Advent thoughts: December 19

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31—read Jeremiah 31:31-34).

God’s love is more important to him than his justice. God has justice and righteousness, but God is love. His grace is greater than his law. He prefers rescuing sinners rather than punishing them.

Therefore, God’s new covenant is older than his old covenant. The old covenant comes first to diagnose our need for a Savior, but the new covenant was in God’s mind when he began to create the world. God knew that his people would sin. He knew they would need a Savior, because they would not be able to rescue themselves from sin and evil. He knew that he would have to pay the full price to redeem sinners. Knowing these things, God chose to create the world and chose to continue his plan of redemption.

So, God gave the old covenant to his chosen people. He said, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” He told them what it meant to be his people: to have no other gods; to honor his name and his time and the earthly authorities that represent his authority; to love their neighbors and respect their neighbors’ lives, marriages, property, and reputations; and to be content with what God provided them, not coveting what belonged to their neighbors. He said that if they kept their side of the covenant, he would provide them with safety and prosperity. If they broke the terms of the old covenant, he would cause famine and drought and poverty, and he would allow them to fall into the hands of their enemies.

The old covenant is conditional. The new covenant is unconditional. Because his people broke the terms of the old covenant, he allowed them to be afflicted by drought and famine. He allowed them to be afflicted by Midianites and Philistines and Assyrians and Babylonians. He allowed them to be captured and carried off into captivity. Even the holy city Jerusalem and the Temple of the Lord were destroyed under the terms of the old covenant because his chosen people were unfaithful to the Lord.

At the same time that they preached about the old covenant and the consequences of breaking God’s commands, Moses and the prophets also spoke of a new covenant. Moses prepared the people for a king and priest and prophet. Isaiah repeatedly told of the coming servant who would be Immanuel, God with us. Jeremiah specifically promised a new covenant that would be different from the old covenant, because it would be based on God’s faithfulness and not on the faithfulness of the people.

“I will be their God, and they will be my people,” God said. Those words belong to both the old covenant and the new covenant. Under the terms of the old covenant, the thoughts and words and actions of the people determined whether they remained God’s people. Under the terms of the new covenant, the thoughts and words and actions of God determine whether we remain God’s people.

Old Testament believers were saved by faith through grace under the terms of the new covenant. They believed the promise of a coming Savior. New Testament believers are saved by grace through faith under the terms of the new covenant. We believe that the Savior has come—he is Christ, the Lord—and he has kept all the promises upon which the new covenant depends. He has lived a life of perfect righteousness, earning rewards which he shares with his people. He has offered that life as a sacrifice, removing the sins of his people. He has risen from the dead, victorious over all enemies, sharing that victory with his people.

“For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” God knows everything, but he is able to forget. Between his birth and his resurrection, Jesus forgot the date of his glorious appearing on the Day of the Lord. God has forgotten the iniquity of his people because Jesus paid in full for those sins. God has forgotten the iniquity of his people because our sins were killed with him on the cross, buried with him, and left dead and buried when Jesus rose from the dead. God has forgotten the iniquity of his people because he has removed our sins from us “as far as the east is from the west.” We belong to him forever. Thanks be to God! J.

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Training and discipline from the Lord’s hand: part two

From Job’s sufferings to Paul’s thorn in the flesh, the Bible pictures godly people suffering, not as punishment for their sins or a consequence of their sins, but simply because we live in a world polluted by sin. Jesus spoke a blessing upon those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. He said that those who died in catastrophic events were not worse than other sinners, but that “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5). Indeed, Paul viewed suffering in this world as a positive thing: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4) and “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17), among others.

What of the covenant that promises blessings for those who obey God’s commands and threatens curses on those who break his commands? Deuteronomy 28 is one of many passages that describe this covenant. First, though, this is God’s covenant with a chosen people, not with individuals. It was fulfilled in the history of Israel, from Judges through Esther, as both good and bad people prospered in Israel when the nation was largely faithful to God, and both good and bad people suffered in Israel when the nation was largely unfaithful. Second, this passage describes the Old Covenant, the Law of God, from which Christ has set us free. “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write in on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34). “For our sake he made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21). “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).  “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27).

