Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Day We Were Born Again

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)
“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” Those were Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, in John 3:3, and indicate something vitally important: Without the “new birth,” we cannot see the kingdom of God.

This took Nicodemus by surprise. “How can someone be born when they are old?” he said. Sure, the Gentiles needed to be born again, to come into the Jewish fold. But surely Jesus was not talking about him, a “teacher of Israel” and a member of the Sanhedrin — a Jew in good standing. He was already born a Jew, and heir to the promises of God. So how could he be born again when he was already a faithful Jew?

Yet Jesus’ words were quite inclusive: Everyone must be born again. “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit” (v. 5). This recalls the promise of the Lord found in the prophets, that he would gather his people from the nations, sprinkle clean water on them, cleansing them from all their impurities and idolatries. That he would give them a new heart and a new spirit — that he would put his own Spirit in them (Ezekiel 36:24-27).

Yes, Nicodemus, you need this, too — all of humanity does.

How does this happen? How are we born again? Peter tells us something about that, something just as surprising as Jesus’ words to Nicodemus: God, in his great mercy has given us new birth into a “living hope,” and he has done it through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It happened when God raised Christ from the dead.

Jesus the Christ is God, who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Not just one of us but, more importantly, one with us — that is, in full union with us, for he is fully human as well as fully divine. His death on the cross, then, was the death of all humanity, so that all humanity might be made alive in Christ. “As in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive,” Paul says (1 Corinthians 15:22). For God, in his great mercy, has “made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions.” He has “raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-6).

In Colossians 1, Paul says that Christ is the “firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:18-20). That Christ is “firstborn” from the dead shows that there are many others. The scope of it is vast, for God’s purpose in Christ is to reconcile to himself all things in heaven and on earth.

In Colossians 3, Paul speaks more about the resurrection of Christ and our new life in him: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:1-3).

This was not theory for Paul. He experienced the reality of it for himself: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). The death of Christ was Paul’s death, so that the life of Christ was now Paul’s life.

This new birth is a birth from death into life, into divine life, into the life of God. For God has made us alive with Christ, who is the firstborn from among the dead. Just as his death on the cross was our death, too, so his birth from the dead was also our birth from the dead. Since we have died with Christ, our life is now hidden with Christ and in God. Peter shows us that the source of this new birth is the resurrection of Christ.
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, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:3-5)
Through the resurrection of Christ, we have new birth into a powerful expectation, a life that is far more than we can imagine. It is a life and inheritance that comes from heaven. The Greek words translated “born again,” in John 3, can just as well be read as “born from above,” for the new birth is one that can come only from God, for it is a life that transcends all the boundaries of this present age.

The day Christ was raised from the dead was the day we were born again — the day all humanity was born again. Through faith in Christ we come to know the new birth God has given us so freely by his grace. Through faith we follow Christ into this new life. Through faith we embrace our union with him and begin to understand that our new life is hidden with Christ in God. Through faith, we discover the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has begotten us anew through the resurrection of Christ from the dead.

Friday, April 14, 2017

On This Day

Good Friday and what God was doing in Christ: On this day, God demonstrated his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
  • On this day, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us.
  • On this day, God reconciled to himself all things in heaven and on earth through Christ by the blood of the cross.
  • On this day, Christ, 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!
  • On this day, Christ the Good Shepherd laid down his life for his sheep.
  • On this day, Christ the Mercy Seat took away the sins of the world.
  • On this day, Christ died for our sins, fulfilling the Scriptures.
  • On this day, Christ made cleansing for our sins.
  • On this day, Christ freed us from our sins.
  • On this day, Christ ransomed us from all bondage.
  • On this day, Christ cancelled out the “handwriting of requirements” that was against us, nailing it to the cross.
  • On this day, Christ disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
  • On this day, Christ judged the world, driving out the “prince of this world,” and now draws all people everywhere to himself.
  • On this day, Christ destroyed the works of the devil, breaking their power.
  • On this day, Christ broke the power of him who holds the power of death, that is, the devil.
  • On this day, the righteous act of Christ resulted in justification and life for all.
  • On this day, we were crucified with Christ, to make us alive to God with him.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Death of All Humanity

For much of my life as a Christian, I accepted the theory known as “Penal Substitutionary Atonement.” There are three aspects to that: Penalty, substitution and atonement. The atonement aspect is about reconciliation, at-onement — union with God. That is what Christ came to bring about. “God was in Christ,” Paul tells us, “reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). It is the ultimate expression and goal of the gospel — and praise God for it!

