Illogical.

Christianity, Religion

 “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written,

I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul had to address several issues. The Corinthians were a raucous bunch, and the church was overflowing with spiritual problems. The church was full of division; there were factions who favored the teachings of certain men over others– some followed Paul, some Apollos; others followed Peter, while still others followed Christ (1 Corinthians 1:12). There was also a divide between the social classes within the church. Paul rebuked the Corinthian Christians for their practice of not eating the Lord’s Supper together as one body. The early churches observed the Lord’s Supper much differently than modern churches do; it would be a full meal at which the baptized members of the church would observe the ceremonial breaking of bread and drinking of wine. When the Communion would be partaken in Corinth, the wealthy members of the church would arrive before the poorer members, while many of the poorer members would still be working. The rich members would not wait for their poorer brethren to arrive, and would begin to eat and drink to excess. When the poor Christians finally did arrive at the communal meal, there would be no food remaining, and the rich Christians would be intoxicated. The Corinthians did not observe then Communion as a sacred act; instead, they treated it like a party. As if these issues were not enough, the Corinthian believers were accepting of an affair between a man and his step-mother, and nobody spoke out against this immorality that was going on within the church. Paul was, at the very least,  disappointed and disgusted with the lack of restraint that was so evident in Corinth; the letter that is now referred to as 1 Corinthians was his attempt to begin helping the Corinthians correct these grave issues.

One of the greatest strengths of the Apostle Paul’s writings was his ability to understand the context of the culture in which his audiences lived. As he said himself, he could be a Jew when among Jews, and a Greek when among Greeks. This cultural awareness is evident in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians as Paul goes to some lengths to discuss the “foolishness” of the Gospel. Paul understood the importance of logic, philosophy, and the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom that was so pervasive within Hellenistic culture. He dealt with this firsthand when he debated the Stoics and the Epicureans before the Areopagus in Athens in Acts 17. The fundamental core truth of the Gospel–that God would send His son, Jesus, to die for man’s salvation– was utterly illogical. Furthermore, as is also evidenced in Acts 17, the idea of a resurrection of the dead was equally laughable. Luke records in Acts 17:32 that “when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer…” Paul was no stranger to the opposition to the Gospel that was put forth by those who claimed to be wise by the world’s standard of wisdom.

Paul, therefore, goes on to remind the Corinthian Christians that the world’s standard of wisdom is not the same as God’s, and it is God’s wisdom that they should be concerned about. A prophecy from Isaiah was quoted to reinforce the point that, along with everything else of this world, all man-centered wisdom would eventually pass away and be destroyed. The wisdom that man can ascertain for himself is nothing compared to the wisdom found in God. Compared to God and His wisdom, the wisdom of the world is nonsense.

 To those who have not been changed by Christ, this message would not make sense. To the non-believer, to the philosopher, to the seeker of wisdom the Gospel of the Cross is completely and totally ridiculous. It makes no sense that God–the Creator of the Universe–would send His son to die for the salvation of man–the creation. This kind of belief seems unfounded and illogical. Paul points out that the Greeks’ commitment to having a logical understanding of the world is what prevents them from seeing and understanding the beauty of the Gospel, just as the Jews’ demand for signs prevented them from seeing the signs being played out before them. The cross of Christ breaks all barriers, it is a stumbling block to those of any background, both Jew and Gentile, who don’t believe in it. The message of the cross was too illogical for the philosophers to take seriously. They, like the Jews, were too deeply committed to their own understanding of how the world was supposed to operate and they could not see the incredible work that God did through Christ and the cross. It was through this illogical and “foolish” act that God chose to save the world, and it was this foolish gospel that Paul preached, and is this foolish gospel that draws men and women back to God.

The beauty of the cross is that it makes no sense; its illogical nature is what gives it so much power. Yes, we can study the Old Testament and understand the deep symbolisms and fulfillment of prophecies that are contained within Christ’s death, but even then we are still forced to answer critical questions: Why God would come to Earth and allow Himself to die at the hands of His creation? Why didn’t God just start over again, as He did in the days of Noah? Why would God do this? Why wouldn’t God do that? There are any number of questions that we could ask and drive ourselves crazy with if we were to try to find logic in what Christ did. But that’s just the point–there is no logic in it. Christ’s actions defy any wisdom and understanding of man. We are not saved by finding the logic in Christ’s death; we are saved by having faith in His illogical outpouring of love and mercy and grace. We are not saved by uncovering some secret, hidden knowledge; we are saved by trusting in the God who came to die for us. 

