Busy times

The last couple of weeks have been busy. Most of the busy-ness was unavoidable, but the net effect has felt (at times) overwhelming.

Most important, of course, were Holy Week and Easter. Special services for Good Friday and Easter are to be expected. We observed the anniversary of the Lord’s death in our place, conquering death and granting forgiveness and eternal life. Then we celebrated the anniversary of his resurrection, announcing his victory and establishing the guarantee of our resurrection to live in a new and perfect world.

On the morning of Good Friday, a member of the congregation died. He had been ailing for some time; given his faith, it even seemed appropriate for his to die on such a day. He was seventy-three years old, a lifetime member of the same congregation. One of the other members called him “a pillar of the church.” After the funeral service, one of his sons remarked to me, “Finally Dad got to fill the church.”

On top of that, a historical exhibition that I was assigned to create and assemble opened at my workplace the night of Good Friday. As soon as I realized that the opening date was a holiday, I alerted the other people involved that I would not be present for the opening. For them the date was set—the second Friday of the month is a given for such events, because of other plans involving the place where I work and its neighbors in the community. With help, I put together the elements of the exhibit on Monday afternoon, and a “soft opening” was held Wednesday night prior to the official opening. A “soft opening” is only advertised within the workplace, and there are no refreshments. Four people came into the exhibit during the hour of the “soft opening,” and two of them were casual visitors unaware that there even was a “soft opening.”

I had decided in March that my First Friday Fiction would be a story taken out of a novel which I started writing more than thirty years ago. When I made that decision, I did not realize that I would end up posting the story in six installments, bleeding into Holy Week. Nor did I anticipate that typing and updating the story would inspire me to complete it in two more parts. My draft of the six installments actually ended with discussion questions, intended to gather responses that might shape the rest of the story. Instead, I began answering the questions myself, which led to writing the final parts of the story.

Embedded in these busy times were three landmarks for this Salvageable blog. I passed the second anniversary of the beginning of the blog on April 14. Somewhere in there I published my four hundredth post (one of the story episodes—I haven’t bothered to see which of them was #400). Around the same time, I reached one thousand different visitors who have looked at least once at Salvageable.

That mark of one thousand different visitors might not seem impressive, but I am happy about it. After all, writing anonymously, I have not promoted the blog on Facebook or Twitter or any other social media. In the past two years I have made many good friends, even though we know each other only through WordPress. I am grateful for all my readers, and I also enjoy reading your writings.

Undoubtedly, the best is yet to come! J.

Know your enemy–the devil

Some people interpret the devil as a metaphor, a personification of evil who does not literally exist. Others picture him as a cartoon character, an archaic mythical being with an overlay of medieval and modern imaginings. The Bible describes the devil as a fallen angel, created by God to be good, but in rebellion against God, at war with all that belongs to God. He has no personal interest in the people living on the planet Earth; but, because God loves us, the devil tries to hurt God by bringing harm upon us.

God is purely good, but pure evil does not exist. Everything evil is something good that has been twisted, distorted, and changed from its original form and purpose. Even the devil was a good angel when God made him. The Bible does not say much about his rebellion beyond attributing his fall to sinful pride. I speculate that the devil understands power and authority, but he does not understand love and mercy. He sees God’s love and mercy as weaknesses, which is why the devil believes that he can run the universe better than God is running it. He is very clever, but he is also foolish. He cannot accept the reality that he is not equal to God. He is not all-powerful, all-knowing, or present everywhere. He cannot defeat God, but that reality does not stop him from trying.

The devil tempts people to sin. When we have sinned, he remembers our sins and stands ready to accuse us of sinning. His name, Satan, comes from a Persian word, a legal term for the prosecuting attorney in a courtroom. Once a person has sinned, Satan considers that person a partner in evil. Every sin is a sign that the sinner belongs to Satan and not to God. Satan is ready to accuse us in God’s presence of all our sins so he can keep us as his property–not because he cares about us, but because he hates God and wants to grieve God.

On one occasion, Satan showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and promised to give them to Jesus if Jesus would worship the devil. As laughable as that temptation seems, it was a shrewd offer. Jesus had come into the world to redeem sinners, to reconcile us to God and reclaim us for his Kingdom. His path to our redemption involved suffering and dying on a Roman cross. Satan offered Jesus a shortcut to his goal. Jesus could take charge of all the kingdoms of the world without suffering and without dying. He only had to worship the devil. Had Jesus wanted power and authority, he would have accepted that offer. But Jesus came into the world with love and mercy. It was not enough for him to rule over sinners still unreconciled to God. Jesus refused the devil’s offer and continued his journey toward the cross.

Satan quoted Psalm 91 as he suggested that Jesus jump from the pinnacle of the Temple and be carried by angels. Jesus refused to put God’s promises to the test. Yet Jesus was fulfilling the promise of the Psalm in his refusal–the same Psalm also promises that God’s people will trample the serpent. In the Garden of Eden, Satan had used the form of a serpent to tempt Eve into sinning and joining his rebellion. God responded that Satan was a loser–he would eat dust–and a descendent of Eve would defeat Satan. Jesus would crush the devil’s head, but in the process Satan would bruise his heel. Jesus crushed the devil’s head by his sacrifice on the cross.

