Re-post: Our Resurrection is Assured!

520114756_6fca07c5e7Last night I taught a Bible study on the astonishing resurrection of Jesus Christ. My focus was on the events that attended his actual deliverance from a burial place where, three days earlier, his tortured and emaciated body had been hurriedly entombed – for the evening of Friday, all of Saturday, and the early moments of Sunday.

My primary source was Matthew’s account of the event, chapter 28.

Two women, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” came with no special expectations except “to look at the burial site.” They were drawn there by their grief and to make one last gesture of love for their fallen leader.

But, according to Matthew, upon their arrival, they saw that an earthquake had shaken the place and wrested the heavy stone away from the mouth of the tomb. An angel sat on the stone.

Toughened Roman soldiers had been assigned to guard the tomb against any mischief. But, terrified and shaken by the angel’s appearing, those guards froze in place like dead men standing.

The angel’s address to the two women was clear: “Don’t be afraid. You are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here. As he promised, he is risen. Step inside this gaping grave and you will see the vacated spot where he lay.”

The angel’s instructions went on: “He has risen from the dead. Go quickly. Tell his eleven special followers to go to Galilee. They will see him there.”

As the women moved quickly away from the tomb their emotions were a strange mixture of fear and joy — fear raised by this inexplicable angelic presence, joy excited by the message he gave.

Suddenly, intensifying their already overwhelmed state of mind, Jesus greeted them. They could think of nothing to do but fall down, clasp his feet and worship him.

Twice they were instructed, “Go and tell” but instructed in different ways. The angel said, “Go quickly and tell his disciples.” The Risen Lord said, “Go and tell my brothers.”

Each of four Gospel accounts ends with the same essential story: Jesus was put to a horrible death by the corruption of religious leaders, the fickleness of a Jewish populace and the illegal exercise of Roman authority. But each reporter tells the story with the same conclusion – the tomb was empty; Christ had risen from the dead!

For him, death was not about to have the last word: He surmounted death; overcame it; left it forever behind him. Moreover, his disciples came to see that it was a death with a purpose. It was a death on their behalf, the innocent Son of God dying to give forgiveness to sinners.

The news about Christ’s surmounting of death by his resurrection is not only the climaxing note of the four Gospel accounts; it’s a message either declared or assumed by every book of the New Testament (for example, Acts 1:3; 2:23,24; Romans 1:4 etc.).

Why does the account of Jesus’ resurrection matter? And what assurance does it afford believers today? For believers, this truth becomes very personal when Jesus declares: “Because I live, you also will live!” [John 14:19] That promise is the ground of their joy!

Photo credit: James Emery (via flickr.com)

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My First Car

1934_ford_two_door_sedanIn the summer of 1947, at age 21, I bought my first car — a 13 year-old 1934 Ford.

The auto industry had been making tanks, military trucks, and other war materiel, and was just getting back into production of automobiles after the Second World War. Even good used cars were scarce at a reasonable price. A friend of mine, Frank, told me of a relative of his north of Toronto who had a car he had quit driving for health reasons.

I went to his farm and bought the car for $300.

This car had one instant appealing feature — a remanufactured V8 engine. At that time, Ford held the patent on V8 engines so only Ford could produce them. Those engines were quick on the take-off and peppy on the road but they were known to burn oil. Nevertheless, this Ford with a replaced V8 engine was a treasure to me.

After that one feature in the plus column there were several in the minus column. After all, it was a 1934 vehicle bought in 1947. Cars back then became undependable more quickly with the passing of time and needed repairs sooner than today’s automobiles.

So, let me list some of the minuses. Its two-doors opened from the front. They were sometimes called suicide doors because if they ever became unlatched and opened while traveling at any significant speed, they would catch the wind and who knows what would happen to the door, or the driver’s side of the car. Or, for that matter, the driver if it was his door. Seat belts were not yet invented when that car was built.

The bottom of both doors had rusted away quite badly so in the winter, driving in a cross-wind provided extreme air conditioning. The driver got the worst of it because he had to keep his feet on or near the pedals regardless.

Another minus was that some of the basic instruments had long since quit functioning. The gas gauge was useless. I tried to keep track of the gas level in my head but on more than one occasion I ran out of gas on the highway and had to cross a field to the nearest farm to get a small container of gas. Back then that trek could turn out to be a neighborly experience.

