Early Christianity, part one

Jesus of Nazareth designated some of his followers as “apostles”—messengers with authority to proclaim his word, to forgive sins, to perform miracles as he had done, and to declare his victory over all evil. Convinced by his resurrection that Jesus is the Christ—the promised Savior of the world, a visit from God to his people—the apostles began at Jerusalem to share the message of the Christ. Their audience carried their message to many parts of the Roman Empire. Soon the apostles themselves were preaching in the surrounding area. Traveling the roads built and protected by Rome, they carried their message throughout the Hellenistic world and beyond its borders into Africa, Asia, and Europe.

The apostles of Jesus preached first to Jews, then also to Gentiles. Roman civilization tolerated the Jews, in spite of their uniqueness. Jews worshiped only one God. They observed a holiday every seventh day. Their religion defined the food they ate, the clothes they wore, and many other details of everyday life. At first, Christianity was treated as another Jewish movement, like the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots. Because of its popularity among Gentiles, though, Roman officials began to take wary notice of the Christians. Rome was always willing to add one more god to the list of gods it worshiped. Persian and Egyptian gods had been added to the pantheon, as had Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus. The insistence of Christians that only one God is the true God, that they could only worship to one God and pray to one God, offended the tolerance sensibilities of the Romans. Fearing that the monotheism of the Christians might offend the gods, some authorities demanded that Christians pray and sacrifice to the Fortune of Rome. When Christians refused, they were imprisoned, tortured, and sometimes killed. Persecution of Christians was not consistent or enduring for the three hundred years between Christ and Constantine. Often Christians were tolerated and ignored. But some local officials, and a few of the Caesars, demanded uniform tolerance throughout the Empire. Christian intolerance of other religions made them suspect. For that reason, they were sometimes called to answer to the authorities, facing persecution if they remained faithful to Christ and to their one God.

Many Christians endured persecution, even to the point of death. Others fell away from the faith. When persecution ended, some of those who had denied Christ wanted to return to the Church. Their return caused a crisis among Christian leaders. Some leaders reminded the fallen that Jesus had said, “Whoever denies me before men, I will deny before my Father in heaven.” Other Christians reminded those leaders that the central theme of Christianity is forgiveness of sinners, that even the apostle Peter had denied Christ and had been restored to the Church. A compromise was reached in which fallen Christians could be accepted back into the Church, but only after they had endured a time of testing, or probation. Forgiveness was granted freely and unconditionally because of the suffering and death of Jesus. Church membership was allowed only after candidates had demonstrated their sincere repentance through good works, or penance. When asked about Christians who died before completing their penance, Christian leaders invented a condition called “purgatory” in which Christians could complete their penance before arriving in Paradise. Centuries later, these ideas of penance and purgatory would lead to a crisis in the Church, generally called the Reformation.

The apostles developed a pattern of preaching that centered around the person of Jesus. They mentioned his baptism by John, they described some of the miracles he worked, and they quoted some of his teaching, including his parables. The bulk of their message focused on Holy Week, from the Sunday when Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem through the Sunday he rose from the dead after his crucifixion. They also explained the relationship of these events to the teachings and history of Moses and the prophets and the consequences of those events to the lives of those who heard and believed the message about Jesus. Eventually, the apostles began to write letters to congregations containing the same message. Already in the first century, Jews and Christians agreed on a core of older writings from Moses and the prophets—called the Hebrew Bible by the Jews and the Old Testament by the Christians. Now Christians formed a New Testament to accompany the Old Testament. Already in the second century the official New Testament was being collected, although some variations of that collection existed into the fourth century. To be included in the New Testament, a writing needed to pass three tests. It needed to be written by one of the apostles (or by someone closely associated with an apostle—Mark, who wrote what Peter preached; Luke, who traveled with Paul and who interviewed eyewitnesses of Jesus; and James and Jude, the brothers of Jesus). It needed to be consistent with the message taught by the apostles and their followers. It needed to be known in all the major congregations of Christians, not only in one part of the Roman world. No conspiracy gathered the books of the Bible; consensus formed the canon (or list of approved readings) based upon those three simple rules.

Christian thought contained some diversity, including movements that went very much against the grain of what was said and done by Jesus and his apostles. In my next post, I will address some of those early Christian movements. J.

The historical Jesus

After Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, a theologian and historian named Dionysius began the custom of numbering years based on the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. According to Dionysius’ plan, Jesus was born in the year 1 A.D. (which stands for Anno Domini, the Year of the Lord); the previous year was 1 B.C., so there was no Year Zero in his system. Unfortunately, Dionysius made a miscalculation in his counting. We know this today because Herod the Great, the king who tried to kill Jesus, died in the year 4 B.C. Having this knowledge, we could correct Dionysius’ arithmetic so that it is now the year 2026, Columbus first sailed west in 1497, the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1781, and so on… or we can just live with the odd statement that Jesus was born around 5 B.C., which is what we have chosen to do.

Few historians today doubt that Jesus from Nazareth lived two thousand years ago, even if some Internet commenters and pop-up pages claim otherwise. Even though the name of Jesus does not appear in first century documents not written by believers, the very existence of those believers demonstrates a historical Jesus in the first century. While some have tried to dismiss the New Testament writings as inaccurate summaries of the life and teaching of Jesus prepared two or three generations after his lifetime, the New Testament writings are clearly based on an oral tradition that is anchored in the time of Jesus and in the first generation of his followers. Paul’s understanding of Christ and the Gospel was formed while many eyewitnesses were still available. Theories that discount the accuracy of the New Testament rest upon presuppositions that miracles never happen, that accurate knowledge of the future is impossible, and that people always manipulate oral tradition to accommodate their beliefs. None of these presuppositions are scientific or logical, and the third of them has been thoroughly debunked by recent studies of oral tradition in a nonliterate community.

 Historians agree, then, that a person called Jesus stands at the heart of Christianity. “Christ” is not a last name (Jesus was not the son of Mary Christ); “Christ” is a title that means the Chosen One or the Anointed One—kings and priests were anointed in Israel and were called christs or messiahs. In Nazareth he was Jesus son of Joseph; elsewhere he was Jesus from Nazareth. Though he was not part of the official teaching structure in first century Judaism, he did preach and teach. He emphasized the Law of Moses, making its commandments even more strict than the experts at the time were teaching. Jesus emphasized that anger at another person, to the point of shouting insults, is equivalent to murder, and that looking at another person for the purpose of lust is equivalent to adultery. At the same time, he countered the detailed analysis of the Law regarding details such as work allowed on the Sabbath and the ceremonial washing of hands. Jesus viewed himself as consistent with the teachings of Moses and the prophets. More than that, he identified himself as fulfillment of Moses and the prophets. His parables—which, on the surface, seem to be lessons about living property and loving one another—centered on his identity and on his mission to bring unconditional forgiveness to sinners. Unlike most holy people, Jesus associated with sinners and was honored by sinners. Jesus did not proclaim revolution against political and religious authorities. His proclamation of the Kingdom of God was defined by his testimony when he said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus called upon people to repent (to confess their sins and throw themselves upon God’s mercy) and to believe the Gospel (the good news of God’s mercy as delivered through Christ Jesus).