In the New Covenant Christians are completely and unconditionally forgiven. God sees no sin or fault in any Christian. Daily we confess our sins and throw ourselves on God’s mercy, seeking his forgiveness. Daily he sees us through the righteousness of Christ and treats us as Christ deserves. Our sins were killed on the cross with Christ and buried with Christ. He rose, but our sins remained dead and buried. God sees no sin in us, which is why he has no condemnation for us.

To be continued…. J.

The parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8)

As I continue working on a book about the parables of Jesus, interpreting those parables by the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, I continue to discover new treasures in the Word of God. Consider, for example, the parable of the persistent widow:

In Luke 18:1-8, Jesus tells a parable “to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” On other occasions Jesus compared himself to a thief; in this parable he compares himself to “a judge who neither feared God nor respected man.” A widow repeatedly approached this judge, begging for justice. Because of her persistence, the judge eventually decides to answer her plea “so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.” Jesus concludes, “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Of course Jesus intends to contrast the goodness of God with the evil of a judge who neither fears God nor respects man. Judges should fear God; they should do their work faithfully, knowing that God is watching them. They should do their work fairly, granting justice to all people, whether they are rich or poor, black or white, young or old, male or female. Withholding justice from a widow because she can neither afford to bribe the judge nor threaten him with any harm would be wrong. God, on the other hand, can be trusted to do the right thing all the time. God can neither be bribed nor threatened. When we pray to God, we have no power over him. All we have going for us in our prayers is his command to pray and his promise to hear and answer our prayers.

God wants us to pray. He does not need our prayers. He knows everything about us, including what we need and what we want and what is best for us. He does not need advice or instruction from us. Jesus reminds us why we pray with his sample prayer, which begins with the words “Our Father.” God wants us to approach him confidently, as little children on earth turn to their fathers, expecting good things from them.

At the same time, God wants our prayers to be meaningful. “When you pray,” Jesus taught, “do not heap up empty phrases, as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7). Persistent prayer is not vacuous prayer, speaking words without considering what they mean or to whom they are addressed. We cannot impress God by our prayers, so we need not try. A child cannot overpower a father with many words, persuading the father to do as the child wants even though what the child wants will harm the child. So also, God’s promise to hear and answer our prayers does not mean that we have magic power to make him do as we want. He is wiser than us and more knowledgeable. If we ask for something harmful, he loves us too much to grant us what we ask.

Imagine, though, spending day after day with someone you love while that person refuses to say a word to you. Think of the pain that silence would cause you. Often we treat God this way. We do not speak to him at all, either to ask for anything for ourselves and for others, nor to thank him for any good thing he has given us, nor to confess our sins and beg for his forgiveness. God encourages us to do all these things, and more: he invites us to praise him. He does not need our praise—flattery accomplishes nothing with God—but we need to praise God in order to remind ourselves how good he is and how blessed we are that he loves us and delights to hear our prayers.

So Jesus told a parable about a persistent widow who finally obtains justice from an uncaring judge. Because this story is labeled a parable, the secrets of the kingdom should reveal more from the story than an exhortation to pray. Indeed, much more is happening in this story. For as Jesus compared himself to a thief, robbing us out of the hands of the devil, he now compares himself to a corrupt judge. Jesus truly is the Judge who will rule on our eternal home. Sinners will be locked out of the kingdom, while those who are pure and flawless will be welcomed into the kingdom and called children of God.

Were Jesus purely just and fair, he would lock us out of his kingdom. We have sinned; we do not deserve a place in heaven. But Jesus is unfair to us, not to our harm but to our benefit. Jesus judges that we are sinless because he covers our sins with his righteousness. Jesus judges that we are flawless because he has paid in full our debt for sin. Jesus judges that we are worthy to live in his kingdom—even to be called the children of God—because He, the Son of God, took our place and our punishment so we could receive the rewards he earned.

We have adversaries—not worldly foes, but spiritual enemies. We need protection from the devil, from the sinful world around us, and from the sin still within us. We persistently confess our sins and ask God to protect us from our enemies. God answers swiftly—so swiftly that he has finished answering our prayers before we reached the “Amen.” Christ has already paid our penalty. On the cross he fought our enemies and defeated them. Even the final enemy, death, has been defeated by Jesus. God has not delayed; he has given us all that we need and far more good things than we ever deserved.

“Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Without faith, no one can receive the benefits of the exchange that Jesus offers. We are saved by God’s grace through faith. Our faith is not a work that earns God’s grace; it is a gift, a result of God’s grace. Jesus asks whether or not he will find faith, not in despair that all faith will be quenched, but as a reminder that he will be seeking faith when he sits on his Judgment throne. Those approaching the throne of Judgment with faith in Jesus will be welcomed into his kingdom, an inheritance prepared for them from the foundation of the world (Matthew 25:34). Those approaching the throne demanding justice, demanding to get what they deserve, will receive such justice. They will be sent into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). Jesus does not want to send anyone into that fire. He died to rescue all people. But those who refuse the gift of the unfair Judge truly will receive the justice they deserve rather than the gift the Judge offers them.

 

The Good Samaritan

‘And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”’ (Luke 10:25-37)

If any of the parables of Jesus sound like exhortations to good works, surely that applies to the account of the Good Samaritan. The bulk of the story describes the things done by the Samaritan. The contrast between the Samaritan and the two men who should have helped is unmistakable. The concluding words, “You, go and do likewise,” appear at first to be the point of the parable. Commentators generally are content to explain the roles of the priest and the Levite in Israel and explain the bigotry Jews and Samaritans felt toward each other.

After all, Christians are commanded to do good works. We are to love our neighbors and to help them in their times of need. Walking past a person who is hurting, failing to stop and give assistance, is sinful behavior. How could the parable of the Good Samaritan be anything other than insistence by Jesus that we should help anyone who needs our help?

The answer to that question lies in the secrets to the kingdom of heaven. Christians must continually remember that our good deeds do not earn God’s love and forgiveness. Even though we were created to do good things, we are not redeemed by doing good things. The very fact that the man questioning Jesus asked what he must do to inherit eternal life gives away the entire message. An inheritance comes from the goodness of the giver. An inheritance is not earned. (There are cases of a benefactor using inheritances to bribe their heirs or threatening to remove the heirs from his or her will if they did not act a certain way. Those rare cases underline the point that an inheritance generally means a gift and not something earned.) Jesus died so we can inherit eternal life. He left to us the rewards he earned by his perfect obedience to his Father’s will. We have eternal life because of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus could have said as much to his questioner, but he knew the man’s heart. Therefore, Jesus first drew the man’s attention to the Law. The man showed that he knew the greatest commandments of God’s Law. “Do this, and you will live,” Jesus promises. But the man was honest enough in his heart to know that he had not kept those commandments perfectly. Searching for a loophole, he asks Jesus who his neighbor is. Notice that, in concluding the parable, Jesus did not say, “Who was the Samaritan’s neighbor?” Instead, he asks who “proved to be a neighbor.” That change in wording is significant.

Of the four people in the story, all of us would like to claim that we are most like the Samaritan. We fear and we confess that, at times, we are more like the priest and the Levite. We can identify times that we did not do the loving thing for our neighbors. We have neglected them at times; we have not always been of help to our neighbors. When we look at the parable this way, though, we miss seeing that we are most like the victim rather than the Samaritan or the priest or Levite.

We are victims. The devil and the sinful world have combined to lure us into sin, and they stand ready to accuse us of our sins. Our sins themselves, have beaten and robbed us and left us for dead. All the times that we broke God’s commandments have robbed us of any wealth in the kingdom of heaven. Our sins deny us the right to eternal life. Once we have sinned, we are helpless to save ourselves. We cannot redeem ourselves. We lie, bruised and broken, facing death, waiting for someone to help us.

At this time, God’s Law cannot help us. It describes the good things we should do and identifies the sins we have committed, but that information does not take away our sins or the punishment we deserve. Priests and Levites were expected to be good men. The commands of God are also good. His commands tell us why we were made, and they guide us as we strive to imitate Jesus. But, like the priest and the Levite of the parable, even God’s greatest commandments cannot help us once we have fallen into sin. They walk past us. The best they can do is to describe our condition; they cannot change our condition.

Jesus pictures himself as a Samaritan. He takes on the label of a group rejected by the Jews, but he also portrays himself as an outsider. Jesus is above the Law, since he is the source of the Law. He does not have to give us what we deserve. He can be merciful to us, forgive us, and provide for our healing. Like the Samaritan of the parable, Jesus does what is needed to rescue us. The Samaritan cleaned the victim’s wounds with oil and wine—first aid for the first century, before the discovery of modern medicines. Then he put the victim on his donkey, took him to an inn, paid extravagantly for the victim’s care, and promised to do even more if more was necessary to help the victim.

