The Cross-Centered Life

September 30, 2011

The cross is at the center of the Christian message. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2, ESV). Why was Paul so centered on the cross? Because the message of the cross is the power of God for salvation (1 Cor. 1:18). The cross is God’s means of reconciling the world to Himself (Eph. 2:16, Col. 1:20). On the cross, Jesus became the sacrifice for our sins.

The cross is also at the center of our conversion. Even during his earthly ministry, Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34, ESV). In the first century world, to take up your cross was to die. Luke’s account adds the word, “daily,” making clear that Jesus is speaking figuratively (Luke 9:23). Jesus demands that we die to ourselves, to our old lives.

This same imagery is associated with baptism. Paul wrote, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4, ESV). The Christian also has a cross, a tomb, and an empty tomb. We die to ourselves, and we are also united to Christ. The watery grave of baptism connects us to Jesus’ death and burial. We are resurrected from the waters of baptism to newness of life. There is a new life to be experienced now because we are united to Christ, and there is the hope of resurrection when He comes again.

The cross is at the center of Christian living. The new life has power. We are forgiven of our sins in the past, but we are also transformed. Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20, ESV). Later in the same letter, Paul explained, “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, ESV). Connected to Christ we can live better than we can with our own efforts alone.

The cross teaches me that I’m loved because Jesus endured the cross to save sinners like me. Jesus paid my debt on the cross. But the cross demands a response. Jesus asks me to die to myself. In baptism, my status before God is changed. I become united to Christ. My sins are forgiven, and I become a part of the people of God. The cross-centered life also gives power for living. In dying to myself and letting Christ live in me, I find the strength to be transformed. With Christ, I can do things I could not do alone.

Are you living a cross centered life?

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I Still Pray

September 22, 2011

He had received a death sentence; at least the kind doctors deliver with estimates of how many months he had to live. There are no glib answers with that kind of visit, so I listened. He did not want to die. He had many things he still wanted to do and felt like he should do. He prayed for a cure. He said, “I believe God is able to cure me, but I know that He often chooses not to cure.” We prayed, and later, I conducted his funeral.

I do not believe in some kind of “Christian deism” – God acted to get things going in the church, and then after the first century A.D. withdrew from His world to no longer act. No, I don’t expect the signs of the apostles (2 Corinthians 12:12), they were unique to those special messengers. Yet, I still believe in the providence of God. J. D. Thomas defined providence as “God’s interposing in man’s affairs or influencing man’s life in ways different from the ordinary workings of natural law and other than through the written word.”1 God is still intimately involved in this world and in the lives of His people.

Prayer changes me, but I believe that it also changes the world too. Jesus teaches us that we have a Father who sees in secret and rewards. We have a Father who knows how to give good gifts, better even than our earthly fathers who would not even dream of giving snakes for fish or stones for bread. Yet prayer is not magic. God is not the cosmic vending machine – insert prayer, press the right button, and requests dispensed.

I believe that cures sometimes happen in answer to prayer, yet I wonder why God doesn’t wipe away every tear now. Why do good people suffer and die? I suppose my questions begin to sound like Job’s. After all of Job’s laments, God appears and asks him all kinds of questions about the creation that Job could not answer. I suspect it is God’s way of telling us that we don’t have enough wisdom to run the universe. How do you balance free will and intervention?

I suspect that God doesn’t answer all of our prayers the way we wish, because He desires a world in which we seek after Him in faith. I suppose that if prayer did seem like magic, our faith would actually be sight. Who could resist such evidence? But God seeks to woo us not compel us to love Him.

A paradox of faith is that Christians may give the strongest testimony by their suffering and death. Grace, faith, patience, and love in the midst of suffering make an indelible impression. Metals refined by the fire and character tested in the crucible of suffering are precious. After all, we follow the One who suffered.

The ultimate answers are in the Age to Come. God will reverse the curse of sin and death for those in Christ. He will wipe away every tear. But in the meantime, I still pray.

1J. D. Thomas, The Spirit and Spirituality, p. 27.


Once, Now, and If

September 16, 2011

They are two adverbs and a conjunction — once, now, and if. Yes, I know that grammar is not everybody’s cup of tea, but these three words reveal the structure of Paul’s thought in Colossians 1:21-23. It is good for us to ponder once, now, and if.

With the word “once,” Paul points to the past, the pre-christian past of his readers. They were once alienated. This is an objective statement about status outside of Christ. Christians can and should be welcoming to non-Christians in the assembly. But just as a tourists can be welcomed in a foreign country and yet not have the privileges of citizenship until they have moved from the category of aliens to citizens, the same is true for those outside of Christ.

But Paul has two more descriptions of the past: hostile in mind and doing evil deeds. The classic statement that says our way of thinking is different from God’s is Isaiah 55:8-9.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:8–9, ESV

The more alienated we are from God, the more our thinking is going to be off, and the more our thinking is off, the more our behavior will be wrong, even evil.

