The day everything changed

When Jesus was resurrected everything changed. In one moment of time the great questions of life were answered, like: What happens after we die? What are we here for? What does the future hold? Will things on this earth ever improve? Why so much evil and suffering, and does God even exist? And more personally: What is my life all about? What is my future? Is God really up there and involved in my life, and why should I bother being a good person when it doesn’t make much difference and we all die in the end anyway?

But if Jesus really did rise from the dead, and he was just as human as we are, all those questions are answered, aren’t they? Death is not the end. Evil and suffering don’t get the last word. There’s a future beyond this life, and God must exist because none of us can raise ourselves from the dead, can we? And since God exists then it’s worth being a good person, because Jesus was a good person and God raised him from the dead.

On the other hand, if Jesus hadn’t been resurrected, we’d have no idea why we’re here as humans, what life is for, and what really happens after we die. All we’d have to base our hopes on instead would be the ramblings of Greek philosophy, evolution, a host of weird and differing religions, the visions of people who imagined themselves in heaven, and endless theories about the afterlife that have us coming back as butterflies, or wandering round as floaty things in a distant bliss, or having our feet roasted in hell.

Christianity, on the other hand, bases its origin, its credibility and its total reason for existence on a moment in time when a human being called Jesus came back to life after being killed and buried for three days. Take that away and Christianity is meaningless. It would look like any other religion that has nothing more to offer us humans than vague ideas about an afterlife, a way of life that mildly improves human behaviour, a lot of idealistic teachings that most people can’t live up to anyway – unless threatened with hell or coming back in another life as a dung beetle – and a nice feeling of spiritual superiority, that unfortunately bursts out in frequent vicious violence against infidels and pagans.

To a Christian, however, Jesus’ resurrection changed all that and gave us humans something real to hope and live for. It also removed all fear of death, all fear of evil and suffering, and all fear of the future. It really was the day everything changed.

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The biggest surprise of all time

The biggest disappointment of all time has been humans dying who never live to tell the tale. It’s a strange situation we humans find ourselves in, where billions of us die but none of us come back from the dead to explain what happens next. It seems like an odd thing for evolution to do to us as well, letting us live for a few years and then disappear with no actual purpose in life beyond living it until we die. You wonder why we bother putting up with the mess of life at all, when after years of struggle, heartache and pain the lights go out and that’s it.

And that was the state of affairs all the way through the Old Testament too. Even God’s chosen people, the Israelites, lived and died in their millions without any evidence of a life after death. No wonder the Sadducees didn’t believe in a resurrection from the dead, when there was clearly no proof of it.

On the other hand, there were many Jews in Jesus’ day who did believe in a resurrection from the dead, based on scriptures in the Hebrew Bible, even though there was no actual mention of the word ‘resurrection’. But there were hints of resurrection, as Jesus himself pointed out to the Sadducees who tackled him on the resurrection in Mark 12. Jesus replied in verse 24: “Are you not in error because you do not know the scriptures or the power of God?” And then in verse 26: “Now about the dead rising – have you not read in the book of Moses….?” Oh, so resurrection was there in the Old Testament after all. But there was still no proof as yet that resurrection actually happened.

Until, that is, the biggest surprise of all time, when Jesus was resurrected. Even to the Jews who did actually believe a resurrection would happen were shocked, because no one was supposed to be resurrected until the end of days, based on Daniel 12:2, when “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.”

But suddenly, here was a human being who’d been resurrected ahead of time – and look what he’d been resurrected into, as well. He wasn’t a ghostly, disembodied soul or spirit essence floating off to heaven in a green haze, he was in a human-like body. So here, for the first time ever, a human had died who’d lived to tell the tale of what happens next.

So there really is a life after death – and it’s lived in a human body too. It’s two surprises for the price of one.

Victory on Earth Day – part 6

The effect of the cross on the People of God 

When Peter wrote 1 Peter 2:9 to Christians that “you have been chosen by God to be priests of the King, a holy nation and God’s very own people, holding all the titles that God gave to his people of old,” it must have been hard for those Christians to accept, because their world wasn’t a nice place to live in, and they had a tough time not taking on its attitudes, especially when they had to live and work with people who were a pain in the neck.

Peter could see Christians developing “feelings of hatred,” verse 1 (Living Bible). But it was easy for Christians to hate people, because most people they mixed with were only “pretending to be good” (verse 1). People were such fakes. In reality, most people were dishonest, deceptive liars, utterly hypocritical, eaten up with jealousy, and ripping people up and down behind their backs (all mentioned in verse 1). But if a Christian tried to rise above all that nonsense and he chose not to act that way, he was picked on, scoffed at, and made to feel alienated and utterly miserable. It was easy in those circumstances, therefore, to hate people who had no interest in Christian values and lived for themselves without a care in the world for anyone else. Imagine having to work beside people like that day after day too.

And Peter was totally sympathetic to that, that Christ was “rejected by men” too, verse 4, but TO GOD he was “precious,” and never for a moment would God disappoint their trust in him either (verse 6). On the one hand, then, Christians would always feel like “aliens and strangers” in the world they found themselves in, verse 11, but they were also “the people of God,” verse 10, and as the people of God they’d been “called out of the darkness of the world into God’s wonderful light,” so that in the way they lived their lives the difference would be so obviously right and good to other people that they would be drawn to God too, verse 12.

That’s the plan, says Peter, that “WE are the People of God now, so let’s make sure our conduct among unbelievers is so good that one day it will hit people that we weren’t so bad after all, and they too will then turn to God to do the same for them as he did for us.”

