The most prominent image for the church in the New Testament is “the Body of Christ.” There are about 15 references to it from Matthew to Revelation. The image implies that believers are to be, do, and say what Christ would be, do, and say if he were physically with us today. For three and a half decades, Jesus lived on this planet as the Son of God—deity in human flesh. In his earthly body, he went around preaching the good news of the kingdom of God, loving and serving those for whom he came.
• With his eyes he saw the physical and spiritual needs around him.
• With his ears he heard the cries of the hurting and the oppressed.
• With his heart he felt compassion toward those who needed the grace of God.
• With his feet he went to their side to be with them.
• With his hands he touched them, fed them, and healed them.
• With his voice he spoke God’s word to them
In time he died on Calvary’s cross for the sins of the world. He was buried in an unused tomb, and on the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and is now seated at the Father’s right hand.
On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Christ—came back to earth indwell his people and constitute his church. So, while God came to the world in Jesus in a body 2,000 years ago, he now comes to the world in his new body, the church.
• We are the eyes of Jesus on earth.
• We are the ears of Jesus on earth.
• We are the heart of Jesus on earth.
• We are the feet of Jesus on earth.
• We are the hands of Jesus on earth.
• We are the voice of Jesus on earth.
Believers are the means through which Christ expresses himself and ministers to the world today. In short, the church of Christ is the body of Christ on earth. How in the world could we ever fulfill such a task? We start by staying connected to the head of the body—Jesus Christ himself.
In 1 Corinthians 3 and Ephesians 2, the Apostle Paul likens the church of Jesus Christ to a sacred temple. The building blocks of this new temple, he says, are Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world. Together they “rise to become a holy temple in the Lord.” Not only that, says Paul, they’re being “built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” That is, they are habitations of the divine. Similar imagery can be found in 1 Peter 2.
It’s an amazing image to ponder. First, one of the great themes running through the Bible storyline is that God looking for a home on earth. That’s what a temple is—the intersection point of heaven and earth. Second, Jews and Gentiles were notorious for not getting along. Many within each group harbored a deep resentment toward the other. So, how in the world would this new arrangement work? With such contempt and disgust close to the surface, how would they ever interact peacefully? Clearly it wouldn’t be easy. But here’s the little known secret: it wasn’t supposed to be easy. It’s not supposed to be easy today, either.
The church-as-temple image tells us that God is building a “house” for himself, and flawed believers are his construction materials. Yet, the whole project is for his glory, our good, and the Kingdom’s gain. It was Augustine who first described the church as “a hospital for sinners.” He went on to say it would be very strange if people were to criticize hospitals because their patients were sick. The whole point of the hospital is that people are there precisely because they’re sick and they haven’t yet fully recovered.
And so it is with believers today. Colin Smith has noted, “It’s hard enough for two sinners to make a good marriage. So how much harder is it for 200 sinners or 2,000 sinners to make a good church?” Indeed, Scripture says when we see Christ, “we will be like him,” but until that time comes, we are like a building under construction. Construction is messy. Construction sites are muddy. The construction process can look like chaos. But the mess of construction means the Builder is at work, and the blueprint is being followed. As renowned theologian R. C. Sproul has said:
“The Christian church is one of the few organizations in the world that requires a public acknowledgement of sin as a condition for membership. In one sense, the church has fewer hypocrites than any other institution because, by definition, the church is a haven for sinners. If [we] claimed to be an organization of perfect people, then [our] claim would be hypocritical. But no such claim is made by the church. There is no slander in the charge that the church is full of sinners. Such a statement would only compliment the church for fulfilling her divinely appointed task.”
So, what is God up to in the building of his living temple, whose very stones are flawed from the get-go? That’s what we explore together in this message.
My birth certificate has always been as mysterious as President Obama’s. There are, to be sure, a lot fewer people in the world who are interested in my birth certificate than there were in his. Still, mine is crazy. For starters, there were three originals, and they all had different birth dates (March 30, March 31, and April 1). Second, the named father is not my biological father but the man who would have been my stepfather. And, third, a new birth certificate had to be issued after the “Decree of Abandonment” was signed by a Montgomery County judge:
“The court…finds that Henry Morucci [yes, that was my given name, but you’re not allowed to call me that!] was abandoned by his father…immediately following his birth and delivery of custody to the Children’s Aid Society of Montgomery County, he never having seen the child, and after having been contacted by the Children’s Aid Society of Montgomery County showed no further interest or desire to contact, see, or know the child in any manner whatsoever.”
That’s kind of cold to read, even after all these years. But the good news is that a completely different birth certificate was issued 13 months later when I was adopted by Carl and Cherie Valentino of Reading, Pennsylvania. Another signature by the judge—this time on a “Decree of Adoption”–changed everything:
“Hereafter the said Henry Morucci shall be in law the adopted child of the petitioners and shall have all the rights of a child and heir of the petitioners, and shall be subject to the duties of such child, and your petitioners further pray that the said child shall be known as Timothy Ray Valentino.”
If the decree of abandonment is a source of coldness, the decree of adoption is a source of comfort. In one single day, I got a new name, a new home, a new set of relatives, a new inheritance, and a new hope. In one single day, I got a whole new family!
So it is spiritually with the followers of Christ. The church in Scripture is referred to repeatedly as a “family.” That is, at one time we were spiritual orphans, but now in Christ we have been adopted as his children. And that changes everything.
Adoptions are expensive, and Jesus paid for ours on the cross with his own blood. In the process, we gained many spiritual relatives and a new spiritual inheritance. That’s a tremendous blessing and a tremendous challenge at the same time. In the end, we are reminded in this message that the church of Jesus Christ is a family of believers. Be a good brother or sister in the family!
Albert Einstein famously said, “Question everything,” but it was Jesus who practiced what Einstein preached. Contrary to popular assumptions, Jesus was not a robotic Answer Man; he was more like the Great Questioner. According the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), Jesus asks over 300 questions during his earthly ministry. Surprisingly, he answers only three. That’s quite a ratio, but it aligns with the m.o. of Yahweh in the Old Testament. God was known for asking his people lots of questions, too. Like Father like Son.
Now, if omniscience asks questions, it’s not to ellicit information; it’s to reveal it. In everyday life, our responses to the questions put to us have a way of exposing our hopes, fears, values, passions, and aspirations. They unveil our muddled thinking and our gaps in understanding. They demonstrate our innovation and creativity. They uncover our souls, for as Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).
