“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God,” said Isaiah (40:1). “Comfort” is one of those awesome biblical words, like “peace” and “joy,” to which the Bible gives such a stronger, more substantial meaning than the meaning we give it in everyday conversation.

In everyday usage, comfort means: ease, relaxation, maybe a little luxury. To comfort a person means to make them feel better. In its shallower sense, comfort (the verb) means, basically, to make comfortable, to make relaxed and easy. The Bible never once uses comfort in this sense, or even considers this idea as a valid one: more often than not, it views an easy lifestyle as an enemy. God is, in fact, not concerned in the least with our “comfort” in this sense. He has far bigger things in store for us.

The Bible sense of the word is that of giving strength, compassion, and rest. It is related to the ideas of “building  up” (i.e., edification) and encouragement (see 1 Corinthians 14:3) and essentially means to “come alongside.” To “come alongside” means to walk the same path, to come under the same load, to be a friend that is relied on. David said, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4). Clearly nothing is comfortable about the “valley of the shadow of death.” But David is not afraid, and does not stumble or stray, because of the comfort that God’s presence and guidance bring. The comfort of God makes David strong.

Consider this: the Holy Spirit himself is named “the Comforter.” Jesus said to his disciples shortly before his crucifixion, in John 14:16, “And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever” (KJV). The word “comforter” here is deep and wide in meaning and is translated several ways: Helper (ESV), Counselor (RSV), Advocate (NIV), Friend (NIRV). He is the coming alongside-er. He befriends us, comes under our loads, teaches us, and guides us. We depend on him, learn from him, cast our cares on him, and seek his direction and help. “Walking with” the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, is what makes the believer strong, and unafraid, in this treacherous life.

Paul also speaks of God’s comfort in 2 Corinthians 1:3-5. He says,

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.
God’s comfort is less like a pat on the back and more like an arm under our shoulders. In our suffering, he does not often make us comfortable, but he does come close beside us and give us mercy. One of his purposes in our pain is that we will know his comfort deeply, for ourselves. Then, we can do the same for other people: come near to them in their troubles, be someone they can lean on, their advocate. That is what God does for us. It’s what he calls us to do for others.

meditations on Holy Week (4): the Risen Lord

If Jesus is really alive – if the resurrection really happened – then absolutely everything is changed.

Christianity is simple, and explosive, because it is based on recorded, investigated, historical events. It is not primarily a moral code, metaphysical explanation, spiritual technique, method for societal change, or anything else other than a story – a history – which demands a response. When Paul defined the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, he defined it in terms of historical events: the Messiah, in fulfillment of all the scriptures, died, was buried, was resurrected, and was witnessed. Because of these events, there is salvation. Period.

If it did not happen, Christians are to be pitied and disregarded – their faith is pointless. If it happened, every human being must come to grips with it. There can be no explaining away of Jesus or Christianity and no excuses if one admits that the events of Holy Week actually happened.

Thus, each of us must ask: did it happen? Did God come to earth, did he die, did he rise from the dead? If you want evidence for the resurrection, there’s plenty: Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Easter” and N.T. Wright’s “The Resurrection of the Son of God” are two books of which I am aware. Do a Google search and you will have no trouble finding resources. Some of the basic evidences are the authenticity of the gospels, the empty tomb, the eyewitnesses, and the endurance of the movement. If you’re curious, find out for yourself. I believe it happened; therefore Jesus is my Lord, my Savior, my all. What other response is there – if it’s true?

The resurrection of Jesus =

  • the cornerstone of the Christian faith
  • the center of New Testament preaching, e.g. Acts 2:24, 31-32, 4:2, 33, 17:18, 31, 23:6
  • the legitimacy of full-fledged confidence in Jesus and the Bible
  • the validation of the effectiveness and saving power of the cross
  • the preview of what the resurrection of God’s people will be like
  • the cause for hope in a world of chaos, in a body of death
  • the reason to fall down in worship of Jesus, to praise God with all of life, to hold nothing back from the cause of advancing the good news of Christ
In Exodus 15, as the Israelites walked out of Egypt as a free people for the first time, Moses and Miriam sang a song of praise and victory, saying “the Lord is a warrior.” Indeed, he is a warrior: he was at that moment on the shores of the Red Sea, and he is in the lives of his children today. Jesus fought sin and evil, he fought Satan, the prince of this world, he fought death itself, and won. “The Lord is a warrior” at the resurrection. That is hope, life, reality. That is everything.
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” John 11:25-26

meditations on Holy Week (3): the Passover lamb

Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 1 Corinthians 5:7
In the book of Exodus, God freed his people the Israelites from viciously oppressive slavery. In order to do so, he inflicted a series of ten miraculous plagues against their masters, the Egyptians, and the false gods the Egyptians worshipped. Each successive plague demonstrated the greatness and the “mighty hand and outstretched arm” of the true God, Yahweh, in comparison to the nonexistent power of the Egyptian idols. The last plague was the worst. In one night, God caused the firstborn son of every idolatrous family in Egypt to die.

