Tuesday, April 7, 2015

In the Wake of the Resurrection

On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it! (Matthew 16:18)
In the Apostles’ Creed, the early Church confessed that Jesus “was crucified, dead and buried.” But that was not enough to describe what happened. The Creed goes one step further and affirms that he “descended into hell.” This was considerably more than being shrouded and entombed. The Greek word for “hell” is Hades and refers to the place of the dead. While the lifeless body of Jesus lay in the grace, his soul descended down to Hades. And what did he do there? Here is how Paul puts it in speaking of Christ’s ascension gifts to the Church:
But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.” What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe. (Ephesians 4:7-10)
Paul is referring to Psalm 68:18 and taking it as a pattern of what Christ had done. Before he ascended to the highest heavens, Jesus first descended to the lowest depths, that is, to Hades. However, he did not descend into hell as a captive but as a conqueror. He came to free the captives, and he did it by taking captive the captors.

Who were these captors who have now been made captives of Christ? They are the “principalities and powers” (the demonic forces that are behind ungodly kingdoms and cultures) whom Christ disarmed at the cross (Colossians 2:15). They are the works of the devil, which Christ came to destroy (1 John 3:8). It is the devil himself, who held the power of death (Hebrews 2:14). The power of death itself has been broken so that it no longer has its victory, and the power of sin, which is the sting that brought death in the first place, has been defeated (1 Corinthians 15:55-56).

All of this causes me to see Matthew 16:18 in a new light. Jesus announced to the disciples that he would build his Church, “and the gates of Hades will not overpower it!” How could they? For Christ has shattered the gates and stripped death and hell of their power. They cannot keep anything in, they cannot keep anything out. They cannot overpower the Church or keep it from plundering hell.

In the wake of his resurrection from the dead, Christ builds his Church, and the gates of Hades cannot prevent it. In the end, all things in heaven and on earth will be reconciled to God though him, and God will be all in all.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Good Friday Mindset

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:6-8)
Jesus was always God, even before he was Jesus — that is, even before he became human and dwelt among us. It was no contradiction for the eternal Son of God to pour himself out and become like you and me, for God is self-giving, not self-serving. That is his nature, for God is love. So, becoming human did not take away one bit from his divinity. Nor did it disguise his divinity. Rather, it revealed his divinity. After all, when God created humankind, he created us in his own image. And Jesus, in his humanity said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”

Nor was it a contradiction for Jesus to humble himself and become a servant, for God is love, and the nature of love is to give and to serve. It was the very thing he modeled for his disciples when he took up the basin and the towel and washed their feet on the night of the Last Supper, the night before he poured himself out on the cross.

Nor was it a contradiction for Jesus to become obedient to the point of death, even to such a cruel and horrible death as the cross. For God is love, and as Jesus himself said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Love has always been the heart and mind of God. It was the mindset of the Incarnation and also of that Good Friday. And it is the same mindset he invites us to share with him. Not only to experience the love of God by receiving but also to experience it by pouring it, and ourselves, out for each other. So, Paul exhorts us, in his letter to the Jesus followers at Philippi, “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.”

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Thunder from Heaven

Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.

Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:28-32)
The time of Jesus’ crucifixion was near, but he did not ask the Father to save him from it. Rather, he prayed, “Father, glorify your name.” That is what mattered to him more than anything else. (See Following Jesus Into Holy Week.)

Now came the answer, a voice from heaven: “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” Some heard it as thunder. Others thought maybe an angel. But it was the voice of the Father, and it came not for Jesus’ sake but for all those who were gathered around him. So Jesus explained the significance of it. It concerned what was about to happen and was very powerful in its scope.

Now is the time for judgment on this world. At the crucifixion, the world system of political and religious leaders thought it was judging Christ, but in reality Christ was judging the world. The Light of the World was judging the darkness of the world. The righteousness of Christ was judging the injustice of the world. The faithfulness of Christ was judging the faithlessness of the world. The self-giving love of Christ was judging the self-seeking of the world. And the life of Christ, through death on the cross, was judging the death that plagued the world. The judgment of God through Jesus Christ did not come to destroy the world but to save the world and set things right.

