Vines and Roots.

Christianity, Religion

“Let me sing now for my well-beloved

A song of my beloved concerning His vineyard.

My well-beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill.

He dug it all around, removed its stones,

And planted it with the choicest vine.

And He built a tower in the middle of it

And also hewed out a wine vat in it;

Then He expected it to produce good grapes,

But it produced only worthless ones.” Isaiah 5:1-2

“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser…Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.” John 15:1,4 

The Old Testament prophetic works give us a unique view of the society of ancient Israel. Those whom God called upon to be His prophets had a specific purpose: to deliver a message from God to the people. Often, God also called upon the prophets to write down the words that He had given to them, so that future generations would heed them and learn from them as well. From these writings, we learn about what the people of Israel were doing, and we also read of the work that the prophets did. Our view of Old Testament-era Israel is written from the perspective of those who remained faithful to God, and this allows us to see how far Israel had wandered away from God.

The prophet Isaiah is a perfect representation of all of this: he lived in the era before the conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel, and God called upon Isaiah to deliver a two-fold message to the people of Israel and Judah. The first part of the message was one of punishment; the people were told that their sinful behavior and disregard for God had gone on for too long, and that God would bring about corrective judgment. The second part of Isaiah’s message was one of hope–that after the judgment came, there would be a restoration.

Chapter 5 of Isaiah’s writing presents one of the most beautiful examples of his work. In it, the prophet relays a parable to the people of Israel from God. In this parable, God describes Himself as a vinedresser who plants a beautiful vineyard, a vineyard which the vinedresser loves and cherishes and nourishes. Within the vineyard, the vinedresser reserves the best spot for the best vine, and the vinedresser does everything within his power to ensure the success of the best vine and vineyard. The vinedresser goes as far as to build a tower in the midst of the vineyard so that he can stay in the vineyard with the vines, look out over the vines, protect them, and watch them grow and flourish.

The vinedresser loved the vines in his vineyard, and he did everything he could to ensure their success–to ensure that they bore good fruit.

The vines, however, did not produce good fruit. They instead produced worthless grapes; grapes which were good for nothing and were rotten and inedible. Despite the love and best efforts of the vinedresser, the vines had become infected and infested with something that had ruined them, and destroyed any potential they had of producing good fruit. The vinedresser laments “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? Why, when I expected it to produce good grapes did it produce worthless ones?” (Isaiah 5:4). The vinedresser had done everything he could for the vines, and yet they still failed to do what he had hoped they would.

Isaiah unpacks this parable for us–Israel is the vineyard, and Judah the choice vine. God planted Israel in the Promised Land, He nurtured Israel, He proved for them, He protected them, He did everything that He could do for them–even gave them the Law–so that they could be His holy people; so that they could be holy as He is holy. God loved Israel and built His house, the Temple, in their midst–just as the vinedresser built the tower in the vineyard–so that He could dwell among His people.

And yet, just as the vineyard in the parable failed to produce the fruit it was supposed to yield, so too did Israel fail at being God’s holy nation of priests. Israel could be no different than the fallen humanity around them; they were infested by sin and succumbed to pagan worship, idolatry, immorality, and infidelity to God. Israel’s spiritual fruit was just as worthless and rotten as the worthless grapes of Isaiah’s parable.

In the parable, the vinedresser realizes that the only way to remedy the infestation in the vineyard is to let the vineyard be destroyed; to allow the elements reclaim the vineyard and to begin anew. God would do this same thing with Israel; the kingdoms of Israel and Judah would be destroyed by Assyria and Babylon. This destruction was to be the punishment for their continued sin; it was also to purge the faithlessness from the people so that they would not stray from God again.

Isaiah’s message, though bleak, does contain hope. In chapters six and eleven, he begins to talk of a root which would survive the destruction and judgment, and which would grow back. This root, the Root of Jesse, would lead to one who would be the true vine–who would be the vine that Israel was always intended to be. This root of Jesse, or the line of David, would lead to one who would undo the curse which has decreed after the Fall, and this one–this messiah–would lead all the peoples of the Earth in seeking after God. The One from the Root would enable people to live as God commanded them to live.

On the night that Christ was betrayed, He celebrated the Passover–the holiday in which Israel commemorated God resuing from slavery in Egypt so that He might plant them in the Promised Land–with His disciples. After eating the Passover meal, Christ gave the disciples a new observance, the Lord’s Supper. Following the Communion, Christ and the Eleven walk through the streets of Jerusalem to Gethsemane. In John’s account of this nighttime trek, Jesus spends these last moments giving the disciples His final teachings and instructions. He also reveals His messianic identity in a way that beautifully demonstrates the connectivity and cohesion of the Old and New Testaments.

In John 15:1, Christ tells the disciples plainly that He is that true vine–the one which grew from the Root of Jesse, and that His Father is the vinedresser. His words hearken directly back to the themes we read about in Isaiah; Christ here establishes Himself as the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah’s words.

Christ gives the disciples–and all future believers–a crucial instruction: to abide in Him. The Christian must remain connected to and believing in Christ for two reasons: first because on our own, we can do nothing. Just as a branch cannot grow and produce fruit unless it remains attached to the vine, neither can we be fruitful and faithful unless we stay connected to the true vine–Christ. Secondly, and more importantly, it is only through abiding in Christ that we can keep from being infected and infested like the vineyard of Isaiah’s parable. Abiding in Christ is the only way in which we can avoid being ruined by sin.

