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.

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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.

What if the cross never happened?

If the cross never happened we’d know nothing of the power of God or the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24). We’d be stuck instead with Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and all the other religious ‘isms’, with their imaginary concepts of what God, or the gods, are like, and their human ideas of wisdom, which offer no permanent solutions to evil or death, nor do they explain why this universe and humans exist, and nor do they provide any concrete proof that death is not the end of us.

But the cross brings God out of hiding, and what we see is his power – the power, that is, to solve evil and death, the power to make his purpose for the universe and humanity work, and the power to die in a human body that doesn’t decay in death, as concrete proof that death is not the end of us.

The cross brings the wisdom of God out of hiding too, because we can see in the cross how he solves evil and death, how he makes his purpose for humanity work, and how he provides proof that death is not the end of us. He does it all through a human being just like us.

And thats where we see God’s genius, because he makes it obvious first just how handicapped we are. No human throughout our checkered history came up with a solution to evil and death. From the time of Adam and Eve we have never fully grasped God’s reason for creating us either, so we constantly drift away from his purpose, and archaeology has shown us in all the graves unearthed that we cannot stop ourselves decaying into dust after we die.

The cross, however, wasn’t hampered by any of these handicaps, because the person who died on it was able to resist evil, he was able to fulfill God’s plan, and he was able to die without his body decaying like our bodies do (Acts 2:31).

So there’s our evidence that all those things ARE possible in a human being. If, on the other hand, the cross hadn’t happened we would never have known it was possible for a human to overcome our worst human handicaps. And even suffering a horribly undeserved death didn’t hamper him, either.

So now we see the power and wisdom of God, in providing us with proof, in a human dying horribly on a cross who never failed like we do, that humanity can rise above its handicaps. And what a relief that is, knowing that we’re not stuck forever depending on the imaginary gods of religion and human wisdom for solving our worst fears and failings.

Victory on Earth Day – part 4

The effect of the cross on “Who am I?” 

I don’t suppose too many people ask outright, “Who am I?” but what Jesus won for us on the cross makes it a question worth asking, because he died to restore us to who we are.

The Bible very quickly describes who we are, or who we were meant to be, in Genesis 1:26, when God said, “let us make man in our image, in our likeness,” meaning that God made humans the primary means of revealing himself. We humans, not elephants or snow leopards, are his image-bearers. We exist to show what God is like. And this was his purpose in first of all creating a fully functioning physical world, and then making humans capable of running it.

So in asking the question, “Who am I?” God answers that question for us very personally in verse 27: “I created you in my own image.” Or “I created you to reveal me.” In who I am, therefore, I reveal who he is.

The obvious question then has to be: “But how does who I am reveal God?” Well, in God making us physical, for a start, it reveals how much he loves how he made us and what he made us of. The human eye is just one fascinating example. I quote:

“When a photon of light strikes the retina, the light-sensitive membrane of the eye, it is actually hitting a part of the brain that contains over 126 million photoreceptor cells, at which point 15 chemical reactions occur, each one of which has to work for us to be able to have sight. There are also three tiny eye movements called tremors, drifts, and jerks, made by six tiny muscles outside each eyeball to reset the original signal down the optic nerve; otherwise a fixed image would fade from our sight. Tremors reset the image about 50 times a second by rotating the eye by just one thousandth of a millimetre. Drift moves the eye slowly off target, then jerk takes it back several times a second to the original target. The brain has to compute and control all this in nanoseconds. And we’ve yet to talk about the eye’s windshield washers and wipers, auto focus and auto aperture, emergency shutter mechanism, binocular distance measurement facility, tracking, and, of course, colour.”

And in another quote I read: “In an experiment, when people put on glasses that made the world seem upside down, their brains quickly reinterpreted the information they were being given to perceive the world as ‘right-side-up’. When others were blindfolded for long periods of time, the vision centre of the brain soon began to be used for other functions.”

It’s almost scary how much attention to detail God placed in the human body. It certainly hit David that way when he wrote about himself as being “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). So, we’ve already learnt something about God by us simply being physical. He loves the physical.

For some people that alone must be an eye-opener, because the prevailing belief in large sections of Christianity, and in other religions too, is that God, or the gods, don’t like the physical at all. There are many people, therefore, who think the answer to the question, “Who am I?” is: “I am an immortal soul locked in a horrible body that one day I will escape from and no longer be bothered by.” But if what they believe is true, why would God do that to us? Why would he put us in physical bodies that are nothing but a nuisance to us? And what kind of picture is God giving us of himself by deliberately making us out of stuff he doesn’t like, the result of which would be his Son having to die, as well?

According to God, however, he says he was rather impressed with his handiwork, because he looked out on his physical creation, including humans, and in his own words he said “it was very good,” Genesis 1:31. So in asking myself, “Who am I?” I’m off to a flying start, because everything about me as a human started off as “very good.” It reveals a God who loves what we’re made of, and clearly he took great pleasure in designing every tiny, exquisite detail.

God then revealed more about himself by what he made us for. And that too becomes clear in Genesis, that he equipped us perfectly in our physical bodies to take care of the rest of what he’d put on the Earth. So God must have loved this planet too, to come up with a creature with all the right stuff to make it flourish, so that in the hands of humans the Earth would become wonderfully productive and very beautiful. “Who am I?” therefore, would include seeing ourselves as the best thing that ever happened to this planet, because we’re the only creatures who can make this Earth do what God designed it to do. Gorillas can’t do that, nor can dolphins or flamingos, but here we are with brains and bodies perfectly designed to make the most of what this Earth has got. God, therefore, clearly loves our physical planet as well.

Well, this too must be an eye-opener to those who believe God doesn’t think much of the Earth either, like those who quote 2 Peter 3:10 to prove that God’s getting rid of this planet forever. That verse does say, though, that on “the day of the Lord the heavens will disappear with a roar, the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare,” and in verse 12 that “the heavens will be destroyed by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat.” It sounds like God hates this planet and can’t wait for the chance to get rid of it.

That isn’t the context of those verses, however. The context is “the destruction of ungodly men,” verse 7, not the destruction of the planet, as Peter himself explains in verse 6, when God destroyed the world by the Flood. The purpose of the Flood wasn’t to wipe out the world; it was to wipe out the people wrecking the world. And by the same token, verse 7, “the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for ‘the day of judgment’ and destruction of ungodly men.” There’s a time coming when fire, like the Flood, will put an end to the ungodly influences wrecking our world too.

So rather than these verses proving that God will be glad one day to close the book on Planet Earth, they actually mean quite the opposite, that God is cleansing our planet for its next chapter. Fire sounds drastic, true, but fire used in cauterizing is very effective in sealing a wound from infection. And Peter hints at that same cauterizing use of fire in 1 Peter 1:7, when he talks of our faith being “refined by fire.” Peter sees fire in its positive sense; it gets rid of impurities and seals out infection. So God isn’t destroying our physical world because he hates it, he’s doing his very best to save it, by doing whatever it takes, 2 Peter 3:9, to bring “everyone to repentance.”

So again, God reveals himself as loving who we are, and loving this planet. Is there anything else, then, that God reveals about himself in Genesis? Yes – he loves gardens, because he planted an actual garden himself in Genesis 2:8. If the fabulous palace and temple gardens at the time Genesis was written are anything to go by, then “garden” must have meant something exquisitely beautiful and functional, which it was, verse 9. And if anyone knew how to plant a garden to rival anything we humans come up with, it was certain that God knew, because he designed and created every plant, tree and animal that filled it. Imagine what a botanical and zoological garden of God’s design must have looked like.

But what exactly was this garden for? In some way or other it revealed something about God, but what?

We find out in Genesis 2:15, because the first thing God does after creating this beautiful garden was “take the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”

It was an incredibly privileged position for any human to be appointed to, because this was GOD’S garden for a start, the place he’d created for himself, just like kings – at the time Genesis was written – created gardens full of exotic plants, trees and animals for themselves. This is what kings looked out on from their palace windows. This is where kings lived and ruled from. It was their home as well as their centre of operations, the engine-room from which the king’s will and purpose would be communicated and spread to his kingdom, much like the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 and 22.

But the first thing GOD does in this marvelous home of his is take a man of his own choosing by the arm, invites him into this oasis and control centre on Earth, and tells the man it’s all his to take care of.

Adam, therefore, was the first human ever to be God’s executive personal assistant, a member of the royal household, with free access to the palace and the king’s ear. This wasn’t trundling around on a tractor with a large cloth cap planting crops for general consumption, or lazily plucking off juicy fruits while stroking a lion’s mane and dipping a toe in a tinkling stream. This was a personal calling by God himself to Adam to be his right hand man in running his temple palace precinct, much like Joseph in Egypt was entrusted by the Pharaoh to run the affairs of state, with full access to Pharaoh, and full authority to exercise the Pharaoh’s will, supervise his great building projects, and communicate to others exactly what was on Pharaoh’s mind.

And Adam would be so close to God that HE would know GOD’S mind too. But that’s what being made in God’s image meant, that a man is capable of being God’s representative, a perfect reflection of God’s mind, heart and even thought, much like Jesus would be later on when HE, as a human being, was “the image of God” too (2 Corinthians 4:4).

