Jesus will judge, so everything matters

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. 2 Corinthians 5:10

People who have tasted the sweet forgiveness of Christ’s cross become desperate to know how not to waste their lives. Redemption is too good to ignore. Yet, fleshly complacency sets in and sucks the life out of us like the afternoon heat. Thank God, Scripture leads us in this, too.

The Bible describes who Jesus is to a Christian in many ways: friend, king, shepherd, brother, healer, advocate, savior, shield. Each biblical term for the Lord is saturated with significance and layers of meaning. Naturally we gravitate towards some more than others. However, one crucial, repeated title of Jesus, that I fear we too often neglect, is that Jesus is our judge.

For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. John 5:26-27

The remarkably modern-sounding book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew scriptures concludes this way:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

It is clear that the author is not using the word judgment here in the sense of condemnation, but rather in the sense of evaluation.

…on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. Romans 2:16

In 1 Corinthians 3, one of my favorite chapters in the New Testament, Paul speaks of a day when the fire of God will test all the things we devote our lives to building: our families, ministries, careers, reputations, possessions, identities. The worthless and vain things will burn and disintegrate. Only those things “built on the foundation” (verse 14), “which is Jesus Christ” (verse 11), will survive. Only Christ-founded endeavors will keep their value in the new heaven and earth. All else is vanity, destined to be forgotten.

Soon after laying out this teaching, Paul says this:

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 1 Corinthians 4:1-4

To accept and daily live under the reality that “it is the Lord who judges me” drastically changes at least two things about the ways we typically think.

How our fellow humans judge and evaluate us becomes a “very little thing,” an insignificant addendum of which we ought to be as unaware as possible and about which we are free to be unconcerned. In the shadow of God, human commendation and condemnation become equally trivial. Together they amount to the immaterial opinions of small minds, which hold no weight in God’s court. “The Lord is my helper; what can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:6) Amen, and the Lord is my judge. What can man say about me?

That the Lord judges me also means that everything matters. In this world, now, everything I do, and don’t do, counts. It all has dignity, significance, and potential. There are no parts of my life that God will not drag into the light on Judgment Day, whether I like it or not. That God will expose and judge every secret thing makes even my minor decisions very grave, and worth my attention. All things – all things – will be tested.

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! 2 Peter 3:10-12

Scripture says that redeemed people live in the love of God, in the service of him, in the worship of him, and also in the fear of him. No longer do we live in the fear of his punishment; without a doubt, Jesus dealt with that fear, one time, forever, with his death and resurrection. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, period (Romans 8:1). We live, however, in an honest recognition of his holy character and awesome power. We live recognizing the absolute claim of his ownership over us, analogous to the ownership of a potter over his clay (Romans 9:20).

Part of fearing God is admitting how unspeakably unworthy he is of our disobedience. If we properly understand God as he is, we fear displeasing him and grieving him (Ephesians 4:30) with our vanity.

And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed… with the precious blood of Christ… 1 Peter 1:17-18

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. 1 Corinthians 15:58 (NIV)

To not waste our lives is to live for the Father to commend us, which is to establish everything we are and do on Jesus only. To establish our labor on Jesus is to give ourselves fully to him, no holds barred. “I am completely yours, direct me as you will” is perhaps the scariest thing we can pray; yet it is the only prayer that makes sense, given the cost he paid to make it true (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

I think of it this way: if Jesus will judge me, and he will, I want to walk in the light, where he walked. I want freedom from the secrets and shame of the darkness, where neither God nor happiness live.

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 1 John 1:5-7

Good Friday: the cross is an intersection

See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet?
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, Isaac Watts

The shape of the cross is the universal symbol of the Christian faith. Geometrically, a cross is two perpendicular lines intersecting. One vertical, the other horizontal.

When Jesus Christ died on his cross nearly two thousand years ago on a hill outside Jerusalem, paradoxes were proclaimed and unlike realities intersected with each other in a way that they never had before or will again.

God + humanity
The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ is the God-man, fully human and fully divine, yet one person with one nature. Simple enough to say, impossible to comprehend. Yet what that means is that when Christ died on his cross, the world of heaven – the vertical beam, if you will – cut into the world of earth – the horizontal beam. Jesus hung there, suspended between the two worlds, bridging the impasse between them. You could say that the cross was the ladder down which God climbed to make peace with humanity, to reach us. Therefore, to reach God, all a person needs is to come to the cross.