This is the way God works and has always worked, as the Jews in the churches Peter was writing to would have recognized, because as Jews they’d been chosen by God in the past to be his people too. Peter, therefore, was ringing a very familiar bell in their ears, that God elects and chooses people who are very precious to him, as we see in his choosing of Israel in Deuteronomy 7:6: “For you are a people holy to your God. He chose you and you alone, out of all the people on Earth, to be his people, his very own cherished treasure.”

So when Peter introduces his letter back in 1 Peter 1:1, “I, Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to God’s elect,” that word “elect” would have brought Deuteronomy 7:6 to mind immediately for the Jews in the church. They knew what being the elect was all about. It meant they were extremely special. They were like that very special girl who catches a man’s eye and all he can think of is her, and that’s exactly how God felt about Israel, because he said as much in Deuteronomy 7:8, that when he looked at Israel he fell in love with her.

Imagine that: God falling in love and wanting Israel as his own. But this is how God himself phrased it in Exodus 19:4, that he’d “carried Israel out of Egypt on eagles’ wings to bring you to myself.” God was like the prince rescuing his princess from the evil witch’s clutches, and whisking her off on his white horse to his kingdom where he and his beloved would live happily ever after.

God had quite a surprise waiting for his beloved Israel too, because he lets his princess know in verse 5 that he’s actually King of the entire Earth, and as King of the Earth he’s chosen HER out of all the nations under his rule, verse 6, to be his very own “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Well, that’s wonderful, I hear his princess Israel say, but if you don’t mind me asking, she says, what does being a kingdom of priests and a holy nation actually mean? And that’s a good question for us to ask too, because Peter just told us back in 1 Peter 2 that WE are the King of the Earth’s priests and a holy nation as well. So what does it mean?

Well, the only kings and priests that Israel had ever known up to this point in Exodus 19 were the priests and kings in the nation of Egypt. That was the only picture of kings and priests they had. And in Egypt it was only a ruling class of chief priests and kings that had access to the gods. Only they could pray to the gods, make petitions to the gods, and bring the gods’ blessings on their nation. The common people in Egypt had no relationship with their gods whatsoever.

To quote one historian: “The Ancient Near Eastern peoples knew that the big deities were only in relationship with the priests and kings. The big gods were for the big people, not the common people. But the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob changed all that.”

And the way God changed it was to make EVERY Israelite a king and priest, a radical move indeed, because for hundreds of years the Israelites had lived in Egypt where everything depended on the kings and priests. The welfare of the entire nation rested on the kings and priests doing all the necessary rituals to keep the gods happy, so that order remained and disaster didn’t strike. So “kings and priests” was a familiar term to the Israelites, but so was the idea that only the ruling classes could mediate between the gods and the people.

Well, God was having none of this upper class, hierarchy stuff for his princess. He was flinging the doors wide open to anyone in Israel having access to him. And to make that clear to the Israelites God now gave THEM the title of “kings and priests” too. In other words, every Israelite now had access to God in exactly the same way the kings and priests in Egypt had access to their gods.

So in God falling in love with Israel and whisking his princess away from the evil witch to bring her to himself, and then calling Israel his kings and priests, he was introducing Israel to a new kind of kingdom, where the common people could have a relationship with the gods too – AND it was a loving, trusting, wide-open relationship that went both ways as well. Israel’s God actually loved them, and they could love him in return too, by trusting and obeying him. The Israelites, therefore, were the first nation ever to enter into this kind of loving relationship with the gods. It had never existed anywhere before.

But what was the actual purpose of this radically new loving relationship between God and his princess?

Well, this is where the Egyptian model can help us again, because of the role that the Egyptian kings and priests played. It was their job to please the gods, and in pleasing the gods they could then appeal to the gods in prayer and petition on behalf of the people. The kings and priests, therefore, played an immensely important role in Egypt as mediators between the gods and the people. Without the kings and priests the people had no means of petitioning the gods, or of receiving any blessings from the gods either. When the Israelites heard the term “kings and priests,” therefore, this would be the picture that came to mind.

So imagine their surprise being told by Moses that they were now taking on that role of kings and priests as well. The surprise would have been even greater, though, if it had also dawned on the Israelites what God had just told them in Exodus 19:5, that the whole Earth was his, and in verse 6, that as King of the Earth he’d chosen them to be his “kingdom of priests and holy nation.”

It didn’t take a large brain to cotton on that if God was King of the entire Earth and the Israelites were the King of the Earth’s priests and holy kingdom, then it meant they were now kings and priests on behalf of the entire planet. They were now the mediators between God and all humanity.

But how on earth could the ordinary, common folk of Israel fulfill a gigantic role like that? And that’s not a bad question to ask ourselves either, when ordinary, common folk like us have been chosen to be the King of the Earth’s priests and his holy kingdom today as well.

Well, the top priority for the Egyptian kings and priests in fulfilling their role was their daily ritual in the temple. To quote one source: “Only the priest was allowed to enter the sacred area of the temple and approach the statue representing the god or goddess. In the morning, the high priest breaks the seal, lights a torch to wake the god, says prayers, lights incense, washes the statue of the god, places fresh clothing and jewels on it and places offerings of food and drink near it. Singers offer hymns of praise to the god. At the end of the day, the priest backs out of the shrine, sweeping away his footprints as he goes, and seals the sacred area again.”

