Saturday, December 24, 2016

Mary’s Yes Changes the Whole World

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The angel Gabriel came to the little village of Nazareth, in Galilee, to a young girl named Mary. He had a wondrous announcement for her: “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked, “since I am a virgin?” It was not a question of doubt but of wonder, for Mary was a ponderer and thought deeply about things.

“The Holy Spirit will come on you,” Gabriel answered, “and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”

“Behold the maidservant of the Lord!” Mary said, “Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

Mary said Yes. She said Yes to the angel and his announcement, of course, but more than that, she said Yes to God the Father, who had sent the angel and shown her such favor. She said Yes to the Son, who would be conceived in her womb and to whom she would give birth. And she said Yes to the Holy Spirit, by whom this great miracle would happen.

Mary’s was a very powerful Yes , one that changes the whole world. For it is in her Yes — her faith-filled response to God’s Yes — that Christ received his humanity, so that God became flesh and dwelt among us. And it is by the humanity the Lord Jesus received from Mary that he has joined himself to us in our humanity — becoming not only one of us but one with us. It is through Mary’s Yes, then, that God has chosen us in Christ. That changes all of us and is what all creation is longing for.
The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. (Romans 9:19-22)
Through her Yes to God, Mary became the pathway for the God who became Man and who rescues the world through the cross and the resurrection. Because of Mary’s Yes to giving birth to the Lord of heaven and earth in a lowly stable, the birth-pangs of all creation will be fulfilled.

Merry Christmas to all creation.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

How God Chose Us in Christ

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Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will — to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. (Ephesians 1:3-6)
God chose us in Christ, Paul says. He chose us in him from before the world began. He chose us so that we could be his holy people, his special treasure, and blameless in his sight. He decided in advance (at least from our perspective) that in Christ he would adopt us as his very own children. This has always been his pleasure and purpose, his gracious and glory-revealing gift to us in Jesus Christ, so that, as the NKJV puts it, we are “accepted in the Beloved.” And in Christ, we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms. This is the exceedingly great reality God has given to us in Christ. (See, Chosen in Christ for the Unity of All Things.)

But how did it happen? How has God chosen us in Christ? By what means? It has nothing to do with what we have done. There is nothing we could ever have possibly done to make it so. It is purely something God has done for us, a gift of God’s grace, and it is this that we particularly celebrate at Christmastime. I am speaking of the Incarnation, which the gospel according to John puts this way:
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. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1, 14)
Jesus Christ is the Word — God himself — who became flesh. He did not just come and reveal himself to humanity, he became a human being. In becoming a human being, Christ did not become just one of us, he became one with us, for we are all connected in our humanity. In becoming a human being, then, God joined himself to all of humanity.

It is precisely because of this connection we share with each other that Paul could say, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). And, “Consequently, just as one trespass [Adam’s] resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act [Christ’s] resulted in justification and life for all people” (Romans 5:18).

This is the good news of the gospel. In the Incarnation, Christ has joined himself to us, and this changes everything. It means that when Christ died on the cross, we died there, too. Paul said, “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15).

The cross was the inevitable consequence of the Incarnation. When he who is infinite life joined himself to a humanity bent toward death, it could only ever result in resurrection. Christ’s connection to humanity also means that when he was raised from the dead, we were born again through his resurrection. The apostle Peter said, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3).

In Jesus Christ, God has become human. How can this not but transform all of humanity, like leaven in bread? That is how the kingdom of God works, and the leaven of God’s love.

Christ has irrevocably, inextricably entangled himself with all humanity — the Incarnation cannot be undone. O Glorious Entanglement that saves the whole world!

This is the joyful anticipation of Christmas.

Friday, December 9, 2016

A New Song for All the Earth

Sing to the LORD a new song;
    sing to the LORD, all the earth.
Sing to the LORD, praise his name;
    proclaim his salvation day after day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
    his marvelous deeds among all peoples.
(Psalm 96:1-3)
A new song has come into the world, a song that reveals God’s salvation come for all the nations, his glory made known throughout the earth. It is the sound of good news, of the coming of Christ. It is the song of the gospel, captured in three words: The Lord reigns. When this new song is sung, the world can no longer remain as it was, for the coming of the King changes everything.
Say among the nations, “The LORD reigns.”
    The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved;
    he will judge the peoples with equity.
Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
    let the sea resound, and all that is in it.
Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;
    let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
Let all creation rejoice before the LORD,
    for he comes, he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
    and the peoples in his faithfulness.
(Psalm 96:10-13)
In the coming of Christ, the world is set on a firm foundation, for he has disarmed the “principalities and powers,” the unjust authority and systemic evil that lies behind kings and cultures. Their power has been broken by the way of the cross and the life of the resurrection so that no one is obliged to honor them — we are free to live out this new life we have in Christ. For he has come to judge the earth, to heal, to cast out the demonic, to put things right, to make all things new. When he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is in his glory.

This is truly a cause for jubilation, not only for the nations but for the whole universe — cosmic celebration! Our English translations do not capture very well the wild exuberance of joy indicated in the Hebrew text: Let the heavens be lighthearted and merry. Let the earth spin for joy. Let the sea and everything in it roar with delight. Let the fields and everything in them jump for joy. Let all the trees of the forest let out with high-pitched shouts of joy. Creation itself is waiting for the full manifestation of our redemption in Christ.
For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. (Romans 8:19-21)
Even now, this new song is being sung, and has been since the first Christmas. In the season of Advent, we tune our hearts again to its sound that we may sing it afresh.

Joy to the World is a song for every season but has been especially celebrated at Christmas. Here is my arrangement, from my Christmas album, He Come from the Glory.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

All Nations Will Stream Into Zion

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God’s purpose for Israel was never just about the ethnic descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob only but for all the nations and families of the earth, as the poets and prophets of the Old Testament well understood. This understanding was heightened considerably in the New Testament, to such an extent that Paul considered it a mystery revealed in the gospel.
May his name endure forever; may it continue as long as the sun. Then all nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed. (Psalm 72:17)

I will record Rahab and Babylon among those who acknowledge me — Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush — and will say, “This one was born in Zion.” (Psalm 87:4)

Praise the LORD, all you nations; extol him, all you peoples. For great is his love toward us, and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever. Praise the LORD. (Psalm 117)

In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” (Isaiah 2:2-3)

They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious. (Isaiah 11:9-10)

The LORD will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God. (Isaiah 52:10)

This is what the LORD Almighty says: “Many peoples and the inhabitants of many cities will yet come, and the inhabitants of one city will go to another and say, ‘Let us go at once to entreat the LORD and seek the LORD Almighty. I myself am going.’ And many peoples and powerful nations will come to Jerusalem to seek the LORD Almighty and to entreat him.”