Every family, except those who did this one thing: slaughtered an unblemished lamb and smeared its blood on the doorposts of the family’s home.

This ancient event constitutes the extremely important Jewish holiday of Passover, so-called because God “passed over” the houses with blood on them. Jews of all kinds celebrate it around the world today. Jesus and his disciples celebrated it 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem, during the original Holy Week. They ate the traditional Passover meal during the “last supper,” Jesus’ last meal before he died.

Passover meant (and still means) everything to the Jews, because it so incredibly encapsulated the awesome interplay between God’s justice and his mercy, and it so vividly demonstrated his provision of grace. The reality is, though, that Passover absolutely pales in comparison to its true fulfillment at the cross of Jesus.

Jesus – the Holy One of Israel, the Chosen One, the Messiah – for the sake of love became, himself, the final Passover lamb, the sacrifice for the idolatry of the people. The spotless lamb, the man of perfection, shed his blood on the cross, on two wooden beams so much like doorposts, so that idolaters like you and I may be “passed over” on the coming Day of Judgment, when every hidden thought and deed is laid bare before the piercing eyes of a holy God. Not only passed over, but freed from slavery, redeemed, given an inheritance in the ultimate promised land, adopted as children of the Father.

The love of Jesus on the cross is what Christians celebrate today, Good Friday, and oh how good it is. This love is not clean, it is bloody, and incalculably painful; but it is pure. This love is extended to all who dare to listen, and it is good enough for all who dare to come. This love is what makes life make sense, it’s what quiets a guilty conscience, it’s what humbles the proud and raises the shamed, it’s what changes a life, it’s what saves a people, it’s what brings us to God.

Therefore: paint his blood on your door! Paint his blood on your door daily. There is never a day when you do not need it, and never a day when it is not sufficient for you.

meditations on Holy Week (2): in the garden

Matthew 26:36-46Mark 14:32-42Luke 22:40-46

The Bible opens with a garden – Eden. It closes with one too – the New Jerusalem. In between, in the midst of Holy Week, another garden comes to play in God’s story of redemption – Gethsemane.

Jesus went to Gethsemane to pray as no one else has ever prayed, before he went to the cross. The canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) record excerpts of his prayer, which contain that same incredible tension found in the psalms and throughout the Bible: honest emotion, genuine expression of pain, authentic human desire; coupled with total trust in God and surrender to his will. Don’t skip too quickly to “your will be done” and miss the “take this cup from me.” Both make up all real prayer, and ultimately, real relationship with God. God does not ask that we lie to him – he commands us to be real – but that we trust him.

It’s important for Christians to take home the lesson about submission to God and dependence on him even in the face self-sacrifice. Jesus’ night in the garden of Gethsemane was for a far bigger purpose than our prayer lives, however. In the garden, the Son of God stretched himself out on the night’s cold ground and prepared to take on the sins of the world.

In that first garden, Eden, Adam hid from God, disobedient and ashamed. He rebelled against his Creator, then hid himself among the trees because he now knew shame and fear. He sinned, then retreated. Although God cursed him, he did not bring Adam’s death sentence down on him that day. He spared him.

In Jesus’ garden, Gethsemane, Jesus undid what Adam had done. Jesus had nothing to hide, no rebellion to be ashamed of, no wayward thought at which to cringe. Yet, he gave himself up willingly. The sinful Adam hid and was spared. The sinless Jesus gave himself up and was condemned.

He was condemned for my sake, and for yours. It pleased Father, Son, and Spirit for Jesus to become a sacrifice for many, so that he may redeem a people for himself. Jesus’ blood now covers my rebellion and my shame. Jesus experienced the condemnation of a righteous God in my place. I am free.

He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. 1 Peter 2:22-25

meditations on Holy Week (1): Jesus the radical

Today marks the beginning of Holy Week, the remembrance of Jesus’ last pre-resurrection week of life on earth. A full one-third of the four accounts of Jesus’ life (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, together making up half the New Testament) is solely dedicated to Holy Week. Its events make up our gospel, our good news (1 Corinthians 15:1-8). Without it there is no hope.

Something you’ll soon notice when you read Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John – particularly the accounts of Holy Week – is that Jesus was an absolute radical. People who have not read these books, Christians or not, often entertain ideas that he was nice, friendly, sociable, or polite. This is simply untrue. Respectable people would have been cautious about inviting him to dinner, and rightly so. He was less like a teddy bear and more like a roaring lion; less like a sympathetic therapist and more like a lightning storm.

