COLOSSIANS #19: BAD NEWS, AND GOOD NEWS

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The gospel is made up of two parts: Bad news, and good news. The bad news is that there is something fundamentally wrong in every human heart. If you don’t believe this, just read or watch the news. The stuff that makes the world a scary and bad place is also inside of you and me. If we don’t believe this, we don’t believe the gospel.

The good news is that Jesus Christ has made a way to take care of that deep and universal human problem. His actions, his death and resurrection, are the only way to bring evil to justice, and, at the same time, save those who want to be saved. If we don’t believe this, we don’t believe the gospel.

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Colossians #19. Colossians 2:13-15

 Colossians 2:13-15 provides a clearly laid out message. There are two pieces to it: 1. Our situation. 2. What God did about it. You could picture it like this:

US GOD
Dead Made us Alive with Christ
In trespasses (sins) Having forgiven our trespasses
In the uncircumcision of our flesh Canceled the written code with its requirements
Nailed our sins and the written code to the cross
Disarmed spiritual forces of evil
Put the evil spiritual forces to shame
Triumphed over evil through Jesus

This is the gospel in a nutshell. We need to trust the truth of both sides of the equation. We believe that we are dead apart from Christ, that we are sinners who have no way to make good with God. If you looked up the record of good and bad in our hearts (not just in our outward behavior) we would stand officially condemned. If everyone could see into our hearts, no one would call us truly good. If you still think that somehow you can please God yourself, then you don’t believe the gospel. If you think “I’m no worse than most people, so I’m probably OK,” you don’t believe the gospel. The power that makes some people serial killers and rapists lives inside of each human heart. We might control it better than criminals, but it is in there.

After WWII, the Allies held trials in order to bring to justice the Nazi’s who had done such horrific things to Jews and others. At one such trial they brought in a Jewish man named Yehiel Dinur to testify. He saw the Nazi Adolf Eichman sitting in the defendant’s chair, and broke down into uncontrollable sobs. Everyone thought that seeing the Nazi had brought back the terrible memories and losses suffered by Dinur. But Dinur explained. He said when saw Eichman sitting there, looking so ordinary, he realized that the same horrific evil that lived inside of Eichman lived also inside himself. He realized that all humans, given the right circumstances, were capable of such atrocity. In believing this, Dinur was right in line with both the Jewish and Christian faiths. The Old Testament teaches us that human evil is universal:

5 The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Genesis 6:5, ESV)

 9 Who can say, “I have made my heart pure;
I am clean from my sin”? (Proverbs 20:9, ESV)

9 The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9, ESV)

The New Testament affirms it as well. Romans 3:10-18, quoting several Psalms, says this:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
11 no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 in their paths are ruin and misery,
17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:10-18, ESV)

Also from the same chapter of Romans:

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (Romans 3:23, ESV)

John puts it plainly several times in his first letter:

8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (1 John 1:8, ESV)

10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:10, ESV)

So, if we believe that we are basically OK, we don’t believe the gospel. In this day and age, a lot of people like to focus on the aspects of the gospel that lead us to help others. That’s good, and we should look for ways to serve other people. But if we think that is all it’s about – just being kind, and helping out where we can – then we don’t believe the Bible and we don’t understand the gospel. The evil of sin lives inside of every human heart, and we are powerless to remove it for ourselves, though we often dress it up, and hide it well. If you don’t believe me, just go find any normal news site, and you will see how pervasive and universal and damaging and disgusting is human sinfulness.

In some ways, sin is like a virus. Take for example Coronavirus-19. Some people get it, and have very few symptoms. Others have it, and die from it. Even if you have few or no symptoms, you are a carrier of the disease, and you might pass it on to someone else, and that person will die from it. Though it may not affect you as much as someone else, it is the same disease. Sin is like that, but it is worse, because it might lie dormant within you for years, and then, if you relax your vigilance, suddenly rise up within you and lead you to ruin your life and those of others around you.

I’ve lived a pretty good life, outwardly. But I know that inside me are lust, and rage, and self-centeredness, and pride. I can hide them, but I can’t eliminate them by myself, and I know I am capable of doing some awful things, and capable of hurting those I love. If I gave myself permission to give in to my impulses, it wouldn’t be long before others could see more of the dirty muck of sin that lives inside of my flesh.

If you don’t believe that sin is real, and that it is a terrible problem for you personally, and for the world generally, than the good news about Jesus will not be particularly good news. Jesus came to save us. If we don’t believe we need to be saved, we might think it’s a nice gesture, but it really doesn’t mean that much to us. So we must understand and accept this first part of the gospel. We must recognize that we need to be saved from the sin that lives within us, and we must want to be saved from it. In addition, we need to recognize that we cannot save ourselves. Many people, both believers and unbelievers alike, have the mistaken impression that Christianity is all about behaving well so God loves us. That is absolutely false. True Christians know that they are sinful, and utterly lost without Jesus. True Christians know that they aren’t better than anyone else. They know that even if they are no worse than anyone else, that is not good enough. The sin and selfishness that live inside of us separate us from God and true goodness.