Now the prince of this world will be driven out. The “prince of this world” is the devil. Christ came to break the power of the devil (Hebrews 2:14) and destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). This happened at the cross. Through the cross, the apostle Paul tells us, Jesus has disarmed and defeated the principalities and powers, the demonic spiritual forces behind kings and cultures, and made a public spectacle of them (Colossians 2:15). The devil thought to drive Christ out of the world by putting him on the cross, but it is the devil himself who is being driven out, for Christ not only won the victory over the cross but also triumphs over death and the devil through the cross.

When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself. Here, we come around to what was the occasion for Jesus’ declarations in this passage. In John 12:20-23, there were some Greeks who had come into Jerusalem to worship God during the festival of the Passover. Though they might possibly have been Hellenized Jews, it is more likely that they were ethnic Greeks who were “God-fearers.” That is, they honored and worshiped the God of the Jews even though they were not converts to Judaism. These Greeks had heard about Jesus and desired to meet him. Philip and Andrew, two of Jesus’ disciples, came and told him. It was in reply to this request that Jesus spoke of all these things, concluding with the statement that when Jesus was lifted up (a reference to the crucifixion), he would draw all people to himself. It was not just for the sake of Israel and the Jews but for all people everywhere, including the Greeks who desired to meet Jesus.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Following Jesus Into Holy Week

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name! (John 12:23-28)
The time was now at hand for Jesus to be glorified. And he offered a parable concerning it, about a kernel of wheat. As long as the kernel is clinging to the stalk, holding on to its life as a seed, that is all it will ever be. But when the seed dies and lets go of itself it will, paradoxically, multiply. The life of the seed is transformed, becoming a plant that is the life of many other seeds.

If anyone loves his own life and his own glory at all costs, he is like a kernel of wheat that refuses to fall to the ground. He will end up losing his life anyway, and it will be for nothing. But anyone who “hates” the life of this present world and is willing to let it go will find that his life becomes something greater than he could have ever imagined — the life of the age to come.

The time was now at hand, and Jesus was willing to be like that kernel of wheat, to fall and die and bring forth new life for many. But now he turns it the parable around to his disciples, to all who have been following him, all who would come to him: “Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be.” The life of the seed that falls is multiplied and produces many seeds. Shall these seeds not fall also, for the sake of multiplying the life of the master even more? If we would be Jesus’ disciples, we must follow him even in this. We must let go of our own little idea of life and our own little glory so that his life in us may produce even more life. Then we will be like Jesus — where he is, we will be. To the extent we are willing to let go the life of this present age, we will begin to experience the life of the age to come.

And yet letting go of this present life is a troubling thing. There is something in us that wants to hold on to what we already think we know or see. To let go would seem to be to fall into a great abyss of the unknown. That is always the test for us. It was the test for Jesus, too. As he thought of what was about to happen, he was troubled by it. Something in his soul wanted to say, “Father, save me from this hour.” Yet there was also in him the realization that it was precisely for this hour that he came.

His prayer, then was “Father, glorify your name.” That is where Jesus’ own glory would be found, and ours, too. The hour for Jesus to be glorified had come, and it was just as much to be seen in the falling of the seed as in the multiplication of its life — in the cross as in the resurrection. And so it is for all who would follow him.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A Donkey, Not a Warhorse

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zechariah 9:9-10)
Messiah, Israel’s final king, would enter Jerusalem on … a donkey. This was not the ride for a head of state in those days. Former kings of Israel would ride mules but not donkeys. That might not seem like much of a difference to us today, but back then it was. The donkey signified humility, which is why the word “lowly” is paired with “riding on a donkey.”

Messiah would not come like other kings, with the trappings of earthly power, but with meekness — the gentleness born of strength. It would not be the strength of the warhorse but of justice and righteousness, and so would he be victorious, bringing salvation to his people.

The coming of Messiah was the coming of the kingdom of God and would deliver Israel from the exile and bondage she was now in. The chariots and warhorses that enforced her exile would be gone and the bow of battle broken. Then result would be peace, not only for Israel but for all the nations, for in the end, the rule of Messiah will extend all around the world.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem at the beginning of that final week, he chose to ride in on a young donkey. When his followers heard he was coming, the cut down palm branches and strew them in his path, which was traditionally a symbol of welcome but was also used to celebrate a great victory. They met Jesus with shouts of “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the king of Israel!” (John 12:13).

