The author of Hebrews wrote, “And without faith it is impossible to please God….” By faith Abram left his country, his people and all that was familiar in obedience to the word of the Lord. One of the most interesting things you’ll notice when you read the story of Abram is that he was never given any details. The Lord said, “I’m going to give you a land” and when Abram asked where the Lord simply said, “I’ll show you when you get there.” The Lord said, “I’m going to make you into a great nation” and when Abram asked when the Lord said, “I’ll let you know.” Thirteen or fourteen years into the journey Abram is beginning to wonder if it was all for naught. There was no evidence of him being made into a great nation because he and Sarai are still childless. Every act of faith will be put to the test and Abram came to His.
In the midst of his confusion and uncertainty the Lord gives him a vision. In Gen. 15 the Lord says to Abram, “You don’t need to be afraid because I am all you need.” To which Abram responds, “Yes Lord, but there’s that thing you said about my becoming a great nation? I’ve been trying to do my part, but still no child and if something doesn’t happen soon I’ll have to give everything to one of my servants.” The Lord takes Abram outside and says, “See if you can count the stars. That’s about the number of offspring we’re looking at.” Then in v. 6 we’re told, “Abram believed the Lord and He credited to him as righteousness.”
In those eleven words we find a major key to understanding the New Testament and message of the Gospel. Abram believed the Lord, which means he took the Lord at His word and ordered his life around the promise that was made. In response to Abram’s belief, his faith, the Lord gave him credit as or counted him to be righteous. Abram was given the gift of a righteous, blameless, perfect life even though the full account of his life shows he was far from perfect. This is the verse that Paul uses as inspiration for the foundational statement in his letter to the Romans. In 1:17 Paul writes, “For in the Gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous shall live by faith.” The rest of the letter explains why this is necessary, how it is made possible through the person and work of Jesus and the implications for how we are to then live our lives. Gen. 15:6 is also the verse behind Jesus’ statement in John 6:29, “The work of God is this; to believe in the One He has sent.”
Abram was looking ahead to the fulfillment of the Gen. 3:15 promise so he took the Lord at His word and believed that the Lord had brought him into the process of bringing that promise to fruition. Thus the righteous record that Jesus would one day obtain was credited to Abram by faith. In a similar way, when we look back to the work that Jesus has done in satisfying the righteous requirements of the law, dying for our sin and being raised from the dead, we too are given His righteous record, cleansed of sin and welcomed into a new life. This is what Paul means when he says we have now become children of Abraham (Rom. 4:16-25). We have been welcomed into the promise by faith and thus called to live by that same faith. So when the Lord says “Let’s go” we have all the motivation we need to join Him.
He was either a real adventurer or crazy or Abram had a life changing encounter with the Lord. Seventy-five years of age is not the milestone where most people would sell their property, load up the camels and travel nearly 500 miles to a place they’ve never been and with no family waiting to greet them. Likely, more than one of his neighbors told him he was crazy. Faith will look crazy to people whose only hope lies in the stuff they can hold.
The Lord was calling Abram into something more than an adventure, though it would certainly be that. This was more than a “Go West young man” moment. It was more than “Let’s see if we can build a new life” and certainly more than “I’ve just got to get out of this town.” Abram was an old man and he had a life. All the indications were that he was well established in Haran and had become prosperous. However, the Lord had more in mind for Abram and Sarai than simply their comfort and security. He was bringing them into the Promise. The same promise that the Lord had made in the hearing of Adam and Eve, the promise of healing, redemption and restoration made in Gen. 3:15 and carried onto the Ark was now being made to Abram. He would have grasped this at some level when the Lord said to him, “I will make you into a great nation…and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Gen. 12:2-3) So Abram loaded up and ventured out, not knowing where he was going or what lay ahead.
In Heb. 11:8-9 we read, “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents….” In obedience to the command of the Lord and in light of the promise he left what was familiar and comfortable. The promise propelled him into the unknown.