Asking questions can unlock learning and enhance interpersonal bonding, provided they’re not impossible “gotcha” questions designed to intimidate or humiliate (e.g., “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?”). Jesus doesn’t work for cable news. He works for his heavenly Father, who deeply desires a relationship with every human being, his highest order of creation. Since relationships by nature are dynamic and reciprocal, questions are part of the interaction between God and humanity. There’s give-and-take and back-and-forth—a rhythm of geneuine conversation allowing both parties to play the role of a subject, not merely an object.
Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John have noted, “The wellspring of all questions is wonder and curiosity and a capacity for delight. We pose and respond to queries in the belief that the magic of a conversation will produce a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Sustained personal engagement and motivation—in our lives as well as our work—require that we are always mindful of the transformative joy of asking and answering questions.”
God doesn’t ask questions because he needs to know. He asks questions to reveal and relate. Yes, we might have some questions for God in the life to come—who doesn’t?—but God has some questions for us in the life we have right now. Why not spend some time relating to him over some of the questions he’s already asked?
Questions God may ask us about our EMOTIONAL life.
“Why are you angry?” (Gen 4:6b)
“Why are you crying?” (John 20:15b)
“If even the smallest things are beyond your control, why are you anxious about the rest?” (Luke 12:26)
Questions God may ask us about our THOUGHT life.
“Have you never read the Scriptures?” (Matt 21:42a)
“Why are you thinking such things in your heart?” (Mark 2:8b)
“Do you not yet understand?” (Matt 16:8)
“Are even you likewise without understanding?” (Mark 7:18)
Questions God may ask us about our PHYSICAL life.
“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (1 Cor 6:19a)
“Do you want to be well?” (John 5:6b)
Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? (Isaiah 55:2)
“What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:36a)
Questions God may ask us about our INTERPERSONAL life.
“What are you discussing as you walk along?” (Luke 24:17)
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man?” (Luke 10:36a)
“And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8b)
“If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?” (Matt 5:46)
Questions God may ask us about our SPIRITUAL life.
“Where are you?” (Gen 3:9)
“Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” (Gen 3:11b)
“Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen 18:14)
“What is your name?” (Gen 32:27a)
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do what I command?” (Luke 6:46)
“Do you love me?” (John 21:16)
Questions God may ask us about our MISSIONAL life.
“Whom shall I send?” (Isa 6:8b)
“What is that in your hand?” (Exod 4:2b)
“How many loaves do you have?” (Mark 8:5)
“Are there not twelve hours in a day?” (John 11:9)
“Do you see this woman?” (Luke 7:44b)
Maybe the most all-encompassing question God could ask us is this one: “Where have you come from, and where are you going?” (Gen 16:8b). Certainly the most important question he could ask was raised by his Son, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt 16:15). The two questions are actually related.
So, grab a cup of coffee, pull up a seat, and “have a little talk with Jesus,” as the old gospel song puts it.
One of the most tragic changes Christianity has experienced in the last 50 years is the minimizing of the centrality of the local church in the life of believers. The Lord’s Day used to be considered sacred. It was dedicated to the worship and service of God, but now it’s treated like any other day. And local church life, which was once considered indispensable to the Christian life, is now treated like an extra-curricular activity rather than an essential part of our spiritual formation.
In his book, Set Apart: Calling a Worldly Church to a Godly Life, Kent Hughes presents six images describing today’s “de-churching” trends—trends that are held even by those who wish to retain some sort of connection to the historic Christian faith:
Cafeteria (or Consumer) Christianity
It’s hard to square these images with the lofty vision of the church found in the New Testament. In 1 Peter 2:4-12, for example, the Apostle Peter sets his sights extremely high. He writes to 1st-century believers about their continued need for Jesus, their continued need for each other, and their continued need for a genuine spiritual commitment. He knows they won’t make it or be effective in this world without these three things. In this message, we learn that the people of God are living stones being built together by Jesus Christ to reverse a crumbling world. Masonry imagery is used to describe both Christ and the church he is building:
Jesus is the living stone. (4a)
Jesus is the rejected stone. (4b, 7a)
Jesus is the chosen stone. (4c, 6a)
Jesus is the precious stone. (4d, 6a)
Jesus is the cornerstone. (6a, 7a)
Jesus is the capstone. (7b)
Jesus is the stumbling stone. (8)
Jesus is the coming stone. (12)
To the masonry image, Peter adds the temple and priesthood metaphor in his description of the church:
We are living stones. (5a)
We are a spiritual house in progress. (5b)
We are worshippers with direct access to God. (5c)
We are a chosen people. (9a)
We are a royal priesthood. (9b)
We are a holy nation. (9c)
We are a people belonging to God. (9d)
We are a people of praise. (9e)
We are a people called out of darkness into light. (9f)
We are the recipients of divine mercy. (10)
We are aliens and strangers in the world. (12)
Peter cites numerous Old Testament passages to make his case. He calls the people of God to live good lives and subdue the war around us (v. 12). But for that to happen, the church must also live godly lives and subdue the war within us (v. 11). The challenge is great, which is why drive-through Christianity doesn’t cut it.
Ever since Genesis 3, it has been hard for people to get along. We’re all so different, and, because of our fallenness, those differences can annoy us, threaten us, and make us suspicious of one another. In jealousy, envy, and pride, we tend to think, say, and do nasty things to each other, making life unpleasant at times.
In the first century, there were two groups of people who didn’t get along very well—Jews and Gentiles. The Jews were descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. The Gentiles were everybody else. Both latent and overt hostility marked their relationship over the centuries. Paul addresses that enmity in Ephesians 2, and he talks about what God has done to rectify it. The solution he offers is still relevant today because the world is more polarized now than ever. In recent years we have witnessed a growing hostility between races, classes, genders, and political parties. The tension is exhausting and disillusioning.
How can God take widely diverse and disparate people and put them successfully into one new group? Paul’s answer is Jesus. Why? Because “he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace” (Eph 2:14-15).
Paul argues that the source of alienation between Jew and Gentile—God’s law—was put on the shelf (2:15a) because the source of reconciliation—God’s Son—was put on the cross (2:13b, 16b). Human beings may be hostile to each other, but God treated his perfect Son as if he were all the world’s hostility rolled into one. And when Christ died on the cross, the Father regarded the hostility itself as having died, too. God’s purpose was to create one new humanity out of the two—a horizontal hostility replaced with horizontal peace (2:15b).