This man whom God had chosen, then, could have held many, if not all, of the positions that Jesus presently holds, like being seated at the right hand of God, being the communicator of God’s will, and overseeing God’s projects to completion, etc. This is what God created Adam for, which we see in Jesus – who is also called Adam – being given those positions later.

All this reveals that God loved giving Adam a highly privileged position, and loved trusting him with it too, just like Pharaoh trusted Joseph. There was a risk involved, but God took care of that too, by warning Adam right away not to get any ideas above his station. God did it by planting two trees “in the middle of the garden,” Genesis 2:9. God loved trees, and in particular fruit bearing trees, so these two trees must have been stunning in their beauty and extremely “pleasing to the eye” (9).

The two trees carried a clear message for Adam, though, that Adam wasn’t God. He was about as close to being a god as a human could be, because here he was at God’s right hand in God’s earthly palace, in much the same position as Joseph being Pharaoh’s right hand man ruling over all Egypt. Joseph had the authority to stamp a decree with the royal seal, or sign a document in the Pharaoh’s name. How easy it would be for Adam in such a position too, then, to think he was God, or that he was just as capable as God at doing his job.

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was a constant reminder to Adam, therefore, that if he ever got to thinking he could do God’s job, pictured by eating the fruit off that Tree, he would lose everything, including his life. It would be Adam’s one big mistake, then, to think that he was God. Only God was God, and that position was God’s alone, just like Joseph could never be the Pharaoh, as Joseph found out later when Pharaoh took away every privilege from him too.

The Tree of Life, meanwhile, contained the same reminder, that Adam wasn’t God, because for Adam to live forever into the future he would need to eat the fruit off the Tree of Life. He wasn’t immortal, therefore, like God was immortal. God had never needed a Tree of Life, because he’d always lived without it, but Adam had been made from the dust of the ground, meaning he was physical and mortal and he could die. If he ate off the Tree of Life, however, he would never have to die. It gave Adam what he dearly wanted, the chance to live as long as he wished, but it would also remind him that he wasn’t immortal like God was immortal.

What an eye-opener that must be for those who believe in the immortality of the soul, to find out that such a belief is actually an impertinence and living above one’s pay grade. But surely it’s a huge relief to know we’re not immortal, because what happens to BAD immortal souls? They can’t die. So what happens to them? The prevailing belief in Christianity is that they go to a living hell forever. But is that the picture God wanted to give of himself in Genesis?

No, it isn’t, as we see in God’s intentions in those two trees, that they acted as protection for Adam, to remind him of his place and his limitations, because what Adam needed more than anything else to keep on living in his incredibly privileged position as God’s right hand man, and not get big ideas about himself that would blow him out of the water, was humility.

There is no humility in the idea that we humans have an immortal soul, because God made it clear in Genesis there is nothing immortal whatsoever in a human being. We aren’t God; we’re physical. God made us in his image, yes, but he doesn’t reveal who he is by making us into who he is – he reveals himself in us as we are, which is amazing, because we’re physical, mortal, and highly limited compared to God. But that’s the way God designed things to work, and Adam would have succeeded wonderfully if he’d humbly accepted what God had made him as, and he hadn’t wanted more.

We see that demonstrated in the life of Jesus, as Paul points out in Philippians 2:5, when he says our “attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” And here’s where we see the one vital difference between Jesus and Adam. Jesus was “in very nature God,” meaning he too was God’s image-bearer, in that he too reflected and revealed God perfectly, just as Adam could have done.

But – and here’s the difference – verses 6-7, Jesus “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being in human likeness.” Jesus was willing to start at the bottom. He wasn’t after being fast-tracked into management right away. He was quite willing to be nothing higher than a servant.

And isn’t that where God started the first Adam as well? God didn’t give Adam every privilege right off the bat. Instead, he started Adam off as the gardener. It was still an incredibly privileged position, being God’s own personal gardener in his royal Temple precinct, but to begin with it really only involved watering the plants and feeding the animals. The first golden keys God gave to Adam, therefore, were the keys to the garden shed.

But being a servant at that level was all Adam needed to do to maintain his privileged position, because in so doing it would reveal in time what God really had in mind for him. At this point in his life, then, it was vital that Adam do what he was told. Stay on the first rung of the ladder as instructed, and as Adam proved himself to be trustworthy God could lift him to the next rung.

This was exactly the route that Jesus willingly took too. God started him off at the very bottom, but unlike Adam, Jesus accepted it, or as Paul phrases it in Philippians 2:8, Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient to death on a cross.” But this is where a human made in God’s image begins, at the bottom, proving himself faithful to God’s instructions, no matter how humbling or even how fatal they may be – as they were in Jesus’ case, and in the lives of so many Christians today too, who are killed for nothing more than calling themselves ‘Christian’. But if that’s all God has given them to do, they accept it.

In Jesus accepting what God had given him to do, though, look at God’s reaction in verse 9. Now we begin to see what God had in mind for Adam: “Therefore God exalted Jesus to the highest place and gave him the name above every name.” And if Adam had done what God instructed, God would have done the same for him. He would have made Adam ‘King of the World’ too, not only because that’s what he’d designed Adam for in the first place, but because it would put Adam in a position of enormous influence in revealing God to the rest of the world. That’s what kings were for in the Ancient World of Genesis: They were perfect reflections of the gods to make the gods visible to others.

A revelation of God emerges, then, when putting the two Adams together, of a God who mightily honours those who tune into his purpose for them, who stick faithfully to his instructions, and put aside all personal preferences and ambitions. Perhaps at this point, then, it begins to dawn on us just how personal it is between God and his image-bearers. It sounds like it’s a whole lot more than just a job he’s called us to do.

And we get an intriguing indication of that in Luke 3:38 where Adam is called a “son of God.” When God made Adam in his image, then, he included making Adam his son. Like any proud Father, I imagine God looking at Adam and saying with deep affection, “This is my son,” and if Adam had then stuck to what God had planned for him we could add the words, “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased,” which God would later say of Jesus.

It’s as sons as well, then, that we are launched into this world as God’s image-bearers. And that we see in Jesus as well, in Hebrews 1:3, which states: “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.” Jesus is called a “Son” as well, and it too is attached directly to him being God’s image-bearer. So, yes, we reflect God and radiate his glory, but we’re more than just reflectors. We’re much more personal to God than that: We are his sons.

To recap at this point, then, we’re asking the question, “Who am I?” and the answer that echoes back to us from Genesis is that God created us to be his image-bearers to reveal himself in us. And what he’s revealed in us humans is that he loves us being physical, he loves this physical planet he’s given us stewardship over, he loves working with us, he loves entrusting us with immense privileges, he loves making sure we know what to do to be successful, and he loves giving us simple tasks to begin with that lead us further and further into what he really has in mind for us, so that one day we can have huge influence on other people in revealing God to them. And last, but not least, God loves being able to say of us, “This is my son.”

And we know all this not only from the hints given in Genesis, but from the real live example of Jesus Christ, who became the image-bearer that Adam never was. Adam was given the opportunity to do what Jesus did, but he blew it, which set the entire creation back. The whole thing stopped. God’s Garden was out of bounds to humans, the Tree of Life was cordoned off, the world outside Eden would never be developed as God intended through Adam and his descendants, and everything that humans came up with from then on would be an exercise in futility (as Paul calls it in Romans 8:20), because nothing could recapture all that Adam lost when he blew his job as God’s son and image-bearer.

But the second Adam comes along and changes that. He came for the same reason as the first Adam, though, to be God’s image-bearer, or as Paul phrases it in 2 Corinthians 4:6, we see “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” Christ came as the perfect revelation of the glory of God, which he could because he too was “the image of God,” verse 4.

Everything about Jesus revealed God. So when Jesus asked his disciples in Matthew 16:15, “Who am I?’ – the same question we’re asking about ourselves – and Peter answered in verse 16, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus was delighted that Peter understood that he, Jesus, was the “Son” and perfect image-bearer of God.

What Peter didn’t understand yet, however, was that Jesus had come to die to lift the curse that had held creation back since the first Adam. Peter understood it later, though, in Acts 3:18-19, when he announced that Christ had suffered “so that your sins may be wiped out, and the times of refreshing may come from the Lord.” Christ’s death, in other words, gave us humans the chance to recover what Adam lost, so we could start again and be who God always meant us to be.

And what an eye opener that must be for people who believe God would never want us to go back to being like Adam, because in their minds Adam brought out all that’s wrong and ugly in us humans, proving the need for us to get rid of our physical bodies and get us off this sorry planet.

But that’s an insult to God, because God didn’t make Adam evil and ugly, he made Adam into something “very good” – SO good, in fact, that it’s not surprising Adam got big ideas about himself. If you were Adam and God told you that he’d made you “in very nature” like himself, what would you think? And if you overheard God saying that you – and he said your name too – were the perfect person for fulfilling his great plan on Earth, and he loved you to pieces from the top of your head to your toenails, what ideas would that give you about yourself?