They were identifying Jesus as their Messiah King. Though many of them were likely expecting a great military victory to follow, Jesus fully understood that their victory and salvation would come by a different means, by the way of the cross.

The manner of Jesus’ warfare was quite unexpected. He allowed the Roman Empire, the Jewish leaders and the devil himself to do their worst upon him. He bore it all meekly and quietly. “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). Finally, death came and claimed victory over him.

All of that was in vain, of course. At the cross, Jesus disarmed all the “principalities and powers” (Colossians 2:15), the demonic influences that put him there. Through death, he broke the power of the one who holds the power of death, that is, the devil (Hebrews 2:14). Death itself has been defeated through Jesus’ death on the cross. God raised Jesus on the third day, “exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).

Every knee bowing and every tongue confessing Jesus the Messiah as Lord is the victory of the cross. And this victory is currently being worked out in the world as the kingdom of God continues to expand through the proclamation of the gospel. In the end, his peace will fill the whole earth.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Clearing the Temple

On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” (Mark 11:15-17)
In Holy Week, we commemorate the final week of Jesus’ ministry, leading us to Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Yesterday was Palm Sunday, and we remembered his entry into Jerusalem amid cries of “Hosanna” from the crowd of followers recognizing him as God’s messianic king. This is recorded in all four books of the Gospel — it is a significant event.

What happened next is also recorded in all four books, although John locates it differently from Matthew, Mark and Luke. It is the account of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple. Though often thought of as “cleansing” the temple, it is more about Jesus’ rejection of the temple and what it had become. Over the next few days, Jesus would foretell its destruction, in his teaching at the Mount of Olives (see Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21). In AD 70, both the temple and the city of Jerusalem were destroyed by the armies of Rome, fulfilling Jesus’ prophecy.

The temple was recognized as the place where God came to dwell among his people. It was where atonement for sin was made so that God’s people could enjoy fellowship and favor with him. For the Jews, the destruction of the temple would be tantamount to the end of the world. However, the temple and its leaders had become corrupt and no longer served their purpose. It was supposed to be a house of prayer where all the nations, not just Israel, could come and know God. In his rebuke, Jesus quoted from Isaiah 56, where the Lord says,
And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant — these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.
But now it had become a “den of robbers,” a phrase from Jeremiah 7, where the prophet denounced the people of Judah for trying to justify their detestable behavior by appealing to the temple, as if it were some sort of talisman:
Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever.

But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless. “‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, ‘We are safe’ — safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 7:4-11)
The “money changers” were merely an outward sign of the real problem, which ran much deeper. No one supposed that Jesus was simply clearing out a few bad apples. His action was a judgment on the failure of the temple system to be what God had intended, and a rejection of what it had become. No mere “cleansing” would do.

The Jewish leaders understood perfectly well what Jesus was doing. He was not just rejecting the money changers, he was rejecting them, too! And it was gaining traction with the people, who were amazed at Jesus’ teaching. So the chief priests and teachers of the law began looking for a way to kill him.

Before a generation passed, the Jerusalem temple, made with human hands, would be gone. But this did not mean that God would no longer have a dwelling place among his people. For the true temple of God was now in their midst. The Gospel of John picks up this theme very clearly from the beginning of the book, where it speaks of Jesus as the “the Word”:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. (John 1:1, 14)
Jesus himself is God dwelling among us! This is temple language. Even the Greek word for “dwelling” relates to the Old Testament language of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, the forerunner of the temple (see The Shekinah Dwelling).

Then in the second chapter of John, after the story of Jesus turning the water into wine, we find Jesus clearing the temple courts. Not surprisingly, this upset the Jewish leaders:
The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?”

But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken. (John 2:18-22)
In John 14, on the night of the Last Supper, before Jesus is taken away to be interrogated by Herod and Pontius Pilate and then led to the cross, Jesus speaks of God’s dwelling place not only with us but in us:
If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever — the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.

Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.

Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. (John 14:15-20, 23)
Here is the divine Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — making their home in us. This is intimacy with God that the temple at Jerusalem could never even come close to approaching.

When Jesus cleared the temple, he was not doing a bit of remodeling to the old place. He was clearing the way for the true temple of God to be revealed through the cross and the resurrection.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Prove Your Name Holy

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. (Matthew 6:9)
Israel had profaned the name of the LORD by breaking covenant with him, turning from his ways and worshiping false gods. The northern kingdom, Israel, ended up in Assyrian captivity and its tribes scattered or assimilated into the nations. The southern kingdom, Judah, was led off into Babylonian exile, which it endured for seventy years until many were allowed to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and the walls. Yet many others remained in exile and dispersed among the nations, although they retained their identity as Jews. However, even those who returned to Judea remained in a sort of exile, being ruled over by other nations and not by their own true king.

By the time Jesus came and began his ministry, Judea had long been under Roman rule and the Jews were waiting for the kingdom of God to come, although various groups had different ideas of how it would arrive and what it would look like. After his baptism and the temptation in the world, Jesus came preaching the gospel: “Repent for the kingdom of God has come near” (Matthew 4:17). That is what his “Sermon on the Mount” is about, to show what the kingdom of God looks like. Within that sermon, he teaches his people how to pray what is traditionally known as “the Lord’s Prayer.” It begins, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” — a very important petition.

The Greek word for “hallowed” means to render or acknowledge something as holy, to venerate it. To be hallowed, then, is to be acknowledged as holy. This first request is for God to cause his name to be recognized and honored as holy once again. It is a kingdom prayer, for it is exactly what God promised his people he would one day do when he set things right in the world. He spoke to them in their exile about the restoration he would bring. In Ezekiel 36, he spoke particularly about making his name holy before the nations.
Therefore say to the Israelites, “This is what the Sovereign LORD says: It is not for your sake, people of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Sovereign LORD, when I am proved holy through you before their eyes. (Ezekiel 36:22-23)
What God was going to do for them, he would do because of his name, not because of anything they had done to deserve it. For they had been faithless, yet God remains faithful. They had failed to keep his ways but God would do a new thing for the sake of his holy name, and it would make all the difference for his people as well:
For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. (Ezekiel 36:24-28)
The prayer for God’s name to be hallowed, then, is very rich and deep. It is no less than the kingdom of God being revealed, transforming his people and putting the world right. It is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah,
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6-11)

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Significance of the Angels

Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him. (Matthew 4:11)
After three failed attempts to ensnare Jesus, the devil left, having been sent away by him. Angels came and attended Jesus, ministering to his needs, for although he is fully divine, he is also fully human — that is part of the wonder of the gospel, a mystery that even angels long to witness. Jesus was weary and hungry, much in need of rest and refreshment. So the angels came.

Though it does not appear in the NIV translation, the Greek text has the words kai idou, “and behold,” especially alerting us to this angelic ministry. Their appearance in Matthew’s narrative of the Temptation is very significant. You will recall that one of the temptations had been for Jesus to cast himself off the high point of the wall that surrounded the temple complex. The devil’s reasoning was that, “He [God] will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” He was quoting Scripture, from Psalm 91, but he was using it wrongly. The promise there is for those who take their refuge in God, not for those who follow some other way, as the devil was trying to get Jesus to do.

But now, behold, the angels did come, sent by the Father to minister to Jesus’ needs. This shows that, yes, Jesus truly took his refuge in God and was walking in his way, and God did indeed command his angels concerning him.

Angels are messengers and ministers. The Greek word for “angels” is angelos and literally means “messenger.” The purpose of these holy messengers is not only to serve God but also watch over all who trust in him. For God gives them orders concerning us to take good care of us in everything that has to do with us. The book of Hebrews teaches us that angels are “ministering spirits sent to serve those who will receive salvation” (Hebrews 1:14).

God did not abandon Jesus in this time of temptation. Neither did the angels. They were always present, though not always apparent, and they ministered to Jesus when he was in need. They will likewise be present to minister to all who follow him.