The Big Hint

March 28, 2010

Abraham was to become a great nation (Genesis 12:1-3), and God had promised that it was through Isaac that Abraham’s offspring would be named (Genesis 21:12). Abraham had waited twenty-five years for his promised son. That is what made the command to sacrifice Isaac such a great test (Genesis 22:1-19).

The story of the sacrifice of Isaac is disturbing. Human sacrifice was forbidden to Israel (Deuteronomy 12:31), and as readers we are relieved when Abraham’s hand is stayed by the voice of the angel. Yet as I read this Old Testament narrative, I can’t help think of another story – the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

  • Both stories deal with a son of promise.
  • Both stories deal with an only and beloved son (Genesis 22:2). With Jesus, God gave his only Son (John 3:16), his beloved son (Matthew 3:17).
  • Both stories deal with the same geography. The land of Moriah is normally identified with Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 3:1).
  • Both stories deal with an atoning sacrifice. Isaac is to be a burnt offering (Genesis 22:2, see also Leviticus 1:4). Jesus was to be the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).
  • Both stories affirm faith in resurrection. “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Hebrews 11:17–19, ESV). Hebrews reflects on Abraham’s dilemma and words: “He said to his servants, ‘Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you’” (Genesis 22:5, NIV, emphasis added). For Isaac to fulfill the promise, he had to live beyond the sacrifice. For Jesus to be the glorious King that his identity as Messiah affirmed, he had to live beyond the sacrifice. Isaac was spared; Jesus was offered, but raised.
  • Both stories affirm “God will himself provide the lamb…” (Genesis 22:8, John 3:16).
  • Both stories center on the promise made to Abraham. The promise is reaffirmed after the offering of Isaac (Genesis 22:17-19). Jesus is the promised seed through whom all the world is blessed (Galatians 3:7-9).

I must confess that such comparisons are not popular today, and I’m well aware that typologies can be taken too far. Isaiah 53 is a far clearer place to look for the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Yet as a reader, I can’t help but see these comparisons. It is as if God is giving in Abraham a glimpse of what was to come two millennia later. Given what was to come, the offering of Isaac is the big hint.

Life on Loan

March 24, 2010

The parable was told in response to a request; a request that Jesus refuses. A man asks for Jesus to arbitrate an inheritance dispute. Having asked the rhetorical question who made me a judge or arbitrator over you, Jesus concludes with a warning: “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15, ESV). Then Jesus tells the story of the rich fool.

The rich fool has a problem – a problem that many of us would like to have. He has so much that he is struggling with where to put it all. What do you give the man who has everything? Answer: storage containers. The rich man decides to tear down his barns and build bigger ones. That is where many modern readers struggle to understand the story. We hear the word barn and think a large, red wooden structure. Barns in the ancient world were often underground granaries that were plastered or bricked. “Tear down” likely refers “to the deliberate taking down of the barns in such a way that the material can still be used.” This rich man has abundance, and he plots a way to keep it all.

The parable gives the rich man’s inner dialogue.

 …and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ (Luke 12:17–19, ESV, emphasis added)

It is interesting to count the number of times the words, “I” and “my,” occur. If all the world’s a stage, this man acts if he is in a one man play.

But the rich fool has his exit. “But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’” (Luke 12:20, ESV). The word for “required” is interesting. It means to demand something back or as due as in the case of a loan. Jesus has given us the image that our life is on loan from God.

What happens when I view my life as on loan from God? It changes everything. My life, my time, and my resources are matters of stewardship. I will have to give an account. I must view things from God’s perspective and priorities.

This changed perspective makes the warnings understandable. The abundance of possessions is not the most important thing; God is most important. If I haven’t laid up treasures in heaven, I have nothing that will ultimately last. God will demand my life back someday. My life is on loan.

Only Jesus

March 18, 2010

Tom likes to think of himself as a good person. He works hard, pays his taxes, and raises his family. People like him; he’s a good neighbor. Oh, he has his moral lapses. Doesn’t everybody? He lies on occasion—mostly little white lies. He swears like a sailor when he’s stressed—like last weekend when he hit his thumb with a hammer. But usually he watches his language around his kids. He’s honest, although he’d almost forgotten that time as a teenager when he shoplifted the cigarettes on a dare.

When Tom thinks about the bad things he’s done, he immediately reminds himself of the good things he’s done. He’s just not that bad. He is certain that his good deeds outweigh the bad. He has gone out of his way to help people. He’s even done some volunteer work and made charitable donations. Why last week he stopped and helped an elderly lady with a flat tire.