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. Colossians 1:20

wrath + grace
Sin provokes the Holy One to ferocious, irrepressible anger. God’s own love provokes him pardon sinners. At the cross, these two elemental aspects of God’s character met and embraced. The wrath of God against human sin inflicted itself on Jesus’ shoulders, back, neck, hands, feet, body, soul, mind and spirit; totally, comprehensively, exhaustively. He took every ounce, for my sin and yours. He absorbed the blow, stepping in as the scapegoat, the sacrifice, the substitute. All that is left over for us, the ones standing in Jesus’ shadow, are the grace, the mercy, the forgiveness, the love.

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. Isaiah 53:4-6

decimation of our pride + affirmation of our worth
The cross gives us a revolutionized way to look at ourselves, one that is painful and profoundly sweet at the same time. I’m using the strong word “decimation” here to mean “totally cancel and destroy.” The cross certainly decimates our pride, or our self-esteem, depending on your vocabulary. It asserts without apology that our self-imposed predicament of sin, death, hell, and alienation from God is so severe that nothing less than the Son of God’s torture and death could hope to address it. An extreme problem – the human condition – called for an extreme solution. No one but Jesus will cut down your pride and self-justification so thoroughly, because no one but Jesus loves you so deeply.

While decimating our attempts at self-worth, the cross affirms with abandon our value to God. It asserts, likewise without apology, that the depths of God’s grace towards us are so unfathomable that he found it worthwhile sacrifice the Son for the rabble outside, in order to turn the rabble into sons! Therefore, you count. You are not a waste. You are worthy. God says so.

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world. Galatians 6:14

suffering + glory
The Bible is chock full of paradoxes, as we should expect from a book claiming to contain divine truth. One of the most essential paradoxes in Christian thought – in my mind, it’s the key to the whole thing – is the one that Jesus expressed a few hours before his arrest:

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once.” John 13:31-32

Now is the Son of Man glorified. Now, as he is arrested, falsely accused, beaten, scourged, stripped, mocked, crucified, murdered. On the cross, glory intersected with suffering. Honor with shame, life with death. I do not understand it, but the brutally disfigured, naked body of Jesus on the cross brought glory to God. It blazed through and through with the glory of God. The Son of Man’s suffering screamed glory! glory! hallelujah!

That is the Christian paradigm. In our lives, that means that suffering and glory are intertwined, and death always comes before a resurrection.

When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. John 19:30

…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:1-2

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18

prayers to Jesus in Iran

[Jesus] put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of the seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” Matthew 13:31-32

meditations on exile (4): homecoming

Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”

Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when they shall no longer say, “As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,” but “As the LORD lives who brought up and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.” Then they shall dwell in their own land. Jeremiah 23:5-8

I treasure these verses. They are poetry, and promises. They allude to the Christian idea of creation’s consummation, our homecoming to the New Heaven and Earth, the New Jerusalem, when God will dwell with humanity, and “man, who is of the earth, will terrify no more” (Psalm 10:17-18).

Jesus, the Messiah being foreshadowed here, is given two names in this passage. He is the Righteous Branch, stemming from the stock of David, God’s king, and of Abraham, God’s friend, and all the way back to Adam, God’s son. He is the one who rights all their wrongs, and all our wrongs.

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. 1 John 2:1-2

Yahweh Is Our Righteousness is his other name given here. In Jesus, God himself is our righteousness, and he alone. He is our praise (Deuteronomy 10:21). We are his people, the sheep of his pasture (Psalm 100:3). We are who we are because we are in union with him, in Jesus. God does not change, and, therefore, neither does our righteousness, our praise, or our privileged position, provided that we endure to the end. Jesus is all we need. Don’t let go of that.

The apostle John saw a vision of creation’s consummation, and in that vision he saw Jesus’s people dressed in white robes, singing. Their robes were white in a surprising and paradoxical way: white from being washed in blood, Jesus’s blood, shed for them. John saw them as pure and clean because they were soaked in the sacrifice of Christ. To me, that’s a picture of “God is our righteousness,” vivified, fulfilled.

Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?… These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Revelation 7:13-14

Back in the 23rd chapter of Jeremiah, God told the people of Israel: I am going to bring you home. I will be famous, a household name, for bringing you home.

God will bring us home, friends. Jesus is ours. Therefore – what a precious word – we are homeward bound. This exile is not forever.

Until then, let us do what we can to be useful and faithful with what we’ve got, with what we’ve been given.

Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to given them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Matthew 24:45-46

I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the LORD. The LORD has disciplined me severely, but he has not given me over to death. Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD. Psalm 118:17-19

outside the camp

We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Hebrews 13:10-14
Follow the logic of the author’s train of thought here – it is beautiful.

We as Christians are entitled to eat from the altar of the holy communion, the bread and wine which depict the very body and blood of Jesus, an altar which the priests of the old covenant neither understood nor accepted. Just as they burnt their sacrifices for sin outside Jerusalem’s gates as prescribed by the law they idolized, Jesus, the only efficacious sacrifice for sin, also suffered his death outside the city. He was hated and excluded from their religion and from his people as a “blasphemer” – yet he volunteered for this. He did it to cleanse the consciences of sinners and to bring them in his wake to the Father.

Therefore, says the author, let us abandon our familiar territories, our safety zones, and our mundane desires. Let us claim the reproach and the ridicule that is ours by right, as people named after the great Outcast, the supreme Reject. The “city” we too comfortably habitate at the moment is on its way out. We aim for a different city altogether: the New Jerusalem, the breathtaking city of God that will be here before the world knows it.

The New Testament book of Hebrews is one of my favorites in the Bible. It is something of a commentary on the Old Testament, with a perspective, a realness, and an urgency that all revolves around the person Jesus. Here at the end of the letter, the unknown author beckons his very persecuted, very human, very real recipients: “let us go to him outside the camp.”

Of people who would answer his beckoning, several things must be true.

Jesus must captivate them. Not in a passively impressed way, like observing an interesting specimen behind a glass. Nor simply in an ethereal, indefinably spiritual way, like being drawn by the Spirit into figurative clouds of heavenly understanding. As a person with a particular personality who lived a particular life, Jesus of Nazareth must inspire awe in them. No one can imitate someone, to the point of self-denial, whom they do not know, or do not cherish.

Jesus’ love for these people must saturate them. They must unshakably believe that he is on their side, that he belongs to them, that he treasures them. Not by right nor by nature – sinners assuming God’s blessing is ultimately ridiculous – but by his proclamation of mercy at the cross. They must be utterly convinced of the cross’ power to transform them from self-loving lawbreakers into the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). “Jesus paid it all,” they say. “All to him I owe.”

Jesus’ Spirit must empower them.  The Holy Spirit doesn’t fit into any of our ordinary categories, and we very much like categories. Perhaps part of his majesty comes from his refusal to submit to our categories. In any case, we underestimate him all too often. He is the agent of power within us, the power that builds new things where old things were destroyed, explodes God’s love into our hearts, resurrects corpses, gives gifts of a spiritual nature to the church with variety and creativity, leads the sons of God, and a thousand other things for which he deserves worship and thanks – and dependence. People venturing “outside the camp,” outside the mold of self-reliant, self-serving living, must, out of necessity, lean harder on the power of the Spirit than on any other thing.
At this point in writing this post, personal experience forces me to consider the question: “What if I don’t feel this way? Why should I even care?” Whether from non-Christian or Christian lips – or more likely, unspoken thoughts – these words uncover something important about all this. Captivation, assurance of Jesus’ love, and the Holy Spirit all sound to my ears like very intangible, emotional things than I can do little to stir up inside myself. Emotions peak and bottom out, and efforts of the will have little to do with them.

But God does not submit to our categories, he does not. He does not leave us because our emotions dry up, nor does he lessen what he asks of us.

What he asks of us is to run to him for help a million times over, to believe that one ounce of obedience is worth an ocean of vain emotion, to fight temptation in prayer, and to really obey his command to follow him “outside the camp.” He asks us to obey it, disregarding the cost, disregarding the fact that more often than not we crave the approval of our peers more than the approval of our God, because he is our Lord who has gone before us, and because on the outskirts of the city, among the outcasts, the enemy-lovers, and the counter-cultural anti-heroes, is where he most truly dwells.