Well, hopefully it would be BIG ideas about yourself, because those would be God’s thoughts too. That’s what he wanted Adam to think about himself as well, so it was seared into Adam’s head what God had made him to be. In Adam the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God” could just as easily have been seen in his face as it was in Christ’s face. Adam was as much a beloved son and perfectly equipped image-bearer of God as Christ was. He could have ruled the world as God’s right hand man, and been given ever greater glory and influence that would have drawn people to God, so that the entire creation would have flourished like God’s beautiful Temple precinct in the Garden of Eden.

That was Adam’s potential, designed into him by God himself, and it’s the same potential he’s built into you and me. It’s who we are. It’s not surprising, then, that God would like to put us through a little test first, just like he did Adam, to see if we’re willing to start off at the bottom as well. That’s all God needs to know. Can we be faithful in little? Can we accept being humble, obedient servants in rather lowly duties for now? Can we happily stand on the first rung of the ladder with just the keys to the garden shed? Can we, in other words, be like Christ, who humbled himself in obedience to death on a cross?

But that’s exactly what Christ died for, so that he could live his humility in us, because humility was the one thing he knew we’d have most trouble with. He knows that if we can just hold off for now having big ideas about ruling the world, and we accept our lot in life without wishing for more, that God will exalt us, or as Colossians 3:4 says, “When Christ, who is your life, appears, THEN you will also appear with him in glory.” It’s then that the world will know who we are. And it’s then that we can be all that God made us to be, that is and always has been, so very, very good.

Victory on Earth Day – part 3

The effect of the cross on ‘The Undefeatable Sin’

In a continuing attempt to understand what Christ won for us on the cross it has to include his victory over ‘The Undefeatable Sin’ – the one thing we humans have had more trouble with than anything else.

The Bible quickly identifies what The Undefeatable Sin is too: It’s trying to be wise without God. And our history is full of it. As humans we can’t seem to STOP trying to be wise without God. Right now at this very moment there are probably billions of people all over the globe trying to be wise without God, and billions more before us too, who spent their entire lives trying to be wise without God. I imagine I spend much of my time every day trying to be wise without God as well, because I can’t help it either.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to be wise, of course, but God made it clear from the beginning that seeking wisdom without him is suicidal. It’s like pushing a self-destruct button, or tying explosives to one’s body and setting them off. And to get that point across God created an alternative source of wisdom called the ‘Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil’, and Adam could get his wisdom off that tree instead if he wished – but be warned, Adam, it will be the death of you.

But why did Adam need wisdom in the first place? Because in Genesis 1:26 God announced that he’d created humans to govern his creation: “Let’s make human beings in our image, in our likeness,” God said, “so they can rule over the fish, the birds and the animals, and over the Earth itself.”

So how would you react if the prime minister came to you and said, “I want you to run this country with me”? Where would you start? Well, you’d want to spend every waking moment hanging round the prime minister, right? You’d be camped in his office with four thousand notebooks and an equal number of pens picking up every tidbit of wisdom that dropped from his lips.

So why on earth didn’t Adam think of that when he heard God say, “Come and run the world with me”? Adam had no experience in running worlds, so why wasn’t he banging on God’s door every morning seeking help and advice?

The answer given in Genesis is quite startling: Adam was distracted by a serpent, another strange creation God made, that “was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made,” Genesis 3:1. It seems a bit odd that God would create a suicidal tree and a crafty serpent to trick Adam and Eve into eating off it, but I have to admit it’s not such a bad idea, because I’ve learnt from crafty people in my own life how stupid I can be.

I remember well the first car I bought because of a crafty salesman who knew I’d fall for a car that had some zip to it. He wasn’t lying either; the car did have some zip. I flung it down the back alleys of suburban Winnipeg and it held the road like glue. I’d never driven anything like it. I just knew in my wisdom, therefore, that this was the right car for me. And what a sight I would make, cutting through city traffic like a knife through butter, and people thinking how clever and wise I must be for choosing such a remarkable car.

Did I, however, at any point during the proceedings, think to check the car out with anybody else, other than the crafty salesman? No. I didn’t. Did I look up any reviews on that type of car? Not one. Did I feel any need to talk to an experienced mechanic about it? Not for a second. I bought the car on the spot because I thought I knew what I was doing.

It was an awful shock a couple of days later when I found out that this nippy little car I’d been so wise in buying had such a bad reputation that one of them had been set alight by its owner and burnt in front of the factory where they were made. And other people looked so sad when they heard I’d bought this wreck that I shot back to the salesman and told him I wanted my money back. “Too bad,” he said, “the car’s yours.” Oh, he knew what he’d sold me all right, and there I was with egg on my face and feeling like an idiot.

But what I did was really no different to what Adam and Eve did in response to the slick-talking serpent. It could read a human mind like an open book, just like my car salesman. It knew that Eve, and then Adam, would fall for the chance to feel wise and clever. So it sold them on this picture of themselves zipping through life like gods, without having to depend on anyone for help. They could manage on their own, thank you very much, and how clever that would make them feel.

So did Adam and Eve at any point in the serpent’s sales pitch ask for a time-out to consult with God about it? No. Did they at any point in the proceedings think to seek advice? No, they didn’t – because that’s not what we humans do, is it?

And God created a serpent that could read that weakness in us like a book. The serpent knew, just like my car salesman knew, that humans like to think we’re really smart, so all we need is a reason to think we’re really smart and we’re hooked. My car salesman was brilliant at it. I was young and it was all too obvious that I thought I knew a zippy car when I saw one. So he just gave me a reason to think I was smart with a simple statement like, “Well, I bet not too many people know about these babies and the zip they’ve got,” which I’d interpret as the salesman giving me inside information, because he recognized I wasn’t just an ordinary customer dropping by; I was a ‘man-in-the-know’.

The serpent did exactly the same thing with Eve too; he made her think she was smart by giving her inside information on the tree of death. All he said was, “You know as well as God does that it won’t kill you,” which Eve would interpret as, “Hey, that’s right, I am that smart,” and she was hooked.

And do you think God didn’t know this would happen? Of course he did, because he made the serpent crafty to reveal the one fly in the ointment, the one snag, in humans becoming partners with him in his plan: It was this pressing desire in us humans for “gaining wisdom” (Genesis 3:6), the kind of wisdom, that is, that makes us think we’re smart enough to rule this world without him.

And God still allows a crafty serpent to make us think that, because there’s nothing like a crafty creature to point out the one thing in our human experience that we’ve never been able to defeat, and that’s thinking we can be wise without God. Falling in love with our own cleverness has become The Undefeatable Sin for us.

God warned us about it right off the bat too – and he pointed out the deadly results. Adam and Eve’s son Cain, for instance, thinks he’s smart too, in how he got rid of Abel, but in doing so he created a bloodline of violent killers so evil that God destroyed the lot of them in the Flood.

There were deep, lasting and deadly consequences to Cain’s sin. But did that stop people building a massive tower “reaching up the heavens” (Genesis 11:4), so that they could “make a name for themselves”? No. And did what happened at the Tower of Babel make the people of Sodom and Gomorrah stop to think what God might do to them too? No. And does what happened to those two cities make people today even pause for a moment to think what the consequences of their actions might be? No. We still think we are gods and masters of our destiny.

And we’ve never been able to defeat that idea in our heads. It’s been an Undefeatable Sin ever since the Garden of Eden for us, and with the same deadly results. It not only wrecked our human role in God’s plan before we even got started in it, it has also – according to Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:4 – “blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

The serpent has been so successful at pulling the wool over people’s eyes – like thugs and thieves of old pulled a man’s woolly wig over his eyes to blind and confuse him – that there are tons of people who have no idea what the purpose of human life is, or what their role in God’s plan was in the first place, or that because of Christ’s death they’ve actually got their purpose in life and their role in God’s plan restored back to them.

The serpent has focused our attention for so long on our own cleverness that we can’t see what Christ has done for us. How many people do you know, for instance, who understand, or even care about, what God created us for, what botched up his purpose for us, and how Christ restored everything back to us so we can start again, and this time get it right? But give us the chance to give our opinions on politicians, sports teams, neighbours, and whoever else is making the news, and suddenly we’re animated and all knowing, and full of expert analysis and judgment. We love hearing our own voice, and the feeling it gives us that we are gods who can detect with absolute accuracy the good and evil in everything. Who needs God, then? We are clever and strong enough to figure everything out for ourselves.

So God just keeps on allowing the serpent to make fools of us. And there’s no one but Jesus in the entire history of the world that’s been able to prevent the serpent doing that, including King David. God allowed Satan to test him too (in 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1), to show David that he too was susceptible to taking things into his own hands, and being sold on how strong he was.

And just because we’re Christians doesn’t make US immune either. We see that in 2 Corinthians 11:3 when Paul expressed his deep concern “that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds (too) may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” So the serpent is still being allowed by God to be crafty, and crafty enough to distract Christians too, through “false and deceitful workmen masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light,” verses 13-14.

It amazed Paul how easily Christians could be deceived. A crafty chap could stand up in Corinth in Paul’s day and “preach quite another Jesus than we preached – different spirit, different message,” 2 Corinthians 11:4 (The Message), and the congregation would “put up with him quite nicely,” just like Adam and Eve put up with the serpent quite nicely too. So are we Christians any different to them? No, we’re not. Even as Christians we’re still susceptible to crafty people who can make black seem white.