The speedometer didn’t work either. You had to figure how fast you were going in comparison with other cars on the road. This wasn’t really taxing because the volume of traffic even on the recently built Queen Elizabeth Way was a fraction of the traffic today.

Kathleen and I were married in late December a little less than five months after I bought the car. Soon afterward we had to drive to Watertown, New York, from Toronto — a little over 200 miles. I was to speak there for the weekend. On that trip the rain pelted the car and revealed another frailty: the cowl above the driver’s feet leaked water badly. My bride diminished the problem by unwrapping sandwiches she had made and placing the wax paper (no plastic wrappings yet) over my feet.

On occasion people referred to that vintage car as a puddle jumper or bucket of bolts. When my friend, Herald, rode in the back seat he teased that the car was equipped with buggy springs. That 1934 Ford was an adventure and, at the same time, an object for good-natured quips.

In the spring, I saw an advertisement for a car paint that could be applied with a powder puff (the puff included). The grey paint on the car had become drab so I bought the paint and on a Saturday morning Kathleen and I cleaned up the car and did the paint job with the powder puffs. It was a small act of love towards that old car. The results were a much improved shiny black body, but the doors were still rusted at the bottom.

My first car had one distinguishing feature that very few cars have to this day: a bullet hole through the back wall (there were no trunks back then). More than once, people who noticed it quipped that I must have outrun the police. I insist to this day that the bullet hole was there when I bought the car.

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Photo credit: carsguide.com

Re-post: Taking Evil Seriously

Do you think of evil as mere ignorance? Do you say people do bad things only because they don’t know any better?

Or is evil more like an intangible force that prompts a young man to steal a car at gunpoint or a girl to lie to her mother when she knows what she is doing is wrong?

To speak to the issue of evil, Jesus told one of his many incomparable stories. In it, evil is an invisible, intelligent, destructive power.

Here’s the story: A house is indwelt by an evil spirit. But the spirit leaves it and goes into the desert where evil spirits are believed to dwell. There this unclean spirit feels homeless so returns to the house previously lived in. It finds the place thoroughly cleaned, all swept and returned to order — but vacant.

This vacancy prompts the evil spirit to round up seven other spirits even more wicked than itself and they take up residence. The consequences are horrible! The house is then more defiled and disordered than ever (Luke 11: 24-26).

Evil is such a pervasive force in the universe that one story is not enough to fully account fo it. Philosophers and theologians have divided evil into two categories: natural evils (like tornados) and moral evils (like bank heists, murder or even hatefulness).

But they both represent something that does huge damage to those in its grip. We consider hurricanes and tsunamis that kill thousands to be the result of evil loosed into the world by the Fall. We think of cancer that way too. But theft, murder, deception, and greed are also evils of a more personal, human sort.

Elsewhere, Jesus gives a catalogue of the elements of evil that dwell in the human heart (Mk 7:20-23). And, under the heading of “the flesh,” the Apostle Paul presents an incomplete list of the acts or influences that flow out of this evil (Gal. 5:19-21).

The story Jesus told suggests that personal evil is a dynamic quasi-personal influence that resides inwardly in people and defiles their lives. It makes life chaotic. Its results are likened vividly to an abandoned house that breeds mold and cockroaches and mice and also throws furnishings, dishes, and knick knacks into disarray. Personal evil makes a mess of things inwardly.

Here’s what we can draw from this story: We are only authentically Christian and safe from evil when Christ lives in us. Being under Christian influences is not enough. That may help us to be nice, and to develop good church manners. But that niceness is not the bona fide evidence that we are Christians.

The evidence needed to show we are people of genuine faith is that Christ has not only cleaned us up but has taken over our lives as our resident Master.

The Scripures make this abundantly clear. The Apostle Paul notes that “Christ in you” is our hope of a glorious future (Col. 1:27). Of the Corinthians he asks, “Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you – unless, of course, you fail the test?” (2 Cor. 5:5).

Elsewhere he writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17).

But here’s the most telling word of all, spoken by Jesus to his followers during his closing hours before his crucifixion. He said, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” John (14:23).

Is your inner state regulated and ruled by the presence of the Living Christ? By faith does he live in you? And is your respect for the force of evil in the world so clear that it is easy to pray regularly, as Jesus taught us to do, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one?” (Matt. 5:13).

