The Greatest Love Story Ever Told

In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him.  In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.  (I John 4:9-10)

The Bible’s first book, Genesis, begins with the account of the creation of mankind and the realm that humans inhabit.  In the first two chapters is a brief, simple story of God’s creation of the cosmos that we know, the world in which we live, plant and animal life, and mankind.  “Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished.  And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done (Genesis 2:1-2).”   Genesis 2:7 reads, “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.”  God had displayed His infinite ability, power, and wisdom, both within the Godhead and to all of the “angels” and other beings apparently created previously.  God had designed the world for humankind and had created humans, and from 3:8 (“And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden”), there is the clear implication that God and man were in relationship and fellowship.  Adam knew God as God, as Creator, as Source and Sustainer, and even in a sense as Friend.  The created universe was vast, expansive, beautiful, everything that man would ever need or could ever imagine.  But the divine purpose in creation was far from finished; the love story of the ages was still more like a mystery than a love story.  

The divine purpose for creating humans was not that they should exist merely knowing Him as Creator.  God created man for a much more expansive and dynamic purpose, to be more than just a robot or machine but to ultimately deeply know, serve, experience, and worship Him.  To love Him.  In so doing, the possibility of human waywardness and disobedience toward God necessarily followed, and man fell into sin and rebellion against God, just as God in His divine unfathomable knowledge had known would happen.  Genesis chapter three relates a simple account of the Fall of humankind into sin and rebellion against God.  “Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil.  And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”-  therefore the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken.  So He drove out the man . . . (Genesis 3:22-24).”  And from that point forward, the cataclysmic result of sin against the Creator has played out through the ages.  

         

It is necessary that we get some comprehension of the vast unimaginable crime of creature rebelling against the Creator, explained more fully throughout the whole of scripture.  Triune God is the eternally existent One, and all that He has created is rightfully and necessarily for Him, His purposes, His honor, His glory.  Of Christ, Hebrews 2:10 tells us that “For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, . . .”  In Colossians 1:15-17 Paul wrote that Christ “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.  For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers.  All things were created through Him and for Him.  And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.”  For His own glory and purposes, God created mankind and the earth.  The Genesis account tells us that man fell – sinned – rebelled against God –  and was driven from Eden and lost the previous relationship with God, and coupled with teaching throughout scripture, we learn that mankind “died” spiritually, becoming separated and alienated from God.  The earth itself, created as the home for mankind, was changed, still displaying God’s glory in creation, but profoundly affected in the wake of the Fall.  Through the centuries, natural disasters of every sort, weather disasters and plagues and famines and calamities have brought untold misery.  Human nature was monstrously affected.  Millions have died in wars, millions have been enslaved and oppressed, maladies and defects of every sort have plagued suffering humanity throughout history.  There is no dimension of our humanity, of the human experience, and of human history, that is not affected by our rebellion against God.  And death has ultimately been the inescapable lot of the descendants of Adam.  Romans 5:12 notes that “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned,” and in First Corinthians 15:22 is the statement that “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.”  

It is with this background that the love story really begins, and God’s ultimate purpose for creating human beings unfolds.  The Genesis chapter three account relates that God had communicated that if Adam and Eve ate from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” they would die.  When they disobeyed, they died spiritually, their innocence lost and their previous relationship with their Creator destroyed, but they didn’t immediately die physically.  Instead, God killed two animals and used their skins as clothes to cover the nakedness of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:21); substitutes were killed to cover their physical shame.  Animal sacrifice thus began and continued throughout the Old Testament.  In a love story?

Fast forward to a point in time some four thousand years ago, where the Bible’s story of God’s relationship with man and the great love story of the ages continues and begins to focus.  God entered into a covenant relationship with the man Abraham, and God’s divine purposes began to unfold through the nation comprised of Abraham’s descendants, Israel, the Jewish people.  In Genesis 22, God strangely asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son to the Lord.  Abraham faithfully obeyed, but as he was ready to kill Isaac, God stopped him and provided a ram caught by his horns in a bush.  Isaac lived because God provided a sacrifice to take his place.  Centuries later, while they were captive in Egypt, the concept of the substitute sacrifice came to a memorable point for the nation of Abraham’s descendants with the Passover in Exodus 12.  A lamb free of obvious flaws was killed and its blood spread on the doorposts of homes so that the family inside was spared the judgment of the angel of death, and the people ate the lamb, showing their identification and participation with it and its fate.  Sacrificial atonement came to be central to Israel’s religion.  In various offerings, the worshiper placed hands on an unblemished animal, signifying identification with the animal (Leviticus 1, 4).  The animal was killed, its blood poured out on the altar, and by faith the penitent worshiper was accepted and reconciled to God.  Ugly, bloody, not at all loving, viewed from a postmodern perspective.

Israel, the descendant people from Abraham, eventually became a strong nation, and a fabulous temple was built at Jerusalem.  Sacrifices were offered there day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, century after century, and animal sacrifices stood at the center of Israel’s religion.  The animals took the punishment the people deserved.  Once a year on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest, representing the nation, would offer a sacrifice for himself and a sacrifice for the people.  But unlike Passover or other offerings, neither the priest nor the people ate these sacrifices. They were whole burnt offerings, and God alone would symbolically consume the sacrifice and the sin that sacrifice represented.  That endless repetition of the sacrifice of animals, however, showed that the love story was not finished.  They merely foreshadowed what was to come. “But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year.  For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins (Hebrews 10:3-4).”  The sacrifices continued some four centuries in the temple at Jerusalem until the city was captured by ancient Babylon and the temple was destroyed.  The bloody sacrifices resumed decades later in a rebuilt temple and continued until that building was later destroyed by the Romans.  From the time of Abraham the religion of the Jewish people was massively bloody.  Hardly what one would expect in a story of divine love.