And why did the priests do all that? Because if they didn’t they’d all be dead. The gods would wipe them out. And every day the nation faced that reality, that without the daily obedience by the kings and priests to the required rituals they all faced the judgment of the gods. It’s interesting to see, then, that God soon got that point across to the Israelites too. Yes, he loved them BUT, Exodus 19:5, they’d better “obey me fully and keep my covenant” too. And in the next few chapters God gives Israel all sorts of laws they’d better obey or there would be dire consequences for their entire nation if they didn’t.

It was crucial in their role as kings and priests, therefore, that they too dedicate their lives every day to obeying God, because their nation would face God’s judgment too if they didn’t. That was the bottom line, and any Israelite king and priest worth his or her salt woke up every morning with that in mind.

Grasping the reality of God’s judgment, therefore, was top priority, but that wasn’t the only reason God had for Israel obeying his laws. Obedience to his laws would also produce the attitudes, behaviours and character in the Israelites that truly reflected him. And that now put the Israelites in exactly the same position as the kings and priests in Egypt, in making the Israelites into effective mediators for others as well. HOW? Well, it was all rather simple and straightforward: The Israelites’ obedience to the law would reflect the lawmaker. By obeying God’s law other nations would then see what Israel’s God was like, so they could see how great he was by comparison to their own gods and be drawn to him too.

That was the plan, and it ties in perfectly with what Peter said God made us kings and priests for, that we live such good lives in obedience to God that it reflects God and what he’s like to other people – so that they too are drawn to him. And that was exactly God’s purpose for Adam as well, that he would be God’s image-bearer, representing and reflecting God to the rest of creation.

To be an image-bearer was exactly like being a mediator, because If Adam had done his job well, by obeying everything God told him to do, and by gradually learning his wisdom from God he would have represented God so well to people that they would be drawn to God themselves. But jump ahead to 1 Peter 2 and we hear Peter telling us the same thing, that we too represent God so well – or as Peter phrases it we “declare God’s praises” so well in how we live and behave – that people can clearly see God’s way is so much better, and they “glorify” him.

Nothing has changed in God’s plan, then, from Adam to Israel, and from the Jews to us. God has always had a “People of God” representing him so well that people glorify him. Call us image-bearers, or kings and priests, or mediators, they all mean the same thing and play the same role of bringing God and humans together in such a way that people are drawn to him and God can bless them.

That’s why the People of God through the ages are so special to him, because they are the ones who grasp his purpose. We grasp the fact in 1 Peter 2:4-5, that just as Jesus, “the Living Stone,” was “chosen by God and precious to him, you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God.”

And spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God, according to Peter, are those that reflect God or “declare his praises” well, just like obedience to the law by the Israelites was their acceptable sacrifice that reflected God well.

And who was the first person to start this ball rolling, the first true king and priest to follow this principle of offering a spiritual sacrifice acceptable to God? It wasn’t Adam, but remarkably it was his son, Abel, who somehow knew, despite his parents, what God treasured. So when it came to offering a sacrifice, Abel brought the choice parts of a firstborn lamb in his flock (Genesis 4:4). And God called Abel’s offering “righteous” (Hebrews 11:4). Why? Because in bringing the best he had Abel was openly declaring God’s praises. His sacrifice reflected his deep appreciation to God. And look how pleased God was with Abel’s offering. Abel, therefore, was the first human ever to establish a relationship between God and humans that went both ways. Abel, in other words, was the first true king and priest to fulfill the role of mediator in bringing God and humans together.

It would be interesting to know, then, if the spot God chose for these special offerings in Genesis 2 was also the place where the cherubim were guarding the tree of life, so that once a year, perhaps on the anniversary of Adam and Eve being kicked out of the Garden, Adam and his family brought offerings to the very place where they were reminded of what sin had done to them. But instead of Abel being all negative about being kicked out of the garden, and being miffed at his lot in life, or feeling cheesed off at God, he brought a sacrifice that was thoroughly acceptable and pleasing to God.

He could have reacted like his brother Cain instead, whose heart wasn’t in his sacrifice at all. Cain saw nothing in God worth praising, and his sacrifice reflected that. He didn’t see that their sin had truly deserved death, so he had no grasp of God’s incredible mercy allowing him and his family to continue living. But Abel brought the best sacrifice he could, and a blood sacrifice too, which certainly hints at his understanding of God’s mercy.

(SLIDES x5)   And how fitting that would be, when later, in the Temple that the Garden of Eden pictured, there was a Mercy Seat made out of pure gold covered by two cherubim. This was the spot in the Holy of Holies where God was seated, and once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest entered the Holy of Holies on behalf of Israel as Israel’s mediator, and God extended his mercy on Israel so that their relationship with him was maintained.

Without this annual act of God’s mercy Israel would have died out as a nation, and deserved to die for its sins too, just as the Egyptians believed they’d die as a nation if the kings and priests did not do their daily rituals. And Abel clearly knew he’d be dead too if it wasn’t God’s mercy, and his sacrifice reflected that.

Abel, therefore, was the pioneer of our profession as the People of God. He became the first in a long line of God’s people through the ages – from his baby brother Seth (who replaced him), to Noah, to Abraham, to Israel, and to us now today – all of whom recognize that if it wasn’t for God’s mercy we’d all be dead. We all echo the words of Peter in 1 Peter 2:10, that “In the past you were less than nothing, but now you are the People of God. In the past you had no experience of God’s mercy, but now it is intimately yours.”