Jesus goes beyond the goodness of the Samaritan. He lives a sinless life, then he bestows upon us the rewards he earned. Even more, he sacrifices his life on a Roman cross to pay our debts in full. He takes the punishment we deserve upon himself in place of the rewards he has given to us. If any more needed to be done to complete our rescue, our redemption, and our healing, Jesus is willing to do that too. His love and his mercy know no limits.

The Samaritan took the victim to an inn. Jesus brings us into the Christian Church. In the Church we continue to receive the care we need to further our healing. The work of the Church is empowered by Jesus. His life and death and resurrection are the coins that pay for our healing within the Church. Yet once we are part of the Church, we are also innkeepers, welcoming others into our midst for their healing.

The man who questioned Jesus asked about what he should do. The parable Jesus spoke depicted each of us as helpless, needing the work of Jesus to rescue us since we cannot rescue ourselves. Why then did Jesus close with the words, “You, go and do likewise”? First, he directs us to strive to obey his commands so we realize that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Then we repent, knowing that we need a Savior. Second, now that we have been saved, we strive to imitate Jesus. The same commands that reveal our imperfections also tell us how to be more Christlike in our daily lives.

Indeed, we should go and do likewise. We should rescue victims of violence. We should feed the hungry and provide shelter for the homeless. We should help the poor and the oppressed. We were created to do good works like these. Along with that, we should recognize the victims of sin and evil around us. We cannot redeem them, but we can share the good news of Christ’s forgiveness and of his victory over all evil. We can share God’s forgiveness, beginning with those who have sinned against us.

As we do these things, though, we are not earning our place in the kingdom of heaven. That gift is an inheritance given to us by Jesus. He is the Samaritan who has saved our lives and who is still providing for our healing. The secrets of the kingdom of heaven help us to see Jesus as the Samaritan in his parable.

Christ in Genesis: wrestling with God, and seeing the face of God

Jacob lived with his cousin Laban and married Laban’s daughters. He gained a large family and became a wealthy man with large flocks and herds of livestock. The time finally came for Jacob to return home. He tried to slip away from Laban with his family and his livestock, but Laban pursued Jacob. Jesus personally warned Laban neither to bless nor curse Jacob. So the two men created a monument to mark a border between their two families, and they promised to leave each other alone.

Jacob was afraid that Esau would still be angry with Jacob. As Jacob once tried to bargain with God, now he tried to buy his brother’s love and forgiveness. He sent hundreds of animals ahead of him, telling the servants driving those animals that they were a present for Esau. Jacob even thought, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me” (Genesis 32:20). Jacob then sent his family and his remaining possessions across the stream and prepared to spend the night alone.

Jacob was not alone that night. Instead, he wrestled with a man until daybreak. Although the man showed that he had the power to dislocate Jacob’s bones with just a touch, the man treated Jacob as an equal and did not defeat him. This man then changed Jacob’s name to Israel, saying, “You have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28). When Jacob asked, his opponent refused to tell Jacob his name. Jacob knew the identity of his opponent, though, because he named the place Peniel, saying, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered” (Genesis 32:30).

Jacob knew that he had just had a close encounter with God. Since “no one has ever seen God; the only God who is at the Father’s side he has made him known” (John 1:18), we can be confident that the wrestling partner of Jacob was Jesus. Why wouldn’t Jesus tell Jacob his name? To know someone’s name is to have power over that person. Even after wrestling Jesus to a draw, Jacob could not have power over Jesus. Despite all his attempts to bargain with God (and with his brother Esau), Jacob was still powerless—he had to trust God to keep God’s promises. So, in the last book of the Bible, it says that Jesus “has a name written that no one knows but himself” (Revelation 19:12). What is the use of a name that no one else knows? It shows that no one else has power over Jesus.

While some people describe the body of Jacob’s wrestling partner as the “pre-incarnate Christ,” a special miracle body for that one wrestling match, I maintain that Jacob wrestled with Jesus, who was in his own true body. This body of Jesus had been conceived within the virgin Mary, born in Bethlehem, and raised in Nazareth. In that body he preached and taught, he gathered disciples, and he worked miracles. In that body he was arrested, beaten, mocked, scourged, and crucified. That body was buried in Jerusalem, raised on the third day, and ascended into heaven. At his ascension, Jesus filled all things (Ephesians 4:10), time as well as space. Because Jesus is God, he has the ability to leave time and space and enter them elsewhere, without needing a DeLorean or a Tardis. Jacob wrestled with the body of his Savior, a body which bore the scars of nails on his hands and on his feet.