These Old Testament sacrifices were prophecies and promises of a greater substitute that was to come.  Isaiah spoke prophetically of this substitute in Isaiah 53, one whose blood could take away sin, whose death could actually gain the acceptance of the worshiper once and for all.  One whose substitution was fully appropriate because he was fully human, whose sacrifice was completely adequate because he was fully divine.  The author of the New Testament book of Hebrews wrote in Hebrews 10, quoting Psalm 40 as if spoken by Jesus:  “You did not desire sacrifice and offering, but you prepared a body for me. You did not delight in whole burnt offerings and sin offerings. Then I said, ‘See – it is written about me in the scroll – I have come to do your will, O God.”  Animal sacrifices could not ultimately satisfy God; no religious rite could ever bridge the gulf between the holy Creator and sinful man.

          

Another,  better, and permanent way was planned by God to atone for sin, to satisfy the wrath and justice of God against rebellion and disobedience inherent in His divine nature, to restore man to relationship with the Creator, and elevate man in fulfillment of the divine purpose for human existence.  Further, God had displayed only a portion of Himself and His nature in creation.  To demonstrate why He had created man, to demonstrate His grace and love while upholding His holiness, justice, and wrath against rebellion, something more was required.  So to complete the divine purpose in creation, to complete the greatest love story ever told, something remarkable happened.

At the point in time chosen by God in His divine wisdom, the love story of the ages reached its ultimate climax.  The apostle Paul wrote, in Galatians 4:3-5, “ Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world.  But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law,  to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.”  And so, God the Father prepared a body for the incarnation of God the Son.  Through the Jewish nation, in fulfillment of the ancient covenant with Abraham, a final Sacrifice and Substitute was born.  All along, from the moment of creation, God’s plan and purpose was not only to provide that substitute, but to be that substitute in the person of his Son, bearing in Himself the punishment human sin demanded and the sinfulness we could not overcome.

Human existence knows of many displays of great and deep love.  A martyr might die for a deeply held cause.  A patriot might give his life in love of country.  A spouse may sacrifice for a spouse, a parent for a child.  But none of those can begin to rival the love of God passionately expressed in Christ.  Jesus did not die by accident.  He did not die a martyr.  He did not merely model sacrificial love.  He did not come as a divine messenger from God to die in demonstration of God’s acceptance and affirmation of “broken” humanity, to say that God loves and accepts and affirms humans just as we are.  He did not die to say that God is “crazy” about us all and to affirm our inherent value and worth.  He willingly and purposely gave His life to atone for the sins of others, unworthy created beings in rebellion against Almighty God.

In John 10:11-17 it is recorded that Jesus said, as He contemplated his approaching death,

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. . .  I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own.  As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.  And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.

Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again.  No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself.  I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again.  This command I have received from My Father.

Jesus Christ was the Son of God and God the Son.  He came to the covenant nation with the message from heaven as their promised Messiah, and in the ultimate display of human depravity, He was rejected and savagely killed.  His death was not unique in its manner – thousands died on Roman crosses – and He was not the only man ever executed in a miscarriage of justice.  But His death was unique in that He was incarnate God.  In His gruesome death, the plan of God was fulfilled and the anger of God against sin was appeased.  Some eight centuries earlier, the Jewish prophet Isaiah wrote, in Isaiah 53,

Surely He has borne our griefs
And carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten by God, and afflicted.
But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

Jesus died first and foremost to atone for human rebellion against God, to satisfy the wrath inherent in the divine nature against sin, to reconcile God and the repentant sinner.  God is just and sinless and holy and yet still forgives those in rebellion against Him because He has atoned for the sins of ungodly sinners in the death of his own Son and has expressed and demonstrated His wrath against sin in the atonement made by Christ.  Christ came to offer Himself before God to save us from the wrath of God.  God did what He long promised He would do and what was demanded by the divine nature; He punished sin.  The innocent substitute offered on the cross was not a mere animal as in the Old Testament sacrificial system, but was the incarnate Son of God.

At the cross all of God’s attributes were shown.  In the crucifixion of Christ He demonstrated His own eternal greatness and glory, His holiness and eternal justice –  and His mercy, grace, and love.  This is the most staggering thing in the universe and in the whole of history!  Through Jesus Christ, we are saved in the greatest imaginable demonstration of love, by God for God and His glory.  It is only when we understand this, and understand how great our sin is, that we will begin to know how great is God’s love.  The  passionate expression of God’s love in Christ is the pinnacle of His glory.  With the atoning death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, we see the story of redemption and the glory of God, and we gain the understanding of the love of God.

The divine purpose in creation was not complete in Eden.  God had demonstrated his limitless power, ability, grandeur, and glory.  But it wasn’t until the Cross that He displayed His mercy, grace, and His love.  Paul wrote in Romans 5:6-10,

For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.  For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die.  But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.  For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.  

In the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, God has provided the means of salvation and redemption.  Just as willful rebellion and disobedience – sin – ruined humanity, so a  willful end to our rebellion is required of us.  The Father sent the Son in the power of the Spirit to express the mercy, forgiveness, and the love of the Triune God in the great act of redemption.  The Father and the Son have sent the Spirit to us to make the Son known, to make the way of salvation known to us, to call us and to restore and create life in those who will but end their rebellion, accept and believe what the Son has done for us, and call out to Him in faith.  Just as in Adam’s sin we all died spiritually, Paul wrote in Second Corinthians 5:17 that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”

          

Those who end their rebellion and come to Christ know God in a way that Adam could never have experienced in Eden.  Adam knew God as Creator.  We can know Him not only as God and Creator, but we can know Him as the One who loves us enough to die for us in atonement for our sin.  There is no more compelling story.  He loves us, and wants us to love Him and live in a manner that reflects that we have been transformed by Him.  In John 14, it is recorded that Jesus said, 

If you love Me, keep My commandments.  And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever –  the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.  

He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.

Now, and perhaps more fully in eternity, repentant believers know Him and love Him as Savior and Redeemer.  We know Him in His love, and we can live in fulfillment of the divine purpose for our existence – to love Him.  At the end of time, at His chosen point in time, God will ultimately end unrepentant human rebellion.  We along with the redeemed of the ages will then live on a renewed and restored earth and eternally live The Greatest Love Story Ever Told.   