It’s interesting, then, that the first thing the Holy Spirit did with Jesus at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry – before Jesus got down to any of his Father’s business – was take him out into the wilderness for a face off with the devil. Adam and Eve went through the same process too. Before they got down to any business they too needed to face the serpent first of all. It’s obviously important to God that this happens, but that’s surely not surprising when the whole plan of him and humans setting up the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth together falls apart if humans can’t be trusted to stick to the plot.

 

Jesus does something rather startling at this point, though, because in preparing himself for his personal face off with the champion of craftiness he strips himself of all human strength by fasting for forty days and nights, by which time he’s close to death and powerless. So this wasn’t a battle of wits, or a chess match to see who was the superior player. Jesus wasn’t in this to “make a name for himself” like the builders of the Tower of Babel. He wasn’t testing out his strength like David checking out his military might, either. Nor was he striding up and down, huffing and puffing and doing push-ups to get all worked up for battle. He was as weak as a human could be, without dying.

So, when “The tempter came to Jesus and said” in Matthew 4:3, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread,” the temptation was brutally clever, because here was the chance for Jesus to feel some power and energy flowing through his body again. And as humans that’s what we’re built for. In body and mind we want to be active and productive, and we hate being held up by sickness, or an accident, or having nothing exciting going on. We need action and projects to tackle – and turning stones into bread would have done that for Jesus. He could get going right away, full of energy and ready for action.

But Jesus wasn’t tempted, because it was God, not bread, he depended on, and he was waiting on God to give him the go ahead, not human energy.

But Adam and Eve weren’t willing to wait. The chance offered by the serpent to get instant wisdom so they could get going right away on their own steam was too tempting to resist. On the other hand, we can probably relate to that as Christians, because the western Christian culture is all about action, about churches growing, new and exciting ways of getting people to come to church, and eloquent evangelists bringing in the crowds, which is so much more appealing to action-oriented humans than sitting week after week in a small church with no one new attending, and being stuck in the same old routine.

It’s tempting, then, to have a peek when a new book hits the bookstores promising new and exciting ways of injecting life into the church. It’s like the smell of fresh-baked bread. It certainly smelt like fresh-baked bread in 2 Corinthians 11:5 when a “super apostle” or a “trained speaker” (verse 6) turned up, who could fire up the crowd and create a real buzz.

Paul, meanwhile, seemed so dry by comparison. He was always banging away at basics to keep the church locked on Jesus (verse 2), but here was this “super” apostle, just like the super apostles we get today, offering Christians much more exciting stuff, like setting up the Kingdom now and taking over the world, and all very cleverly packaged to make to seem like it’s the Holy Spirit’s doing too, with strange signs and manifestations often thrown in as proof of it.

Well, Paul was having none of it, verse 20, because he could see that all this stuff was just crafty people exploiting Christians with their own personal dreams of grandeur. And Christian history is littered with such people, who have caught up millions of Christians in their crusades, revivals, and other human-driven fantasies, all of which have confused and divided the Christian Church, just as super apostles were messing up the church members in Corinth.

Paul’s life in the Church, meanwhile, had never been the smell of fresh bread. He really was an apostle too, but he’d been in prison, beaten up, shipwrecked and in constant danger from bandits, storms at sea, and false gospels being preached in his churches. Sleepless nights, freezing cold, and hunger left him feeling utterly weak and powerless (verses 23-27). But he accepted the mandate Jesus had given him in Acts 26:16-18, and he stuck to it regardless.

Like Jesus, Paul was not tempted to veer from the plot God had given him. It was a tough cross for both Jesus and Paul to bear, but both men trusted that God knew what he was doing, and that HIS was the way that worked best.

So the tempter tried another tack in Matthew 4:6, along the lines of, “Come on, Jesus, you’ve got all this power behind you, surely God wants you to use it.” And isn’t that the same appeal being made by super apostles in the church today, that we’ve got the Holy Spirit and if we all get praying the Spirit will descend on our city and on our nation and great transformation and healing will happen? Humble ourselves and pray and the Holy Spirit is bound to answer.

But that’s exactly like the tempter telling Jesus to jump off the highest corner of the Temple Mount and God was bound to answer him too, by sending an angel to catch him. And verse 7 tells us what Jesus thought of that idea: He totally dismisses it. He would never put God in that position, of having to answer him. And yet we have super apostles today marketing all sorts of stuff as Holy Spirit inspired – that Paul would dismiss in an instant – because, they say, they pray, and therefore God supports what they’re doing because they’re so dedicated and humble. The force of their prayers and humility guarantees the Holy Spirit’s response. The Holy Spirit HAS to answer such noble motives. We have the power, in other words, to make God support what we come up with.

Well, super apostles may think they have the right to do that, but Jesus makes it clear to the serpent that he would never dabble in such impertinence. So the devil, in his last throw of the dice, offers Jesus the most tantalizing offer any Christian would love to hear: “You can have it all right now,” the serpent says in verses 8 and 9a. And super apostles today relish that idea. They love quoting Genesis, that God gave us dominion over this world, so this is what God wants us to do, take over the kingdoms of this world and make them all Christian – now – before Christ comes. Meaning, of course, that God must be giving us Christians the power and authority to make it happen now. We don’t have to wait for Christ to come to change the world; we can do it now.

To super apostles with dreams of grandeur, this is hugely appealing, which is strange, because the devil actually told Jesus what this third temptation was really all about. It was all about getting Jesus to “bow down and worship me,” the devil, verse 9. So that was his game, the same game he played on Adam and Eve, that if they did what he said (bowed to his way, not God’s way) they could have it all right away. They could rule the world on their own terms, without having to consult God or wait.

So when Christians get the idea that God is giving us the go ahead to make this world into God’s Kingdom now, it’s actually the devil’s idea, not theirs.

It’s so easy for the devil to tempt us on this point, though, because he knows how dearly we Christians would love to change the world and sort this mess out. And it seems so right to us too, that God would WANT us to set this world alight and shake it up and get rid of crime and abortion clinics and sexual exploitation of children, etc.

The question is, though: “By whose methods?” And not surprisingly, God wouldn’t mind an answer to that before he lets us humans loose trying to change anything, because as partners in his plan he has every right to know if we’ll stay true to HIS methods and his wisdom, or will we veer off at some point into our own wishes and desires instead, like Adam and Eve did?

So he lets the serpent test us. And he allows the serpent to be crafty too. The serpent is allowed his own set of “apostles” to stir things up, “masquerading as servants of righteousness,” with their promises of new reformations and new moves of the Holy Spirit. And it sounds fantastic: The Church has been asleep at the switch, they say, but here’s this exciting new chap, brimming with confidence, who’s had a vision, or a sign, and he’s claiming special insight, and to Christians starving for action, whose lives and churches feel more like dead stones than freshly baked bread, it’s like manna from heaven.

But Jesus wasn’t having any of it, because he yells out in Matthew 4:10, “Away from me, Satan, for it is written: Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”

“We do things GOD’S way round here, serpent, so get lost.” It wasn’t an easy thing for Jesus to say, though, because God’s way was a whole lot tougher. It wasn’t the tasty, freshly baked bread way, nor was it manipulating the Holy Spirit into supporting one’s own dreams of grandeur, nor was it changing the world with power and authority now. God’s way by comparison was a life of opposition, suffering, and obedience to death on a cross.

God chose a similar life for Paul too, of suffering, loneliness, opposition, stress and feeling like death. But maybe that’s how we feel about our lives too, because here we are in the Church, supposed to be governors of God’s growing Kingdom and priests in his beautiful Temple, but life for most of us is uneventful and certainly not impressive, and we might as well be invisible for all the impact we’re having on other people. Life is pretty dead really; like cold stones.

So how can we possibly do what God’s called us to do in that condition?

Well, according to Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4:10, what we do is “always carry around in our body the death of Jesus.” That doesn’t sound nearly as exciting, though, as shaking this world up with signs and wonders, and having super apostles drawing in huge crowds and having major influence on government leaders. But clearly what Paul says works as far as GOD’S wisdom for our lives is concerned; otherwise Paul wouldn’t have written that, right?

So what does carrying around the death of Christ in our bodies mean? It means our lot in life is the same as his. Jesus even said we take up our cross and follow him, so we’re following in his footsteps. But the road he trod was tough. It meant resisting the serpent’s temptations to seek an easier and more exciting way of doing God’s work. It meant trusting that God knew best, when it seemed like his way made no sense at all.

And since we now carry that around in our bodies, then it must apply to us too. But it’s tough. It doesn’t make sense. What is the point of our existence as a small, insignificant congregation that hardly anyone knows exists, for instance? We don’t seem to be doing anything for anybody. Ah, but we are, according to Paul, because the reason we tread the same road Jesus trod, is “so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body,” verse 10.

It’s in OUR lives now that Jesus reveals what he accomplished in his obedience to death on a cross. And what he did was defeat The Undefeatable Sin. He dealt with the one snag – our constant weakness for wanting to do things our way – that prevented us humans becoming partners with God in his plan. And he did it by resisting the serpent, by choosing God’s wisdom for his life, not his own, and accepting the way of the cross over his own ambitions and preferences.