What identifies and characterizes the People of God, the true image-bearers of God, his true kings and priests, his true and effective mediators between him and sinful humanity, is the understanding of God’s amazing mercy. And that’s what drives us “to abstain from sinful desires,” verse 11, and motivates us to “Live such good lives among the pagans that they see our good deeds and glorify God,” verse 12, just as it stirred Abel to bring the best sacrifice to God that he could.

In other words, if someone asked us why we stand up for Christian values in a world that scoffs at such values and makes life miserable for us, our answer is simple: “It’s because of God’s mercy.” We live the way we do in recognition of God’s mercy. That’s what motivated Abel to bring the sacrifice he did. It’s also the motivation for us bringing the sacrifices we do, as Paul wrote in Romans 12:1, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – which is your spiritual worship.”

Peter said exactly the same thing back 1 Peter 2:5, that just as Jesus, “the Living Stone,” was “chosen by God and precious to him, you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God.”

Either way you want to phrase it, as “offering our bodies as living sacrifices,” or “offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God,” one thing is common to both, and that’s the recognition, verse 10, that without God’s mercy we’d be “less than nothing.” And Paul really gets that point across in Romans 9:25, that “God calls us his people who weren’t his people, and he calls us his loved ones who weren’t his loved ones.”

This is what sets us apart as the People of God; it’s that constant niggling thought in our heads, especially when we’re tempted to hate people for their hypocrisy, or criticize them for their selfish, cold attitudes, that God loved us and extended his mercy to us when we didn’t deserve his love or mercy either.

In other words, we exist today as members of Christ’s body and the People of God in this age, because of God’s mercy, and nothing else. And as the People of God we are the only people on the Earth who grasp that, that we’d be less than nothing without God’s mercy, and that’s what motivates our actions and thoughts as Christians.

And it needs to be our motivation as Christians so that our actions properly reflect God’s holiness, attributes and character, which is our way of declaring his praises or offering acceptable spiritual sacrifices, in the hope that people really see something different in us. They may not like us, and they may even accuse us of all sorts of things we never said or did, but one thing they cannot ignore is that we don’t treat them back the same way. They can gossip all they like about us, but we don’t gossip about them. Hopefully we can even shock them a bit in our attitude toward those in power, that in conversations about politicians and the like we’re strangely silent.

And why are we hesitant in our criticism? Because we’re the people of God, the one group of people on this Earth who accept the starkest fact of life there is, that in reality, Romans 9:22, we were “the objects of his wrath prepared for destruction.“ We were all headed for the city dump like smelly, rotten garbage, but he picked us off the garbage truck on the way to the dump and made us “objects of his mercy,” verse 23. Why? “To make the riches of his glory known.” This is what he extended his mercy to us for.

But HOW do the riches of his glory become known through God extending mercy to us? According to Peter it’s by our response to his mercy. Once we grasp that God whipped us off the garbage truck just like he rescued his princess Israel from the wicked witch, and that he called us out of the garbage attitudes of this world into the new ways of his kingdom, and that it’s his purpose for us now to become a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices that reflect HIS holiness, attributes and character, well what else can we do but get down to the serious business of 1 Peter 2:1, of “ridding ourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind,” and in verse 12, “living such good lives among the pagans that they see our good deeds and glorify God”?

It’s difficult to do that in this world, though, isn’t it? How can we not get frustrated and angry at stupid, uncaring people? But I left out three vital words in verse 5, as to how this gigantic role we’ve been given as ordinary, common folk becomes possible. The three words are: “through Jesus Christ.”

The Israelites didn’t have those three words as kings and priests when they were representing God and his kingdom to the nations around them. The Israelites had an awareness of God’s love and mercy, yes, just like we do, but from their example we see it wasn’t enough. Their life’s work was supposed to in response to his love and mercy, but they failed. They didn’t make it. It proved to be too much for them. Instead of being God’s princess reflecting God’s glory to draw other nations to him, she was drawn to those nations and took on their attitudes instead.

And Peter could see the same thing happening all over again to the People of God in his day too. It was tough not being drawn in by other people’s attitudes, especially when you had to live in such close proximity to people who had no interest in Christian values, and you risked being seen as odd and weird if you didn’t join in. And we’re in the same dilemma today, wanting to be different enough that people notice; but not so different that we turn people off.

So what’s the solution? Peter’s advice is simple: It’s either in three words, “through Jesus Christ,” or in five words in 1 Peter 2:4, “As you come to him.” We come to him because he was the first and only human to fulfill the role of king and priest perfectly. Despite the rejection of men he was still able to offer a lifetime of “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God” that has caused billions of people to glorify God. And the secret was in his reaction to people, verse 23, that “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” Imagine being able to do that, where instead of being drawn into a heated argument, or hating someone so much we can’t sleep, we “come to Jesus Christ” and entrust ourselves to him to sort the situation out to God’s glory.

Well, Jesus made sure that’s not just the stuff of imagination, because, verse 24, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live the right way; and by his wounds our minds are healed.” Such is the effect of the cross on the People of God in this age now. The cross kills off those hateful feelings and heals the wounds of insults. This is what Jesus died on the cross for, so that we can, as ordinary, common people like the Israelites, and like Abel, really show something different to people, that’s also so obviously right.

This is an area, especially in such a critical, uncaring world, where the attributes and character of God can shine. It’s a great way of declaring the praises of God that any of us can do with Christ’s help. And his help is just waiting for us, because WE are now his very precious and much loved royal priesthood.

