Why Was the Cross of Christ Necessary?

In his book, The Cross of Christ, the late John R. W. Stott described the experience of an imaginary visitor to London who arrives with little understanding of Christianity. Eager to learn, he comes upon the beautiful Saint Paul’s Cathedral.

Approaching the cathedral he first notices with amazement that the dome of the building is dominated by a huge golden cross. He then enters and sees that the cathedral itself is built in the shape of a cross with arms reaching to the right and left from the central nave. These arms appear to form two chapels.

Looking into each chapel he sees what appears to be a table and on each a small cross. Going below into the crypt where the remains of famous people are buried he notes that on each tomb there is engraved the form of a cross.

Back in the nave the stranger decides to stay for a service of worship about to begin. He notices that a man sitting next to him wears a miniature cross on his lapel and a woman on the other side wears one on her necklace. The service begins with a hymn beginning, We sing the praise of him who died, of him who died upon the cross.

The theme of the cross registers with him as dominant and compelling.

The cross was claimed as the symbol for Christianity as early as the second century. Other symbols had a brief life but once the cross was established it remained firm against all opposition and has endured for two millennia.

This should not be surprising. There are at least 28 references to Christ’s cross in the New Testament and these references appear across the New Testament from Matthew to the Revelation.

But why the cross, this instrument of vicious torture? Why must the punishment of sin be visited in this manner on the Holy Son of God? Simply put, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Sin must be punished.

Mankind’s universal offense against God’s holy laws is more serious than we, his creatures, are aware until the Holy Spirit brings the reality home to us. The Lord God, the ruler of the universe declared to Adam, You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die (Genesis 3:3). Adam both touched and ate despite promised consequences.

Adam’s offenses were not like a child’s offense in taking a bit of candy from a table knowing only vaguely that to do so was wrong. Adam’s offense (and ours) was an intentional, self-conscious disobedience against a holy God, the Creator and Ruler of All. God must keep his word: “The soul who sins is the one who will die” (Ezekiel 18:20).

But again, why must there be such suffering on God’s part in order for him to forgive the sins of his creatures? The answer in brief: God’s justice must be applied without compromise otherwise he is not just. Sin must be paid for.

And there was no one else who could pay the just penalty for sin since, as the Apostle Paul notes, all humans have sinned and do come short of God’s glorious ideal (Romans 3:23). So, God in Christ out of his great love for his sinning creatures took the penalty on himself at Calvary. It was the only way (John 3:16).

On a cross, Jesus, the Son of God, voluntarily suffered a substitutionary death and a temporary alienation from God, the Father of us all (Psalm 22). He became sin for us who knew no sin (2 Corinthians 5:21). In doing so, he paid the enormous penalty for our sins.

As the letter to the Romans declares, He did (this) to demonstrate his justice at the present time so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26). Thus, the cross is the ground of our salvation.

Looking deeper into this timeless moment at Calvary one sees beneath the suffering a love that will not give up on sinners. As we have travelled through the Easter season this has been brought home to us many times. As John Bowring wrote more than a century ago:

In the cross of Christ I glory,

towering o’er the wrecks of time,

All the light of sacred story,

gathers in its head sublime.

 

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Photo credit: Waiting For The Word (via flickr.com)

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Do I Have a Love That Can Suffer and Persevere?

Christ on the Mount of Olives by Josef Untersberger. Public Domain.

Love is often portrayed in our culture as an overwhelming fascination attended by a romantic glow. It’s largely rooted in the feelings.

Indeed, human love can activate such emotions, but genuine love can also be costly: A mother cares without complaint for a disabled child month after month to the point of exhaustion. That is noble, suffering love.

During Holy Week, we celebrate love, but in this case God’s love — a love for his fallen creatures of such imponderable magnitude that his Son, Jesus, was willing to suffer and die on our behalf.

God’s Son came to earth in human form for that very purpose. So while Jesus healed the afflicted, fed the hungry, and blessed the children, he came for more than to express compassion and comfort.