And that is the victory we now carry round and display in our bodies too, by us now “being given over to death” as well, verse 11, meaning it’s our turn now to accept the lot in life God has given us, despite how pointless and powerless it may seem to be. It’s our turn now to resist the serpent’s temptations to want something better and more exciting, and our turn now to trust that God knows best, even if our lives seem to have no purpose or use at all. And we do it “for Jesus’ sake,” verse 11. We do it to make Jesus’ victory over The Undefeatable Sin real, so that what he made possible in his obedience to death on the cross now becomes real in our lives too.

And that’s the effect of the cross on The Undefeatable Sin. It’s been defeated, first by Jesus and now by us.

Victory on Earth Day – part 2

The effect of the cross on Genesis 1 and 2 

Something happened in those early chapters in Genesis that only Christ’s death on the cross could resolve. But what exactly was it? What happened that was so bad that it became impossible for us to resolve?

The prevailing belief among many Christians is this: That it all started with the ‘The Original Sin’, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating off the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Their sin was then transferred down to every human being who came after them. From the moment each of us is conceived we all automatically take on Adam’s guilt, his punishment, his corrupted nature, his hostility to God – and even his lack of faith in God as well. We are all ‘born in sin’, therefore, and even babies are classed as sinners too, despite them having no idea what sin is or ever having consciously sinned. They will in time, of course, grow up to be sinners like everyone else, so they too will produce many bad “works of the flesh.”

The result of all this sin, from Adam on down, is God’s wrath, which to many Christians means a one-way ticket to eternal punishment in hell. But, these same Christians say, God unleashed his fury on Jesus instead, and by killing his Son and dumping all our sin on him, God’s wrath was ‘satisfied’ or ‘pacified’. The cross, therefore, was our ticket out of hell.

But it doesn’t resolve several other problems we’ve got, like how do we stop sinning once we’ve been saved from hell? Our past sins have been forgiven by Jesus’ death, yes, but we still have a tendency to sin, we can still be tempted to sin, and we still produce bad works of the flesh. Evil still has a free hand too, and it never stops making us humans do horrible things to ourselves, to each other, and to the planet. But the hope that many Christians have, and preach, is that one day we’ll be rid of these sin-filled, suffering bodies we inherited from Adam, and we will escape this evil, awful world that began with Adam, and we will live in God’s blissful presence in Heaven forever. The Earth, meanwhile, with its unresolved evil and suffering will be burnt up and destroyed.

But is that all God created us for – to save our skins from hell, and escape off to Heaven? Is there no other purpose to our lives than dealing with the results of Adam’s original sin?

So what would have happened if Adam hadn’t sinned? What if Adam had done what God said and he did not eat off the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? What would have been the purpose of human life then?

If we’ve got NO original sin, no transferring of Adam’s sin to the rest of us, no being born in sin, no sinful nature, no living in sinful bodies, no need for God’s wrath to be satisfied, no evil world that needs to be destroyed, and no need for our souls to be separated from our sin-filled bodies, then what is the actual purpose of a human life now? And what would be the gospel message preached by Christians too? If it’s not about escaping this life and going to Heaven, what would our message be about instead?

And let’s go one step further: What if Adam had eaten the fruit off the Tree of Life? It would dealt with Adam’s life being mortal, because all he had to do was keep eating off the Tree of Life and he could have extended his life for as long as he wanted.

And God must surely have had a purpose for Adam’s life if he’d decided to go that route instead, right? But the question is, “What?” What would have been the purpose of Adam’s life – now that he could live forever? He’s got an unending life, but what is he supposed to do with it? And what would be the purpose in life for all the humans who came after him too?

“Yes, but,” a person might say at this point, “this is all hypothetical, because it didn’t happen that way, did it?” Well, actually, yes it did. Not right away, of course, but all the above I just mentioned, of Adam doing what God said, of Adam not sinning, of Adam not having a sinful body that needed to be separated from his soul, and of Adam being able to live forever, has all happened.

It all happened because Adam wasn’t the only Adam. There was another Adam, a second Adam, a replacement Adam, who cancelled out everything the first Adam did, and he did what the first Adam didn’t do. In the Bible we’ve got two Adams, 1 Corinthians 15:45 – “So it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living being, the last Adam, a life-giving spirit,’” and verse 47, “The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven.”

And Paul had more to say about these two Adams, Adam the First and Adam the Second, in Romans 5. To begin with in Romans 5:12 Paul takes us back to what Adam the First did: “You know the story of how Adam (the First) landed us in the dilemma we’re in – first sin, then death, and no one exempt from either sin or death” (The Message, used throughout for Romans 5).

The first Adam got us off to a lousy start, but he was only picturing what any human being would have done. The Phillips translation phrases that last sentence in Romans 5:12 as, “no one could break it (the consequence of Adam’s sin) for no one was himself free from sin.” What Adam did, in other words, is what we would all have done, because none of us are “free from sin.” None of us are born with a gene that makes us exempt from sinning or immune from disobeying God. For those who say, therefore, that it wasn’t fair that Adam’s sin was transferred to us when it was his sin, not ours, Adam was only picturing what any of us would have done in his place. And need we look any further than our own lives as proof of it?

So Paul supports the idea of an original sin by Adam the First that let the ‘sin and death genie’ out of the bottle. The potential for sin and death was always there inside us; Adam simply let it loose. “BUT,” Paul then says in verse 14, “Adam (the First), who got us into this, also points ahead to the One who will get us out of it.”

Ah, so Adam the First serves two purposes: He not only pictures the potential for sin and death in all of us that gets us all into the same trouble he got into, he also pictures Adam the Second, who would get this problem solved for us. Paul repeats that in a summary of what he’s just said in verse 18: “Here it is in a nutshell: Just one person did it wrong and got us into all this trouble with sin and death (Adam the First), but another person did it right (Adam the Second) and got us out of it.”

So there’s a clear contrast being made by Paul between the two Adams here. Adam the First blew it all to pieces, but Adam the Second put it all together again. And that’s not all the second Adam did either, verse 18, because Adam the Second did “more than just getting us out of trouble, he got us into LIFE!” That’s an intriguing statement because it was ‘life’ God had in mind when he created the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. But when Adam disobeyed God he could no longer get into where that tree was anymore. A cherubim and a flaming sword stopped anyone getting in.

The second Adam, however, got us in. He got us into life, the life that the first Adam never got to experience. So, not only did the second Adam get us out of the trouble caused by the first Adam eating off the wrong tree, he got us into the Tree of Life that the first Adam never got to eat off, as well.

It isn’t quite so hypothetical after all, then, to ask, “What if Adam didn’t sin and he ate off the Tree of Life instead?” We can ask that now, because thanks to the victory that Jesus, the second Adam, won for us on the cross, it isn’t hypothetical anymore; it’s real. We really are living in a world where Adam didn’t sin and he ate off the Tree of Life, because that’s what the second Adam made possible. Just as the first Adam passed on the results of his disobedience to us, we are now reaping the results of the second Adam’s “obedience to death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). And that, believe it or not, is the world we now live in.

Jesus didn’t die to get us off this Earth and into Heaven, therefore, he died to put things right on this Earth to get us back to what God had in mind for us in the first place – or as Paul phrases it in Romans 5:17, “If death got the upper hand through one man’s wrongdoing, can you imagine the breath-taking RECOVERY in those who grasp with both hands this wildly extravagant life-gift, this grand setting-everything-right, that the one man Jesus Christ provides?”

We’ve been given the chance, in other words, to “recover” what we lost. And according to Paul what we lost was the gift of life, meaning we never got the chance to experience the purpose of life on this planet as God intended. We crashed the system before it even got a chance to boot up.

But that’s not the situation we’re in now. We can now go back to the story in Genesis and read it with this alternative view in mind, with an Adam who hasn’t sinned and he’s eating off the Tree of Life, to see where that takes us instead.

For a start we no longer have to focus on ‘The Original Sin’, because Jesus has already dealt with that on the cross. The entire message that trickles on down from the original sin, therefore – of Adam’s guilt, punishment, corrupted nature, etc., being transferred down to us, so that we’re all born in sin even as babies, bringing down the eternal wrath of God down on us – is obsolete. It’s been replaced by the good news of Jesus’ victory over all that. It means we don’t have to see ourselves anymore as being in vile bodies that must be separated from our souls at death, because Jesus totally eradicated that notion on the cross as well. He died to “redeem our bodies,” not get rid of them (Romans 8:23).

No wonder Paul got so animated in Romans 5:21 when talking about “God putting everything together again through the Messiah,” because at last, we’ve got the chance to experience “LIFE” as Paul calls it. And it’s not life separate from our bodies in some far off place, it’s “life,” verse 21, “that goes on and on and on, world without end” right here. It’s about life on this planet that the first Adam never experienced, but that we can experience, thanks to the second Adam, because that’s what the second Adam is all about.

We see that in 1 Corinthians 15:45, when Paul describes “the last Adam,” as “a LIFE-GIVING SPIRIT.” That’s what Jesus is all about. He’s all about giving LIFE, the life that God always had in mind for us humans here on the Earth, and nothing can stop Jesus in his relentless quest to give us that life, so that we can start living that life now that the first Adam never got to live. Ever since he died, Jesus has become the life-giver, meaning that we can now set our sights on the life that God planned for us humans originally, because we’re living in the new version of the Garden of Eden now, with an Adam who did it right this time.