“Palm Sunday” = Luke 19:28-48

If Jesus does not offend us, we are missing something. Read the gospels and you’ll soon see. In reality, Jesus is the most offensive man who ever lived. His names in this passage are Lord (verse 31), and King (verse 38). That means Lord and King of you, too. He is so worthy to be worshiped and adored that if humans fall silent, inanimate rocks will without hesitation take up the song (verse 40). His claim on your life is total. You owe him not a penny less than your entire existence; you were made for him (Colossians 1:16). He says: the standard is perfection. If you don’t meet the standard – and I am the Judge – you deserve nothing from me but “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I came to bring a sword, not peace (Matthew 10:34).

Imagine if you saw an impoverished-looking man parading through the center of Washington D.C. with a crowd of similarly unsophisticated people following him, singing and shouting things like “This is the glorious King of the world who comes from God.” What would happen? Politicians would get defensive and upset; the police would shut him down and throw him in a mental institution; headlines would laugh about the crazy homeless man who made a scene. If the man got a large enough following, our institutions would quickly get more aggressive. America (including many who now claim to know him) would react the same way to Jesus as Israel did 2,000 years ago, and it would be right to do so – unless, of course, it was true. If it was true, everything would be changed.

It’s little wonder, then, that the Pharisees got upset. He unabashedly demolished everything they stood for. He does the same to us as well, in our pride and self-sufficiency. But notice this: Jesus wept over rebellious humanity (verse 41). Even a cursory reading of the gospels reveals this, too: if Jesus does not attract us, we are missing something. Jesus lived with more passion – for life, for people, for God – than anyone else who ever lived. His emotions ran deeper, he felt them more profoundly, than any of us. Everything about him – his sermons, his conversations, his acts of power, his acts of humility, his prayers, his interactions with people, his whole personality – is stunning. It’s little wonder the people were “hanging on his words” (verse 48).

Come to the Bible expecting some Sunday-school-sanitized version of Jesus and you will be quickly forced to blush. He is not sanitized. He is not nice. He never accommodates to sin or lies, not once. Come to the Bible with a heart to learn and you will meet someone so much better, so much more worthy of your love: Christ the Lord, the King, the Servant, the Radical.

a kingdom of priests

Priesthood – it is a crucial concept for Christians to understand. It is 100% relevant to the day-to-day identity of believers. Modern American Evangelicals, however, with their woefully inadequate understanding of the Old Testament, are largely missing out.

Priests in the Old Testament

In Exodus 19, God called Israel a “kingdom of priests” (verse 6). Yet in that very same chapter, six verses later, God declared that whoever dared to touch even the mountain on which his presence had descended would be put to death (verse 12). Clearly: God is holy. At Sinai, Moses interceded for the people (although even Moses was not permitted to see God directly). Throughout the history of Israel, priests performed the ongoing role of intercessor between the holy Yahweh and the unholy Israelites. God set apart Aaron, Moses’ brother, and his descendants, to be Israel’s priests. To be a priest meant to be a full-time servant of the covenant, a mediator between the people and God. The author of Chronicles gives a summary of the priesthood:
Aaron was set apart to dedicate the most holy things, that he and his sons forever should make offerings before the LORD and minister to him and pronounce blessings in his name forever. 1 Chronicles 23:13

The priests had more of this one thing than anyone else in Israel: access to God’s presence. The law allowed them to enter further into the Tabernacle (and later, the Temple) than anyone else. It set them up as the ones to whom Israel turned when they wanted to “inquire of the LORD.” The law considered them holy in a unique way. However, while the priests had access, that access was limited. Only the high priest, one day a year, could enter the “Most Holy Place” in the Tabernacle/Temple where the Ark of the Covenant resided, and to do so required even more sacrifices than usual: an entire bull just for the sins of high priest.

Leviticus 8 records the ordination of Aaron and his sons. I encourage you to read it. You’ll soon notice, it was very bloody. Moses must have been covered nearly head to foot in animal blood by the end of it. You’ll also notice the repetition of the word “consecrate.” Consecration meant setting apart someone or something specifically for God and his purposes.

If one were to summarize the Old Testament priesthood with two words, those might be it: bloody, and consecrated.

Priesthood under the New Covenant

The concept of a priesthood still exists in the New Testament – and it’s amazing.

Peter writes in 1 Peter 2: “As you come to [Jesus], a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” A few verses later, echoing back to that crucial passage in Exodus 19, he says, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

John calls us priests too: “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever” (Revelation 1:5-6). He says we will praise Jesus forever because he ransomed us to be priests: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9-10).