What’s the combination that opens God’s safe?

There’s that moment of hesitation and then triumph when a safecracker gets the combination right and the safe door swings open to reveal the contents. When it comes to cracking God’s safe, however, there is so much disappointment. People try all kinds of combinations, think they’ve got the right one and give a tug on the handle – but the door doesn’t open.

The prize inside the safe is peace with God, peace that comes from knowing we’re just fine in his book and eternal life is ours. What greater prize could there be? But what’s the right sequence of numbers that clicks the lock open? And who knows the combination for certain, too? Religion, of course, jumps in at this point yelling, “We know, we know, we’ve got the combination,” but the numbers offered by each religion are different. No two religions offer the same combination.

None of their numbers would work anyway, because they all involve something that we must do. God, meanwhile, gave us the combination of numbers years ago to a man called Abraham, and it doesn’t involve anything that we must do: “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about – but not before God,” Romans 4:2. If Abraham thought he could open the safe by doing all kinds of good works, or good deeds, he too would have been sadly disappointed when he pulled on the safe door. It wouldn’t have opened, because it wasn’t his righteousness that hit the right combination, it was faith (verse 3).

It had to be faith, though, because God made absolutely sure Abraham couldn’t produce the works necessary to open the door. Look what God did to the man. He promises Abraham he’s going to make him and his offspring heirs of the world, when Abraham has no heirs – and no way of producing one, either. There is nothing Abraham can do, therefore, to get the prize God is offering him. But that’s exactly how God wanted it to be, “so that it may be by grace,” verse 16that the door to his safe swings open.  

It isn’t by our works that the safe door swings open, it’s by faith in his grace, Romans 5:1. “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God.” Cracking God’s safe isn’t complicated. Peace with him doesn’t involve a difficult combination lock full of rules, rituals and religious duties. All it needs is faith in God’s grace. That’s when the doors to God swing open. But the shocking thing about this grace is that we already had it before we even tried the lock….    

Bridging the chasm between us and God

God stands on the other side of a great abyss, a huge chasm between himself and us. He stands there holding an incredible gift for us, the best we could ever wish for. He then has to watch us trying to leap across the chasm to get it. It’s a pathetic sight, as human after beloved human falls desperately short.

Give them credit, though, some of them do quite well. They take what’s said in the Bible and try to do it. “If you want to enter life, obey the commandments,” Jesus said, so they try to obey all the commandments, and some do a really good job of it. But not quite good enough, unfortunately, because only perfect obedience will do. One mistake, one moment of weakness, and that’s it, game over, down to the bottom of the abyss they go. 

Some also read what Paul wrote, that “God will give to each person according to what he has done.” So they try to live a good life helping people out, raising money for worthy causes, being utterly honest, working hard, sacrificing for their kids, being upright, moral citizens in every way, and pillars in their community. The only problem is they sometimes get rather proud of their accomplishments. They like hearing how good they are. They may even think they’re superior, a cut above others, and even worthy of the accolades they get from people. Only the humble make it across the abyss, though.

Who can make it, then? How can anyone bridge this mighty chasm if one fault or one moment of pride sends you screaming downward, arms flailing in open space with no trees on the side to grab onto, and no handholds to clamber back up again? But that’s when God peers over his side of the chasm and shouts to the pile of broken, exhausted, frustrated humanity below: “Hey, folks, It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.” 

“What was that God said?” someone yells. “It’s by faith,” someone yells back, “we get God’s gift by faith.” And then someone remembers. “Yes, that’s right, Romans 4:16, ‘the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace.'”

A murmur of many voices mumbling “By grace, eh?” rumbles through the abyss. “But,” one voice cries out, “what do we do to get this grace? We must have to do something to get it, surely?” And that’s when the voice of God echoes down from above, “You’ve already got it – have a peek while you’re down there at Romans 5:2….”     

Victory on Earth Day – part 5

The effect of the cross on the major influences in our culture 

In 1 Corinthians 1:22-23 Paul talks about the “Jews demanding miraculous signs and the Greeks looking for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified.”

So here’s another victory that Christ won for us on the cross: He freed us from thinking we’re missing something, or that we’re lacking something as Christians, if we’re not experiencing or feeling any need for miraculous signs, or we don’t have brilliant minds like the great Greek philosophers. To Paul, a Christian doesn’t need a great mind or miraculous signs to experience “the power of God and the wisdom of God,” verse 24.

That’s enlightening, because many Christians today are still seeking and demanding signs and wonders as evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work in a person or a church, and it’s still a popular pastime in Christianity to mix the gospel with Greek philosophy – both of which have set Christians at odds with each other, and given the impression that Christians are extremely confused. And what makes that such a crying shame is that Paul made it absolutely clear where the real power and wisdom come from.

Paul explains in verse 17 that he’d been sent by Christ “to preach the gospel, not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” And by ‘power’ Paul meant the Holy Spirit’s power, as we see in chapter 2:4, when he writes, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.”

So Paul is making a clear contrast here between the Holy Spirit power and wisdom released by the cross of Christ, and the power and wisdom of the Jews and Greeks. And he makes sure the Corinthians understood the symptoms of each, too: It was Jewish power and wisdom when the emphasis was on miraculous signs; it was Greek power and wisdom when the emphasis was on the teachings of their philosophers; but it was Holy Spirit power and wisdom when the emphasis was on what Christ won for us on the cross.