There is a second half to the gospel. Just as we don’t believe the true gospel unless we accept that sin is a huge problem that we cannot overcome, so we must also accept and trust the second part: Jesus, through his death and resurrection, has paid the price for our sins, and through that, has obtained eternal life for us. Jesus, and what he did for us, are the only way we can be made right with God and receive eternal life.

6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (ESV, John 14:6)

10 All who believe in the Son of God know in their hearts that this testimony is true. Those who don’t believe this are actually calling God a liar because they don’t believe what God has testified about his Son.
11 And this is what God has testified: He has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have God’s Son does not have life. (NTL, 1 John 5:10-12)

Some people say, “Why can’t God just sort of wave his hand, and say, “forget about it?” If no one is really capable of measuring up, why not just change the standard? Let’s start with this thought: Imagine someone raped you (guys can be raped, as well as women). Or maybe someone did that to a person that you love. Why can’t you just wave your hand, and say “forget about it?” Not so easy, is it? Instinctively, deeply, something inside of us cries out for consequences to evil, for justice.

Let me give you an analogy. Suppose your house is somewhat close to the street. One night a woman gets drunk, and rams her truck right into the middle of your living room. Your outside and inside walls are in shambles. You have three broken windows. Some of your furniture is trashed, and a piece of artwork is ruined. One of your pets was killed. And the drunk woman was driving without insurance. Now, you aren’t going to leave your house this way. It has to be fixed in order for you to live there. So somebody has to pay for the damage. You can wave your hand and say “forget about it,” but that doesn’t change the fact that the damage has to be repaired, and it costs a fair amount. That cost has to be covered by someone. If you were to truly forgive the woman for her drunken accident, it would mean you pay. Forgiveness says: “I will pay the cost for something that is your fault.”

This is exactly what God did for us in Jesus. The damage caused by the sin that lives in every one of us is death and hell. That is what it costs. By the way, that is one reason the world so often looks like it is going to hell – because it is. But Jesus stepped in and said “I will pay.” He suffered death, and he suffered the torment of hell, so that we don’t have to. He gave us life when our future was death. He paid the price that we were obligated to pay. In doing so, he triumphed over the forces of evil which encourage us in our sins and evil behavior.

If Jesus did all this for us, then why doesn’t the world look better than it is? There is a “catch,” if you want to call it that. We can’t hold on to our sins; we can’t keep living for ourselves, and also, at the same time, receive what God offers. One cancels out the other. So we need to turn away from living for our desires and pleasures, turn away from the sin that lives inside of us, and also the individual sins that we commit, and turn toward God. That is called “repenting.” By the way, this is a lifelong process, and no one does it perfectly. We fall down as go forward, but at least we are now moving forward toward God, not away from him.

Next, we receive what Jesus did for us – that is we trust that it is true, and we act like it is true. People generally act according to what they truly believe: that is why faith is so important. There are many ways our faith can be strengthened: First, by thanking God for what he has done for us. Next, reading the Bible, praying, listening to Bible teachers, “doing life” with other believers, listening to music that uplifts us, maybe even using ancient prayers and ceremonies written by other believers. I guarantee one thing: if we don’t take steps to maintain and strengthen our faith, it will most likely get weaker, because the world around us is mostly influenced by those who don’t believe.

One reason the world remains a crazy place is because many, many people reject the forgiveness and grace offered by Jesus. They would prefer to be the Lord of their own lives. When we do that, human beings generally make a mess of things, and so, things are a mess. If you want to go back to “the car-crash in the living room” analogy, imagine a very kind, very rich person stepped in and said: “I’ll pay to have this fixed. But I want you trust me. I made my first million as an architect, and if you let me pay for this, I’ll rebuild it better than it has ever been.” But many people are too proud to admit their need for help, or they don’t want someone else involved in designing their life, so instead, they live with a gaping hole in their living room, with broken glass and ruined furniture, because at least that way they remain in control. Though, of course, they aren’t really in control – that’s an illusion. There is an unimaginable number of things that we cannot control. As Jesus put it:

27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? (Matthew 6:27, ESV)

The whole paragraph of what Jesus says there is useful to our discussion:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:25-33, ESV)

The key is at the very end: seek first the kingdom of God. In other words, don’t first seek what you want, or what you believe you need; instead, start with seeking God and his kingdom. When our priorities are straight in that way, everything else false into place.

We start that seeking journey with the process I have just described: repenting of our sins, and trusting in the incredible love and grace of God. We can know that God is loving and gracious toward us because of what Jesus did for us. If we learn to treasure Jesus above all else, no matter what life throws at us, we can be secure.

Revelation #18 JUDGMENT: GOOD, OR EVIL?

Judgment

The judgment of God is problematic for many people in today’s culture. Read on for some thoughts about how to understand and talk about justice, and God’s judgment of the world.

