Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #2: are accounts of the miracles of Jesus (especially his own resurrection) only retelling older myths and legends?

Many cultures and religions have produced stories than contain elements like those which skeptics regard as unbelievable in the Bible. There are talking animals, miraculous healings, control of the weather, even the death and resurrection of the hero. Why do Christians regard the Bible’s accounts as reliable and true when we do not accept similar stories from other sources? How is the story of Jesus different from that of King Arthur or of Robin Hood?

These questions are not new. Skeptics noticed such similarities already in the 1600s, a time period they called the Enlightenment. Thinkers in Europe were willing to accept the moral code of the Bible even while they discounted all the miracles it describes. Out of this approach came a philosophy called Deism. Deists say that God is responsible for creating a world, for giving it natural laws and moral laws, but they insist that God is no longer involved in his creation. Like a watchmaker, he assembled the pieces and started the machinery, and he has since stepped away. From Deism only a single step was needed in the nineteenth century to advocate the idea of evolution, that living things gradually change over time, adjusting to the environment, and that no belief in God is required to explain everything that exists.

The study of biology includes the idea of evolution, and so does the study of religion. Since the Enlightenment, a few scholars have suggested that religion began in primitive humanity out of awe toward the natural world and a desire to explain things that happened. Beginning with a sense of spirits in every tree and river and mountain, humanity began to develop stories about gods. The first monotheistic religions, Zoroastrianism and Judaism, were further steps away from primitive thought, only to be further enhanced by Christianity and Islam. Deism and atheism are viewed as the final steps on that road of progress.

Far more people believe that the earliest people knew the true God and that the many religions of the world grew out of distortions and devilish manipulations of that one true religion. Conservative Christians and observing Muslims share that belief in a primal true religion and in many paths of de-evolution. Neither approach is more scientific or more reasonable; each of them has many loyal adherents.

One of the most famous works describing the evolution of religion and the similar accounts found in various religions is James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough. First published in 1890, Frazer’s book describes many stories and ceremonies from all over the world. He presents numerous examples of human sacrifice, either done in reality or feigned to act out a story. Many Christians, Including C.S. Lewis, have responded to Frazer’s suggestion that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of many versions of the same ancient story.

First, to say that the earlier versions of a hero who dies and returns to life cancels the truth of Christ’s death and resurrection is equivalent to saying that ancient accounts of travelers such as Jason and the Argonauts and Odysseus disprove the accounts of Columbus’ four trips across the Atlantic Ocean. The existence of the earlier stories does not speak against the truth of a similar historic event. In fact, the many versions of the story of death and resurrection of a god or a hero might confirm the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection, since it appears that people all over the world expected such an event to occur at some time.

Second, we see Old Testament accounts of what Jesus would do being shared since the day of the first sin, when Adam and Eve were told that a descendant of Eve would crush the serpent’s head. It comes as no surprise that distorted versions of that promise would appear all over the world as religion de-evolved among various cultures. C.S. Lewis presented this thought—that the promise of a killed and risen Savior was hidden in the hearts of people everywhere and appeared in various forms and appearances all over the world. One could go further and suggest that when Abraham and Isaac acted out the sacrifice of a son by his father (Genesis 22), they were preparing their own family to believe in the coming Savior. Their Canaanite neighbors, however, got the wrong idea from this event and began sacrificing their own children to gods.

Third, the death and burial and resurrection them is often associated with agriculture. Persephone disappeared into the underworld, prompting autumn and winter; when she returned, she brought spring, and summer followed. The common religious themes of a hero who dies but then returns to life could be drawn from the life of the land, planting and tending and harvesting the crop each year. One could argue that the image of Jesus dying on a cross and rising to life again echoes these ancient agricultural stories. One could also argue that the natural and agricultural pattern was set by a God who already knew what he must do to redeem sinners and to reconcile them to himself. He planned the death and resurrection of his Son to happen in the springtime precisely so nature would be telling the story in its own way while the center truth of the story—the sacrifice of Jesus and his return to life—were happening in Jerusalem. (And the annual celebration of this sacrifice and resurrection likewise correspond to the change in seasons, not by coincidence, but by divine plan.)