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Photo credit: L.Marie (via flickr.com)

How to Deepen the Spiritual Life of A Congregation

6197577060_b11c9d1ddc_mAt 26 years of age, Richard Baxter was pastor of a church in Kidderminster, England. It was the 17th century. Upon arrival he found himself in a community of well-to-do, respectable townsmen where the church was not well attended and worship services lacked spiritual warmth.

In response to this state of affairs, he wrote: “The way to save this church and the community is to establish religion in the homes of the people and to build the family altar.” Accordingly he spent three years visiting the people in their homes with the determination to establish a family altar in every home in the community.

Family altar is the simple practice of gathering the members of the family together at a set time each day to read the Bible and pray together. Baxter believed this would be the primary way to renew the spiritual life of the congregation.

Family altar is a historic practice for families deeply committed to the worship of the living God. Three centuries after Baxter, I recall, as a young lad in Saskatchewan, experiencing the energy and worth of family altar. My Mother carried the burden faithfully for this exercise. Family altar was held at the close of the evening meal for one older sister, a younger sister and me. Occasionally our father sat in.

We formed our chairs to face each other in an open part of the kitchen. Mother took down her well used Bible and usually read a whole chapter. Then we sang a portion of a hymn. Mother knew about a half dozen “favorite” hymns by heart so we cycled those six again and again. After the hymn, we knelt at our chairs and Mother prayed. At the close of her earnest prayer we recited the Lord’s Prayer together.

As we children developed proficiency in reading we began to take turns at reading a paragraph or so and offering our own prayers. Sometimes what was read in the Scriptures prompted childhood questions about God or about such basic moral issues as telling the truth or getting along with playmates. Occasionally, if things had gone poorly in family relationships they were corrected. In a nutshell this daily exercise helped to develop a God-consciousness which attends us for life.

Family altar has much more competition today than in my childhood. For us there was no television, iPads, smart phones, or electronic games to commandeer our time and isolate us from one another. Today the very pace of modern life might require a simplified version for family altar, but need not choke the exercise out of existence, and will always require parental diligence.

Like Mother, we see its value and my wife and I continue the practice. At 90 years of age, we sit down in our family room after breakfast each morning and read the Bible, one chapter a day. We discuss what we’ve read and then take time for prayers. As a wholesome breakfast nourishes our mortal bodies family altar gives deep sustenance to the spiritual dimension of life.

God says to us, ”Draw near to me and I will draw near to you” and human wisdom tells us “where there’s a will there’s a way.” For newcomers to the practice, to get family altar started a parent or parents may need to gather the family together and seek agreement that at a certain time each day family life would be enriched by giving a few minutes to this spiritual exercise.

If there are young children and the NIV is the family’s favorite translation it should be used. If not, the New Living Translation is a good useable version, both reliable and readable. For small children the Picture Bible is recommended as a good choice. Whatever version is chosen it is good to make the Bible itself the text for family devotions. It’s the book we hope our children will live with for a lifetime.

Were Richard Baxter’s efforts successful? History reports that his project was so successful that in every home of his congregation there was a family altar, church attendance increased to fill the sanctuary, and public worship went from bland to spiritually warm and deeply nurturing.

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Photo credit: Skara kommun (via flickr.com)

When Life Seems About to Crumble – Psalm 11

Crumbling houseYou’ve spent half a lifetime making the house you live in your castle. Then one day you see a crack in the family room ceiling, or suddenly three days before Thanksgiving the oven quits on you. You experience distress but you recover because you know these are problems that can be fixed and life will go on.

But on another day you come home to discover the main floor of your house slants at a frightening angle, doors hang limp on their hinges, and the basement is filling with water from broken pipes. The whole foundation of the house has shifted.

The psalmist, David, knew that life brings lesser and greater crises. On the one hand, setbacks come to all and they may be annoying, costly to fix, even distressing, but in due course all will be well.

But, there are situations that rumble like an earthquake, shaking the very foundations of life. One’s name may be maligned at great personal cost, integrity may be questioned, employment threatened, a friendship shattered and one sees no way to safe footing. Life seems suddenly beyond repair, and headed toward collapse.