The result is that irreligious people (like the Gentiles, who thought they are “far off”) can now hear and believe the gospel of peace (2:17a). Religious people (like the Jews, who thought they are already near) can hear and believe that same gospel (2:17b). All are “far off” because of sin, but all can “draw near” now because of Jesus. God is wise in this regard. All who draw near to him wind up drawing near to each other, too. Indeed, the only way to fully experience the God who is community is to participate fully in his new community—the church.
That’s not always easy because we’re all different. But believers who draw near to God bear the marks of unity in diversity. That’s why Paul cites the Trinity two times in this passage (2:18, 22). God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are the ultimate model for the church—a community of truth, love, and unity in diversity.
What on earth is the church, and why are we here? All authoritative answers to these questions must begin with Jesus, who said, “I will build my church” (Matt 16:18). Since the church is his church, and he is building it, there’s no better place to begin our inquiry than Christ himself. Therefore, in part 1 of this series, we focus on Jesus’ two uses of the word “church” in the Gospel of Matthew, along with its Old Testament background. His first reference speaks of “the Church Universal,” and his second reference speaks of “the Church Local.” What do these expressions mean, and how do they relate?
Quite significantly, the Hebrew word qahal denotes an assembly of Israelites, especially when gathered before the Lord as a “saved” or “rescued” covenant people. When the Greek Old Testament (called the Septuagint) translates qahal, it uses the word ekklesia, which means “group,” “assembly,” “community,” or “congregation.” In secular usage, it meant the gathering of people at a town hall meeting. In sacred usage, it meant the gathering of believers for worship, prayer, and mission.
In our day, the word ekklesia comes into English as “church,” which always refers in Scripture to a “saved” or “rescued” covenant people, never to a building. Let that sink in for a moment. The church of Jesus Christ, according to the New Testament, is a people, not a building. It is people that Christ is building.
As suggested by Jesus’ two uses of the word ekklesia, “the Church Universal” refers to the community of all true believers in every age and in every place. By contrast, “the Church Local” is a community of professing believers at a certain time and in a certain place. The rest of the New Testament bears out this important distinction.
At its most basic level, then, the church of Jesus Christ is a community of believers rescued from sin and released for service. It’s God’s new society. And it’s still very much alive around the world today. No, it’s not yet perfect, but it is perfectible, and it will be perfect when Christ has finished his building.
If you knew that you were going to die tomorrow at 3 p.m., what would you do tonight at 9 p.m.? Who would you be with? How would you spend your time? What would be the final memory you give yourself before stepping into eternity? That’s the situation we find in John 13-17, the account of Jesus and his disciples in the Upper Room.
Jesus knows he’s going to die in about 18 hours. He doesn’t have the privilege of ignorance like we do when it comes to our own departure. Most people don’t usually know when they’re going to breathe their last, but Jesus knows exactly when he’s going to die. He also knows that he’ll be betrayed by one of his followers. He knows he’ll be unjustly tried and rejected by his own people. He knows he’ll be mocked, flocked, and crucified like a common criminal.
In the face of such an ordeal, Jesus decides to spend his last night with his closest friends. He wants to be with them so he can prepare them for his absence. To that end, he will teach them, encourage them, love them, and pray for them. Yes, pray for them! What must it have been like to be the subject of Jesus’ prayer? Many people have heard of the Lord’s Prayer, but John 17 records the Lord’s Prayer for us—not the prayer we pray to him but the prayer he prays for us, his followers. The prayer unfolds in three segments:
In vv. 1-5 , Jesus prays for himself.
In vv. 6-19, Jesus prays for his first-century disciples.
In vv. 20-24, Jesus prays for his future disciples.
Speaking to the heavenly Father, Jesus says, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20-21).
If you are a follower of Christ, be encouraged by the fact that you were on the Lord’s heart and mind the night before he was executed. Moreover, Jesus has not stopped praying for you. Hebrews 7:25 teaches that Jesus “ever lives to make intercession” for his people. What that means for us today is that the Christ to whom we pray is also praying for us. Naturally, we can conclude that the prayers of Jesus work! They get through. They get the job done. James 5:16 says, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective,” and they don’t come any more righteous than Jesus. He was the sinless Son of God!
While the text of Jesus’ prayer is virtually inexhaustible, this particular message focuses on WHY Jesus prays for his followers (17:6-11a) and WHAT Jesus prays for his followers (17:11b-24). It can be a tremendous source of encouragement for believers to know that Jesus is praying for us at this very moment.
Christians sing it every Christmas season, even though it’s not primarily a carol about the birth of Jesus. It’s much broader than that. The words are familiar to believers in English-speaking countries:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come Let earth receive her King Let every heart prepare Him room And heaven and nature sing
Joy to the world, the Savior reigns Let men their songs employ While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains Repeat the sounding joy
He rules the world with truth and grace And makes the nations prove The glories of His righteousness And wonders of His love
So wrote Isaac Watts, who lived from 1674 to 1748. Significantly, his inspiration for “Joy to the World” was not Luke 2 but Psalm 98. In fact, Watts himself said, “I have formed out of the 98th Psalm…what I esteem to be the first and chief sense of the Holy Scriptures.” In other words, it’s all here—the whole gospel, the overarching message of Scripture, and it leads to jubilant worship. Historically, the church has called Psalm 98 the Cantate Domino (“O Sing to the Lord”). Similar to Psalm 96, it calls for jubilant praise to God, and it provides a compelling rationale.
Psalm 98 divides nicely into three stanzas. In the first stanza, the author instructs the people of God to worship the Lord because he has been a GREAT SAVIOR (vv. 1-3). “Sing to the Lord a new song,” he writes, “for he has done marvelous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.” Over the centuries, Yahweh has been to Israel “the God of rescue,” most prominently in the great exodus from Egypt and the great return from exile in Babylon.
In the second stanza, he tells the covenant people to worship the Lord because he is the REIGNING KING (vv. 4-6). He writes, “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music…shout for joy before the Lord, the King” (v. 4, 6). Moreover, all kinds of instruments are to be used to supplement the music and shouts in order to celebrate the King (vv. 5-6).
In the third stanza, the author says to worship the Lord because he is the COMING JUDGE (vv. 7-9). As the Apostles Creed says, “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” Specifically, the psalmist calls for all of humanity and all of nature to celebrate this Judge and his coming judgment. But that’s what makes this composition seem a bit odd to us in our day. We don’t usually think of divine judgment as an event to be celebrated. Rather, we think of it as an event to be dreaded. Consequently, some people have dismissed the idea of an end-time judgment altogether. But that only leads to other problems we don’t like.