In John 1:14 it says, “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.” The scholars will tell you that the phrase, “made His dwelling” is literally the term “tabernacled.” Thus, our modern understanding of this verse would be that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity pitched his tent among us. In accordance with the will of the Father and in light of the Promise, the Son of God came and lived “like a stranger in a foreign country.” The infinite, eternal, omnipotent, sovereign Son of God confined Himself in a human body! The worship and adoration of heaven and the immediate, intimate presence of the Father He left behind, not to be part of the promise but to fulfill it.
However, in fulfilling the promise, He was given a life of meagerness and ignominy rather than prosperity and status. As Isaiah said, He would be a man of sorrow and familiar with suffering. He would be scorned, rejected and ultimately put to death by the ones He came to rescue. Yet, His sojourn among us would end in His resurrection, the down payment on the promise to redeem and restore what was broken by our rebellion. Now like Abram, our Lord is calling us out of our comfort, out of what’s familiar, to go and join Him in the work of the promise. Jesus said to go and make disciples of all nations. This is His command to the church so that, “…all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” By faith in Jesus and the work He has done we are blessed so that we might be a blessing to all peoples.
“Who built the ark? Noah, Noah! Who built the ark? Brother Noah built the ark!” “Here come the animals, two by two.” “Oh look, there are the lions, Roarrr!” If there’s one story in the Bible that evokes warm sentiment and catchy tunes and has been a boon to the toy industry, it’s the story of Noah and the ark. If you have children, chances are you read them the story of Noah from a children’s book or children’s Bible. Maybe you even bought them a Noah’s ark toy, cute little animal figurines and all.
Then you read the Biblical account of Noah and it’s anything but warm and fuzzy. As chapter six of Genesis opens, we find that God is so grieved by the wickedness of mankind that He decides to start over. He is going to clean the slate and repopulate the earth through the line of one man, one of the few left who “call(ed) upon the name of the Lord.” (4:26) If you read the biblical account, the story is grittier than the cartoon depictions of rainbows and cheery animals peering over the railing. As you dig in, you find that building the ark took the better part of 100 years. Peter implies from the New Testament that Noah pleaded with his friends and neighbors to join him on the ark but they wouldn’t listen. Then we find out that the 40 days of flooding was just the beginning. Put everything together and you’ll discover that Noah, his family and those animals coexisted on the ark for about a year and ten days. That’s a lot of floating on an endless ocean. There had to be moments where everyone got a little stir crazy.
Admittedly, the story raises a lot of questions. Questions like: Did this really happen? Is there any evidence that there was a worldwide flood, wasn’t it more likely something regional? How could they have fit two of every animal on the ark? How could they have fed them for a whole year? What about the dinosaurs? If one is inclined to believe, each of those questions has reasonable answers (honestly, a trip to check out that Ark in northern Kentucky is worth the effort.) Similar to other questions about the Bible, the Lord gives us enough information to believe, though not enough to remove all doubt or answer every question. The Bible has been shown to be scientifically accurate, though it’s not a science journal and modern archeology has shown it to be historically accurate though it is not purely a history book. It is the unfolding of God’s plan to redeem a people set apart for His glory. As such, it is concerned with bigger questions and ideas than doubters are inclined to ask.
Paul says in Romans 15:4 that the account of Noah (and all the other stories of the Old Testament) “…was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” So how does this familiar story instruct us so that we may be encouraged and hopeful? We are reminded that there is reward that comes with faithfulness and courage. In other words, by faith, Noah and his family were spared from the wrath of God being poured out on the world. We also see that walking in faith is not always easy, comfortable or popular, but it is worth it. Peter uses this account in his second letter to remind us that another judgment is coming, so don’t lose hope. Stand firm in Christ even when it’s not easy or popular because the reward is worth it.
