The Victory of Our God

“All people everywhere have seen the victory of our God.” – Psalm 98:3

Our God – a sovereign lion with the gentleness and peace of a lamb – led to the altar to be killed.

A sacrifice meant for death.

Yet a sacrifice meant for love – for reconciliation.

“Eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani.”

“Some of the people there heard him and said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah!’  One of them ran up with a sponge, soaked it in cheap wine, and put it on the end of a stick.  Then he held it up to Jesus’ lips and said, ‘Wait!  Let us see if Elijah is coming to bring him down from the cross!’

“With a loud cry Jesus died.”

This is the victory of our God, and all people have seen it.

All people everywhere surrounding the altar with the slaughtered lamb laying on it – dead.

Singing, crying, weeping, “You are good.”

“The curtain hanging in the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.  The army officer who was standing there in front of the cross saw how Jesus had died.  ‘This man was really the Son of God!’ he said.”

This is the victory of our God, and all people everywhere have seen it.

“‘Don’t be alarmed,’ he said.  ‘I know you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He is not here – he has been raised!'”

Our God, Jesus Christ – the sovereign lion with the gentleness and peace of a lamb – slaughtered, placed in a tomb, raised to life, victorious over death and the sin that separates his people from him.

A sacrifice of atonement meant for reconciliation.

A sacrifice of atonement meant for victory and life!

“All people everywhere have seen the victory of our God.”

Even you have seen the victory of our God.  What will be your response?

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Seeking the True Christ

There are many distractions in the world that take our attention away from the true Christ.   Paul warns of empty deceit and worldly philosophies that exist and take our attention away from the gospel.  Instead, we must always focus on serving our Messiah, Jesus Christ.

The text for this sermon is Colossians 2:8-15.  I pray that God’s Spirit moves in your heart as you listen.

May God bless you.  May the peace of Jesus Christ reign in your heart.  May the fruit of the Spirit be exhibited in your life.

Correctly Understanding the Theology of “Heaven is for Real”

I recently had the privilege of watching a great movie.  You might be familiar with the title.  It’s called “Heaven Is for Real.”  I had heard about the book for quite a while but never had an opportunity to read it.  When the movie came out, I put it on my list of films to watch.  But it wasn’t until a few days ago, with my fiancé, that I finally watched this story.

If you’re interested in a movie with lots of action and a suspenseful plot, it’s probably not your type of movie.  But if you’re interested in the gospel of Jesus Christ and learning about one boy’s incredible, God-given vision of eternity, then watch the movie.

Granted, the movie has been adapted to a film version from the book, so I’m sure there were some changes.  However, at the end of the day, the basic story is the same: Colton, at a young age, became sick with appendicitis, and while unconscious on the operating table, had a vision of Jesus Christ and heaven.  He recovered, only to have extraordinary and unexplainable observations and insights.

I have to admit, though, I was a bit skeptical at first.  Trained in theology, I need to be able to think very critically about stories like Colton Burpo’s.  The particular branch of theology that this movie deals with is eschatology – the end times of this fallen creation in anticipation of the coming age in a new creation.  While it doesn’t deal with the “end times” specifically, it does deal with life after death, which is related to eschatology.

That is why I can appreciate an article like Drew Dyck’s, “What Hollywood gets wrong about heaven.”   It is definitely a great article.   Drew reminds us of scriptural accounts of heaven from the prophets Daniel, Ezekial, and Isaiah.

Drew writes, “In Scripture, when mortals catch a premature glimpse of God’s glory, they react in remarkably similar ways. They tremble. They cower. They go mute. The ones who can manage speech express despair (or “woe” to use the King James English) and become convinced they are about to die. Fainters abound.”

He also reminds us of John’s revelation, in which heaven is presented as an awe-inspiring place.  But it is also quite terrifying from the perspective of our fallen and limited human understandings.  I like the text CNN uses for the link: “heaven is for scary real.”  It’s because it is for scary real.

It’s also why I can also appreciate noted Christian leader John MacArthur’s critique, “Heaven is Real; Hallucinations are not,” in which he says he simply does not believe the child at all.