On the one hand, if there is no future judgment, what hope is there for the world? Evil stands, the scales of justice remain unbalanced, and all the horrors, abuse, and trauma inflicted on us during this life go unanswered. It is helpful to remember, however, that one biblical image of the future judgment is that God is the Judge, and we are the plaintiff. He hears our case. He rights the wrongs done to us. He satisfies our deep desire to have all things properly settled in the end.
On the other hand, if there is a future judgment, what hope is there for me? Haven’t I committed certain acts of evil during my life? Haven’t I transgressed God’s law at some point in time? Haven’t I committed sins against God and other people who are made in his image? If so, how can I escape the punishment due me? It is sobering to remember that one biblical image of the future judgment is that God is the Judge, and I am the defendant. The prospect of a cosmic trial, then, can be frightening.
But great relief can be found woven into the psalm itself, not to mention the trajectory it creates. There is hope for the world collectively and hope for me personally precisely because the coming Judge is also the historical Savior. In fact, the ultimate biblical image of the future judgment is that God is the Judge who has taken his people’s judgment himself. It’s the picture of a judge pronouncing the sentence, and then coming down off the bench to take the sentence he just imposed so the guilty party doesn’t have to. As Psalm 98 indicates, the Judge and the Savior are the same God.
When Mary, the mother of Jesus, learns that she will bear the Savior of the world, she hearkens back to portions of Psalm 98 (along with other sections of the Hebrew Bible).
Cantate Domino (Psalm 98)
Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1)
“Sing to the Lord a new song.” (1a)
“My soul glorifies the Lord.” (46)
“For he has done marvelous things.” (1b)
“The Mighty One has done great things for me.” (49)
“His right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.” (1c)
“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm.” (51)
“The Lord has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations.” (2)
“His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.” (50)
“He has remembered his love and his faithfulness to the house of Israel.” (3a)
“He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful.” (54)
In doing so, Mary alerts us to the intended fulfillment of Psalm 98 in her own Son, Jesus Christ—the Savior of the world to whom all final judgment has been committed (cf. John 5:22). The only way to celebrate the God of future judgment is to know him as the God of past salvation.Have you trusted Jesus Christ as your Savior—the one who has taken your judgment on the cross? If so, you have every reason to celebrate.
The account of Philip and the Ethiopian is one of the great conversion stories in the book of Acts. Luke, volume 2 records how Christianity took hold in the 1st century world—a culture that was as resistant to the gospel as ours is today. In chapter 8, we have the case of an African being converted to Christ. In chapter 9, we have the case of a Jew being converted to Christ. In chapter 10, we have the case of a European being converted to Christ. And that’s just the tip of the ethnic iceberg. These conversions show us that Christianity is transcultural. That is, the gospel is for everyone, regardless of nation, race, people, or tongue. The gospel is for everyone because everyone needs the gospel.
Philip shares this gospel, and the Ethiopian official accepts it, but neither of these figures is the hero of the story. Philip is an obedient servant, to be sure, and thank God for it. But he and the other deacons in Jerusalem aren’t sitting around figuring out where the gospel should go next. They’re not developing strategies based on logic and demographic studies. They’re not having an evangelistic thrust because of some great burden for the lost. Something else gets them moving in a missional direction. Neither is the Ethiopian official the hero of the story. He’s an interesting and sympathetic figure—a foreigner to Israel, a wealthy and educated man, a high court official back home, and a person truly hungry for God—a man who has traveled nearly 2,000 miles to the temple in Jerusalem to worship the God of the Hebrews! But he’s not the hero of the story, either.
The story doesn’t begin with Philip or the Ethiopian. This story, like every story of salvation, begins with God. Verse 26, 29, and 39 all indicate that the Lord is the causal agent of everything good that happens in this encounter. Specifically, it’s the Holy Spirit—the third Person of the divine Trinity—who’s the hero of this story. Indeed, the Holy Spirit is the hero of every conversion story. The Holy Spirit is the life of God on planet earth, accomplishing the divine will. God the Father is in heaven, seated on his throne, ruling the universe. God the Son is at his right hand, serving as High Priest and Advocate for his people. God the Holy Spirit is on earth—executing the plan and purpose of heaven.
God certainly uses his people to share the gospel with others, but it’s the Holy Spirit who’s prepared them to share it. And it’s the Holy Spirit who’s prepared people’s hearts to receive it. From beginning to end, then, it’s the Holy Spirit who orchestrates everything in a person’s conversion to Christ. That’s why churches must renew their dependence on the Holy Spirit for all that they do in seeking to fulfill the mission that God has given them. Including baptisms.
The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus can come across as elusive or even mysterious at times. Over the span of 40 days, the risen Christ shows up for a brief period, and then he’s gone without a trace. He appears in the flesh momentarily, but then he suddenly disappears. This dynamic raises the question, “Why does he linger?” We have 11 or 12 unique postmortem episodes recorded in the New Testament, but establishing a pattern or rationale for these “peek-a-boo” appearances can be a challenge. Their fleeting nature seems odd. Yet, upon closer examination, there are some clear indications of what Jesus may have been up to on this side of the empty tomb.
First, he appears to his friends, not his enemies. With the resurrection being the greatest “I told you so” in history, the rest of us may have been tempted to gloat in the presence of our enemies. Jesus’ character, however, does not allow for such a self-serving spectacle to take place. Second, he engages in conversation not just proclamation. With the resurrection being the greatest display of authority in history, we may have been inclined to do all the talking. Jesus certainly does some instruction, be he also gets other people talking, mostly about their hopes, fears, expectations, and disappointments. Indeed, he functions as a “Wonderful Counselor” (cf. Isa 9:6) after the resurrection. Third, he does what is needed on a case-by-case basis to help his friends believe in him. With the resurrection being the greatest display of power in history, we may have been predisposed toward belittling unbelief, but Jesus is “merciful to those who doubt” (Jude 22).
In Luke 24:36-49, Jesus labors to persuade his disciples that he really is back from the dead. He demonstrates that he is both a physical and a hyperphysical human being in his resurrection state. That is, there is both continuity and discontinuity between the body that went into the tomb and the body that came out. It really is Jesus, but now he’s a glorified Jesus. To convince the disciples of these realities, he eats in their presence and shows them his crucifixion wounds—something a spirit, ghost, or phantom would never be able to do. In his resurrected body, Jesus was scarred but healed, which provides an inspiring and hopeful lesson for us today: Like Jesus, believers can use their scars to advance the gospel. Because of the risen Christ, our mess can become our message, and our misery can become our ministry. Even our wounds can become trophies of his grace. In short, Jesus lingers because of love.