Tom isn’t into organized religion, although he still believes in God. Admittedly he’s never read the Bible—he really doesn’t know anyone who has. But he’s sure that some of the things in the Bible are true. Tom is just convinced that a good God couldn’t send him to hell. After all, his good deeds outweigh his bad deeds.

Tom isn’t alone. According to a Barna Research poll: “Half of all adults (50%) argue that anyone who ‘is generally good or does enough good things for others during their life will earn a place in Heaven.’”

Although this is a popular point of view, it underestimates the seriousness of sin. Paul wrote, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23, ESV). One sin separates us from God for eternity left untreated, and there is nothing that we can do to balance the scales in our favor by our own good deeds. Any sin avoided and any good deed done are simply what we should be doing. They can’t earn a good standing that has been lost by sin.

Thinking that good deeds outweigh bad deeds trivializes the death of Jesus. Why would Christ endure the cross, if it is only a matter of us balancing the scales? Part of the explanation for the cross is found in Romans 3:26: “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (ESV). Forgiveness places God’s own justice at risk if the penalty for sin is not taken seriously. We would not re-elect a judge who routinely frees criminals, because we would say he is unjust.

Jesus paid the penalty that was our due for sin. He did that so that God may be just and also justifier (one who forgives sinners). But note the condition: “the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). We can’t balance the scales of justice for ourselves. Only Jesus can satisfy justice and bring forgiveness.

A Lasting Name

March 9, 2010

Maybe you read it in the news. A massive granite head was found in the sands of Egypt. The statue represented Amenhotep III. The eight foot tall head was intact except for the ceremonial beard which was broken off. Archaeologists hope to find it buried in the sands of Luxor.

I’ve had the privilege of seeing some of the great monuments of Egypt including colossus statues of pharaohs. They are impressive sights even when broken and lying on their sides.  But this find reminds me of the poem, Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

Ozymandias is but another transliteration from Greek of the name Ramesses who was pharaoh of the nineteenth dynasty of Egypt. Both archaeologist and poet remind us of the decay of human endeavors even while attempting to leave a lasting name.

Is it worth it to build buildings, create art, to invent and strive? I think the answer must be yes. These impulses are God-given, but we must view such things through a lens of humility. The things of this world decay, and we must give glory to God. Otherwise, we are but attempting to build the Tower of Babel all over again crying out to one another, “Let us make a name for ourselves.” The Tower of Babel and the lines from Ozymandias are but different verses of the same rebellious song.

To have a lasting name is to have one’s name written in the book of life (Revelation 3:5). To build for eternity is to store up treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). If these things be true, then let us create and build. The decay of this world doesn’t matter, because it is God who gives us a lasting name.

Forever Life

March 3, 2010

“For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes… All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls…” These are biblical metaphors for the brevity of life. Our physical life is fragile. Death has no minimum age requirement, but this isn’t the entire story.

Two different eternities stretch out before us depending on our choices in life.

He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. (Romans 2:6–8, ESV)

We must understand the “patience in well-doing” of the previous passage as pointing to faith in Jesus (Romans 3:21-31). Jesus makes all the difference.

Jesus is also our reason for believing in life after death. We have several lines of evidence that converge: the Old Testament prophecies and the eyewitness testimony of the gospels. The alternate explanations – growth of legend, hallucinations, stolen body, wrong tomb, and Jesus merely swooning on the cross and not dying – fail to convince even many skeptics. As someone has observed, we need something the size and shape of the resurrection to explain the dramatic transformation of the disciples and the conversions of James and Paul.

So we have someone who can speak authoritatively about life after death – Jesus, the Risen One. We have two different eternities stretching out before us depending on our choice about Jesus.

Jesus used a number of images to describe hell – “outer darkness, unquenchable fire, weeping, and gnashing of teeth.” Whatever surface contradiction is contained in these words is resolved in human experience excluded from God. Even in the worst moments of this life, there are snatches of beauty and glimpses of goodness. To be excluded from God is truly death.

A marriage banquet of the Lamb, a glorious Jerusalem, and an exalted Garden of Eden with Trees of Life aplenty are the images of eternal life with God. Love, goodness, and beauty are God’s gifts and tokens of his presence. If two eternities stretch out before us, give me that which can truly be called forever life.