After wrestling with Jesus, Jacob met his brother Esau. Esau forgave Jacob his sins and refused to accept his gifts. He ran to meet Jacob and embraced him, much like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. When Esau tried to return Jacob’s animals, Jacob said, “No, please, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present from my hand. For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me” (Genesis 33:10).

Jacob had seen Jesus face to face and had wrestled with him. He even said, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” Now Jacob says to Esau, “I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God.” For Jacob, Esau was a picture of Jesus. Can he be any less for us?

Esau did not need gifts from Jacob, but out of kindness he accepted his brother’s gifts. God needs nothing from us, but out of grace he accepts our gifts. Not only the money we give to the Church, but also the good deeds we do for our neighbors, are gifts to Jesus. Jesus takes personally the things we do for people in need (Matthew 2534-40). Yet his love and his forgiveness do not depend upon what we do, for they have already been granted to us.

Sin, sacrifice, forgiveness

“If God is Almighty,” the question is raised, “why does he demand a bloody sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins? Why does he not simply forgive without any sacrifice being made?”

God is Almighty and can do whatever he chooses to do. God created the world and everything in it, and when God was finished creating, what he had made was very good. God told people how to live in his world, to take care of the world and to take care of themselves and one another. People chose to do things their way instead of God’s way. Because people rebelled against God, evil and wickedness and death entered the good world God had made. Because of sin, the world was no longer very good.

God could have created a world in which sin and rebellion were impossible. If he had done so, then love and obedience would be meaningless, because people would be forced to love and obey God. God could have created a world where forgiveness of sin was immediate and without cost. If forgiveness was cheap, then sin and wickedness would also be cheap. Rebellion against God, and damage of the good things God made, and harm to the people God made and God loves: all these things would mean nothing if the cost to repair them was nothing. Because God is good, and because the world he made is good, and because he loves the people he made, God places a high price on thoughts and words and actions that damage the world and harm people. When damage is done, a high price must be paid to fix and restore what is broken. That high price shows the value of the people and the world created by God.

God could have created a world of perfect justice, in which each sinner paid and suffered for his or her own sins. In a world of perfect justice, I could not hurt you and you could not hurt me. Each of us would suffer for his or her own sins. In such perfect justice, rescue would not be possible. No one could reconcile another person to God; even God could not provide reconciliation, because of perfect justice. Instead, God created a world in which justice is overpowered by love. Sin and evil have victims, but God Himself is able to be a victim of sin and evil in order to rescue all the victims of sin and evil.

The Almighty God entered creation and became a man, as human as any of us, except that he never sinned. That man obeyed all the commands of God, doing what all people were created to do. He then offered his life as a sacrifice, becoming a victim to rescue victims. He was abused and tortured, he bled, and he died. From the horrors of the cross, we learn how costly our rebellion truly is; but from the horrors of the cross we see the love of God, that he was willing to pay the price to restore us and to restore the world he created.

Having entered time and space to restore the world, God then moved backward in time to communicate what he had done to previous generations. He required the sacrifice of animals and the shedding of their blood as pictures of the price God would pay to rescue victims of sin and to restore creation. In the account of Adam and Eve, animals died so that Adam and Eve could be clothed in their furs. Adam and Eve had tried to hide their nakedness with fig leaves, but such clothing quickly disintegrates—it has no lasting value. All the good things people do to try to cancel their own sins are ineffective. Only God can pay the price of reconciliation, as Jesus gives his life on the cross to clothe his people in his righteousness.

The price Jesus paid is sufficient to cover all the sins of history. No sin is bigger than the payment made by Jesus. For that reason, Jesus directs his people to share forgiveness with all sinners. He teaches his people to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12). His apostles instruct us, “as the Lord forgives you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:13). To treat any sin as unforgiveable calls all of God’s forgiveness into question—how can you be sure that all your sins are forgiven if you regard another person’s sin to be beyond forgiveness? Jesus compares our sins, forgiven through his sacrifice, to ten thousand talents—hundreds of millions of dollars in American money. He compares the sins committed against us by others to one hundred talents—enough to buy a used car, but tiny compared to ten thousand talents (Matthew 18:23-35). When he was asked how often should a Christian forgive a brother—is seven times enough?—Jesus invented a number. Sometimes it is translated “seventy-seven” and sometimes “seventy times seven” (490), but the actual word that Jesus spoke does not exist as a number. God’s forgiveness never ends, and our forgiveness never ends.