          

     

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Customizing The Cross


Cross  Just about any jewelry store features cross jewelry, most often as a pendant on a necklace.  The display of ornamental crosses is common among traditional Christians, and some subcultures use the cross as well.  Gothic outfits sometimes feature black crosses in their jewelry; rock stars occasionally even wear a cross.  The simplicity of the cross shape allows customization, and some would say that different variations allow for self-expression.  An icon in western societies, the cross has long been recognized as a universal symbol of Christianity and has been featured as an ornament not only in jewelry but in wall hangings and other items of decor.

But to the Christian who believes the Gospel of Scripture, the Cross is more than just an item of jewelry, a wall hanging, or a knick knack.  And unlike jewelry or home decor, the message of the cross cannot be customized.


Cross 3In a recent article in the on-line “The Resurgent”  Erick Erickson wrote that

In 2013, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Mainline and increasingly heretical version of the Presbyterian branch of Christendom in the United States, cast out the popular Christian hymn “In Christ Alone” from its hymnal revision.

The reason was that hymn authors Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend refused to change a line of the hymn. The PCUSA wanted the line “on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied” changed to “the love of God was magnified.”

The PCUSA has increasingly embraced the idea that God is fully love, “love is love,” and the concept of His wrath needs to be downplayed. This drags into long term theological problems that often wind up dragging proponents of this theological revision right out of Christendom. If the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are the same unchanging God, why must so much blood be spilled in the Old Testament if God is all “love is love?” Trying to resolve it all with God’s love being magnified makes no sense.

The correct theological answer is that God loves us, but cannot tolerate sin. Sin must be punished for us to be able to have a relationship with the Creator and the punishment of sin is death — our own or someone or something else’s. Throughout Biblical history, blood must be shed to make us right with God. On the Day of Atonement, blood is shed. On the cross, blood was shed. 1 John 2:2 states that “Christ is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

Paul in Romans 3:21-25 states, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.”

John Murray noted “The doctrine of the propitiation is precisely this that God loved the objects of His wrath so much that He gave His own Son to the end that He by His blood should make provision for the removal of this wrath.” (John Murray, “The Atonement”)

(The Resurgent, August 20, 2019, article titled “The Atoning Sacrifice of the Union Soldiers Means Nothing to the New York Times’ 1619 Project.”)

Why can’t God simply forgive sin?   Why can’t he simply offer forgiveness by fiat, by decree?  Why did there need to be a cross?  Like many other questions related to good and evil and salvation, this is not an easy issue to comprehend, but it is pivotal.  If we are to understand the Bible’s presentation of the cross, we must first have some understanding of the divine nature, of who God is.  It is only by remembering his complete self-sufficiency, glory, holiness, justice, and love, that we will begin to understand the nature of our sin problem and its only solution in Christ.  In large part, God cannot simply forgive because of who he is as the moral authority of the universe.  All of God’s attributes are a part of him, including his holiness, righteousness, and justice. He is not like a human judge, who adjudicates a law created by others; instead, God himself is the law. Our sin is not against a principle or law, but it is against God who is holy and just (Psalm 51:4).  When God forgives sin, he does so by remaining true to his nature, and that is why our forgiveness is only possible if the satisfaction of his moral demand is met. For God to declare sinners justified, Jesus perfectly obeyed all of God’s moral demands for us and paid for our sin in his substitutionary death on the cross (Romans 3:21–26; 2 Corinthians 5:21). 

At the root of every caricature of the cross, every bad customization, is an incorrect understanding of God. To think that God can forgive our sins without the full satisfaction of his justice, we must deny that God’s holiness and justice are essential to him and that he is not the moral standard of the universe, or, that God’s love is greater than his other qualities and so God can forgive us without the consideration of his justice and holiness.  But in forgiving us of our sins, God’s love is not opposed to his justice; instead the ultimate demonstration of God’s love is that in Christ and his death on the cross, God’s own righteous demand is met.  He doesn’t ignore evil or neutralize it by edict, but He provided the full and perfect atonement for sin in the person of his own Son, “whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness” (Romans 3:25).  God’s love is not at all unjust and his justice is not unloving.  Sin is not  overlooked or condoned, but our sin is paid for in full either in Christ or in final judgment when all sin, evil, and death will be destroyed.  God has graciously provided the necessary atonement through the death of Christ on the cross. 

The honor and glory of the Creator is the ultimate reason that all of creation exists.  God created us with the ability to choose good and evil, but his nature and the fact that he is the cause of all that exists does not allow rebellion to go unchallenged.  It is in the gruesome death of God incarnate on the cross that the horrible nature of sin is exposed, and it is at the cross that his love is demonstrated.  The supreme display of God’s love is the Father giving his own Son on the cross as our propitiation, as the necessary satisfaction offered for our sins, which turns back his wrath against us and meets the demands of his holiness and justice on our behalf (1 John 2:1–2, Romans 5:8).  In the cross, we see the greatest imaginable demonstration of God’s holiness and justice as well as his love; it is there he remains supremely just and the one who justifies of those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:21–26).  His holiness and justice is upheld, his grace and mercy is gloriously manifested.  It is in the cross that we see the greatest imaginable display of his glory.    


Cross 3Given the centrality of the cross, it is crucial that we understand it correctly.  All orthodox Christians from the very beginning have agreed that Christ’s death brings forgiveness of sins resulting in our reconciliation with God.  This is the very foundation of the faith.  A variety of atonement theologies emerged throughout church history.  As with other central doctrines, the church’s understanding of the atonement clarified quickly and theologians began to recognize that penal substitution was the theological explanation for why the cross happened and what it achieved even as other views developed and came to be accepted by some.  One early view of the cross reasoned that Christ’s work on the cross was to be seen primarily in terms of his identification with humanity through the incarnation.  By becoming human, Christ overcame the corruption of our nature in his incarnation and in his death on the cross.  Especially in Christ’s resurrection, immortality is restored to us as well as reconciliation with God.  Another view, sometimes associated with the idea of ransom to Satan, sees the primary objects of Christ’s death as the powers of sin, death, and Satan, the thought being that on the cross, Christ liberates us from these powers.  Others deny that God’s justice necessitates the full payment of our sin since God’s justice is not viewed as essential to him. Instead, as the moral Governor, God can choose to relax the demand of the law similar to a human judge, thus forgiving us by his mercy.  Another view, the example or moral influence view has been promoted within non-orthodox, liberal theology, and became prominent with the rise of liberal theology in the 18th  and 19th centuries. It taught that God’s love is more fundamental than his justice and that God can forgive our sins apart from Christ and the cross. God, then, is not the primary object of the cross, as Christ’s death primarily shows us God’s love and sets an example for us.  This idea has become the dominant thought in many circles, certainly in post-modern liberal christianity, and increasingly it is becoming accepted in some evangelical circles.   