And Paul stuck to that, as we see in 1 Corinthians 2:1-2, when he said straight out that he “did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom” when he talked about God; instead he was “resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” It didn’t mean he only preached Christ crucified, because in chapter 15 he also talked about the importance of Christ’s resurrection, but in dealing with the influence of Jewish and Greek thought on the Corinthian church, it was the victory Christ won on the cross that Paul concentrated on first of all.

And that was important, because most of the Corinthians weren’t all that bright “by human standards” (1:26), but God had purposely chosen “the foolish things of the world to shame the wise” (27). And that soon became evident, because the Corinthian Christians – “lowly” and “despised” though they were (28) – could see right through the hollowness and pointlessness of all that so-called wisdom of the “scholars” and “philosophers” (20). They could literally “nullify” it and dismiss it (28), because they’d learnt through Paul’s preaching about Christ crucified that there was nothing in Greek “wisdom” that made any sense of what their destiny was as humans, or what life was all about in the here and now. The Corinthians discovered, therefore, that, simple though they were, they didn’t need to be impressed or intimidated by anything Greek.

Well, that took care of the Greeks, but there were scholarly Jews in their city too, claiming they had the answers to human life and destiny in their obedience to the Law, backed up by all those miraculous wonders God did for his chosen people in the Old Testament. But the Jews, like the Greeks, didn’t have anything to boast about either, because, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:30, it was only in “Christ Jesus who has become for us wisdom from God” that the answers to human destiny and purpose could be found.

So Paul is making some pretty bold statements here about the two greatest influences on the culture of that time. He could do that, though, because he knew that “the wisdom of this age” and “the rulers of this age” were “coming to nothing,” 1 Corinthians 2:6, and in their place, verse 7, had come “God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.”

It was never in the realm of Jewish or Greek thought, therefore, that God’s plan and purpose could be discovered. So all that deep Greek philosophy – that is still so admired and revered today – actually offers us nothing, says Paul.

That’s a serious and rather worrying claim Paul made, though, because, to quote one historian, “The ancient Greeks are the corner stone of (our) Western philosophy. If you were born in a country in Europe, a country settled by Europeans, or a country at any point ruled by a European power, the essence of Greek philosophy has found its way into your worldview in one way or the other. Capitalist or communist, liberal or conservative, Coke or Pepsi, the people who have had the greatest influence on the way we think and how we live in the Western world took their cues at some point from a Greek. Over nine times out of ten this Greek will be Plato or Aristotle of Athens.”

It’s interesting, then, that Paul himself passed through Athens in Acts 17, where he entered into public debate with the two leading schools of Greek philosophy at that time, the Epicureans and the Stoics (18). And Paul was very open to what they believed. He didn’t attack their ideas; instead, he started out with: “Men of Athens; I see you take your religion seriously,” verse 22.

It was obvious just walking round the city and seeing all their “objects of worship” (23) that these Greeks really believed there was a spiritual realm inhabited by gods. But in his discussion with the Epicureans, Paul discovered they believed the gods were distant and uninvolved in our human problems, so like many people today the Epicureans dismissed the whole idea of eternal punishment in an afterlife, and they concentrated instead on what makes us humans the best and happiest we can be in the here and now.

The Stoics, meanwhile, believed all humans already had the divine within them, which put the emphasis on living and behaving like divine beings in this life now – or be reborn to repair the damage. Either way, Stoic or Epicurean, the focus was SELF, of lifting oneself to a higher level of morality and wisdom so you stood out from the rest of feeble, misguided humanity. It was clear to Paul in his discussions with these philosophers, therefore, that neither group had any clue as to what “God destined for our glory before time began.”

So he told them. He gave his “testimony about God” (as he called it in 1 Corinthians 2:1), which focused on God creating and settling humans on this planet for one very specific purpose, Acts 17:27, which was to “seek God and perhaps reach out for him and find him,” and “he’s not that far from each one of us” because we are his “offspring” (29). And, shockingly, this highly personal connection with a very real Creator God could also be made without any need for splendid temples (24), or “images made by man’s design and skill” (29).

You’d think that would be a huge relief for Jews and Greeks alike. The Greeks, for instance, wouldn’t have to spend all that money building massive temples to their gods, or searching endlessly for answers to what life was all about, with each great Greek philosopher coming up with a different answer. Aristotle, for instance, came up with a totally different idea about life than Plato. And the Stoics and Epicureans were like chalk and cheese as well.

It should have been a relief for the Jews too, though, because God had always shown how close he was to Israel by filling their tabernacle and Temple with his presence in very obvious ways, like he did in the days of Moses and Solomon. But for hundreds of years since the Jews had rebuilt the Temple on their return from captivity in Babylon, God had not filled the Temple with his presence. But here was Paul saying a Temple building wasn’t required anymore anyway for seeking God and finding him. What a relief.

And think of the huge relief today not having to build great edifices to God to make God’s presence feel real to people, that for centuries afterwards require huge amounts of money and manpower to prevent them crumbling into ruins. And what a relief that you don’t have to read endless books of philosophy and theological jargon by people with brains the size of pumpkins but can’t put anything in simple terms for little people as to what life is really all about.

Well, Paul probably had a brain the size of a pumpkin, but he admitted to coming to the Corinthian Christians “in weakness and fear, and with much trembling,” 1 Corinthians 2:3, because he realized it was only since Christ died on the cross that God was now revealing “by his Spirit” (10) what he’d “prepared for those who love him” (9). Now was the time God was opening up his “secret wisdom,” and Paul had better get it right, rather than being drawn in like everyone else to Jewish and Greek ideas, because – as he explains in verse 12 – “We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that WE may understand what God has freely given us.”