Now, when Satan remembers the sins of Christians and accuses us of rebellion, Jesus stands as our defense attorney. He pleads our case before his Father, reminding his Father that our penalty has been paid in full. Satan stamps his little foot and complains, “That’s not fair!” He is correct; God is being unjust by forgetting our sins and receiving us into his Kingdom. In love and mercy, God would rather be unfair to our benefit than give us what we deserve.  Jesus comes like a thief in the night to steal us from the devil. He breaks into the strong man’s house–the world controlled by the devil–and binds Satan so he can take Satan’s property (sinners who have rebelled against God) and bring them home.

When missionaries sent by Jesus rejoiced in the victories they had experienced, Jesus said, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” Satan’s fall is not a single event in history; he falls whenever God’s promises are shared and believed. The Word of God binds Satan. His only power is in his words, and when people trust God’s Word, Satan is bound. He is a chained dragon. Satan becomes unbound whenever people set aside the Word of God and fail to believe the promise of redemption. The Bible calls Satan a roaring lion, but he is no more dangerous than the lions in the zoo. So long as we stand where we belong–on the Word of God–Satan cannot get to us. Only when we leave God’s Word and climb into Satan’s territory are we in danger from the devil.

Satan is not God’s equal. Hell is a prison, not a kingdom, and Jesus holds the keys to that prison. The victory Jesus won by his death and resurrection is a victory over Satan, a victory Jesus shares with us. The apostle Paul calls us “more than conquerors” because we participate in the victory without having contributed to the battle. Satan does not have the power to take us out of God’s hands. Nothing, not even the devil, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. J.

 

Know your enemies

Jesus commanded his followers to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. Yet the book of Psalms contains many examples of hating enemies, wishing bad things to happen to them, and calling upon God to judge and punish those enemies. Is there a contradiction between the teachings of Jesus and the Psalms?

Viewed in their historic context, the “imprecatory Psalms” at first seem to relate to human enemies. David, the author of many of those Psalms, had many human enemies in his lifetime, including the Philistines, King Saul, and David’s son Absalom. When we read in I & II Samuel about the David’s career, though, he does not seem to glower with hatred against his enemies. Although he exchanged trash talk with Goliath before striking him down with a stone and cutting off his head, on other occasions David was gentle with those who chose to be his enemies. Twice he spared Saul’s life when Saul was vulnerable while pursuing David. He begged his soldiers to be gentle with his rebellious son, Absalom. Before he became king, David even lived among the Philistines and offered to fight with them against Israel. David’s attitude toward those enemies seems more consistent with the teachings of Jesus than with his own poetry.

David seems to have known already what the Apostle Paul would later put into words: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). By tradition, Christians identify our true enemies as an unholy threesome opposed to the will of God: the devil, the world, and our flesh. The devil is Satan, a rebellious angel who tried to take control of the universe away from God and who tempts people to sin, then accuses them of their guilt. The world is the sin that surrounds us during these lifetimes, the many sources of temptation that confront us daily and try to disrupt our Christian walk. The flesh is the sinful nature still within us, ready to cooperate with the devil and with the world by choosing sin over righteousness.

Our problems come from these three enemies. Since they work together, we cannot always say which of them is the source of any particular problem. I know Christians who blame all their troubles on demonic forces. I know others who blame all their troubles on the bad influence of the world. I know still others who blame themselves for every bad thing that happens to them. Most of the time, though, we cannot know the source of our problems. We know only that God has permitted his enemies to bother us, and that he will also never abandon us to their attacks.

Christians need to remember that our enemies have already been defeated. Jesus battled them on the cross and prevailed against them. The devil, the world, and even our sinful natures were beaten when Jesus bore the weight of sin and evil on the cross. When He announced, “It is finished,” one of the things that was finished was the power that our enemies have over us.

Even when we do not feel like winners, we remain more than conquerors through Jesus—more than conquerors because we share a victory we did not fight to achieve. Our enemies are still trying to harm us—not that they care much about us, but because they oppose the God who loves us. During this lifetime we live on a battlefield. We can rejoice with David, though, knowing that our enemies have lost. They are judged and condemned, and God has guaranteed their loss and our victory.

For those other enemies—the members of the other political party, the advocates of social changes of which we cannot approve, the bullies and insensitive neighbors who steal our peace and comfort—we are still expected to pray. We are expected to love them and even to forgive them. Even Muslim terrorists remain missionary opportunities. Our proper prayer for them is that God will show them the error of their ways and lead them to genuine repentance and to faith in Jesus Christ. We rejoice, not in earthly victories over flesh and blood, but in the eternal victory Christ won over the devil, the world, and our flesh. J.

 

“Hello, my name is Joe”

From time to time I dream of winning a grand victory over an evil intelligence, as Captain Kirk so often did in Star Trek. Yesterday, on a small scale, I finally had my chance.

The telephone rang while I was working on my desktop computer at home. I did not recognize the number showing on caller ID, but that did not necessarily mean the call was not from someone I know. I haven’t memorized all the phone numbers of people I might want to speak with on the phone.

I picked up the phone and said hello. A cheerful voice introduced himself as “Joe from Senior Auditory Center and Helping Hands.” He asked how I was doing and I said, “I’m fine, Joe; how are you?”

Instead of the usual, “I’m-fine-thanks-for-asking,” Joe moved immediately into a description of what his company offered. He implied that someone in the household had a need for a hearing aid. “I don’t think I’m interested,” I told him, but Joe then said that someone in the household had contacted his company.