We are foolish to think that we can predict how God will operate. We cannot put Him in a box and systematically predict what He will do. Our wisdom is not His; our wisdom is foolishness in comparison. The message of Christ crucified proves this;  the cross shows us how little we understand about how God operates. Thankfully, God does not operate according to our standard of logic. Our God operates in the illogical, like coming and dying to take away our sins, so that we might be allowed to have a new life with Him.

Artwork: “The Philosophers,” c. 1620-1625.

By Faith.

Christianity, Religion

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” ‭‭ Hebrews‬ ‭11:1-3‬

“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” Hebrews‬ ‭11:39-40‬

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews‬ ‭12:1-2‬ ‭

The Letter to the Hebrews is a beautifully-written piece of Christian theology and doctrine. Though there are numerous speculations as to who its author was, the true identity is still unknown. What is known, however, is the purpose for which this letter was written. In the years following Christ’s ascension into Heaven, there was the belief that His return would be imminent. However, as time carried on, and Christ had yet to return, some Jewish believers began to think that maybe Jesus had not been the promised Messiah. These people began to go back into their old rituals and practices and started to once again wait for the coming of the Messiah. The author of Hebrews, determined to correct this fallacy and “falling away” (Hebrews 6:4-5), gives detailed teaching about the Jewish rituals and observances, and how Christ fulfilled all of these things in His life and death. The author of Hebrews uses the traditions and teachings of the Old Testament to make the fact that Jesus is the Messiah crystal clear.

In chapter eleven of Hebrews, this systematic approach of teaching through the Old Testament is on full display. In this chapter, the author highlights the importance of faith, and how it was by faith that the heroes and heroines of the ancient days, of the Old Testament, were gained their approval from God, and it was through a life of faith that they bore witness of God. It was by faith, by the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1) that the people of old lived; they never saw God in the flesh, and many of them never lived to see God’s promises to them fulfilled, yet they trusted in God nonetheless. The writer of Hebrews goes through the Old Testament, person-by-person, to demonstrate how the figures in this “ Hall of Faith” lived out their faith in God, regardless of the cost. For some, like Noah and Abraham, this life of faith did not cost them their lives. For many of the prophets, their faith in God cost them everything: “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy” (Hebrews 11:35-38). None of the people mentioned by the author of Hebrews received what was promised to them in their lifetime–they did not live to see their inhabitants become a great nation or live to see the coming of the Messiah–and yet they persisted in their faith, knowing that God would keep His promise in His time.

Where Hebrews 11 ends with those who did not live to see God’s promises come into fulfillment, Hebrews 12 begins with those who are living after the coming of Jesus the Messiah. Though the promise of the Messiah has been fulfilled, we must still live a life of faith. We must always press forward in life toward the promise of eternal life with God in His Kingdom. The heroes and heroines of the Old Testament, that “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), surround us and they have modeled for us how we are to live. We are to live as they did; with our eyes to the future and our faith firmly rooted in God. Christ, who is the author and perfecter of our faith, is now seated at the right hand of God. Since He endured our shame and punishment, He has enabled us to continue in the race that is life, and through our faith in Him, we can put aside the sins which so easily trip us up and drag us down. 

As we run our race, we must keep our eyes focused on Christ–as those of old focused on God the Father–because without Him and His help, we cannot finish the race. The race before us is not a sprint; it is a marathon. It is a race that will push us to our very limits; it is a race that will be long and arduous. Like those of old, our race might end painfully, and it might end without us seeing all of God’s promises coming into fruition. But as the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 1:21, “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” While we live, we run the race that is before us; when we die, our race is done, and we are with Him.

Our lives today are just as much rooted in faith– rooted in the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen”–as were the lives of those in the Old Testament. We have not seen God, nor have we seen Christ. While we can look back at our individual lives before Christ saved us, and see how God worked in us and changed us, it is our faith that lets us know that the things that happened were done by God and not by chance or karma. It is by faith that we believe the Bible to be true. It is by faith in the hope that there is a better life to come that we continue forward–sometimes trudging–in this life. Most importantly, it is by faith in Christ, in Christ alone, that we are saved.