A deeper look into the Gospel accounts shows that the Incarnate Christ knew that his love would lead him into suffering. The willingness to suffer would be one way of showing love.

I became aware of this insight many years ago when Luke 9:51 seemed to stand out from the page. It says, As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.

Resolutely. That was the word that held my attention. Could it mean he didn’t want to go but knew he must do so to carry out a divine plan?

Back then I was also surprised by how early in Luke’s account the sentence appears. The Gospel according to Luke is divided into 24 chapters, but already in chapter nine Luke reported that Jesus knew what was ahead and that he anticipated suffering.

Jesus had not come merely to heal the afflicted, and teach the masses about his kingdom. He had come to suffer a death that would be for others.

He must have known that the religious rulers in Jerusalem would plot his death, the throngs for Passover would be easily turned against him, his own followers would flee, and Roman soldiers would be called upon to hang him on a cross to torture him in his dying. Yet he went forward resolutely.

Much happened as Jesus made that determined journey toward Jerusalem. It was after he fed the five thousand miraculously that Peter declared him “The Christ of God.” (Luke 9:18-20).

Jesus follows Peter’s confession with clear words to his disciples about what was ahead: The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life (Luke 9:22).

Could anything have been clearer? Still, his disciples failed to understand that for this great teacher and miracle worker love would mean suffering and that would require deep resolve.

During the same period of time he must have felt the need to bring the matter up to his disciples again because on another occasion he said: Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men (Luke 9:44).

There is a sobering and maturing word in all this. We too, as Christians, may fall into the trap of thinking of the love we profess only in brighter and more airy terms. It’s great to be a Christian!

And so it is. But Holy Week should remind us we are also called to be resolute in facing the tests, the adversities and the unexpected surprises of the journey. We are called to be true to our commitments even when our situation is adverse and undeserved.

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If We Claim That Jesus Talks to Us, Is That a Sign of Mental Illness?

Recently, on ABC’s  morning show, The View, comedian Joy Behar spoke insultingly of the Christian faith, provoking widespread protests. The network reportedly received 45,000 complaints.

Behar had conducted an on-air interview with the Vice President of the United States, Michael Pence, in which he said he seeks direction from Jesus for decisions he makes and he receives answers from him.

Ms. Behar quipped on a later show that when you talk to Jesus that is one thing but when you say Jesus talks to you that may be a sign of mental illness.

She has since apologized to the vice president and, at his request, to the public at large.

This exchange raises a question believers and unbelievers alike would do well to ponder: Does the Christian faith claim that the Lord Jesus communicates with believers in an understandable way?

Jesus, who came from the Father, certainly spoke to humankind during his time on earth. Saint Mark tells us Jesus went into the region of Galilee “proclaiming” (Mark 1:14). On another occasion a leper pled with him to be made clean of his disease and Jesus said to him, “Be Clean” (Mark 1:40). To such speaking, the four Gospels testify repeatedly.

The Old Testament bears witness that even before Jesus came to live among us God did communicate with humans. God carried on an extensive dialogue with Moses (Exodus 19). He spoke to his chosen people as a whole: “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel says” (Jeremiah 31:23). He also spoke to individuals, e.g.: “Then God said to Jacob. (Genesis 35:1)

And to worshipers then and now God speaks through the Book of the Psalms: I sought the Lord and he answered me (Psalm 34:4). But did such communications continue after Jesus finished his ministry on earth and ascended into heaven?

A strong assurance that they did was lodged in his promise given to the Apostles on the eve of his crucifixion: And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever — the Spirit of truth. (John 14:16)

Jesus had been their Counselor. Now he would send another Counselor who would carry on a comparable ministry of communication — speaking changeless truth to them! But is this assured to all following generations, including us and Vice President Pence?

Nearly three decades after Jesus’ ascension, a Rabbi was approaching the city of Damascus. His intention was to persecute Jews he found following what he viewed as the “Jesus cult.” Suddenly he was blinded by a light so bright that he fell to the ground.