The psalmist, David, had the latter experiences that shook his foundations. He was made a fugitive in the wilderness for long periods by King Saul’s murderous rages. His son, Absalom, nearly succeeded in wresting the kingdom from his rule and driving him away as an outcast. This to David was a shock of near tectonic proportions

In such crises, David could have thrown up his hands in despair, saying, “I quit.” In fact, in Psalm 11 some timid counselor appears to have offered that very solution: “When the foundations are being destroyed,” the counselor suggests, “what can the righteous do?” It’s the counsel of hopelessness; there’s no out.

David rebuked such a hand-wringing solution outright.
He declares his stand in the first words of the psalm: “In the Lord I take refuge.” Everything following flows from that. So the rebuke he delivers to this cringing counselor is clear:

How then can you say to me:
Flee like a bird to your mountain,
For look, the wicked bend their bows;
They set their arrows against the strings
To shoot from the shadows
At the upright in heart.”

In brief, David replies: Shame on you! Yet his own answer to the question, “What can the righteous do?” is not spoken with bravado or bombast. Instead, you will see from the psalm that David has a more humble, faith-based answer. First, he says,

God is in his holy temple;
the Lord is on his heavenly throne” (Psalm 11:4).

In other words, God reigns! In this world one’s foundations may seem to be shaken but the house built on faith will not collapse because God is sovereign over all.

He goes on:

He observes the sons of men;
he examines the righteous
but the wicked and those who love violence
his soul hates” (Psalm 11:5).

In other words, God sees to the finest detail what’s really going on when one of his own is under evil attack; he is on the side of the righteous even though he may not give instant deliverance. The implication? Move up close to him. Hold on.

Then comes David’s summary assurance:

For the Lord is righteous,
he loves justice;
upright men (and women) will see his face” (Psalm 11:6).

In the case of the believer today whose foundations are being shaken, this promise may not be satisfied immediately. Think of the pastors in Vietnam who are held in prison for their faith, or of believers driven from their demolished homes in Iraq.

Yet in all of these scenarios, God’s promise will be fulfilled for people of faith. Whether sooner or later God’s faithfulness will be revealed.

In the closing words of the psalm the believer is promised “to see God’s face.” This means in Hebrew thought that the true believer will have intimate communion with God and will sense his approval and his ultimate protection, even as for a time the foundations continue to shudder and rumble.

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Photo credit: Thomas Quine (via flickr.com)

Jesus’ Teachings After a Controversial Sabbath Miracle

"Christ healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda", Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1667-70.

“Christ healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda”, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1667-70.

Last week I wrote about Jesus’ healing of a crippled man on the Sabbath. Remarkably, his critics were enraged because in doing so he had broken one of the many rabbinic laws about Sabbath!

In Jesus’ response to his critics, three times he introduced what he had to say with the words, “I tell you the truth” (NIV). This introductory declaration occurs 25 times in John’s account of the Gospel so we must treat it as very important.

But first a brief aside about the words themselves: While the New International Version translates the original language as, “I tell you the truth,” the King James Version says “Verily, verily I say unto thee…”, a more literal and compelling rendering.

The Greek word for “verily” is “amen”, a word found throughout the Scriptures. It means, “It shall truly and certainly be.” Thus, this word launches our Lord’s sentence with vigor and conviction. In addition, repeating the word, verily, verily, is one way to increase the word’s force. It is like his saying “I really, really, mean this!” Or “I speak this with certainty”.

The miraculous healing of the man crippled for 38 years should arrest his critics to hear the claims Jesus is about to make. In his first “Verily, verily” statement, he asserts of himself: “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it” (John 5:21).

With these words he makes it clear that he and God, the Father, are one in being. The rage of his detractors was greatly inflamed by the claim that Jesus made himself equal with God (John 5:16-23). He also made it clear that the Father his critics professed to worship was compassionate on every day — and so was he.

His second declaration was an even more amazing claim. “I tell you the truth, (verily, verily) whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned: he has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24). He is claiming not only the power to heal, but also to grant eternal life and the forgiveness of sins.

Our Lord’s third claim growing out of the conflict over his Sabbath healing of the man crippled for 38 years seems stronger yet: “I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear him will live” (John 5:25). This promise is to those who are willing to hear without resistance when the Father calls.

In his healing of the crippled man at the Pool of Bethesda Jesus again had performed a miracle that validates his origin and his divine power. Into the intense and sometimes hostile discussion that follows he weaves these certainties: Only I can give eternal life; the Father raises the dead and gives them life, and so do I; a day has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear him will live.