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Revelation #18. The Problem of Judgment & Punishment

This next message is not directly about the text of Revelation, but rather about issues raised by the text. I think it is important that we deal openly and clearly with the messages of judgment, justice and vengeance. All over the Book of Revelation we find God judging the wicked, and, in many cases, causing them to suffer. For instance:

3 Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth. 4 They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. 5 They were allowed to torment them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings someone. 6 And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them. (Revelation 9:3-6, HCSB).

Even the good saints who have already been martyred, seem almost bloodthirsty. When the fifth seal is opened, the Martyrs cry out:

10They cried out with a loud voice: “Lord, the One who is holy and true, how long until You judge and avenge our blood from those who live on the earth? ” (Rev 6:10, HCSB)

The idea that the wicked will be punished for their sins is problematic for our culture. For one thing, the dominant view in Western culture is that no one is truly wicked (with the exception of one or two people like Hitler). On the other hand, they also believe that no one is truly good, either: they think, in general, that all people of faith are hypocrites who don’t actually practice what they preach.

Non-Christians and pseudo-Christians in Western society do have a sense of morality, a curious mix that is partially derived from the Bible, and partially from secular humanism. Very high on the moral list of secular culture is that we should not judge anyone. I think this has rubbed off on most Christians also. So, how do we handle the judgments in Revelation? How do we handle the destruction and death that is released by God’s command? What do we do with this almost black and white view of the righteous and the wicked? I think there are several points that might help us understand and accept these concepts in Revelation.

1. God is infinite, and we are not. If you’ve been following this blog in real time, you know that last time we talked extensively about how God is so much greater than we are. Trying to understand God is like trying to use a tablespoon to contain the contents of a running garden hose. The tablespoon is filled up immediately, but there is no end to the water that comes out of the hose. This is what it is like when we try to understand God. What this means is that there could be a very convincing and satisfying explanation for all of the things that trouble us, and yet we will never be able to understand it. In fact because God is infinite, and we are not, it is very likely that we won’t be able to understand much about God at all, including the way he judges the earth. In plain language, we need to accept that God has very good reasons for what he does, and that we cannot understand very many of those reasons.

2. God is God, and we are not. In other words he can do whatever he wants to do. He made this world and he can do what he likes with it. Even if we could understand the reasons for what he does, we have no right to judge him. Another very important aspect of this point is that we human beings are not the ones who do the judging. It is absolutely wrong for us to take judgment into our own hands.

If we say something different from what the Bible says, even if we think we are being more lenient, then we are putting ourselves in the place of God, and judging others.

When we tell other people what the Bible says, we are not judging others – we are simply repeating what God has already said. Even so, we must remember that final judgment belongs to God, and it is not up to us to put God’s judgment into action.

The martyrs under the altar were asking God to act, because they understood that it was not their own place. Violence is never an appropriate expression for any part of the life of a Christian. We may, in extreme situations use violence to defend ourselves from physical danger. But we may never consider ourselves the instrument of God’s judgment, and it is not our place to deliberately harm any other human being. When David had the opportunity to kill King Saul, even when Saul was pursuing him in order to kill him, David refused. He said:

12“May the LORD judge between you and me, and may the LORD take vengeance on you for me, but my hand will never be against you. 13As the old proverb says, ‘Wickedness comes from wicked people.’ My hand will never be against you. (1Sam 24:12-13, HCSB)

This should be our attitude towards those who oppose us also. Paul wrote to the Romans:

17Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Try to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. 18If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone. 19Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for His wrath. For it is written: Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay, says the Lord. (Rom 12:17-19, HCSB)

We Christians interpret the whole  Bible in relationship to Jesus. Therefore, even though there are texts in the Old Testament instructing the Israelites to wage “Holy War,” those texts cannot be taken literally by those who follow Jesus. Jesus himself made this very clear:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. (Matt 5:38-45, ESV2011)

Clear enough? God will take care of these things. It isn’t our place to harm anyone.

3. These violent and overwhelming judgments tell us that sin is serious.

Imagine that a terrible sickness was discovered. It is a virus that inflames the lining of the brain. Those who get it eventually go mad, and if not restrained, many of them, in their insanity, commit cruel and horrible crimes. Driven by the disease, they rape, humiliate, torture and murder others. Eventually, everyone who gets the virus dies; the mortality rate is 100%. It is extremely contagious, and there is no cure.

Now, some of the people who get this virus manage to control it to some extent. They are able to refrain from the worst cruelties. However, that same virus that makes some people do unspeakable horrors lives inside everyone who has it. You never know when the sickness might suddenly progress and cause someone to commit a horrific crime. The potential for the most awful cruelty will always be there, in every single person who has the disease.

In addition, everyone who has it is a carrier. Everyone who has it will infect others. So even if someone has mild symptoms, that person will pass the disease on to others; and those others may end up with the very worst symptoms.

You can see that this is a terrible, horrific virus. To control it, you would have to implement a zero tolerance quarantine, and enforce it 100%. The only thing to do, is to wait for those who have it to die.

My little analogy is actually quite true. The disease exists: it is called sin. In some people, sin exhibits mild symptoms. But the same thing that makes me snap at a dear friend in selfish anger is what makes someone else commit the most horrific crimes: rape, torture, murder. The root cause is the same.

