Advent thoughts: December 22

“The latter glory of this house [the Temple] shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts” (Haggai 2:9—read Haggai 2:1-9).

When they sacked Jerusalem, the Babylonian soldiers destroyed the glorious Temple that Solomon had built for the Lord. Seventy years later, the Persians sacked Babylon; the Persian emperor allowed the Jews to return and to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. Some of the elderly Jews could remember Solomon’s Temple, and they wept, seeing the far more plain Temple that was being erected on the same spot.

God sent his prophet Haggai to comfort those who mourned over the simpler second Temple. Speaking for the Lord, Haggai promised that the glory of the second Temple would exceed the glory of Solomon’s Temple. God promised that he would be present in this new Temple. He said that he would bring the wealth of nations into the new Temple. He said that in that place, the new Temple, the Lord would give peace.

All these promises were fulfilled when Jesus came into the Temple. His first arrival was as a baby, forty days old, when Mary and Joseph went to the Temple to fulfill the ceremonies required by the old covenant for the birth of a first-born son. Simeon and Anna both recognized their Savior in that infant, and they spoke to others about the promises of God that were being fulfilled in their time.

When he was twelve, Jesus spent three days in the Temple, discussing Torah with the Bible experts and amazing them by his wisdom and understanding. During those three days Jesus was missing, lost to his family as far as they knew. This loss was a picture of the Passover when Jesus would be arrested, tortured, killed, and buried. Once again he was lost to his family and friends for three days, but on the third day he rose from the dead, and they found him alive, just as he had promised.

As an adult, Jesus taught in the Temple and debated his enemies. Once again, by his presence Jesus made the Temple holy. Its glory was greater than the glory of Solomon’s Temple, not because of silver and gold, but because the true Temple was making his presence known in this new Temple in Jerusalem.

Both Solomon’s Temple and the second Temple were pictures of Jesus. A god dwells in a temple and is accessible to his people in that temple. In the Person of Jesus God dwelt among his people, and Jesus still makes his Father accessible to those who come to the Father through Jesus. The Church is the body of Jesus and is therefore also his Temple. In the Church the nations have entered the Temple, bringing their silver and their gold, making a far more glorious Temple than Solomon’s one building in Jerusalem.

The nations of the world still suffer strife and violence and war. The nations gathered in the Temple—the Church, the body of Christ—have received peace. The Prince of Peace bestows his blessings to all who come to him in faith. Peace on earth is promised by angels. Through Christ we receive the peace that surpasses all human understanding. Thanks be to God! J.

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Advent thoughts: December 15

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2—read Isaiah 40:1-11).

As a prophet of the Lord, Isaiah frequently had to deliver bad news to Israel and to Judah. In Deuteronomy, Moses’ farewell message, God had spoken about the covenant he made with Israel. If they were faithful to him and kept his commandments, he would bless them with peace and prosperity. If they turned away from him and worshiped other gods and broke his commandments, he would bring judgment on them and punishment. Throughout the time of the judges and the kings of Israel, the terms of this covenant remained in effect. The people fluctuated between unfaithfulness, which brought punishment, and repentance and faith, which brought relief. Eventually, the sins of the nation piled up so high that, under the terms of the covenant, God had to bring the Assyrians and Babylonians to the Promised Land to punish his people for their sins.

When Isaiah preached about the covenant, he could only offer bad news to the Lord’s people. But something bigger than the covenant also existed: the love and mercy and grace of God. Along with warnings of God’s punishment, the prophet could also share God’s comfort. The people had declared war upon God by worshiping false gods, but God in his grace declared the warfare ended. The people had acquired a debt to God by their sins, but God in his mercy pardoned their debt. In his love, God sent his Son to pay that debt—not only to pay it in full by his sacrifice, but to pay more than the full cost, to pay double for their sins, so no debt would remain outstanding.

Isaiah contrasted the covenant’s demands with the Lord’s grace. Under the covenant, the Promised Land became a wilderness; but under grace, a highway was built through the wilderness to bring God’s people home. Under the covenant, the people were like grass withering in the heat of the sun; but under grace they were sustained by the Word of the Lord, which stands forever. Under the covenant, the people received bad news from the Lord’s prophets; but under grace they heard good news of rescue and redemption. The good news was so good that they were to shout it from a high mountain—to “Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere.” God would come with might, not to punish sinners but to rescue his people from sin, to redeem them and to comfort them with his mercy and love and grace.