But let’s remember what Jesus said. This story is ultimately about Him. Jesus Himself is our very great reward. As my wife showed me a few years ago, when the Lord “placed His bow in the sky,” He wasn’t just decorating. He was making a declaration, not only that He would not destroy the world with water again, but that He would take the judgment Himself. The bow you’ll notice is pointed at Him. Peter ties this together in his first letter at the end of chapter three. He says Noah and his family “were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism….” Baptism then, is not just a symbol of identification, it’s a symbol of coming through judgment. This was, in large part, why Jesus was baptized. The sinless Son of God was not just following instructions, nor simply identifying Himself with the people of God. He was declaring in His baptism that He would be plunged into the judgment of God so that He could be the Ark of deliverance for all who will put their hope in Him. On the cross He was plunged into the eternal judgment of God’s wrath that you and I rightfully deserved. “He was pierced for our transgressions (the bow) and crushed (the flood) for our iniquities.” (Is. 53:5) So, when you and I, by faith, follow Jesus in baptism, we are declaring our trust in the One who took judgment for us, declaring Him to be our only hope for deliverance, the true and better Ark. Because as Peter goes on to declare, He is the Ark who can deliver us out of sin and death because He is raised from the dead! By faith in Him and His work, He gives us new life and a clear conscience before God (1 Pt. 3:21) and guarantees our entrance into a new, restored creation by virtue of His resurrection. There is no greater hope!
The promise of redemption, right there in the midst of God fulfilling His promise that death would come when they ate the fruit of that one tree. As the whole of Creation begins to fall apart and groan under the curse, a promise is given. As Adam and Eve wait their turn to hear how the curse applies to them, they see and hear the Lord say to the serpent, “I’m going to fix this. I’m going to send One who will be “the seed of the woman” and though you will strike His heel, He will crush your head.”(paraphrase; Gen. 3:15) As they are escorted out of the Garden and into a world that is now characterized by death and decay, they go, nonetheless, with a promise and a hope.
Not long into their exile, Eve bears a son. There is a slight implication from Gen. 4:1 that Eve had some hope that Cain might be the promised seed. She says, “With the help of the Lord, I’ve gotten a man.” Whether or not she believed Cain was the promised seed, you’ll notice there is no such remark when Abel is born. However, we don’t have to read very far before we discover that Cain is not going to be the one to fulfill the promise.
Understanding the promise in Gen. 3:15 is crucial to understanding the story. If we don’t keep the promise in view we will miss the ultimate point of the story (and this holds true for every story in the Old Testament.) As the story unfolds we find the two brothers bringing an offering to the Lord. Cain’s offering is from “the fruit of the ground” while Abel’s offering is from his flock, likely a sheep or a ram. The Lord finds Abel’s offering acceptable but He treated Cain’s offering with disregard. This makes Cain angry and jealous of Abel and he begins to consider how he might get Abel out of the way. In the midst of his scheming the Lord challenges him to do that which is good and explains that the temptation he is facing can be overcome. We know what happens next. Strife, animosity and hatred enter into the world and ultimately Cain brings physical death to mankind by killing his brother. Thus, mankind begins the decent in the destruction that rebellion against God brings.
So, what lessons can we learn from this story? We can look at the offerings given and note that Cain simply gave “an offering of the fruit of the ground” while Abel gave the choice parts from the firstborn of his flock. The implication is that Abel gave his best while Cain gave his leftovers, so the first lesson is that we should always give God our best. Then we see the Lord confront Cain about his plan to kill Abel and we learn that we must master our temptations or they will master us. Then of course, we learn that murder is bad and so we should not murder.
But what if we believe what Jesus said about this story; that it’s actually about Him? What if we read it with the promise in view? Then when we read Eve’s statement that she had “gotten a man with the help of the Lord, we would remember that many years later, a virgin in Israel gave birth to the Son of Man with only the help of the Lord. When we read about Abel’s offering we would be reminded that Jesus is the firstborn Lamb of God who offered His all for our sake. We would recall that like Abel, Jesus was despised and rejected by His own. We would note that it was envy and jealousy that prompted Cain to kill his brother, the same kind of envy and jealousy that caused the leaders to turn Jesus over to be crucified. As Abel’s blood cried out to the Lord for justice, so the blood of Jesus satisfied the justice of God so that He can be both just and the One who justifies. As we keep the promise in view, the better Abel becomes more clear.