Jesus accompanied his preaching with miracles. He healed the sick, cast out demons, calmed storms, and raised the dead. These miracles demonstrated his power over nature as the Creator of nature. They revealed his compassion for people in need. They fulfilled promises given to God’s people through Moses and the prophets. They sampled what Jesus promises to do on the Day of the Lord when all the dead will be raised, all sicknesses will be healed, and all evil will be cast out of the world. Suggestions that gullible and superstitious people were tricked by Jesus, or that later tradition attached stories from other myths and legends to the person of Jesus, are countered by Christian insistence that Jesus himself, having been killed, rose from the dead. Following that resurrection, the opponents of Jesus could not produce his body and were limited to claiming that his disciples stole his corpse. But those same disciples, risking their own lives, insisted that Jesus had died and was risen. His resurrection was presented as evidence that Jesus is who he claimed to be—the Christ, the Son of God—that his promise to defeat evil and rescue sinners has been kept, and that the Day of the Lord is coming, a Day when Jesus will raise all the dead and will invite those who trust in Jesus to live within forever in a healed and perfected world.

The opponents of Jesus accused him of blasphemy—of insulting God by claiming to be God. If Jesus did not believe himself to be the Son of God and the Christ, he could have escaped condemnation and execution by saying so. Instead, he confirmed the truth of the charges against him. Needing Roman permission to execute Jesus, his opponents brought him to a Roman governor who had a different understanding of what it meant to be the son of a god. Governor Pilate would not have dared affirm charges against another Hercules, or any heroic son of any god. But Jesus’ opponents rephrased their charge. They chose the foulest word in Latin and said that Jesus claimed to be a king—Rex Jesus. For this he was executed by the Romans, who posted the charge on his cross: “Jesus from Nazareth, King of the Jews.” (This charge is often abbreviated in artwork to the letters INRI.) The shameful suffering and death of Jesus would be an embarrassing contradiction in most religions, but Christians affirm that Jesus endured the cross to pay the debt of sinners and to defeat the forces of evil. Christians teach that Jesus took upon himself the punishment sinners deserve so he could give in exchange the rewards he deserves for his perfectly obedient life. He is the only Son of God, but those who trust in him become God’s children. He is the only one without sin, but he bears the burden of all sins so those who trust in him are now clothed in his righteousness.

Jesus was a teacher about love and righteousness, but he was far more than just a teacher. Jesus was an example of sacrificial love and righteousness, but he was far more than just an example. As the Christ, Jesus defeated evil, and he shares his victory with all who trust in him. Jesus rescued sinners from the power of evil; he paid a ransom that ends the debt of every sinner. He established a Church to proclaim news of his victory and to share his forgiveness with all people. He is with his people always, and he will appear in glory on the Day of the Lord to finalize the work that he finished on the cross.

All this happened in a small region of the world during the time of Caesar Augustus and Tiberius Caesar, emperors of Rome. The accomplishments of those Roman Emperors are largely forgotten, save to a few professional historians. The accomplishments of Jesus, King of the Jews, continue to shape the world today. J.

A tent and a building

 For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling,if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked.For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord,  for we walk by faith, not by sight.  Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.  So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.  For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (II Corinthians 5:1-10)

              For centuries, thinkers and philosophers have tried to figure out what it is that makes us the people that we are. What is it that makes me me? What is it that makes you you? We have many words to describe that unique individual experience that belongs to each of us. We speak of the spirit, the soul, the mind, the heart, and the self. In India it is called atman; in China it is called chi. Some people think that only human beings have this individual self; others see the life force flowing through animals, through plants, even through rocks and rivers and mountains. Science has tried to find this self, but it cannot be located or measured or described scientifically. We generally assume that we have a soul or a spirit. Most religious descriptions of people include a soul or a spirit. It’s hard to imagine ourselves without a soul or a spirit. But the information we have about our souls and spirits comes, not from scientific investigation and study, but from the Bible, the Word of God. Since God created us, we willingly learn from him how we are made.

              Since we each have a soul or spirit, we want to know: what happens to that soul or spirit when we die? Does it disintegrate, as a dead body falls apart over time? Does it linger in this world for a while, haunting places as a ghost or a phantom? Does it come back again and again, born in a new body each time, experiencing the world repeatedly through history? God’s Word assures us that some part of us survives the death of the body. It does not return again and again—it goes somewhere to wait for the resurrection at the end of time and for the new creation. For believers, that waiting place is called Paradise. We are with Jesus in Paradise, in the hands of God the Father. For unbelievers, that waiting place is called Hades. The Bible describes Hades as an uncomfortable place, but it still involves waiting until the resurrection and the final judgment. On that Day Jesus will divide us into two groups, welcoming his saints into the new creation where we will live with him forever. The other group, the sinners who refused to believe in Jesus, will be locked outside of that new creation, stuck forever in the outer darkness.

              The apostle Paul describes our current bodies as tents. We are camping on a battlefield, dwelling in tents, surrounded by a world polluted by sin and evil. The only existence we know is life in these bodies, but we know that this life is temporary. Even if we survive in this world and make it to one hundred years, that century is merely a drop in the ocean of eternity. We have been promised eternal life in a better world, a world without sin and evil and death. We are looking forward to that new creation. We camp in tents today, but God has prepared buildings for us in the new creation, bodies that will last forever without sicknesses or injuries or allergies. Paul says that today we walk by faith, not by sight. Our hope is not merely to leave these bodies behind and to live as spirits with God in Paradise. Our hope incudes the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. We eagerly await our final destination, the new bodies God will raise from the grave, changing them so they will last forever.

              Today we cope with what we have. We take care of these bodies, these temporary dwellings, these tents. Consider how much time we invest in our teeth, our hair, our faces. We clean these bodies and then we cover them with nice clothes. We prepare food and eat food and then wash up after each meal. We give these bodies rest and exercise. We shelter them in buildings, and we keep those buildings at comfortable temperatures in the summer heat and the winter cold. God gave us these bodies. Good stewardship includes caring for these bodies, making them fit for the good works that God intends us to do in this world. But many people become obsessed with their bodies, their earthly tents. They forget that we have a heavenly dwelling, prepared by God. While we are in this tent, we groan. We are vulnerable to the many things that go wrong in us and around us in a sin-polluted world. We think about our health and comfort today and tomorrow, investing our time and energy in maintaining these current tents. Meanwhile, we neglect our purpose in this world. As Paul says, we should make it our aim to please God today. We will receive what is due us for the way we have served God while camping in these bodies. Stewardship is more than keeping our bodies fed and clothed and clean and healthy. Stewardship is also living actively in these bodies, loving God and loving our neighbors. Stewardship includes using these bodies to do good works, works that help the people around us and bring glory to God, because we are God’s people. We are Christ’s body, doing his work in this world.

              Doing good works is half the struggle. Camping on this battlefield, we also face temptations to sin. The devil and the sinful world around us are constantly showing us where we can do things for our pleasure rather than for God’s glory. The sin still within each of us would like to follow the path of temptation and sin rather than following God’s path. Different people are tempted in different ways. For some of us, the temptations are different at different ages, different stages of life. But temptation is always available. We aim to please God, but our aim can be diverted by the cloud of temptations that surrounds us.

              We have learned how to protect ourselves from viruses in this world. We wash our hands for twenty seconds; we wear masks in some situations. But how do we protect ourselves from spiritual danger? How do we purify ourselves from threats to the soul? We are under attack. We are constantly being threatened with evil. What mask, what sanitizer, will keep us safe from temptation?