Yehiel Dinur was a Jew. During the 1930s he experienced the increasing bigotry and persecution of the Jews, fostered by Hitler. During WWII, he ended up in a concentration camp, and after unspeakable horrors, survived. Many years afterward, he was summoned to Nuremberg Germany, to testify at the War Crimes Tribunal. He was called upon to testify against Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the holocaust, who had been one of Dinur’s torturers. When he stepped into the courtroom and saw Eichmann sitting on trial, he broke down in uncontrollable sobs, and had to be escorted out of the room until he could compose himself. When he was later interviewed, the news reporter assumed that Dinur’s breakdown was due to hatred, fear, or terrible memories. Or perhaps it was just the overwhelming emotion that came as a result of knowing that this terrible man was finally brought to justice.

Dinur denied all of these. He gave this as the reason for his uncontrollable emotion: “I was afraid about myself. I am — exactly like he is.”

Dinur knew that the same horror that caused the Nazi to commit such atrocities lived also inside of him. According to the Bible, he was absolutely correct. That horror lives inside each one of us, even if some of us suppress it better than others. The sin that lives in me is just as evil as the sin that lived inside of Nazi torturers. It is that serious.

All this is to say that we cannot criticize God for taking severe measures to stop the horrible disease of sin, even when its outward symptoms are mild among some people.

4. Although judgment is coming, Jesus has provided a way out for all people. That is why the gospel must be preached before the end can come (Revelation 6:1-2): so that all those who want to can escape the final judgment. The full judgment for sin fell upon Jesus. Jesus died, and if we trust him, our sinful nature was killed along with him. As Paul writes, we were united with him in his death, which means that the terminal illness of sin has been purged from our souls and spirits.

3Or are you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 4Therefore we were buried with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in a new way of life. 5For if we have been joined with Him in the likeness of His death, we will certainly also be in the likeness of His resurrection. 6For we know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that sin’s dominion over the body may be abolished, so that we may no longer be enslaved to sin, 7since a person who has died is freed from sin’s claims. (Rom 6:3-7, HCSB)

Anyone who trusts Jesus is counted as having already died; we were included in the punishment and death that was given to Jesus on our behalf. In addition, he creates within us a new life, a spirit that wants to do good, and not evil:

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away, behold the new has come” (Second Corinthians 5:17)

What about those who never got a chance to hear the gospel before they died? Only God knows. But we know that he is merciful and gracious. Again, it is not our place to determine what happens to such people – thank the Lord!

5. The terrible judgments are also paid out against the spiritual forces of evil. In other words, if it makes you uncomfortable to think of God judging human beings, remember that some of this judgment is also given out against evil, demonic forces. If you feel like it is hard to give your hearty agreement to the judgment of the world, even after all these things we’ve been saying, we can certainly agree with these sorts of judgments against the devil, and his evil spirits.

6. Human beings are hardwired for justice. Think about this: every day, all over the world, 12 and 13-year-old girls are being kidnapped. They are raped repeatedly until the abuse brain-washes them into submission, and then they are sold as sex slaves. How can we possibly say that this is okay? How could we possibly suggest that God gives those evil and twisted abusers a pass, because “he’s a God of love?” He wouldn’t be a loving God if he allowed that to go on without consequence. I don’t believe that anyone reading this thinks God should give these rapists/slave traders a pass. Our natural response to hearing this is to demand justice. Revelation tells us that God will put all things right, including this evil. He will finally destroy the awful disease that makes people do this. He will fully punish everyone who refuses to repent. When we open our eyes to the true evil that lives in this world, how can we wish for anything less?

When we think about judgment, there is a very useful acronym to sum all of this up. The acronym is LOVE.

Look beyond the human instrumentation to the real enemy of our souls (Eph. 6:12).

On the cross, Jesus himself bore every curse (Gal. 3:13).

Vengeance belongs only to God (Rom. 12:19).

Eventually, God will set all things right (Rev. 11:15).

(This acronym is not original with me. I found it at: (http://psalms.seedbed.com/frequently-asked-questions-about-psalms/  accessed 2/6/18)

Let the Spirit speak to you today!

GRACE: FREE TO US, COSTLY TO HIM

crucifixion

God’s grace is free to us, but it was not free to Him. It was very costly. It is free in the same sense that a diamond is free to the girl who is getting engaged. It is freely given, but it cost the giver a great deal. And like the diamond engagement ring, it is offered not just as a trinket, but as an invitation into a lifelong relationship that will change the course of our future forever.

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Matthew #97  Matthew 27:11-50

[This is a slightly longer message than usual. Be prepared, if you are listening, to take 35 minutes or so. If you are reading, please be ready for just a few more words than normal.]

At this point, I want to consider the extreme suffering of Jesus – all of which was for us. Some of you will read this long after I post it. In “real time,” as I write, it is only a few weeks until Christmas. This may seem like a weird topic to cover during this season of joy and goodwill. But consider this: I have already mentioned that in Jesus’ life on earth, every single moment that included physical or emotional pain, was suffering on our behalf. Even a stubbed toe was suffering that Jesus did not have to experience, but that he endured for our sake. So, in a way, his atonement for our sin began with his birth.