But it is the fact that Christ was our substitute on the cross and died to pay the penalty for our sins that is the real, non-customized cross of Scripture.  Could God have chosen another method?  Perhaps, but it is Christ dying on the cross as our substitute that was the divinely preordained method chosen for the atonement.  The idea of substitution does not deny aspects of Christ’s death such as the restoration of what Adam lost, the defeat of sin and death, or the revelation of God’s love.  But the Bible teaches that central to the cross is the incarnate Son acting as our substitute to satisfy God’s righteous demand against us due to our sin.  To justify sinful humans, God provided a Redeemer who can pay for our sin and act in perfect obedience for us. Christ must be our penal substitute, paying the penalty for our sin. Ultimately, satisfying God’s justice is the central purpose of the cross.  Scripture does in fact present Christ and his cross as the supreme moral example of love, obedience, and suffering. But the cross only functions this way because of who dies and what he achieves, namely the full satisfaction of God’s righteous demand against our sin, which is the ultimate demonstration of divine love (1 John 4:7–10).


Cross 3We need more than an example to redeem us.  It is not enough for Christ to identify with us in his incarnation and show us how to live. Our problem is not merely that we need a great teacher to show us how to live. Our problem is sin before the holy God, and this problem requires the incarnation of God’s own Son to live for us and to die for us as our substitute. It is only Christ as our substitutionary appeasing sacrifice that meets God’s righteous demand, and enables believers, in Christ, to receive salvation.  The center of Christ’s work on the cross is that he has come to offer himself before God because of human sin. The substitutionary atonement of Christ so beautifully foretold by Isaiah some seven centuries before the cross (Isaiah 53) tells us why the Son had to die, and why he alone saves.  All any sinner can possibly do is receive salvation by penitent faith, believing that a perfect atonement has been made by Christ that satisfies the wrath of God against sin.

At the cross we see a revelation of God’s love, grace, and mercy, and we see the depth of our sin – not our own goodness and worth. Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:6), not worthy, good people that needed help in discovering their true identity or affirmation of their self-esteem. This message is denied by many throughout christendom, and is even being denied among many who identify as evangelicals. Many erroneously teach that people are inherently good. They have designed a customized cross that is not the cross of Scripture.  If people are inherently good, they don’t need a savior, they need an inspiration, they need an example, they need to be affirmed, they need a new perspective. That is not the premise of scripture: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19).  Where human goodness and moral relativism is the accepted basis of belief, people don’t feel the evil of their own sin against God, and thus don’t understand that the death of Jesus was needed because we have rebelled against and disobeyed our Creator.  Jesus came to restore the image of God within us when he died on the cross for our sin. Our self-esteem thus shouldn’t be based on anything except the love of God in Christ who willingly gave his life for us when we were unworthy sinners.  In this showed his tremendous love for us. Romans 5:8 tells us, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Our worth is affirmed by the atonement that was made for us at the cross. When missionary William Carey was suffering from an illness, he purportedly was asked, “If this sickness should prove fatal, what passage would you select as the text for your funeral sermon?” He answered, “Oh, I feel that such a poor sinful creature is unworthy to have anything said about him; but if a funeral sermon must be preached, let it be from the words, ‘Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.'” In the same spirit of humility he directed in his will that the following inscription and nothing more should be cut on his gravestone:

WILLIAM CAREY,

BORN AUGUST 17th, 1761:

DIED-

“A wretched, poor, and helpless worm On Your kind arms I fall.”

Carey understood the real message of the cross.


Cross 3The cross is everywhere in Scripture.  In the Old Testament, the need for the cross is explained and it is prophesied in detail.  Paul preached the gospel of Jesus according to the Scriptures.  The death of Jesus was at a predetermined time in history and was for a specific predetermined purpose. It was not merely the death of a martyr or philosopher who recklessly challenged the authorities of his society.  Paul declared its necessity (Acts 13:27–33), and like Jesus before him, Paul established from the Old Testament scriptures the reasoning why Messiah had to suffer (Luke 24:25–26).  Jesus had to die because righteousness could not come through any other means (Galatians 2:21).  The message we must understand and explain today is that it is only through Jesus’s atoning death on the cross as our substitute that we are forgiven, reconciled to God, and rescued from the evil dominating the present world (Galatians 1:4).  This is the message that must be at the center of evangelism. This is the cross that must be taught and preached.

Music is at the heart and soul of believers and of churches.  Given the centrality of the cross, a list of hymns and gospel songs about the cross would be lengthy. Isaac Watts, perhaps the leading early voice of English hymnody, wrote the well-known “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” beginning with the words, “When I survey the wondrous cross, On which the Prince of Glory died.”  Prolific hymn writer Charles Wesley in “And Can It Be?,” wrote in the refrain, “Amazing Love! how can it be, That Thou, my God should die for me!,” connecting the substitutionary death of the savior to the “Amazing Love” of God.  Present time hymn writer Chris Anderson (hymnody is very much alive), in “My Jesus Fair” has written of the death of the Savior on the cross,

My Jesus, fair, was pierced by thorns, By thorns grown from the fall. Thus He who gave the curse was torn To end that curse for all.

Refrain: O love divine, O matchless grace— That God should die for men! With joyful grief I lift my praise, Abhorring all my sin, Adoring only Him.