These ringing statements are claims of truth about the shared life of God the Father and his Son, Jesus our Lord: about his compassion to us all, his eagerness to give the gift of eternal life, and the assurance that there is life after death. On those subjects only Jesus can say with certainty: “I tell you the truth.” And only we who respond in humble, contrite faith can receive these great statements of truth for our eternal benefit.

Image credit: The National Gallery

One Sabbath in the Life of Jesus

6679741465_7cd29b9d3a_mLast week I wrote about the Sabbath principle — one day in seven set apart to desist from the labors of the week and to gather with God’s people for worship. I noted that in time Christians shifted to observe Resurrection Sunday as their holy day. My purpose in writing was not to reestablish a sabbatarian rigidity such as many of the Pharisees of New Testament times promoted but to note that today we Christians are at risk of an overly casual approach to our special day, allowing all sorts of unnecessary activities to crowd in and diminish God’s merciful intent.

Today, I recount the story of an event that took place on a particular Sabbath in the life of Jesus. At first, it can look like Jesus himself disregards God’s plan for the Sabbath. But instead, we see that Jesus does his special healing and reconciling work at all times, and that he is Lord of the Sabbath. The story shows also that even the strict observance of the Sabbath can become infected with human rather than divine prohibitions.

The Apostle John reports in his gospel that Jesus came upon a man who had been crippled for 38 years (John 5:1-15). He was lying helplessly beside the Pool of Bethesda among a great number of other afflicted souls. All of them were there for the same reason: they believed that from time-to-time the waters of the pool would be mysteriously stirred and at such a time the first among them to get into the water would be healed.

Ignoring the pool and it’s supposed powers, Jesus asked the man: “Do you want to get well?” The man answered with overtones of despair: “Sir, I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. When I am trying to get in someone else goes down ahead of me” (John 5: 1-7).

Jesus’ response was direct and firm: “Get up! Pick up your bed and walk.” At once the helpless man was on his feet, his mat rolled up under his arm, and he was walking about for the first time in 38 years.

Imagine what this would mean to that man! Life would become incalculably better! Still contrary to what would seem appropriate, this healing created a serious problem in the minds of the enemies of Jesus. It was the Jewish Sabbath and the man was about to carry the mat he had been lying on for so long. The Jews had strict laws against anyone carrying a burden on that sacred day. For example, one rabbinic law said anything weighing more than two figs was regarded as a burden and should not be carried on the Sabbath.

What was intended as a day of physical refreshment and worship had been made into a confining straight jacket by a long string of laws made by generations of Rabbis. For example, a woman was forbidden to look into a well on the Sabbath lest she see in her reflection a white hair and be tempted to pluck it. That would be work. By their laws, only emergency care for a wound or illness should be done on the Sabbath. For anything less, let the sufferer return later.

The religious leaders who saw Jesus’ healing of the lame man were angered by it. Jesus’ healing of a man on the Sabbath broke their list of rigorous Sabbath prohibitions. The undercurrent of their reaction to this was murderous.

Scholars of the times note that although the Pharisees of New Testament times made Sabbath a burden there is other information that shows many of the Jews observed Sabbath as a healthful and faith-renewing event in their times.

On Friday evening the trumpet was taken to the tallest building of the community and blown three times — the first time as a signal to the workers in the field to start for their homes; the second time to shop owners to close up shop; and when it sounded for the third time the Sabbath candles were lit all over the village.

On Sabbath morning people went to the synagogue. The noon meal that followed had been prepared the day before, and was in every way special except that it was eaten cold because fires were not lit on the Sabbath. In the afternoon, if the village had a school attached to the synagogue people gathered and local community scholars addressed some of the religious questions of the day.

The religious rulers who complained against Jesus’ healing of the man crippled for 38 years seemed to know nothing of this good side of Sabbath–its rhythms and rest and spiritual focus. And their religion lacked the compassion which Jesus demonstrated on that special day.

In today’s secular, frantically busy, and distracted times, Christians are in danger of going too far in making the day available for anything and everything they might do on other days of the week. We need to revive the original purpose: rest and restoration, and to focus on thanksgiving and worship, the holy side of Lord’s Day worship. (More next week)

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Photo credit: Ricardo Camacho (via flickr.com)