Of course the atonement could not be complete without his death. He came into the world for exactly this purpose: to die, to receive in himself what we deserved. Let’s consider what that meant for him, physically, spiritually and emotionally. As always, many other sermons might be preached on these same verses. I am choosing to focus on just the one thing, although I do think it is the most important thing in this text. By the way, even if you don’t normally “share” things online, I think this would be a good one to share.

Jesus was killed by torture. There is really no other way to say it. It began with three beatings during the course of about eighteen hours. First, Jesus was taken to the high priest’s house – and you can bet they weren’t gentle in the taking. Most likely they pushed him and perhaps even struck him on their way there. After the mock trial, he was surrounded by an angry mob, and beaten with fists (Matthew 26:67-68; Mark 14:65; Luke 22:63-64). At least some of the blows were to his head. This kind of beating alone would probably put most of us in the hospital, at least overnight. Picture an LA street gang finding the member of a rival gang alone, and deciding to teach him a lesson. You can imagine several people holding the poor man up, while others took turns punching him. It is possible that Jesus sustained a concussion from this, and certainly he received multiple bruises; possibly even broken ribs or teeth. Remember, there was no pain medication in those days.

Next, they took him to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who did not live in Jerusalem, but was there to try and keep the peace during the Passover festival. A standard Roman response to suspected trouble makers was to have them “scourged.” Pilate had this done to Jesus. In common language, this means he was whipped – that is, beaten with an instrument designed to inflict pain on human beings. Instead of one “tail” to the whip, it had several strips leather. At the end of each strip was fastened rocks or bits of glass or even pieces of lead. So each strike of the whip caused multiple gashes, laying open the flesh, and bruising the muscles as well. Most probably Jesus was given the 39 lashes, which had been known to kill people occasionally. Remember, Jesus had been beaten up by a mob, just hours earlier. In addition to his other injuries, Jesus certainly lost a lot of blood from the whipping, and perhaps sustained more broken ribs. Between these two beatings, the overall physical shock to his body was enormous. Coming so close together, there is no doubt that many men would have died from the combination of these two traumas.

After that, Jesus was turned over to the Roman cohort for crucifixion. Before they did their job, however, the entire cohort had fun mocking him; a cohort was made up of about 500 brutal, hardened soldiers. They jammed a crown made of thorns on his head. They took a staff most likely made out of a cane stem (something like bamboo, but smaller in diameter) and gave it to him, and then took it away and used it to beat him over the head. This cane rod would probably not have created any serious injury, unless it was used to strike Jesus on the face, and thus open up cuts on his cheeks. Even so, they were likely hitting the crown of thorns, driving thorns into his head, and the direct blows themselves would have been very painful.

But all that stuff – physical punishment which could easily have killed many men – was only preliminary to the suffering which killed the Son of God. After these severe beatings, they strapped a big beam to his back and made him carry it a mile or two. The beam was likely equivalent to a 4”x4”, perhaps six or eight feet long. Considering what he had been through, it was no wonder he needed help. When they got to the place, they put metal spikes through his hands, into the crosspiece. Though tradition pictures these as going through the palms of the hands, it is more likely that they put the spikes through his wrists between the two bones of the forearm, so that the flesh would not tear away and drop him from the cross. Either way, that alone would have been painful beyond belief. His legs were slightly bent, and then they pressed his feet, one on top of the other, and drove a spike through them into the upright beam of the cross. Tradition pictures a kind of triangular piece of wood for his feet to rest on, but this is doubtful. Then they raised it up.

At this point, Jesus had two choices. He could let the weight of his body hang from his wrists, tearing away at the flesh, and rubbing on bare bone. Or he could straighten his legs, and push up against the spike driven through his feet, inflaming the wounds there, and grinding against broken metatarsals and tendons. Each movement probably drove splinters into his raw, lacerated back. If he had an itch, he couldn’t even scratch it. If he had to go to the bathroom, it would be right there in front of everyone.

Over time, victims of crucifixion spend more and more time hanging from their arms, since pushing up on the spike through the feet was intensely painful, and required effort. As Jesus’ body weight pulled on his arms, and kept them above shoulder-level, his lungs gradually began to fill with fluid, and breathing became difficult. The only relief for this came from thrusting against the spike in the feet. By pushing himself up this way, he could straighten his body and breathe more freely. But the pain was such that no one could endure this for long. It also required strength and energy. He was undoubtedly weakened by his beatings to start with, and as his body grew weaker through this torture, he got less and less air. In this position, fluid also collected around his heart, putting pressure on it. As a result the organs slowly got less blood and oxygen.

Incidentally, this was why, late in the day, they broke the legs of the other men who were crucified alongside Jesus. By breaking their legs, it became impossible for them to straighten up and get air, and so they died more rapidly.