However, as smart as the man is, I, along with many others, disagree with John MacArthur’s theological viewpoint. He is approaching the movie from his system of thinking, which comes from a very rigid Reformed theology.  Don’t get me wrong, though – he makes several legitimate points and has an understandable reason to write what he wrote.  His article should be taken very seriously because there can be such a wide variety of  these types of near-death experiences.  He offers great input as part of the conversation, but as a former professor used to say to me, “What’s the so-what?”

Unlike John MacArthur, coming from the Wesleyan tradition of Christianity, I cannot simply ignore someone’s profound personal experience – especially when the boy’s experience offers such unexplainable happenings like Colton recognizing his great-grandfather as a young man, Colton knowing that his mother miscarried, and Colton recognizing the Christ from a painting done by a little girl, whom he had never met or heard of, on the other side of the world who had a similar experience.

In the Wesleyan tradition, I have to at least try to reconcile a story like Colton’s with Christian tradition, Christian experience, theological reason, and scripture.  We must think a little deeper in order to figure out how this makes sense with a correct understanding of theology and scripture.  We must ask, “What’s the so-what?”  We’re on the right track; we just have to think a little harder.

We must ask how Colton’s story fits in with the greater story of God’s redemption of the creation that is explained in scripture.  The Spirit of God is at work in people’s lives today – even a child’s life – just as much as the Spirit of God was at work in the thousands of years of history that scripture covers.

Moreover, as a Christian I’m asked to believe in the possibility of the miraculous. We have to have faith, after all, in the life, death, and resurrection of a living Jesus Christ!

Perhaps the misunderstanding comes from an overly-simplified version of eschatology in which a person dies and either goes to heaven or hell, and that’s the end of the story.  However, that is not necessarily how it works.  Paul, prophets of the Old Testament, apostles and disciples of the New Testament, and most importantly Jesus Christ, the Messiah, all speak of a resurrection and judgment at the last day and of all things being made new in eternal life with God.  If you’d like to read a little further on this subject, as well as dive a little deeper into the possibilities of immediate life after death, check out a previous post, ““The Great Divorce” and Understanding Eschatology.”  Part of the post summarizes N.T. Wright’s “Surprised by Hope”, which is also an excellent resource on life after death.

What I’ve come to realize is that, most of the time, when people speak of heaven they mean the new creation that God will redeem this world into at the onset of the next age.   This fallen age will come to an end with the return of Christ, resurrection, and judgment unto eternal life or death by Christ.  The earth will be made new, and heaven (God’s dwelling place) will come down to a new Jerusalem.  Those whose hearts Christ judges worthy will dwell in this new creation.   It will certainly be heavenly, but it won’t be heaven proper.

Heaven, properly understood, is God’s dwelling place.  It is not of this earth.  It is the place described in Daniel, Ezekial, Isaiah, and John’s revelation.  It is awe-inspiring and terrifying.

But here’s the key: God did not create humans to dwell in heaven proper.  He created us as the pinnacle of his creation to dwell among the rest of his creation – the beautiful earth described in Genesis 1-3.  It is the beautiful earth we still see today.  And when this creation will finally be fully redeemed, wiped free from effects of sin and fallenness, it will so much more incredibly beautiful!

As people created to be part of a creation, being in heaven proper – a place not ultimately intended for us – would have the exact effect it had on Daniel, Ezekial, Isaiah, and John – trembling, cowering, speechless, and faint.

This quick illustration might help – you were created to drink out of a cup, not from a high-pressure firehose.  A human being in heaven proper is like drinking out of a high-pressure firehouse.  Even a short period of time will most likely produce some extreme consequences for the person!

Or think about this other example – an animal, taken out of its normal habitat, will not do too well; it was designed to function best in its original habitat.  Humans, as creations of God, are designed to function best in God’s creation.  And they will ultimately function greatest in God’s redeemed creation!

Considering everything, we must ask how Colton’s vision fits in with a correct theological understanding of God’s plan for people and his creation.  Ultimately, I just cannot dismiss Colton’s story as hallucination.  Theologically speaking, it cannot be dismissed as such either, as John MacArthur is quick to do.