“You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (Jn. 5:39-40)
This stinging rebuke is given to the Pharisees by Jesus as they are looking for ways to kill Him. Jesus has healed a lame man by the pool of Bethesda, but He did it on the Sabbath, violating one of the umpteen dozen rules the Pharisees had put in place to protect the Sabbath from being violated. Now Jesus is on the outs with the religious leaders, the ones we would think should have received Him most gladly.
Jesus did not rebuke them for being lazy, for failing to study or for failing to know what the Scriptures said. Notice He says they were diligent. Their study of the Scriptures would put the majority of us to shame. Chances are that most of them would have memorized large swaths of God’s word. Many of them could have quoted the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament from memory. They would go through the Scriptures with a fine tooth comb trying to find ways for themselves and their disciples to do an even better job of keeping God’s law. That was their fundamental error. Their trust was in the words written on a page and their ability to abide by those words. They had failed to trust in the Person who spoke the words to begin with. They had made the Scriptures about them and what they had to do when in reality they are about Jesus and what He has done.
As John would make clear in the opening of his Gospel, Jesus was there at the creation of all things, the Word that brought everything into existence. He walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day and when they broke His will and broke His heart, He made a promise that He would come one day to make it right. He is pictured in every sacrifice made, from the sacrifice made to cover Adam and Eve, to Abraham’s offer of Isaac, to the Passover lamb of the Exodus, to every bull, ram, sheep or goat offered at the temple. He is the final and better sacrifice.
He is the one that all the promises point to. He is the Seed of the woman promised in the Garden. When He set His bow in the sky and promised that the earth would never again be flooded, it was because that bow was pointed at Him. He would bear the judgment instead. He is the promised Seed of Abraham, by which all the earth would be blessed. He is the Prophet like Moses promised to the people of Israel. He is the promised King who would rule and reign forever on David’s throne.
He is the object of every allusion, illustration or image given in the Old Testament and every prophecy leads us to Him. The author of Hebrews lets us know that He is the better Moses, the better priest and the better sacrifice. We should also see that He is the better Abel, who offers the sacrifice most pleasing to God. He is the better Noah, the One who rescues us from ultimate judgment. He is the better Abraham, the One completely faithful. He’s the better Joseph, rejected by His own but now exalted to the throne and sent ahead to prepare a place for us. He’s the better Moses who leads His people out of slavery and death. He’s the better Judge, delivering His people from their enemies and the better David who has destroyed the giant of sin and death. His image and His fingerprints are on every page of the Old Testament.
The Pharisees read the Scriptures and thought the point was to show them what they had to do to please God. Jesus said it was all pointing to Him and the work He would do for them and for us. Then He says in John 6:29, “This is the work God requires: believe in the One He has sent.” (paraphrase) Let us be that kind of people.
“He’s got the whole world, in His hands. He’s got the whole wide world, in His hands….” Do you remember singing that song? It’s a simple tune with simple words, but at the end of the day it’s pretty good theology. It’s what we believe to be true about God, right? He’s sovereign. He’s in control. He’s got everything in His hands.
But then we take a peek outside and some doubt comes creeping in (or maybe it busts down the door.) We see wars and strife, natural disasters, government corruption, political division and ineptitude, rampant immorality and moral confusion and we can begin to question whether or not God is there at all. Add to that the personal struggles and trials that come our way and it’s easy for the doubts that plagued John the Baptist to become our own. Like him, we’re tempted to ask, “Jesus, are you the One who is supposed to come or should we be looking for someone else?” (Mt. 11:3, paraphrased) Remember, John was the one who declared Jesus to be, “… the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn. 1:29) He believed and proclaimed confidently that Jesus was the One promised throughout the Old Testament. He pointed to Jesus as the Seed of the Woman, the Seed of Abraham, the Root of Jesse, the Anointed One of Israel and the fulfillment every Old Testament prophecy. He was sure that Jesus had come to establish His sovereign rule over Israel and all nations. But all that trust and confidence went out the window when he was arrested and given a death sentence by Herod. To make matters worse, Jesus was not coming to his rescue.