Hearing an audible voice he asked “Who are you, Lord”? With great clarity the answer he received was: “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5). The Living Christ spoke in human language to Saul of Tarsus, who became the Apostle Paul.

There are multiplied millions of serious Christians who share Vice President Pence’s conviction that Jesus talks to his followers even today — not trivially but certainly on faith and life matters.

Such throngs believe it is not beyond God’s power to speak audibly, thought this way is not most usual. Far more, they “hear” him speaking to them through Scriptures read and preached and through his Holy Spirit’s inward promptings to an awakened conscience.

And so, without being considered mentally ill, Christians can say with reverence that Jesus does speak by whatever means he chooses and we are to listen, ponder his words, correlate them with Scripture and wise counsel, and ask for the reassuring inner witness of conscience.

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Photo credit: Michael Vadon (via flickr.com)

A Protestant Equivalent to Lent (2018)

Lent is a season for self-denial and meditation, observed primarily in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

This year, Lent is from February 14 to March 29 and it ends Saturday after Good Friday. We’re now about half way through the season.

Those who observe Lent set apart the 40 days before Easter Sunday, but this does not include Sundays because they are days to celebrate our Lord’s resurrection year-around!

Many today who observe Lent might deprive themselves of something from a list they think important – meat, fish, television, sweets, coffee, movies, etc.

This time of self-denial calls believers to additional prayer, meditation, contrition, repentance, charity, or special services of worship to prepare themselves for the celebration of Christ’s death and miraculous resurrection on Easter Sunday.

The observance of Lent has never in any large way made a place for itself among Protestants. It was Billy Graham speaking on discipleship who once noted that Christ did not say we were to deny ourselves of “something;” he said we were to deny “ourselves.”

This kind of denial is saying no to the self that keeps wanting to rear its ugly head and resist our full surrender to the life Christ calls us to – a life that bows fully to his Lordship and the joyful service of others.

But Lent has an element that should be appealing to all serious Christians.

During Lent the self-deprivations, little or great, are supposed to be attended by special times of self-examination, repentance prayer, and meditation. Consider the call of Joshua 1:8 and Psalm 1:2.

Meditation does not mean setting the mind loose to wander; it is “focused reflection” and it takes serious effort.

The three special times of the day for meditation are (1) with the last thoughts before settling for sleep; (2) the first thoughts upon waking; and (3) special times of the day set aside for quietness with the Scriptures and prayer.

Christian meditation can include four stages: (1) the careful and deliberate reading of a brief Scripture passage; (2) the pondering of its content; (3) a conversation with God asking for understanding; and (4) a resting in His presence.

Disciplined pondering can be made a time for taking stock of the state of the soul, repenting as necessary, reflecting on one’s relationships, praying for a renewal in love for Christ and others, and generally resetting the inner dial to those things that matter most.

If these thoughts prompt you to increase your times of meditation and devotion leading up to Easter, I suggest you choose for pondering the Gospel accounts of the closing days of our Lord’s life and resurrection (Matthew 26-28; Mark 14-16; Luke 22-24; John 17-21).

Meditation is indeed a Christian discipline and when it engages our souls it creates focus and insight, and often repentance and joy.

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Photo credit: jezobeljones (via flickr.com)

How Billy Graham Kept His Focus For a Lifetime

Billy Graham, evangelist, is with the Lord. He died on February 21, 2018, at 99 years of age, a widely recognized and greatly admired Christian.

We saw the outpouring of love and respect shown for him in the week following his death, both in Charlotte, North Carolina, his birthplace, and in the capitol in Washington D.C.

Despite his advanced age and his years of growing seclusion, the public had not forgotten him. Who Billy Graham was and how he would be remembered shone through most clearly at his funeral on Friday, March 2, 2018.

It is reported that 2800 invitations were sent out and more than 2000 invitees were able to be there, coming from as far away as South Korea.