My Jesus, meek, was scorned by men, By men in blasphemy. “Father, forgive their senseless sin!” He prayed, for them, for me.

My Jesus, kind, was torn by nails, By nails of cruel men. And to His cross, as grace prevailed, God pinned my wretched sin.

My Jesus, strong, shall come to reign, To reign in majesty. The Lamb arose, and death is slain. Lord, come in victory!

My Jesus, pure, was crushed by God, By God, in judgment just. The Father grieved, yet turned His rod On Christ, made sin for us.

Not all songs that use the word “cross” are about the “real” cross. This is readily apparent in contemporary entertainment that has replaced hymns and gospel songs in many churches. Some use the word “cross” without explaining anything of what it means. Others see the cross merely as a selfless act of love for our encouragement. Some come close to actually remembering what Jesus accomplished at the cross while leaving out any mention of the details. Few mention salvation from sin or the blood or the wrath of God against sin or the concept of atonement. But the power of the cross is in those details. Jesus, the perfect Son of God, bore our sins in his body on the cross to endure the wrath of God for us so that we might be forgiven and reconciled to God. That is the song of the redeemed believer, the source of joy and the ultimate cause of true worship.


Cross 3The building of the church of which we are members has an auditorium that has a balcony and so has a high ceiling. On a recent Sunday night I sat in a seat adjacent to the center aisle, and looking up the aisle I reflected on what I saw. There is a communion table at the front of the aisle, a matching wooden pulpit above that, the platform for the musicians and choir, and a baptistry against the back wall. Above the baptistry is a beautiful large wooden cross. There are screens well off to each side for the display of things like the speaker’s notes, but it is the cross that is the central architectural feature at the front of the room. That cross is there in the background, above everything that happens in the room. It likely looks little like the crude Roman cross upon which Jesus was crucified, but it beautifully reminds of that sacred event.

In some post-modern vestiges of christianity, there are beautiful and elaborate crosses, but the true message of the cross has been abandoned – customized.  Some newer evangelical churches might choose to not have a cross in their auditorium, lest someone be offended or find it too traditional, and many have customized their message of the cross.  In our church, the real beauty of the cross is that it is the real message of the cross – not a customized version – that is ever present. When the pastor preaches, the cross is there, not because it is the stated subject of the lesson or sermon, but because the Bible is taught and preached, and the cross is everywhere in the Bible. Hymns and songs are sung, like those mentioned above, that speak of sin and salvation, of the blood, of the atonement – of the cross.


Cross 4  Cross jewelry? By all means wear it. If I were not so, er, frugal, I might buy a piece of cross jewelry for my wife. In the post-christian western world, we can display the cross freely, in our churches, in our homes, on our persons. In a communist Asian country or in an African or Asian country dominated by Islam, one might not be able to openly display a cross. Yes, display the cross.  But more importantly, a Christian must not forget the message of the cross and the reality of a relationship with the One Who died there.  Renunciation of sin, self, and the evils of the world in identification with the crucified Christ is the aspiration of everyone who believes that Christ died on the cross for them.  Jewelry gets shuffled aside, wall hangings get taken down, display pieces get lost among others. This must not be so with the message of the cross. That message must remain an ever present moment-by-moment reality in our life.  

 

The Lord’s Day

When we were boys, my mother took my brother and me to Sunday School and church every week. Dad never went to church, but he didn’t discourage us from going. Every Saturday night, I took a bath, filled out my Sunday School quarterly, and often polished my shoes to get ready for Sunday. We had a big Sunday lunch, usually something Mom had prepared and put in the oven or the electric skillet, and during the NFL season Dad was usually watching football when we got home. Sunday was a “different” day, and there never was a debate about going to church, it was just assumed that we would go.

I continued to go to church every Sunday as I grew up. I met my wife at the church we both attended. After we married, we continued to go to church every Sunday morning, usually again on Sunday night. There was never a debate or discussion. We often had lunch with family, we usually took an afternoon nap, and Sunday remained a day different from the rest. It was a day for church, for rest, for family, for remembering the principle of Sabbath to some degree. It was the Lord’s Day. We took both of our children to church the next Sunday after their birth. They grew up attending Sunday School and church every week, just as my wife and I had done when we were growing up.

A number of years ago we visited with my uncle (brother to my mother) and aunt in the small Nebraska town that my mother’s family was from. My uncle and aunt were living in the town while on an extended furlough from Bolivia where they did missionary work. Conversing with them, they noted that they were involved with an effort to oppose the end of business closings on Sunday in the town. Sunday “blue laws” were still in place then. Years earlier, that might have been common in many American cities and towns. Today, that is no longer the case and hasn’t been for a number of years.

In the past, most people did not work on Sunday unless they were involved in agriculture or services like law enforcement or health care, but that is no longer the case. Now, Sunday is a big day for retail, restaurants, entertainment, and in many other fields businesses operate on Sunday as just another day. We live in a busy world, where we have boats to get in the water, home improvement projects to attend to, sporting events and recreational activities to pursue, kids’ ball games to attend, as well as simply leftover tasks we didn’t get to during a busy workweek. It’s been a long week, we’re tired. We simply can’t commit to go to church every week. And yet, a few generations ago, American Christians managed to make it to church. They considered it important to do so. They may have worked sixty hour weeks in a factory, they may have engaged in relentless agricultural tasks seven days a week, but they somehow managed to make it to church. More and more, this is no longer the case.

Recognizing this, many perceived evangelical churches have attempted to make church more attractive to people and help them to make it fit into their schedules. I drove by a church recently with a sign that said something to the effect of “Come on – Give God a Second Chance.” The idea of “stop in and give God a few minutes once a week” is perceived as a big draw. We’ll keep it informal, short, entertaining, and painless, we’ll offer a service on Saturday night so you can sleep in on Sunday morning if you want; just stop by on your way to or from the movies or the restaurant. We’ll have an early Sunday morning service so you can get it over with and have the rest of your day free if that works for you. Shorts and flip-flops are no problem. In many cases, maybe most cases, sound churches have discontinued their Sunday evening services, in part because they were poorly attended.