Jesus was taken to the Roman governor early in the morning. He was put up on the cross before noon, possibly as early as eight or nine in the morning. He endured this suffering until it killed him, about eight hours later. It killed him, either by filling his lungs with fluid and suffocating him, or by the pressure of the fluids surrounding his heart, which could have caused it to stop.

This was actually a relatively short time for death by crucifixion. When we read the gospels, we find that Pilate was surprised when he heard that Jesus had died by late afternoon. But then, most people being crucified were not beaten three times within hours before they were put on the cross.

But the suffering wasn’t only physical. He also went through emotional and spiritual agony.

First, he endured the anticipation of suffering. He knew, long before what happened, what was waiting for him. When I have some special event approaching in the future, anticipation is almost half the joy of it. I enjoy the feeling of looking forward to a good thing coming. But the reverse is also true. If you know about something you dread that is coming up, part of the negative experience is anticipating what you don’t want to go through. It is clear that Jesus knew about his approaching suffering, and that he dreaded it. That is why he said hours before he experienced any physical torment:

“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt 26:36-39)

He also experienced humiliation. He was the King of the Universe, the very One whom everyone around him professed to worship. And yet, in order to accomplish his purpose, he had to allow them to mock him, to spit on him, to humiliate him as if they were right and he was wrong. There was a physical aspect to the humiliation as well. It is a terrible experience to be a man, and be struck, and yet not be able to strike back. Also, they almost certainly stripped him completely naked when the put him on the cross, again a humiliating experience.

In addition, Jesus experienced abandonment. All his followers ran away and left him to his fate. His faithful lieutenant, Peter, denied him publicly. But even worse, he was abandoned by God. 2 Corinthians 5:20 says this:

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

God the Father abandoned Jesus the Son in a way that he has never abandoned any human being, ever, nor ever will. The bible teaches us that if we choose to reject God’s grace through Jesus, then ultimately God allows us to do that. In other words, God doesn’t reject us, but he gives us the freedom to reject Him. If we choose that, we will experience what it is like to be without God – but it will be our doing not His. He does not willingly forsake us. But in the case of Jesus on the cross, it was the opposite. Jesus never turned away from the Father. He followed him obediently, and perfectly to the end. But when the Father made Jesus into sin – for our sake – He turned away and abandoned him. He had to, if Jesus indeed took our sin on himself. This is why Jesus cries out:

46About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Elí, Elí, lemá sabachtháni?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt 27:46, HCSB)

Now, I want us to consider something. When I think about the horrible suffering that Jesus experienced, it’s hard to contemplate. But there are many other things in this life that are hard to contemplate as well. For instance, it is hard to contemplate the horror of rape. It is hard to truly grasp the awfulness of murder. We don’t like to think this way, but even the sins which we think aren’t so bad are so far removed from God’s holiness that they are as fully horrific to God as the suffering Jesus experienced. The extremity of Jesus’ suffering shows us the extremity of our sin. All this is the depth of God’s love for us. This is picture of the true horror of our sin. This crucifixion is the gulf that would exist between us and God if Jesus had not taken our place.

The cross is also justice for sin. This is what makes forgiveness possible. We can’t just wave our hands and say “it doesn’t matter.” When we hurt others, it matters. When we offend God, it makes a difference. There are a lot of people who like to say, “It’s OK to do whatever you like, as long as you don’t hurt anyone.” But what if you hurt God? He has told us, in the bible what matters to Him, what drives a wedge between us and him. Why is it OK to hurt him, but not anyone else? A sin that is only against God is just as much a sin as something which hurts another person.

Jesus, by his suffering, has endured what sin deserves – all sin. I can forgive the person who did something horrible to me because there was punishment and suffering for the evil that was done. It was made right, and justice was done for that sin, to Jesus, on the cross.

23For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 24They are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. 25God presented Him as a propitiation through faith in His blood, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His restraint God passed over the sins previously committed. 26God presented Him to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be righteous and declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom 3:23-26, HCSB)

No other faith takes sin or forgiveness seriously enough. You can’t just wave your hand and say, “it doesn’t matter,” as Buddhism does. One reason Buddhist monks dedicate their lives to separation from the world and to meditation is that you have to concentrate very hard and remain very isolated to believe that the suffering caused by sin in this world doesn’t matter.

You can’t say, “You’ll make it up next time you’re re-incarnated,” as Hinduism does. Since nobody is perfect, all you would do is rack up more “karma-debt” with each new life. Even Islam and Judaism say, essentially: “Well, you do your best, and God forgives the rest.” But why? On what basis can God allow un-holiness into his holy presence? If he could do such a thing, it means that God isn’t really holy, and therefore that moral standards are not actually real; in short, that anything goes. We like “anything goes” if it means we can do whatever we want, but it becomes intolerable when someone else can do whatever they like to us with no consequences. If there is no moral standard, we live a world of senseless brutality, and all kindness and love mean nothing. Even what think of as moral good is meaningless. If nothing is evil, nothing is good either.