And that’s the rub when it comes to the sovereignty of God. We’re happy to declare Him to be in control when things are generally suitable to us. He’s our sovereign God when life is in our favor but when life is not measuring up to our expectations we would prefer a god who is a bit less sovereign and a bit more attentive to our desires. Our natural tendency, when life is not going as planned, is to presume that our sovereignty would be better than His, at least for the moment. But “sovereign” is a very exclusive term. Inherent in the word is the reality that you can only have one sovereign. This means that when things aren’t going our way, we have to learn how to lay aside our claim to sovereignty over our lives.
One of the best instructors in this regard is a minor prophet with a major message; Habakkuk. Habakkuk shows us how to talk to God about the issue of sovereignty and then how to choose God’s sovereignty over ours. It’s possible that he wrote toward the end of the reign of king Manasseh, perhaps the most wicked ruler to ever ascend David’s throne. He comes to the Lord with a brutally honest question. A summary of the first four verses might read, “Lord all I see is evil. Why don’t you do something about it?!” To which the Lord responds, “I am. I’m preparing the Babylonians to come and they’re going to blow through this city like a hurricane.” Habakkuk is taken aback. “Lord, you are holy. We deserve your judgment, but the Babylonians are way worse than we are! This doesn’t make sense.” Then the Lord tells His prophet, “The Babylonians are my instrument for judgment, but in the end I will judge them and give them what they deserve.” In verse 2:20 we see Habakkuk submit. “The Lord is in His holy temple; (He is ruler over all) let all the earth be silent before Him.” In chapter three he begins to pray. “Lord, in your wrath remember mercy.” (v.2) “Lord, I will wait and watch as your plan unfolds.” (v.16) “Lord, though everything falls apart and nothing goes the way I would want, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior!”
Things may not go the way we want or think they should in the coming year, but we can be confident that the Lord is seated on His throne and that His plan will ultimately prevail. He is holy and just, merciful and gracious and perfectly capable of keeping them all in balance. His promises will prevail. Let us be joyful in God our Savior.
In a few weeks we’ll pull out the shiny paper and bows and wrap up the gifts we’ve chosen for loved ones and friends. It’s one of the things we love about this season and the reason we love it is because it’s a reflection of our Father’s heart. We love to give gifts during this time of year because we are made in the image of the God who loves to give.
Over the past several months I have tried to use this space to explain or “unwrap” in a sense, the gift of the Gospel. I’ve wanted to remind us that the Gospel is more than an explanation of how to get to heaven. The Gospel is the greatest story ever told, the story to which all great stories point. It tells of the “Seed of the woman” who would come to defeat our enemy, the old serpent himself. So the Lord prepared a people and planted this hope within them. After thousands of years of longing and looking for this promised hero, the Father sent His Son, miraculously born, to walk among us. He lived the life we should have lived and died the death we should have died. But the Gospel story doesn’t end with Jesus’ death. It comes to its climax in the Resurrection. Allow me to paraphrase Paul in 1 Cor. 15:1-3; “This is the Gospel, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” He goes on to explain through the rest of chapter 15 the absolute necessity of the Resurrection to the Gospel story. The Gospel is not good news without it. It is by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ that our enemies are defeated. The head of the serpent is crushed. So as we think about the gifts we will soon be giving, let’s consider some of the gifts that are ours because Jesus is raised.