We must understand this: just as the vinedresser allowed the vineyard to be destroyed to purge it, and just as God allowed Assyria and Babylon to lay waste to Israel and Judah to purge them of their idolatry and unfaithfulness, God was now going to let the true vine be destroyed in order to cleanse humanity from its infestation of sin. The destruction that Israel experienced was only a preview of the judgment and destruction that humanity deserved, but Christ took that judgment in our place. He had the full cup of God’s wrath–the wrath which we should have endured for eternity–poured upon Him and He allowed it to kill Him so that we would be pardoned.

Through the shedding of His blood and His death, Christ purged us of the sin which infected us, which keeps us from bearing good fruit. By cleansing us of our infestation of sin, He made us able to live as He commands us to live; He corrected the very problem Israel could never overcome. With that, just as the root of the previously destroyed vine grew back, death would not be able to contain Christ, and He–the true vine–would grow back again, only three days after his death. As Christ walked with his disciples on that first night of Passover–Christ knew everything that was about to happen, and He knew why it must happen. So Jesus commanded the disciples to abide in Him, to stay connected to him– to keep believing in Him, because that was the only way for them to be rid of the sin which would destroy them.

In Christ’s death and resurrection, God planted a new vineyard, and Christ is the choice vine. Faith and belief in Christ’s death and resurrection allow us to become branches on His vine, and as long as we abide in Him–remain connected to him, believe in Him, seek to do his will–we will bear fruit. We will be pruned and cut back from time to time, this process will hurt and be painful, but it re-shapes us; this is the only way in which we can grow. Our sinful flesh still causes us to think that we can grow on our own; it still tempts us to turn away from God, but we must abide in Him. Without Him, we will be no better than the worthless vines of Isaiah’s day, and if we turn from Him, we deserve the same fate that they met.

In Isaiah 5:4, we saw God asking what more could He have done for his vineyard, for Israel. In Christ, we see God doing the only thing left to do– going to the root of the problem, and killing the sin which ruined Israel and all of humanity. In order to do this, Christ had to suffer. He had to endure the fullness of the wrath and judgment of God–the wrath and judgment which was rightfully ours–and He did so willingly. He did this so that we could be grafted in as branches of the true vine, His vine, and so that we could abide in Him and be empowered by His spirit to live as He commands us to live–as Israel was supposed to live– as His holy people–a people who live out righteousness and justice.

He died so that we could live differently and bear fruit.

So, we must exam our lives; we must look at ourselves and determine this: what kind of fruit are you? What kind of fruit are you producing? Are you abiding in Christ? Are you bearing fruit? If so, continue abiding in Him, and be ready to be pruned back from time to time so that you might grow and bear more fruit. When the pruning comes, continue to abide in Him, regardless of how painful that process might be.

God has done everything for us, even more than what He did for Israel–He sent His son to redeem us from sin. In three hours on the cross and three days in the grave, Christ fulfilled our eternity in Hell.

Abide in Him; stay connected to Him. Turn away from the sin that infest you, and allow Christ to cleanse you and enable you to live differently, and then bear fruit for Him.

Artwork: “The Green Vineyard,” Vincent van Gogh, 1888.

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

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.

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

What Are You Giving?

Christianity, Religion

“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him would not be lost but have eternal life.” John 3:16.

 “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” Galatians 2:20-21.

In one of the most famous passages in the New Testament, Nicodemus the Pharisee came to Jesus to talk about salvation and eternal life. During their conversation, Christ tells Nicodemus that salvation comes only from God, and only when one is born again of the spirit. Along with this, the gospel writer records Jesus giving a bit of teaching that would go on to be one of the most recognizable and familiar verses in Scripture.

“For God so loved the world,” said Jesus to Nicodemus, “that He gave His only son so that whoever believes in Him would not perish, but have eternal life.”

It is a verse we all know by heart. It is one that we teach children as soon as they can talk. It is a verse that we know so well that we fail to see what Christ was really communicating to Nicodemus.

Jesus’ teaching in John 3:16 is not about the “amount” or “degree” of God’s love for the world; He is not saying, “God loved the world so much that He gave His Son.” Instead, the teaching is about how God demonstrated His love for the world: God loved the world, so He gave His son; in doing so, God showed that giving is the natural display of love. Christ is using God’s action as the basis of a model for how to properly demonstrate love. Loving means giving; to love is to give. God loved the world, He gave His son to save it. Love and giving are interconnected and inseparable.

Paul follows up on this notion of connecting love with giving in his letter to the Galatians. He speaks of how his former sinful self has been crucified with Christ, and that he now lives a new life because of Christ. Paul tells the Galatians that he puts his faith in Christ because Jesus “loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Galatians 2:21). Again, we see the same formula, love=giving. Jesus loved Paul, so He gave His life for Paul; Jesus loved humanity, so He gave His life to save them.

Loving means giving, that’s the formula Christ gave us, both in word and in action.

The question we must ask ourselves, as followers of Christ who claim to love Him, is what are we giving to Him? Are we fully submitting to Him, giving Him full control of our lives, or are we only submitting to Him on our terms? What about the others in our lives whom we love, our families, our friends? What are we giving for them? What of our churches, what do we give for them? If giving is the display of love, how well are we displaying our love for Christ?

Christ showed us that loving means giving something; love means sacrifice. He demonstrated how to love by giving His life for you and me, and He did this willingly and without hesitation; no questions asked. Though we may not be called upon to demonstrate our love in this same manner, we are still commanded to follow His example; the formula is still applicable today– loving still means giving.

Christ loved us and showed us He did by dying for us? We who love Him, what are we giving for Him? How are we demonstrating our love for Him who showed His love by being nailed to the cross?

Artwork: photo of sculpture “Christ Being Nailed to the Cross,” by Christopher Slatoff (https://www.christopherslatoff.com/jesus-being-nailed-to-the-cross)

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. 

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.

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 [q]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.