Given the name of the company, I didn’t think that was likely. Instead of saying so, I offered, “Let me write down your name and number and ask my family if any of them have contacted you.”

“I’m not trying to sell you anything,” Joe assured me. “This is a free service.” I thanked him and asked again for a way to contact him if someone in the family indeed had an interest in what he was offering.

Instead of giving me a phone number, Joe said, “I’d just like to ask you a few questions, OK?”

By this time, Joe’s failure to respond to what I was saying made me suspect that Joe was not a human being, but rather a computer-generated voice. His pauses before responding were just a smidgen too long; along with his unfitting responses, our conversation made me picture a 1960s, made for TV, room-sized computer with whirling tapes and flashing lights. I knew that if I said “OK,” Joe would start asking his questions, so I said, “I don’t think I want to answer any questions.”

“OK?” Joe asked again.

“I know what word you want me to say, and I’m not going to say it,” I told him.

“I just want to ask you a few questions, OK?” Joe repeated.

Although I was tempted to tell him that logic is a chirping bird, I instead chose a more fitting line. “Joe, what we have here is failure to communicate,” I said.

“I’m sorry to hear you’re having that problem,” Joe said.

“I don’t think the problem is on my end,” I told him.

“My name is Joe,” he said, more slowly than he had said it the first time. I pictured the face of an android, eyes blank and staring, smoke starting to rise out of both his ears. He continued, slowly and distinctly, “I am from the Senior Auditory Center and Helping Hands.” After that came a silence long enough that I figured it would not be rude to hang up on Joe.

In three different episodes, Captain Kirk was able to save an entire planet and its resident civilization (not to mention his life and the lives of his crew) by talking a computer to death. I’d like to believe that, in a small way, I have now shared in the good captain’s victories. 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.

Know your enemies

I seem to be having a devilish week. First insanitybytes writes a post about the devil called “The voice of the enemy”—I tried to create link to it, but failed . Then, while the oil is being changed in my car, I read a short story written by Vladimir Nabokov in 1926, called “A Nursery Tale,” in which the devil plays a significant part.

One commenter to “The voice of the enemy” reminded IB that the devil is a created being, not omnipresent throughout the universe; the commenter questioned the ability of the devil to put thoughts into the minds of people. From there the conversation went askew, and rather than adding my voice to the din, I chose to visit the topic here.

A long-standing tradition in the Christian Church speaks of three enemies to the Christian: the devil, the world, and the flesh. “The world” does not mean the planet, but it describes all the temptation and opposition to the faith that comes from the people around us. “The flesh” does not refer to the Christian’s physical body, but rather to the evil thoughts and impulses that still exist in the mind or heart of the Christian.

From time to time, small groups of Christians insist that the flesh no longer exists in a saved Christian. Quoting a few verses out of context (particularly some from I John), they claim that a true believer no longer sins and that a sinner is not yet a true believer. They overlook I John 1:8—“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us”—and they distort Paul’s description of the paradox of Christian living in Romans 7. No, the devil does not need to be everywhere to accomplish his evil goals; the devil has a willing accomplice inside each of our minds and hearts.

The world is polluted by sin, causing us to be tempted every day. From Elizabeth Taylor to Taylor Swift, men’s minds are led astray—not because these talented women are part of some massive conspiracy to promote evil, but because the entertainment industry uses attractive and skilled performers to give us what we say we want. The flesh is eager to be tempted. The world is eager to offer temptations. The world would rather drag Christians down to its level than see us rise by God’s power to the level of Jesus Christ.

I picture the devil, not as a mastermind steering all the evil in the world, but as a mafia boss or gang leader sitting in a prison cell. He is “a roaring lion seeking someone to devour” (I Peter 5:8), but he is a caged lion, and we can resist him when we stay out of his cage. He is pictured as a dragon bound in chains and sealed in a pit (Revelation 20:1-3), but because the world is polluted by rebellion and evil, the devil’s schemes continue to succeed.

When did the devil fall from power? When was he chained and caged? When seventy-two missionaries reported to Jesus about their work, Jesus said, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). From this we learn that Satan falls from power and is bound whenever God’s Word is preached and believed. When is the dragon loosed? He is released from bondage whenever people turn away from the Word of God. When they call the Gospel “ancient myths and legends” and deny the cross of Christ and his resurrection, they unchain the devil. This unchaining is not some future event—it has been happening for centuries and continues to happen today.

The devil has several names. He is called Satan, which comes from the Persian name for a prosecuting attorney. Not only does the devil tempt us to sin; he also reminds us of our sins and calls on God to punish us as we deserve. He is called “Beelzebul,” meaning “master of masters,” a title given by Canaanites to their god Baal. The name is often changed to “Beelzebub,” meaning “master of flies,” a reminder that, even though at times he is called the king of this world, he has no real power. He took the form of a serpent to deceive our ancestors and to draw them and all humanity into his rebellion. (Only in the book of Revelation does the Bible explicitly say that the serpent is the devil.) God told Satan that he would “eat dust” and that his head would be crushed by the Christ—this first preaching of the Gospel is the time Satan first began to fall.

Jesus has defeated the devil by dying on a cross and rising again from the dead. The devil continues to be defeated whenever people hear and believe the good news about Jesus. If the devil and the world cause a Christian to suffer, hoping that the Christian will doubt God’s goodness or his power, their attack is defeated when that Christian allows his or her sufferings to be a reminder of the sufferings of Christ.