              Martin Luther said this about temptation: you can’t keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair. Temptations will surround us as long as we live in this world. Jesus was tempted as we are. How we respond to temptation is what matters. We realize that we should just say no. Many times a day, that is exactly what we say. But it is one thing to say no; it is another to move on past the temptation and not linger in the thought and imagination of what we could be doing. Holding on to our anger can be as sinful as striking out in anger. Remembering and reliving a temptation can be as sinful as giving in to that temptation. But even when we resist temptation, the devil has not finished with us. He can still battle us with the temptation after we have said no. He can make us feel guilty for being tempted. When he tries that attack, we remind ourselves that Jesus was also tempted, that Jesus said no, and that Jesus has given us the strength to say no. We should not feel guilty for being tempted; we should only feel guilty for surrendering to the temptation, for sinning, or for hanging on to that temptation and enjoying the thought of sin.

              When we have resisted temptation, when we have moved on to good works instead of living in the temptation, Satan’s other attack is the sin of pride. He wants us to keep score of our goodness. He wants us to measure how good we are, how many sins we have avoided. When he has us measuring ourselves and taking pride in ourselves, he helps build barriers that separate us from God. Even though, at first, our aim was to please God, soon we are pleasing ourselves by our goodness. We will be in big trouble on Judgment Day when we stand before the throne of God, boasting in our goodness, because our goodness never will be good enough to bring us into God’s perfect new creation.

              We will receive what is due for what we have done in these bodies, these tents, whether we have done good or have done evil. But God’s standard calls for perfection. The smallest sin, the smallest surrender to temptation, can bar us from the new creation. When we think of that Day when we will stand before the throne of God, we must remember how Jesus prepared us for that Day.

              Jesus lived among us as one of us. Jesus resisted temptation in our name. Jesus lived the perfect righteousness that earns a place in the new creation. Jesus then exchanged lives with us. Jesus took upon himself the guilt for our sins. Jesus paid our debt in full on the cross. Jesus has sanitized our lives to make us pure and acceptable in the sight of his Father. What we receive on Judgment Day is shaped by the work of Jesus. God will see no evil in us, because Jesus has removed every sin. God will see only good in us, because Jesus has credited each of us with his righteousness.

              Paying attention to Jesus and not to ourselves, we begin to imitate Jesus. We do good things that help our neighbors and bring glory to God. Again, the devil tempts us to take credit for those good things, to focus attention on our selves, to forget Jesus and the changes he has made in our lives. Our growth comes, not from our efforts to imitate Christ, but from his power working within us. The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like seeds that grow. The seed is planted, it sprouts, it produces roots and stems and leaves; eventually a crop appears, whether grain or grapes or mustard or apples or figs. A healthy tree produces fruit: the fruit does not give life to the tree, but the tree naturally produces fruit if it is alive. In a similar way, a Christian life is recognized by good works. Good works do not create Christian faith—faith is God’s gift, and life and growth come from that faith. When we focus on Jesus, these good things happen in our lives. When we focus on ourselves and forget Jesus, whatever good we accomplish is tarnished with pride and self-righteousness.

              Jesus Christ defeated sin and all its consequences, including death. Jesus Christ grants new life to his people. Jesus Christ lives in us, working in us the good things that God had in mind when he created us. Jesus Christ also sustains us in this new life. As seeds, when they have sprouted, need sun and rain and soil and tending, so we need the continuing work of Jesus in our lives. We need his Word, which guides us and also gives strength for our faith to grow. We need his Church, as Jesus works in us to build our faith and to make one another strong in the faith. We need his Supper, as Jesus nourishes us by his own body and blood, removing our sins and guaranteeing us eternal life. God’s Holy Spirit, given to us as a guarantee of all his promises, works through the Word and the Church and the Sacrament to give us faith and to help that faith grow and remain strong.

              We are always of good courage. We live today in tents on a battlefield, at home in the body and away from the Lord. One day we will leave these tents behind—we will be with the Lord and away from the body. We will be with Jesus in Paradise. But the best is still to come. God has eternal mansions for us, new bodies that will live forever in a new creation. Our place there is guaranteed, not by what we do for Jesus, but by what Jesus has done for us.

The Axial Age and Israel

As I reported in this post, religious scholars tend to fall into two groups: some see religions as evolving over time, coming to more mature positions of faith, while others see religions as beginning with a common truth but straying from that truth in various directions. After choosing between those two options, scholars tend to interpret religious writings and practices according to those assumptions. They even assign dates to important events and writings based on those assumptions. The traditional dates given to writings and events in the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament) are rejected by advocates of evolutionary religion; they are far too early to fit the pattern that supports the evolution of religion. Redating allows evolutionary scholars to fit traditional and prophetic writings within their own historic pattern, thus perpetuating a circular argument in which the theory determines the dates and the dates support the theory.

According to the figures given in the Hebrew Bible, the Exodus from Egypt occurred about 1446 BCE. The Israelite conquest of Canaan began forty years later, about 1406 BCE. This allows about three hundred years for Bronze Age Israel under Joshua and the Judges, culminating in Samuel and his anointing of the kings, Saul and David. David’s son Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, dedicating it in 957 BCE. From there we can trace the kings of Israel and of Judah, leading to the fall of Samaria (the capital of Israel) in 722 BCE and the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 587 BCE.

If the Exodus happened in 1446 BCE, then the monotheism of Pharaoh Ikhnaton came in the aftermath of the Exodus and was a response to the preaching of Moses and to the battles God fought against Egypt and its gods. Evolutionary scholars prefer to say that Ikhnaton came first and that Israel imitated his monotheism. If Zarathustra lived in Persia during the Axial Age, then he might have learned about monotheism from exiles displaced from Israel. Evolutionary scholars prefer to say that Zarathustra’s ideas contributed to the growth of monotheism among the Israelites and Jews. Many of the prophetic writings—even many of the writings attributed to Moses—are redated by evolutionary scholars to be created in the Axial Age. According to the traditional dates, only Ezra and Nehemiah (along with the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi) belong to the Axial Age. Moses and Elijah and Amos and Hosea and Isaiah preached and wrote earlier; even Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Daniel land just before the emergence of the Axial Age in China, India, Persia, and Greece.

Individual responsibility and personal accountability are important marks of Axial Age thinking. Earlier religious movements tend to be corporate instead of individual; they see gods working with families and clans and tribes and nations and with all of creation rather than stressing individual relationships with the gods. The Hebrew Bible presents a blend of corporate religion and individual spirituality. Throughout Moses and the prophets, God sometimes deals with his people as a whole but sometimes works with people as individuals. Scholars dissect writings attributed to Moses and the prophets, trying to place some writings before the Axial Age and others within or after the Axial Age. This dissection often overlooks the structure of the texts, ignoring the unity and organization of the writings to assign their ideas to different times and communities and to insist that the final form of these writings was achieved relatively recently by anonymous editors.