The obvious question then has to be: “But what DID God plan for us humans here on the Earth if Adam hadn’t sinned and he’d eaten off the Tree of Life?” if it’s true what we’re saying here, that we’re in the position that the first Adam could have been in, of no sin and being able to live forever, the question still remains, “Well, now what? What’s the purpose of my life now?”

Well, let’s go back to Genesis 1 and 2 and see if God tells us. And he does. The way Genesis is written, it’s pretty obvious that the first and primary purpose of human life is to lock onto God – God as Creator, God with a purpose, God who made us uniquely in his image, God who designed a special role for us to play in his creation, God who set up residence here with us bringing Heaven and Earth together, and God who is very happy working with us so we get to know him as he really is.

Genesis opens with one very clear point in mind, then, that God created humans as the one group of creatures he could reveal his treasures and secrets to. We see that in how he designed the Earth as a place where both he and humans could live and work together. Here was this dark, foreboding planet with nothing productive happening on it at all. But this was the one place in the universe where the Spirit hovered, ready for God to say the word “Go”, and into being would come this amazing makeover of our planet into something that could support life.

What an amazing transformation took place, in just seven days too, and all in preparation for two things – for humans and for God. For humans a world had been created that could support and sustain physical life. God created an endless cycle of days and nights and seasons that humans could structure their lives round, land they could grow food on, a steady supply of water to nourish their crops, a vivid array of fascinating creatures all around them, with stars and moon to light the night and the sun to warm them by day, and all of it functioning perfectly to give LIFE – wonderful, productive, enjoyable, purpose-filled life – to humans, both male and female.

Did God then disappear off to Heaven, and let things take their own course from there? No, because on the 7th day of creation, God, having completed this perfectly functioning world, made it his dwelling place as well. He not only made his creation a home for humans, he also made it a home for himself.

We see that in the word, “rested,” in Genesis 2:2, when on the 7th day God “rested from all his work.” Now if that means God went off for a nap, we’ve got a problem, because he hasn’t told us yet what all this stuff he spent six days creating is for. We know he was jolly pleased with it all, because he looked out on his handiwork at the end of the sixth day and said, “Now that is very good,” but we still don’t actually know what it’s for. He’s got everything in place, poised and ready to go, including humans equipped in his image who can look after it, but so what? It’s magnificent, yes, but what’s the purpose of it all?

The 7th day of creation answers that question for us, because what God has just created in the last six days is revealed on the 7th. This planet is his place of rest. The purpose of this beautifully functioning creation was to provide a place for God to dwell in as well. And we can learn from the Ancient World of that time what that means, because in the world in which Genesis was written, when the ‘gods rested’ it meant they took up residence in their temple, not to take a nap after a hard day’s work, but to set up a command post. The gods taking their rest was the sign they were entering the temple and mounting their throne to take command, ready to click the switch and set the whole creation spread out before them into motion.

When God entered his rest, therefore, it meant taking up residence in his Temple to take command, much like a newly elected Prime Minister or President moves into his government residence as the sign that he and his party are in charge, and the operations of their new government can begin.

King David understood this well. He knew God’s desire for a resting place on Earth, as we see in Psalm 132:4-5, when he said, “I will allow no sleep to my eyes…till I find a place for the Lord, a dwelling for the Mighty One of Jacob,” which he called God’s “resting place” (8), where God also ruled from (7).

So here we are on the 7th day of creation and God has his resting place, his Temple, his command post and centre of operations, from which he will unfold everything on this planet according to his purpose. Now it will become clear what God has in mind. Everything is about to take on sense and meaning.

All activity ceases on the 7th day and hush descends as the conductor steps onto the podium. He surveys the orchestra before him that he worked so hard to put together to play this piece of music exactly according to his vision. All eyes are focused on him as he slowly raises his arms. Now is the time of transition from rehearsal to actual performance.

A little lift of his heels, a brief upward stroke of his baton followed by a rapid movement of his arms, and the orchestra bursts into sound. The conductor is in his element. He is at rest. And so was God at rest and in his element on the 7th day of creation, with the heavens and the Earth spread out before him just waiting for him to plug it all into the wall socket to power it into motion. And there he sat, totally poised, knowing that what’s about to happen will fulfill his purpose to perfection.

That’s why it was such a “holy” day. God was seated at last in his Director’s chair, so the rolling of his incredible movie could begin. And there’s no evening on the 7th day either. There was no end, therefore, to God directing operations from his resting place. God was in his Temple, in his rest, for keeps.

So now that everything’s in place, including God in his command post, and the wheels have been put in motion to reveal God and his plan, the focus of Genesis 2:8 turns intriguingly to “God planting a garden in the east, in Eden, and there he put the man he had formed” to “work it and take care of it,” verse 15.

A garden to an Israelite reading this would be a beautifully landscaped park with exotic trees and stocked with wildlife, typical of the exquisite temple and palace gardens that kings back then created. So God was creating an exotic park for Adam to take care of, full of “all kinds of trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food” (9), and a river passing through provided water (10).

It was a special place on Earth, an exquisitely beautiful and highly functional terrestrial Temple precinct, where God and humans would dwell and commune together, and it’s Adam’s job to work it and take care of it, which are both Hebrew terms, by the way, for priestly duties. In Temple garden parks in the ancient world, it was the priests who took care of the trees, plants and animals. And now it was Adam’s job to take care of this sacred place where God was dwelling, so that from this engine-room on Earth, the driving force and energy of God’s plan for the world would flow out from God and humans to the rest of creation, much like the four rivers that were flowing out of Eden.

That’s because the rest of the Earth at this point in time was undeveloped. We see that in Genesis 2:4-5, that when God “made the earth and the heavens, no shrub of the field had yet appeared on the Earth, and no plant of the field had sprung up,” because “God had not sent rain on the Earth, and there was no man to work the ground.”

Outside the Garden of Eden the fields weren’t producing crops, because there wasn’t any rain and there wasn’t any cultivation by humans going on. It wasn’t a world that would support thriving human habitation, therefore. So there was a huge amount of work to be done to make this planet function for human life, but God had equipped Adam to do it, and he’d also provided a garden where he and Adam could talk over plans and goals together. And this was the way God designed it, so that he and Adam could work in close relationship with each other to make this planet come alive and thrive as he intended.

And the Garden of Eden itself would be a wonderful, visible example of what God had in mind for the whole world. It would attract people and deeply impress them, just as the great gardens of the ancient kings did, so people would want to learn how they could make their little part of the world flourish like that too.

And there you have it, God’s purpose for humans in Genesis 1 and 2. But what makes this so relevant to us is that the second Adam won this all back for us by his death. Like Adam the First we botched up God’s plan for this Earth terribly, but through Jesus’ victory on the cross God has given us the chance to start again, and even correct the botch-up we’ve made as well.

How? By the same method God set up in Genesis 1 and 2, because nothing has changed as far as God is concerned. He still dwells here, he’s still working with humans to fulfill his plan, and he still intends to make this Earth flourish.

As Hebrews 4:9-11 says, “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest.”

In other words, we can enter that world again in Genesis – of God’s 7th day of creation Sabbath rest – when God made this earth his residence and set up his Temple here, so that he and humans could work in close relationship together to enable this Earth to flourish.

That purpose still stands, and even more so now that Jesus the second Adam has defeated sin and death, and the serpent can’t touch us. And even more so now that God has equipped us with the Holy Spirit to enable us to obey God and his purpose for us from the very depths of our being; and even more so now that God has actually made the Church the exquisite exotic parkland of his Temple precinct in this world today, that just like the Garden of Eden is meant to draw people to its beauty; and even more so still now that the second Adam actually dwells in us and we in him so that he and we can work in super close relationship with each other to clear up the mess created by the first Adam, in whatever ways Jesus now makes possible for us.

To “rest from our own work” as God rested from his means joining God in his plan of bringing life and function and purpose to this world, just like the first Adam could have done. Because in joining him we not only begin to understand how great God is ourselves, we also get the chance, like the rivers flowing out of Eden in Genesis 2:10-14, to spread what he’s like to others. And he will equip us to do just that, just as he equipped Adam the First, to be his priests in his Temple who can make that Temple precinct, now the Church, so beautiful it naturally attracts people to it. We can now imagine ourselves, amazingly, as being exotic parklands wherever we go.

To “make every effort to enter that rest” means submitting to God’s purpose for our lives, the one thing the first Adam didn’t do. And submitting simply means trusting God to equip us in our circumstances – no matter how impossible it seems for us to have any kind of impact on people as God’s exotic parkland and priests in his beautiful Temple on Earth – because this is how God designed it to work in Genesis, and he hasn’t changed.

And we can trust him because this is what Jesus won for us on the cross, the chance to go back to Genesis and live as if Adam didn’t sin and he ate off the Tree of Life instead. The cross, therefore, has had quite an effect on Genesis 1 and 2.

