Death the Intruder, Christ the Victor

Death is an intruder. And everything that leads to death—sickness, pain, old-age, heart-attacks, high-blood pressure, brain aneurisms, and cancer—are also all intruders. We live in world that is not the way it’s supposed to be.

But even before any of these intruders entered our existence there was a more primal intruder: sin. It was sin against God that brought about not only physical suffering like cancer and migraines, but inter-personal and social trouble as well. Broken relationships, divorce, hate, murder, racism, bitterness, family disputes, bullying, and betrayal all flow from the same source: sin. What happened?

In the Beginning
The God who created this breathtaking universe and abundant earth also created man in his image (Gen 1:1; 1:26-27). Sadly, God’s first image-bearers, Adam and Eve, though originally created without sin, soon turned from obedience to and trust in their Creator to disobedience and rebellion. The first man and woman each took and ate fruit from a tree from which they were forbidden (Gen 2:16-17). They had believed the lie of God’s arch-enemy Satan who had told them they would not die if they took from the forbidden tree; a direct contradiction to what God had previously told Adam (Gen 3:4).

As the Genesis narrative explains, that day in the Garden of Eden, mankind fell into sin and ruin, and the effects of their disobedience were immediate. Adam and Eve were, for the first time, ashamed of their nakedness. Recognizing that something wasn’t right, they attempted to cover themselves with self-made loin coverings. The man who was expected to lead and protect his wife yet who sat passively by while she was beguiled by Satan, now blames her (and ultimately God, for he had given her to Adam) for their mess.  The woman, also not willing to share any of the blame, points her finger at the serpent (Genesis 3:8-13).

As a result and reminder of their sin, God cursed the entire creation, including the man and the woman. Difficulty, stress, and futility would now attend work; pain would now be a regular aspect of child bearing. Man’s proclivity to passivity and the woman’s desire to rule over her husband would now constantly threaten to undo the harmony of the family structure (Genesis 3:16-19).  Soon, envy, hatred, and murder would enter God’s world through Adam and Eve’s children (Genesis 4:1-16). And, even if you could avoid murder from an angry neighbor or relative, you would eventually die (Genesis 5:1ff).

How Do We Deal with Death?
What are we to make of this? How do we deal with death, this unwelcome intruder? At the death of loved ones, do we mask our deep anguish with plastic smiles and vague talk that “so-and-so is in a better place?” Do we pretend that death isn’t actually real and embrace the unsustainable position that it is merely an illusion? Do we construct a complex philosophy that removes the possibility of an afterlife so that we do not have to think about what our consciences tell us every day: that judgment is indeed coming and that we must soon give an account to our Creator?

No, none of these options can satisfy the human longing for a truth that allows one to face reality with honesty and courage; that allows us to grieve deeply at the loss of a loved one, while simultaneously rejoicing in the solid and sure hope of eternal life. Only Christianity can satisfy the soul. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ can enable us to grieve with hope. Only the Bible can offer a satisfying answer to death: that it is an unwelcome intruder into God’s good creation that robs families of husbands, wives, dads, moms, grandpas, grandmas, brothers, and sisters, and robs friends of a faithful and gracious companions. But that death is now, through Jesus Christ, also an entrance into eternal life and unceasing joy in God.

The Promised Deliverer
See, even after Adam and Eve’s sin, mercy would prevail. Even before the pronouncement of the curse, God promised the man and woman that he would send another man—the offspring of a woman—to crush the serpent. The rescue mission, however, would be costly and the one tasked with crushing the serpent would suffer. Yes, he would be victorious—he would destroy the serpent—but he would not escape the fray unscathed. The serpent would, as the Bible says, “bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). Deliverance from sin and its dreaded effects was certainly on the way; but even here, in the earliest chapters of the Bible, we find hints of a suffering Savior.

God would carry out his promised deliverance over many centuries, first by drawing specific people to himself (like Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), then by rescuing an entire nation from the clutches of Egyptian slavery so that they would be his people and he would be their God (Jeremiah 32:38).

As His chosen people, God provided the nation of Israel with a multitude of pictures—all embedded into their religious and civil life—of a coming Deliverer.  Israel needed an upright king would to lead them (2 Sam 7:1-17), a sinless high priest to intercede for them (Psalm 110:4), a selfless shepherd to protect them (Ezekiel 34:15-23), a trustworthy prophet to speak God’s words to them (Deuteronomy 18:18), and a righteous substitute to die for their countless transgressions (Isaiah 53:1-12). Not only this, but Israel also looked forward to the time when God himself would come down from his heavenly throne and fulfill the many promises he had made to His people over the past several centuries (Isaiah 9:6; 64:1).

In the Fulness of Time
Finally, at the perfect time, He came. The Deliverer God had promised entered into the world through the womb of a virgin. Only the very Son of God could fulfill the numerous roles described above, so God’s Spirit fell upon Mary, a young Jewish girl in the line of David, and she conceived a child. The eternal Son of God, formally enthroned in glory with his Father from all eternity would become a human being and enter the world through a miraculous conception (Luke 1:26-2:6).