When we forgive, though, we are not generating forgiveness from the goodness of our own hearts. We are passing along the forgiveness provided by Jesus in his sacrifice. If we had to forgive others first to earn God’s forgiveness, not one of us would be forgiven. Jesus has paid the full price for all sins. The forgiveness of Jesus runs through our lives, reconciling us to God and delivering the same reconciliation to other sinners. Therefore, when Peter had confessed his faith that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus celebrated the faith of Peter and added, “I give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatever you lock on earth is locked in heaven, and whatever you unlock on earth is unlocked in heaven” (Matthew 16:19, my paraphrase). He said similar words to all his followers (Matthew 18:18), and he said them again the night after his resurrection: Jesus “breathed on” the disciples “and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld’” (John 20:22-23).

The same keys lock and unlock heaven; the same power grants forgiveness and withholds forgiveness. When would a Christian withhold forgiveness from a sinner? Forgiveness is withheld from the sinner who does not want to be forgiven. A sinner who does not acknowledge his or her sin and need for forgiveness should not be told he or she is forgiven anyhow. A sinner who thinks forgiveness is earned by his or her own good works should be told that forgiveness is withheld. Offering forgiveness to a sinner who does not want to be forgiven is giving dogs what is holy and casting pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6). Jesus wants his people to warn sinners of their sins and to call them to repent. Those who refuse to repent should not be told that they are forgiven.

Repenting and believing are not good things Christians do to earn God’s forgiveness. Repenting and believing are changes God makes in the lives of people. Forgiveness is available to all people—no sin is bigger than the payment Jesus made on the cross—but it does not come to anyone who refuses to repent and refuses to believe God’s promise of forgiveness. Repenting and believing are not things Christians do once and then never have to do again. Repenting and believing are part of daily life for a Christian. Each day a Christian confesses sins to the Lord and rejoices in the Lord’s forgiveness. Each day Christians share the good news of forgiveness with one another and unlock the kingdom of heaven for each other through the forgiveness of sins.

I am delighted that the opponents of Christianity are asking questions about forgiveness and sacrifice. Debates about science and archaeology and history are distractions, but the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is the center of our faith. I do not have to believe in Adam or Noah or Moses to be reconciled to God, but I must believe in Jesus Christ to be reconciled to God. Believing in Jesus, I accept what he says about Moses and the prophets; but salvation is found in no one but Jesus. Noah and Moses are pictures of Jesus, but he is the fulfillment of everything they said and did. J.

 

Of light and darkness

Jesus Christ called himself the Light of the world. He warned that those who do not walk with him are walking in darkness.

This week a conversation between InsanityBytes and VioletWisp explored that idea of light and darkness. Violet pointed out that, “Christians imagine all sorts of things. They imagine that without the intervention and rules of their imaginary god, God, humans would plunge into a dark abyss of destructive, selfish behaviour, seeking momentary pleasure above all else.” Insanity replied that “people in general, in the absence of moral standards, are pretty much driven by pride, selfishness, and this idea that might makes right. We want what we want and we crave power.” Among the comments to Insanity’s post, she was repeatedly asked whether thousands of generations of people outside the Christian world “have all lived in an abysmal, joyless, wretched, civilisationless darkness?” Comments were made about “natural law” and its place among Christians and nonChristians.

Opponents of Christianity tend to attack the idea of Christianity as a source of morality in one of two ways. Sometimes they point out that the religions of the world all have about the same rules—pretty much every religion has the “Golden Rule,” that we should treat others as we wish to be treated. Therefore Christianity can hardly claim exclusive ownership of morality. On the other hand, some beliefs about morality vary greatly from culture to culture. Therefore, they contend, there can be no consistent morality for all people, and Christians therefore cannot impose their moral rules upon others. Of course these two arguments cannot be used together to oppose Christianity, since they cancel out one another.