Victory on Earth Day – part 1

The victory Jesus won for us on the cross

As Christians, we believe that Jesus won a massive victory for all humanity when he died on the Cross. It was a VE Day for us, a Victory on Earth Day.

The original VE Day, Victory in Europe Day, harks back to World War 2 and the celebration on May 8, 1945, when victory at last was won over Nazi Germany. VE Day was all about victory, which fits in perfectly with Christ’s death being a great victory too. But his victory was even bigger. He won a victory for the whole Earth. So rather than the ‘E’ in VE Day meaning Europe, or even ‘E’ standing for Easter, can we use the letter ‘E’ instead to pinpoint what Jesus accomplished for everyone on the day he died. It was very much a victory on ‘E’ for Earth day.

It was the day the dark forces that had been ruling this planet since the time of Adam and Eve were soundly defeated, never to rise again. It was the ultimate VE Day when the evil powers BEHIND the likes of Adolf Hitler and his cronies were dealt a final and permanent death blow.

Every time we take the bread and wine, therefore, or set a week aside at the traditional ‘Easter’ time to commemorate the death of Jesus Christ, we are celebrating our very own VE Day. And when I say, “OUR very own VE Day,” I mean humanity as a whole, not just us in the Christian Church – because Jesus died for everyone. So while the world as a whole isn’t celebrating Jesus’ VE Day yet, we can celebrate it for them in the meanwhile, until they too understand what Jesus accomplished for all humanity on the Cross.

But what happened on the Cross, amazingly, was a victory no one actually saw coming, even though it was clearly spelled out in the Scriptures, and by Jesus himself. It even took Jesus’ very own disciples several weeks after he died to catch on to what he’d just done on the Cross, and then it needed the help of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost to make it clear to them. None of the Jewish religious leaders saw it coming either, nor did their scholars of the Scriptures, nor did the other Jewish leaders, and – most importantly – NOR did the dark evil forces. They were ALL caught completely by surprise. It was all done and dusted before anyone realized what had happened.

As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 2:8, “None of the rulers of this age understood it; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”

There it is, plainly stated by Paul, that the powers controlling the world had no clue as to what they would be unleashing by killing Jesus. And notice how it’s the “rulers” who wish they’d never killed him? THEY were the ones who took the greatest hit from his death, which offers us a tantalizing clue as to what happened when Jesus died, and what he died for.

Jesus died because he was in a battle for rulership of this planet. He came to topple “the rulers of this age,” the age that began when Adam and Eve let the dark forces take control. His death, therefore, was actually a massive POLITICAL victory, that threw the ruling dynasty of dark forces out of power, and in their place Jesus launched the Kingdom of God on Earth instead.

But why didn’t the dark forces – WITH all their cunning – see it coming? How they did bungle things so badly? Well, that’s God’s genius, because who would have guessed that by Jesus dying evil would be defeated, or that death would bring victory? On the surface it made no sense at all.

It made no sense to the disciples either. When Jesus “began to speak plainly to his disciples” in Matthew 16:21, “about going to Jerusalem and what would happen there, that he would suffer at the hands of the Jewish leaders, be killed, and three days later would be raised to life again,” Peter yelled out, “Heaven forbid (Jesus); this is not going to happen to you.” Why on earth did Jesus have to DIE? But as Luke tells us in Luke 9:45, the reason for Jesus dying was still hidden from them, and they were too scared to ask Jesus for further explanation because what he was saying didn’t sound good at all.

But the prophets who made the actual predictions about the Messiah dying couldn’t put the two together either. As Peter wrote in 1 Peter 1:10-12, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to the prophets that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told to you by those who have preached the gospel by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.”

As soon as his suffering and death on the cross was all over, though, Jesus didn’t waste any time explaining what had just happened – first of all to the little group of ladies gathered at his tomb, and then with two men on the road to Emmaus. The two men were deeply saddened by Jesus’ death, because, Luke 24:21, they thought Jesus “was the glorious Messiah who’d come to rescue Israel,” but now he was dead. It was all thoroughly confusing.

It must have been quite a shock, then, when Jesus burst out with, “You are such foolish, foolish people,” verse 25 (Living Bible), because “you find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures. Wasn’t it clearly predicted by the prophets that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his time of glory?”

It was? But where in their Scriptures was the Messiah’s suffering predicted? Well, they didn’t have to wait long to find out because in verse 27, “Jesus quoted them passage after passage from the writings of the prophets, beginning with the book of Genesis and right on through the Scriptures, explaining what the passages meant and what they said about him.”

The two men were so excited by what was in their Scriptures all along that they asked Jesus to stay over that night to explain more. But during supper, when it suddenly dawned on them who Jesus was, he disappeared. So they packed their bags and headed straight back to Jerusalem, to report to the remaining eleven disciples what had just happened.

But half way through their report to the disciples Jesus appears out of nowhere (36). They don’t know whether to celebrate or to run. So Jesus asks for something to eat and while munching away he says, “When I was with you before,” verse 44, “don’t you remember my telling you that everything written about me by Moses and the prophets and in the Psalms must all come true?”

Well, yes, that IS what he’d told them, back in Luke 18:31, when he’d said they were all going to Jerusalem, and when they got there “all the predictions of the ancient prophets concerning me will come true.’” And in John 5:45-46 he’d also mentioned one of the prophets by name too, when he told the Jews who wanted to have him killed, “Your accuser is Moses,” because “he wrote about me, but you refuse to believe him, so you refuse to believe in me.” So again, it was in their Scriptures all along, starting with the writings of Moses, that Jesus would be coming – and what he was coming for.

It was in Deuteronomy 18:15, for instance, when Moses told the Israelites, “God, your God, is going to raise up a prophet for you. God will raise him up from among your kinsmen, a prophet like me. Listen obediently to him.” Moses then repeated those same words in verses 18 and 19 – so did Peter in Acts 3:22, and so did Stephen in Acts 7:37.

The Jews of Jesus’ day KNEW, therefore, that a great prophet like Moses would arise again. They were looking for him too, as we see in Philip’s excited shout to Nathaniel in John 1:45, “We’ve FOUND the One Moses wrote about in the Law, the One preached by the prophets. It’s Jesus, Joseph’s son, the one from Nazareth.” But even though Philip was absolutely right in pinpointing Jesus as the fulfillment of Moses’ prophecy, he, like everyone else, had no clue that the One Moses wrote about would also suffer and die, or why his suffering and death were necessary, or what would actually be accomplished by his suffering and death as well. It was still a total mystery.

But how did they MISS it, when only two hundred years earlier an amazing book had hit their Jewish bookstores specifically predicting the Messiah’s arrival, including actual dates they could work out for themselves, that also PREDICTED HIS DEATH as well? There it was in Daniel 9, that great prediction of an “Anointed One” who would put an end to sin and “set things right forever” (24), BUT who would also be killed (26).

Surely that had to ring a bell or two in their heads taking them right back to the prophecies they were already familiar with in Isaiah – like the one in Isaiah 49:5-6 that spoke of a great Servant whom God had chosen to “recover the tribes of Israel” so that Israel would become “a light for the nations to make God’s salvation global.” And how that Servant, in the process of saving Israel and the whole world, would also suffer and die – mentioned in considerable detail just four chapters later in Isaiah 53?

Did all these clear scriptures ring any bells? No, they didn’t. Even when Caiaphas the High Priest prophesied in John 11:51-52 that “Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for their nation but also for all the scattered children of God to bring them together and make them one” – it still didn’t ring any bells that what he’d just said was straight out of Isaiah as the sign pinpointing who the Messiah was, what he’d come for, and how his death would accomplish it. And Caiaphas was just about to have Jesus killed in fulfillment of that prophecy too, but it wouldn’t mean a thing to him. How could that be?

Well, we know from verse 48, that Caiaphas wasn’t really thinking about what Jesus’ death would accomplish for the whole world; he was thinking about what it would do for him. Caiaphas was in a difficult spot. If the movement Jesus began got any bigger the Romans might move in to crush it and in the process kick out Caiaphas and his cronies too. Jesus’ death, therefore, didn’t mean anything more to Caiaphas than saving his own skin. He said as much in verse 48, when he openly stated his concern that if too many people followed Jesus the Romans would remove “what little power and privilege WE (priests) still have.”

What Caiaphas saw in Jesus’ death, therefore, was the chance to save himself and his own political future. And that’s all he saw. But most of his fellow Jews were just as short sighted and self-centred as he was, because all they saw in Jesus was a great conquering hero who would save them from the Romans and make them a great nation again. In other words, they ALL saw Jesus in purely selfish terms, as to what he would do for them, personally.

But let’s lift this up to us today, because at some point in our lives WE were faced with Jesus dying on a cross as well. And what did that register in OUR heads? Was it along the lines of something like this: – that we sinned and brought down the penalty of eternal death on ourselves, but God unleashed his wrath on Jesus on the cross instead, so that our sins could be forgiven, and if we led a reasonably good life after that our souls would be taken up to heaven?