The glory of the Lord was revealed as a baby was born in Bethlehem, wrapped in cloths, and placed in a manger. The glory of the Lord was revealed as angels shared the good news with shepherds watching their flocks by night. The glory of the Lord was revealed as wise men came bearing gifts for the King. The glory of the Lord was revealed as the Son of God was sentenced to die on a Roman cross, paying double for the sins of his people so they could be ransomed.

“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever.” This Word is his promise of peace, of forgiveness, and of new life. No power in all creation can take away this promise, for God has spoken, and his promises cannot be revoked. Even as sinners living in a sinful world, we have this comfort that God has made us saints. Thanks be to God! J.

James, John, and two cups

Jesus and his disciples were on the road, going to Jerusalem. (You can read about it in Mark 10:32-45.) Jesus was leading the way, setting the pace, even though he knew what was going to happen in Jerusalem. Not only did he know; he even told his twelve apostles what would happen: “The Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”

James and John didn’t get the message. They came to Jesus with a request: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” No parent would fall into that trap, and Jesus was not about to be tricked. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” they responded.

Their eyes were on the glory. They knew that Jesus is the Messiah, the promised Rescuer who would establish the kingdom of God and defeat all his enemies. They wanted to be close to the action. They wanted a share of his kingdom and power and glory. They wanted to freeze out Peter and the other apostles by getting the chief places of honor beside the King himself.

Jesus first asked, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” When they affirmed that they could, Jesus told them that they would, but then he added, “To sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

I used to wonder about the people who would claim those places of glory, at the right hand and the left hand of Jesus. In the history of the Church, who has earned such awesome authority? Would Paul the apostle be given such a place? What about Augustine of Hippo, or Martin Luther, or Billy Graham? Who deserves to be at the right hand of Jesus or his left hand when he claims his kingdom?

Then I learned when it was that Jesus claimed his kingdom. He is not waiting to claim it when he appears in glory; all authority in heaven and on earth has already been given to him. He did not claim the kingdom when he ascended into heaven, or even when he rose from the dead. The kingdom was his when he suffered and died on the cross in the place of sinners. The glory was his when he announced, “It is finished.” Easter and the Ascension and the Glorious Appearing are all results of the cross. Without the cross, we would have no joy in any of these things. Without the cross, we would be excluded from his kingdom, and Jesus does not want us to miss the party.

Who was at his right and his left when Jesus claimed his kingdom and his glory? Two thieves were there, each of them on a cross. At first they both mocked Jesus, but then one came to faith and confessed his faith. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom, Lord,” he prayed. Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth: today you will be with me in Paradise.” From these words, we know when Jesus received his kingdom and his glory.

James and John thought they wanted to be there with Jesus, but Jesus did not want them there. He went to the cross to spare them punishment. He went to the cross to rescue us all from punishment and guilt. He who knew no sin became sin for us so we could be the righteousness of God. The innocent one who should not have been punished accepted our punishment so we can be free. The Author of life gave himself into death so we can live forever.

Why did Jesus tell James and John that they would drink from his cup? Some scholars apply those words to the persecutions they faced as apostles. But the cup Jesus had in mind was the suffering of the cross. It was the cup he pictured as he prayed in Gethsemane, “Father, let this cup pass from me… but not my will; your will be done.”

Imagine a cup before the throne of God with your name written on it. Every time you sin, a drop of God’s wrath falls into that cup—a drop of poison you deserve for your sin. Every time you say something you know is untrue, another drop falls. Every time your mind wanders where it does not belong, into lust or envy or hatred, another drop falls. Every time you neglect an opportunity to help a person in need, another drop falls. How many drops have fallen into that cup? Is it overflowing yet with the wrath of God, wrath you have earned by all your sins?

Yet Jesus comes. He takes that cup that bears your name and is filled with your poison, and he drinks it dry. He did not want to drink it, but he accepted the poison to spare your life. He faced justice for you, because he knew you could not bear to face the justice you deserve.