As I wrote yesterday, the career of Jesus is linked in its earliest descriptions to historical times and figures. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians some twenty years after Jesus died on a cross and rose again from the dead, Paul gave a list of witnesses to that resurrection, most of whom were still alive. (For cultural reasons, Paul omitted the women who first saw Jesus but included the men.) His assertions could have been disproved at that time, and Christianity would have been stomped out before it had started. If Christianity had arisen in the British Isles or in Persia, describing events in Jerusalem, we would have much reason for doubt. But the first Christians gathered in Jerusalem, the very place where Jesus was killed. If the account of his resurrection was false, the evidence would have been easy to produce. The inability of enemies of the Christian faith to counter its key event with proof of the lie proclaims the truth that Christ indeed has risen from the dead.

Later this week, I will discuss the historical documents that describe this resurrection. J.

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What is yet to come?–part two

Many books of the Bible mention and describe the Day of the Lord. This is Judgment Day, or the end of the world as we know it. The most succinct description of that Day comes from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (I Thessalonians 4:14-17).

Only God knows when this Day will be. Christians will not be surprised by the Day, because we have already been told that it is coming. To the rest of the world it will come “like a thief in the night,” unexpected and without warning. No countdown exists to tell us how soon the Day will be; God says only that it will be soon. All we can say is that it is seven days closer than it was a week ago.

No one alive on that Day will fail to notice what is happening. Jesus will appear in the sky, and everyone will see him. How God will accomplish this on a round world is beyond me, but the Bible says it will happen, so I believe it. Everyone will hear the noise that Paul describes as three sounds: a cry of command, the voice of an archangel, and the sound of the trumpet of God. All the dead will be raised and all people who ever lived will stand before the Lord for Judgment—for the announcement of his verdict. They will be sorted quickly, “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:32). The parable that contains that phrase mentions sheep to the right and goats to the left, but Paul describes the separation as happening in a different direction: believers “will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” This ascension of the Church has become known as the Rapture. Although Christians disagree about the timing of the Rapture relative to Christ’s Judgment, Paul certainly makes it sound as if it happens on the same Day.

After commenting on the fact that mockers pretend to wonder why the Day of the Lord has not yet happened, Peter describes another aspect of that Day: “The Day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (II Peter 3:10). In other words, the fire of God’s judgment will remake creation, restoring it to what it was before sin and evil and death entered. Christians will meet the Lord in the air; they will land with the Lord upon the surface of the new earth, where we will live with him and with all his saints forever.

As for those who have died, their bodies will be raised and restored. Any injury caused by sickness or accident or age will be removed; even birth defects will be canceled. Our eyes and ears will function perfectly. Our knees and backs will no longer ache. All allergies will disappear. Even malfunctions of the mind and of the emotions will be erased. All the consequences of sin will be removed, and we will live with the Lord forever.

All these teachings from the New Testament are found in the Old Testament as well. On the Day of the Lord the sun will refuse to shine, the moon will turn to blood, and stars will fall from the sky. The earth will shake, and sinners will seek to hide from the eyes of the Lord, but there will be no place for them to hide. God’s faithful people will be vindicated, and their enemies will be removed. The saints will dwell in a new world in which God will be their God and they will be his people. The Son of David will rule an eternal kingdom in peace and righteousness and glory.

I want to emphasize two points: first, the resurrection is a physical reality, not a symbol. We will not be bodiless spirits in heaven; we will be physical as we are now. Yet we will be focused on the life of the spirit. We will eat and drink and enjoy the bodies God fashioned. In a future post, I will try further to describe what life will be like for God’s people in the new creation, after the Day of the Lord.

Second, the change will be abrupt. One minute we will be going about our lives, along with everyone else in the world. The next we will be meeting the Lord in the air. All the events of the Day of the Lord described in the Bible will happen at the same time. We will move seamlessly from this old sin-polluted world into the new creation.

Someone may ask, but what of the Great Tribulation, and what of the thousand-year reign of Christ? I will discuss such things in my next post. J.