This is what the LORD Almighty says: “In those days ten people from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.’” (Zechariah 8:20-23)

Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 8:10-11)

Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved. (Romans 11:25-26)

For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written: “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing the praises of your name.” Again, it says, “Rejoice, you Gentiles, with his people.” And again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles; let all the peoples extol him.” And again, Isaiah says, “The Root of Jesse will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations; in him the Gentiles will hope.” (Romans 15:8-12, citing Psalm 18:49; Deuteronomy 32:43; Psalm 117:1; Isaiah 11:10)

I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness — the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Colossians 1:25-27)

For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles — Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 3:1-6)

The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. (Revelation 21:23-26)
In the end, the full number of the Gentiles will be grafted in and all Israel will be saved. All the world will know the salvation God brings, and God himself will say of each of us, “This one was born in Zion.”

Sunday, December 4, 2016

This One was Born in Zion

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He has founded his city on the holy mountain.
The LORD loves the gates of Zion
    more than all the other dwellings of Jacob.
Glorious things are said of you, city of God.
(Psalm 87:1-3)
The Lord loves the gates of Zion — the holy city of Jerusalem. Reading this through the New Testament revelation of Jesus the Messiah, that is, through the lens of Christ and the gospel, we understand Zion to be the new Jerusalem, the Jerusalem that is free, the Jerusalem that is above, the heavenly Jerusalem that comes down, joining heaven to earth (Galatians 4:26; Hebrews 12:22; Revelation 21:2). It is, in a word, the Church, the body and bride of Christ (understanding that the Church in the New Testament is not a separate entity from Israel in the Old Testament).

The psalm writer sings the praises of the holy city and of God’s love for her. The Lord has founded it on the mountain he has chosen for himself; Christ has built his Church upon the rock of who he is (Matthew 16:18). The Lord loves Zion; Christ loves the Church and gave himself for her (Ephesians 5:25). It is no surprise that glorious things are said about the city of God. What is surprising, though, is how the psalm writer describes that glory:
“I will record Rahab and Babylon
    among those who acknowledge me —
Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush —
    and will say, ‘This one was born in Zion.’” (v. 4)
Rahab? Babylon? Philistia? Tyre? Cush? These had all been troublesome, some even oppressive, for much of Israel’s history. Rahab is a reference to Egypt, who once held the children of Israel in bondage. Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and the temple and carried off the people into captivity. The Philistines had been foes of Israel in the days of Saul and David. Tyre, in the region of Philistia, and Cush represented other difficulties and temptations for Israel. Yet, God says of these that they are among those who know him and of whom he will say, “This one was born there.” Born where? In Zion, the city of which the psalm writer is counting the glories. So the NIV supplies “in Zion” where it is actually only implied — but then in the next verses it is made explicit:
Indeed, of Zion it will be said,
    “This one and that one were born in her,
    and the Most High himself will establish her.”
The LORD will write in the register of the peoples:
    “This one was born in Zion.” (vv. 5-6)
This is not a work wrought by any of those nations, not even by Israel. It is the work of God, a matter of divine love, mercy and grace. God has founded the holy city and established the peoples in her, for he never intended Israel to be a nation unto herself but a people for the sake of all nations, as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), and to fulfill God’s promise to Abraham that all the families and nations of the earth would be blessed through him and his descendants.

The Lord has founded Zion, and the psalm writer portrays him as recording the people in the registry of the city. Of each one, the Lord writes, “Born in Zion.” Though they have come from elsewhere, now they are record as belonging to Zion, fully accepted as rightful inhabitants, and heir to all the rights and privileges of the city. Here there is no dividing line between Jews and Gentiles, between Israel and the nations. Through faith, Gentiles are grafted into the promises along with faithful Israel. When all the Gentiles have come in, Paul says, then “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:25). In his letter to the Church at Ephesus, he addresses the Gentile believers about how the boundaries have been obliterated in Christ and we have become “fellow citizens with God’s people.”
Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands) — remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God's people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Ephesians 2:11-22)
The psalm writer, then, closes with this note of deep celebration, a song for all who know the blessing of Zion — of Christ.
As they make music they will sing,
    “All my fountains are in you.” (v. 7)

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Bring the Good News ~ The LORD Reigns

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How beautiful on the mountains
    are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
    who bring good tidings,
    who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
    “Your God reigns!”
Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices;
    together they shout for joy.
When the LORD returns to Zion,
    they will see it with their own eyes.
Burst into songs of joy together,
    you ruins of Jerusalem,
for the LORD has comforted his people,
    he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The LORD will lay bare his holy arm
    in the sight of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth
    will see the salvation of our God.
(Isaiah 52:7-10)
Let the word go out: Good news has come. Break forth with singing. Shout out for joy. Let there be loud rejoicing. Isaiah is speaking about the gospel, the good news, the glad tidings. This is the content, and cause for unrestrained celebration: Your God reigns!

Jerusalem was still in ruins and Israel in exile, but the prophet sees behind the veil and beholds God returning to Zion. Though everything seemed dark at present, Jerusalem would not be forgotten. The Lord would come to console his people, to redeem Jerusalem and set her free.

The consolation of Israel was what Simeon had been longing for that day in the temple when he saw Joseph and Mary bringing their newborn infant into the temple courts. He swept the Christ Child into his arms and thanked God: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” Then he blessed the baby Jesus: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” (See Luke 2:25-35.)

The redemption of Jerusalem is what Anna had been watching for those many long years she spent fasting and praying in the temple. When she saw Simeon blessing Jesus, she immediately recognized what was happening: the fulfillment of Isaiah’s ancient prophecy was at hand. “Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:36-38).

This is the good news of “salvation.” The Hebrew word, which the prophet used twice in this passage, is yeshuah. When it is used as a personal name, it is Yeshua, which is translated into English as Jesus — his name means “salvation.”

Salvation is a person, for Jesus himself is the consolation of Israel and the redemption of Jerusalem. He is the good news of the gospel, the Lord who reigns, and he has returned to Zion. The New Testament speaks of the new Jerusalem, a Jerusalem that is free, a Jerusalem that is above, a heavenly Jerusalem that comes down, joining heaven to earth (Galatians 4:26; Hebrews 12:22; Revelation 21:2).