Held in a large tent, erected on the grounds of the Billy Graham Library near his reconstructed childhood home in Charlotte, North Carolina, the funeral was joyful, reflecting in several ways the faith in Christ that Billy Graham, his deceased wife, Ruth, and the larger family connection shared openly.

The Gospel of the world’s Savior and its wonderful promise of eternal life for believers was celebrated at the funeral both in personal testimony, prayer, song, and Scripture reading. There was laughter and there were tears, all undergirded by the Christian hope of life everlasting.

How did Billy Graham’s journey begin? There is on record a certificate of his graduation from the beginners Sunday School class of the Graham family’s church when he was six years of age, so he had the advantage of early Christian training.

Still, he had to have his own awakening to saving grace through faith and at 16 years of age Graham had a decisive conversion to Christ under the ministry of evangelist Mordecai Ham. His interest in church that had been flagging was clearly awakened.

Later, during a late night walk around a golf course near where he was attending Bible school he prostrated himself at the eighteenth hole and answered yes to God’s call to full time ministry.

His consequent worldview must surely be attributed to his deep faith commitment to Biblical truth, grounded in the staunch Presbyterian upbringing of his early years. His adult framework for life was wholesomely moral but not moralistic.

Before his ministry developed, and after a serious struggle with the issue of the authority of the Bible, he committed himself to the Christian Scriptures — affirming their utter truthfulness and trustworthiness. The spot where that commitment was made while in California bears a marker.

He was an evangelist from the start of his ministry. His message was the Gospel of Jesus Christ, his Savior and Lord, preached with resonance and urgency.

His theme was God’s love for sinners, but within that framework he spoke with candor of Jesus’ warnings about the alternatives of heaven or hell, urgently calling sinners to repentance.

His commitment never varied or changed. His messages were punctuated constantly with the declaration, “the Bible says.”

He was not only an evangelist himself; his contributions to the cause of world evangelism are astounding: He was the founder of The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Decision Magazine, Christianity Today, The International Congress on World Evangelism and much more.

In reviewing his many contributions to the cause of Christian evangelism, one must ask, how can one person do so much?

From the start he preached the Gospel under the authority of the Scriptures and worked with a team; his team members kept their focus sharp and protected one another from compromising situations; his beloved wife, Ruth, supported him in his work wholeheartedly; he made himself accountable to a governing board; he did not handle or assign campaign funds personally.

Billy Graham’s grave is next to that of his wife, Ruth, near the entrance to the library bearing his name in Charlotte. The simple headstone of his grave bears his name, Billy Graham, and with it, these simple words to describe his life:

PREACHER OF THE GOSPEL OF THE LORD JESUS CHRIST. JOHN 14:6

 

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Photo credit: Jessica Johnson (via flickr.com)

The Question Kathleen and I Often Ask Each Other

Kathleen and I have a particular question we ask each other  with some regularity. We may pose it early in the morning or as evening approaches. Our question: Do you have a song?

The answer is almost always, yes! So we then compare notes.

The tunes we report playing in our memories are most often a stanza from a favorite hymn or gospel song and quite often one we may have sung in church during our childhood. We find making the comparisons fun.

She and I experience these songs differently. In her memory Kathleen sings the words to herself. For me, it is more like a choir singing in the distance and I am the listener.

Yesterday Kathleen told me her song reached back to Sunday School in her early years, and that she couldn’t recall having sung it in ages. It was from that little song about God’s care for the sparrow. The refrain goes:

He loves me too!

He loves me too!

I know He loves me too.

Because he loves the little birds,

I know he loves me too.

It’s a confident, happy little piece, assuring the singer that we are loved by God.

In the Saskatchewan church of my childhood we sang without instrumental accompaniment but some worshipers were able to sing alto, tenor or bass. The singing seemed to fill the small sanctuary.

It was similar for Kathleen in Niagara Falls, Ontario, where she grew up. The Sunday Evening services in both of our churches featured lots of congregational singing.

It has been said that the early Methodists learned their theology through their hymns. Now these two aging Methodists find our songs and their lyrics bless us today. And we continue to review and deepen our theology in this way.