What is yet to come?–part one

In the long-held traditions of the Church, the month of November is a time when Christians think about eschatology—the study of Last Things. Granted, many congregations in the contemporary world create their budgets for the coming year in November and, as a result, they use November to talk about stewardship and tithing. But the older tradition is to consider Last Things. From All Saints’ Day on the first of November to the Sunday of the Fulfillment near the end of the month, readings and hymns and sermons and prayers tend to focus the congregation’s attention on eschatology.

More than many topics, eschatology tends to produce a blurring of the Bible’s clear and literal teachings and its imagery about Last Things. Some Christians tend to consult the book of Revelation first about Last Things and to use its splendid imagery to interpret the more straight-forward passages in the Bible about Last Things. The result can be highly imaginative and creative, but at the same time it is rather inaccurate. Not that this is a catastrophe; any Christian who trusts in Jesus Christ for salvation will be saved. Some Christians are in store for a few surprises when the Last Day comes, but afterwards they will be able to laugh with Jesus and the other saints about any misunderstandings.

Eschatology divides easily into personal and cosmic Last Things. I will discuss cosmic eschatology in a later post and deal today with personal eschatology, based on what the Bible says.

Some of the clearest teaching about personal eschatology—and passages I have used in hospice situations—comes from the words of Christ on the cross, written in Luke 23. First Jesus prays for sinners: “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.” The prayer could apply narrowly to the soldiers who nailed him to the cross. However it broadly applies to all sinners, all of whom made the crucifixion necessary for salvation. God the Father answers the prayer of his Son: all those who trust in Christ are forgiven. Next, when a thief beside Jesus confesses his sin and prays, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” Jesus responds, “I tell you the truth: today you will be with me in Paradise.” As his own death approaches, Jesus prays, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

From this we learn that, at the moment of bodily death, the spirit departs to be in the hands of the Father, with Jesus in Paradise. Paradise is a spiritual waiting for the resurrection on the Last Day. It is not the final fulfillment of the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. Paul writes about Paradise when he says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” than life in this sinful world (Philippians 1:23). He also writes, “We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord… we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (II Corinthians 5:6-8). But Paradise is not the final goal of the Christian. “Not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (II Corinthians 5:4). Paul also stresses the vital importance of the resurrection of the body in I Corinthians 15.

Christians proclaim faith in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Death is described as sleep from which we shall awaken. Some conclude that the soul will sleep in Paradise and will not experience the passage of time between the death of the body and the resurrection. It appears, though, that in death the body sleeps and not the soul. Revelation pictures saints in Paradise praying for the Church on earth (Rev. 6:9-11). Paul’s notion of “better” and “at home with the Lord” seems to indicate some awareness of being with the Lord, as do the words of Jesus: “You will be with me in Paradise.”

The Bible also hints of a spiritual waiting place for those without faith, those who will not have a home in the new creation. The Old Testament’s word “Sheol” appears, at least in some instances, to describe that waiting for judgment. Jesus borrows the Greek term “Hades” to describe the rich man waiting for the final judgment while the beggar Lazarus is at Abraham’s side (Luke 16:19-31).

But all are waiting to stand before the throne of Jesus and receive his Judgment. The announcement of Judgment will be a verdict, not a trial with evidence produced and weighed. The spirit’s presence in Paradise or in Hades already indicates the verdict for each spirit.

The saints who have departed this earth are not yet walking the streets of gold. They have not yet entered the pearly gates. Those belong to the new creation, not to Paradise. But the saints are with Jesus, in the hands of the Father, and that is a better place than this sin-polluted world.

And next comes the cosmic eschatology. J.

What will be

“Jesus is coming back to take us to heaven.” The sentence looks and sounds correct at first, but at best it is sloppy theology, and at worst it is packed with doctrinal errors.

The words “coming back” suggest that Jesus has left and is currently not here. But he promised his followers, “I will be with you always, to the end of the ages,” and, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them.” Jesus will not come back because he has never left. The Greek word “Parousia,” generally translated “coming” in Matthew 24 and in Acts 1:11, has a more complex meaning of “arrival” or “appearing.” It has no sense of returning, but more of an unveiling, a revelation of what already exists.