Let us go to him outside the camp.

it’s a relationship

Yes. I first saw the slogan “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” on a bumper sticker…

To realize the dramatic difference between God as an idea, or an ideal, and God as a Person, however, is life-changing. To discover Christianity as, above all, a relationship with this God, the living God, and not as a system – of morality or even belief – is staggering. It’s like the difference of knowing things about someone and knowing the person intimately, personally. The kingdom of heaven really is like finding a treasure in a field.

And, as in the parable, once you discover the treasure, it becomes worth it to give up all you have to make the treasure your own.

Everything Christians do is, in the end, a quest for deeper intimacy with this God. Scripture teaches us of his character, of what matters to him, of how to think of him and approach him. Prayer is the means by which we speak to and entreat him. Communion is just that: communion – intimate, spiritual communication – with God by participating in the Son’s death through the physical presentations of his blood and body, the wine and bread. Joining a local church means joining up with other people on the same quest for the purpose of helping each other “press on to know the Lord.”

Other things Christians do as they progress in their understanding of the faith, such as: researching, sorting out, and taking sides on thorny doctrinal issues; cultivating habits of personal holiness, discipline, and devotion, such as fasting and memorizing scripture; serving and exhorting other people with greater self-abandonment; teaching, leading, and counseling; recognizing and confessing sin more specifically and more often; all these things and many others ultimately serve to advance the one underlying purpose of the Christian life: to deepen and more fully express the relationship between human and Creator, child and Father, sheep and Shepherd, subject and Author of salvation.

Lose sight of the end, and the means become empty. Worse, they become idolatrous, replacing the living God with ritualized observances, meaningless exercises, and mere habits of lifestyle. “These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.”

Christians treasure the Bible’s teaching that Jesus Christ, the Man who is God, is the clearest revelation of who God is. He is the “exact representation of God’s being” (Hebrews 1:3). In him, we see God manifested and played out in our grimy, physical, human world.

19th century preacher C. H. Spurgeon said this:

Our faith is a person; the gospel that we have to preach is a person; and go wherever we may, we have something solid and tangible to preach, for our gospel is a person. If you had asked the twelve Apostles in their day, ‘What do you believe in?’ they would not have stopped to go round about with a long sermon, but they would have pointed to their Master and they would have said, ‘We believe him.’ ‘But what are your doctrines?’ ‘There they stand incarnate.’ ‘But what is your practice?’ ‘There stands our practice. He is our example.’ ‘What then do you believe?’ Hear the glorious answer of the Apostle Paul, ‘We preach Christ crucified.’ Our creed, our body of divinity, our whole theology is summed up in the person of Christ Jesus.

-C. H. Spurgeon, in Lectures Delivered before the Young Men’s Christian Association in Exeter Hall 1858-1859 

John said this:

Indeed, our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 1 John 1:3

Paul said this:

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Philippians 3:8

The Lord Jesus himself prayed this:

This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. John 17:3

Many writers and thinkers have long pointed out that the most effective people on earth – horizontally – are those most caught up with heaven – vertically. There is absolutely nothing like encountering a person whose relationship with God is so profound and extensive that every thing they do and say smells of him. I remember a handful of momentary introductions with people like that, which, years later, I still think about and long to imitate. “God, help me to begin to begin.” Abandonment to God is the single most crucial element of any person’s spiritual growth, any ministry, any church’s effectiveness within its community.

Why? Because our faith is a Person. Therefore, our life is a relationship.

forgive… 490 times

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” Matthew 18:21-22

You gotta love Peter. He is the most memorable disciple in the gospels, and probably the most likable. He is outspoken, emotional, devoted, and messed up – like all the best Bible characters, and all the best Christians.

Here, like a good Jew, and like a man accustomed to legalism and moralism, he asks Jesus for a hard-and-fast rule on forgiveness. He wants something straightforward he can follow, check off, and give to God, like a temple sacrifice. Jesus says, “No, Peter, you don’t get a rule. I want something incredibly more difficult from you: an ongoing, untiring attitude of forgiveness.” Jesus does that a lot, if you haven’t noticed.