The real impact of the Axial Age in Israel can be found only after the time of Ezra. The priest Ezra helped to gather the Jews around God’s Word while Jerusalem and the Temple were being rebuilt. He read the writings of Moses to the Jews and led them in observing God’s commands. Ezra may be responsible for some of the editorial work that gathered and united the book of Psalms. He may have also gathered the writings of the Prophets and organized them into the books that are read and studied today. Ezra demanded faithfulness to God, faithfulness expressed in both communal and individual ways. Reading the ancient books of Moses, Ezra assured the Jews that these commandments and promises were as important to God’s people at his time and place as they were to the Israelites following Moses centuries earlier.

After Ezra died, Axial Age influences began to seep into the Jewish community. They were not isolated: they were first part of the Persian Empire, then part of Alexander’s Empire, then part of the Hellenistic world, encamped on the moving border between the Ptolemaic Empire in Egypt and the Seleucid Empire in Syria. Hellenistic thought was Axial Age thought, strongly flavored by Greek philosophers and scientists. Jewish scholars studied the writings of Moses and the Prophets, and they began to apply them to individual life, separating them from the shared life of the community of God’s people. They took requirements out of the Temple—such as priests who washed their hands before offering sacrifices—and applied them to life in the Jewish home. They took the requirements of the Sabbath Day and established detailed regulations describing what is allowed and what is forbidden on that day. What they were doing, they described as “building a fence around the Law.” They remembered how their ancestors had violated the covenant God made with his people on Mount Sinai. Seeing themselves as living under the same covenant, they tried to ensure that they would not displease God as their ancestors had done. Instead, they would earn his favor by careful observation of all his rules.

Jesus of Nazareth was born in the midst of this Axial Age restatement of the holy covenant between God and his people. Jesus disagreed with the interpretations offered by the Hellenistic Bible experts among the Jews, people called “Pharisees” in the New Testament. Jesus demonstrated that Moses and the Prophets involved more than rules and regulations for God’s people: they offered the promise of a Savior, a personal visit from God, who would redeem his people, crushing the enemies of sin and evil and death. Jesus also claimed to be that promised Redeemer, a personal visit from God, come to claim his people and to bring them out of the wilderness into a Promised Land.

Many Jews trusted Jesus and followed him. Gentiles also came to faith in him. Experts in the Law opposed him. They resented his rejection of their interpretations of the covenant. They especially resented his promise to forgive sins, to be the Redeemer who rescues God’s people. They tried to destroy Jesus. Instead, they worked to fulfill the promises stated in Moses and the Prophets. Followers of Jesus, called Christians, preserved the Hebrew Bible, but they included with it writings of apostles who said that Jesus had fulfilled the promises of God and had created a new covenant to replace the one that was broken.

Christianity is not an Axial Age movement. In some ways, Christianity is a reaction against Axial Age thought. It restores the concept of a people of God, a community that is now called the Holy Christian Church. Yet Christianity also stresses individual responsibility and a personal relationship with God. Like Moses and the Prophets, Christian faith covers both sides of life, offering its members citizenship in God’s kingdom but also personal status as royalty in that kingdom. This new teaching, according to Jesus and his followers, is as old as the timeless plan of God, a plan of salvation that goes back to the very beginning of creation. J.

The Axial Age and Persia

The Persian Empire emerged suddenly during the Axial Age. It was unlike the older civilizations that had developed in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China. Indo-Europeans migrated into the highlands of what today is called Iran over the centuries, establishing small kingdoms of Medes, Persians, Elamites, and others. Cyrus, a prince of Persia, was able to establish power over his neighbors around the beginning of the Axial Age. After conquering the wealthy kingdom of Lydia (in what today is called Turkey), he led his forces into Mesopotamia and lay siege to the mighty city Babylon. According to ancient historians, Cyrus had his army divert the water of the Euphrates River into mad-made lakes so they could capture the city of Babylon by marching down the dry riverbed under the walls of the city. The book of Daniel in the Bible confirms that the city fell suddenly to the Persians. They lay claim to the entire Babylonian Empire, although they had to fight numerous battles to consolidate their control over what Babylon had previously claimed.

Cyrus died on the battlefield. His son Cambyses was fighting to retain Egypt when, according to ancient historians, he heard that his younger brother had seized the throne back home. Saying, “That’s impossible—I had my brother killed before I came to Egypt,” Cambyses rushed to return home. In his hurry, he accidently cut his leg with his own sword and eventually died of gangrene. A distant relative named Darius denounced the false younger son of Cyrus and had him killed. (The Persian historians of his time appear reluctant to consider the possibility that the son was genuine and that Darius was lying. Thus, historians have an unsolvable puzzle regarding this event in Persian history.) Taking hold of the kingdom, Darius established its borders and its administrative policies. He attempted to add European Greece to his holdings in 490 BCE; his son Xerxes led a similar invasion ten years later. Greek victories over Persian invaders are vital episodes in Greek history, though the setbacks mattered less to the Persians.

The Persian Empire was divided into satrapies. The ruling satraps were Persian, but the rest of government was locally managed. So far as people paid their taxes and did not violate major Persian laws, the Persian authorities gave them local autonomy. Local languages, religions, customs, and practices were allowed and even encouraged. Earlier empires, including the Assyrians and Babylonians, maintained control of conquered lands by displacing populations (much as the United States did to American tribes and China still does to its citizens today). Persians even allowed people like the Jews to return home, rebuild their cities and temples, and honor their gods. To allow rapid communication through the empire (and rapid movement of the Persian army when needed), the Persian government built highways throughout the lands they controlled. These highways were used by travelers and merchants, beginning a network of trade that would soon link major civilizations of three continents. Government messengers would travel these highways, exchanging horses at each station along the way; this practice, revived in the United States, was known as the Pony Express. Advisors to the government were called Magi. Like the Cabinet of the United States presidency, magi were experts in a variety of areas, including science, history, social studies, religious texts, and law. Their influence as a class of advisors to kings and government officials would remain long after the Persian Empire had fallen to pieces.

The official religion of the Persian Empire was Zoroastrianism. Founded by a man known both as Zoroaster and Zarathustra, this religion has always taught that only one god exists and that all competing gods are liars and demons, not truly gods. Zoroastrianism acknowledges the existence of a secondary evil being who opposes the true god; people in the world must choose between supporting the good or the evil. Support for the good includes piety, unselfishness, care for neighbors, and care of the environment. Support for the evil includes ignorance about god, selfishness, abuse of other people, and destruction of the environment. Those who have supported the good find, at death, that they travel a broad avenue to Paradise; those who have supported the evil find that avenue narrow—in some cases, as narrow as the blade of a knife—and they risk falling off the avenue into unending fire. Because the world currently is balanced between good and evil, each human choice influences the outcome of the world. However, most Zoroastrians are convinced that, in the end, good will overcome evil.

Respect for the environment includes maintaining the purity of the elements—earth, water, air, and fire. Various fire ceremonies are part of Zoroastrian practice. A person who dies cannot be buried (polluting the earth), burned (polluting air and fire), or thrown into the sea (polluting the water). Instead, their bodies are left on platforms to be consumed by birds of the air, nourishing nature and recycling the physical part of human existence while increasing the likelihood of a safe journey to Paradise.

Some historians identify Zarathustra as an Axial Age teacher; others say he lived centuries before the Axial Age. Darius appears to be the first Persian Emperor to endorse Zoroastrianism formally. If Zarathustra was not born until around the time of Cyrus, he may well have been influenced in his beliefs by Israelites relocated into his vicinity by the Assyrian Empire. If he lived much earlier, his ideas may have helped shape Hebrew belief, thus contributing to Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings.