Freedom is one of the first gifts that we receive as a result of the Resurrection. We were slaves to sin and death, held hostage and destined for destruction. But Jesus is raised, death could not hold Him. Now, by faith in the work He has done, we can be confident that death no longer has a hold on us. We can be free from the fear of death, free from the uncertainty and free from the dread that comes with knowing we are guilty before a holy God. In addition, we are set free from sin. The Resurrection is God’s affirmation that Jesus’ atoning sacrifice is enough to pay the penalty for our sin. Through faith in Christ our debt is paid in full. On top of that, we are being set free from the power of sin. We’re no longer obligated or enslaved. We have a choice because the Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead is the same Holy Spirit that lives in us.
That brings us to two other important gifts of the Resurrection; presence and access. Because Jesus is raised He is present with us through the power of the Holy Spirit. When God makes the promise that He will never leave us or forsake us we can be sure of that because the Spirit is the One who makes that possible. Not only is God present with us through His Spirit, but we can also be present with Him. Ephesians tells us that the dividing wall of hostility that separated us from God has been broken down and Hebrews tells us that we can now come with the boldness of a beloved child into the very presence of God.
There are more, but the last gift I will mention is hope. This has been the most precious to Jeanie and me since Anthony died. The New Testament tells us the Jesus is the first fruit of the Resurrection, the promise and foretaste of what’s to come. Because Jesus is raised, we know that there is a day coming when He will take all that is broken in this world and make it right. Death and sin and all the destruction they have wrought, all the pain and sorrow they have inflicted and all the disease and devastation they have created will be swallowed up in the victorious resurrection of King Jesus. All creation, including all who are in Christ, will be made new, imperishable, incorruptible and indestructible. This is our glorious hope, the Resurrection of Jesus!
The wrath of God. A variety of images can be conjured up depending on when and where you grew up. My guess would be that the majority in the younger generations have no real framework for the term. They’ve grown up on a steady diet of affirmation and tolerance and thus their image of God, if they think about Him, is that of the kindly old grandfather who smiles and nods and gives you whatever you want. On the other hand, those of us with a bit more mileage, remember preachers and evangelists who spoke regularly about the wrath of God. In fact, they spoke about it so vehemently that you went away thinking that God spends His time storming around Heaven in a constant rage looking for someone to smite and that if you didn’t toe the line, you might get the next smiting. Thus, the idea of God having wrath is repugnant to most everyone in the modern era. Of course, neither of these ideas is accurate and we need an accurate understanding of God and of God’s wrath if the Gospel is going to make any sense.
If my view of God is that of the kindly grandfather, one who loves me and accepts me no matter what and who gives me whatever I ask for, then I can have a certain level of appreciation for Him, but I’ll never come to a place of awe and wonder. My attitude toward Him will be similar to the way I think about a vending machine or a convenience store. When I want a snack, I’m glad they are there, but I am not amazed, or humbled or caught up in worship. Until I begin to understand the wrath of God, my love and appreciation for Him will be shallow and transactional at best. Understanding His wrath helps me understand the price He paid to make me His own. It helps me begin to grasp the depth of His love. Here’s a classic illustration: Suppose you meet me at my house and you tell me you grabbed the mail out of the box and noticed I had a bill that was due, so you paid it. If you paid the bill for postage due or my magazine subscription I might say “Gee, thanks.” If I find out you paid off my mortgage my response would be much more profound. I’d hug your neck or maybe even kiss your feet and wonder how I could possibly repay such kindness. Until I have an accurate understanding of the debt I owe, the depth of my sin, of God’s wrath against my sin and the price that was paid to satisfy His wrath, I cannot begin to understand the depth of His love.
God is perfect in all His ways. His love is a perfect love and He loves perfectly. He is also holy and perfectly just and everything He does is perfectly right and good. Sin stands in opposition and contradiction to God’s perfection. It is a defiance of His perfect will, a rebellion against His perfect plan and denigration of His perfect character. Every sin deserves and will receive its full and just punishment. Wrath is God’s settled disposition against sin and His settled determination to bring about justice and righteousness and to justly punish sin. God’s wrath is a perfect part of His holiness and justice. His wrath is not like any human wrath. It is perfectly balanced with all of His other perfect attributes. So we can rightly say that God hates sin with a holy and perfectly righteous hatred while at the same time loving the sinner with a perfectly holy and righteous love. The obvious question is: How can He do that? How can He put an end to sin without destroying the sinner since every sin must receive its just punishment?