I read somewhere – I forget where – that forgiveness means absorbing the wrong done to you, absorbing the blow, as if someone punches you in the gut, and you just take it. I think that’s a decent image, but it makes forgiveness sound passive. I think Jesus’ image is better, found in the next twelve verses of Matthew 18: forgiveness is like waiving a debt. When someone waives a debt, does it disappear? Of course not – someone must pay either way, and if it’s not the debtor, then it’s the lender. That is what forgiveness is like. “I’ll pay the debt you owe me.”

Isn’t that just what Jesus’ forgiveness is like? We owe God our whole existence, but we steal it for ourselves and waste it on ourselves, and rack up a massive debt – a million gazillion dollars, or 10,000 talents if you like. In all fairness, God ought to demand we pay our debt (which of course we can never do) and throw us all in hell until we do. Instead he sends Christ, who earns our million gazillion dollars and says, “Come to me and I’ll pay your debt. Come and share in my inheritance.” For those who believe, Christ’s payment is final and will not be demanded again, if you can believe it. His check clears, always. Trust in that.

It is Jesus’ kind of debt-paying, irrevocable forgiveness that we must imitate. We ought to expect it to be costly because, clearly, by nature, forgiveness is expensive.

If Peter has the most back-and-forth, passionate personality in the New Testament, David claims that title for the Old Testament. He wrote some of the most emotional literature in the Bible, called the Psalms of David, of which a considerable part is angry. Christians and skeptics sometimes have difficulty dealing with the so-called imprecatory psalms, which I understand, but do not take very seriously unless the critic, or one of his or her loved ones, has undergone oppressive, violent suffering and betrayal at the hands of brutal people for some length of time (and I do not recall hearing of any critic like that). I think the Holy Spirit included the imprecatory psalms very intentionally, and as odd as it may sound, I think they teach us something critical about forgiveness.

David was a man of million enemies. He knew what it is to be hated and mocked, by everyone. “How many are my foes!” he cried over and over. He saw hateful people getting away with evil and violence, and he longed for God to exercise justice against them, swiftly and harshly. But notice – he longed for God to do it. He did not pray, “Lord, give me the chance to smash in the faces of my enemies and break their teeth.” No, he said, “Arise, O LORD! Save me, oh my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek and you break the teeth of the wicked” (Psalm 3:7). David left his anger at the altar.

In terms of actions, David’s attitude of forgiveness was amazing. You may remember, when presented with the chance to kill the man hunting him like an animal, he refrained, twice. When that man finally died and the man responsible for his death came to David gloating and expecting a reward, David not only refused to rejoice at his persecutor’s death, but instead had the man executed for daring to kill the leader of Israel (see 2 Samuel 2). He accepted Abner, the general of the army opposing him, and welcomed him in peace, then mourned his death with remarkable sincerity when his own general murdered him (see 2 Samuel 3). He took in Mephibosheth, the grandson of his greatest enemy and the last remaining threat to his kingship, as a member of his own family (see 2 Samuel 9). One of David’s greatest strengths, in fact, was his refusal to exact revenge, even when it was deserved. He had a handle on the attitude of forgiveness Jesus spoke about in Matthew 18. David believed, really, that “vengeance belongs to the Lord” (Romans 12:19).

We too can do no less than imitate the Lord and Savior with an ongoing, defining attitude of forgiveness. Christians may not be people who hold grudges. We are absolutely permitted to come to God with our grievances, if they are real, and express them to our Father with feeling and sincerity. In fact, doing so is essential. He hears, because he is a good father, and a righteous judge. Consider: “Will not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:25) We may not, however, hold on to the hurt and let it become bitterness. Bitterness is a cancer that  festers, then eats a person up from the inside; it is dangerous and highly contagious even in small doses. Bitterness, when held on to, is absolutely deadly to one’s spiritual life (as well as to one’s physical body) – see Matthew 5:23-24, 6:14-15.

We bring our complaints to God, and leave them with God, and move on with humility, compassion, and patience. We do this because of the amazing forgiveness already given to us by Jesus, because of our belief that he has waived our debt and paid it on our behalf, in full, with his righteous life and sacrificial death. Paul sums it up:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Colossians 3:12-13

the intersection of heaven and earth

As everyone knows from 8th grade English class, every piece of literature has a theme. The theme of a book is the sweeping idea it communicates; it’s that one impression that stayed with you from that one book you read eight years ago. You can trace its development from the book’s beginning to its end.