But Jesus did not leave you without a cup. As in a comic movie (The Princess Bride, or The Court Jester), there are two cups, and only one is poisoned. Jesus exchanges cups with you, not to poison you but to preserve you. He has a second cup, a cup that belongs to him. It is the cup of salvation. It is the cup of the New Testament. It is the cup that is overflowing, not with wrath and poison, but with grace and forgiveness and new life.

James and John were rescued from their own pride. They asked for something that was not theirs. Jesus gave them something that was not theirs. He gave them his righteousness, along with his redemption through his own blood. He continues to distribute those blessings today. We will be with him forever in his kingdom, celebrating his victory, because of the cross where Jesus rescued and redeemed us. J.

Doxology

“For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever.”

These words are not included in the earliest copies of Matthew’s Gospel, nor does Luther comment upon them. Many Christians pray them, though, as a hymn of praise—a doxology—which matches the opening petition of the Lord’s Prayer, in which we ask that God’s name be hallowed.

The kingdom is God’s. He rules over everything that he created; he is Lord of all that exists. The Church in particular is his kingdom, and his will is to increase that kingdom so more people will dwell in his new creation. That new creation is also his kingdom, which he will rule eternally.

The power is God’s. He is almighty; he can do whatever he chooses. God is so powerful that he cannot lie. Whenever he speaks, what he says happens. He says, “Let there be light,” and there is light. He says, “Your sins are forgiven,” and they are forgiven. He says, “Your sins are gone,” and they are gone, removed as far from us as the east is from the west. He says, “You are my child, and you will live with me forever in a new and perfect creation,” and we know that all these things are true.

The glory is God’s. In the presence of his disciples—Peter, James, and John—Jesus once shone with light while visiting with Moses and Elijah. Yet to Jesus, his true glory is not that he can shine with light or be counted with the heroes of God’s people. His glory far transcends those accomplishments. For Jesus, his true glory is expressed in love, making himself vulnerable on behalf of his people, offering himself as a sacrifice to take away the sins of the world.

The kingdom and the power and the glory are his forever—or, as some Christians pray, “forever and ever.” The original Greek expression translates literally as “from the ages into the ages.” God’s kingdom and power and glory never end. They endure into the new creation, and we will experience them fully at the resurrection of the body, when we inherit the fullness of what we already have now: the life everlasting. J.

 

Theology of glory/Theology of the cross

One of the many contrasts in Christian thought is the difference between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. Generally these are presented as either-or, as two poles between which one must choose. In the last few days, I have started to regard them as a spectrum along which many different positions can be found.

The most extreme version of the theology of glory I can imagine is promising a Christian full glory in this lifetime—great worldly wealth, perfect physical and mental health, unending joy and peace, and victory over all enemies, whether earthly or spiritual. Some preachers and writers approach this extreme as they describe Christianity and its benefits. The most extreme version of the theology of the cross I can imagine is a dour, frowning Christianity, one which forbids all worldly pleasures. Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic holy orders have included some groups which encourage that sort of asceticism, but Protestant Puritan movements also have a reputation of moving toward that extreme.

The proper place on this spectrum is not at the middle. Christian living focuses more on the cross of Christ than on the glory. The theology of the cross does not deny the reality of glory—God’s glory and the glory of the new creation—but it discourages focusing upon that glory today. When a Christian is so obsessed with glory that he or she has forgotten the cross, that Christian is vulnerable to the attacks of evil.

This particular train of thought began with a post by InsanityBytes (which you can read here) and a lengthy conversation in the comments to that post, a conversation in which I participated. IB asked whether a Christian should hate wickedness. She concluded that hate should not be part of a Christian’s life. The Bible says that God hates wickedness, but IB suggested that a perfectly holy God can properly hate evil. She suggests that permitting ourselves to imitate God’s hatred for evil is akin to permitting a four-year-old child to operate a car.