In his death and resurrection, Jesus has redeemed sinners, and he has redeemed all of creation. The devil took the form of a snake, but a snake became a picture of Jesus (Numbers 21:8-9 and John 3:14-15). The devil is a roaring lion, but Jesus is the Lion of the tribe of Judah. The devil is a prosecuting attorney, but Jesus is our defense attorney, pleading his case before his Father and reminding his Father that our penalty has been paid in full.

Yes, in this sin-polluted life we still battle the devil, the world, and our flesh. One cannot sort the struggles to know when a temptation or an attack came from the devil, or from the world, or from our own sinful flesh. They work together, and the source of our problems does not matter. All that matters is the victory that is ours through Jesus Christ. J.

 

Capturing all fifty

Yesterday morning I rode the elevator with a young woman—with bright blue hair and tattoos, not that any of that matters—who, after saying hello, was staring intently at the device in her hand. Evidently she was about to capture a Pokemon right there in the parking garage.

I remembered the days when telephones had to be plugged into the wall, when they had a headset connected to the main part of the phone with a long coiled cord. You couldn’t do much more with a telephone than talk to another person; about the most exciting app phones had was a number where you could hear the correct time and the temperature. Dick Tracy had a wristwatch that could do amazing things, and Maxwell Smart had a cell phone hidden in his shoe, but Star Trek communicators were going to have to wait until the twenty-third century… or so we thought.

Even in those primitive days we had a game that was as exciting as Pokemon Go. We generally played the game only on vacation road trips, but in theory it could be played around town. The goal was to “capture” license plates from other states by seeing them clearly in traffic or in parking lots. Complete victory was won only if at least one plate from each of the fifty states was spotted during the trip.

I suppose everyone has his or her own special rules for this game. As far as I am concerned, license plates only count if they are on private vehicles. Eighteen-wheel trucks, delivery vans, rental vehicles, and the like don’t count—basically, the plate is disqualified if the vehicle has any writing on the side.

Nearby states and states with large populations are easy to spot. The small states in New England and the sparsely-populated states in the west are harder to find. Delaware and Hawaii are among the hardest. The game was easier to play when each state had one unique design. Now most states have a number of special plates, and sometimes the modern plates take on similar designs and colors. Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri all have the same shades of blue in different combinations. Massachusetts and Arkansas are almost identical.

I’ve played the game starting on January 1 to see how long it takes to spot all fifty states. I’ve played the game starting over each morning to keep track of how many I see each day. Once I played the game trying to capture the fifty states in alphabetic order. That took close to three years, with Rhode Island requiring more than half a year to “capture.” When we were on a road trip, I mentioned the game to the children in the car and told them I was going to win when the next car passed us. One of them deduced, “Wyoming must be one of those states that has plates on the front of the car as well as the back,” which is correct.

On a good day, I can capture ten or more license plates. This morning I captured only seven. I didn’t spot any in the elevator of the parking garage. 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.

 

Easter Monday

Opponents of Christianity sometimes claim that accounts of the resurrection of Jesus cannot be believed, not only because the thought of a dead man returning to life seems preposterous, but also because the Bible’s accounts do not agree with one another. As for the resurrection being preposterous, that is the entire point of the event: Jesus did something amazing and incredible to call attention to his victory. Evil and death have been defeated and Jesus won the victory. Doubt the resurrection and Christianity disappears; trust the news of the resurrection, and the rest of Christianity follows.

Are the accounts of the resurrection in the Bible different? Do they contradict one another? Naturally, if they all said the same things in the same way, opponents would use that conformity as a reason to doubt the truth of the message. Different writers focus on different events and omit different details. Some atheists have offered financial rewards for any writer who can knit a consistent narrative out of the Bible’s accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. Without any hope of winning a reward—for surely the atheists would find some part of my explanation far-fetched just to keep their money—here is my narrative of the events of Easter, using the books of the New Testament as my sources.

Jesus died about three o’clock in the afternoon (Matthew 27:46, et al.). Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin (the seventy men who ruled Israel regarding religious matters), sought permission from Governor Pontius Pilate to bury Jesus (Matthew 27:57-58, et al.). This was unusual—crucified criminals usually were thrown into a common grave. After Pilate had confirmed that Jesus truly was dead (Mark 15:45), he gave permission for the burial. Joseph had recently acquired a vault in a garden near Golgotha, the place where Jesus was crucified. This was to be a tomb for Joseph and the members of his family when they died (Matthew 27:60). No one yet had been buried there (John 19:41). Joseph bought a shroud of linen (Matthew 27:59, et al.) and, according to Jewish burial practices of the time (John 19:40), tore it into long strips to mummify Jesus. Assisted by Nicodemus, he cleaned the body of Jesus and wrapped the linen around his body, along with seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloe (John 19:38-42). They placed the body of Jesus in the vault and rolled a large stone in front of the entrance to complete the burial (Matthew 27:60 et al.).

Several women had come from Galilee with Jesus and his disciples for the Passover holiday. They included Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, Salome, Johanna, and others (Matthew 27:61, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:10). At least some of these women watched as the two men buried Jesus. Feeling that the rushed burial (completed before the sun set and the Sabbath began) was incomplete, the women provided themselves with spices and ointments. After the Sabbath, they planned to complete what they men felt they had finished.