Those who came before us lived by faith, so too must we. Those who came before us left us a witness and a model to live by, we must do the same for those who will come after us. We can only do this by keeping our eyes focused on Jesus. We can only live by faith.

Draw courage from those who went before you. Keep your eyes on Christ. Live by faith. Leave a witness for those who come after you.

Artwork: Marc Chagall Tapestry in the Knesset, Israeli Parliament, c. 1960-1970 

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.

Exiles and Sojourners.

Christianity, Religion

“Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.” 1 Peter 2:11

“For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ…” Philippians 3:20.

One of the central themes of the Bible is homelessness. This thread runs throughout both Testaments and creates an apparent uniformity between the Old and New Testaments. Throughout the Scriptures, there are two common ways in which this motif of homelessness plays out: exile and sojourning, or traveling and wandering.

The theme of homelessness appears in the very first chapters of the Bible; in Genesis 3, mankind is forced out of Eden as a result of the Fall. Because of sin, humanity lost access to the home that God had created for them and thus became exiles in creation. From the beginning of Scripture, we learn that mankind is in spiritual exile, and the rest of Scripture is about God leading man back to Himself.

The process of returning from exile would be long and leads to the secondary homelessness motif of sojourning. God set in motion humanity’s return by calling Abraham to leave his homeland and to follow Him to a land that He would give to him. If Abraham did this, God would bless all the nations of the Earth through Him. Abraham followed God, and for the rest of his life, Abraham was a sojourner–a traveler, a wanderer, a pilgrim–following God to the Promised Land. This narrative repeats itself throughout the narratives of the Genesis patriarchs and culminates in the Exodus narrative with Moses leading Abraham’s descendants out of Egypt back to Canaan–back to the land promised to Abraham. This return to the Promised Land–just like man’s return from spiritual exile–would not be easy. The Israelites would continue to test God while en route to Canaan, and this ultimately resulted in their being forced to wander and sojourn in the desert for forty years. The sins of the generation being freed from slavery in Egypt forced Israel to be exiled in the wilderness until that generation died, and then a new generation would inherit the Promised Land. The land would be inherited; however, after several generations, because of sin and spiritual infidelity to God, exile came again. The cycle had repeated itself: just as Adam and Eve were forced into exile due to sin, Israel would be forced into exile because of its sin. It would seem that man was no closer to being delivered from spiritual exile at the close of the Old Testament than he was at the first moment of his exile. God, however, was still at work.

Fast forward several hundred years: the Babylonian Captivity had long been over, and the Jews allowed to return to their homeland. Jesus of Nazareth was preaching throughout the Judean countryside. The message that He preached did not sync with the established teachings of works, self-righteousness, and slavish devotion to the Law that the other rabbis taught. Instead, Jesus preached a radical message that the Kingdom of God was here and that those who genuinely sought to please God were going to live a life of complete reliance upon God for everything–as wanderers would need to rely upon someone else to provide for them. Furthermore, Christ taught that the committed and sincere follower of God would understand that, since we are all exiles and sojourners, we must love and take care of one another. His teachings reinforced the narrative of homelessness and sojourning; a man once approached Jesus and told Him that he would follow Jesus anywhere. To be sure that this man understood this part of the cost of being His follower, Christ told him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” (Luke 9:58.) In His own life, Christ embodied the motif of the sojourner; He was the New Adam, the New Abraham, and the New Moses.

Many began to recognize that Jesus was the Messiah, the Anointed One, who was sent by God to restore Israel and to be the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham to bless the nations. Many thought that He would be a leader like Moses, who led Israel out of slavery in Egypt and wandering and exile in the desert, or like David, who ruled Israel when they were faithful to God; before they were exiled again. Maybe Christ would overthrow Roman occupation of Judea and recreate the Kingdom of Israel, as it had been in David’s day, and things would be as they should; Israel would once again occupy and inhabit the Promised Land. Then the exile would indeed be over.

Christ did come to end the exile, but not a political exile; He came to end the much more severe spiritual exile. Christ came to end the exile that was begun when Adam and Even were forced out of Eden; He came to restore humanity’s relationship with God. He would do so, not by force or by revival, but by letting His enemies kill Him. His death and His blood would complete the long and arduous process that God had planned to bring mankind back to Himself. Fallen humanity was now redeemed, and those who were redeemed would one day enjoy the home that God had prepared for them.