This new Jerusalem is the Church, which is identified as the body and bride of Christ. It is important, however, to understand that the Church in the New Testament is not a separate entity from Israel in the Old Testament. Indeed, the Church is Israel. What was promised to Israel in the Old Testament is received by Israel in the New, by all who come to Jesus the Messiah. Even the nations (the Gentiles) who receive him as King are, to use Paul’s words in Romans 11, “grafted into” the root, which is Israel.

The Lord Jesus has laid bare his holy arms at the cross, where he defeated the powers in the sight of all the nations. And all the earth will know his salvation.

A few years back, I wrote an Advent version of Psalm 122, in light of Isaiah 2, Isaiah 52, Revelation 21, the New Jerusalem and the coming of King Jesus into the world: Psalm 122 and the New Jerusalem.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

All Israel and the Fullness of the Nations

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I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved. As it is written: “The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” (Romans 11:25-26)
Paul speaks of mystery, which is not a secret God is keeping from us but one he reveals to us in Jesus Christ. In Romans 9, Paul began addressing the question of what the coming of Jesus the Messiah now meant for the Jews who rejected him: Would they be forgotten? Had God’s promise to Israel failed?
What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone. (Romans 9:30-31)
The problem was that Israel, and the Jews of Paul’s own experience, tried to identify their place in God’s covenant promise on the basis of keeping the Law of Moses. But that was never God’s purpose for the Law. God’s way has always been about faith, and this was how, surprisingly for the Jews, the Gentiles took part in God’s promise — by faith.

Israel’s lack of faith, however, did not mean that God had given up on them. And in Romans 10, Paul declares his intense desire and prayer that Israel be saved, for the way of faith, which had always been available throughout the history of Israel, was still open for them now. God’s acceptance of the non-Jews on the basis of faith had not foreclosed Israel’s opportunity, even though they currently rejected Jesus as Messiah and King.

Paul quotes the words of Isaiah here: “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people” (Romans 10:21, quoting Isaiah 65:2). Yet, though they were disobedient and obstinate, they were still God’s people nonetheless. “Did God reject his people?” Paul asks, then declares, “By no means!” (Romans 11:1). For one thing, God always had a remnant who remained faithful, as he did in the days of Elijah. “So too,” Paul says, “at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace” (v. 5).

But again Paul asks concerning the non-remnant Jews who had been faithless, “Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all!” Paul answers, “Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring!” (Romans 11:11-12).

Israel’s faithlessness did not signal the end of Israel but had unexpectedly, from a human point of view, become an occasion for the Gentiles to come to faith in the Jewish Messiah. And if the present rejection by the Jews “brought reconciliation to the world,” Paul asks, “what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” (v. 15). At the same time Paul recognized the rejection of unbelieving Jews, he also acknowledged the surpassing glory that would result from their future acceptance of Messiah.

Paul was drawing on the Old Testament practice of offering the firstfruits to the Lord and how that blessed the rest of the harvest and made it holy. “If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches” (v. 16). In other words, the remnant Paul mentioned earlier, the one chosen by grace, served as the firstfruits that made the rest of Israel holy. The fact that God had a remnant showed that God had not given up on the rest of Israel.

“If the root is holy, so are the branches.” Here Paul begins to shift the metaphor, but to the same effect. He is thinking of an olive tree, a classic symbol of Israel. The root is the faithful remnant of Israel, which for Paul represented those Jews who believed on Jesus the Messiah. They are right in line with what God promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob from the beginning. The relationship of root and branch is such that the branch derives its life from the root not the other way around. Separate the branch from the root and the branch will soon wither and die.

There are two kinds of branches Paul sees on this olive tree. There are those that have grown naturally from the root — but there are also those that have been grafted into the root stock. In Romans 11:17-24, he talks about the relationship between Jews and Gentiles as that between natural branches and those that have been grafted in. In this metaphor, there are natural branches that have been broken off, which Paul understands as those Jews who rejected Messiah. But there are also branches that have been grafted in; these are non-Jews who have come to faith in Messiah. They are fully accepted into the “root” and now share in its life. But what of the branches that have been broken off, is that the end of them? No. “If they do not persist in unbelief,” Paul says, “they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again” (Romans 11:23).

And now here is where Paul reveals the mystery: “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved.” The full number of the Gentiles and all Israel — these are strong words of inclusion, quite in line with Paul’s many other inclusive statements elsewhere (see What If All Means All). All of Israel will be saved. The fullness of the Gentiles will be saved, too — not apart from or in addition to, and certainly not instead of Israel, but as a true part of Israel, for they have been grafted into Israel. And now Paul sums up:
As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies for your sake; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable. Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all. (Romans 11:28-32)
The mystery of the gospel is that disobedience does not get the last word. Mercy does. Israel’s disobedience became an occasion for God’s mercy on the Gentiles. In turn, God’s mercy on the Gentiles becomes an occasion of mercy on Israel. Again, there is an inclusiveness in this. God has allowed disobedience its alien work in everyone so that he may show his mercy on all. Let us, then, sing the doxology with which Paul closes this portion of his letter:
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?” For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen. (Romans 11:33-36)

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Do You Not Perceive It?

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Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. (Isaiah 43:18)
The Lord says through Isaiah, “Forget the former things.” These were not just the bad things that had happened to Israel, such as the bondage in Egypt or even the Babylonian exile Israel now found herself under. They included even God’s great saving act of the Old Testament, the deliverance of Israel out of Egyptian bondage.
This is what the LORD says — he who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, who drew out the chariots and horses, the army and reinforcements together, and they lay there, never to rise again, extinguished, snuffed out like a wick: Forget the former things. (Isaiah 43:16-17)
That was a wonderful redemption, and the basis of Israel’s relationship as the covenant people of God. But it was a past event, and what they needed now was a present-day deliverance. God would soon bring them out of Babylon and back home to Jerusalem. Yet even that would become a “former thing” because, historically, although Israel was restored to the land, they still remained under foreign dominion.

But all the Law and the Prophets are ultimately about Jesus the Messiah and are fulfilled in him. It is to him that all the former things point and in whom they find their true meaning. In the Lord Jesus, God brought forth the new thing he had long promised Israel. Jesus is not just another in a long series. He is God’s final word, the perfect expression of God and the one by whom everything in heaven and on earth is turned back to God.

Jesus is the “way in the wilderness” that God promised his people, the way who leads us back to the Father. But he does not just lead us on the way — Jesus is the way. There is no path to follow by which we may find our way home. There is only a person, Jesus the Messiah, the Shepherd who brings us safely back to God.