Meanwhile, the authorities in Jerusalem remembered the prophecy of Jesus—that he would be crucified and would rise three days later. Saying that they feared that his disciples would steal his body to fake a resurrection, they warned the governor of this possibility. “You have a guard,” he reminded them, speaking of the Temple soldiers. He gave them permission to guard the tomb, and also to place a seal on the stone, making it a crime for anyone to move the stone (Matthew 27:62-66).

During the Sabbath, Jesus rested, his body dead and buried, and his soul in the hands of his Father in Paradise (Luke 23:43 and 46). Sunday morning he rose to life again, soul and body recombined. He did not need the stone removed for him to leave the tomb, but the stone had to be removed for others to see that he had risen. Meanwhile, the risen Jesus proclaimed his victory over the spirits of those who had died resisting his commands (I Peter 3:19-20).

The women from Galilee got up before sunrise to take their spices to the tomb (Matthew 28:1, John 20:1). They were probably staying in the suburbs, so their journey took a while. As they traveled the sun rose (Mark 16:2, Luke 24:1). There was an earthquake (Matthew 28:2), perhaps an aftershock from Friday’s quake. As the earth shook, an angel descended from heaven, threw the stone out of place, and sat upon it (Matthew 28:2-3). Instead of arresting the angel for moving the sealed stone, the guards fainted (Matthew 28:4). (There were probably only two or three of them; how many guards are needed to guard a tomb?) They must have revived quickly and slunk away; no mention is made of their presence when the women arrived at the tomb.

When she saw that the stone had been removed (Mark 16:4, John 20:1-2), Mary Magdalene immediately left the other women and ran to where Peter and John were staying. “They have taken the Lord’s body,” she told them, “and we don’t know where they have laid him” (John 20:2). While this was happening, the other women entered the tomb. They saw the linen in which Jesus had been wrapped, now clearly not containing a body (Luke 24:3). They also saw two angels. (Matthew and Mark mention only one angel; Luke mentions two. Since Matthew and Mark do not say “only one angel,” they are not contradicting Luke’s report of two angels. In the same way, Matthew, Mark, and Luke mention Joseph burying Jesus without mentioning Nicodemus. Only John mentions the help of Nicodemus. But the first three writers do not say that he acted alone, so there is no contradiction. It would be difficult for one man to mummify the corpse of another.) The first angel said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5) The second angel said, “Do not be afraid; I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here. He has risen. See the place where they laid him?” pointing to the empty pile of linen (Matthew 28:5-6, Mark 16:6 ). The first angel added, “Remember how he told you in Galilee that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and rise again on the third day?” (Luke 24:6-7) The women remembered his words and started to understand what had happened (Luke 24:8). The second angel said, “Go tell the disciples, and Peter” (Mark 16:7—Peter had recently denied being a disciple of Jesus), “that he is risen and will meet them in Galilee” (Matthew 28:7, Mark 16:7). The women left with mixed feelings, a combination of fear and joy, as they were starting to understand and believe in the news of the resurrection, but they still were frightened. At first they said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid (Mark 16:8).

Their outlook changed on the way into Jerusalem when they met Jesus. They worshiped him, and he reaffirmed the angel’s message to tell the disciples that he would meet them in Galilee (Matthew 28:9-10). Meanwhile, Peter and John—having been told part of what was happening—raced to the tomb. John, being younger, arrived first, but lingered outside the tomb. Peter barreled past him and entered the tomb, seeing the empty pile of linen but not seeing or hearing any angels. John also entered the tomb and started to understand what had happened, but Peter remained befuddled (John 20:3-10 ; Luke 24:12 mentions Peter’s visit).

Peter and John returned to the city. Mary Magdalene must have followed them back to the tomb, because when they left she was alone in the garden (John 20:11). First she saw two angels in the tomb and spoke with them (John 20:12-13), then she turned and saw Jesus. Thinking he was the gardener, she asked him what he had done with the body of Jesus. When Jesus spoke her name, she recognized him and grabbed his feet, worshiping him (John 20:14-16). “Don’t cling to me,” Jesus said (not “Don’t touch me,” as some translations say), and he sent her to the disciples with a message like that he had sent through the other women (John 20:17). (Mark 16:9 says Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene. This does not mean his first appearance of the day, but the first appearance in Mark’s list.)

Meanwhile, the guards who had fainted at the sight of an angel reported to the chief priests what had happened. (This shows that they were Temple guards, not Roman soldiers.) They were paid money to spread the story that the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus from under their noses (Matthew 28:11-15).

To be continued tomorrow… J.

 

Seven Mysteries of the Christian Faith–Chapter three: the mystery of Redemption

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved… (Romans 8:22-24)

Coupons are the only things that people redeem today. A customer cuts a coupon out of the newspaper, or off of a package, or prints a coupon from the internet, and brings the coupon to the store. The clerk at the store redeems the coupon by giving its value to the customer, whether the coupon is worth ten cents, twenty-five cents, a dollar, or any other amount.  Payment of a known value is the root meaning of the word “redemption.”

In the days of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire, slaves were redeemed. The seller would take the slaves into the market and put them on display. Interested buyers would look at the slaves and perhaps ask questions about them. When a buyer was ready to make a purchase, he would announce, “I redeem this one.” Money would change hands—the buyer would give the agreed value of the slave to the seller. The slave was not then free; the slave was now the property of a new owner.