One passage of Scripture could be used to defend the idea of Jesus coming back—John 14:3 says, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” Although some scholars apply this verse to the ascension and Parousia of Jesus, its context refers instead to his arrest and execution, his burial, and his resurrection. Jesus is not busy now preparing a place for us in his Father’s Kingdom; Jesus prepared a place for us by his death on the cross, his burial, and his resurrection. He came back Easter morning after spending the Sabbath with his body in the tomb and his spirit in the hands of his Father in Paradise. Through the work of his Church he takes us to be with him, even as he is with us as he promised.

Other scholars suggest that the divine Jesus is with us now, but the human Jesus will return at the Parousia. This thought conflicts with Biblical Christology. The divine nature of Jesus and the human nature of Jesus cannot be separated; he is one Christ, always fully divine and always fully human. The Son of God was born and learned how to talk and how to walk, even though as God he can do anything and knows everything. The Son of God was hungry, thirsty, in danger from storms and enemies. He was arrested, tortured, and killed—the Son of God died and was buried, and he rose to life again. Likewise, the Son of Mary is present everywhere in the universe. He knows everything and can do anything he chooses. All authority in heaven and earth has been given to him. When we pray to him, he understands our needs and desires, because he is like us in every way, except that he never sinned.

Likewise, the words “take us to heaven” distort the Bible’s description of the Parousia. I Thessalonians 4:13-18 describe what Jesus will do on the Day of the Lord. He will appear in the sky, seen by every person on earth. All the angels of heaven and all the saints in Paradise will accompany him. Believers alive at that time will meet him in the air (the “Rapture”), but that meeting in the air is a brief event. It is like the officials of a city meeting a king at the city gates to escort him into the city. It is like children seeing their grandmother’s car arrive and rushing out the door to meet her in the driveway. They do not stay in the driveway with her, but they accompany her into the house. I have often considered the Rapture to be our Shepherd’s sorting of the sheep and the goats, described in Matthew 25:32-33.

When Jesus announces his Judgment, unbelieving sinners will be sent away from this world to the devil’s prison. Believers will remain in this world, but we will be changed. All the dead will be raised, and the bodies of all believers will be restored to the original plan of the Creator. Injuries and sicknesses will be removed, never to return. Even birth defects will be canceled. As our bodies will be changed, so also the world around us will be changed. It will be restored to its original perfection, the very good world inhabited by Adam and Eve before their sin brought death and decay into creation. Will there be dogs and cats in heaven? Undoubtedly, for they were part of the first perfect creation. Will they be the same dogs and cats we have known and loved in this lifetime? I don’t know, but I cannot find a verse in the Bible that says that our beloved pets will not be with us in the Kingdom of God.

“The meek will inherit the earth.” Jesus did not describe eternal life as spirits sitting on clouds playing harps. He described eternal life as a wedding reception, an unending celebration of his victory over sin and evil and death. Jesus ate with his disciples after his resurrection; he also spoke about eating and drinking in the kingdom of God. The Old Testament prophets also spoke about the heavenly feast—consisting of the finest foods and the best wine. The new creation will be as physical as the first creation, and it will be on this same planet we inhabit today. Jesus is not going to take us to heaven—he is going to bring heaven to us, making this world perfect so it can be our home with him forever.

Careless and sloppy sentences (such as “Jesus is coming back to take us to heaven”) distract us from the clear message of the Bible. They prevent children from learning what they need to know about Jesus, about salvation, and about the Day of the Lord. They weaken our efforts to share with mission prospects the hope that we have in Jesus our Savior. Those nine words require nine hundred words to clarify and  correct. The real promises of the Bible are far better than our casual summaries. May God grant us firm faith and correct understanding of all that he has told us. J.

The Strife is O’er, the Battle Done

The strife is o’er, the battle done;

Now is the victor’s triumph won;

Now be the song of praise begun. Alleluia!

 

The pow’rs of death have done their worst;

But Christ their legions hath dispersed.

Let shouts of holy joy outburst. Alleluia!

 

The three sad days have quickly sped,

He rises glorious from the dead.

All glory to our risen Head. Alleluia!

 

He broke the age-bound chains of hell;

The bars from heav’ns high portals fell.

Let hymns of praise his triumph tell. Alleluia!

 

Lord, by the stripes which wounded Thee

From death’s dread sting thy servants free

That we may live and sing to thee. Alleluia!