Worship should be an existential reality for believers. It should be a way of life, an hour-by-hour part of our life. It is not dependent on our physical location, our lot in life, or any external issue. Our personal relationship with God is a constant and ongoing part of life. Similarly, corporate worship is not limited to Sunday. The Lord of the Church resurrected on the first day of the week and so from its earliest days the church came to assemble and worship on Sunday, but believers can assemble and worship together on Saturday or for that matter on, say, Tuesday. Corporate worship can occur whenever the church meets and sinners are warned of judgement to come, Christ and the gospel is proclaimed, the Scripture is studied, believers pray together. In other countries and societies, a Sunday gathering might not even be an option. One wonders, however, when American churches seek to make their meetings completely convenient and informal and easy, if they haven’t lost something.

The New Testament presents to us the importance of being part of a church. We are supposed to gather together with other believers, for instruction and discipleship, for corporate worship, for encouragement and fellowship, for ministry. It isn’t optional, it isn’t something to do occasionally when it is convenient. We are supposed to be a part of each other as the body of Christ in the world. As Americans, we have great freedom to assemble in churches. If we are gathering together with other believers to worship together, to hear a clear exposition of Scripture, to sing songs of worship to God that joyfully and reverently proclaim doctrine and remind of what He has done for us in Christ, it should be a priority that exceeds our need for convenience and comfort. Our heritage as believers living in the United States is a heritage of observing the Lord’s Day, preparing our hearts, putting on some better clothes appropriate to assembling with the body of Christ, and attending church regularly, even if doing so might not always be convenient. This should happen not merely as a ritual or habit, but as a commitment from our heart.

There is no explicit New Testament statement mandating Sunday worship, certainly no limitation to corporate worship on that day, but there are several references indicating that the first day of the week was special for the earliest believers. Matthew 28:1-6 tells us of the Lord’s resurrection on the first day,

“Now after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week began to dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it. His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men.But the angel answered and said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay.”

Several other New Testament passages mention the first day. That tradition endured throughout history, and was an important part of American society for most of our history. That tradition and commitment has been slowly abandoned in recent decades. The reasons are many. Liberal churches hold to no message that is worth a zealous devotion to weekly church attendance. Prosperity takes our focus away from spiritual matters. We’re busy, have many activities and commitments. We can worship anywhere and anytime, we reason. Our favorite YouTube church is more entertaining and can be viewed anytime. Many professing Christians simply feel no need or desire to be involved with a local church.

But I’m convinced that Christians and the faithful church in America have lost something, something profound and vital, in losing our commitment to The Lord’s Day.

The Iconic Venue

“In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you.  I go to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.”  (John 14:2-3)

     

I’ve long been a baseball fan.  With zero athletic ability, I never played much, but as a boy I followed the game.  At night, I sometimes picked up games on AM radio stations in major league cities, and often listened to the games of our local Denver Bears triple-A minor league team.  I looked at box scores each day in the newspaper.  My brother and I collected baseball cards, and we selected teams and played a game with those cards and a deck of playing cards.  On Saturday afternoons as a boy, I often watched “NBC’s Major League Baseball Game of the Week,” with announcers Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek.  This was before cable television, and since my city did not have a major league team then,  this was usually the only televised baseball I saw.  Those games were televised from different stadiums in different cities each week.

The major league stadiums that were in use during the era of my childhood are mostly all gone.  Places like Yankee Stadium, Tiger Stadium, and Comiskey Park have been torn down.  Even most of the multi-purpose stadiums built in the 1970’s and 1980’s have met the wrecking ball.   Three iconic baseball venues, however, remain in use – Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, built in the early 1960’s, and Wrigley Field in Chicago and Fenway Park in Boston, both built early in the twentieth century.

My wife and my son both enjoy baseball; our son played the game in high school, and baseball remains a connecting point between us.  He and I drove to Omaha for a couple of college world series games the year of his high school graduation, and the next year we flew to Arizona for a few days at Colorado Rockies spring training.  Last year, after some thought and discussion, my wife, my son, and I went to Wrigley Field in Chicago.  I still remember in my youth watching games that were televised from that stadium; I remember the names of many of the Cubs players from those days.  I carefully planned out the trip, shelled out the cash to buy airfare and tickets to the games, and we attended two games along with a stadium tour where we were able to go onto the field and stand in front of the unique ivy-covered outfield walls, and had most of a day to go into downtown Chicago as well.  Wrigley Field lived up to our hopes.  A modern scoreboard has been added along with a few renovations, but the stadium retains its charm.  It sits partially surrounded by an older residential area, and the footprint of the stadium is small; we walked all the way around it several times, along Waveland Avenue, along Sheffield Avenue, along Addison Street, and Clark Street, the main street in front of the stadium.  The Cubs won; the fans sang “Go Cubs Go.”  For a baseball fan, Wrigley Field is an iconic venue.  We’d like to go again.

Wrigley Sign

This year, we are going to Fenway Park in Boston.  After thought and research, a pile of cash even bigger than last year has been invested.  Tickets to two games have been purchased from the ball club and are in a drawer (yes, old fashioned paper tickets), along with documentation showing the  purchase of a stadium tour.  I’m not going that far without the proper admission documents in hand, and airline tickets were purchased only after baseball tickets were purchased, at a stadium where sell-outs are common.  A hotel a couple of blocks from the stadium has been reserved.  A day will be available for a visit to a couple of historic Boston sites.  We’ve  planned a great trip and visit to historic, iconic Fenway Park and hope it lives up to our visit last year to Wrigley.  We await the trip with much anticipation.

     

As a boy, I also learned of an Iconic Venue that far exceeds the grandeur of any baseball park.  The cost of entering this Place is incalculable.  But I learned that the Designer and Builder of this Great Place wants me to come, wants all to come, and so paid the vast cost of admission Himself.  While the requirement to enter was not something I could pay and it was paid on my behalf, nevertheless something was required from me.  I had to humble myself and ask; I had to acknowledge that I was unable to gain admission on my own merit but needed to request admission based on the immense price that had been paid for me.  That wasn’t too difficult for me as a boy, but that process of humbling oneself, admitting one’s inability to meet the entrance requirements, admitting that one has in fact no right to enter, proves a great obstacle to many.