With the spiritual exile over, the task now became a waiting game. Christ’s disciples and followers had to teach the successive generations that, as redeemed followers of Christ, we are still in exile–not spiritually, but physically. This world is not our home; we must not be conformed to it, nor must we be swayed by the goings-on of this life. Our home–our citizenship, as Paul said–is somewhere higher and better; it is in the realm of God, in the Kingdom of Heaven. We are sojourners, just as Abraham was, following God where He leads us, waiting eagerly to be taken to the Land of Promise. We must live differently from the world while we are here, as Peter encouraged us. We must remember the high price Christ paid to end our spiritual exile and live accordingly.

Christ broke the cycle of homelessness and exile. He died to end our spiritual exile and to give us a home with God. The spiritual exile is over, but we are still physical exiles in this world. We are sojourners here. This world will pass away, our home with God is eternal; our citizenship does not belong to nations, our citizenship is in the Kingdom of God. Remember that and travel on, pilgrim.

Artwork: “Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress,” artist unknown, 17th Century.

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. 

You Can’t Go It Alone.

Christianity, Religion

“For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” 1 Thessalonians‬ ‭5:9-11‬

Nearly all of the believers in the early Church were certain that Christ would return soon, almost surely within their lifetimes. There was a fervor of expectation regarding Christ’s imminent return. Time, however, went on and the return was delayed, and this delay began to pose some significant theological questions for many believers—chiefly the question of what happens to believers who die before Christ returns? As His return appeared to be further away, many more believers would die before He came back for His Church, and there were many who worried—and even taught—that these dead believers would miss out on His return. Such was the case for those in the Church in Thessalonica.

Paul heard about the controversy in Thessalonica at the church he helped establish, and, as Paul did, he wrote them a letter to help them understand the truth. In this letter of gentle correction and reassurance, Paul gives some of the most detailed teaching on the end of time found in the New Testament outside of Revelation. Paul comforts and reassures the Thessalonian believers that their dead loved ones would be called up by Christ in the resurrection at the time and  that no believer—dead or alive—would miss it.

As Paul concluded his letter, he reinforced his point—that all believers will be present for the resurrection when Christ comes—by reminding the Thessalonians that God destined us for salvation so that “whether we are awake or asleep (dead) we might live with him (Jesus).” Paul went on to exhort the Thessalonians to encourage and build one another up, “just as you are doing.”

This last line, this bit of encouragement, might seem a bit out of place given everything that had been discussed up to this point; however, this is exactly the right place for this advice. Paul is here addressing the question “what do we do now?” and his answer is simple: keep worshipping God, and keep building up one another.

We often ignore this fact, but when a body of believers comes together in worship, that time is just as much about strengthening and growing that corporate body as it is worshipping God. It is in the practice of coming together and worshipping together that we learn to build one another up and learn to carry one another’s burdens. Communal corporate worship is for giving glory to God and edifying—strengthening—the body, and sadly, so many Christians today decide to forgo that Christian fellowship and community. Many today believe that they can worship more “freely” and more “truly” unencumbered by a church family. Others feel that until they find a church that does things the “right” way–their way–they will go it alone. Both these attitudes are sad and wrong, and at their most basic point, entirely contradictory to what Christ teaches us.

Christ does not want monks, ascetics, or hermits to go and live gloriously and nobly alone in His name. Nor does Christ desire that His Church be a random assortment of detached and separated individual body parts. He wants His Church to be one body, together in one baptism, confessing one faith in one Savior. He wants His people to be together, to worship together, and to fellowship together.

There are no perfect churches, just as there are no perfect Christians, and this is exactly why we need one another. We need communion and fellowship and accountability with fellow brothers and sisters. We need people to weep with us when we weep, to rejoice with us when we rejoice, and to call us out when we are not living worthy of the calling placed upon us. It is only by dealing with people that you learn how to develop and use patience and love and understanding. It is only when you worship together with your church family that you feel the edification it brings. To attempt a Christian life any other way is to a disservice to the calling of being a Christ follower.

You can’t go it alone. Find a body of believers to join, and plug in. Then do as Paul said, encourage and build one another up, until the Lord comes.

Artwork: “Automat,” Edward Hopper, 1927.

What’s Your Theology?