God also promised “streams in the wasteland,” and it is in Jesus that we discover these waters. To the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus said: “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14).

On the last and greatest day of the Feast of Tabernacles, while priests performed the water-drawing ceremony that foreshadowed God’s promise of rivers of life-giving water flowing from the temple (see Ezekiel 47:1-23), Jesus stood up and announced, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:37-38). John tells us, in verse 39, that Jesus was speaking of the Holy Spirit.

The way in the wilderness. Streams in the wasteland. Do you not perceive it? It is not a matter of observation. It does not come to us by reason but by revelation. God’s ways are not our ways. Yet God has revealed his way — revealed himself — to us in Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit.

There are physical aspects to this revelation: The Virgin Birth, the miraculous ministry of Jesus, the Cross, the Resurrection, the Ascension, Pentecost, and also the sacraments, such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These are historical, for in Christ, God has stepped into history in a singular way and joined himself to humanity — he became a human being and dwelt among us. But the meaning of it all must be imparted to us by the Holy Spirit, for it is mystery, and we should otherwise never be able to perceive it at all. Paul speaks of this in one of his letters to the Church at Corinth.
However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” — the things God has prepared for those who love him — these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person's thoughts except their own spirit within them?

In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.

The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:9-16)
In Jesus Christ, God has done a new thing and now it springs forth.

Do you not perceive it?

Father of Glory, give us the Spirit of wisdom and revelation that we may know you more and more. Open the eyes of our heart that we may know the joyful anticipation of what you have called us to, the wonderful inheritance you have placed in us, and the incomparable greatness of the power you are working for our sake ~ through Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Sowing to the Spirit and Reaping Life

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Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. (Galatians 6:7-10)
It is a simple truth, one easily observed in nature and is applicable to life in general, even in the spiritual realm: we reap what we sow. What Paul has in mind here is the contrast between sowing to the flesh and sowing to the Spirit, and he seems to be referring back to chapter 5, concerning the “acts of the flesh” and the “fruit of the Spirit.”
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)
When Paul speaks of the flesh, he is talking about what we are apart from the Spirit of God. So the “acts of the flesh” are works done apart from the Spirit. It is important to understand that Paul is not addressing people who want to do corrupt things but people who want to do good things: they want to follow the Law of Moses. The history of Old Testament Israel, though, is largely a history of faithlessness and failure to keep the Law. So these are not works of the Law that Paul is describing but works of the flesh failing to keep the Law, for the Law was of absolutely no use against the corrupt ways and desires of the flesh and provided no means for producing what the Law required.

In Romans 7, Paul describes this problem and how easily it leads to desperation. He sums it up this way: “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin” (Romans 7:14). The problem was not the Law but bondage to sin, a problem that affected not only Israel but all of humanity. But God promised that the solution would one day come: “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” (Ezekiel 36:25-27).

The good news of the gospel is that, in Jesus Christ that time has arrived. For through Christ, God has not only broken the bondage of sin but has also put a new spirit in us — God’s own Spirit. So in contrast to the works of the flesh, and the inability of the Law in the face of them, Paul offers the fruit of the Spirit.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)
The Law of Moses is certainly not against this. Indeed, it is love, particularly, that fulfills the Law (Galatians 5:14). Yet what the Law was helpless to produce in us, God has given the Holy Spirit to bring forth in us.

Back to chapter 6, now, where Paul draws the contrast between sowing to the flesh and sowing to the Spirit and the harvest each one brings. Sow to the flesh and you will reap destruction — ruin, decay, corruption. Sow to the Spirit and you will reap eternal life.

Let’s take a closer look at “eternal life.” We are accustomed to thinking of it as being outside the time frame of history and having very little, in anything, to do with this present world. But the Greek word for “eternal,” aionios, has to do with ages, particularly the age or ages to come. The truth of the gospel is that in the resurrection of Christ, the age to come has broken into this present age and God’s new creation has already begun. “The darkness is passing and the true light is already shining,” is how John puts it (1 John 2:8).

“Eternal life” (zoen aionion), then, is the life of the age to come. But since Christ and his resurrection have already entered into this present age, so also has the life he brings. It is available to us now and may be experienced now, for it is not merely a duration of life but, more importantly, a quality of life.

What does this life look like and how may we experience it? It looks like the fruit of the Spirit and it comes forth through the Holy Spirit dwelling in us. It is a life of love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. When we sow to the Spirit, we reap the lively fruit of the Spirit. We can think of this fruit as the character of Christ manifesting the life of Christ in us.

How, then, do we sow to the Spirit? It is a matter of trust, of faith. For the fruit is not something we could ever produce in ourselves, otherwise we would be back in the same predicament as Israel was with the Law, trying to live up to a certain standard but without the wherewithal to do so. No, the fruit is the Spirit’s and therefore something only the Holy Spirit can do in us. So we yield ourselves to the presence and work of the Holy Spirit rather than to the flesh, and we do not try to accomplish by Law what can only be done by the Spirit of God.

“The only thing that counts,” says Paul, “is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6). Sowing to the Spirit is dependence on God. Yet even that dependence, that faith, must come from God — we receive it as a gift. We can no more work it up within ourselves than we can conjure up love from within ourselves. The nature of the faith that comes from God is that it is energized by the love that is the fruit of the Spirit. That faith and love, then, are the manifestations of the life of the age to come, and by them we do what is good.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Reading the Scriptures with Unveiled Heart

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But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. (2 Corinthians 3:16)
For the Church, the Old Testament is a theological book that reveals the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus himself showed us that the Law and the Prophets are about him and that he is their fulfillment (see Luke 24:25-27, Matthew 5:17 and John 5:39-40, 46). Jesus also showed us that the Old Testament cannot be understood properly apart from him. On the night of his resurrection, he came to his disciples and said, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then, Luke says, “he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:44-45).

The disciples had been with Jesus for three years — following him, watching him, listening to him, learning from him — yet there was still something vitally important they were missing about the Scriptures. What they needed was for Jesus to “open their minds.” The Greek word for “opened” is an intensive one and means to open thoroughly and completely. The word for “mind” is nous, which encompasses not only the intellect but also heart and soul. Jesus helped them put it all together, to understand it not only in their brain pan but deep in the core of their being, in the realm of the spirit. This is revelation from the Spirit of God communicated to the human spirit, something Paul talks about in his letter to the Church at Corinth.
What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind [nous] of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:12-14)
Christ opened the nous of the disciples, imparting by the Spirit something of Christ’s own nous to them, and they gained a new understanding that had up till now eluded them. And now they could see the Scriptures for what they had been all along: a testimony to Christ.