And so, in my childhood – I don’t know the date – I came to believe the promise of the Great Designer and Builder of this venue, humbly asked Him, and received my entrance credentials.  I did not receive a paper ticket, but rather gained every confidence in my innermost being that my future entrance into the iconic venue is assured.  I believed the gospel, and the witness of the Spirit speaking through the Word.  I don’t know the future date or the circumstances of my eventual entering this place, but I know that the One Who has paid the price for me does.  By faith in Christ and what He paid on my behalf, I have lived in anticipation of one day entering this Place; in a way, in that innermost part of my being, in my mind and in my heart, I am already there.

Biblical Christianity has a profoundly future focus.  For many who will one day enter this Place, those living under persecution or those living in difficult circumstances, going there is their daily hope and expectation.  Entrance into this great Place has a downside, however, at least to me as a prosperous, healthy, and happy American.  Unlike going to a ballpark or going on a vacation, one never returns from this place, and I am not anxious to leave my life in this world.  I have a great life, with many places to go, many experiences to experience.  My beloved wife and I have plans for a great future.  I enjoy my new grandchild; maybe there will one day be another.  As life here continues, perhaps the Designer and Builder of the Great Place will enable me to help someone in their life as they look forward to that Place, and certainly He wants me to encourage others to humble themselves and seek their own admission.  The Apostle Paul wrote (Philippians 1:21-24),

“For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.  But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell.  For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.  Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you.”

     

The great old sports stadiums are mostly gone, and those that remain will eventually be gone too.  The Great Place where I will one day go will last forever.  Many people expressing the ideas of folk religion might speak of “going to that great ballpark (or, great “fill-in-the-blank”) in the sky.”  Heaven is far more than that; it is the eternal home of believers who know Christ as their Lord and Savior.  I do not know exactly what one does, what one sees, or what one experiences, after entering this place.  I do know that it exists for the honor and glory of its Creator and He has designed it exclusively for those who have humbled themselves and asked for admission on His terms, and so we will worship and praise Him.  I know that, because He Himself has paid the inestimable price of admission for those who enter, He loves us greatly and will delight in our enjoyment of our life in this Great Place.  We will be free from the presence of sin and the results of sin; we will have fellowship with God.

God’s redeemed people should live in the perpetual anticipation of the eternal home He has prepared for us.  The American evangelical church seems to have forgotten this.  Pastors speaking to self-absorbed audiences talk much of topics like prosperity and success and happiness and better relationships and social justice, and imply that following Jesus is merely a way to have a better life in this world.  The church seems to try to reflect and conform to society as much as possible, incorporating current entertainment trends and current social topics in place of speaking clearly and often of the the gospel and eternity.  It has decided to meet human desires and perceived needs rather than calling men to faith and repentance, the necessary entrance requirement to enter eternal life.  Many churches avoid speaking of or singing of topics like salvation from sin, death, and the second coming of Christ.  This is a grievous error.  As in the past, sermons in sound churches today often concern heaven and how to get there, although unfortunately sometimes to excess and failing to remember to also speak of the important implications of the gospel in daily life now.  Hymns and gospel songs often remind us of sin and salvation, heaven, and the return of Christ.  The motivational talks of today’s seeker-sensitive church no longer feature such themes, and the contemporary entertainment that has replaced singing of hymns and gospel songs in many churches does not do so.  The gospel must affect every part of our life in this world, but we must never forget that “this world is not my home, I’m just passing through,” and our real task is to offer the gospel so that others might believe it and come to live their lives in anticipation of their eternal home.  Christians live with the perpetual consciousness that this life can meet with disaster or even end at any time, but we have an eternal home awaiting us.  Further, Christ may come at any moment and bring the present evil age to an end.  This is our hope.

In Revelation 21 John wrote,

Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea.  Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God.  And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”

A Desire For The Pure Milk of the Word

Baby

Since my daughter’s maternity leave ended, I’ve had several occasions to watch my infant granddaughter for a few hours in the morning before my wife gets home from work to assume babysitting duties.  It has been a delightful experience.  This beautiful baby is as well-behaved as a four-month-old can be.  She has even been considerate enough to only soil her diaper twice when I’ve been on duty!  She sleeps, we play, we “talk.”  But almost on schedule, she gets hungry, and when she gets hungry, there is no other solution.  She wants her bottle of formula!  I give her the amount that I am supposed to per my daughter’s instructions, with the powdered formula mixed with the proper amount of pure bottled water, not watered down further, not adulterated in any way.  The baby is given just what she is supposed to have per her mother’s instruction in conjunction with her conversations with the pediatrician.  At this point, I don’t sneak in anything else – not a different brand of formula, no dairy milk or other snacks.  (There will be time later when Grandpa can sneak in a few unapproved treats!)

In 1 Peter 2:1-3, we read, “Therefore, laying aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking, as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby,  if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious.”  Just like a baby that has a single-minded focus on receiving milk, Peter reminds believers that we need to have a powerful focus on being nourished by the scriptures.   

     

Recently I traveled with my brother to the northern panhandle area of Nebraska to attend a memorial service for our cousin after her passing.  As we traveled, we listened to three recorded sermons by a noted Bible teacher and pastor, part of a series delivered some two decades ago entitled “Lessons From The Dungeon” concerning the Old Testament account of Joseph.  The story of Joseph gives us profound lessons about life, how we should live, how we should react to circumstances and to adversity, which was the emphasis of these messages.  This Bible teacher is a faithful expositor of Scripture; his thoughts are not only profound, but completely in accord with the passage from which he is preaching.  These messages are timeless and could be applied in any culture in any period of history; with little modification, they could have been delivered to an English-speaking audience a century or more ago, or a century in the future, or translated and delivered to Asians or Africans.  He compared scripture with scripture, teaching the principle that Joseph came to understand when he declared that “God meant it for good,” the principle of Romans 8:28, that God works all things for His glory and our ultimate good according to His wisdom and purposes.  This pastor has a sizeable church, and a following via radio and other media of people who are “hungry” for true and meaningful teaching from scripture.