 

Symphnia Sirenum Selectarum, 1695

The last enemy

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (I Corinthians 15:26). The devil, the world, and the flesh are traditionally the three enemies of God and of God’s people, but death is also an enemy. Some people try to be philosophical about death, treating it as an inevitable part of life, but the Bible clearly states that death is an enemy, albeit an enemy already conquered by Jesus Christ and forced to serve God’s purposes.

Usually when we speak of death, we mean the physical death of a living body. In a broader sense, every unpleasant separation is a death. Christians speak of spiritual death–separation of a person from God, physical death–separation of the soul from the body, and eternal death–being spiritually dead when also physically dead. In a similar sense, divorce can be regarded as the death of a marriage. Friendships can die, careers can die, and hopes can die. Every unwanted ending is a sort of death and also a reminder of the reality of our enemy, death.

God told Adam that, when Adam ate the forbidden fruit, he would die. Adam lived another 930 years after eating that fruit, but he and Eve experienced spiritual death in the garden, as is shown by their desire to hide from God. When Lazarus was sick, Jesus told his disciples that the sickness would not end in death. Lazarus physically died, but because of his trust in Jesus he was not in jeopardy of eternal death. In fact, to show his power over death, Jesus called Lazarus back to life.

“The wages of sin is death,” Paul wrote. Every sin is part of spiritual death, separating the sinner from God. Physical death is likewise a result of sin; had Adam and Eve never sinned, they would have lived forever. Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus before raising Lazarus, because Jesus was facing an enemy, one he would soon battle and defeat on the cross. Christians are right to be saddened by death, although we are reminded not to grieve like people who have no hope. We have hope for ourselves and for our fellow believers in Christ. We are guaranteed the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

While Jesus was on the cross, the thief being crucified next to Jesus confessed his faith, declaring that Jesus was innocent of any crime and asking that Jesus would remember him when he came into his Kingdom. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus replied, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” Later, facing his own death, Jesus prayed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” From these words of Jesus, we know what happens at the death of a Christian. The soul leaves the body and is with Jesus in Paradise, in the hands of the Father. This is a spiritual existence; it is not yet the new creation with pearly gates and streets of gold. While it is better to leave the body and be with the Lord, the best is still to come.

On a Day known only to God, Jesus will suddenly appear. The spirits of all believers who have died will be with him. At the command of Jesus all dead bodies will rise for judgment. The spirits of Christians will be united with their bodies, which will have been raised and healed. Even birth defects will be healed at this time. All eyes and ears and legs and minds will work properly, and Jesus will welcome all those who trusted in him to their new home, a re-created Earth that will be as good as it was when God first made it.

How can sinners hope to have that eternal life when their sins have separated them from God? Jesus paid the necessary price to cancel that separation and to reconcile sinners to the Lord. He lived a sinless life, but he transferred the rewards earned by that life to everyone who trusts his promises. In that exchange, Jesus paid for every sinner, enduring spiritual death on the cross. In the darkness of that separation, Jesus prayed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He knew that the answer to his question was that he was bearing on himself all the sins of the world; but his prayer (a quote from Psalm 22) demonstrates his agony at the separation from his Father that was caused by sin.

Having defeated the devil and the world and the flesh and death itself, Jesus physically died. On the Sabbath he rested–his body in a grave, his spirit in the hands of his Father in Paradise. On Sunday morning, Jesus rose, body and soul reunited. His resurrection promises our resurrection on the Day Jesus appears in glory. Death, the enemy, has been defeated. It must now serve God’s purposes as Jesus–the Good Shepherd–leads his people through the valley of the shadow of death so they can dwell in the house of the Lord forever. J.

Christ in Genesis: the Sacrifice

Genesis 22 has inspired awe and horror in God’s people for many generations. Soren Kierkegaard wrote an entire book, Fear and Trembling, about this chapter. He makes the interesting point that any man today who dared to imitate Abraham and prepare to offer his son as a burnt offering would be stopped, arrested, tried, and convicted of a crime. Any statement that God had told him to do such a thing would be disregarded as an attempt to obtain a verdict of innocent on the grounds of insanity.