“Paradise” is a loan-word from the Hebrew language. So is “Satan”—Satan is the prosecuting attorney in a Persian court of law. (For Christians, Jesus is a defense attorney, an Advocate before the Father.)  The images of Paradise for the good and unending fire for the evil have been adopted from Zoroastrianism into Christian and Muslim thought. One branch of Christianity, called Manichaeism, deliberately blended Zoroastrian and Christian beliefs. Manichaeism was rejected by early Christians (including Augustine of Hippo, who in his earlier years had been a Manichee). It was seen as placing too much responsibility for human salvation and for the world’s future condition on human behavior and decisions, rather than trusting the promises of an Almighty God and the victory won by Christ on the cross. Modern Christian preachers who stress the beauty of heaven and the horrors of hell and who call upon their listeners to choose between them reflect Manichaean theology rather than that of the Bible. J.

A Good Friday hymn

O sacred Head, now wounded, With grief and shame weighed down,

Now scornfully surrounded With thorns, Thine only crown.

O sacred Head, what glory, What bliss ‘til now was thine!

Yet, though despised and gory, I joy to call Thee mine.

Men mock and taunt and jeer Thee, Thou noble countenance,

Though mighty worlds shall fear Thee And flee before Thy glance.

How art Thou pale with anguish, With sore abuse and scorn!

How dost Thy visage languish That once was bright as morn!

Now from Thy cheeks has vanished Their color, once so fair;

From Thy red lips is banished The splendor that was there.

Grim death, with cruel rigor, Hath robbed Thee of Thy life;

Thus Thou hast lost Thy vigor, They strength, in this sad strife.

My burden in Thy Passion, Lord, Thou hast borne for me,

For it was my transgression Which brought this woe on Thee.

I cast me down before Thee; Wrath were my rightful lot.

Have mercy, I implore Thee; Redeemer, spurn me not!

My Shepherd, now receive me; My Guardian, own me Thine.

Great blessings Thou didst give me, O Source of gifts divine.

Thy lips have often fed me With words of truth and love;

Thy Spirit oft hath led me To heavenly joys above.

Here I will stand beside Thee, From Thee I will not part;

O Savior, do not chide me! When breaks Thy loving heart,

When soul and body languish In death’s cold, cruel grasp,

Then, in Thy deepest anguish, Thee in mine arms I’ll clasp.

The joy can ne’er be spoken, Above all joys beside,

When in Thy body broken I thus with safety hide.

O Lord of Life, desiring Thy glory now to see,

Beside Thy cross expiring, I’d breathe my soul to Thee.

What language shall I borrow To thank Thee, dearest Friend,

For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?

Oh, make me Thine forever! And should I fainting be,

Lord, let me never, never, Outlive my love for Thee.

My Savior, be Thou near me When death is at my door;

Then let Thy presence cheer me, Forsake me nevermore!

When soul and body languish, Oh, leave me not alone,

But take away mine anguish By virtue of Thine own!

Be Thou my Consolation, My Shield, when I must die;

Remind me of Thy Passion When my last hour draws nigh.

Mine eyes shall then behold Thee, Upon Thy cross shall dwell,

My heart by faith enfold Thee. Who dieth thus dies well.

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)

A Palm Sunday hymn

Ride on, ride on in majesty!

Hark! All the tribes Hosanna cry,

O Savior meek, pursue Thy road,

With palms and scattered garments strowed.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!

In lowly pomp ride on to die.

O Christ, Thy triumphs now begin

O’er captive death and conquered sin.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!

The angel armies of the sky

Look down with sad and wond’ring eyes

To see th’approaching sacrifice.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!

The last and fiercest strife is nigh.

The Father on His sapphire throne

Awaits His own anointed Son.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!

In lowly pomp, ride on to die.

Bow Thy meek head to mortal pain,

Then take, O God, Thy pow’r and reign.

Henry H. Milman (1791-1868)

Two plans: creation and salvation

              A story is told about a father and his son who took a donkey to town to sell it at the market. When they left their home, the father and his son walked alongside the donkey, one on the right and the other on the left. But the father overheard some people along the road commenting, “What a waste of a good animal, to carry nothing while both of them walk.” So the father told his son to ride the donkey. Soon he heard another group of people saying, “What a thoughtless boy, to ride the donkey while his father walks.” So the father had his son get off the donkey and instead he rode. But then he heard other people saying, “What a mean father, to make his son walk while he rides the donkey.” So the father told his son to get in front of him on the donkey so both of them would ride. But then the father heard some people say, “That poor donkey! How cruel of them to make it carry all that weight.” The father finally decided that he and his son would carry the donkey to town. Finally, they heard no more comments, because people were laughing too hard to say anything. Finally, the donkey lost patience, struggled, and ran off across the fields, and the father had no donkey to sell in town. The moral of the story is that you cannot please all of the people all of the time, so you might as well not try.

              Even the Almighty God cannot make everyone happy. The message of his Bible contains two simple plans that relate to us, his people. Lutherans call these plans Law and Gospel. They have many other names. From Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we might call them the plan of creation and the plan of salvation. Even with two simple plans, God often finds his people confusing them, mixing them, and misunderstanding how those two plans relate to our lives. Even among Christians who trust the Bible and believe that it is true, a trustworthy message from God, we still find many differences relating to these two plans and what they mean for our lives as God’s people.

              Why were you born? Why are you here on this earth? What is the purpose of your life? Paul says that we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand. God is love, and we were made in his image. We are created to love God wholeheartedly and to love our neighbors as ourselves. God’s Ten Commandments tell us how to love. If ten commandments are not enough for you, more than six hundred more commandments can be found in just the first five books of the Bible. All of these commandments are about love. They tell us how to love God. They tell us how to love our neighbors. They tell us how to be the people God had in mind when he created us in the beginning.

              God’s perfect world has become polluted by sin and evil. We are frequently tempted to sin, and every day we surrender to temptation. We rebel against God. We fail to love. We fall short of God’s plan for our lives. When we sin, God’s plan of creation cannot rescue us from evil. We are like the victim of robbers in the parable of the Good Samaritan. God’s good commandments, like the priest and the Levite, walk past us without stopping to help. Only a second plan can save us. This second plan is God’s plan of salvation. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. Jesus is the Good Samaritan who stops to rescue us, to heal us, to restore us. Whoever believes in him will not perish. Instead, through the plan of salvation, we receive eternal life. We are saved by grace, through faith, not by works. We are snatched out of the clutches of evil. Our sins are forgiven, and the sins committed against us are likewise cancelled. We belong to God, and no power in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.

              These two plans of God are vitally important. They are also fairly simple. God created us to do good works, to love as he loves, to forgive as he forgives. God loves us and rescues us by grace through faith when we sin and when we are hurt by evil in this world. When we want to know why we are here, we consult the plan of creation, the commandments of God, the Law. When we want to know how to be forgiven, how to have life, how to be free from evil, we consult the plan of salvation, the grace of God, the Gospel. Both plans are God’s plans. Both plans are important. Both plans give meaning to our lives. But even Christians who know both plans sometimes go off course when we start confusing these plans and mixing these plans and muddling the messages God has given us about these plans.