That is why it was necessary for sin to be accounted for. Justice must be done. Sin must have consequences. If not, there is no such thing as goodness or grace. If not, we cannot survive in the presence of a holy God. It is only through this extreme suffering of Jesus that sin could be dealt with. The Lord has made a way to take away the power of sin, and still allow goodness and grace and love to flourish.

There is one more thing about the cross. Scripture tells us that there is a mysterious spiritual truth: when we trust that Jesus did this for us, it was not only he who died there. We too, died with Jesus to sin.

Or are you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in a new way of life. For if we have been joined with Him in the likeness of His death, we will certainly also be in the likeness of His resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that sin’s dominion over the body may be abolished, so that we may no longer be enslaved to sin, since a person who has died is freed from sin’s claims. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him, because we know that Christ, having been raised from the dead, will not die again. Death no longer rules over Him. For in light of the fact that He died, He died to sin once for all; but in light of the fact that He lives, He lives to God. So, you too consider yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.  (Rom 6:3-11, HCSB)

This cross that killed Jesus also killed our sin. This is now also our death. This is why we can be free from guilt – our sins were punished with this severe and just punishment. About a year ago, I was speaking with a murderer. I mean it, this man was just released from prison after doing time for murder. He was marveling at the fact that he could be forgiven. It was this horrible crucifixion death that punished his terrible sin of murder, and he is putting his faith in Jesus that this is so. He doesn’t need to feel guilt anymore, because his murder was paid for – not by his ten years of prison time, but by the death of Jesus. I think when we feel guilt, it is usually because we have not considered how fully our sin was punished on the cross. The extreme suffering of the Perfect Man was enough for you, for me, for the world.

As we consider all this, I want us to be very aware of one thing. God’s grace is free to us, but it was not free to Him. It was very costly. It is free in the same sense that a diamond is free to the girl who is getting engaged. It is freely given, but it cost the giver a great deal. And like the diamond engagement ring, it is offered not just as a trinket, but as an invitation into a lifelong relationship that will change the course of our future forever. A single woman doesn’t accept a diamond ring from the man she loves and then go on in her life without him, except for maybe occasionally remembering him fondly. No, the diamond is not just a gift – it is an invitation to a new life. When she accepts that gift, she also accepts that invitation, and enters a new relationship, a relationship that is strengthened and reaffirmed daily as they make their lives together. The acceptance of that gift is life-changing.

What Jesus did for us on the cross – the grace that God offer us – is far more precious than any diamond ring that ever has, or ever will, exist. It should not be received any less casually than a marriage proposal. To receive this gift is also to accept the invitation to a new life. It is to give your life to Jesus, to commit to Him for forever, to live in a daily relationship with him. It is life-transforming.

If you’ve never received that gift, never really accepted that invitation to a new life, now is the time. Pause and do it now. There are no special words, just your willingness and acceptance and surrender to God’s love.

Let us thank him for that gift today!

JUSTICE VS LOVE? WHICH SHOULD WIN?

Tamar

The horrible crimes described here cry out for justice. But how can we reconcile justice and love?

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2 SAMUEL PART 14 (Chapter 13)

This is surely one of the most difficult passages in the entire bible. There are a few others like it, but that doesn’t make it any better. The first twenty verses describe a rape. The detail of the actual sin is not graphic, but the writer takes time to describe the premeditation that went before it. It is all the more awful because it is also incestuous. David’s son Amnon assaults his half-sister, Tamar.

Leviticus 18:9 and 20:17 expressly forbid sexual relationships between brother and sister – even half-siblings. In fact, it is forbidden, even between adopted siblings. And of course rape – of any person – is always forbidden. But this is one of the cases where even the most non-religious do not need have to be told that this was a vile, despicable, evil act. Even without the bible, the vast majority of human beings still know that this is wrong at every level.

Amnon, the one who committed the crime, was the firstborn son of David, and heir to the throne. He was the crown prince. Chileab, David’s second son, is not mentioned anywhere here, so it is probable that he died when he was younger. Therefore, the next in line is Absalom, David’s third’s son, full brother of Tamar.

This had to be hard for David. Amnon followed in his father’s footsteps. He sees a woman he wants, and he takes her. Only it is even worse than David, because it is rape and it is his half-sister. So David’s sin has been multiplied and is worse in the second generation.

Then comes the murder – also mirroring David’s crime. Absalom, furious with his half-brother, and probably ambitious also, bides his time, and then invites Amnon to a feast, where he has him murdered.

If you pay attention, there is something troubling that stands out in this text. I think if we pay it some attention, it may be rewarding. The troubling thing is this: David, apparently, did not do anything about the rape. Why is this? It seemed to frustrate Absalom, and lead him to the sin of murder, and later on, rebellion. So what do we make of David’s inaction?

There are several possible explanations, of course, but I want to focus on three main ones.

First, in all fairness, the text doesn’t actually say when David learned of the crime. It just says that he was furious when he found out. So there is the possibility that he found out only shortly before Absalom held his murderous feast. David hesitates when Absalom wants to invite Amnon, perhaps thinking of the crime, and wondering if there would be strife. In that case, Absalom took matters into his own hands before David could do anything.