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul discussed natural law. First, he stated that any person can observe the world and deduce the existence of a Creator, even though most religions worship some part of creation rather than its Creator. Next, he spoke of obedience to the Law, pointing out that even people who have never encountered the written Law, delivered at Mount Sinai, still have a version of the law within them. They have consciences which sometimes accuse them and sometimes excuse them. Paul wrote that those who have the written Law will be judged by the written Law, but those who have only the inner law of conscience will be judged by that inner law.

As a result of that inner law, conscience, or “natural law,” the world has known many well-behaved and moral Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Daoists, followers of indigenous religions, atheists, and agnostics. If the truth of Christianity were judged only by the behavior of its followers, Christianity would be no truer than other religions or than no religion at all. Jews and Christians and Muslims consult sacred writings for lists of rules; among other people, morality is taught in the family or in the community, and it is reinforced by conscience.

When dealing with light and darkness, though, the key question is neither, “do you know the rules?” nor “do you follow the rules?” Paul points out that all people—whether they have the written Law or only the law of conscience—have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. He goes on to say that all people “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ” (Romans 3:23-24). The true light comes, not from the rules, but from the grace of God that is greater than all his rules.

IB correctly stated this important point in her post, saying, “Well, actually I believe that without God’s grace, without the sacrifice made for us on the cross, we really would be plunged into a dark abyss, both in this world and beyond. Both literally, metaphorically, and spiritually. It is not really the rules at all Violet, nor the law, but rather Grace.” The Light of the world is found in Christ’s rescue mission, not in his law-giving actions. Those who attempt to live without that grace and forgiveness are living without light, no matter how hard they try to obey the rules, and no matter how well they obey the rules.

Sad to say, even some Christians measure their life in the Light by how well they conform to the Law. They overlook the grace of God as they judge themselves and as they judge one another. Those outside the community of believers easily change the subject to individual rules, whether those that are consistent in all cultures or those that vary among different cultures. So long as we look only at the rules, we are still living in darkness. Only when we look to the Savior will we see the light.

If anyone is interested in viewing this topic from a different direction, I suggest you look at one of my posts from last year: God has two plans. J.

It’s not fair!

Anyone who has raised children or has spent time around children has heard many times the complaint, “It’s not fair!” Children seem to have a strong sense of right and wrong and claim to be able to perceive injustice, although sometimes it seems that the words “It’s not fair!” really mean, “That’s not what I want.”

As people mature, they come to learn that life is often unfair. Suffering often seems meaningless. Bad people get away with their crimes, while people trying their best to be good have severe problems. Some behavior may increase the chance of certain diseases, but there are always some people who engage in that behavior without harm to themselves and others who contract the disease without increasing their risk by what they do.

Bad behavior has been compared to pollution, which damages the environment and causes all to suffer; yet the suffering caused by that pollution is random and not fair. Sometimes it is worse than random. The owner and managers of a factory may decide to cut corners even though their poor policy pollutes the community’s drinking water. The owner and manager can afford to buy bottled water, but the rest of the people in the community have no choice but to drink the polluted water.

This problem has been recognized for a long time. Psalm 72 describes the problem, speaking of the “prosperity of the wicked,” noticing that “they have no struggles…they are free from common human burdens.” “Always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.”

Some people say that random suffering occurs because God is not good. Others say that God himself is good but that he does not care about the people living in this world. Still others say that God cares, but that he is not strong enough to defend all his people from suffering and from the power of evil. For those who believe that God is good and that God cares and that God is almighty, random suffering can be a challenge to faith and to trust in God.

Imagine a world that was perfectly fair. Imagine that no one suffered except as a consequence of his or her own bad behavior. I could not hurt you with a weapon and you could not hurt me; we could only hurt ourselves. No one would succeed in lying or in stealing, but whenever a person tried to lie or to steal, that person would suffer for that misbehavior. If you saw a person in distress, you would know that such a person was getting what he or she deserves. When you met a person with no problems, you would know that you are in the presence of someone you can trust.

How would you fare in such a world? Have you always been truthful with every word you have spoken? Have you never taken anything that does not belong to you? Have you been content with what you have? Have you always tried to help other people around you? Have you always given God the honor he deserves?

Unless your life is flawless, you do not really want to live in a world that is perfectly fair. For that matter, God does not want to be perfectly fair to you. God designed a world in which people do not get what they deserve because he wanted us to be able to help each other. More than that, God wanted to be able to help us. He wanted to be able to rescue us from the punishment we deserve for all our misbehavior in his world.

