Buried treasure and a precious pearl

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:44-46).

At first glance, these two brief parables appear to reinforce the first commandment—“You shall have no other gods before me” (Deuteronomy 5:7)—and the greatest commandment—“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). After all, these commandments are first and greatest because they are important. God created the universe. He made each of us. He has the right to tell us how to live. He deserves to be our highest priority. Our lives are best when we put God first and put everything else under him. If we could love God perfectly and unceasingly, we would never break any of his other commandments.

Over the centuries, Christians have made many sacrifices for God. Some have abandoned homes and families and jobs to live in voluntary poverty, dedicating their lives to prayer and to the service of God. Others have turned aside from opportunities for wealth and fame to lead careers in church work, receiving only a fraction of what the world would have paid them. Many have gone out on missionary journeys, spending long years far away from everything that is familiar and comfortable for them.

Moreover, Christians have been persecuted. They have been abandoned by family and friends because of their relationship with Jesus Christ. They have been driven out of their homes and their communities. Some have been fired from their jobs because of their faith. Some have been imprisoned. Some have been beaten. Some have been killed. They lost everything they had for the sake of Jesus Christ and his kingdom.

But what of the rest of us? Are we unsaved because we have not given up everything for the kingdom of heaven? If we have not lost money or fame or popularity for the sake of the gospel, does that mean we are not truly Christians? Because we have not been rejected, fired, imprisoned, jailed, and killed, are we barred from the kingdom of heaven?

One of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven is that we cannot earn God’s love and mercy and grace. We cannot earn our salvation. Those who try to earn salvation are locked out of the kingdom. Those who plan to stand before the throne of judgment and demand that God give them what they deserve will be denied a place in God’s kingdom, because every one of us has sinned and has fallen short of the kingdom of God.

What, then, did Jesus mean when he told these parables? He did not mean to identify himself as a treasure or a precious pearl. Instead, he calls each of us buried treasure and a precious pearl. Rather than being a treasure purchased by others, Jesus is the man who gives everything he has to claim us for himself.

As treasure, each of us is hidden. We are buried under our own sins and under the world’s evil. With regret we recall the times when we did things God told us not to do. With sorrow we remember the times that we failed to do what God commanded us to do. With repentance we realize that we have not always given God first place in our lives. Other things have been more important to us than God is. We have not loved him wholeheartedly, because we have reserved parts of our hearts for other loves.

Seeing our sin, Jesus decided to rescue us. At the command of his Father, he willingly left his throne at the Father’s side and entered creation. He was born to a young Jewish girl, wrapped in cloths and placed in a manger. The God who knows everything learned how to walk and how to talk and how to read and write. The God who is perfect and almighty grew up to be a man. Even as an adult, he remained in poverty—“Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). Of course the distance between the Son of God and the richest person on earth is far greater than the distance between the richest person and the poorest person on earth. Jesus humbled himself to be one of us, to be tempted as we are, to face the dangers we face, and to have the same needs we have.

Then, when he had lived a pure and sinless life for more than thirty years, Jesus even surrendered what little he had in this world. When trouble threatened, his friends abandoned him and denied knowing him. Brought into courtrooms, he was denied justice. Beaten, slapped, and flogged, he lost his health. What little he owned—the clothing he was wearing—was taken from him. Finally, after hours of suffering, he sacrificed even his life on the cross.

Jesus gave everything he had to claim his treasure. We were buried in sin, but Jesus paid all that he had to make us his people. Without Jesus we were no treasure, but now with Jesus we are treasure. To him each of us is like the finest pearl, for which he willingly sacrificed all, even life itself. Having paid that price, he says that now we belong to him.

Of course we should make God our first priority. We should love nothing more than him. When we fail to meet this standard, though, we have not lost our place in the kingdom of heaven, because Jesus is not a treasure that we have to find and purchase. The secret of the kingdom of heaven is that Jesus has found us and has purchased us. We belong to the kingdom of heaven, not because of any price we have paid, but because of the price Jesus paid to redeem us.

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“Your body is a temple of God”–part two

Last month I wrote this post to demonstrate that, when the apostle Paul wrote that “your body is a temple of God,” he was referring to the entire Church and not to individual Christians. The “you” of “your body” is plural, but he speaks of one temple, not many temples. But what does it mean to call the Church a temple of God?

People of many different religions have built temples. Ancient Sumer had temples; ancient Egypt had temples. These temples were built for gods so that believers in those gods would have a place to contact their gods. Temples were built, not because gods needed homes, but because people needed connections with the gods they trusted and worshipped.