Take,  for example the following stanza from Charles Wesley’s, theology-rich, O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing:

He breaks the power of canceled sin,

He sets the prisoner free;

His blood can make the foulest clean;

His blood availed for me.

“Canceled sin?” That’s justification. “Prisoner?” Our fallen nature makes us captive to sin. “Sets the prisoner free?”  That’s regeneration by the Holy Spirit. “His blood?” That’s the atoning ground for our salvation. “For me?” The efficacy of the blood of Christ is personally claimed.

In our troubled times we need faith-renewing, soul-nurturing songs playing quietly in our heads often, even much of the time. The world otherwise seems raucous and ridden with conflict.  

To counter this clamor with silent music may take concentrated effort at the start, but Kathleen and I would say cultivating the habit is abundantly worthwhile.

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Photo credit: Melissa Himpe (via flickr.com)

Re-post: Do Christians Worship One God or Three?

Muslims charge that Christians worship three gods. Unitarians and Jehovah’s Witnesses make the same accusation. The word, Trinity, offends them.

Even some Christians are vague about what Trinity means because it seems mysterious. Mysterious indeed: God reveals himself first as one God, and, at the same time, as three Persons in one Godhead.

When God addressed Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3) Moses’ world reeked with many gods and he knew that. Yet, Moses did not ask, “Which God is this now?” From the beginning, it was revealed to him that there was only one true God for all to reckon with.

Listen to the Shema of the Old Testament: “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4). In that ancient world teeming with gods, the Old Testament holds Jehovah to be “the Sovereign Lord” (Hab. 3:19).

The New Testament continues the claim. During Jesus’ forty-day fast, Satan tried to entice him to worship him. Jesus said, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only’” (Lk. 4:8).

At the same time, Scriptures show that this One God manifests himself in three persons, and this reality is repeatedly set forth.

After the resurrection, Jesus’ Disciple, Thomas, worshiped the risen Savior. He exclaimed, “My Lord and my God.” If this declaration had been false but Jesus had accepted it, his acceptance would have been blasphemous.

Instead, later the Apostle John reinforces Thomas’s declaration. He testifies of Jesus, “the Word was God,” period (John 1:1).

But what about the Holy Spirit? In the early church, when a couple named Ananias and Sapphira tried to deceive Peter over a gift of money, Peter saw through their ruse. He said to Ananias, “… you have lied to the Holy Spirit” (Acts 5:3). Then he added, “You have not lied to men but to God” (Acts 5:4).

It is not possible to lie to a mere influence. The Holy Spirit is obviously more than a feeling. He is “personal” in several respects. He is God, the Spirit.

So, Jesus, at his baptism “saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove” and heard the voice of the Father saying, “This is my Son whom I love” (Matt.3:16, 17). In that moment we have the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in one event of revelation.

During the first four hundred years of the early church, the church fathers wrestled with these affirmations made in both Testaments. To give them order, they formulated this precious truth under the title of the Trinity.

They said, God is one in “essence” and three in “persons.” He must be worshiped without dividing the essence or confusing the persons. God the Father rules over all; God the Son is our Redeemer; God the Spirit is our sanctifier.

The hymn our congregation sang to conclude worship on a recent Sunday morning included the following words:

 

Laud and honor to the Father,

Laud and honor to the Son.

Laud and honor to the Spirit,

 Ever Three and Ever One.

We sing this 700-year-old hymn in praise to our God who is revealed to us as the Three-in-One – the God who creates, redeems and sanctifies us.

If this truth still mystifies you, remember that it is in our worship of the God who is three-in-one that we come closest to grasping the reality of this great mystery of the Christian faith.

When we pray, “Our Father which art in Heaven” we worship the one and only God. When we say of Jesus, “He is Lord and Savior,” we acknowledge the one and only God. When we entreat the Holy Spirit to guide us, we entreat the one and only God. Three persons in one Godhead!

Let us worship God!

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