The Bible says that God is our Redeemer—specifically, that Jesus Christ the Son of God is our Redeemer. He has paid a price to make us his property. We are not free now to do whatever we want; we are free to do whatever Jesus wants. Yet, because of this purchase, we are free. We once were slaves to sin, but Christ—by redeeming us—has taken us out of the power of sin. We once were destined for death, which we deserved, but by the price he paid to claim us, Jesus has set us free from death and has granted us the gift of life instead.

The financial metaphor of redemption is only one of the Bible’s pictures of what Jesus has done for us. The Bible speaks of salvation, of justification, of cleansing, and of other descriptions of what Jesus has accomplished. By any name, this gift from Jesus is a mystery. How does the life of one man, lived in Jewish communities at the edge of the Roman Empire two thousand years ago, make any difference to us today? How does the death of that one man, condemned as a criminal and executed on a cross, change the world and bring blessings to Christians? Christianity stands or falls on this point, for if the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus have no meaning today, then nothing in the Bible is worth learning or remembering. Without the sacrifice of the cross, Christianity has no hope and no good news to offer.

Some people today reject Christianity precisely because they cannot accept the mystery of redemption. Perhaps some of the analogies used to describe this mystery have repulsed those people. The description of an all-powerful God who sacrifices his only Son to rescue a group of people who do not deserve such mercy can be hard to accept. For if God sacrificed his Son, to whom did he sacrifice Jesus? Who is greater than God, and therefore in a position to accept this sacrifice? Likewise, the thought of one innocent being suffering so that many others can escape the suffering that they deserve can be repulsive. If the torture of one innocent child could bring great benefit to you and other people, would you accept that benefit, or would you reject it because of the unjust suffering of the one innocent child?

No analogy can completely describe the full meaning of redemption or salvation. Each analogy will have some weakness in its description; after all, redemption is a mystery. The cross, of course, was real. The pain, the bleeding, and the death were all real, not mere pictures or messages of some other reality. Jesus was innocent, but he was not a helpless child. He obeyed the will of his Father and accepted the torture of the cross because he knew that his suffering and death could redeem sinners. Yet no power greater than God received the payment that Jesus offered. Only God is Almighty; only God is in charge of the universe. Justice comes from God alone, not from any greater source, whether personal or impersonal. When the Bible speaks of redemption, the message of the Bible is that Jesus loves us enough to pay full value to make us his property. Redemption is still an analogy. The real meaning of the cross is deeper and more mysterious than any analogy.

On a certain weekend chosen by God from the beginning of creation, the Son of God was seized by his enemies. For more than thirty years he had lived on this planet, obeying all the commands that God has given to his people. He made enemies, though, largely because he promised rescue for those who had sinned, and said that he would perform that rescue. He was condemned by the Jews for blasphemy, because they believed that Jesus had insulted God by claiming to be the Son of God. Jesus was not guilty of blasphemy, because he truly is the Son of God. Rather than using the truth as his defense, Jesus remained silent and allowed himself to be turned over to the Roman authorities. Since the Romans had no law against claiming to be the Son of God, the high priests accused Jesus of claiming to be a king. This also was true, although Jesus did tell the Roman governor that his Kingdom is not of this world. Still, under pressure from the local crowd, the governor signed the order to send Jesus to the cross, condemned as a traitor to Rome because he was “the King of the Jews.”

The torture of death on a Roman cross was enormous, but the physical pain felt by Jesus is not the worst pain ever felt. Many other people were crucified by Roman authority both before and after the death of Jesus. Millions of other people have been tortured with physical pain, whether through the deliberate cruelty of other people, or due to illnesses or accidents. Some have lived with such pain for years. Being mocked by his enemies and abandoned by his friends made the suffering of the cross worse for Jesus, but even that rejection was not unique. The ultimate torment of the cross, which was added to the physical and emotional pain, was separation from his Father. The Father and the Son have always loved each other. For a few hours that Friday, though, the Father rejected and abandoned his Son, and Jesus felt the spiritual pain of separation from a loving God. In the darkness his voice was heard, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forgotten me?”

In simple language, the absence of God’s loving presence is called hell. Some people work their own way to hell. They do not want to be with God, so they try to get away from God. Anyone who willingly breaks God’s commandments is claiming independence from God. Everyone who chooses to sin is choosing to be in hell rather than to be with God. God does not allow that choice to be our final answer. Through the redemption paid on the cross, people are rescued from hell. Jesus went to hell that Friday afternoon so other people would never have to go there.

Like any mystery, the mystery of redemption is misunderstood in various ways. Some people see the death of Jesus on the cross as nothing more than an example, teaching his people the kind of sacrifice he expects all his people to be willing to make. The meekness of Jesus, his willingness to forgive those who hurt him, and his confidence in his Father despite all appearances, are elements of his sacrifice that Christians can admire and should imitate. But if the cross were only one more lesson in the teaching career of Jesus Christ, it would have no power. Without true redemption, the example is empty and might as well not be imitated. Though other people see the lesson as more about the world than about Jesus, they also are missing the point. The events of that weekend are much larger than corruption in society, the abuse of power by those who have it against those who don’t, or the inevitable danger of confronting a rotten system with honesty and love. When people start talking about the sacrifice of Jesus in these ways, they show that they completely misunderstand why Jesus allowed himself to be nailed to a cross.