The reason God is not storming around Heaven in a fit of rage is because the issue was settled from the very beginning and predicted the moment after sin had defaced God’s good creation. It never made sense until Jesus came but Genesis 3:15 tells us God the Son would come to earth in the most absurdly normal way possible as “the seed of the woman.” He would be made like us and be subjected to every temptation possible without ever giving in. He would live perfectly in our place. Then He would die. That’s the metaphor of the serpent striking His heel. The only One who never deserved to be punished, who never deserved to die would die in our place. He would take our sin upon Himself, becoming the final atoning sacrifice that all the other sacrifices were pointing to. As He surrendered Himself to the Father’s will, He took the punishment that we deserved.
That’s what was going on in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Father was holding out the cup of His wrath to His Son. This cup, which the prophets spoke about time and again, was the just and righteous punishment that all sin deserves. The just punishment for every lie, slander, gossip and careless word, every murder, act of violence or hatred, every act of defiance, rebellion or treason, every adultery, fornication, lust and immorality, every act of greed, envy and coveting, every transgression of God’s perfect law and will, every sin, the punishment for it was in that cup. The just punishment that I deserve and you deserve, that all of us deserve, was in that cup. This is why Jesus cried in anguish in the garden. This is why He sweat drops of blood. In order for the Father to be able to justly punish sin without destroying us, Jesus had to drink the cup. Because He had lived His life perfectly, loving the Father with all of His being and loving His neighbor perfectly, He was the only One qualified and capable. That is what it meant for Him to be our redeemer, our sin bearer. Isaiah 53:5 says, “But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him and by His wounds we are healed.” By allowing Himself to be crushed, He crushed the head of the serpent, defeating sin and death with him. By faith in Jesus and what He has done the wrath of God is satisfied and we can be set free from the death sentence that we rightly deserved. That is Good News! Halleluiah, what a Savior!
Multiple times in the Gospels we see people asking Jesus the question that all religions seek to answer: What must I do to have eternal life? The question is phrased in different ways. The rich young ruler states it directly, but others put it in terms of “What must we do to do the works of God?” or “What is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Everyone is born into this world with the same question hardwired into them. It finds expression in many different forms. How can I find inner peace? What is the meaning of life? It seems like there’s something missing. I wish I could just be happy. Where can I find truth? Many people wrestle with the question and many others stuff it down or try to bury it under one activity or another.
Every religion in the world will point you to something you must do. Practice the Five Pillars, keep to the Eight Fold path, obey the Law, keep the Sacraments, follow the teachings, or just be a good person. But notice that it’s always something you must do because every religion believes God’s favor must be earned or merited in some form or fashion. So we come to believe that as long as we make a good effort to keep the rules or stay on the path, then God is obligated to give us a good life. But like the rich young ruler, that nagging feeling of something being out of sync won’t go away. He was one of the most put together people of his day. He had status, wealth, looks, drive and he was moral! Still, he came to Jesus saying, “Something’s missing, I’m not at peace. I don’t sense God’s favor.”
Mark tells us Jesus looked at the young man and loved him. Yet, He would not lower the bar for him. In essence Jesus was saying to the young man and all the others who came to Him with similar questions, “You want to earn your way into eternal life, then the standard is perfection, perfect obedience to the Law. You must love the Lord your God with every thought, motive and action at all times (heart, soul, mind and strength) and you must do for your neighbor everything that you would do for yourself with the same enthusiasm and determination that you would do it for yourself” (and, as He told the Pharisee your neighbor includes those who are not part of your family, friends or tribe.) Jesus put his finger on the thing that stood between the young man and eternal life. “Sell all you have and follow me” and the he walked away heartbroken. Jesus shook His head and commented how hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. The disciples were appalled and said “If that guy can’t make it then who can?!!!”