But He wasn’t what Israel expected. He didn’t descend upon the earth in a glorious entourage of angels, ready to defeat Israel’s earthly enemies in one victorious flash. He came as a baby, a baby born in a dirty stable suitable only for animals and feed—the most unlikely of places for a triumphant king. And His name would be Jesus, for he had come to save his people, not from earthly enemies, but from that which had cast the world into ruin many centuries ago; he had come to save his people from their sin.

Despised and Rejected
But Jesus didn’t fit the description of what many of the Jews expected of their coming king and savior, so he wasn’t warmly embraced by the religious leaders. Besides, not only did he not fit the Jews’ notion of what their deliverer should look like, he further aggravated their discontent by challenging their spiritual apathy, confronting their hypocrisy, and denouncing their self-righteousness. He called for repentance from self-reliance and self-justification, and he offered salvation to any one who came to him looking for rest from the burden of religious requirements to earn God’s favor. Jesus was their King. And just like David, Israel’s famous monarch of old, suffering would come before glory.

Neither Jesus’ message of true righteousness nor his plan to suffer on the behalf of his people sat well with the Jewish leaders. While some appeared to believe in him on a superficial level, most of them joined in a conspiracy to kill this itinerant preacher. After three years of teaching, healing, and disciple-making, Jesus’ time had come.

One of his twelve disciples, Judas, having feigned loyalty during the entirety of Jesus’ ministry, finally ended his façade and sold his Master to the religious leaders for thirty pieces of silver. A covert arrest, a set of false charges, and a mock trial would eventually land Jesus into the hands of Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea. Caving to the pressure of the religious leaders and buckling under his fear of Caesar, Pilate acquiesced to the demands of those who sought Jesus’ demise.  “Crucify Him,” the fickle mob cried only days after many of them had cordially greeted Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. Pilate complied. Having already been scourged and beaten, Jesus would now be nailed to a cross alongside two criminals outside Jerusalem’s city limits.

What the religious leaders couldn’t see, blinded as they were by their own rage and self-righteousness, was that the God whom they claimed to worship had brought about the entire ordeal. Although the people who conspired against Jesus and lobbied for His execution were guilty of great sin—for they had acted freely out of their own evil desires—it had been God who planned from before the beginning of time that his Son would die in the place of sinners. It would please the Father to crush His Son because His Son’s willing death would secure the salvation of God’s people while simultaneously upholding God’s righteousness.  God would remain just while justifying those who put their faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26).

Our Sinless Substitute
By living a life of flawless obedience to his Father as their representative and taking the punishment they deserved, Jesus had landed a decisive blow to Satan, for the adversary could no longer accuse God’s people of their unrighteousness.  Those who believe the gospel now possess a perfect righteousness that is found, not in themselves, but in Christ alone.  Plus, by freeing his people from the condemnation they had incurred for breaking God’s law, Jesus removed the dominion of sin over their life.  At the cross, sin was soundly defeated because sin’s power, the condemnation of the law, had been dismantled by Jesus’ substitutionary death.

All this is possible because Jesus didn’t merely die.  He rose again from the dead.

The Power of the Resurrection
From the moment that Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s commandment in the Garden of Eden they were subjected to physical and spiritual death. Death was God’s penalty for disobedience, and in their refusal to trust God’s good word, the first man and woman opened the floodgates of mortality upon the entire human race. The promised Deliverer, then, in order to crush the serpent and rescue mankind from eternal misery, had to bring death to a complete end.

So, in another garden, approximately two-thousand years ago, a few of Jesus’ closest disciples would discover an empty tomb. And not only an empty tomb, but Jesus himself. The Savior was no longer dead; He was alive!  Jesus had completed His mission by taking the place of His people, fulfilling every righteous requirement of the law in their place, bearing the penalty of their sin by dying on the cross, and rising bodily from the grave.

Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the grave serves as the precursor to and guarantee of the Christian’s resurrection. Our bodies, though racked with disease and pain, will someday rise from the grave, as God reconstitutes our earthly body, forming it into a new, incorruptible body that will resemble his Lord’s glorious body (Phil 3:21). See, the Christian hope is a holistic hope. Christ didn’t come merely to save the soul, but to redeem the body as well. Christians don’t look forward to heaven alone, but to a new heaven and a new earth (Rev. 21:1).

A Call to Repentance and Full Pardon
Now seated at the right hand of His Father, Jesus calls sinners to receive a sure and irrevocable pardon from heaven. He calls you to stop using sophisticated excuses to hide from God. He pleads with you to be done with your attempts to mask your sin with the threadbare coverings of religious ritual and good works. He invites you to trade an unfulfilling life of self-indulgence for the satisfying life of faith in Christ and ministry to others. He commands you to repent from your hypocrisy, self-righteousness, self-seeking, and self-reliance and believe in a gospel of grace and truth.