Jesus’ empty tomb sends people running on that first Easter Sunday. Everyone is dashing through the cemetery, but why? They’re running to find answers to their questions and help with their confusion. They don’t know why Jesus’ body is not where they had put it the day before. The confusion is understandable. If I were to go to the gravesite of my parents, and I saw nothing but a big hole in the ground with no vaults or caskets, I’d be asking questions, too.
So, the disciples are running around confused. Most of them are slow to believe in the resurrection—despite the fact that Jesus had said repeatedly it would happen. But here is the good news for them (and us): every time the risen Christ meets people after the resurrection, he helps them to believe in him. That’s amazing because the last time Jesus saw these guys in action, they were blowing it big time. They were denying and deserting him. But when Jesus finally appears to them face-to-face, there’s not a word of rebuke on his lips. Correction, yes, but not rebuke. Quite the opposite. He helps them believe.
In fact, the risen Christ deals with all of his followers personally and uniquely—according to their own needs, experiences, weaknesses, and hard-wiring. The attentiveness of Jesus to everyone in this story is remarkable. And what was true 2,000 years ago is still true today: Jesus gives people time and space to wrestle with—and then plenty of reasons to rest in—his resurrection from the dead. Consider the figures mentioned in John 20, and how Jesus interacts with them—both before and after his resurrection:
JOHN is the portrait of an EASY-COMING faith. His personal struggle seems to be, “I need significance in my life.” And John discovers that the risen Christ gives his people a new identity and purpose. PETER is the portrait of a GUILT-RIDDEN faith. His personal struggle seems to be, “I need forgiveness for my sins.” And Peter discovers that the risen Christ gives his people a new freedom and power.
MARY MAGDALENE is the portrait of a GRIEF-STRICKEN faith. Her personal struggle seems to be, “I need comfort for my despair.” And Mary discovers that the risen Christ gives his people a new intimacy and hope. THOMAS is the portrait of a SHOW-ME faith. His personal struggle seems to be, “I need irrefutable evidence to believe.” And Thomas discovers that the risen Christ gives his people a new assurance and confidence.
Because of his humility, Jesus does not coerce faith, but because of his authority, he deserves it. The risen Christ still gives open-minded and tender-hearted people what they need to believe in him. What is it that you still need to believe?
In his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus achieved something that God the Father recognized, namely, humanity’s sin crisis was rectified once and for all. To use longstanding theological categories, the atonement was objective (i.e., directed toward God), not merely subjective (directed toward humanity). The reason the atonement can be viewed objectively is because the New Testament presents Jesus as God’s acceptable representativeof—and chosen substitutefor—all humanity:
Christ died for the ungodly (Rom 5:6).
Christ died for us (Rom 5:8).
Christ died for our sins (1 Cor 15:3).
God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us (2 Cor 5:21).
…who gave himself for our sins (Gal 1:4).
…who gave himself for me (Gal 2:20).
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (Gal 3:13).
…who gave himself as a ransom for all (1 Tim 2:6).
Christ suffered for you (1 Pet 2:21).
Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous (1 Pet 3:18).
Historic Christian orthodoxy has largely understood the “for” in these verses as “in the place of.” That is, the atonement involved the substitution of Christ “for” or “in the place of” the sinner. As the old hymn by Phillip Bliss (1838-1876) puts it:
Bearing shame and mocking rude, In my place condemned he stood.
This essay seeks to explore the legitimacy of understanding substitution as one facet of the atonement diamond. As N. T. Wright said on a recent podcast, care must be taken when presenting the atonement in such a way. To paraphrase his comment, we preachers don’t want to find ourselves in a position of saying, “For God so hated the world that he killed his only Son.” Such a proposition would be a travesty, which is where we will begin our analysis.
The Cross—A Travesty of Justice?
Substitution is not the only legitimate image of the atonement, but it certainly is prominent in both the Old and New Testaments. An animal in the Garden of Eden dies so that Adam and Eve don’t have to. A ram in the thicket dies so that Isaac doesn’t have to. A Passover lamb dies so that the firstborn doesn’t have to. Two Yom Kippur goats die so that the nation of Israel doesn’t have to. The entire sacrificial system is built on the concepts of propitiation and expiation. Animal substitutes die so that humans alienated from God may live. In Jesus, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), animal sacrifices give way to the ultimate substitute, the Son of God (cf. Heb 10:4).
Nevertheless, this understanding of Jesus’ death has been widely criticized in recent years. The rationalistic Professor at Oxford University, Sir A. J. Ayer once called the idea of substitutionary atonement “intellectually contemptible and morally outrageous.” The common objection of unbelievers usually goes something like this: “I can’t possibly believe in a God who has to see blood before he can forgive sin.” To the contemporary mind, the very idea is offensive, disgusting, primitive, and obscene. Even believers, when we ponder the issues surrounding forgiveness via the cross, we have to admit it’s an extraordinary claim we’re making. In some ways, it’s scandalous (cf. 1 Cor 1:23).
That God should victimize the innocent Jesus in order to acquit the guilty sinner is seen to be a travesty of justice. It seems to attribute to the court of heaven a more monstrous corruption than the court of Pilate. At least Pilate resented the crowd’s cry to execute Christ rather than Barabbas. Even though he eventually yielded to it, he didn’t like it. But the Bible goes out of its way to suggest that God planned the cross as a similar kind of judicial exchange. Isaiah 53:10a says, bluntly, “It was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer.” Indeed, the whole thrust of Isaiah 53:4-6 features substitutionary language:
4 Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Victimizing the innocent in order to acquit the guilty—that’s what scandalizes people. But it’s not just unbelievers who make this objection anymore. In the last few decades, even some believers have begun to describe the concept of substitution as “divine child abuse.” As such, we can’t understand the cross as “penal substitution,” they say. That which is so predominantly advanced in Scripture has to be re-thought now because people don’t like it, and we’ve gotten it wrong for so long. Consequently, alternative views of the cross have been elevated in our day, including subjective or “moral influence” theories. Why? Because they’re far less offensive to contemporary sensibilities.
The Cross—Just an Example?
