Freedom.

Christianity, Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artwork: “Resurrection,” Natalya Rusetska

Each and Every Day.

Christianity, Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. 

The Sons of Saul and the Son of David.

Christianity, Religion

“There was a man of Benjamin whose name was Kish, the son of Abiel, son of Zeror, son of Becorath, son of Aphiah, a Benjaminite, a man of wealth. And he had a son whose name was Saul, a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people.” 1 Samuel 9:1-2

“And Saul was very angry, and this saying displeased him….And Saul eyed David from that day on. The next day a harmful spirit from God rushed upon Saul, and he raved within his house while David was playing the lyre, as he did day by day. Saul had his spear in his hand. And Saul hurled the spear, for he thought, ‘I will pin David to the wall.’ But David evaded him twice.” 1 Samuel 18:8-11

“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” Acts 9:1-2

“If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” Philippians 3:4-7

There is no doubt that David is one of the most significant figures of the Old Testament. He was a shepherd boy from a small town in the middle of nowhere who became the greatest king in all of Israel’s history, and the model by which all future Israelite kings were measured. David sought after God, and God loved David; so much so that He promised David’s descendants would be on the throne in Israel forever and, one day, the Messiah would come from David’s line.  The Davidic Covenant is one of the most crucial components of the Hebrew Scriptures, and it further highlights the importance of the figure of David.

David was not without his enemies. One of the most intriguing aspects of the early narratives about David’s life is his struggle with Saul.  During the period of the Judges in Israelite history, the Israelites began demanding that they be given a king to rule over them so that they might be like the other nations. God allowed Israel to have a king, after warning them that this would eventually lead to the same sort of oppression they had experienced in Egypt, and the man selected to be the first King of Israel was Saul–a tall and handsome man from the tribe of Benjamin.

Though  Saul looked the part of a king, he possessed no leadership abilities. His reign was marked by constant fighting with Israel’s enemies. Saul often wavered as a leader, and this was ultimately his downfall. Saul’s failures a political leader were made worse by his shortcomings as a spiritual leader. Throughout his reign, Saul moved further and further away from God, at one point going so far as to summon a psychic to summon the ghost of the prophet Samuel. Due to his constant rejection of God, God removed his favor from Saul, and God appointed David to be the next king.

David, being anointed as the new king would set the stage for the conflict between him and Saul. As David increased in popularity throughout Israel by his exploits on the battlefield, Saul descended further and further into jealousy, bitterness, and paranoia. Saul became determined to kill David, and for the remainder of his rule as king, Saul and his armies chased David and his men all across Israel. Saul viewed David as a usurper who must be dealt with. Despite Saul’s repeated attempts on his life, David never retaliated against Saul; he still respected Saul as the king and the appointed ruler of Israel. Eventually, Saul would die, and David would become king, and Israel would know a time of peace and prosperity that it would not know again.

In the Book of Acts, we are introduced to another man from the tribe of Benjamin named Saul. This Saul was a zealous Pharisee who viewed with hatred the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. These followers of “The Way” preached that Jesus was the Messiah, the Savior of Israel, the promised Son of David. In just the same way that King Saul became determined to kill the “usurper” David, Pharisee Saul and those with him became determined to root out and destroy the “heretical” followers of Jesus. Saul the Pharisee was present when the first follower of Christ was killed, and he “took much pleasure” (Acts 8:1) in the killing of Stephen. Saul the Pharisee– Saul the Persecutor–was resolved to destroy the followers of the Son of David, just as his forefather was bent on destroying David. He would stop at nothing to stamp out this movement, going as far as to chase Christ-followers all over Israel and beyond, just as David had been.

This Saul–Saul the Persecutor–would make a radical change; he would become a follower of Jesus, the Son of David. On his way to Damascus to round up Christ-followers, Saul encountered someone unexpected–Jesus. This meeting changed Saul–now Paul– and no longer would he hunt down followers of Christ; instead he would go on to be a preacher, missionary, and theologian. Paul traveled throughout the known world, starting churches and preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, teaching all that Jesus is the Son of God and the Son of David. Paul would evangelize the Gentiles and would suffer much for the name of Christ: he would survive numerous beatings, whippings, being stoned nearly to death, shipwreck, and being bitten by a venomous snake. He would speak before kings and rulers and philosophers. Paul is proof that God can and will use anyone–even those who fight against Him–to accomplish His will.