In another letter to the Church at Corinth, Paul spoke of a dullness and a veil that hindered a good understanding of the “old covenant” (that is, the Old Testament). But in Christ, he says, that veil is lifted.
We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory into glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:14-18)
We do not really understand the Old Testament until we read it with the veil removed and discover the glory of Christ there. The revelation of Jesus Christ changes how we see everything. He is the lens through which we read the Scriptures and the context by which we understand the world. His glory is a light by which we can see what we could not see before but was there all along, that it is all about Christ and has ever been so. This same glory that illuminates and reveals Christ to us in the Scriptures also illuminates us and reveals the image of Christ in us, transforming us in ever-increasing glory.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Atonement and the Lamb of God

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The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
John the Baptist recognized Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. There are several significant things to notice about this. First, John identified Jesus as the “Lamb of God.” By this, he was recognizing the nature of what Jesus came to do. In the Old Testament, sacrificial lambs played a very important part in Israel’s devotion to God. The sacrifice of a lamb without blemish was an important part of the Passover, not only the original meal when God delivered the children of Israel out of Egypt, but also in the yearly remembrance of that event. It was also part of the daily ritual in Israel’s worship.

Second, notice that John did not identify Jesus as the one who takes away the wrath of God, but rather, who takes away the sin of the world. By his death on the cross, Christ was not placating an angry God, as if God were going to rain down his wrath and punishment upon us but then Jesus stepped up and said, “Father, punish me instead.” No, he was delivering us from sin, and from the death that naturally and inevitably results from it. In theological terms, this was expiation, not propitiation. Expiation is the removal of sin; propitiation is the appeasement of anger. The sacrifices of the Old Testament were about cleansing the people from sin, not about assuaging an angry deity. Appeasement was not necessary, for God was already graciously disposed toward his people in providing them with a way of cleansing.

Third, John identified Jesus as the one who takes away the sin of the world — not sins (plural) but sin (singular). Individual sins could simply be forgiven, but at the cross, Jesus destroyed the very power of sin itself. Sin (singular) is the brokenness of our relationship with God, with each other, with the rest of creation and even within our own selves. Sins (plural) are the countless ways this brokenness reveals itself in the world. The individual acts are merely the symptom of the underlying sickness, and it is the underlying sickness that Jesus came to deal with.

Finally, by his death on the cross, Jesus did not take away the sin of only certain individuals or groups — he took away the sin of the whole world. “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). “The death [Christ] died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God” (Romans 6:10). For “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). God does not hold any of our sins against any of us — and never has. It was never God who needed to be reconciled to us but we who needed to be reconciled to God, for God never turned away from us but we turned away from God. In Jesus Christ, through his death on the cross, the power of sin has been broken and the healing has come for us all. Therefore, “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11).

At the cross, the Lord Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, allowed sin and death to do their worst to him. He broke their power, shattered the system of accusation and scapegoating and shame, and destroyed the works of the devil. This is the atonement, how the death of Christ saves the world. Behold, the Lamb of God.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Against the Powers of This Dark Age

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Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:10-12)
There are dark powers at work in the world. The Greek word for “world” in this passage actually means “age.” The world itself is God’s creation, and it is a good creation. But this present age is a different matter, and the powers Paul is talking about are the powers of this dark age. “Rulers of the darkness of this world,” is how the KJV puts it. These dark powers are connected with the forces of evil in the spiritual realm.

Against these dark powers and evil forces, Paul advances quite a different power. It is a power he has already spoken of earlier in this letter, a power that God already exercises toward us, on our behalf and for our good. It is the power by which God raised Christ from the dead and exalted him to the highest place.
That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (Ephesians 1:19-23)
The power by which God raised Christ from the dead and seated him at the right hand of the Father, far above all rules, authorities and powers is not only at work in us but also through us. It is the resurrection life of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Church, Paul says, is the body of Christ, the “fullness of him” — which is to say that Christ has filled the Church with himself. So his life and power are in us. There is a mystery here, an open secret that God reveals to us in Christ.
Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Ephesians 3:8-11)
This mystery, now revealed to us, is God’s eternal purpose in Christ from before the creation of the world. This divine purpose is, as Paul said in Ephesians 1:10, “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” The revelation is that it has already been accomplished — it happened through the cross and resurrection of Christ. But God does not do this apart from the Church (and the Church certainly does not do it apart from God). Rather, God has chosen to reveal, through the Church, his stunningly great and multifaceted wisdom to the “rulers and authorities,” which are the spiritual powers behind the nations and cultures of this present age.

This is why Paul prayed, at the beginning of the letter, that our hearts be enlightened to know the hope to which God has called us, the glorious inheritance God has in us, and the greatness of the power that God is working for us and in us, the same power by which he raised Christ from the dead (Ephesians 1:15-18). It is not that these things are not already true of us — they are and have always been so, inasmuch as God chose us in Christ from before the creation of the world — but what we need is to understand, and not just with our intellect, what is going on deep within the core of our beings, “behind the scenes” of the world, in the realm of the Spirit. For it is through us that God has chosen to answer the powers of this dark age.

This brings us back around to Paul’s exhortation to “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power,” and “put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” As our warfare is not against flesh and blood, so also the weapons of our warfare are not material but spiritual.
Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:14-17)
Elsewhere, Paul tells us to “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:10), and to “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14). These are all hues of the same truth. The mighty power in which we are to be strong is God’s resurrection power at work in us.

The “full armor” is Christ himself. He is the belt of truth buckled around our waist and the breastplate of righteousness we bear. It is Christ who makes our feet ready to hold firm in the peace of God. Christ is the shield we hold out in faith and the helmet of salvation we wear. The message of his gospel is the sword of the Spirit we wield. It is Christ, who fills everything in every way, who is doing this through and through — and he has chosen to do it through his body, the Church.