The purpose of the cross, they say, is for God to provoke some sort of emotional impact in us, or moral influence on us. In other words, when we look at the cross, we feel conscience-stricken about our failures, and we determine to live our lives as better people as a result. So, the cross is our example to live well and to do good. It’s our model for living a more selfless, self-sacrificial, and non-retaliatory life. That’s the purpose of the cross, it is proposed, and that’s why, ultimately, it “works.” That’s why God honored his Son’s sacrifice with a resurrection to follow.
There is indeed some truth to this view. Christ’s behavior on the cross is explicitly described as an example for believers in 1 Peter 2:21-23:
To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you anexample, that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.
When we look at the cross and see what Christ did there, we can’t help but be moved by the depth of his love and sacrifice on our behalf. It has emotional power in and of itself.
The Cross—More Than an Example
But the cross is much more than an example for humanity. Peter goes on to say of Jesus in the same passage, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet 2:24a). That is, he didn’t just die to show us how to live. Indeed, if the cross is not more than an example, then we have to conclude that Jesus saw his death as little more than a form of emotional blackmail. His intent was to get us to behave in a certain way by making us sad about his ordeal or sad about ourselves. Such a view, however, puts the cross of Christ into the same category as a political hunger strike.
Do we really want to suggest that Jesus intends to manipulate us into being better people by this kind of emotional lever—a histrionic gesture that achieves nothing but embarrassing those of us who have to watch it? If so, that could rightly be considered an immoral influence. Moreover, viewing the cross in this way not only reduces it to a form of crass manipulation, it renders the theory hopelessly incoherent. Yes, the death of Jesus can serve as an example to us, but the cross must first have a real (objective) value in order for it to have any personal (subjective) value. Why is this the case?
Imagine seeing a man standing on top of a tall building, and hearing him yell, “I love you all, and to prove how much I love you, I’m going to jump from this building and die for you.” Would you go home saying, “Wow, I saw a most wonderful demonstration of love today”? Or, “I saw a man die for me today”? No, you’d go home saying, “I saw a mentally disturbed man jump to his death today. How sad.” And you’d be right, because unless some objective benefit flows out of that death to somebody else, it can’t be considered a moral example. It is more rightly considered a tragic display of lunacy. On the other hand:
If I were drowning out in the middle of a frigid lake, and somebody jumped into the icy water to save me, drowning in the process himself, then I can rightly say, “He died for me.”
Or if I were a terminal cardiac patient in a hospital and needed a transplant, and someone stepped in and said, “I’ll give you my heart so that you can live,” then I can rightly say, “He died for me.”
Or if I were on death row expecting execution at dawn, and someone stole into my cell the night before and said, “I’ll take your place on the gallows tomorrow,” then I can rightly say, “He died for me.”
There has to be some real situation of danger in which I am placed, and some real, objective benefit flowing to me out of the other person’s death. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense to say that the other person died for me. In the same way, we can only have a subjective view of Jesus’ death if there’s an objective benefit preceding it. Otherwise, the death of Christ for me is incoherent.
The Cross—Where the Punishment Really Falls
Still, people object to this view of the cross—that it was a substitutionary sacrifice—because they think it portrays God as a spiteful and ruthless monster. He comes across as a deity who punishes an innocent third party in order to satisfy his insatiable lust for revenge that he has somewhere in his heart. He’s like a rogue soldier who executes innocent civilians who aren’t even part of the battle. We’re outraged when something like that happens, and rightly so. Punishing the innocent is no virtue.
Those who criticize an objective, substitutionary view of the cross say it portrays God like that—punishing an innocent third party so that the guilty can go free. But that’s a caricature and gross misrepresentation of what the Scriptures teach. According to the New Testament, and according to Jesus’ own self-understanding, Christ is not a third party. Of course God could not take an innocent man and arbitrarily make him a substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of the world. That would have been a total miscarriage of justice. But what the New Testament dares to suggest to us is that at the cross, God did not arbitrarily punish an innocent third party; he deliberately punished himself.
Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Jesus said, “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30). Jesus is called, “Emmanuel,” God with us—God in human flesh (Matt 1:23). So, Jesus is not some innocent third party. He’s innocent, all right, but he’s not a third party. He’s the first party. Consequently, when we look at the cross, we shouldn’t think of Jesus as being there doing all the work in isolation, with God the Father being somewhere far away—totally disinterested in what’s happening, or totally unaffected by it (cf. Hos 11:8c). No, Paul said that at the cross, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19; cf. Gen 15:17-18a).
The Father was right there “taking it on the chin,” so to speak, as his own Son bled and died for humanity. God in Christ took full responsibility for human sin, even though it obviously wasn’t hissin. That’s why Acts 20:28 refers to “God’s own blood.” In God’s mind, divine blood shed is the price required for divine forgiveness granted. God did not sweep humanity’s sins under the rug, he swept them onto his Son—with his adult Son’s permission (cf. John 12:27; Mark 14:32-42; Matt 26:52-54; Heb 10:5-7). This can hardly be considered divine “child abuse.” It’s more akin to the brave and noble soldier going off to war and giving his life in battle for the sake of his fellow citizens.
The Cross—God’s Instrument of Reconciliation
We sometimes assume it should be easy for God to forgive sin. After all, when does God ever have to break a sweat to do anything? Besides, isn’t it God’s job to forgive sin? It’s just what he does, right? God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Why then can’t he likewise say, “Let there be forgiveness,” and there is forgiveness? In short, why is forgiveness not by divine fiat?
Historically, the former statement, “Let there be light,” has always been seen as entailing no breach of God’s nature or ways. God is creator, and God is light. The latter statement, however, “Let there be forgiveness,” has often been seen as entailing a potential violation of at least some aspect of God’s nature and ways. God is holy, so sin must be punished. God is love, so sin must be pardoned. Herein lies the dilemma, and one that doesn’t seem to have an easy resolution. God must always be true to his own nature; otherwise, he cannot be God.
So, in the end, will God’s justice lead to the condemnation of sinners, or will God’s grace lead to the forgiveness of sinners? Is there a way for God to cut this Gordian knot, admittedly of his own making (by virtue of the fact that he created a race he knew would rebel against him)? Is there a morally acceptable way for him to separate sinners from their sin so that he can judge the sin while sparing the sinner—thus keeping all his attributes perfectly intact?
However the issue is resolved, one can surely say that if forgiveness is by divine fiat alone, it renders the cross of Christ little more than a foolish waste. As Paul writes (in a related but slightly different context), “If righteousness could be attained through the law, then Christ died for nothing” (Gal 2:21). That the eternal Son of God should come to earth and deliberately squander his life in crucifixion—which he had the power to prevent—for no objective gain or benefit is unthinkable.