If you place genuine faith in Jesus Christ, you will find in him a complete salvation. You will find justification, forgiveness of sin, reconciliation with God, hope for the future, power over sin, strength for ministry, and wisdom for living a life that truly pleases God. And, although you will inevitably face trials and persecution for your allegiance to Jesus, don’t worry.  The troubles of this life are but a mere moment when compared to the eternity of unspeakable joy that Christ has in store for those who love him.

Photo: Kimber Shaw

Scripture, Tradition, and the Question of Authority

We affirm that the Scriptures are the supreme written norm by which God binds the conscience, and that the authority of the Church is subordinate to that of Scripture.

 We deny that church creeds, councils, or declarations have authority greater than or equal to the authority of the Bible.

The second article of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) deals specifically with the issue of Scripture’s authority. Article II affirms that the Scriptures are the “supreme written norm” to which human conscience is bound, while other written documents, although important, do not possess authority equal or superior to that of the Scriptures. Continue reading “Scripture, Tradition, and the Question of Authority”

Why Should Christians Seek Assurance of their Salvation?

I remember a conversation during college in which a friend confessed to me that he did not think it was necessary, or even possible, for a believer to gain assurance of their salvation. I was surprised by his comments, especially because we were attending a Christian college that emphasized all the biblical truths related to assurance of salvation: election, grace, faith, repentance, substitutionary atonement, the fully deity and humanity of Christ, and eternal security.

As it turns out, this was not an isolated incident. Over the past several years as I’ve wrestled personally with the issue of assurance and had opportunity to speak to others about it, I’ve found that many Christians do not rightly understand the biblical basis or importance of this doctrine. Assurance is essential to genuine Christianity and central to the New Testament’s theological framework, yet plenty of Christians are content to walk through life without the sure knowledge that they belong to Christ. There are, of course, those who claim assurance who have no right to; but it seems that there are an equal number of professing Christians who have either resigned to the fact they will never have assurance or that they don’t really need it. Continue reading “Why Should Christians Seek Assurance of their Salvation?”

With Christ in the Cambodian Killing Fields

In the spring of 1975, the Communist Party of Kampuchea–more popularly known as the Khmer Rouge–took official control of Cambodia. Pol Pot, a Marxist driven by intended-for-evilvisions of a pure socialist state and his desire to rebuild his country, led a revolutionary army into unlikely power and immediately began to implement his plans for a better Cambodia. For the next four years, Pol Pot would pursue his socialist utopia by establishing a strictly agrarian economy and removing any possible signs of capitalist influence from the country.

That’s putting it lightly.

Pol Pot’s aim to create a “New Socialist Man” who was “dedicated only to the collective,” required that he eliminate any trace of the old society. Les Sillars explains,

Pol Pot’s goal was to create a new society that was purely socialist and purely Khmer. First, the regime had to crush the old society and everything connected to it: religion, free markets, private property, schools, political and economic institutions, as well as traditional ideas of morality, sexuality, and family (67). Continue reading “With Christ in the Cambodian Killing Fields”

Let Us Have Peace with God? Reflections on Romans 5:1 and Dealing with Bible Difficulties

Encountering difficulties in the Bible can be troubling for the young believer and the seasoned saint alike. Yet, when we are confronted with hard passages or apparent discrepancies in the biblical text, we don’t want to ignore the difficulty or pretend it doesn’t exist. Out of an unwillingness to do a little hard work, lack of acquaintance with the available resources, or the mistaken assumption that faith shouldn’t require any mental effort, we may indulge the temptation to shuffle quickly past difficult passages in order to avoid intellectual and emotional discomfort. Continue reading “Let Us Have Peace with God? Reflections on Romans 5:1 and Dealing with Bible Difficulties”

All Things Richly: God and the Good Things of Life

When it comes to the matters related to physical life and how Christians should think about earthly enjoyment, the Church has rarely found herself securely balanced between the extremes of severe asceticism and unrestrained indulgence. Even the New Testament gives the indication that there has always been pressure to move toward one of these two poles. In Ephesus, there were lovers of pleasure; in Colossae, there were rigorous ascetics. In the early church there were those, like Augustine, who (personal reasons notwithstanding) rejected marriage and sought the pseudo-spiritual environment of a monastery. There were the hedonists and the Epicureans. Today we have the legalists and the health, wealth, and prosperity teachers. What we need a theology of enjoyment. Continue reading “All Things Richly: God and the Good Things of Life”

‘The Religious Tradesman’ by Richard Steele

The Religious TradesmanRichard Steele was a Puritan minister in the mid-seventeenth century, but his work The Religious Tradesman is what you might consider a “lost classic.” Even in 1747, eighty years after its initial publication, Isaac Watts, writing in the introduction, lamented that the piece was “now very little known;” it’s popularity foundering under the disadvantages of an “ancient name” and “ancient dress.”

Nearly 300 years later, we can join in Watts’s lament. Despite excellent content, Steele’s book has received very little attention among contemporary Christian readers. Hopefully this brief review can encourage a few Christians to pick up Steele’s volume and find encouragement to attend to their daily work with renewed joy and purpose. Continue reading “‘The Religious Tradesman’ by Richard Steele”