              God does not save us from sin and evil because we try our best to do what is good. Our best efforts are not good enough for God. God has zero tolerance for sin and evil. He hates sin because it hurts the people God loves. We cannot contribute anything to God’s plan of salvation. Jesus does all the work to rescue us. When we think that we are helping Jesus to save us, we are only getting in his way. We insult God by suggesting that he saved us because of good things we were doing. Even seeking God, even giving our hearts to God, even inviting Jesus to be our Savior, even these are not good works that contribute to our salvation. Jesus is the Shepherd who seeks us and finds us; we do not find him. Jesus claims our hearts, even though our hearts are stained and corrupted by sin and selfishness, hardly worthy of being gifts to him. Our decision to be God’s people means nothing: God’s decision to rescue us is the only decision that matters in God’s plan of salvation.

              God does not save us from sin and evil because of the good things we will do for him once we are saved. God’s grace restores the image of God that we had because of creation, the image of God that was damaged and lost through sin and rebellion. We are not yet perfect and sinless: we sin every day and need God’s forgiveness every day. God made us so we would do good works; God does not save us so we do good works. God saves us because he loves us. God gives his Son out of love. God rescues us by grace through faith, not because of works. Being forgiven, being rescued, we begin to be transformed into the image of Christ. His love enters our lives so we love God more and we love our neighbors more. But the good things we do are caused by the plan of salvation; they are not the reason for the plan of salvation. We cannot repay God for saving us, any more than we can purchase his salvation in the first place. Being saved by grace through faith is the result of God’s love, not a result of our love.

              Therefore, we cannot measure our salvation by the good things we do for God. We cannot be sure that we are going to heaven because of the good things we do for God. Other people see the good things we do out of love and recognize us as saints. Seeing our good works, they praise our Father in heaven. Our good works testify to others about God’s goodness, but they do not testify to our hearts. For one thing, we know our sins, our darkness hidden in our hearts from the rest of the world. We know how far we still remain from the perfect love God planned for us. We know our mixed motives for doing good, the times that we do the right things for the wrong reasons. For another, because we are Christians, our eyes and our hearts and our minds are to be focused on Jesus, not on ourselves. If we want to measure salvation, we look at the Savior. If we want to be sure that we belong to God and his kingdom, we reassure ourselves by God’s promises and not by our good works.

              We do not live up to the plan of creation. God’s Law guides our lives, but it does not lead us into heaven. When we have sinned, when we are victims of evil, the Law cannot help us. All we can do is throw ourselves on God’s grace and mercy. We confess our sins and ask him to forgive us. We call out to God for help, trusting his promises. We turn to the plan of salvation, setting aside the plan of creation so long as we need to be rescued from evil and restored to the people that belong to God.

              Jesus helps us. God gave his only Son. Jesus became human, became one of us, so he could accomplish the plan of creation in our place. He obeyed all the commandments of his Father, and he gives us the credit for his goodness. He trades places with us, letting us be blessed as he deserves while taking the blame for our sins. He clothes us in his righteousness, putting instead on his shoulders all of our guilt. On the cross, Jesus pays our debt. He accepts the wrath of his Father at sin and evil so he can give us instead the grace of his Father, bringing us his victory over sin and evil and death.

              Jesus fights the war against sin and evil and death, and Jesus wins the victory. He is the light shining in darkness, the light that the darkness can never overcome. On his own, Jesus defeated all the forces of darkness. He defeated all the sins ever committed, including my sins and your sins. He defeated the devil and all the evil forces that work against his plans. He defeated death—the wages of sin, the result of rebellion against God, the end of all that fails to match God’s plan of creation. Jesus proves that love is stronger than hate, stronger than pride, stronger than selfishness. Jesus loves, and so he sacrifices himself to rescue the people he loves. To the forces of evil, love is weakness. To Jesus, love is strength and glory. Love prevails; love triumphs; love never fails. We belong to him because of his love, which is bigger than all our failures and shortcomings.

              Therefore, Jesus gives us the gift of faith. We are saved by grace through faith. Faith cannot save us unless it is faith in Christ and him crucified. If we put faith in ourselves or in our good works, that faith cannot save us. Only God’s grace saves us, but that grace saves us through the faith God has given us. Faith is nothing we do for God—not a good work, not a gift, not even a decision. Faith is the relationship God has established with us. Faith is our confidence that the promises of God are true, and that confidence could not exist if God had not given us his promises.

              Therefore, God delivers those promises to us in ways that we call the Means of Grace. He speaks to us in the Church, promising us forgiveness. He speaks to us in the Bible, telling us his plans and bringing us his promises. He speaks to us in Holy Baptism, washing away our sins and adopting us as his children. He speaks to us in Holy Communion, bringing the body and blood of our Savior from the cross to assure us of forgiveness and eternal life and victory over all evil.

              None of these Means of Grace are good works that we do for God. We do not come to Church to earn forgiveness; we come to receive it as a gift. We do not read the Bible to earn forgiveness; we read it to gain faith in God and to strengthen that faith. We are not baptized to earn a place in God’s family; we are adopted by the price Jesus paid for us on the cross. We do not eat and drink at God’s table to earn his blessings; we receive those blessings by God’s grace as Jesus serves us his body with the bread and gives us his blood with the wine.

              The plan of creation is restored in our lives by the power of the plan of salvation, the grace of God. Being adopted as his children, we are transformed into the image of Christ, learning again how to love God and how to love our neighbors. We walk in the light, not in the darkness. We look to Jesus, putting our faith in him, and being saved by him we also are changed by him so we can be the faithful people of God.

              This salvation rests on God’s love. God so loved the world that he gave his Son. God’s grace rescues us and claims us forever for God’s kingdom and his family. We were in sin and darkness and death, but God has made us alive through Jesus. To our Savior Jesus Christ be thanks and glory and praise and honor, now and forever.                   Amen.

A sermon on the Ten Commandments

              God created us. God has the right to tell us how to live our lives. Jesus Christ redeemed us. We do not belong to ourselves; we were bought with a price. Again, Jesus has the right to tell us how to live. The Holy Spirit guides us to be the children of God, telling us what to do and what not to do. But does God obey his own rules? Does God do everything he tells us to do? And is God careful not to do any of the things he tells us not to do?

              God commands, “You shall not covet.” We are not to want the things that belong to other people. But God says of himself, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.” Can God be jealous when coveting is wrong? Or are coveting and jealousy two different things?

              In modern English, we often use the word “jealousy” to mean the same thing as “envy” or “coveting.” But jealousy has a second meaning which is more appropriate to describe God. A jealous person wants to keep what belongs to him or to her. God commands us not to commit adultery—if a woman appears guilty of breaking this commandment, her husband might be jealous. God commands us not to steal. A jealous person might be angry when someone steals things from him or from her. This kind of jealousy is different from envy and from coveting. Wanting to keep what belongs to you is not a sin. Since God made us and God redeemed us, we belong to him. God says, “I am the Lord your God.” All his commandments tell us how to remain in a right relationship with God, how to remain God’s people so God does not have to be jealous about losing us.