But over several years, I began letting go of the penal aspect and finally rid myself of the last vestiges of it in my thinking. It is centered on the idea that God was angry and could not forgive us without first somehow being appeased by bloody sacrifice. To me, that smacks of paganism, which is one reason why I have given it up. But the greater reason is that the Scriptures do not speak of the cross and the atonement as divine punishment or penalty. Nor was that how the early Church understood them. The penal idea did not arrive on the scene until the time of the Reformation, in the 16th century. Now, to be clear, the cross was a sacrifice, and it was for our sake, but it was not a penalty Christ paid on our behalf to appease an angry deity.

That leaves the substitutionary aspect of the atonement, and I have no problem with it. What Jesus did on the cross was for our sake, and something we never could have accomplished for ourselves. But I do want to qualify the nature of that substitution. What we usually think of as substitution is an exchange between two things, where one thing is treated or dealt with in place of another. In the penal substitutionary view, God’s anger, holiness and justice required a penalty that we could not pay, so Christ came and paid it on our behalf, and being God as well as man, he could pay an infinite price and satisfy an infinite debt. But that sort of substitution does not begin to grasp the depth of how Christ’s death on the cross relates to us. It was not a matter of Christ dying instead of us, as if thing A were exchanged for thing B. Rather, it was that thing A became thing B.

That brings us to the mystery of the Incarnation, when God “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) and was called Jesus. In becoming a man, Christ did not just become one like us, or even just one of us — he became one with us. In the Incarnation, God joined himself with all of humanity.

The truth about humanity is that we are all connected, for though there are many human beings, there is only one humanity. We are not merely a collection of individuals but we belong to one another. What affects one, though we may not necessarily realize it on the local level, ultimately affects us all. “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” So begins John Donne’s famous poem, which ends with the line, “therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” This connection, the relatedness of all humanity, is as old and as deep as Adam, and Paul tells us a profound and sobering truth about it: “In Adam all die.” The sin of one human being infected all humanity, bringing death to all, because we are all connected.

Of course, Paul’s message does not end with those sad words — there would be no good news in that —but he leads us to a deeper truth, and more joyful: “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).

In Christ, God has joined himself to all humanity. The death of Christ on the cross, then, was not instead of the death of all humanity — that would have simply been the substitution of A for B. But the death of Christ on the cross was the death of all humanity. Christ did not just die for all humanity but as humanity, and all humanity therefore died with him. “We are convinced,” Paul says, “that one died for all, and therefore all died” (2 Corinthians 5:14).

But if we died with Christ, then to what did we die? For one thing, we died to sin, to the power and slavery of sin. “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” (Romans 6:6-7). Sin is not the infraction of a divine law or code but the brokenness of fellowship with God, in whose image we were created. In turning away from God, humanity turned away from the source of life and thus was bound to die. We were under the power of death because we were under the power of sin. But the death of Christ frees us from power of sin.

In the death of Christ, all humanity died. Now, of course, where there is a death, there must also be a burial, and that brings us to the mystery of baptism. Paul says, “We were therefore buried with [Christ] through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4). In baptism, we are buried with Christ so that we may live a new kind of life, a life of fellowship with God.
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 6:8-11)
The death of Christ frees us from the power of death. Indeed, it was the death of death itself, for death had no power over him who is life. His death was our death so that his life could be our life. One day, even our bodies will be raised from the dead to be like that of Christ in his resurrection.

Yet, even now, we participate in the resurrection life of Christ, for we share in the same humanity with Christ. Paul speaks of how, “God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-6).

Made alive with Christ, raised with Christ, seated with Christ in the heavenlies — this is not just a promise about the future but a present reality. For the Incarnation of the Son was not temporary but eternal. He did not merely put on humanity like a suit to be taken off at the end of the day but he became fully human, yet remaining nonetheless fully divine. Nor did he merely lower himself down into our humanity — he raised humanity up into his divinity. Divinity and humanity are perfectly united in Christ, so that we may be one with God.

The death of Christ was the death of humanity. The resurrection of Christ is the resurrection of humanity. And the Ascension of Christ to his throne at the right hand of the Father, where he reigns forever as Lord of the Universe, is the ascension of humanity. This is the New Creation.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Did God Curse Jesus on the Cross?