In this armor, we are able to stand with Christ against the dark powers of this present age. For “the true light that gives light to everyone” has come into the world (John 1:9). “The darkness is passing and the true light is already shining” (1 John 2:8). Let us, then, join in the wonderful doxology Paul sings in this same letter:
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Ephesians 3:20-21)

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Random Thoughts

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Thoughts culled from my random file, gathered from my Twitter tweets, Facebook updates and Instagrams. About divine love, forgiveness, the kingdom of God and new life in Christ. Some have come to me in moments of quiet reflection, some in interaction with others. Offered as “jump starts” for your faith.
  • In Jesus Christ, God became human. How can this not but transform all of humanity, like leaven in bread? This is how the kingdom of God works, and the leaven of God’s love.
  • Jesus has lifted our shame and carried it to the cross. By that shameful death, he put shame itself to death, for he is pure and righteous, and shame had no right to him.
  • There is no shame so deep that the love of God is not deeper still, pouring itself out even on a cross for our sake.
  • We do not know what it means to be freely forgiven until we have freely forgiven another. And there we find the kingdom of God, the will of God being done on earth as in heaven.
  • Pride and shame are two sides of a coin ~ and both sides lie. Christ teaches us humility, which is a very different thing.
  • We are, each of us, profoundly connected to one another. It cannot be undone without undoing the whole world. This is why we must forgive if we are to be made whole and the world made right.
  • Divine love is a fine madness.
  • Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Neither sin nor death get the last word.
  • The death, burial and resurrection of Christ played out in history but affects all of time, from eternity to eternity.
  • To pray without ceasing is to find Christ in every created thing.
  • Lord Jesus, help me today to walk in the reality of Your resurrection and of Your life in me. Amen.
  • Is there any place in the universe where Christ is absent ~ or any soul in which Christ is not truly present?
  • Christ is everywhere present, and wherever He is, He is love.
  • Christ is the Word of God uttered by the Breath of God.
  • Wherever grace and faith meet, there is life.
  • Lord Jesus, I am helpless. Come be my help. Amen.
  • If we are all connected by our humanity, how can any of us be truly made whole unless all of us are made whole?
  • If in our theology we imagine things about God that are not found in Christ, then our theology is wrong.
  • Christ said that the Law and the Prophets are about Him. The authority of the Old Testament, then, is in the witness it bears to Christ.
  • There is deep spiritual connection in everyone and everything. For God, who created all, is Spirit.
  • Is it the soul that dwells in the body, or the body that dwells in the soul?
  • The kingdom of God is a kingdom of forgiving and being forgiven. Are you ready for that?
  • The Gospel in five words: Christ is making everything new.
  • A prayer for the many times I stray from the way of Christ, who is love: Lord Jesus, I am your little lost sheep. Come find me. Find us all. Amen.
More random thoughts …

Monday, November 7, 2016

Becoming Our True Selves

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Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. (Colossians 3:9-10)
We are included in Christ from the beginning and reconciled to God by the death of Christ (see Chosen in Christ for the Unity of All Things). But there is still a putting off and a putting on we must do. We must “put off” our old self, our false self — it does not correspond to who we really are in Christ. And we must “put on” the new self, our true self, which is “being renewed in knowledge” in the image of our Creator (who is revealed in Colossians 1 and elsewhere as Christ). It is a process of becoming what has always been true of us, letting the reality of that truth change us so that our way of life begins to catch up with who we really are and were created to be.

We are “being renewed,” Paul says. There are a couple of things to note here. First is that it is in the present tense, which indicates that it is not yet a completed work but an ongoing one. In other words, this renewal is a process, not a once-and-done event. It takes place over time. Second, it is in the passive not the active voice. That is, it is not something we do to, for or in ourselves but something that is done to, for and in us by another. This relieves us of an impossible burden, for we could no more renew ourselves to the image of our Creator than we could have created ourselves in that image in the first place. But it is a work that God is graciously doing in us by the Holy Spirit, conforming us to image of his Son.

We are being renewed in “knowledge.” The Greek word is epignosis, and for Paul it is not about knowing God merely in our head but in our whole being. We have always been chosen in Christ, but now we begin to realize and experience what it means to be in Christ, to know and be known by him. This growing realization, which comes by the working of God within us, changes us. “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” Paul says (Romans 12:2). The Greek word for “mind” here is nous and in the context of the gospel encompasses not only the intellect but the soul.

We are created in the image of God is so we may know God, experience God, fellowship with God, participate with God and express God to the rest of creation. This is a divine gift from the Father, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit. The image according to which we are being renewed, the image of our Creator, is the image of Christ, who is the perfect expression of God and in whom all the fullness of divinity dwells in bodily form (Romans 8:29; Hebrews 1:3; Colossians 2:9). This divine renewal, then, must be the work of the God by his Spirit:
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory into glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)
By yielding to this transformative work of God’s Spirit, we “put off,” or let go of the old false self and “put on,” or welcome the true self so that we may become who we really are, the person god created us to be from the beginning, bearing fully the image and glory of God. This is true freedom.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Christ In All Creation

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Christ is all, and is in all. (Colossians 3:11)
Christ is intimately involved with us in our very being — and always has been. He is, Paul says, “the firstborn over all creation.”
For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:15-17)
Everything that exists was created by Christ, through Christ and for Christ. All things are created in Christ, and in him all things hold together and continue to have being. At Mars Hill, Paul affirmed with the Greek poets that “we live and move and have our being” in God (Acts 17:28). All of us are in God, in Christ our creator. We have ever been so and ever will be.

But the reciprocal is also true: All things are in Christ; Christ is in all things. “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:11). This is true not only of the Church but of all people and, indeed, of all creation. Christ is all in all, which is why everyone and everything matters.

Christ is in all creation. This, I have discovered, is difficult for some Christians to accept. For if Christ is in all creation, they reason, then that would mean that all creation is saved. I don’t fault the logic of that; in fact, I accept that conclusion. But they do not like the conclusion, however, and since they do not deny their own logic (they would be refuting themselves by doing so), they instead dismiss the premise and deny that Christ is in all creation.

The Scriptures are clear that Christ is the beginning of all things and that all things are in him. They are equally clear that Christ is also the final resolution of all things: All things in heaven and on earth being brought into unity under Christ, reconciled to God through Christ by the blood of the cross (Ephesians 1:10; Colossians 1:19-20).

It is hard to think of how Christ could be so intimately related to all things, causing all things to be, even to the point of holding all things together in their continued existence, without himself actually being in them. Indeed, Paul says of the Christ by whom, through whom and for whom all things are created, in whom all things exist and by whom all things are reconciled to God — Paul says that this same Christ is in all things. A literal rendering of the Greek text in Colossians 3:11 identifies him as “the all and in all Christ.”

Christ is in all creation, but this does not mean that Christ is the creation. The Christian faith is not a pantheistic one. In his divinity, Christ is the creator of all things and permeates all things, but he is not the same as his creation. Every created thing has being and is a being, but Christ as creator is being itself, the source of being for everything that exists.

Yet, in the Incarnation, when God became a man, Christ became part of his own creation. In him, God joined himself to all humanity and partakes of human nature. And in him, we become “partakers of the divine nature,” as 2 Peter 1:4 teaches — though we do not become God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We remain ourselves just as God remains God’s own self.