Several days before our trip, I had heard a very different teaching based loosely on the account of Joseph.  Via a YouTube video, I listened to a “sermon” from one of the more prominent megachurch pastor/entertainers in the broad evangelical sphere.  He speaks to a few thousand people each weekend at his main megachurch campus plus many more watching at satellite campuses.  In a talk entitled “The Danger of a Dream,” there was a reading of Genesis 37:5, “Now Joseph had a dream, and he told it to his brothers; and they hated him even more,” relating Joseph’s divinely-given dream that he told to his brothers causing them to reject him.  This speaker used this as a pretext for an upbeat and energetic talk about developing a “dream” from God, about having a good idea and a  “dream” that will make one’s life different.  I noted that he spoke much about himself, but nothing of Christ or the gospel.   Minus the verse, this would have been a great talk for a Silicon Valley company’s corporate event.  The development of a personal vision or dream is popular in such megachurch circles, and there is of course nothing wrong with and everything right about developing purpose and direction.  But there is everything wrong with a supposed evangelical church substituting such themes for those found in scripture.  His talk would have been preceded by a generationally-focused contemporary christian pop concert; any mention or hint of Christian themes in the performance would have exceeded the biblical content of the speaker’s presentation.  He is a deception.  He is giving his audience of mostly younger people who are hungry for something not “the pure milk of the word” but grossly watered down, aberrant teaching.

Joseph is not memorialized in Scripture because he did amazing things when he dreamed big.  For most of his life, he lived a nightmare, not a dream.  Nor is he remembered because he added the wisdom of the Hebrews to the wisdom of Egypt.  A type and foreshadow of Christ, Joseph is memorialized in scripture because he was a man of great faith and belief, because he obeyed God, manifested the highest of character, and did what he knew to be right, because he remembered and lived out the principle of “God meant it for good.”  The faithful Bible teacher got it right; the other guy got applause almost on cue from his audience, but in truth he gave them nothing.

     

Christians need to exercise good judgement in selecting a church and in selecting teachers who they read or to whom they listen.  More importantly, we must have a disciplined, healthy feeding on the Word of God.  We must regularly read and study the Bible; we must have a strong desire for it.  There is no other way to progress in the Christian life.

My healthy granddaughter takes in her formula and grows.  She makes no effort; she simply follows her natural desire and is nourished and continues to grow.  Here, the analogy begins to break down.  We must make an effort to make the time for fellowship with God, to exercise discernment, to take in the Word and to grow as a result.  Mere knowledge of the Bible isn’t the end.  In the 1 Peter 2:1-3 passage, Peter wrote, “Therefore, laying aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking, as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby,  if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious.”  The context of maintaining this desire for the Word is behavioral and attitudinal change.  We take in the truth of the Word, we pray, we put the Word into practice, we lay aside sin, we experience the grace of the Lord, and we grow to maturity.  Then, whether we live a dream, or sometimes live a nightmare, we can bring honor and glory to God and declare His grace to those around us.     

 

Observing Communion

The church in which we hold membership observed communion on a recent Sunday night.  We’ve been present as the ordinance has been observed a few times since we began attending the church, and these services are substantive and meaningful.  For whatever reason, I was reminded of the contrast between this Lord’s Supper service and a time a couple of years ago that we attended a local megachurch on a Saturday night to observe, and they had communion.

          

Entering the megachurch’s expansive venue, I noted on the hand-out that they were going to have communion at the end of the event.  They were having a global outreach month, as I recall.  The speaker that weekend was a thirty-something who was involved with a project in Mexico, and must have had an ongoing relationship with this megachurch.  The topic for his talk centered on the value of remembering Jesus as our friend.  He was an able and articulate speaker, but I began to wonder if there might be any use of the Bible before he referenced a few verses well into his talk.  In the end, I wasn’t sure what his purpose might be for his mission or ministry.  He did not really mention anything of the Gospel; I wondered if perhaps his concern was primarily social or benevolent.

At the end of the sermon, the lead pastor returned to the stage, and he and the speaker sat for a few minutes and chatted; I don’t recall much of the topic of the conversation, likely related to the value of the concept of Jesus as my friend.  At the end of their chat, the pastor indicated that the communion elements should be distributed, and he reminded the crowd to remember the similarity between “communion” and “community.”  I assumed that when the distribution of the elements was completed, the pastor would return, and there would be an explanation or discussion of the meaning and purpose of the ceremony.  The band began to play a bluesy version of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” as volunteers circulated buckets of pretzel chips and individually-packaged communion juice.  A few people soon got up to leave, perhaps in a hurry, I thought.  Then, as more people began to leave, I had an almost visceral reaction, as it occurred to me, this is over!  These people in a supposedly evangelical church, designed to attract people who might not like “church,” have participated in a communion ritual without hearing anything of the Gospel, nothing about what the elements might mean.  Volunteers at the doors collected the empty juice containers.  I remarked to my wife that it would have been better to skip the communion elements and just distribute granola bars at the door at the conclusion of the chat.

           

The recent service at our home church was decidedly different.  It was neither somber nor cheery.  The congregation sang joyful and reverent songs appropriate to the occasion, songs about salvation from sin, songs about the body and blood of Christ that the elements depict, songs about Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as payment for our sin.  The pastor didn’t preach, but worked through the Gospel of Matthew, following Jesus’ movements that ended with his death and resurrection at Jerusalem.  The elements were distributed by the deacons after the pastor spoke, and prayer was offered.  Congregants were invited to stand and offer public prayers as we held the bread and juice and reflected on the symbolic meaning of those items before taking them together.  The Gospel was declared, and God was worshiped as we participated together in this remembrance, as we considered the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ as the atonement for our sin, just as believers have for two thousand years.  My thoughts went to I John 1:9, the joyful promise that “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”