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” (Galatians 3:13)
Did God curse Jesus on the cross? Now, that may seem to you quite an odd question, and I am very glad if it does. From a Trinitarian viewpoint — which understands the one God as Three Persons in mutually interpenetrating, mutually indwelling union — the idea of the Father cursing the Son makes that union sound very dysfunctional. Is that what the Scriptures teach?

In recent discussion about the atonement — how the death of Christ on the cross saves the world — a friend of mine took the penal view, that the cross was a divinely imposed penalty Christ paid for us. I agree that what Christ did on the cross, he did for our sake and on our behalf, accomplishing for us what we never could have done for ourselves. But I do not believe it was a matter of paying any sort of divine penalty. In support of his view, my friend offered this passage:
For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (Galatians 3:10-14)
For those who believe the penal view of atonement, this may at first sound like God cursed Jesus in order to deliver us from the curse. After all, did not the Law of Moses say, “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole?” And did not Jesus hang on a cross, a pole? But let us look carefully at the Scripture Paul quotes, understand it in its own context, and then compare it with how Paul uses it. The line Paul cites is from Deuteronomy 21:22-23.
If someone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.
As we compare this passage with how Paul uses it, there are three important things to note. First, this passage is about someone who has been guilty of a capital offense, been put to death, and their body exposed on a pole or tree. Does this apply to Jesus in the way that it is written? We know that Jesus was put to death and nailed to a cross, but was he guilty of any capital offense — or any offense at all, for that matter? No, not by the Law of Moses, he wasn’t. And though Scripture speaks of Christ bearing the sins of the world, it never holds him guilty of any of them.

The Law of Moses made no provision for putting an innocent man to death, not even for the sake of another. Indeed, the Law always condemns the shedding of innocent blood. So, if the Law had cursed Jesus, it would have violated itself and shown itself to be illegitimate for condemning an innocent man.

Second, in the Deuteronomy passage, the one hanging on the tree is said to be “under God’s curse.” But in Paul’s citation, that idea is conspicuously absent. Had he meant to teach that God cursed Jesus on the cross, this would have been the perfect opportunity for him to do so. Yet Paul deliberately leaves out “by God” when he quotes the Deuteronomy passage. The reason for that should be clear enough. Paul did not believe that God cursed Christ.

This is further supported by a third point: Paul does not tell us that Christ was cursed. Rather, he explicitly states that Jesus became a curse. Notice carefully: Jesus did not become cursed but he became a curse, and that is a very different thing. To understand why, we must look to see what Paul was addressing in the first place. We find that just a few verses earlier, in Galatians 3:10, “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law’” (Paul here quotes from Deuteronomy 27:26).

The Jews had failed to keep all the Law and by that very Law they stood condemned — under the curse. So, Jesus took the part of those who were under the curse of the Law. Yet it was impossible for him to be cursed either by God (because Jesus is God, and the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is not a dysfunctional relationship), or by the Law of Moses (which could not condemn an innocent man without condemning itself). The curse had no right to him, so Christ became a curse to the curse.

In Colossians 2:14, Paul tells us what Christ did with the curse of the Law: He “wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (NKJV). Or as the NIV says it, “having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.”

Now, Christ did not curse the Law itself but the indictment it brought, the “handwriting of requirements,” or the “charge of legal indebtedness.” At the cross, he wiped it all out. He did not pay a penalty to satisfy the “requirements,” or pay off whatever was the “indebtedness.” Instead, he cancelled it, rendering it null and void. He condemned it by “nailing it to the cross.” He cursed it with the curse of hanging it on a pole.

Why, then, did Paul quote a line from Deuteronomy that would otherwise seem to indicate the that one on the tree was cursed? It was because he was not offering a grammatical-historical exegesis — the Jewish interpretative tradition did not approach Scripture that way, nor did Paul or any of the other New Testament authors read the Old Testament that way. In Galatians 3, Paul was not explaining the way things were under the Law of Moses but showing what God has done in Christ, and what the true significance of the Law is in light of that. So, he related the two Scriptures he quoted from Deuteronomy on the basis of the word “cursed” — linking Scriptures by a shared word was a common method of Jewish interpretation. Then he picked up on the word “pole” in the latter text to make the very different point that the former curse was itself dealt with by a curse.

Christ was not cursed by God, by the Law or by anything at all. By his death on the cross, he became a curse to the curse that was on the Jews, and in that way not only redeemed them from the curse of the Law but opened the way for the long-promised blessing of Abraham to come upon the Gentiles as well.