In his humanity, Christ connected to all of creation, because all creation is itself connected. Through Christ, God is transforming all creation, beginning with us, to conform us to the image of the Son — and this affects all creation.
For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. (Romans 8:19-22)
In the end, when all things have come to their fulfillment, we will see that God is “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28). This is the unity of all things in Christ. It is the good news of the gospel, which includes you and me and all of creation. Our part is to yield to the transforming power of God’s love that is revealed in Christ and in the hell-shattering depth of his cross and resurrection.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

How Much More Shall We Be Saved Through His Life!

For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! (Romans 5:10)
Christ died for all, therefore all died, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:14. We had been God’s enemies, which is to say that we saw God as our enemy, not that God ever saw us as his. We had turned away from God but God never turned away from us. So, even while we viewed God with suspicion and distrust and went our own way, Christ died for us all.

Through his death, we were reconciled to God. This is the truth about all of us. For inasmuch as Christ died for us all, then whatever his death accomplished, it accomplished for us all. The battle has been waged, the power of sin and death have been broken and peace has been won. We have all been reconciled to God through Christ’s victory on the cross. Though not everyone has heard or believed this good news and embraced this peace, it is true nonetheless.

But notice what Paul says next: “How much more, having been reconciled [through the death of Christ], shall we be saved through his life!” Paul’s how much more is a rabbinic form of argument, qal va homer in Hebrew, a form that moves from the lesser to the greater. If it is true that we are reconciled to God through the death of Christ — as all of us are — then it is even more certain that we will be saved through his resurrection life.

Paul reinforces this just a few verses later: “Consequently, just as one trespass [Adam’s sin in the Garden] resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act [Christ’s death on the cross] resulted in justification and life for all people” (Romans 5:18). Paul draws it out even more in 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” And so he goes on to say in Romans 6:8, “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”

Paul was “convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died” and that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:14, 19). That being so, how much more shall we be saved by the life of the resurrected Christ.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

New Creation Has Come for All

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For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:14-19)
Love compels us. Such powerful words! Paul has good news to bring and he wants to get it out to as many as he can — could love do any less than that? And Paul is quite convinced that Christ died for all, with the consequence that all died. In other words, there is no one to whom this does not apply. What Christ accomplished by his death on the cross, he accomplished for us all.

But what does it mean that “all died”? In his letter to the Christians at Rome, Paul speaks again about the death of Christ and its relation to us all. He contrasts Adam’s faithless act with Christ’s faithful death on the cross: “Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people” (Romans 5:18). Adam’s deed brought condemnation for all people (for all humanity is connected), so also Christ’s righteous deed — his death for all — brought life for all (for all humanity is connected). Just a few verses later, in Romans 6, Paul shows how this works:
For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin — because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:6-11)
We died with Christ at the cross and have, through this, been set free from sin. With Christ, we died to sin; it no longer has any power over us. With Christ, we also died to death; it no longer has any dominion over us. Paul is confident that since we died with Christ we will also live with him. He urges us, then, to reckon this to be so, to trust in the truth of it, to count ourselves dead to sin but alive to God. Our reckoning does not make it so — it is true whether we reckon it or not — but is our positive response to the truth. It is how we begin to live out the truth (see Faith and Our Inclusion in Christ).

So likewise, in 2 Corinthians 5, Paul says, “And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” Christ died for all and in him all are made alive. The response of faith is to yield to that life — his life — which is always about Father, Son and Holy Spirit. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live,” Paul says, “but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

This is why Paul no longer regards anyone from a “worldly point of view.” That old way has been superseded and no longer makes sense to him. Everything has changed — or perhaps we should say that the truth of everything has been revealed — by the death and resurrection of Christ. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Christ has died for all, all have died with him, therefore all will be made alive with him. The new creation has come.

In Ephesians 1, Paul says we are chosen in Christ from before the creation of the world, chosen for God’s purpose of bringing all things in heaven and on earth to unity under Christ. This means, then, that all are chosen, that all are in Christ (see Chosen in Christ for the Unity of All Things). This unity of all things is what the new creation is about.

Paul now regards everyone through the reality of the new creation. The old is gone. It died in the death of Christ, the death in which we all died. The new is here! Christ was raised from the dead, so we also will all be raised with him. “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).

The death of Christ that became our death to sin, the life of Christ which becomes our life, the new creation — “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ.” It is this ministry and message of reconciliation that has been committed to Paul, the message love compels him to bring, the message that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.”

In the death of Christ on the cross, God was reconciling the whole world to himself, and he does not count our sins against us. The word for “count” here is the same as in Romans 6:11. God does not “count” our sins against us; we should therefore “count” ourselves dead to sin and alive to God. Christ died for us all, therefore we all died to sin. We are all forgiven and set free to live with God in the unity of all things.

Now, note the direction of reconciliation here. In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not himself to the world. God was turning the world back to himself, not himself back to the world, for God has never, ever turned away from us; but we turned away from him. So Paul’s ministry was to bring this message of reconciliation in Christ, which is the gospel:
We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:20-21)
There is no impediment to reconciliation with God; it has all been taken care of in Christ. All that is left is the response of faith, and even that faith is itself a gift of God through the Holy Spirit. “Be reconciled to God,” Paul says. Christ died the death that sin imposed on him, and in his death we all died to sin. His death, in which we all share, has “resulted in justification and life for all people.” Reckon it so and walk with Christ in this new creation.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Faith and Our Inclusion in Christ

https://www.flickr.com/photos/riteshm/3477761663/

In the previous post, we looked at Ephesians 1:3-10 and how God chose all humanity in Christ, “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” This is not just the union of all things with each other but, much more than that, the union of all things with God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — through Christ, the God-Man. Elsewhere Paul speaks of this as the reconciliation of the world to God through Christ (2 Corinthians 5:19; Colossians 1:19-20) so that God may be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28) even as “Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).

Having laid out the universal scope of God’s purpose in Christ, Paul now shows how it plays out at a personal level, where he and his readers dwell:
In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ* when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession — to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:11-14)
“We” refers to Paul and his associates who, as Jews, were among the first to receive the good news of the gospel and then went out to proclaim it to the nations. “You” refers to the believers in Ephesus, who received their message. In both cases, they responded to the good news in faith. Their faith, however, did not make the message true but was how they embraced the truth of it. They were already included in Christ from before the creation of the world and they were already destined for the unity of all things in Christ even before they ever heard the gospel. (*We should note that the words “were included in Christ,” which I have italicized in the quote above, were added by the NIV translators and have no correlation to the words in the Greek text. Paul was not indicating that the faith of the believers at Ephesus was the occasion or cause of their inclusion in Christ.)