It can be explained best, however, as a vision from God, given to Colton, of life in this new creation.  It is an incredible experience.  The mystery of God, in all of its greatness, made complete in Jesus Christ, and given to us by the Spirit, has given Colton a vision of God’s new creation – the place so many people call heaven.  Scripturally and theologically speaking, Colton’s vision is actually an accurate experience of the new creation.   Christ has a horse; Christ rides on a horse in John’s revelation.  The new creation is also free from the effects of fallenness; Colton describes everyone as young and with perfect vision (that’s great for me and my fiancé, because we’ve had bad vision our entire lives!).

It is certainly not an event where we can just put our foot down and exclaim with all certainty, “Impossible!”   To do so would be to put the power and mystery of God in a box and limit the work of the Spirit and the risen Christ, which will lead no where good.

God has shown his love to Colton through this vision, and in doing so, has inspired so many countless others to also turn their hearts to the reality of God and Jesus Christ.  And ultimately, hearts oriented and turned toward the love, grace, and glory of Jesus Christ is what matters most.

I pray that throughout the remainder of his entire life, Colton continues to inspire others toward the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Witness of the Creeds

Christians all around the world adhere to two significant creeds – the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed.   Often, though, these are two very important pieces of Christianity that can be easily forgotten.

A creed is a statement of belief.   Both of these are short summaries of what a Christian believes!   They easily sum up the story of Christ in a concise way, yet they are also theologically and scripturally accurate. I would challenge you to seek to commit them to your heart and mind.  Seek to understand them faithfully with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

These two great pieces of music, ‘We Believe‘ from the Newsboys and ‘Manifesto‘ by The City Harmonic, might also help.   Check them out!

When someone asks you what you believe as a Christian, or asks you what your testimony is, perhaps by joining in with the rest of the witness of Christ’s body throughout the past two millenia, you might give the best answer – simple, concise, accurate, and to the point:

The Apostles Creed

I believe in God almighty
And in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord
Who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
Who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and was buried
And the third day rose from the dead
Who ascended into heaven
And sitteth on the right hand of the Father
Whence he cometh to judge the living and the dead
And in the Holy Ghost
The holy church
The remission of sins
The resurrection of the flesh
The life everlasting.

There is also another version of this creed:

I believe in God the Father almighty
I also believe in Jesus Christ his only son, our Lord,
conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, dead and buried; he descended into hell,
rose again the third day,
ascended into heaven,
sat down at the right hand of the Father,
thence he is to come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost,
the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints,
the remission of sins,
the resurrection of the flesh and life eternal.

The Nicene Creed

We believe in one God the Father All-sovereign, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, Begotten of the Father before all the ages, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from the heavens, and was made flesh of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man, and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures, and ascended into the heavens, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father, and cometh again with glory to judge the living and dead, of whose kingdom there shall be no end:

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and the Life-giver, that proceedeth from the Father*, who with the Father, who with the Father and Son is worshipped together and glorified together, who spake through the prophets:

In one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church:

We acknowledge one baptism unto remission of sins. We look for a resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come.

*There is division between the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox churches regarding this phrase.  One of the main reasons for this division is that the Western church began inserting this phrase into the creed without consulting the Eastern church.

Blood Worth More than Silver or Gold

The blood of Jesus Christ is precious.   It is worth more than all the treasures of silver or gold that the world could offer!   But Christ also calls us to live in a way worthy of his precious blood.  Do you desire this way of life?

The text for this sermon is 1 Peter 1:17-23.   I pray that these words will challenge you to seek after the precious blood of Christ.

The Importance of Exploring Christ’s Humanity

When studying the person of Jesus Christ, there is often a temptation to focus on his divinity at the cost of his humanity. Christ’s divinity can be over-emphasized to the point where his humanity is described in patronizing ways or simply taken for granted. It is all too common to hear a Christian say, “Yes, Christ was fully human, but he was also fully God.” While the emphasis on Christ’s divinity is clear, the result can be a quick dismissal of Christ’s humanity as solely mystery.

Although it is true that Christ as God is inherently mysterious, there is deep significance to Christ’s humanity. This significance is lost if Christ’s humanity is diminished to being completely unexplainable!