The sons of Saul–those who are opposed to Christ– are still hunting down those who follow the Son of David. The world will never be the friend of the follower of Christ. We see how David was treated, how Christ was treated, and how the early church was treated; we should expect no less. The world will always view the radical Gospel of Christ as a threat, and the world will stop at nothing to crush this movement. When we are met with this opposition, we must remember that David never took up arms against Saul. We must also remember that Christ commanded us to pray for and love those who persecute and do harm to us. We must fight back with our love and with our prayers. We must pray for the Sauls who have yet to become Pauls.

Artwork: “Saul Tries to Kill David With His Spear,” Giovan Francesco Barbieri, 1646.

Be Salty.

Christianity, Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I Say…

Christianity, Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excess.

Christianity, Religion

”Do not be excessively righteous and do not be overly wise. Why should you ruin yourself? Do not be excessively wicked and do not be a fool. Why should you die before your time?” Ecclesiastes 7:16-17

The Teacher of Ecclesiastes often offers advice that seems baffling, and frankly, contradictory with what is found elsewhere in scripture. Repeatedly throughout the Bible, we are called to seek after righteousness, yet here the Teacher tells us not to be excessively righteous or overly wise. The appeal to avoid wickedness and foolishness makes sense, but how do we make sense of this call to avoid excessive righteousness?

Pursuing righteousness is a good thing. However, as with any noble pursuit, it is the nature of one’s motivations which can undermine their quest. This is what is at the core of the Teacher’s caution to avoid excessive righteousness; he is calling on us to examine the nature of our motivations for our pursuit.

In our pursuit of righteousness, there are two pitfalls to be avoided. First is that of self-righteousness. Are we pursuing righteousness and justice because these are the earnest desires of our heart, or are we pursuing them because we desire for others to see us in this pursuit? Are we seeking the praise of man, or are we seeking to please God?  True righteousness is not compatible with self-righteousness. True righteousness is humble and modest and labors out of love. Self-righteousness is loud and bombastic, it draws attention to itself; it desires for all to see just how “righteous” it is. Self-righteousness might have once been true righteousness, but it became misguided and addicted to itself; it chokes the life out of true righteousness. We see this self-righteousness refuted and rebuked numerous times in the New Testament. Time after time, Christ calls out the Pharisees for their hypocritical approach to righteousness. They would go to extreme lengths to appear righteous before others, but it was all because they wanted others to see how righteous they were. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness,” (Matthew 23:27-28). Self-righteousness might make us appear to look right with God outwardly, but inside–where it matters–the self-righteous is just as lost as the most wayward sinner.

The second pitfall that must be avoided in pursuing righteousness is that of “bargaining,” or “hedging one’s bets.” This is the myth and lie that is sold by the “prosperity gospel.”  In scripture, the Old Testament especially, we see where those who are righteous are often blessed, while the wicked are often not, or even worse, are cursed. This is not, however, a standard rule of thumb. There are just as many, if not more, instances where the righteous suffer and the unjust prosper–just read Job or the rest of Ecclesiastes. In spite of this fact, many seek righteousness because they think that it will force God to bless them; that God will “owe” them something. How blasphemous this idea is! The Almighty God Most High, Ruler of Heaven and Earth, does not and will never owe us anything.  He does not even owe us the salvation which He offers to us; this is–as is every other blessing He bestows upon us–a gift given freely out of His own good will. “God does not show partiality,” (Acts 10:34);  “He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous,” (Matthew 5:45). Seeking righteousness out of a desire to be owed something by God is just as dangerous and sinful as self-righteousness, and the two traps are not necessarily unrelated; one can easily lead to the other. Those who teach others to pursue righteousness because God will bless them for it–the prosperity gospel–make a mockery of the cross. They spit in the face of the self-sacrificing Savior and demean His atonement into nothing more than a suggestion in a self-help book. God blesses those whom He chooses to bless, and He does so because He can. He owes us nothing. We deserve Hell, and He chose to save us.

After considering the significant pitfalls that so frequently trap those who are seeking righteousness, we can now see what the Teacher meant by telling us to avoid excessive righteousness. We cannot allow ourselves to become self-righteous; we must not seek righteousness because we think it will buy us favor with God. These behaviors are just as sinful as wicked and foolish living. These behaviors make us unteachable; they make us become like a fool. Instead, we must seek righteousness with humility and sincerity. We must bow continuously before Christ our King, and we must remember that He gives us gifts and blessings, not because He owes them to us, but because He wants to. We must also remember that we suffer so that we can learn to trust Him more. He blesses whom He blesses—the good and the bad—for His own reasons and in His own time.

