Joseph had no such intention. He had long ago made his peace with the situation; He had placed his trust in God and His will. Joseph now understood that he had endured everything that he went through so that he could save his people. He had to endure the rejection of his brothers, the separation from his family, the false imprisonment so that he could one day be elevated by Pharaoh and save his people during the time of famine. There was much more on the line than just Joseph and his comfort; had he not been in Egypt before the famine, there’d be no food stored up for his people to buy, and they would have died. If Israel and Abraham’s line died out, what would become of the promise that God made to Abraham? How would all the nations be blessed? Joseph’s suffering was for a greater good. He was able to save his family, and he had no ill will against his brothers. He wanted now only to enjoy the time they had remaining together.

Too often, we are hurt by those close to us and never recover from that wrong. We squander our most valuable resource–time–being focused on the hurt and those who hurt us and never healing from it, instead of trying to see how God might be at work in and through that pain. Joseph chose to trust God and make his peace with the situation, and he was able to move on with his life. If we find ourselves unable to move on from similar pain in our life, perhaps it is because we are not doing as Joseph did. Maybe it is because we are choosing to hold on to the pain instead of letting go and trusting that God is preparing us for something at that moment. 

Even more powerful than the example of Joseph is the example of Jesus Christ. Jesus willingly left all the glory of Heaven to come to a sinful and rebellious creation who sought not after God. His own people rejected Him and turned Him over to the Romans on false charges for execution. He was beaten and mocked and ridiculed by all–both then and today–and yet He still willingly went to his death. Christ endured all that He did because, if He did not, there would be no salvation for humanity. Without the shedding of blood, there would be no reconciliation with God. Without someone to take the punishment of sin, God’s wrath and judgment would still be upon us. But Christ did it all willingly because His suffering was for the greater good. Our sins put Him to death, yet He still made peace for us.

Whatever you’ve been through, or are going through, God is in it, and He will use it for good. Trust in Him.  Make peace with those who have wronged you, for the wrong might be for the greater good.

Artwork: “Joseph Recognized By His Brothers,” Marc Chagall.

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

Hold Fast, Stand Firm.

Christianity, Religion

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’” Revelation 21:1-4

“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming quickly.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” Revelation 22:20

When John the Apostle received the visions that he would record in the Revelation, he was living in exile in a penal colony on the island of Patmos. His crime: preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. The situation throughout the Roman Empire was no better for other Christians. Sporadic outbursts of violence and persecution against Christians had occurred throughout the first century–most famously under Nero, in which Christians were burned alive and fed to wild animals in the Colosseum– and by the time that John received the Revelation at the end of the first century, these persecutions had become state-sanctioned under the Emperor Domitian. Christians were routinely rounded up and imprisoned, exiled, stoned to death, or executed in a variety of other horrific ways. Being a Christian made one an enemy of the state, and no mercy was bestowed upon those professing allegiance to Christ over Caesar.

Due to this, the Church was forced underground. Christians would meet with one another in the dead of night, in the graveyards and catacombs where the superstitious Romans authorities would not venture. There, surrounded by the remains of their dead loved ones and fellow believers, the faithful would worship the Savior who had risen from the dead and defeated the grave.

Fresco of Jesus with Alpha and Omega found in the catacombs of Rome, c. 4th century

It was in this context that John received the Revelation. Though many focus today on this letter for its apocalyptic content, the theme of the letter is much more than just an account of the end times. It is a direct message from Jesus to His Church to hold on and endure; that though times are bleak and dark, there is hope. Christ is comforting His church and reassuring them that He is coming back for them and that they must keep their faith firmly rooted in Him.

At the end of Revelation, in the final two chapters, we are given the most optimistic of all the letter’s content. The tribulation is over, Satan and his armies defeated, Armageddon and the judgment of the world completed, and John sees the new creation–the new Heaven, the New Earth, and the New Jerusalem–all of which were described as a recreation of Eden. It is in this new creation that God’s people will be in His direct presence. He and Christ will rule in this new kingdom, and there will be no sorrow, no pain, no death, no sin. There will be no night, for God and Christ’s collective presence will illuminate the cosmos. Christ will comfort His flock–He will wipe every tear from their eyes. In the embrace of Christ’s arms in the New Jerusalem, all the pain and suffering and sorrow and death endured in the sinful former world will be gone forever, never to be thought of again.