Jesus’ answer is very instructive. “With man this is impossible.” Listen carefully to the words of Jesus. Do you notice how He always raises the bar? “Your righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees!” “You’ve heard it said ‘don’t murder, don’t commit adultery’ but I say don’t hate, don’t lust.” He said all the Law and the prophets can be summed up in two statements: Love God with all your being and love your neighbor as you love yourself. If we’re honest we would have to say “Impossible!” No one can do that perfectly!” And that is what Jesus is driving at. You might as well try to push a camel through a needle’s eye as to earn eternal life. Ah! “But with God, all things are possible!” This is why He came and why He lived as He did. We confess that Jesus was perfect and lived perfectly so that He could be the perfect sacrifice for sin, but He also loved God and His neighbor perfectly and completely, fulfilling all the Law and the prophets, so that He could give us the righteousness that we need and that we could never earn. He did, as a human being, what was humanly impossible so that you and I, by faith, might stand before the Father with His righteous, perfect record of obedience. Jesus told the crowd in John 6:29 that there is only one thing you can do to gain eternal life. “The work of God is this: to believe in the One He has sent.” Trust and confidence in His work, and that alone, is the only way into eternal life.
I was watching an episode of The Chosen the other night. In that particular episode the disciples were talking to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and asking about His birth. She described her surprise that He came forth from the womb covered in blood and amniotic fluid, that He was crying and cold and desperately needed her.
Now in this cynical age we might be tempted to think, “Well, what did you expect Mary?” But let’s be honest. If we weren’t so familiar with the story (and the process of birth) and someone told us the Son of the Living God was going to be born to the virgin teenager next door, we would conjure up some very different images from what actually took place. We would likely imagine Mary reclined on a velvet couch, surrounded by a choir of angels singing “Aaaaahhhhh” in perfect pitch with beams of light pouring from Mary’s body as Jesus painlessly entered the world, clean and shiny and walking out to greet the world. You think that’s a stretch? Consider how clean and tidy all those pictures from the Renaissance look. Consider how much we’ve sanitized the story to fit in with our Christmas celebrations. If you were starting a new religion in the first century or even today, you certainly wouldn’t have the Son of God being born in the most ordinary of ways and totally dependent on a servant girl and her carpenter husband.
The theologians used to speak of the condescension of God in the incarnation of Christ. In our day, we view condescension as negative, thinking that someone who is condescending has a superiority complex and thus looks down on others with contempt or indifference. Originally, it referred to the kindness of a king to one of his subjects so it is a beautiful term in regard to what God has done for us. The God who is infinitely superior to us in every possible way looked down upon us, the ones He created and the ones who rebelled against Him and had compassion on us. He didn’t have to do it and we didn’t deserve it, but out of love for the Father and love for us, the Son of God set aside all the benefits of deity and came to live among us. If He had come in pristine fashion into a royal palace with angels singing backup it would have been an infinite step down and yet, He came farther. He entered into the lowest possible station in life and was born in the most absurdly normal way possible. He was born into poverty, grew up in poverty, lived as a homeless wanderer and died with nothing to His name, not even the clothes on His back. In all our imaginations about how God might save the world, this one never crossed our minds.
Ever since the Garden, we have believed that we have to climb our way up to God. Every religion of the world, in some sense, thinks of God as sitting at the top of a high mountain and we must make our way up to Him, that we must somehow prove our worthiness to be near Him by keeping some set of rules, stipulations or guidelines. Christianity is the only faith that says that God has come down to us and He says to us, “I’ve come to rescue you, because you’ll never make it on your own.” It’s grace and love and kindness and mercy that the infinite God would even deem to notice us, but that He would come to us and be made like us so that one day we might be made like Him, that’s amazing! May we never lose the wonder of it all!