Heed the Teacher’s advice: avoid excessive righteousness. Be humble, be meek, and seek righteousness with a sincere heart.

Artwork: “Christ and the Pharisees,” Anthony van Dyck, c. 17th C.

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.

Bread of Affliction.

Christianity, Religion

“‘You shall not eat leavened bread with it; seven days you shall eat with it unleavened bread, the bread of affliction (for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste), so that you may remember all the days of your life the day when you came out of the land of Egypt.’” Deuteronomy 16:3

The Passover is the most significant of all the Jewish holidays. During this sacred annual observance, the Jewish people remember the mighty acts that God performed to free their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. At the heart of the Passover celebration is the somber and solemn recognition of the great lengths which God would go to free His people.

One of the most iconic pieces of the Passover celebration is matzah or unleavened bread. As the Israelites were preparing to make their exit from Egypt, God gave them specific instructions for the Passover meal. He was going to pass through the land of Egypt striking dead all the firstborns of the land. But the houses which had followed His instructions, and taken the blood of a firstborn lamb and painted it upon the doorframe of the house, these houses would be spared; He would pass over them. This lamb which was slain for its blood to be used as a sign to God was to be eaten with unleavened bread. The Israelites were to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice; there was not even time to allow the bread to rise.  As a result of having no leaven, the bread they ate with the Passover meal was flat, and this flatbread became synonymous with the Passover. Due to its association with their bondage in Egypt, matzah is often referred to, even during Passover services, as “the bread of affliction.”  During Passover celebrations, the matzah is taken, blessed, and broken, and each participant takes a piece to eat as a reminder of the affliction suffered by their ancestors before being freed by God. Matzah is a tangible reminder of the suffering experienced in Egypt; the matzah reminds each new generation that, without God’s intervention, their affliction would be yours too.

On the Thursday after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus and the disciples gathered to observe the Passover. Christ was obedient in His observation of the mandated holidays, and He and the disciples had—like the generations before did and after them would as well—matzah to remember the affliction of the forefathers in Egypt. During this Passover, Christ would institute a new observance: The Eucharist, or Communion—the Lord’s Supper. He took the matzah and blessed it and broke it and distributed it to the disciples; however, He did not tell them this was the “bread of affliction,” instead, he said, “This is my body, which is given for you,” (Luke 22:19). Elsewhere in the Gospels, we see where Christ refers to Himself as the “Bread of Life,” (John 6:35), and He said that “whoever feeds of my flesh and drinks of my blood has eternal life,” (John 6:54). Christ is changing the paradigm; something new is happening. He is using the observance of the Passover to teach the disciples—and all future generations—of the new Passover which is about to take place, one complete with a new Paschal lamb and new matzah.

The connections between the original Passover and Christ’s sacrifice must not be lost on us. Just as the first Passover proved to the Israelites just how far God would go to save them from Pharaoh’s oppression and bondage, Christ’s Passover shows how much farther God went to save His people from slavery and bondage to an even more powerful and vile oppressor: sin and death. God would offer up His Son—the firstborn of His flock and of all things—to be the Passover sacrifice, and being covered by His blood would free us from death just as the Passover lamb’s blood spared the households it covered from death. In His agony, Jesus—the Bread of Life—would become the ultimate matzah—the bread of affliction. He bore our sins and guilt so that we might be liberated from sin’s shackles. He suffered our affliction so that He might give us life. He provided our exodus from sin and this world.

Just as God instructed the Israelites to remember the Passover and to commemorate it, Christ taught the disciples—and all future generations—to observe the Communion, and to do so “in remembrance of Me,” (Luke 22:19). In taking Communion, we remember that Passover in Jerusalem when Christ became the ultimate Passover sacrifice. We remember how He took our affliction and shame and sin and guilt. We remember how the Bread of Life became the bread of affliction and was broken so that we might be freed from sin and death. Communion is our tangible reminder that, without Christ’s intervention, our sins and afflictions would still enslave us. Each time we partake of Communion, we are reminding ourselves of and celebrating the ultimate Passover. With a somber and solemn heart, we try to comprehend the great lengths to which God went to redeem us and save us, and we pray:

Christ, our Passover Lamb

Christ, our Matzah, our Bread of Affliction

Christ, our Liberator

Christ, our Redeemer

Christ, our Messiah

We do this in remembrance of You.

photo courtesy of http://www.oneforisrael.org https://www.oneforisrael.org/bible-based-teaching-from-israel/the-meaning-of-matzo-unleavened-bread-in-the-bible/