When God spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave Moses the design for a tent which would be a moving temple. This tent (often called the Tabernacle) was to be in the center of the campground when Israel was at rest. The Tabernacle represented God’s presence among his people. Animals were sacrificed in the Tabernacle as part of Israel’s connection with God. The lives and blood of the animals were given to God, pictures of the sacrifice God’s Son would make on the cross to remove the sins of the world. Even the tent was a picture of Jesus. When John wrote “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14), the verb translated by “made his dwelling” refers to the pitching of a tent.

King David wanted to build a temple for God in Jerusalem. Through the prophet Nathan, God declined David’s offer. He said that instead of letting David build a house for God, God would build a house for David. That house would be a son (or descendant) of David who would rule an eternal kingdom. David may have thought that the promised Son of David was his son Solomon, but Solomon did not match the terms of the Promised Son. Solomon began to rule before David died, but the Promised Son was to come after David died. Solomon sinned and was forgiven for his sins, but the Promised Son bore the burden of the world’s sins and atoned for those sins. Solomon ruled for forty years and then died, but the Promised Son was to rule forever. Solomon was an adopted son of God, as all believers are, but Jesus is the only-begotten Son of God.

David purchased land, gathered materials, and hired workmen to build the temple God had told him not to build. Solomon oversaw the construction of that temple, and God accepted his gift. The temple followed the pattern of the Tabernacle that God had designed. Sacrifices continued to be offered in the temple, drawing the power to forgive sins from the future sacrifice of the Promised Son. Yet God’s people strayed away from the Lord; even Solomon built temples for other gods, the gods worshipped by his wives. The unfaithfulness of God’s people made a mockery of the sacrifices to atone for sin. Therefore, God raised the Babylonian army and allowed it to sack Jerusalem and destroy the temple.

Under the Persian government, God’s people were allowed to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple. Some of those who saw the new temple wept because they remembered the splendor of Solomon’s temple. Through the prophet Haggai, God promised that the second temple would be more glorious than the first temple, because God himself would visit that temple. This promise was fulfilled when Jesus entered the temple–first as a baby, forty days old; then as a boy, twelve years old; then as a man in his thirties. Jesus taught in the temple. He even cleared the temple of merchants who were defiling the temple. When asked by what authority he cleared the temple, he responded, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19)–“But the Temple he had spoken of was his body” (John 2:21). The Word made flesh was a temple, because it was the way God chose to be present among his people.

The tabernacle was a picture of the Word made flesh, promising the presence of God among his people. Solomon’s temple and the second temple were also pictures of Jesus, the presence of God among his people. God had the Babylonians destroy the first temple, and he had the Romans destroy the second temple, as pictures of his Son suffering and dying on the cross to atone for the world’s sins. Now that Jesus has fulfilled the promise to pay for the sins of the world, temples and animal sacrifices are no longer needed.

The body of Jesus, which is the true temple of God, rose from the dead. Forty days later that body ascended into heaven to fill the universe. Jesus, “seated at the right hand of the Father,” is present everywhere. Yet he is present in a special way whenever his people gather in his name. “God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Ephesians 1:22-23). Since the Church is the body of Christ, it also is God’s Temple. The Church is the place where God’s people know that they are in the presence of God.

As God’s people, we need to be connected to God. God is everywhere, but as sinners in a sinful world we cannot always sense his presence. Therefore, Jesus promises to be present “where two or three gather in” his name (Matthew 18:20). One Christian alone is not a temple. Christians gathered to hear the Word of God and to receive his blessings are a temple. God reaches out to sinners from the Church. God cares for his people in the Church. The Good Shepherd provides for his flock in the Church. We are the body of Christ, diverse in many ways, yet functioning together to accomplish the will of our Head. As the body of Christ, we are his temple. We are the only temple God wants or needs in the world today. 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.

Christ in Genesis: Raising Cain, Raising Abel

Because of their sin, Adam and Eve were removed from the Garden of Eden and were not allowed to return. Yet they left with a promise that they would be rescued by a descendant of Eve who would crush the serpent’s head and would reconcile them to God. Adam and Eve’s children faced the same burden of sin that their parents had brought into the world, but they also inherited the same promise of forgiveness and reconciliation.