A second way to look at it is this: Amnon has committed a terrible crime. But David did something similar, himself. Thus he finds it too difficult to be a hypocrite and judge his son harshly for doing something like what he himself did. What David did was lust. Lust is not merely sexual – lust means demanding that we have what we want, on our own terms, no matter what. So you can lust after food, power, money, success, the perfect body – anything that you demand to have and work to get, regardless of the consequence. So the root sin – lust was the same in both David and his son Amnon, though it took different outward forms. Therefore, David’s own sin may have cost him the moral fortitude to be a just and righteous ruler of his own family and kingdom. I see this quite often in our own culture. There is so much sin going around, that everyone is afraid to call any of it wrong, because people might point the finger back and say, “what about you?”

But if we have accepted God’s judgment of our sin, repented and received forgiveness, we should not feel bad calling sin the evil that it is. If we can agree that it is evil in us, it shouldn’t be a problem saying it is evil everywhere.

But there is a third possibility, and this is the one I favor, because I think it is true to the character of David, and to the overall message of scripture. I think David did not hold Amnon accountable, because he was trying (though failing) to reconcile justice and mercy; truth and forgiveness. The crime was real, and heinous. It had to be punished. And yet the punishment, at the very least, (according to Leviticus 18:29) was that Amnon should be stripped of all rights and exiled for life. Some interpretations of the law might have meant the death penalty. So to bring justice meant that David would be separated forever from his first born son. David clearly loved Amnon, as shown by the fact that he grieved for him for three years after his death. David, manifesting the heart of God, had a deep commitment to justice. David, manifesting the heart of God, had a deep love for his children. But that justice and that love could not be reconciled. To follow love would mean justice would not be satisfied. To follow justice meant love would be forsaken.

And here, once again, is Jesus. God faced the same dilemma as David, only on a much larger scale. All of his children – all of us – have harbored sin and wickedness in our hearts. We have all fallen. We may not have sinned as heinously as Amnon, but the thing in Amnon’s heart that made him sin is also in our hearts. Amnon manifests what it in every human heart, and show us the deep need for justice. The law says we should be punished by eternal separation from our heavenly king and father. God will not violate that law. But he also loves us with an everlasting, deep, wild, love. David could not reconcile love and justice, so he did nothing. But God did something to reconcile the two. He sent Jesus. Justice for all of our sins was done – upon Jesus. Our unrighteousness was severely punished. It was punished – in the person of Jesus Christ. Justice was done upon his body and soul. Jesus became a human precisely so that he could take that punishment upon himself. But because he was pure and remained God, that punishment did not destroy him like would have destroyed us. And so, because of Jesus, justice was done. And because of Jesus, God can show his love to us, with no barrier.

We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he declares sinners to be right in his sight when they believe in Jesus. Romans 3:22-26 (New Living Translation)

As I said last time, we do need to receive, through faith, the justice and love offered by God. It has been accomplished for us, but if we do not believe we need it, or if we do not trust we have it, or if we don’t want it – it does us no good.

Unfortunately for him, Absalom shows us that this is true. He did not seek justice from his father. He did not trust the king to satisfy the demands of justice. Instead, he took matters into his own hands. In the next chapter, we see that when Absalom wanted something from David he knew how to get it. When he wanted to be pardoned, and later restored, he was persistent and cunning and until David responded. But in the case of Amnon and Tamar, Absalom never even tried to get David to do anything. In fact, from the start, he pretended that incident meant nothing to him.

Perhaps he didn’t trust David to be both loving and just. I think also, he didn’t trust his father, the king to take care of him.

It may also be that Absalom realized he might be able to kill Amnon and become the crown prince himself, the next king of Israel. Tamar’s rape gave him an excuse to remove Amnon, the one person ahead of him in the succession, so that it would not look like ambition, but rather an attempt at justice. The reason Absalom had for murdering his brother might just make David and the people sympathetic enough so that when it was all over, they would still accept Absalom as the next heir to the throne. I think is I likely that at some point, Absalom decided to do this for both revenge and in order to become the next king.

Absalom did not seek justice from David for his sister. But even if he had, and David refused, it did not give him the right to commit a sin himself. We might do this with God in lesser ways and in lesser situations, and some ways, it is worse for all that. David was king. He had the right to deal with Amnon however he saw fit, even it if didn’t meet Absalom’s expectations. As it turned out, David gave Absalom himself mercy rather than justice. He hardly had the right to demand that David withhold mercy from someone else.

God is our king. He has the right to deal with his creations however he sees fit. When it comes down to it, at great cost to himself God offers us mercy rather than justice. Do we have the right to demand justice for some person or situation, even while we depend upon his mercy for ourselves?

Sometimes we try to take matters into our own hands because God doesn’t seem to be doing anything. I think when we do that, it can lead us down a path toward rebellion, just as it did with Absalom.

What Amnon did demands justice. Justice was given, through Jesus. That allows love to also be given. Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today about the need for both, and about accepting both things from the Lord.