Other people understand that Jesus died on the cross to save people. They misunderstand which people Jesus died to save. They assume that Jesus would only give his life to save those who are worth saving. In one way or another, they consider what it would take to be among those worth saving. Those who have not committed any great crime or caused a lot of damage in the world might be worth saving. Those who have taken part in the right religion might be worth saving. Those who have tried their best to be good, even though they have made a few mistakes, might be worth saving. Those who are better than average might be worth saving.

The Bible does not say that some people are worth saving and others are not worth saving. Instead, it says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and, “you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked,” (Ephesians 2:1), and, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). In case anyone wants to say that people are saved through Christ after they have done something good to show that they were worth saving, the Bible clearly says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

God is holy. He has zero tolerance for sin. One small sin destroys a person’s worthiness to be saved in the same way one tiny hole pops a balloon. No one can begin the process of being saved, because without God’s help we are dead in sin. Therefore, the mystery of redemption requires that Jesus pays the entire price to rescue us, since without him we cannot rescue ourselves.

While some people say that we have to start the process of redemption by being good enough to rescue, other people say that Jesus begins the process and we must finish the process to be redeemed. Some say that we have to do good things to show that we have faith and have been redeemed. Others say that we must invite Christ into our lives or decide to belong to him before we can be redeemed. The answer to this misunderstanding is the same as the answer to the previous misunderstanding. Nothing we do finishes redemption, because redemption was finished on the cross. Jesus paid the entire price to redeem his people; nothing remains to be paid by his people. “This is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” If redemption had to be earned, even by the smallest action, then it would not be a gift. Jesus the Son of God completes the entire act of redemption, doing all the work from beginning to end.

A more subtle misunderstanding is that Jesus does all the work to redeem his people, but the reason he redeems them is so they can do good things for him. We were, after all, created to do good works. Being redeemed, we belong to Christ and are expected to obey him. We are free to do what he wants, not free to do what we want. Redemption and the forgiveness of God does indeed change people, making them able to imitate Jesus. While the connection seems logical, it still does not match what God has said through the prophets and apostles. We were created to do good works, but we are redeemed because God loves us. Good works are expected from us, but they do not cause our salvation. If someone asks, “Why did God make me?” the answer is found in the good works we are meant to do. If someone asks, “How am I forgiven for my sins? How am I saved from evil and from death?” the only answer is the mystery of redemption, the mystery in which Jesus does all the work that needs to be done.

All the descriptions of redemption are analogies. Real redemption is a mystery that cannot be explained by a single analogy. The word “redemption” itself is a financial analogy. It suggests that, by suffering and bleeding and dying on the cross, Jesus paid a price to purchase us. Before he redeemed us we were slaves to sin and evil and death, but now we belong to him. Another way of describing redemption with a financial analogy is to say that each time we sinned and broke God’s commands, we increased the debt that we owe to God. Even the best of us cannot pay that debt. Jesus is like a wealthy friend or relative who recognizes that we are deeply in debt and cannot pay what we owe; he pays all our debts himself, and then even opens a new account with his money and gives us that account so we too can be wealthy.

The analogy of redemption is sometimes described as Jesus taking the form of a ransom. As a Redeemer he assumes our debt and pays it in full; as a Ransom he claims us for himself, buying us out of the power of sin and evil and death. Neither image should be pressed so far as to suggest that Jesus is paying our value to a higher power. Jesus, the Son of God, is already the highest power that exists. However, the Son of God is offering payment to make us his people because he wants us to be his people.

A similar analogy omits the financial picture but says much the same thing. Jesus endured what we deserve so we can receive something better in exchange. By sinning, we broke our relationship with God. We indicated that we no longer wanted to be God’s people. The ultimate separation from God is called hell. Jesus experienced hell for several hours on the cross so we would never experience hell, even though by our sins we deserve to be there. In experiencing what we deserve, Jesus was able to spare us the punishment we deserve and instead give us a gift, blessings that only Jesus deserves.

This analogy is sometimes called the Great Exchange. Because we have broken God’s commands, doing what we want instead of what God wants, we deserve to be punished. Because Jesus lived among us as one of us and always obeyed God’s commands, he deserves to be rewarded. Because Jesus loves us, he trades places with us. He takes on the guilt for all our sins, and his own Father treats him as guilty of those sins. He abandons Jesus on the cross, and by doing that he removes the punishment that we deserve. Instead, Jesus gives us credit for his goodness. Because Jesus has given us that credit, God sees us through Jesus and claims us as his children. If Jesus had not exchanged destinies with us, he would be the only human being in God’s new creation. Because Jesus paid for our sins, we can join him in that new creation and live there with him forever.

This exchange was acted out in the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate. Pilate was hearing several cases in Jerusalem when the Jewish authorities brought Jesus to him. Pilate perceived that Jesus was guilty of no great crimes that deserved death. In various ways, he tried to find a way to set Jesus free. In his hearings that morning, he had condemned a convicted terrorist named Barabbas to death on a cross. Pilate now offered the priests and their minions a choice: either Pilate would set Jesus free, or Pilate would set Barabbas free. Because they were determined to destroy Jesus, they called for freedom for Barabbas. When Pilate then asked what he should do to Jesus, the crowd shouted, “Crucify him.” Up until that moment, the crowd had been planning to stone Jesus to death, according to the Law of Moses, but for that they needed Roman permission. Now the mention of Barabbas led them to call for the cross for Jesus. Barabbas, the convicted criminal, was free, and Jesus took his place, receiving the punishment Barabbas deserved. Every person redeemed by Jesus is a Barabbas deserving punishment, but Jesus has taken away that punishment and endured it himself so sinners can be free.