Our lives our bloody and consecrated, too. This is who you are, Christian: set apart to be holy, to give blessings in the name of Jesus forever, to bring unholy people to God, covered from head to foot by the all-sufficient once-for-all sacrificial blood of Christ.

We offer sacrifices, too. Not dead sheep and goats, but living sacrifices of:

  • thanksgiving (Psalm 50:14)
  • broken and contrite spirits (Psalm 51:17)
  • prayer (Psalm 141:2)
  • our bodies (Romans 12:1)
  • gifts (Philippians 4:18)
  • praise (Hebrews 13:15)
  • doing good and sharing what we have (Hebrews 13:16)
  • love (Ephesians 5:2)
Jesus the High Priest

And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. Hebrews 10:11-14

The book of Hebrews calls Jesus our “High Priest.” Christ himself fulfills everything the Old Testament priesthood foreshadowed: he is our mediator, the only one capable of bridging the holiness-gap between God and humans (1 Timothy 2:5); he is our intercessor, even now praying for us in the throne room of heaven (Romans 8:34); he himself is even the sacrifice for our sins. He is the priest, and he is the lamb on the altar.

It is for this reason that the curtain in the Temple was torn, from top to bottom, when Christ died. His torn body now opens access to all who will come; no more priests, no more sacrifices, no more warnings to stay away from the mountain are necessary. The invitation is for all who are far off to come and know God as your Father through the priesthood of Jesus Christ.

The priestly blessing

In Numbers 6, God gave Aaron the high priest a special blessing to pronounce on all the Israelites for all generations. Here, then, your High Priest’s blessing on you today, believer:

The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. Numbers 6:24-25

en route with Jesus

This blog post first brought to my attention the insightful comparison between the road to Damascus and road to Eummaus.

“Road to Damascus experiences” get a lot of attention. You may know the story of Paul’s conversion – on the way to the city of Damascus, Jesus appeared to Paul in person, dramatically, with blinding light, a miracle, and a 180-degree life change (see Acts 9:1-22). Before this encounter with the resurrected Jesus, Paul had been a legalistic Pharisee and a persecutor of Jesus’ people, i.e., the last person you would expect to become a Christian. Afterward, his whole life changed. He became the apostle to the Gentiles, the author of much of the New Testament, and probably the most important Christian who ever lived. His road to Damascus experience changed not only his own life but the course of history.

Paul’s conversion story is not the only account in the New Testament of an encounter with Jesus on the road to a city, however. A somewhat lesser-known story is found in Luke 24:13-35, this time on the road to the town of Eummaus. Two God-fearing, law-abiding Jews had spent some time with Jesus before his death as his followers, although they did not belong to his “inner circle.” After his death, they felt disturbed and confused, for they had thought him to be the Messiah.

That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him… and beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. Luke 24:13-16, 26

The resurrected Jesus himself “drew near” to these two disciples, just as near as he drew on Paul’s road to Damascus. In this case, though, they did not recognize him. He came with little drama or fanfare; he did not use a miracle or a vision of his glory, but a sermon on the Old Testament, to get their attention. They did not suddenly grasp everything about Jesus in an instant, but  gradually grew in knowledge as he walked with them, taught them, and revealed himself to them in the Bible. Actually, you might be justifiably surprised that this encounter with Jesus on the road to Eummaus is in the Bible at all, because it seems so mundane.

It did not produce a mundane reaction, however. The two disciples’ hearts “burned within them.” They called Jesus “Lord” and spoke with conviction that he really is alive, that he really conquered death. They were included when Jesus came back to speak to the “Eleven” (his inner circle) and when he gave the great commission. They worshiped him along with his apostles, filled up with the joy of the gospel (see the rest of Luke 24). You can be sure, their lives changed forever.

So often in life, we want “big” things to happen, to show that God is real, to dispel all our doubts, to give us an answer or direction. We look for “signs and wonders,” major revelations, emotional highs, dramatic turnarounds (cf. John 4:48). Too often we dismiss the “ordinary” things, like sermons, taking communion, the Bible, prayer, and unexciting testimonies; but God consistently uses the “small” things to get our attention and to shape us into who he wants us to be (1 Corinthians 1:27-28). Have you had a slow, undramatic, “road to Eummaus” experience, Christian? Do not be ashamed of it – Jesus spoke to you all the same, and that is what counts. He is the Lord, and he is alive, and that is “bigger” than us all!

Jesus is always speaking. Sometimes he shouts in our face and other times he whispers in our ear; but be sure, he is never silent. The question is, then: are you listening?