IB and I have exchanged thoughts for a while, and I know that she is no heretic, no threat to genuine Christianity. She is not oblivious to pain and suffering—on her blog she has spoken of difficult and painful experiences in her past life, and she describes her present dwelling place as the seventh circle of hell. Perhaps that is why IB appears to tilt in the direction of the theology of glory. Perhaps for her it is comfort in the face of evil or contrast to the evil she has seen. Make no mistake—IB has a clear and vivid understanding of the power of Christ’s cross. She recognizes it as the only source of redemption for sinners and reconciliation with God, the only hope for fellowship with God in this lifetime and in the new creation. On the other hand, IB speaks far more than I do of the glory in Christian life today. In our conversation, she said, “we are called to be over comers, to be seated with Him in victory. Even now death has no sting.”

While I agree that we are called to be overcomers—we are even described as “more than conquerors”—I suggest that the Christian in this world must regard life as being lived on a battlefield. Our enemies are beaten, but at the same time they are alive and well, always on the prowl, prepared to attack. Jesus did not promise unending glory in this lifetime—he spoke of persecution, blessings for those who mourn, having enemies whom we should love instead of hating them. He spoke of denying ourselves, taking up a cross, and following him.

Before his crucifixion, Jesus had to deal with a group of disciples who preferred the theology of glory. When three of them saw Jesus glow with light one night while he visited with Moses and Elijah, Peter wanted to capture the experience by setting up booths for the three heroes. Later, not to be outdone, James and John asked Jesus to promise that they would sit at his right and at his left when he came into his kingdom. Jesus told that that those positions were not his to assign, and that they would be given to other people.

But all this theology becomes tangled as soon as we realize that, for Jesus, the cross is the glory. He tried to explain this to his disciples, but they didn’t understand what he said. After Pentecost they understood, and they rejoiced to be considered worthy to suffer for the sake of the kingdom. When Jesus said, “Now the time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23), he was speaking of his death on the cross, not of glowing with light or of sitting on a throne to rule the nations.

When Jesus came into his glory, when he claimed his kingdom, who was seated at his right and at his left? Two thieves—one who mocked Jesus, and another who recognized Jesus and confessed faith in him. “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” he asked, and Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth—today you will be with me in Paradise.” Pontius Pilate determined who would be to the right and the left of Jesus when he claimed his kingdom, but Jesus did not want James and John to be in those places. He went to the cross to spare them from receiving what sinners deserve.

This observation does not answer the question about whether or not Christians should hate wickedness. It still seems to me that acknowledging wickedness without hating it—without regarding it as a danger and an enemy—risks apathy and a failure to love our neighbors. For when Jesus commanded us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, he was not including the devil, the world, and our sinful natures within that command. When Jesus entered the battle to fight for us, he did not take on the Romans or other human enemies. He fought the devil, the sinful world, our sinful natures, and death itself. He won that victory, and he shares it with his people. We are “more than conquerors” because we have a victory we did not fight to win and do not deserve to own.

Why does God hate wickedness? Does he hate it only because wickedness is rebellion against him? No, God hates wickedness because it damages the good creation he made. He especially hates wickedness because it damages the people he loves. Not only does it bring physical suffering to people, but wickedness also becomes a barrier between God and the people he loves. He hates wickedness because it separates sinners from the God who loves them, threatening them with eternal death and suffering.

In the end, though, the question of hating wickedness pales in comparison to the question of where a Christian stands on the spectrum between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. Should all singing be praise songs, or should Christians also sing hymns that describe our sinful condition, our inability to save ourselves, and the enormous price Christ paid to defeat our enemies? Should all preaching be promises of glory, or should preachers also threaten judgment upon sinners who do not repent, remind their hearers that all people are sinful and need a Savior, and then describe the cross as the instrument of salvation? To me, the answer is obvious. The cross remains front and center, not only as a symbol of victory, but also as a reminder of the high cost of sin and wickedness.

In the end, I hate wickedness, not because of what it has done to me, or even because of what it has done to the world, but because of what it did to Jesus. He had no sin, but he became sin for us and was treated accordingly. My Lord died at the hands of sinful men—not merely the Jews who rejected him, and not merely the Romans who mocked him and tortured him, but all the sinners from Adam down to me. I hate what we have done to Jesus, and I rejoice that his love has overcome that wickedness and reconciled us again to God. J.