In John’s vision, the New Jerusalem is depicted as an enormous cube, hundreds of miles in length, width, and height. This cubic depiction is for a purpose, and it further highlights the fact that this is the place where God’s people will be in His presence. In Solomon’s Temple, the dimensions of the space in which God’s presence resided–the Holy of Holies–were a perfect cube. Now the New Jerusalem–the ultimate Holy of Holies–would be the place were God and His creation would live directly in one another’s presence, just as they had in Eden.

Following the vision of the New Jerusalem, Christ again speaks directly to His followers. He tells them to keep doing what they are doing, to remain committed to following Him. He is encouraging them to stay strong, to hold fast to their faith, despite everything that is going on around them. He again tells them that He is coming back for them soon and that their faith and endurance will be rewarded.

Just think about the Christians of John’s era. Their faith had made them criminals. They were living in fear of imprisonment and death. They were forced to meet secretly in graveyards and underground burial chambers. Then they received a letter from John, the last living Apostle–the last human connection to Jesus. They come together in their secret graveyard churches, where reminders of all their suffering are all around them, to read this letter, and in it, Christ speaks directly to them. He tells them: I see what you’re enduring. Stay strong; hold fast to me. Things will not always be this way; there is a better day coming. I will come back for you–I am coming back for you, and you will be with me forever, and I will make everything better. You will not hurt anymore, you will not cry anymore, you will not die anymore. I will wipe away all of your tears. You will be with my Father and me forever, and nothing will take you away from me. I have shown all of this to John, it is all true. Just stay strong. I am coming.

Icon of “Christ With the Martyrs of Libya,” Nikola Saric, 2015.

This promise–this assurance–is still valid and true today. Around the world, Christians are still being persecuted–are still being killed–for professing faith in Jesus Christ. Christ’s words of comfort are for them, and for all believers. Despite what we see happening in the world around us, despite what we endure, we have hope for a better day. We have the assurance that this is not the end, that everything is not for naught; our faith is not in vain. One day, we will see Christ and the Father face-to-face. One day we will live in the direct presence of our God. One day, He will wipe every tear from our eyes. We know this to be true because He Himself told us these things would be so.

So stay strong. Hold fast.

Main Artwork: “Christian Martyrs in the Colosseum,” Konstantin Flavitsky, 1862.

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.

Crushed.

Christianity, Religion

“‘He shall crush your head,
And you shall bruise him on the heel.’” Genesis 3:15

After creating the world and everything in it in six days, God placed Adam and Eve in the midst of paradise—Eden—and gave them dominion to rule over all of creation.  Man and woman enjoyed direct communion with God in Eden and free reign over everything in paradise. Adam and Eve had but one rule to live by; not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, for eating from that tree would lead to their deaths. Eating from the tree wouldn’t kill them, but being disobedient to God would. The serpent, as Genesis recounts, was the most cunning of all the creatures, and deceived Eve into eating from the prohibited tree, and Adam followed after her lead and ate of the tree of his own accord. 

They had disobeyed God and brought sin into the created world, and with sin came heartache, hard labor, grief, greed, anger, jealousy, insecurity, anxiety, and ultimately, death. Creation had been tainted because of mankind’s sin against God. They could no longer live in Paradise in communion with God; Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden and sent away from God’s presence. This was for their own good; God is the epitome of holiness, and sinful creatures cannot be in His presence and live.

Before banishing Adam and Eve from Eden, God made Eve—the mother of all humanity—a promise. There would come from her one who would fix all of this; one who would make things right once again and restore humanity to its intended relationship with God. From her seed will come one who could erase the mistake she and Adam had made. This Promised One would also come for the serpent—the deceiver who helped usher in sin and death. The serpent would wound the Promised One, possibly even hurt him badly, but the Promised One would destroy the serpent. God was not caught off guard by man’s actions; He was already prepared with a plan in place to make things right again.

So humanity was exiled from Eden, forced to be separated from God’s presence. But God had given humanity a most powerful gift as He exiled them: the promise of the hope; hope that redemption would come.