That, according to Paul, is where the power and wisdom of the Spirit is manifested: It’s in making clear to us what God has freely given us – and what he’s FREELY given us too, not what’s required of us. Paul has already made it clear that it’s not required of us to know or need anything “except Jesus Christ and him crucified,” because it’s Christ’s death, not miraculous signs and human wisdom, that releases the power of the Spirit to enable us to grasp what was “destined for our glory before time began.”

And isn’t that what we want to know more than anything else? As humans with curious minds and worries about death, of course we want to know what our destiny is. What is the point of being alive if there’s no purpose to life? And if God really did create us, what did he have in mind for us? I mean, who needs signs and wonders and all those wildly different ideas the Greeks churned out about life, when the question still begs answering: ‘What exactly WAS destined for our glory before time began?’

Was it what the Greeks thought? Well, if we’re talking Plato, his version of the glorious destiny for humans was freeing our immortal souls from everything physical, so our souls could wing their way back to the heavenly world of the gods to live in happiness and freedom from all human ills forever. And if that sounds terribly familiar to the traditional Christian view today of our souls being whisked off to heaven, it’s because Plato is the source of it. Plato also came up with it long before Christ died too, so Christ’s death wasn’t necessary.

The Jews, meanwhile, did not believe souls would go to heaven forever. Their version of God’s glorious destiny was the Messiah arriving to resurrect their nation to begin a Golden Age here on the Earth, and all a person had to do in the here and now to be part of the Messiah’s kingdom on Earth was obedience to the Torah. So the death of Christ wasn’t necessary to the Jews either.

In neither case, Jew or Greek, was Christ’s death needed. To Paul, however, it was central to grasping our human destiny – and to making it possible.

So what difference DOES the death of Christ make? And isn’t that the most important question we have to answer as Christians? What’s our destiny, and what’s Christ’s death got to do with it? Well, according to Paul, it’s the Spirit who reveals that to us and not the wisdom of men (1 Corinthians 2:5), since “man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them” (2:14). We won’t get any help from the Jews or Greeks, then.

Fortunately, we know what the Spirit revealed, because it’s right there in Acts 3:18, when Peter, inspired by the Spirit, explains: “this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer.” From that one verse we not only find out WHAT our glorious destiny is – it’s all written down in the Old Testament prophets – we also know HOW that glorious destiny was made possible: By Christ’s suffering and death.

And if anybody should have known that it was the Jews, who’d lived in hope for centuries for what the prophets had predicted, which is why Peter yelled out “Repent” in Acts 3:19, meaning “It’s about time you Jews woke up to what the prophets actually said, because they included Christ’s suffering.” It had been there in their Scriptures all along, that the suffering and death of Christ was the key to “the times of refreshing coming from the Lord” (19).

Peter now knew, with the Spirit’s help, that Christ’s death had unlocked the floodgates to the glorious destiny for humans described by the prophets, and it was beginning right then and there. There was no waiting, like the Jews thought, for the Messiah to come and resurrect their nation and start a new golden age – because the Messiah had already come and started it.

That’s why their Messiah had died. He’d died first and foremost for the Jews so that their “sins would be wiped out” (19). And why was that so important? Because the Jews were the ones through whom the times of refreshing would begin. God had sent Jesus to THEM (20), to bless THEM first of all, by turning them from their wicked ways (26) – and because Jesus had successfully completed that in his death and wiped their Jewish slate clean, they could now turn their attention to what he was now doing as the resurrected Jesus in heaven. And the Holy Spirit in Peter made that clear too, in verse 21, that Jesus was now at work “until the time comes for God to restore everything (in its fullness), as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.”

Jesus is at the helm, in other words, as captain of Spaceship Earth, and he’s steering us relentlessly in the direction of what the prophets predicted would RESULT from Jesus’ suffering and death. The restoration of everything, exactly as they predicted, was now in progress. This wasn’t some Greek fantasy of souls going to heaven, or some Jewish fantasy of God doing more miraculous signs to prove he was making them great again. This was the beginning of the time clearly predicted by the prophets when God would restore all that he’d originally intended for humans before he’d even set this creation in motion. He’d drilled out the cancer with Jesus’ death, and now he was putting things right.

That’s why Paul told both Jews and Greeks in Athens in Acts 17:30, that “God has overlooked your ignorance In the past, but from now on he’s telling everybody to repent and get on board, because God has already set a timeline for putting everything and everybody to rights, AND he’s got the man in place to make it happen too, the proof being his resurrection from the dead.”

Imagine being a Jew or Greek hearing this, though. It was shocking. For a Jew expecting a resurrection from the dead at some later date when the Messiah arrived, this was the most shocking news possible. You mean, the resurrection from the dead had already happened? That would be like telling someone today, who lives for the day when Jesus returns to straighten out this world, that Jesus has already returned and he’s been straightening out this world for the last two thousand years. He has? That’s nuts, because where’s the proof of it?

It was the same reaction in Athens too: “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead,” Acts 17:32, “some of them sneered.” To both Jew and Greek this was off the wall, that God, or the gods, had resurrected a human being from the dead, who also happened to be Jesus, to sort the world out and put it to rights, AND it was happening at that very moment.