              Therefore, God gives us ten commandments to tell us how his people act. We all agree that there are ten commandments, even though we do not all number them the same way. Lutherans combine the commandments about having no other gods and about not making and worshiping idols. Other people divide those two commandments and combine the commandments against coveting. For this reason, if you mention the sixth commandment to a group of Christians, some will think you are talking about adultery, but others will think you are talking about murder. Some people even make both combinations. They say that the first commandment, the most basic commandment, is the proclamation, “I am the Lord your God.” Those words tell us the reason we try to obey all the other commandments. As Luther pointed out, our obedience to all the commandments of God reflects back to our relationship with God. We obey his commandments because we fear God and because we love God.

              We know, of course, that we should love God. God is love. He made us in his image. We are meant to love—we are meant to love God with our whole hearts, and we are meant to love our neighbors as ourselves. If our love was perfect, we would need no other commandments. Because our love is imperfect, God needs to tell us how to love. At Mount Sinai, he delivered these commandments along with fire and smoke, lightning and thunder, earthquakes, and the blaring of trumpets. We hear these commands and sing about them in more subdued circumstances, but God means these commandments for us as seriously as he meant them for his chosen people centuries ago.

              We should have no other gods. Nothing should matter to us more than God. Not only should we love God more than anything else; we also should fear God more than anything else. Our fear of God is not meant to make us run away and hide from God. We love God and trust God. But, remembering that God is always with us—that he sees everything we do and hears everything we say and even knows our thoughts—we guide our lives by his commandments. Even when we fear other powers that want us to break God’s Law, our love for God and our fear of God guides us to do what is right instead of wandering into sin and shame and guilt.

              Therefore, we have no other gods. We do not create idols and images to worship. God is not opposed to religious artwork. The same God who spoke the Ten Commandments also designed the Ark of the Covenant, topped with two angels. But our artwork does not replace God. We cannot control God by capturing him in a piece of art. We keep God’s name holy and we give God his holy time, but we never let his name or his time or anything else that belongs to God take the place of God himself.

              Holy things belong to God. His name is holy. His day is holy. This church is a holy place, because we have dedicated it to God. We are holy people, because God has chosen us for himself. God hates it when we misuse holy things. He takes it as a personal insult when we take what is holy and try to use it for our own purposes. Our Gospel reading for this morning shows how Jesus reacts when holy things are misused. Because we love God, we will respect everything that belongs to him, everything that has become holy because it is the property of God.

              We respect authority in this world because of God. Whether we agree or disagree with our rulers, we treat their authority is holy, as something that comes from God. This holiness begins in the family, where we honor father and mother as pictures of God the Father. This holiness continues in the school, the workplace, the community, and the nation. Parents and teachers and managers and government officials are sinful human beings like the rest of us. They make mistakes; they can be wrong. Yet we respect their office of authority, because all authority comes from God. We honor and serve our parents and others in authority to show our honor and respect for God.

              We also love our neighbors. We respect their lives, so we do nothing that harms their lives. Even selfish anger toward another person is sinful. Instead, we help them to care for their lives and preserve their lives. We respect their marriages. Those of us who are married love our husband or wife and remain faithful; and all of us help our neighbors to do the same by respecting marriage and the privileges of marriage. We respect our neighbors’ property. We take care of what God has given us, and we help our neighbors take care of what God has given them. We respect our neighbors’ reputations. We speak the truth in love, and we correct others when they say things we know are not true.

              God has given good things to our neighbors. He has also given us good things. Because we love and fear God, and because we love our neighbors, we remain content with those good things God has given us. We are happy for our neighbors when they have good things. We do not covet our neighbors’ house, or anything our neighbor has that can be bought with money. We do not covet our neighbors’ husband or wife, our neighbors’ workers, or even our neighbors’ animals. If they belong to our neighbor through love and loyalty, we respect that relationship. Like God, we can be jealous, wanting to keep and protect what is ours. But we never covet; we never resent our neighbors for having good things we do not have. Our contentment comes from loving and trusting God, who takes care of us and of our neighbors in all the things we need.

              We know, of course, that the Israelites who heard these commandments from God did not obey them. Forty days after they heard these commandments, they had already built a golden calf and started to worship it. Through the history of Israel, they broke these commandments repeatedly. God had to discipline his chosen people, sending Midianites and Philistines and Assyrians and Babylonians to bring judgment upon his people. But, because they broke the covenant God made with them, God also promised a new covenant that would be based on grace, not on obedience.

              We know that we have sinned. We have fallen short of God’s plan for our lives. We have not loved God with our whole hearts. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We sin. If we still lived under the old covenant, we would also be subject to judgment. We have joined the rebellion against God; we have cooperated with God’s enemies by doing what we want instead of doing what God wants.

              God hates sin. He does not hate sin because he is selfish and wants all the attention on himself. God hates sin because it spreads. It pollutes the good world he made, and it hurts the people who live in that world. When we sin, the evil we commit does not lie just between us and God. It hurts other people. Sin lingers in the world. The third and fourth generation still carry the burden of sins committed by their ancestors. Every act of disobedience adds to the pollution of sin in this world. God is jealous; we does not want us to rebel, and he does not want us to hurt the other people that God loves. Therefore, God still threatens judgment on all those who sin, on all those who break even the smallest of his commandments.

              But we live under the new covenant. The thunder and fire of Mount Sinai has been taken away because of a different mountain, a mountain found in Jerusalem. There the Son of God endured all the judgment that the old covenant threatens. There he received the penalty for our sins so we could receive instead the blessings and steadfast love of God. The cross is the power of God to rescue our lives, to transfer us from the old covenant to the new covenant. The cross is the power of God to restore the fundamental truth of the old covenant, in which God says, “I am the Lord your God.” Because we belong to him, we are no longer victims of evil and shame and guilt. We are no longer threatened with death and eternal punishment. Jesus has traded places with us, taking upon his shoulders the wrath of his Father so we could receive instead the grace of his Father.

              In both the old covenant and the new covenant, God tells us the consequences of being his people. After saying, “I am the Lord your God,” he says, “you shall have no other gods… you shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain… you shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal….” These words of God do not say, “Try your best to have no other gods; try your best not to murder or commit adultery or steal.” These words of God do not say, “you shouldn’t do these things” or “you’d better not do these things.” They are firm statements, statements of fact. Because he is the Lord our God, we will not have other gods. We will not murder or commit adultery or steal. We will not covet. God made us. God redeemed us. We belong to him. We are holy people, and holy people do not do such things.

              Under the old covenant, God rejected and destroyed sinners. Under the new covenant, God does not see our sins, because Jesus paid in full on the cross for all our sins. God looks at us, and he sees the righteousness of his Son. From what he sees, God can say that we have no other gods, that we do not murder or commit adultery or steal or even covet. He accepts us because Jesus has traded places with us, covering us with his righteousness and paying the full price of all our sins.

              This transfer happens at the cross, but it is made ours personally through the means of grace. The Bible delivers to us the news of the new covenant and gives us faith in those promises. The Church delivers forgiveness to us so God sees us as his children and not as rebellious sinners. Holy Baptism washes away our sins and covers us with Christ’s righteousness. Holy Communion brings us the body and blood of Jesus to guarantee us forgiveness and eternal life.

              But God is not merely blind to our sins because of the cross. His forgiveness changes us. We are being transformed into the image of Christ because of the power of the cross. We are not perfect and sinless yet. The transformation has not been completed. But God already sees us as we will be in the new creation, totally transformed so that no sin remains. We will be like Jesus. We will live with him in perfect joy and peace forever.