This same exchange can be described with a judicial analogy. We are defendants in God’s courtroom, and the evidence proves our guilt. Our accuser (Satan) reminds both God and us of the punishment we deserve. But we have a defense attorney who speaks on our behalf. By taking away our punishment (or by paying our fine himself), he is able to have us declared “not guilty.” The meaning of the word “justification” is “declared not guilty.” When he justifies us, God is able to remove our guilt, take away the punishment we deserve, and give us the gift of salvation, making us citizens of his eternal kingdom.

Why doesn’t God just forgive us because he is good? Why must Jesus pay a price to redeem us? The answer to those questions is best shown by another analogy which also involves justice.  When people break God’s commands, they hurt other people. They damage God’s creation. God cannot ignore the harm done by sin. God is holy and just. A holy and just God cannot ignore evil or pretend that it doesn’t matter. Forgiveness is free to sinners, but it is not cheap. The forgiveness of sins is very expensive, and someone has to pay that price.

God is just, but he is not justice. God is holy, but he is not holiness. Not only is God loving, but God is love. Love is the center of the nature of the Triune God. God loves the people he made, even those who have sinned. God’s love triumphs over his holiness and his justice when God himself faces the punishment that sinners deserve and pays their debt in full.

One can almost imagine Satan, the accuser, stamping his little foot in God’s courtroom and shouting, “That’s not fair!” God is not fair, because God loves us too much to be fair to us. Anyone who demands justice from God in his courtroom is making a big mistake. God does not want to treat us as we deserve; he wants to treat us as Jesus deserves, since he has already treated Jesus as we deserve.

Some of the parables of Jesus describe God’s loving injustice. A landowner pays the same amount of money to workers who worked on his farm twelve hours and workers who worked only one hour. A manager is commended for changing the accounts when he is about to be fired, knowing that he is making friends for his future by his dishonesty. A strong man (the devil) is tied up by a stronger man (Jesus) so the stronger man can rob him of his possessions (sinners). God’s injustice is good news for those of us who need forgiveness and do not deserve forgiveness.

Redemption is often pictured as a rescue mission, which is why Jesus is called Savior. He saves his people from their sins. One depiction of Jesus doing the work of a Savior pictures him diving to the bottom of a muddy pond. Buried in the mud at the bottom of the pond is treasure. Jesus gets himself dirty hunting for that treasure. He lives among sinners and is even killed by sinners. Jesus finds the treasure, though, and brings it to the surface with him. In the same way, we are lifted out of this world of sin, claimed by Jesus, and lifted up to his kingdom. We never could have traveled there on our own; Jesus had to come down to us to lift us up to him.

Another picture of his rescue mission depicts Jesus as a shepherd, going out into the wilderness to bring back a sheep that has wandered, since the sheep cannot find its own way home and cannot defend itself in the wilderness.

Perhaps the most frequent picture in the Bible of redemption is that of victory over God’s enemies. Christians often become attached to the financial analogy or the judicial analogy and overlook the picture of Christ’s victory. On the cross, Jesus fought all our enemies. He fought the sins we have committed, and he fought the sins committed against us. He fought evil and injustice in this world, and he fought all the forces of evil, including the devil. He fought death—the final result of sin and rebellion—and every one of these battles was won by Jesus. In the long-standing war between God and evil, the decisive battle was fought outside the gates of Jerusalem on a Friday long ago. Jesus won that fight, and he announced his victory later that weekend by rising again from the dead.

Nations honor soldiers who give their lives on the battlefield defending their country. Our King gave his life on the cross to rescue his Kingdom from evil. Sports fans celebrate the victories of their teams and say “we won” even though they contributed nothing to the victory. Likewise, Christians are able to celebrate and say “we won” because of the victory Jesus won that weekend. Jesus does not mind sharing his victory; he wants to share his victory. Life in the new creation will be an unending celebration of the victory Jesus won and shares with his people.

One Day Jesus will return in glory, raise all the dead, and begin his new creation. This Day is called Judgment Day, because on that Day Jesus will announce his judgment, declaring who will live with him in his new creation and who will be locked outside his kingdom. Judgment Day will not be a trial; it will be only the announcement of a verdict. People will be divided instantly into two groups—the saved and the lost—and those who are saved will begin celebrating the victory of Jesus with him.

Those who trust in Jesus do not have to fear that Day. Being redeemed, they know his verdict already. On Judgment Day, according to Jesus and his prophets and apostles, the sun will stop shining and the earth will shake. Already when Jesus was on the cross, the sun stopped shining, and when he died, the earth shook. God’s Judgment was poured out on his Son and is finished. No Judgment remains for the people redeemed by Jesus, the people who belong to Jesus.

Redemption is a mystery. Perhaps the greatest mystery about redemption is the question, why? Why does Jesus love us enough to give his life for us? Why would he redeem us, rescue us, justify us, and claim us for himself? The answer cannot be found in us. The answer can only be found in Jesus. His nature is to love and to forgive. Because Jesus loves and forgives, we have been redeemed.