Generations came and went, creation seemed to spiral ever further into sin and evil. Man continually sought after the dark and depraved desires of his own heart. God watched as mankind—His creation—forsook Him and scorned Him and made themselves to be their own gods. Everywhere upon the Earth, sin ran wild, and death and the grave consumed humanity.

God’s promise of hope persisted. Though each generation seemed to fall further away from Him, there were still those who sought God and His righteousness, and for their sake, His promise was sustained. Promises were made to specific people to help carry on this initial promise made in Eden, and covenants made to make these promises binding. God abided by His promises, and the faithful in each generation lived with hope: hope that the Promised One would soon come and make all things right again.

Still, generations came and went, and God would continue to unveil His plan a little at a time. This Promised One would be descended from Judah; He would be like a lion and would be a king (Genesis 49). He would be from the Line of David (II Samuel 7). He would be a suffering servant, led like a lamb to the slaughter (Isaiah 53).  He would be Immanuel, God with Us (Isaiah 7).

The original promise—the promise of hope—echoed with every new prophecy and re-affirmation of the coming of the Promised One. He will crush your head, and you will bruise his heel.

Generations came and went, lived and died, and waited. The righteous waited for the Promised One though all around them turned to idols and sacrificed their children to false gods. The righteous waited through judgment and exile and silence from Heaven. The righteous waited while sin and death and the grave and the Serpent-Deceiver continued to claim usurped authority on the Earth. The righteous waited because they had the promise of hope and the assurance of God’s faithfulness to His promises. The Promised One would come, and He would make all things right.

This was the backstory to the story of Jesus of Nazareth. He was sent to be the Promised One and crush the head of the serpent—to destroy the Deceiver—and restore humanity’s relationship with God. As Jesus taught and performed miracles, people began to wonder if He might be the Promised One, but many had lost sight of the promise that the Promised One was to fulfill.  They had developed ideas of what the Promised One would be and what He would do that satisfied their own views and beliefs. Jesus, however, knew what His mission was, and He knew what He must do to fulfill God’s promise of hope and redemption.

He would have to be wounded.

He would have to be wounded because, to defeat sin and death and the grave and the Deceiver, Jesus would have to die.  Without dying, Christ could not provide a sacrifice that would atone—forgive—our sins. Without dying, Christ could not invade the grave and conquer it. To defeat death, Christ must die.  Most importantly, to destroy the Deceiver—to crush the serpent’s head—Christ must die. He must die so that He could come back to life.

When Christ was taken off the cross on Good Friday, half the battle was won. During His moment of glorification and exaltation, He had offered the sacrifice of atonement and settled humanity’s account before God. Now, Christ the King was on the path of conquest, invading the territory of the enemy: death and the grave.  As He once said, “No one takes my life away from Me. I have the authority to lay it down and I have the authority to take it up again,” (John 10:18).

On the first day of the week, when the mourning followers of Christ came to His grave, they were expecting to anoint the body of a man they had hoped to be the Promised One. They had forgotten that the Promised One would have to be wounded by the serpent and led like a lamb to the slaughter. They surely did not expect the Promised One to die, and especially did not expect the Promised One to be crucified. So they came to mourn; mourn for Christ and their dashed hopes, and to begin the process of waiting and hoping again.

His grave, however, was empty. Christ had risen. He had invaded death and the grave and returned. He had conquered them. He had destroyed them.

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).

It may have been the slain Lamb who was laid in the grave on Friday—reviled and forsaken by man—but, it was the roaring Lion of Judah who emerged that  Sunday morning and who was victorious over sin, death, and the grave; who crushed the head of the serpent. It was the Lion of Judah whose victory shook the very Earth down to the pit of defeated Hell, and it is the Lion of Judah who lives and reigns today and forevermore at the right hand of God.

The promise that was first made so very long ago had been kept. The Promised One had come and He made all things right. He restored our relationship with God by paying our debt with His blood. He was wounded, but He crushed the serpent’s head, and He is coming again to return us from our exile from God’s presence.

artwork: “Lion and Snake,” Samuel William Reynolds, 1799.