It appears, then, that there is a divine necessity to the cross. Hebrews 8:3 says, “Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one [Jesus] also to have something to offer.” Moreover, Hebrews 9:23 says, “It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these” (Heb 9:23). In God’s mind, the cross of Christ was objectively essential to the full grant of divine forgiveness.
But how does the cross of Christ effect the final atonement that God accepts? How and why does the cross “work”? The dilemma is acute. If God overlooks evil, it’s as good as saying morality doesn’t matter in his universe after all. His righteousness would be undermined by his own neglect and inconsistency. Moreover, God would be open to the charge of moral apathy. But that is an accusation God cannot allow to pass unchallenged. His moral consistency must remain flawless and unimpeachable. He must always act justly, or the very idea of righteousness loses its meaning.
And that is why forgiveness can be said to be “difficult” for him—if we dare speak of deity in such terms. Forgiveness is “difficult” precisely because it is not easily distinguishable from moral indifference. How could one tell the difference between a God who forgives sin and one who couldn’t care less about it? If goodness is to mean anything in his universe, it is absolutely necessary that God’s righteousness should be beyond dispute. God must, in some way, dissociate himself personally from evil in this world. He must make a clear stand against it. If he doesn’t, then all moral standards and values are themselves called into question. So, how is forgiveness possible if God is to remain righteous? It is possible because no dilemma is bigger than God. Consider a similar dilemma in earthly terms.
Jack and Jill were married. They had been living together for several years, and everything seemed perfect. But then along came Joe, a blond-haired, blue-eyed, muscle-bound boy with an English accent and a bronze tan. Jill became infatuated with him, so one day, quite suddenly, she walked out and left her husband Jack so she could go be with Joe. Six months passed—six months in which Jack spent a good deal of time weeping inconsolably. But eventually, he pulled himself together. He decided that he was better off living alone and tried his best to put Jill out of his mind.
Then, as suddenly as Jill had departed, there she was again—on the doorstep now, luggage in hand. Things hadn’t worked out with Joe. She discovered that her English hunk had a mean streak and a wandering eye, so the infatuation fizzled. She wanted to apologize to Jack and make amends. She wanted things to go back to the way they were. She wanted to come home. All this she communicates to Jack while standing on the stoop.
The question at this point is this: “What is Jack going to do?” What would you do? It’s possible that Jack’s love for Jill has died—murdered by the cruel stab in the back of her betrayal and desertion. Perhaps he now just feels emotionally numb to the relationship. If so, his reaction to Jill’s appeal is going to be one of total indifference. “Well, you can come in and collect the rest of your stuff if you want, but that’s it. I couldn’t care less about you or anybody else anymore. I’m done with women. I’m done with marriage. I just want to be left alone.”
Another possibility is that Jack is still fuming with inner rage, his sense of honor scalded by his wife’s callous infidelity. If that’s the situation, he might well lose his temper and scream, “How dare you come back to me! Get out, you wretched woman! I don’t ever want to see you again! Go to hell!” Both scenarios are real possibilities.
But what if Jack’s love for Jill is still burning within his heart? What if he has long dreamed of their reconciliation? What if he wants to be with her again? How would he react then? He can’t fake indifference; he cares about her too deeply. He can’t pretend he isn’t angry, because he is, and he has every right to be. Yet, he can’t tell Jill to get lost either, because he desperately wants her to stay. So, what does he do?
For Jack to be true to himself, he has to say something like this: “I still love you, Jill. And I do want you back. I’ve longed for you to come back. In fact, it’s my heart’s desire that we be together again. But you have to understand how much you’ve angered me and hurt me by what you’ve done. Your betrayal caused me deep personal pain and great public humiliation. I was devastated by it. And I’ve never felt so dishonored in all my life. You really hurt me.”
If there is to be any chance of their relationship being restored, Jack must find the inner resources to absorb the injury that Jill has inflicted on him. His love must be large enough to overcome his indignation. His grace must be deep enough to swallow his own dishonor. His mercy must be great enough to accept the pain associated with extending the hand of reconciliation toward his wayward wife. For Jack to forgive Jill, he has to be willing to suffer whatever pain there may be in not exacting vengeance, drinking instead the bitter cup himself.
While this may not be a perfect illustration, according to the New testament, something like that is happening on the cross. We have deserted God, as Jill had deserted Jack. We have angered God as Jill had angered Jack. We have dishonored God as Jill had dishonored Jack. We have broken God’s law, and, more to the point, we have broken his heart. We have sinned against him—every one of us. And, as a result, God could have turned the cold shoulder of indifference toward us. Or he could have, with perfect justice, vented his wrath toward us and told us to go to hell.
But here is good news that spells hope for the world. God’s divine heart yearns for reconciliation. He does not want to give us up (cf. Hos 11:8), so he says to humanity, “I love you, and I want you back. My deepest desire is that we have a true and lasting relationship once again. I want genuine reconciliation. But you have to realize how much you’ve dishonored me by what you’ve done. That’s all I ask. Just come back to me humbly, and grace will be yours in abundance—and we can be together again. I am willing to swallow the pain myself to make it happen.”
Do we realize the cost of human reconciliation with God? Do we need to see it spelled out in dramatic form? If so, look at the cross, for it’s there we see the God of the universe allowing his heart to be ravaged by the sin of this world. There we see the cataclysmic collision of divine attributes—holiness and love, justice and mercy, righteousness and grace—all resolving themselves in mutual satisfaction until there is a just and settled peace in the violent death of his beloved Son.
When we look at the cross, no one can accuse God of moral indifference now. As Paul argues in the book of Romans, the cross of Christ demonstrates the righteousness of God, not simply the grace of God. All things are properly settled now. As gruesome as it may be to consider, the bruised and bleeding Jesus—humanity’s perfect substitute—became the focal point of God’s revulsion toward sin. Here, then, is the gospel at its core. For those who embrace Jesus as their substitute, no divine revulsion remains. Humanity’s sin crisis has been rectified once and for all.