Rather, the importance of seeking to understand Christ’s humanity should not be lessened; God, when a follower seeks after Christ in faith and by the Spirit, opens his or her mind to understanding Christ as both fully divine and fully human. Christ often states in his teaching, “Whoever has ears, let them hear” (Matthew 11:15; Matthew 13:9, NRSV). In other words, even if a concept may not seem initially understandable, it can often be made sense of, usually with some critical thinking! Therefore, whoever has ears, let them hear about the whole person of Christ as both fully human and fully divine.

In order to have an orthodox belief in Christ, one must profess him as human and divine; Christ is, in fact, the revelation of God in human form. Karl Barth writes a great article – “The Humanity of God” – and warns against emphasizing one over the other. He writes, “It would not do to even partially undervalue his humanity, the gift of God, which characterizes him as this being. We can meet God only within the limits of humanity determined by Him. But in these limits we may meet him.”

Barth further states what happens when people consider God without humanity:

“We viewed this “wholly other” in isolation, abstracted and absolutized, and set it over against man, this miserable wretch—not to say boxed his ears with it—in such fashion that it continually showed greater similarity to the deity of the God of the philosophers than to the deity of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

“On the basis of the knowledge of the humanity of God, no other attitude to any kind of fellow man is possible. It is identical with the practical acknowledgement of his human rights and dignity. To deny it to him would be for us to renounce having Jesus Christ as Brother and God as Father.”

The danger in understanding Christ without learning about his humanity is that Christ becomes something that he is not.

Thomas F. Torrance writes in another critical book – Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ – about the importance of realizing Christ for who he fully is. His humanity and divinity cannot be “divorced” from one another. He gives the example of historians; historians examine the historical Jesus and, as a result, many do not want to take into account anything that is supernatural, unexplainable, or theological.

Torrance writes, “The historian can only try to place Jesus on the horizontal plane in a time series or in the midst of a historical movement: he cannot deal at all with the vertical movement in and through which Jesus came into being in history.” They often do the opposite of what many Christians do: they separate his divinity from his humanity, and only look at his humanity.

A person cannot be broken down into various characteristics and then defined in his or her totality as only one of those characteristics. This is reductionism; while it sounds like an easy solution, it is always a solution that does a disservice to understanding the person or concept as a whole. Christians cannot fall into this temptation when seeking to understand Christ; if followers truly love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength as Christ commands, Christians must examine him for who he fully is: human and divine. Christians fail to realize many of the profound implications of Christ if he is reduced to only one of those characteristics.

Still, with the exploration of Christ’s humanity, it is critical that one does not presume a removal of Christ’s divinity! Rather, exploring Christ’s humanity must be complete with the knowledge that Christ is also fully divine.

In Christ becoming human, he took on a fallen humanity as our representative in birth, life, and death, in order to redeem our fallen humanity to God. The significance of Christ’s humanity demonstrates the real possibility of sanctification, holiness, and Christ-like living in a person’s life. Christ’s humanity defines what true humanity and a relationship with God looks like in fallenness.

Tom Noble, in yet another essential book – Holy Trinity: Holy People: The Historic Doctrine of Christian Perfecting – summarizes the early Church Fathers as they make this same point: “Their line of thought may perhaps be most clearly expounded in three statements: Christ sanctified our humanity by assuming it. Christ sanctified our humanity by living in it. Christ sanctified our humanity by crucifying it.”

Moreover, in order to understand Christ taking on a fallen humanity, it is essential to understand the difference between fallenness and sinfulness; they cannot be confused. While Christ assumed a fallen nature, he remained sinless.

Finally, scripture offers critical evidence regarding the nature of Christ’s humanity. Christ’s birth, along with details of his life, and finally the events of his death, clearly show that Christ took on a fallen humanity. It is only because Christ assumed a fallen humanity that people, living in fallenness today, can seek holiness in God through Christ and the Spirit.

Thoughts on Easter: “Spiritual but not Religious”

A large number of people label themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”   I can understand this viewpoint; for some it is because of bad experiences with a major world religion, such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.   For others, it is not necessarily because of a previous experience, but just that they are skeptical of the idea of “organized religion.”   Still, some may want to explore different religions before jumping into one; it is dipping one’s feet into the water before fully diving in.   In any case, and no matter what category a person falls under, the individuals who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” recognize that there is something more to life than simply going after common and vain pursuits such as money and power.