Christianity, Religion

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” Galatians 1:6-7

“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” Galatians 5:6

The church in Galatia had a big problem. The issue confronting it wasn’t entirely unique; in fact, this issue was one that was being debated in numerous Christian assemblies during the first century AD.  The issue at hand was this: as the message of Jesus—a message rooted firmly in Judaism—spread to Gentile areas, and Gentiles began to accept Christ as Savior, did those Gentiles have to become Jews to be saved? More specifically, did Gentiles need to be circumcised to be part of the Christian community. Was circumcision necessary for salvation?

A prominent faction within the Galatian church said yes. So Paul, who had preached extensively throughout Galatia, penned his letter to the Galatian churches to set them straight.  Paul’s message was clear: there are no other means of salvation other than Christ. Circumcision—though once commanded by God—did not save anyone, only Christ’s atoning death accomplished this. In light of Christ’s death and resurrection, circumcision meant nothing.

It was imperative that Paul—and the church as a whole—nip this problem in the bud because what was being taught in Galatia was undermining the gospel of Christ. The message being spread in Galatia was that believing in Jesus as Messiah and Lord, and believing that He died to save us from our sins was not enough to obtain salvation. The Galatian “theology” was that one needed Christ AND circumcision; that one without the other was insufficient.  The Galatian theology said was that Christ’s sacrifice wasn’t enough on its own, that we must do something else in addition to it to obtain salvation.

Any teaching that says that Christ’s death isn’t enough to save us from our sins is heresy, as is any teaching that says humanity can do anything on its own to earn its salvation. Christ’s death is sufficient in and of itself, and salvation is the unmerited gift of God given freely by Him to those incapable of saving themselves—us.

We read the Epistle to the Galatians today, and we scoff at the fact that people were once teaching such a fallacious message. It baffles us to think that people would believe there was anything else that could possibly be needed in addition to Christ’s work for salvation to be obtained. But, when we examine our own hearts and practices, we realize that we often make this same mistake. Our hang-ups today aren’t over the issue of circumcision, but there are many other issues we have replaced it with. Are we following sound theology and believing in the only gospel—the true gospel of Jesus who died to save us—or do we, in our own practices, add things to Christ?  Do we truly believe that Christ’s death was sufficient to give us salvation, or do we put faith in our works as well, or in the practices that we develop? Is our theology Christ and Christ alone, or is it Christ and whatever we think we can do to earn God’s favor? If we elevate other things— good works or the “right” theological interpretations or anything else—to the point of being equal with Christ in our theology, those things will very soon replace Christ in our theology.

So, what’s your theology? Is Christ alone sufficient, or are you adding something else to Him?

Artwork: “The Three Crosses,” Rembrandt, 1653.

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)

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.

Dead.

Christianity, Religion

“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins,” Ephesians 2:1

Paul wasted no time in getting to his point when writing to the Ephesian church, nor did he pull any punches. After writing several lines of praise to God, Paul immediately launched into a sermon discussing the glorious work accomplished by God through Christ in each believer. However, in order to make sure the Ephesian believers understood how incredible this work was, Paul had to be sure the Ephesians understood how they had been prior to Christ changing them—they had to understand that they had once been dead.

Since Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden, humanity has been fallen. Every person is born spiritually dead and enslaved to sin. We are ruled by the lusts and desires of our flesh, and our only motivation is to satisfy ourselves in any way possible. Though we be physically alive, the shackles of sin keep us bound to the grave and to death. Prior to redemption and regeneration, our spirits are like dead carcasses, and it is in this state that Paul reminds the Ephesians that they had once been.

We too must remember that, before Christ, we were also dead. There was nothing good within us. We were ruled by the “prince of the power of the air,” the accuser—the Satan. He lorded over us and encouraged us to indulge each and every one of our desires, all the while leading us closer and closer to destruction. With each sin we committed in the name of our self-indulgence, we forged another link in the chains which bound us to death. We were so busy worshipping ourselves that we failed to see we were standing in our own graves, and we neglected to see that we were created in the image of the God who could free us and restore us to the dominion for which He made us.

We must remember how lost we once were—how truly dead we were—so that we never grow complacent with how alive Christ has now made us. We must remember the chains that He broke and freed us from as He languished and died on the cross. We were dead, and we should still be dead, but Christ changed everything. He freed us from bondage; He made us alive.

Don’t forget that you were dead, for when you do, you will cease to be in awe of the cross.

Artwork: “Head of a Drowned Man,” Theodore Gericault, c. 1819.