That, as we hear often in Christian hymns, sermons and funerals, is the prevailing belief of many Christians today. But what difference is there between that belief and what the Jews and Caiaphas thought? What Jesus represented to the Jews, either in his conquering hero outfit or in his death, was the saving of their skins and the hope of a secure and glorious future for their nation. But the picture of Jesus being presented by much of Christianity today is remarkably similar, that he’s the Saviour of our skins from hell, and the provider of a one way ticket to a secure and glorious future in Heaven. In other words, just like Caiaphas and the Jews, we Christians can be into Jesus for selfish reasons too.

Missing in this picture is the great victory Jesus won over the dark forces, how he won it by dying on the Cross, and what new and wonderful things began to happen on this planet because of it. The focus of much of Christianity by contrast is on our sinful bodies and this troubled Earth being such a mess that God is going to wipe them out forever; he’s going to burn the Earth up, pack all the bad people off to hell, but whisk the souls of all the good people off to Heaven to live forever with Jesus.

Fortunately for us humans that’s NOT what Jesus died for. He didn’t die to get us OFF the Earth; he died to give us victory ON the Earth. He died to give us a great political victory over the dark forces ruling Planet Earth, because everything on this planet comes down to rulership. It’s not about dumping our responsibilities of ruling this Earth and disappearing off to Heaven; it’s about getting back to the business of rulership that God created us and this planet for, and that’s why Jesus died.

Jesus died to win back rulership of this Earth for us humans again. We lost it in a cunning political manoeuvre by the dark forces that offered us instant self-gratification and self-fulfillment off a tree. And we fell for it. We happily handed over the reigns of rulership to a serpent in exchange for chasing our own dreams of grandeur. We were just like Esau, trading our birthright for a bowl of soup.

And from that point on our focus has mostly been ourselves, and what this planet and our God-given abilities can do FOR US. We became utterly and horribly selfish, and like leopards we haven’t changed our spots much since. Even Christianity has largely become a quest for self, of saving our skins and feathering our nests with the best reward and position we can get in Heaven, much like Jesus’ disciples wanting the best positions in his Kingdom.

The idea that Christ died to win back our rightful position as kings and priests and administrators of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth – as God’s very own children too – is almost as foreign to many Christians as it is to the rest of the world. We’ve been cleverly distracted from our Father’s amazing purpose for us – right here on the Earth – into treading water until “God calls us home” to our eternal reward in Heaven. And for some odd reason we prize that over what God made possible through his Son’s death. We’d rather strum harps and sing in choirs in some far off, distant “heaven” than think about what being restored BACK to our job as kings and priests on this Earth means, and what possibilities that has opened up for all humanity right in the here and now.

One has to wonder why we as Christians became so focused on leaving this Earth and going to Heaven, when Jesus’ focus was on the Kingdom of Heaven coming here. Right at the start of his ministry in Mark 1:15 he announced, “At last the time has come; God’s Kingdom has arrived,” and from then on, Matthew 9:35, he “went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the Kingdom.” And in Luke 4:43 he said, “I must preach the Kingdom of God, because for this purpose I have been sent.” And did the Jews immediately interpret that as, “Great, we’re all going to heaven”?

No, they didn’t. The mention of the word ‘Kingdom’ – in the minds of the people Jesus was talking to – was the great Victory ON EARTH predicted in the book of Daniel two hundred years earlier. There it was in Daniel 7:13-14 that spoke of “one like a son of man,” a human being no less, who “was given authority, glory and sovereign power” – the power, that is, to create and rule an unending Kingdom involving “all peoples and nations” here on the Earth. When the Jews heard the word ‘Kingdom’, therefore, that’s what it meant to them, that God was setting up his Kingdom here under the rulership of humans again, just as he originally intended.

JESUS’ focus, in other words, was on the VICTORY for God’s Kingdom on this Earth that his arrival brought. Never did Jesus traipse round the towns and villages yelling out, “OK everybody, gather round, I’ve got great news; the time has come for you to repent of your sins so you can all go to Heaven.”

His focus was entirely on the launching of God’s Kingdom here, not saving souls for Heaven. But for many Christians the announcing of God’s Kingdom is a bit of a mystery, because if we’re all going to heaven one day, why does it matter what happens down here, except that by doing good works and being good church members we get ourselves a decent-sized reward when we arrive at the Pearly Gates?

We’re living in a Christian culture where little attention is being given to the connection between Jesus’ preaching about the Kingdom and why he died on the Cross. That’s not meant to condemn anybody because we all make mistakes, and Christians all through the ages have said and done some really stupid things, and we’d readily confess our own embarrassing contributions to that too, right? But admit it; we’ve got ourselves in a pickle, and painted ourselves into a corner, because entire denominations representing the heart and soul of Christian preaching, and many well known preachers on TV too, have got stuck in a groove that leaves out a whole chunk of why Jesus came here and why he died.

We can’t criticize the Jews, then, can we, for missing the connection between the Kingdom and why Christ died, when many of us Christians have missed it too. The Jews knew about the Kingdom, yes, but they didn’t connect it to Jesus having to die. We Christians, meanwhile, believe in Christ’s death, but we can’t see how it connects to his preaching about the Kingdom. The Jews, therefore, got a huge surprise when Christ died, but Christians get a huge surprise too, on discovering that Jesus’ death has nothing to do with going to heaven.

And on both scores the surprise happens because the connection between the Kingdom and the Cross is STILL a bit of a mystery. How would you answer the question, for instance, “Why did Jesus die on the Cross?” If you say, “He died to forgive our sins,” yes, that’s true, but what if you were then asked, “What has the forgiveness of sins got to do with the setting up of God’s Kingdom on this Earth?” What would you say then?

For many Christians the forgiveness of sins has nothing to do with the setting up of God’s Kingdom on the Earth. Instead, they say, our sins are forgiven so our souls get a free ticket to Heaven. To the Jews, however, forgiveness of sins had nothing to do with saving their souls for Heaven. To them, forgiveness of their sins was totally connected to the setting up of God’s Kingdom – because who was God setting up his Kingdom through? It was through them. But Israel had sinned badly and put a halt to God setting up his Kingdom through them. For God, therefore, to continue his work of setting up his Kingdom through Israel, Israel was in desperate need of forgiveness. The future of the entire world now rested on Israel being forgiven.

Which explains why Jesus’ death was such a great victory, because it was through his death that Israel’s sins were forgiven.

But even though the Jews knew that forgiveness of their sins was the key to God’s plan getting back on track through them, they still didn’t connect it to Jesus’ death. We see that in Acts 1:6 – which is now several weeks after Jesus died on the Cross – and the main concern of Jesus’ disciples is: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the Kingdom in Israel?”

They still didn’t get it, that when Jesus died to forgive their sins, it meant the Kingdom had ALREADY been restored in Israel. That’s what Jesus had died for. That’s what their sins had been forgiven for. His death meant their sins had been forgiven, and that meant they were back on the job God had called them to do, of spreading God’s Kingdom to all nations.

But it took the Holy Spirit to get that through their heads, as we see in Acts 3:17, when Peter acknowledges the Jews’ ignorance in killing Jesus, “BUT,” he adds in verse 18, “this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer.” It was the death of Christ that had flung open all those prophecies in the Old Testament about God’s Kingdom being restored for the whole world through Israel. That’s why Christ’s death was such a victory, because the Kingdom promised through Israel had begun already.

Thanks to Peter, we can now see the connection between the Kingdom and the Cross, because it was Christ’s death forgiving the sins of Israel that launched God’s Kingdom. And thanks to Peter again, in Acts 3:26, he made it clear where it all began: “When God raised up his Servant, he sent him first to you (Jews) to bless you by turning each of you from YOUR wicked ways.” God’s Kingdom had been launched afresh in Israel because God had dealt with THEIR sins first.

And how had God dealt with Israel’s sins? Through Christ toppling the dark forces that had caused Israel to sin in the first place.

And how did he do that? Three things won the battle for Jesus: First off, as Israel’s representative, he did what Israel didn’t do – he stayed utterly loyal to God and never strayed from his purpose. Secondly, he took the death that Israel had brought on itself, from chasing other gods, on himself. And thirdly, by his death the sins of Israel were forgiven. All three dealt a deathblow on the evil forces, but the third one especially, forgiveness, because forgiveness destroys evil’s power.

Evil has no power left where there is forgiveness. If you’ve done something horribly wrong to me, for instance, but I forgive you, the power of evil to make me bitter and angry at what you’ve done is broken. That’s the power of forgiveness, and through Jesus’ death forgiving Israel’s sin, the power of evil over Israel was broken too, freeing them up to fulfill their calling again. And they got off to a great start too, because thousands of Jews responded to Peter’s message, launching the Kingdom of God in the Church, that reached out next to the Gentiles, just as God promised to Abraham.

It was a great victory that now includes us Gentiles in it too, because all nations would be blessed through Israel after Israel’s sins were forgiven. So now it’s our turn to ask, “What has Christ’s death got to do with the good news of the Kingdom?” And if it’s a tough connection to make, it’s understandable, because the evil powers didn’t make the connection either. If they had they would never have crucified him.

But we now have the key that unlocks the connection between the Kingdom and the Cross: It’s in that word ‘Forgiveness’. Through Christ’s death we’re all forgiven, but the purpose of that forgiveness is to free us up from the dark forces so we can live the ways of God’s Kingdom that Jesus launched at his death, and by doing so prove in our own lives that his victory was real.