When Eve gave birth to her firstborn, a son, she uttered a sentence which consists, in Hebrew, of three words: “I-have-gotten, a-man, the-LORD.” Most translations add helping words to her sentence, rendering it as, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD.” Even the Septuagint, the Hebrew Bible translated into Greek more than twenty-two centuries ago, adds the proposition “apo” in front of the Name of the Lord. A few Bible scholars believe that adding words to this sentence is a mistake. For example, Martin Luther taught that Eve had said, “I have gotten a man, the LORD.” Luther believed that Eve understood the promise of her descendant, who would crush the devil’s head, would be God taking on human form, as Jesus took on human form from his mother, Mary. If indeed Eve thought that her firstborn son was the promised Savior, what a dreadful disappointment occurred when Cain instead became history’s first murderer.

When they had grown to manhood, Cain and his brother Abel both offered sacrifices to the Lord. God accepted the sacrifice of Abel but rejected the sacrifice of Cain. Much needless speculation has tried to discover the difference between the two sacrifices. The answer is found in Hebrews 11:4. Abel offered an acceptable sacrifice “by faith.” Cain evidently did not offer his sacrifice by faith. No sacrifice to God has any value if it is not offered by faith.

All the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament were pictures of Jesus suffering and dying on the cross, having his heal bruised as he crushed the head of the serpent. No sacrifice, other than Christ, ever purchased mercy and forgiveness from God. No human act, other than the work of Christ, can purchase God’s forgiveness. God hates the times when people go through the motions of worship or sacrifice apart from faith in him. (See Isaiah 1:14, Amos 5:21-23, and Psalm 50:7-11.) He wants these things to be done by faith. When people do these things without thinking about what they mean, God is displeased. When people do these things thinking that they are earning something from God, putting him in debt to them, God is angered.

The animals that died so Adam and Eve could be clothed were pictures of Jesus. Likewise, the firstborn animal offered by Abel—and the countless animals offered to God by his people over the centuries—were pictures of Jesus. It appears that Cain forgot this important truth. He offered a sacrifice to God, but not by faith. Therefore God did not accept the sacrifice Cain offered. The fact that Cain was angry to have his sacrifice refused shows that he expected to gain something from God by that sacrifice.

Jesus warned Cain of the dangerous temptation lurking in his anger. Cain ignored the warning. Instead, he acted in violence, murdering his brother. He thought that his crime would be secret, but no one keeps secrets from God. As God had given Adam and Eve the opportunity to confess their sin, so Jesus also asked Cain about Abel.

Cain lied to God. He said that he did not know where Abel was. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asked. The answer to that question is “yes.” We are all commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, and a brother is a very near neighbor. We are all expected to help one another, to bear each other’s burdens. Obeying God’s commandment not to murder is not as simple as never violently taking another’s life. We are not to hurt or harm our neighbors, but we are to help them and care for them. Neglecting a neighbor in his or her need is sinful, just as violently striking him or her is sinful.

Jesus challenged Cain’s lie. “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground,” Jesus said. Other Bible verses also describe the blood of victims as crying for justice. Because God loves each of us, God is angry when any of us are hurt by a fellow human being. All the blood of all victims in history cries for justice, and God hears those cries. On the Day of the Lord, the justice of God will be revealed. Those who have harmed their neighbors will finally receive what they deserve.

Cain knew what he deserved. He had taken away his brother’s life; now he deserved to be killed. His parents, his other brothers and sisters, his nephews and nieces all had the right to take vengeance on the killer of Abel. Yet God did not give Cain what Cain deserved. Instead, Cain was marked by God so that no one would kill him, even though he deserved to be killed.

The firstborn animal offered by Abel was a picture of Jesus. Abel himself became a picture of Jesus, innocent before God and yet killed by his brother. Jesus was rejected by his own people and sent to his death. Yet the blood of Jesus does not cry for vengeance. Instead, in his death, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them.” His blood is more powerful than the blood of Abel. Our sins caused the suffering and death of Jesus, but now he washes us in his blood to redeem us as God’s people. Because of the death of Jesus, we will not receive what we deserve on the Day of the Lord. Instead, we will receive what Jesus deserves—eternal life in God’s perfect new creation.

Like Cain, we have been marked by God so we will not receive what we deserve. He has marked us with the blood of Christ; he has marked us with his own Holy Spirit. On the Last Day, Jesus will see that mark on us and claim us as his people. He has already paid to purchase us. Now and forever we belong to him.

One God, one Savior, one faith

Christians recognize one God, although God is three Persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Christians recognize one Savior—Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Christians recognize one faith—a right relationship with God through the work of Jesus Christ.