              Sin and evil have power. God’s grace has more power. Sin and evil corrupt what is good. God’s grace restores what is good. Sin and evil bring damage to the third and fourth generation of God’s enemies. The power of the cross brings grace and peace to thousands of generations of those who love God and cling to his Word. From the creation of Adam until today, not even one thousand generations of people have lived in this world. The power of the cross, the power of God’s grace and mercy and love, overwhelms all of history, because he remains what he always has been. He is the Lord our God.

              Jesus, the only Son of God, has brought us this grace of God. He has given us life in the new covenant. He keeps us safe in that new covenant by the power of the cross. Therefore, we are able to live as his people, content in his peace today and forever. To Jesus Christ our Savior and Redeemer be honor and praise, now and always. Amen.

(sermon delivered March 7, 2021; shared with permission. J.)

Leviticus

People trying to read the Bible cover-to-cover in one year have probably long since moved beyond Leviticus. (Or they gave up before they finished Leviticus—the string of chapters from mid-Exodus to the end of Deuteronomy is difficult to navigate, second only to the series of chapters from the beginning of Isaiah to the end of Ezekiel.) My personal plan for reading the Bible alternates between different books, helping to add understanding while reducing repetition. So in January I read Genesis, Matthew, and Ecclesiastes. In February I read Exodus, Hebrews, Romans, and Song of Solomon. Finishing Leviticus yesterday, I moved on today to Jeremiah, with Lamentations and Philemon to follow. Next month I will start with Numbers, then will read Galatians through Titus.

Either way, completing Leviticus is an accomplishment. The details of animal sacrifices and of holy living under the old covenant scarcely seem relevant to today’s Christians. Remembering, though, that the entire Bible is about Jesus, important lessons can be gathered, even from the book of Leviticus. Pictures of Jesus are present, although some of them are like photographic negatives; they require a reversal of perspective to illuminate the work of Jesus Christ as Savior. A good commentary helps readers to understand difficult books like Leviticus, and I have access to a very good commentary: Leviticus by John W. Kleinig (Concordia Publishing House: St. Louis, Missouri, 2003). But the New Testament epistle to the Hebrews also provides much helpful context to understand the Old Testament book of Leviticus.

Leviticus begins with details of various animal sacrifices. Hebrews emphasizes the fact that all Old Testament animal sacrifices were pictures of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Old Testament sacrifices brought forgiveness of sin, not simply by being done, but by being done with faith in God’s promises. Therefore, in Genesis 4 Abel’s sacrifice was acceptable to God but Cain’s was not. Likewise, in some writings of the prophets and some Psalms, God says that he hates the sacrifices of his people and will not accept them. (I particularly like Psalm 50:9, which in the Revised Standard Version is translated, “I will accept no bull from your house.”) God hates it when people go through the motions of worship without faith, without focus on the work of Jesus. He loves and blesses the worship of people who come to him through faith in Christ. Like Paul, every Christian must “know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2). Because of his righteous life and his atoning sacrifice, we are acceptable to God. Without them, we are lost.

Aaron and his sons were consecrated as priests in Leviticus, chapters 8 and 9. They became pictures of Christ, the great High Priest. But when two of Aaron’s sons offered to the Lord fire that was unauthorized (“strange” or “foreign”), their gift was rejected and they were killed. Under the old covenant, nothing could be substituted for the Word of God. Even under the new covenant, nothing can replace Jesus Christ as Savior. Coming to the Father through him, we are blessed; attempting to come to the Father by any other means leads to death rather than to life.

The following chapters of Leviticus deal with impurity and uncleanness. Examples include leprosy, mildew, and non-kosher animals. In each case, that which is not holy contaminates that which is holy; the effort to remove contamination and restore holiness is extensive. In these examples we see the high cost of sin; we learn why God must reject anything that is even lightly touched by evil. Modern examples of medical sanitation, including our efforts to escape COVID contamination, are relevant here. But when Jesus came with the new covenant, he reversed the process of contamination. He removed leprosy and other contamination with a touch or a word. Contact with Jesus made people pure and holy, acceptable to God. Under the new covenant, no food is contaminated or unclean spiritually; all food is kosher, because Christ has redeemed the world from sin and evil.

In the old covenant, even priests and offerings could be contaminated by uncleanness and evil. In the new covenant, Christ’s grace and his victory over evil overwhelm all contaminations. Yet Christians are not free to do whatever our sinful hearts desire; we are still expected to shun evil and to imitate Christ. In Acts 15, the first generation tried to find a balance between obedience and freedom—they forbade some foods, including the blood of animals, as well as sexual impurity. Paul later wrote that all foods are clean, but he continued the prohibition of sexual immorality. Food cannot come between us and God. But, because God is love, our love should be pure; marriage should be a picture of God’s perfect love for us. Christ is the end of the Law, having fulfilled the Law for all people. Christ’s people live in freedom and are not burdened by the Law. But, imitating Christ, his people continue to love God and to love each other, which restricts our freedom to do all things. We are transformed by the Gospel, living as Jesus would live, walking in the light and not in the darkness.

In Leviticus 23-25, rules are given about the holidays of God’s people—the weekly holiday of the Sabbath, and annual holidays such as Passover and the Day of Atonement. All these old covenant holidays were pictures of Christ which were fulfilled by Christ. He is the Passover Lamb; he is the High Priest who provides atonement for all people. His rest on the Sabbath—his body in the tomb, his spirit in the hands of his Father—fulfilled the Sabbath. Christians are free from these laws. Many have moved the Sabbath commemoration from Saturday to Sunday; some continue to gather on Saturday, and others find another time during the week most convenient. We are free to gather when we choose. We now have Christmas and Easter to celebrate, but we are free in these matters also. Paul wrote, “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance is Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17). We learn the laws of old covenant holidays to see pictures of Jesus, our Savior. We establish new covenant holidays as pictures of Jesus, our Savior. These are no longer matters of Law; they belong to the Gospel, to grace and freedom.

The end of Leviticus establishes the old covenant, which is described in more detail in Deuteronomy. Under the old covenant, God blesses those who obey his commands and punishes those who disobey his commands. This also has been changed by Christ. We read the histories in the Old Testament, seeing how God treated his chosen people according to this old covenant. In both Testaments, we find the promises of the new covenant. God forgives the sins of his people. He transfers their guilt to his Son, who pays the debt for sin in full on the cross. His perfect righteousness is transferred to all who trust in him, adopting us into his Family and making us acceptable in his Father’s sight. We read the words of the old covenant to see what is fair and just; we read the words of the new covenant to discover God’s mercy, grace, and love. The warnings of the old covenant bring us to the cross of Christ in repentance; the promises of the new covenant flow through the cross to remove our sins, to give us life, and to share with us Christ’s healing and cleansing power, his victory over all evil.

The value of Leviticus is to give us a different perspective of Christ. Seeing the old covenant at work, we value the precious new covenant all the more. We rejoice that Christ has given himself for our salvation, acting as our great High Priest. We rejoice that Christ has removed all evil and contamination from our lives, making us pure and holy, fit to live forever in his kingdom. We rejoice that the new covenant claims us for God’s family so we belong to him and with him forever. J.