But some were intrigued by this idea, verse 32, because they said, “We want to hear you again on this subject,” and some, verse 34, “became followers of Paul and believed.” And one of them was “Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus,” the highest and most aristocratic court in Greece for dealing with civil, criminal and religious matters. Here’s another man, then, like Paul, with a brain the size of a pumpkin, and an earned reputation for being sound-minded and scholarly too, who is able to put all his Greek upbringing and Greek thought behind him on hearing that there’s a man in place already who’s got what it takes to rule the world and he is making happen what God created us for.

To Dionysius, whose every day must have been filled with court cases dealing with all sorts of human issues, this must have been a huge relief, that someone had all this under control and was putting this sad, confused, unsolvable mess of humanity to rights. And think what that means to us today, that this message actually got through to a man like that living in a culture just like ours, that’s just as Greek today as Athens was.

Such is the effect the cross of Christ has on the culture, therefore, when it includes the message of what his death won for us. It won for us A MAN, a real live man like one of us – not some ‘Unknown God’ or distant, far off gods, or gods supposedly within us, like the Greeks were stuck with and so is our culture today. Paul broke through all that confused mess of Greek thought and ideas to reveal this picture of a man at the helm of Spaceship Earth recruiting people into the greatest adventure of all, of working in close relationship with him as fellow offspring of the Creator God to put this world to rights.

What a relief to hear that it wasn’t Plato’s idea that we have no greater destiny in life than our souls being taken to heaven. And what a relief to hear that it wasn’t the Jewish idea that the Messiah hasn’t come yet, so we have to wait for the times of refreshing and the golden age on Earth to begin.

What a relief to realize too, then, that we’re not just treading water in this life until the time comes for us to float off to heaven, or the Messiah eventually arrives. Instead, Christ’s death has given us some real purpose in this life now, because it’s opened up the chance to reach out and find God, and tune into what he planned for us humans before time even began.

And it’s all based on that MAN, a man who happens to be a “judge” too, Acts 17:31, a man like Dionysius himself, in other words, whose life in the Areopagus Council revolved around trying to unravel the mess people had got themselves into, and trying to provide justice and hope for the endless victims of crime and abuse, and trying to sort out the very real, practical issues that ordinary people struggled with every day – that the Greek philosophers, even with their pumpkin-sized brains, had NO answers for.

All the Epicureans had to offer struggling humanity was the typical siren song of our culture, that the main purpose in life is pleasure. The Stoics, meanwhile said the opposite, that the main purpose in life is resisting pleasure and emotion of any kind, because we’re supposed to rise above such mundane things. Well, go tell that to some poor chap in the street whose life is nothing BUT raw emotion and little pleasure as he watches his family starve because he can’t find a good job, or a greedy landlord upped the rent, or he lost his savings in a scam, or his wife has left him, or he hasn’t been paid for weeks by his employer.

Thanks a lot, great Greek philosophers, because you’re no help at all. But then along comes a Jew offering his solution instead, and this time it’s a religious solution, that God will show you the way with miraculous signs and get you through with miraculous solutions, and you have every right to demand such miracles because God has to answer if you trust him – the same old “name it and claim it” routine still sweeping through Christianity today.

Paul dismissed it all with just one word: “Repent.” Put all that Greek and Jewish stuff into the incinerator, and get our minds on some real hope, of a man who came back from the dead who understands human problems, because he’s a human, and he’s got solutions that are just and perfect and practical.

But what would be “just, perfect and practical” in your estimation? Would it lean to the Jewish side, of God having to answer our needs and problems with miraculous signs, like a healing, or a vision, or winning the lottery? There are lots of people offering those things today, including Christians, but that wasn’t what Paul was offering people in Acts 17 in a culture just like ours.

The perfect Greek solution, meanwhile, was either doing whatever gives us pleasure because God seems far away, or having the grit and willpower to control our bodies because God isn’t far away. But pleasure seeking or pleasure denying weren’t Paul’s solutions either in a culture just like ours.

What a relief to know that if I can’t afford a vacation every year in Bermuda I’m not missing anything. Or if I can’t control my sweet tooth I’m not a failure. Or if miraculous signs, gifts and wonders aren’t happening in my life it doesn’t mean I don’t have the Holy Spirit. All those things we can totally ignore, dismiss and nullify, just as the Corinthians did, because Dionysius gives us the context of Paul’s gospel message.

Dionysius responded as a man in the thick of human troubles. He knew firsthand what wrecked people’s lives as the trail of criminals and helplessly addicted humans passed before him. I imagine he shook his head at times at the utter stupidity and pathetic weakness of humans, while at other times he went home shattered at the suffering he could not solve.

But along came Paul, Acts 17:18, “preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection,” which was so new to those Athenians that they hauled Paul up to speak before the Areopagus Council (19). And there Paul told them what he’d been telling people ever since he began preaching in Acts 9:20, that “Jesus is the Son of God,” which the Athenians took to mean he was “advocating foreign gods,” Acts 17:18, but Paul meant Jesus was the literal offspring of the Creator God, whom God had appointed Judge of all human affairs to bring about the restoration of all things, Acts 3:21.

And hearing Paul say that suddenly gave Dionysius hope, that there really was a God in heaven who had freely given the solution to every human ill. And he’d done it in a man too, a man who understood and died for humanity, who was now in the realm of the gods bringing about God’s glorious destiny for humans predicted by the Old Testament prophets. Such was the effect of the cross in ripping people out of the influence of their culture, as it did to several people in Athens (Acts 17:34), and to many of us in the same kind of culture today.