Clearly God is timeless. He created time and remains outside of time, eternal and unchanging. Yet the Son of God entered creation and became subject to time. He was born to Mary and grew from a child to a man. When the time was right, Jesus offered his life as a sacrifice to rescue sinners. His sacrifice stands at the center of history. In one sense, it marks a change in the relationship between God and his people. In another sense, it makes no change, because the faith of Old Testament believers was a relationship with the very same Savior known by New Testament believers.

The chief difference between the two groups of believers is the time in which they lived. Old Testament believers were looking ahead to a promised Savior. New Testament believers look back to a Savior who kept all the promises of God. In both cases, believers are saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ. God’s Word in the Old Testament gave his people faith in Jesus, and God’s Word in the New Testament also gives God’s people faith in Jesus.

Although we cannot go beyond the words of the Bible to describe the content of faith before Jesus was born, we read that Abel and Noah both came to God through animal sacrifices. We also know that those sacrifices were pictures of the sacrifice of Christ. Adam and Eve heard the announcement that a descendant of Eve would crush the serpent’s head, but not without suffering himself. By faith in that message, Adam and Eve and Abel and Noah were saved and were guaranteed a home in God’s new creation.

In his letter to the Romans, chapter four, Paul specifically says that Abraham was saved by faith and not by works. He talks of the faith of Abraham enabling him to prepare to offer his promised son Isaac as a sacrifice to God. Abraham might have believed that Isaac was the promised Savior, the one who had to die so sinners could be rescued. By obeying the command of God, he acted out the history of salvation—a Father offering his Son—in a way that strengthened the faith of other believers both before and after Jesus fulfilled that which Isaac only represented. In the letter to the Hebrews, chapter eleven, we are told that the content of Abraham’s faith included the promise of the resurrection of the dead.

Hebrews 11 presents a large list of people who were saved by faith. Adam and Eve, Abel and Noah, and Abraham and Isaac are on that list. Moses is on that list. He acted as a picture of Jesus, serving as a mediator between God and God’s people. Moses proclaimed that a greater Prophet would come after him—Moses knew about Jesus. (It happens that the man who replaced Moses as leader of Israel and the man who replaced Moses as the final Mediator have the same name—Y’shua—although in English the earlier replacement is called Joshua and the ultimate replacement is called Jesus, from the Greek version of his name.)

David is also mentioned on that list. David wanted to build a Temple, a house for the Lord; but God sent the prophet Nathan to tell David that David would not build God a house—God would build David a house. His house would be the Son of David, who would rule an eternal kingdom. He would be disciplined by the Lord (bearing the burden of the world’s sin and paying in full to forgive all sinners.) David still made plans and preparations for his immediate son, Solomon, to build the Temple that David was forbidden to build. David may have been muddled in his faith, seeing either Solomon or the Temple as the fulfillment of God’s promise. Both of them were pictures of Jesus, but neither was the final fulfillment of the promise concerning the Son of David. Even so, David had saving faith in God’s promise to cleanse him from his sins and reconcile him to the Lord.

God’s means of creating, strengthening, and sustaining faith changed with the sacrifice of Jesus. From the time of Abraham to the time of Jesus, males were circumcised to initiate them into God’s chosen nation. A little blood was shed as they were brought into God’s kingdom. Even Jesus first shed blood in his circumcision. Now God’s people have Baptism, washing with water accompanied by God’s Word to initiate people into God’s chosen nation. Baptism is painless, is available to all people, and pictures the work of cleansing that is made possible by the death of Jesus on the cross. Before Jesus died on the cross, people sacrificed animals to the Lord, shedding the blood of animals as pictures of the future sacrifice. When people went through the motions of sacrifice without faith, God hated what they were doing. (See Psalm 50.) When they sacrificed in faith, God blessed their work and strengthened their faith. Now that Jesus has fulfilled the picture of sacrifice, his people no longer sacrifice animals. But they remember Jesus and his sacrifice in a sacred meal that features his body and his blood, strengthening and sustaining faith through the Word of God that accompanies that meal.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. Jesus stands at the center of all that is done by the people of God. From every tribe and language and nation—and from every time in history, from Adam and Eve to present and the future believers—we are united in the same faith in the same God and the same Savior. Abraham, Moses, David, and the other believers of Old Testament times will feast at the same heavenly banquet to which all Christians are invited, where Jesus is the host and we are all his special guests. J.