“Now” indicates the change in status. The Christian’s present is different from the past. Now we are reconciled to God by the death of Christ. Reconciliation means that the broken relationship that was once hostile and alienated has been made right. We have been brought near. This is done so that we might be presented holy, blameless, and above reproach before him. There is the justification sense of that. Because I am in Christ, God will say no punishment for me. There is the sanctification sense. Because I am in Christ, I am actually growing more holy in life and conduct.

Finally, there is the big “if”. Paul says that we must continue in the faith. Although translations differ here (“the faith” ESV, NASB, KJV, NKJV and “your faith” NIV), I think “the faith” is preferable, although both statements would be true. The Greek text does have the definite article (i.e., the), and it seems to link up with what was heard and proclaimed in the latter part of the sentence.

Paul wants us to be stable, steadfast, and not shifting from the faith, the apostolic message. If we do that, we will stand before God blameless and above reproach.

Paul gives us a glimpse into our past, present, and potential future with once, now, and if.


9/11

September 9, 2011

Where were you September 11, 2001? I suspect that if you were old enough, the details of that day are still vivid. I remember clearly where I was when I heard the news. Like many, I watched on television as the Twin Towers fell. But that is one of the odd things about 10 year anniversaries. The US has had over 40 million births in the past ten years, and millions more would have been too young to remember that fateful day. What for me is a vivid memory is another’s history lesson. 9/11 is a day to remind people of the lessons of the past.

My parents had a day that stood vividly in their memories too —December 7, 1941. The bombing of Pearl Harbor led to war, but at Pearl Harbor’s ten year anniversary, that war was over. Our country’s soldiers still find themselves in harm’s way on foreign fields. 9/11 is a day to pray for peace.

9/11 was a day of heroic action by ordinary people. Firemen ran into burning buildings to save others and perished. Ordinary airline passengers thwarted a terrorist plot to fly a plane into one more Washington D.C. target at the cost of their lives. Courage is not the absence of fear. It is selfless acts in the face of fear. Such acts spring from love and a proper sense of duty. 9/11 is a day to be reminded of self-sacrifice.

Like many others, my sermon on September 16, 2011 was from Psalm 46. God is our refuge and strength even if the mountains be thrown into the sea. Since 9/11, I have thought many times about where is safe. We have witnessed other terrible days. And there is nothing to prevent terrible days from coming — accidents, illnesses, natural disasters, or the senseless deeds of evil. Safe is not found in a particular place on this planet. Safe is not found in a particular time. Safe is found in God who is our refuge even if that means “the earth gives way.” 9/11 is day to remind ourselves of our true security.

In the aftermath of 9/11 churches saw an increase in attendance. People wondered if there was a spark of revival. Yet, it was short-lived. A few months later everything was back to normal. If there is one change from that event that I wish would have remained and even grown, that is it. I’m convinced that “unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain” (Psalm 127:1). I’m convinced that a nation’s strength is in part measured by its moral and spiritual strength. 9/11 is a day to pray for revival.


Archaeology’s Fraction

September 5, 2011

Archaeology provides significant insights to our understanding of the Bible. Insights into culture can help bring a passage to life. Yet, archaeology has limits. Many people, places, and events of the Bible will be unnoticed by archaeology. That should not be surprising, because our knowledge of the ancient world is very limited. Archaeologist Edwin Yamauchi explains that fragmentary nature of the evidence with a number of facts.

  • Archaeology deals with material remains, which include writings, daily items, buildings, utensils, etc. Only a small fraction of these materials remains exist due to erosion and the destructive nature of human beings. Further, theft has stripped many archaeological sites.
  • Palestine had 300 known archaeological sites in 1944. That number grew to 7000 by 1970. Yet archeologists have surveyed only a fraction of the sites available.
  • Of the sites that have been surveyed only a fraction have been excavated. Palestine had 5000 sites in 1963. Of those, 150 had been excavated in part and 26 had become major sites.
  • Of the sites that become archaeological digs, only a fraction of the site is actually excavated. This is due to the enormous costs, the amount of time, and also to preserve the possibility of future archaeological research. Hazor is a site of 175 acres. Yigael Yadin estimated that it would have taken 800 years to clear the site.
  • Only a fraction of the discovered material has been published. For example, 25,000 cuneiform texts were discovered at Mari, but only 3,500 to 4000 have been published.

Grant Osborne summarizes the above survey, “Yamauchi estimates that being supremely optimistic we could have one-tenth of the material in existence, six-tenths of that surveyed, one-fiftieth of that excavated, one-tenth of that examined, and one-half of that published. This means that we have only .006 percent of the evidence.”1 The above exercise is not to minimize archaeology, but to interject some humility into discussions about what moderns know.

The Bible itself is a major source of information about the ancient world. We can appreciate the insights that archaeology provides, but we can’t expect it to confirm all the details of the Bible. The absence of archaeological information about a particular person, place or event doesn’t mean that the person or place did not exist or the event did not happen. Our knowledge of the ancient world is valuable but partial and but a fraction of the past.

1Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, p. 159.