We know the beginning of the journey: we were chosen in Christ from before the foundation of the world. And we also know the end: the unity of all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. These two are essentially the same thing. As it was in the beginning, so it will be in the end — and is even now in the timelessness of God. Yet there is still a “working out” of God’s purpose that takes place within the time/space reality of our world. Knowing the beginning and end of the journey does not do away with the journey itself, where the unity of all things in Christ plays out in the history of creation.

So the inclusion of all of us beforehand does not make faith unnecessary. Faith is part of how God “works out” his eternal purpose in us. It is by faith that we come to know our inclusion in Christ. This faith is itself a gift from God, as we learn in Ephesians 2:8. It comes to us by the work of the Holy Spirit and through hearing the word of the gospel.

When we believe, Paul says, we are “marked with a seal.” Just as faith does not make the gospel or our inclusion in it any truer than it was in the beginning, but affirms the truth of it, so also the mark with which we are sealed attests that we are truly in Christ. Paul identifies this seal as God himself, the Holy Spirit. This sealing had been very evident in the case of the first believers at Ephesus; when they were baptized in the name of Jesus, “the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19:5-6).

We — all of us — are chosen in Christ from before creation because God’s purpose has always been to bring all things into unity under Christ. This does not happen apart from faith, apart from turning to God, which inherently happens through Christ and the Holy Spirit, even though they may not always be explicitly recognized as such by the one turning to God. We may certainly expect that the will, pleasure and purpose of Almighty God will be finally successful and fully satisfied, that all in heaven and on earth will be brought together in unity under Christ.

It would appear, then, that all will indeed finally turn to God in faith, whether in this present age or in the age to come. Let us understand, however, that it will not be by coercion, for God is love, and love does not coerce. The love of God does not ever force us violate our wills but, rather, frees us and our wills from our delusions and unnatural desires, so that we may finally and truly be what God created us to be from the beginning.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Chosen in Christ for the Unity of All Things

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Gravure_sur_bois_de_Flammarion#/media/File:Universum.jpg
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight … With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment — to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. (Ephesians 1:3-4, 8-10)
It is good to be chosen. When I was a kid, I did not much care for team sports because, when captains were choosing up their sides, picking the fastest, strongest or most skillful players, I was always among the dwindling few at the end (and praying not to be the last). Of course, by that point, it was no longer really about being chosen but about being reluctantly accepted. What good news it is, then, that God has chosen us in Christ — we are chosen, Paul says, not reluctantly accepted.

In the Old Testament, the children of Israel were revealed to be chosen by God. They were chosen in Abraham, whom God promised would be a blessing to all the families of the earth and whose descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. They were chosen in Isaac, who was the child of God’s promise to Abraham. They were chosen in Isaac’s son Jacob, whose name God changed to Israel. They were chosen by God’s great act of deliverance, leading the children of Israel out of Egypt and into the land of promise. They were chosen, mind you, not because they were paragons of goodness or of anything else but purely out of God’s pleasure and purpose. God chose them out of love (for God is love) and in faithfulness to the promise he made to their fathers.

Israel was chosen to be a holy and priestly people, to represent God before the nations and the nations before God. But as it turned out — and this was no surprise at all to God — they fouled up royally, and by their unfaithfulness, idolatry and shedding of innocent blood ended up in exile. Yet they remained ever the object of God’s unfailing love, pleasure and purpose. So God promised them an Anointed King, a Messiah, a Christ who would not only deliver them from bondage but would bring to fulfillment the gracious purpose God intended for them when he first chose Abraham: the salvation of every family, tribe and nation on earth.

In the New Testament, Israel’s Messiah is revealed to be the eternal Son of God who became flesh and dwelt among us. This is the Incarnation. It was not an afterthought made necessary by the brokenness of humanity but was God’s plan all along. In the beginning, God created us in the divine image and likeness so that we could dwell together with Father, Son and Spirit in holy fellowship. But from the beginning of our history, we turned away from God and went our own way. So the Incarnation became a rescue mission as well. God became fully human (yet remaining fully divine) in order to rescue Israel and all the nations of the world — to dwell with us forever.

Christ became human so that we could become divine. In doing so, he joined himself to all of humanity, because all of humanity is connected. See how the apostle Paul demonstrates the truth and depth of this connection in the way he contrasts Adam and Christ:
Consequently, just as one trespass [Adam’s] resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act [Christ’s] resulted in justification and life for all people. (Romans 5:18)

For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15:22)
All humanity is connected in Adam, and what he did affected us all, bringing condemnation and death. Likewise, all humanity is connected in Christ, and what he has done affects us all, bringing justification and life.

It is very significant, then, that we are chosen in Christ. We are not chosen alone, or apart from Christ — or apart from anyone else, for that matter — but Christ is the chosen, who fulfills the chosenness of Israel. By his connection to humanity, all humanity is therefore chosen in him. In Ephesians 1, Paul lays out what that means for us all and how we benefit:
  • In Christ, we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing (v. 3)
  • In Christ, we have been chosen to be holy and blameless in God’s sight (v. 4)
  • In Christ, we have been irrevocably adopted as children of God (v. 5)
  • In Christ, we have been freely given God’s glorious grace (v. 6)
  • In Christ, we have redemption and forgiveness of sins (v. 7)
In verses 8-10, we see the full reach of this: “With all wisdom and understanding [God] made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment — to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.”

In Christ we have a great mystery revealed, the will and pleasure and purpose of God made known: to bring into unity all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. This was always God’s purpose in creation from before the world began. All authority in heaven and on earth has now been given to Christ, who has ascended to his throne at the right hand of the Father, and we are presently living in the outworking his rule and reign. As John says, “the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining” (1 John 2:8). In the end, God will be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28). Yet even now, “Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:11).

That is an utterly astonishing thing, a divine grace so amazingly extensive that it is hard even for many Christians to believe: God’s will, pleasure and purpose includes everyone and everything. Nothing and no one are to be left out. All are being brought together in perfect unity in the Lord Jesus Christ.

This does not do away with faith, of course, or with the need for faith. But faith is not what makes it true — it is quite true already, as the Scriptures affirm in several ways and several places. Rather, faith is how we respond to this good news and embrace the truth of it.

In my next post we will look more at the role faith plays in this.