The Bible, in all its brilliance, contains sweeping ideas as well; Genesis-to-Revelation ideas. One of the cover-to-cover themes of the Bible is the idea of temple.

In biblical thought, the temple is the intersection of heaven and earth. Jesus said, “Whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it” (Matthew 23:21-22). In the same breath he said God “dwells” in the temple and in heaven; that is, the fullness of God’s glorious presence is in heaven, but it breaks into the physical, human world at the temple.

Tracing the temple through the Bible:

When he calls it “very good.” Eden, before humanity’s first act of rebellion: God requires no temple. He lives with the people  he has created without restriction. Their relationship to him requires no buildings, no rituals. Humankind enjoys blessed peace, and unashamed love, with each other, and with the God who made them. God calls it “very good.”

God pitches a tent. Mount Sinai, around 1500 B.C.: Humanity is now estranged from God because of sin; evil is in the world. Moses has led the Israelites out of slavery and into the Arabian Desert. In an epic scene on Sinai, God forms a special bond, a covenant, between himself and this primitive bunch of former slaves in the desert. He gives them his law for their community, including in it a command to build a tabernacle – in effect, pitch a tent – for him (Exodus 26). “I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God,” he says (Exodus 29:45).

God moves in. Jerusalem, around 900 B.C.: Israel is unified and prosperous. King Solomon builds the beautiful and iconic First Temple at Jerusalem (1 Kings 5-8), and God consecrates it “by putting [his] name there forever” (1 Kings 9:3). This is the temple the psalmists sing about, and Jews reminiscence about forever after.

For hundreds of years, Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem is the place where the Israelites come to praise, pray, offer sacrifices, and celebrate their holidays. It occupies the highest place of importance in Israelite thought, life, and worship, for at the temple, the promise of the Sinai covenant is realized: God dwells with his people. David expresses the longing for God’s presence in Psalm 27 when he says, “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.”

The Temple goes on, but never lives up. Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, especially in the books of Ezekiel, Haggai, and Ezra, the temple continues to play a central role. The Old Testament writers continue to understand it as the place where God’s glory breaks into the realm of humanity; however, the temple building itself never seems quite good enough (e.g. Ezra 3:11-13). Foreign conquerors destroy and rebuild it twice before the beginning of the New Testament. It never again reaches the grandeur of Solomon’s Temple, and never in its history does it give more than a taste of what it means to be in the presence of God.

The Old Testament is clear: God is infinite and stone walls cannot contain him (1 Chronicles 6:18, see also Acts 17:24). In all its genius, though, this is the foundation the Old Testament lays for how we are to understand the idea of temple, and why it matters to us.

When God comes down. Judea, c. 30 A.D.: The New Testament begins and Jesus the Messiah comes on the scene. He makes an absurd claim: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). The Jewish leaders call him a blasphemer. They get him arrested and crucified. They think they’ve won until three days later when they discover to their horror – his tomb is empty.

Jesus was and is the true Temple, the real Intersection Between Heaven and Earth. He, God and man in one person, broke into our world as “the exact representation of God’s being” (Hebrews 1:3). In him, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:19). He, the divine Word, “became flesh and dwelt” – literally, pitched a tent – “among us” (John 1:14). He said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

After his resurrection, his followers understood that the temple he had spoken of was himself – his own body, crushed for us (John 2:21-22). Jesus was the Temple, the place at which God breaks into the world, because he is God, he is the glory of God, he is the revelation of God. He was Heaven, dwelling on earth.

Temples of the Holy Spirit. In these post-ascension days, Jesus is no longer on earth bodily, but he has not left the world without a temple – or more correctly, without temples. Here is a truth that will blow your mind: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16). You, Christian, are, now, God’s temple on earth. You are the place where heaven and earth intersect, because the Holy Spirit dwells in you, if you can believe it. By faith in Jesus, you are not your own, you were bought at a price (1 Corinthians 6:20). You are holy and blessed (1 Corinthians 3:17). You are the light of the world (Matthew 5:14). “God lives in you, believer, so don’t throw a tarp over a lighthouse” – to quote my favorite morning radio guy.