Conclusion: The Death of Christ—It Is For Us
On one occasion, Jesus said to his disciples, “Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Additionally, the Apostle Paul wrote, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). The cross, then, is good news for a fallen race. A great transaction took place there that God the Father accepted. He planned it, authorized it, carried it out, and honored it. That transaction is this: God treated Jesus as we deserved so that he could treat us as Jesus deserved.Whatever else the cross may entail, it surely entails the concept of substitution. As Charitie Lees Bancroft (1841-1892) wrote:
When Satan tempts me to despair And tells me of the guilt within Upward I look and see Him there Who made an end of all my sin Because the sinless Savior died My sinful soul is counted free For God the just is satisfied To look on Him and pardon me
Luke Garrett (1959-2016) captured the same theological truth in his song, “Wondrous Exchange”:
The victim on a cross of execution The Lamb of God that sacrificed his life And the sky grew dark, and the rain poured down The price of my redemption was so high
For on that hill was done the great transaction As God paid out the ransom for my sin I can walk away; I am truly free From the prison and the hell my life had been
A wondrous exchange A wondrous exchange An offer so great I can scarcely believe His crown for my shame His loss for my gain His death for my life What a wondrous exchange
The objective dimension of Christ’ redeeming work on the cross opens up a wide variety of legitimate subjective expressions of its efficacy and impact on believers and their spiritual lives.
In his book The Cross of Christ, John R. W. Stott (1921-2011) writes, “I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross.’ In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?” In similar fashion, Edward Shillito (1872-1948) wrote in his poem “Jesus of the Scars”:
The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak; They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne; But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak, And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.
Finally, the subjective impact of Christ’s objective atonement is illustrated well in the famous hymn by Horatio Spafford (1828-1888), “It Is Well with My Soul”:
My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought— My sin, not in part but the whole, Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
The atonement is objective before it is subjective—and that is precisely what gives its subjective dimension so much power for the church in every age. Because Jesus is our substitute, we love him and want to follow his example.
Image Credits: gettyimage.com; gerhardy.id.au.
Parts of this essay were informed by the writings of John Stott, William Lane Craig, Roy Clements, and others who have written on atonement theory.
In preparing his people for their exodus from Egypt, God instructed the Israelites to sacrifice an unblemished lamb and then apply some of its blood to the tops and sides of their doorframes. God told them, “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn—both men and animals—and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt” (Exod 12:12-13).
Those who applied the blood to their homes were spared divine judgment and free to leave for the Promised Land the next day. God’s dramatic rescue of his people from Egypt was the preeminent act of salvation in the Old Testament, and he had several intentions in the original Passover event: to be faithful to his covenant; to expose the false gods of Egypt; to judge the wickedness and injustice of Pharaoh; to protect his people and deliver them from slavery; and to memorialize his saving power, providing hope for future generations who would keep his covenant.
The entire Passover ceremony centered on a lamb—a very specific lamb that had to meet specific requirements. For example, it had to be: a lamb that is male; a lamb in its prime; a lamb thoroughly examined; a lamb without blemish; a lamb without broken bones; a lamb slain and roasted; a lamb sacrificed by all; a lamb offered at twilight; and lamb that served as a substitute—dying so that others might live. Moreover, all of it had to be eaten family-by-family, such that every time a household walked out of Egypt the next day, a complete lamb “inside them” came out, too. Upon their great deliverance, their calendar started all over again. In essence they got a new beginning in life: “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year” (Exod 12:2).
It was John the Baptist who saw Jesus by the banks of the Jordan River and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The Apostle Paul wrote, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7b). The Apostle Peter wrote, “You know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:18-19). Jesus is the new and greater Lamb for the new and greater Exodus—the exodus from slavery to sin. Indeed, Christ meets all the requirements of the Passover Lamb. He is:
The Lamb who is male
The Lamb in his prime
The Lamb thoroughly examined
The Lamb without blemish
The Lamb without broken bones
The Lamb slain and roasted
The Lamb sacrificed by all
The Lamb offered at twilight
Applying his blood by faith to the doorposts of our lives now gives a new calendar, beginning, a new life. And every time a church family walks out of a Eucharistic service, there’s one complete Lamb “inside them” that comes out with them. On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus said to his disciples, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:14-20). He then gave his followers the broken bread of his body, and the poured out wine of his blood. He knew at that moment what believers would eventually come to learn, that God’s judgment passes over believers because it fell on his Son. Jesus was totally consumed by his love for his Father and his love for his people.
The Exodus 12 passage contains an interesting progression. It refers to “…a lamb…” (vv. 3-4a), “…thelamb…” (v. 4b); and “…your lamb…” (v. 5). Perhaps you’ve recognized that Jesus is a Lamb. Great. Maybe you’ve even recognized that Jesus is the Lamb. Even better. But have you ever made him your Lamb by faith? That’s why he came—to be your exodus from bondage to sin. Receive him today by faith, and you will get a brand new start to a whole new life (John 3:3).
Yesterday we unveiled the new website for Christ Community Church, which can be found here. The site is about 85 percent complete. Pages still in production include the age-based ministries in the Connect section, as well as the Sermon Archive page, but I thought it best to roll out what we have now since people sometimes look for churches during Holy Week.
This is a most marvelous time of year for believers, isn’t it? I could hardly get out my opening prayer this past Sunday—Palm Sunday. To ponder the death of Jesus is to ponder the loving heart of God. Indeed, it was Jesus himself who connected the two: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16a). This divine giving encompassed the cross, which reduces us all before it raises us all. In fact, it’s that sense of unworthiness that drives us to grace, which we so desperately need from God.
During Holy Week, believers around the world give deep thought to the Passion (i.e., the sufferings) of Christ. Our purpose in doing so is not to be morbid, gruesome, or macabre but to increase our gratitude and enhance our devotion to God. It’s one of the ways we renew our minds (cf. Rom 12:1-2) and “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 3:18). In short, it’s part of our discipleship. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). The cross of Christ was never from Paul’s mind.
Believers are especially challenged when we realize that Jesus was tortured by religious people as well as irreligious people. Pious Jews and secular Gentiles both had a hand in his death. Believers and unbelievers alike totally missed the fact that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19) during Jesus’ execution. Therefore, it is the Christian believer as much as anyone who needs to contemplate the cross and, in the process, relinquish any sense of self-righteousness (cf. Phil 3:3-11).
So, in addition to playing lawyer over the past two months for the legal filings of the church, I’ve been building a website (using Divi by Elegant Themes on a WordPress managed site). The learning curve was steep at first, but then I finally got the hang of it and started having a blast. That’s why I’ve been off the grid lately, which I don’t like doing. I always love to read what my thoughtful friends are writing, especially this time of year, but the pile has been high.
Next up are Facebook and Instagram pages. Right after Holy Week.