Jesus of Nazareth deserved nothing but good. He honored God in heaven and obeyed all his commands. He was kind and helpful to the people around him. He always spoke the truth. He never tried to take anything that did not belong to him. He never hurt another person by deliberate cruelty or by carelessness.

In a world of perfect fairness, nothing bad could happen to Jesus. Yet Jesus had enemies who opposed him and wanted to destroy him. They arrested him and accused him of crimes. They lied about him and abused him. They condemned him, and then they delivered him to the Roman authorities, telling even more lies about him. The Roman authorities mocked Jesus, tortured him, and killed him. They nailed him to a cross, sending him to the kind of death reserved in Roman law for only the worst of criminals.

In a world that is perfectly fair, such things could not happen. Jesus did not want to be perfectly fair. He wanted to rescue you and me from the punishment we deserve. He wants to give us the rewards for perfect goodness that only he deserves. God designed a world in which suffering and evil can be unfair so that God could be unfair to us. God wanted to treat us far better than we deserve to be treated.

When you face a situation that is unfair, you can stamp your feet and cry like a child. You also can remember that not all injustice is bad for you. God was unfair to Jesus for your benefit. God is unfair to you; that is good news for you. Allow the injustice of this world to remind you of the perfect love of God and his injustice on your behalf. Know that Jesus is never going to stop being unfair to you for your benefit.

J.

God has two plans

The key to understanding the Bible is realizing that God has two plans. A reader who does not know those two plans or who mixes them together is sure to misunderstand the Bible. A reader who knows the two plans of God will understand far more of what the Bible says.

One key passage that describes both plans is Ephesians 2:8-10—For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (NIV). In the life of the Church these two plans have been given many names, but I call them the plan of creation and the plan of salvation.

God created people to do good works. Men and women are created in the image of God, and God is love. Therefore, God wants us to love. He wants us to love him whole-heartedly, and he wants us to love each other as much as we love ourselves. The rest of God’s commands teach us how to love. Because we love God, we will not have any higher priority than God, and we will not misuse God’s name. We will give God the time he deserves, and we will honor the authorities he has placed over us in this world, beginning with our parents. Because we love our neighbors, we will respect and protect their lives, their marriages, their property, and their reputations. Because we love both God and our neighbors, we will be content with what we have and not angry because other people have good things.

Whenever someone asks, “Why do I exist? Why did God make me?” the answer is the plan of creation. We were made to do good and loving things, works which God prepared for us in advance. As we learn about his plan, though, we realize that we have not loved as God wants us to love. We have fallen short of God’s plan. Our lives do not match the Maker’s specifications. We are substandard, and we cannot fix ourselves. Therefore, God has a second plan, the plan of salvation.

God entered this world as one of us. He was Jesus from Nazareth, completely God and completely human. He lived a perfect life of love, the kind of life God wants all of us to live. Then he sacrificed himself on a cross, paying our debt so we can be forgiven. This plan of salvation—this rescue mission—this great exchange—was done because God loves us. We do not deserve to be rescued. We cannot repay God for saving us. His plan of salvation is a result of his love and not of anything that we have done or can do or ever will do.

People confuse these two plans. They think that God made us so he could love us. Then they think that God rescues us because of something we do. No penance, no prayer, and no decision can cause God to love or forgive any of us. The plan of creation is about what we are to do. The plan of salvation is about what God does for us. The perfect life of Jesus replaces our mistake-filled lives so we can have the rewards he earned. The sacrifice of Jesus takes away all our sins so we can escape the punishment we deserve. The plan of salvation is a gift, given to us by grace. Not only can we never pay God for that gift, we actually insult God what we try to pay him for his gift to us.

One result of the plan of salvation is that we are returned to the plan of creation. We are given power to do the good and loving things God planned for us to do. The love of God that flows into our lives does not stop with us. It flows through us and into the lives of those around us. So far, we do this imperfectly. We make mistakes every day, and we ask God to forgive us every day. A Day is coming when God’s plans will reach their fulfillment. After that Day, we will love as we should love, and from that Day on we will love that way forever.

When I am discouraged by the failures in my life, or when I am overwhelmed with thoughts and feelings that my life is useless and without meaning, the two plans of God pull me back off the ledge. I know that I exist for a reason. I know that God loves me for no reason. I might not feel any better with that knowledge, but because I know it is true, I can go on living.

J.