 

Christ and the Passover

On Thursday night of Holy Week, Jesus celebrated the Seder (the Passover meal) with his disciples in a borrowed room. The next night, the priests and all the citizens of Jerusalem celebrated their Seder. I have not been able to fact-check this statement, but I have read that at that time thousands of Jews did what Jesus and his disciples did: they came to Jerusalem for the Passover and celebrated the Seder a night early, while the citizens of Jerusalem celebrated on the night of the full moon.

The Seder and the week of Passover commemorated an event that had taken place twelve to fourteen centuries earlier. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt, but God sent Moses to command the pharaoh to release them. When the pharaoh refused, God sent a series of plagues against Egypt, showing that his power was greater than that of the Egyptian gods. The tenth plague was the death of the oldest son in every family, except that God spared those families that trusted him. They were told to kill a lamb, to paint the blood around the doors of their houses, and to roast and eat the lamb. They were to eat quickly, prepared to travel, because freedom was just around the corner. They were to bake bread without waiting for it to rise. That night the Israelites began their journey toward freedom, a journey which would take them to Mount Sinai where the Lord would say to them, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”

Among the instructions God gave the Israelites through Moses was a command to observe the week of Passover every spring. During the week of Passover they would eat bread made without yeast, remembering the bread made during their hurried escape from Egypt, and also representing a life lived without sin. They would eat bitter herbs to remember the bitterness of slavery. They would kill and eat a lamb (without, however, painting the lamb’s blood on their houses), remembering the lamb of the Passover in Egypt and the way God rescued them both from slavery and from death.

God wanted his people to remember how he had rescued them in the past. He also wanted them to know how he would rescue them in the future. He killed the oldest son in every family among the Egyptians but spared the oldest son in every family marked by the blood of the lamb. In the same way, God spares all sinners marked by the blood of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (as John the Baptist described Jesus). Jesus is also the only-begotten Son of God, but he is the first-born son in a family that is filled with adopted children. The sacrifice of Jesus is the price paid to adopt all those children into the family of his Father. Like the bread made without yeast, Jesus lived a life without sin, yet he was broken on the cross so he could make whole the lives that have been broken by sin.

Jesus and his disciples came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. They had their Seder meal on Thursday night. Later that night Jesus was arrested, tried, and convicted of blasphemy. Friday morning he would be handed over to the Romans, who would mock him, torture him, and crucify him. As the Passover lambs were being slaughtered for the Seder meals of the citizens of Jerusalem, the Lamb of God was shedding his blood and giving his life for all the sinners of history.

Through Moses, God commanded his people to celebrate the Passover every year. Some people continue to do so this year. On the other hand, Jesus fulfilled the meaning of the Passover celebration by his sacrifice and by his victory. The Israelites were led out of Egypt across the Red Sea toward the promised land the third day from the Passover. So also Jesus, on the third day, blazed a trail across the valley of the shadow of death to bring his people to a promised land—eternal life in a new and perfect creation that will have no end. J.

Sin, sacrifice, forgiveness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Eight maids a-milking

Eight days after he was born, Jesus was circumcised, and the people around him began to speak his name. Both Mary and Joseph had been told by angels to name the child Jesus, but the Jewish custom at that time was not to speak a baby’s name until the day of his circumcision. Even the angel who told the shepherds about the birth in Bethlehem did not speak the name Jesus—he called him “a Savior, Christ the Lord.” The name “Jesus” means “the LORD saves.” Moses changed the name of his successor from Hoshea, “salvation,” to Joshua, “the LORD saves.” As Joshua took over after Moses died and led the Israelites into the Promised Land, so this new Joshua—Jesus is the Greek way of saying the same name—would finish the work of Moses and bring God’s people into the new creation.
Circumcision was minor surgery required of all males in Israel, starting with Abraham. Because Jesus came to fulfill the Law of God, this surgery was performed upon him as well. For the first time, the world’s Savior shed blood, as he would also shed his blood on the day he completed his rescue mission. The eighth day of Christmas, therefore, is more than the beginning of a new year; it is also a time to remember our Savior, his name, and everything he has done to rescue us.
It is fitting that we begin a new year in the name of Jesus. We start the year thinking of the One whose very name is a promise of salvation. We remember his obedience to his Father on our behalf, so we can receive the rewards he earned by his perfection. We remember that he shed his blood to take away our sins, receiving the punishment we deserve in exchange for the rewards he shares with us. We commit every day of the new year to him, trusting his promises to be true every day of this year as they always have been true. J.