Kierkegaard overlooked the fact that Genesis 22 contains a picture of Jesus and his sacrifice. However, Kierkegaard correctly indicated that this account teaches more than the truth that we should give our best to God. Many teachers see only that lesson—Isaac was the best thing Abraham could offer to God, and God demanded that from him. A vast distance separates our requirement to give our best to God and God’s command to Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a burnt sacrifice.

How was Abraham capable of daring to obey such a command? “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac… He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Hebrews 11:17-18). Abraham’s faith in the promise of the resurrection made him able to obey God’s command to sacrifice his son. If Abraham knew about the resurrection, he must also have known about the promised Savior. Perhaps Abraham even believed that his miracle son, Isaac, was the promised Savior, the blessing from his family for the entire world. Instead of recognizing Isaac as a picture of Jesus, Abraham may have thought that he was in the presence of his Redeemer in the person of his son.

So a father is prepared to accept—and even to cause—the death of his son for the good of the world. The son trusts his father and does not resist his father’s will. He even carries the wood to the place of sacrifice, as Jesus carried his own cross. Abraham is stopped just in time, because Isaac is not the Christ. He is only a picture of the Christ. A second picture of Jesus appears, a ram taking the place of Isaac as Jesus himself would take the place of Isaac in the future.

As they climbed the hill for the sacrifice, Isaac asked Abraham, “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham must have gulped and sighed before he said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” When he said those words, Abraham expected Isaac to be the lamb, for God had provided Isaac by a miracle to Abraham and Sarah. Abraham’s words were made true when he provided a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. They were made more true when God provided his only-begotten Son to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Not only is Jesus depicted first by Isaac and then by the ram; he is also present at this near-sacrifice. He is the angel of the Lord who speaks to Abraham, repeating the promise that Abraham’s family would be a mighty nation and would provide a blessing for the entire world. Jesus himself fulfilled that promise when he suffered and died on the cross and when he rose to life again on the third day. His resurrection guarantees our resurrection and our eternal life. This promise of a resurrection strengthened Abraham to obey the command of God, and (as the letter to the Hebrews says) “figuratively speaking, he did receive him back”—on the third day from the command to sacrifice his son!

Where did this take place? “The land of Moriah… on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you,” God said (Genesis 22:2). This mountain of Moriah is mentioned again in II Chronicles 3:1, where we are told that Solomon built the house of the Lord on Mount Moriah. Moriah is one of the seven hills of Jerusalem, and the animal sacrifices (which, like Isaac, were pictures of Jesus) were offered to God in the Temple on Mount Moriah from the time of Solomon until the Babylonian Captivity, and again in the second Temple until the time of Jesus. Calvary may possibly be the very outcropping of Mount Moriah on which Isaac was nearly sacrificed. If not, we can be sure that the place where Father Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son and the place where God the Father accepted the sacrifice of his Son were very near each other. J.

Cubs fans: “We won!”

This is a repost of my very first post on this blog, from April 2015:

Two special days happen every spring. Sometimes they are a couple of weeks apart, sometimes they happen the same week, but only rarely do they fall on the same day. This year, 2015, they fell on the same day.

One of those special days is Easter. Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. His resurrection provides hope of our resurrection. His resurrection provides hope that our sins are forgiven and that we will live forever in God’s new creation. His resurrection provides hope that all God’s enemies (who also are our enemies) have been defeated.

The other special day is called Opening Day. Specifically, Chicago Cubs Opening Day. After weeks of practice games that don’t count, on Opening Day the games begin to matter. In my lifetime, the Cubs have not played many post-season games. Every spring, though, has had an Opening Day to celebrate. On that day, it is possible to hope that the Cubs will have a good season, one good enough to bring them to the postseason. At the start of Opening Day, all the teams are equal. Every fan of every team can approach Opening Day with hope.

Both these special days in early spring deal with hope, but the hopes are not the same. If I say, “I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow,” I might get my wish, or I might not. If I say, “I hope the Cubs win the game today,” I might get my wish, or I might not. When I say, “Heaven is my hope,” I am talking about a guarantee. Jesus has lived a sinless life. He has suffered and died on a cross to pay for the world’s sins. He has risen from the dead. Our Easter hope does not disappoint us, because Christ has triumphed. Our Easter hope does not disappoint us, because God always keeps his promises.