Buildings, churches, and cathedrals are not God’s house. The people belonging to Jesus are his house (1 Peter 2:4-6). Materials objects do not contain the Christian faith. “Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son” (Hebrews 3:5-6). Moses, the tabernacle, the temples of Jerusalem – all of it testified in advance to the truth that Jesus is Lord and Savior, and that the people redeemed by him are God’s house, and that God promises the people of his house unrestricted access and unashamed relationship with him, forever. That’s good news.

The culmination of it all. From the beginning to the end of God’s book, the idea of “temple” is there. Each time it resurfaces, it builds up our understanding of God and the grace he offers us. At the end of the book of Revelation, it comes up one last time: “I saw no temple in the city,” – that is, the New Jerusalem, John’s vision of the recreated world that is to come – “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Revelation 21:22). When that world arrives, there will no longer be glimpses of God or foretastes of his glory. We will be with him, fully. No barriers. No processes. Eternal life, with our Creator – when heaven and earth are one.

class is in session

I will never forget my fourth grade teacher. He taught in a way that increased my love for reading and made me and each of my classmates feel uniquely special to him. My appreciation for him has grown over the years as I have come to better understand the unique difficulties of teaching. I think just about everyone can relate to knowing the impact a good teacher can have on his or her students. Teachers, whether in the classroom, the church, or informally in life, can open our minds to things that no one else can.

Every January, my youth pastor asks all the junior and senior high schoolers in our church to choose “target words” to focus throughout the year – love, discipline, humility, etc. This time I chose “disciple” as a concept to explore and mature in this year. Thinking about discipleship over the past five months has taught me not only about myself as a disciple, but Christ as teacher. He said, “You are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers… Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah” (Matthew 23:8-10). That statement is amazing – indeed, the great part of the Christian life, whether you are a child in the faith or the apostle Paul, is simply sitting at Jesus’ feet saying, “teach me.”

Elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30 KJV). Jesus is a gentle teacher. He knows our weaknesses, and the ways even our good intentions can get messed up. He forgives, and forgives again, and forgives again. He never stops saying, “Come to me and I will give you rest.” His nail-pierced hands are always stretched out to welcome and embrace the sinners who come to him.

He is gentle, but uncompromising. He says “my burden is light”; he also says “take up your cross and follow me” (Luke 14:33). That’s like a holocaust victim saying “walk into your gas chamber.” He says, “be free” (John 8:36); he also says “be a slave” (Mark 10:43-44). He promises “life to the full” (John 10:10), along with daily death (Luke 9:23). If we are to be his students – his disciples – we must open the textbook, examine the coursework, and understand his methods.

He turns our whole paradigm for life on its head. He, the author of the Torah, did not go to people who cared about the Torah. He went to people like prostitutes and lepers, people without a shred of hope in regard to morality or keeping commandments, people overwhelmed in every way by the evil of humans, in both other people and themselves. He taught that the most precious thing in life, the only significant reality worth living for, is something you cannot see. It involves a way of life that will cost you pain and rejection, even from the people you love the most. He said that our hatred of sin ought to be so great that we consider physical maiming preferable to a single glance that offends God. He said to be unafraid of terrorists and murderers, but terrified by the anger of God against sin; and he said the same God whose anger burns so fiercely against sin feels such great love for forgiven sinners, and identifies himself with them so closely, that he calls them his children and asks them to call him their father. He preached Judgment Day, and he preached love, forgiveness, and mercy.

He is like no other teacher who has ever lived, and yet he is more than a teacher. Many have claimed to be teachers; a few have claimed to be saviors; none have claimed to be God. He is all three. He came to “give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45), because all of us, like prostitutes and lepers, have absolutely no hope in regard to morality and keeping commandments. We need his lessons; even more desperately, we need his salvation.

I know his salvation, therefore I say, “Lord, teach me” (see 2 Corinthians 4:13-14). He answers – through his Word, through my experiences, through his people, even through my failures, as amazing as that is – and I praise him for that.

Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes;
and I will keep it to the end.
Give me understanding, that I may keep your law
and observe it with my whole heart.
Lead me in the path of your commandments,
for I delight in it.
Incline my heart to your testimonies,
and not to selfish gain!
Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things;
and give me life in your ways.
Confirm to your servant your promise,
that you may be feared.
Turn away the reproach that I dread,
for your rules are good.
Behold, I long for your precepts;
in your righteousness give me life! Psalm 119:33-40

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.