However, the label “spiritual but not religious” is misleading; it implies that there is also a group of people who are “not spiritual and not religious.”   To be honest, I do not think it is even possible to be “not spiritual.”   The idea that one could not have a spiritual self at all, or that one could completely destroy or kill one’s spiritual self, does not make any sense.

The spirit is a characteristic of the physical body.   It’s like saying one is one; it simply is.   If you’ve read my previous post, “He’s living on the inside, roaring like a lion,” you’ll get a better idea of where I am coming from in stating this.   God created us; God breathed life into us, giving us a spirit.   In this life, the body and the spirit are inseparable.   They are intertwined into one existence – the human being.   What happens to the spirit after death, we do not know exactly (check out N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope); we have many ideas though.   Although, as a minister in Christianity, I believe that at the end of this sinful age there will be a resurrection of the dead and our spirit will return to our body through God’s power; we will live as one existence of the intertwined and inseparable physical and spiritual human being – the way God designed us to be – in a new eternal creation free from the bondage of death.   This is what is supported by Christian scripture and thousands of years of tradition.

There is no one who is “not spiritual.”   It is impossible.   We are all spiritual beings.   Granted, different people may deny or accept the reality of their spirituality on different levels, in effect, respectively, either suffocating or cultivating who they are.   But we are all spiritual on some level.   And as we become more in tune with ourselves, we realize that there is much more to life than simply the pursuit of vain items and materialism.   We begin to realize the importance of the connections that exist within this world.

Jesus summarized it as he echoed the Jewish Shema of Deuteronomy 6: “Jesus answered, ‘The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these'” (Mark 12:29-31).

A few weeks ago in one of my classes at the U.S. Army Chaplain Basic Officer Leadership Course, one of my Chaplain instructors gave us his thoughts on a definition of spirituality: it is a person connecting with the four c’s – the creator, the community, the conscience, and the creation.   Even if it is at a very basic level, we are all making these connections; we are becoming more in tune to the bigger picture of life.   And as a Christian, I believe God made each one of us to have a role in this bigger picture; God created us to be people who are not selfish individuals, but selfless people who are always recognizing the connections we have.

Religion is a vital tool in developing this spirituality.   Through religion, we cultivate and grow these connections and relationships.   And perhaps most importantly, we learn to first develop our connection with God so that we can better develop our connections with the community, the conscience, and the creation.   On our own, it is impossible to cultivate these connections.   But through a connection with God, and with God working in us and changing our hearts, our other connections will grow into something we never believed was possible.

Christianity is based on the person of Jesus Christ; this religion is centered on Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.   Through Christ, we can experience the amazing love of God in his grace, forgiveness, and mercy, despite all that we have done wrong in life.   Through Christ, we can become connected with God.   And through that connection with God, we can learn to truly love one another.   We can begin to understand ourselves, how we fit into the bigger picture of life, and be free from vain pursuits.

During this Easter season, I pray that no matter where we are on our spiritual journeys, whether we are struggling to take the very first step or have already been traveling for a thousand miles, we will begin to see the ultimate form of spirituality as a relationship with Christ.   I pray that we will use the tools that thousands of years of the Christian tradition have given us to develop our connections with the creator, the community, the conscience, and the creation.   I pray that we will explore and reflect on different aspects of what it means to be a Christian in whatever context we find ourselves in today.   I pray that we will begin to learn how to worship God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.   And I pray that we learn to love our neighbors in the same way that we love ourselves.

This week is Holy Week in western Christianity. Soon our brothers and sisters in eastern Christiany will also be celebrating these Holy days of the Christian calendar.  Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday – this week is the pinnacle event of Christianity.   The significance of these days for our lives is the culmination of what it means to know ourselves and recognize our spirituality.   The life, death, and resurrection of the Christ and the Messiah is the sum of what our connections to the creator, the community, the conscience, and the creation mean in each of our lives.

Happy Easter.   Christ has risen.   Let us celebrate.