Baseball is only a game. What Jesus did in Holy Week was no game. That week he fought and won the ultimate battle in the war between God and evil. Jesus took all the sins of history on himself and made them go away. Jesus faced the devil and crushed the devil’s head. Jesus died so he could remove the power of death and provide a resurrection for all his people, for everyone who trusts and believes his promises.

I truly hope that some year soon, some year in my lifetime, the Cubs win it all. I would like to see them celebrate a World Series victory. When the Cubs are champions, their fans all over the world will celebrate. Thousands of fans in the stands will cheer, and millions watching the game on television will cheer. All of us will shout, “We won! We won!” That shout is rather strange, actually, because the fans don’t win anything. Only the players on the team really contribute to the victory. The players who throw the ball, hit the ball, and catch the ball are the ones who won. Yet they don’t mind sharing their victory. They don’t mind that the fans say “we won” instead of “they won.”

Easter is much the same. All over the world Christians gather in churches and celebrate Christ’s victory. Essentially, we say, “We won! We won!” Yet only Jesus lived a sinless life. Only Jesus died on the cross to defeat evil in the world. Only Jesus rose from the dead on Easter to proclaim his victory. Yet Jesus does not mind that his people celebrate Easter and say, “We won.” Jesus wants to share his victory. He wants to make us more than conquerors—winners who did not have to fight to gain a victory. Jesus does not call us fans. He makes us members of his team. Then Jesus goes out and wins. And the win was provided, not by a home run, but by a sacrifice. J.

Jonah

Last weekend InsanityBytes published this post about Jonah the prophet. Predictably, her post triggered an intense conversation within the comments. The book of Jonah is a lightning rod for debates about how to interpret the Bible. Even some conservative Christians view Jonah as an allegory rather than a history.

The most memorable event in the book of Jonah occurs when the prophet is swallowed by a large fish. The Bible is not specific about what sort of fish swallowed Jonah, and many have pictured him in the stomach of a whale. This is, of course, unlikely, since whales have sponge-like filters in their throats and eat vast amounts of tiny aquatic creatures. After doing some research about marine life, I have concluded that Jonah was most likely swallowed whole by a large shark. A great white shark can be more than twenty feet long, and many large items have been found in the stomachs of captured great white sharks. Recently a shark was found with an intact skeleton of a seven-foot porpoise. Reliable records from the 1600s report that a shark was found with the carcass of a fully armored knight in its stomach. Imagine Jonah captured in a shark’s stomach that was just a tiny bit larger than he was. At first he expects to die, but without air to breathe or any room to move around, he does not die or even become unconscious. After a few long, dark hours of this, the prophet began to pray fervently. A summary of his prayer is contained in the second chapter of the book of Jonah.

For many readers of the Bible, the account of Jonah is an object lesson about disobedience and compassion. God told Jonah to preach in Nineveh, but Jonah got on a boat that was going the opposite direction. God sent a storm to stop Jonah. When Jonah refused to reverse direction but instead sought death at sea, God sent a fish to contain Jonah. When Jonah came to his senses, the fish vomited Jonah onto the beach. From there, Jonah traveled to Nineveh and preached a call for repentance. The people of Nineveh repented. Jonah was furious. He had taken a good seat to watch fire fall from heaven to destroy the city, and God did not send the fire. God reminded Jonah how much God cared about the city and its inhabitants, even the livestock.

Jesus compared the time Jonah spent inside the fish to the time Jesus would spend in the grave. Jesus died on a Friday and was buried before sunset; he rose to life on Sunday morning around sunrise. The “three days and three nights” Jonah spent in the fish might also have been closer to forty hours than to seventy-two hours. (The Bible’s description of time in this case resembles that of a vacation resort that promises accommodation for “three days and two nights” but is only available toward the end of the first day and must be left before noon on the third day.) The miracle of a prophet surviving inside a fish and returning alive to the land pictured the death and resurrection of Jesus, the world’s Savior. Jonah’s ordeal and Christ’s resurrection are miracles, beyond the ability of science to predict or explain. Those who first wrote about these events were aware that they were miracles that went against the laws of nature; otherwise, they would not have bothered to describe them.

Aside from the fish stomach/tomb comparison, several other similarities identify Jonah with Jesus. Both men slept in a boat during a storm until their fellow travelers woke them in panic. This detail may seem trivial, but not many people are capable of sleeping in a boat during a storm. Both men had the wrath of God directed at them: God sent a storm because Jonah was disobeying God, and Jesus went to the cross to bear the wrath of his Father over all the sins of the world. Both men offered to sacrifice their lives to save other lives—Jonah told the sailors to throw him off the boat so the holy storm would cease, and Jesus died on the cross to pay in full for the sins of the world. Both preached messages of repentance that became vehicles for God’s forgiveness—the crew of Jonah’s boat became believers in the Lord because of Jonah, and the citizens of Nineveh repented of their sins and were forgiven by God instead of being punished by God. Likewise, the forgiveness of God is available to everyone in the world because of the sacrifice of Jesus, and his victory over evil is demonstrated by his own resurrection.

Jonah did not want to obey God; he had to be forced to obey. Jesus volunteered to do what his Father desired, even when his Father’s will included the cross. Jonah’s work rescued some lives, but the work of Jesus suffices to save the world. Jonah is remembered for spending time inside a fish, but Jesus is remembered for blazing a trail across the valley of the shadow of death, guaranteeing that his people will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. J.

 

Second Sunday of Easter

Many Tuesdays I stop at the bank, which means that I have a different route coming home from work. Since late February, one of the houses I pass on that route had decorated a tree by the road—it was filled with plastic Easter eggs. All through March, every time I drove past that house I wondered how long into the Easter season that tree would remain decorated. As I suspected, when I drove past that house on Easter Tuesday, the tree was already bare of Easter decorations.

What is it with our culture? Why do we celebrate major holidays before they arrive, only to pack up our celebration before they have ended? Christmas decorations appear in November, even in October, but they are packed and put into storage before half of the twelve days of Christmas are ended. With Easter also, the anticipation of the holiday is filled with bright colors and springtime decorations, but once the last egg is found some time Sunday afternoon and the last Easter candy is eaten sometime Easter Monday, the holiday is over for another year.

The traditional Christian Church does not treat Easter that way. For forty days (plus six Sundays) the Church observes the solemn season of Lent—a time to repent of our sins and meditate on the price the Lord paid to redeem us from those sins. The songs in church are somber; the decorations are minimal. Then, Easter morning, sometimes before sunrise (in the earliest traditions, at midnight), the Good News is announced. “The Lord is risen.” “He is risen indeed! Alleluia!” Flowers fill the church with color, hymns of joy and praise are sung with enthusiasm, and Christians rejoice in the news of Christ’s resurrection, a guarantee of our own resurrection.

Christmas lasts twelve days. Easter lasts seven weeks. Why seven? Seven is a number of completeness; as God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh (according to the book of Genesis), and as the Church on earth is represented by seven lampstands and seven congregations (in the book of Revelation), so seven weeks of Easter marks the completeness of joy Christians receive from the Good News of the Lord’s resurrection.

Christ was crucified and returned to life during the festival of Passover. For forty days he appeared to his disciples, strengthening them, preparing them to do the work of the Church. After he ascended into heaven, another ten days passed. Then, in Luke’s quotation of Jesus, the disciples were “clothed in glory from on high.” The Holy Spirit was poured out on them during the festival of Pentecost, a festival commanded by God through Moses along with the Passover festival and the autumn observances.

Easter is seven weeks long—forty-nine days—so it can be longer than the season of Lent. Christians repent of our sins, but our joy exceeds even our repentance. Darkness lasts a nighttime, but light prevails in the morning. On the second Sunday of Easter, Christians still rejoice that “Christ is risen.” “He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

I hope and pray that your Easter joy has not fizzled and been forgotten. In a sense, every Sunday is a miniature Easter, a weekly reminder of Christ’s resurrection. As the resurrection of the Lord happened on the eighth day of Holy Week, beginning something new, so the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples of Jesus on the eighth Sunday of Easter, beginning something new. In the Lord, we are new always. J.