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Why Jesus Died

Monday, November 30, 2020

How do you convict a sinless man of a crime serious enough to warrant His execution?  It might sound like a logic puzzle to us, but for the chief priests, it was a serious problem.  After Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, they determined that He had to die.  However, they couldn’t just murder Him because of the pushback from the people and maybe the Romans too.  Instead, they had to find a way to sentence Him to death under color of law.

We tend to assume that the game was over after Jesus’ arrest in the garden, but the arrest was only the beginning of the process.  The chief priests needed not merely to arrest Him, but to convict Him of a crime.  As Mark 14:55-64 reveals, they rounded up a bunch of false witnesses, but none of them could agree that Jesus had done anything criminal.  By Mark 14:59, the prosecution has failed, and the chief priests are going to have to release Jesus unless something changes.

At this point, Caiaphas the high priest takes a gamble.  He asks Jesus a question:  “Are You the Christ?”  This is very dangerous; Jesus has spent the past several years humiliating opponents who ask Him questions.  However, much to Caiaphas’ delight and probable surprise, Jesus gives the answer that will condemn Him—that He is the Son of God.  Caiaphas declares that the whole Sanhedrin are witnesses to Jesus’ “crime” of blasphemy, so they vote to convict Him. 

However, this does not end the chief priests’ difficulties.  They can convict Jesus, but they can’t sentence Him to death.  That’s a Roman prerogative.  Thus, their next hurdle is to convince Pilate, the Roman governor, that an innocent man ought to die.

This does not go well.  Even an unrighteous man like Pilate doesn’t want to condemn the guiltless.  The Jewish leaders, however, prompt Pilate to ask Jesus if He is a king.  This is another massive risk, but it pays off too.  In John 18:36-37, Jesus affirms that even though His kingdom is not of this world, He is a king.

Thereafter, Pilate continues to press for Jesus’ release, but now the Jews have leverage.  In John 19:12, they threaten Pilate.  If he lets Jesus go, they’re going to report to Caesar that he is a friend to rebels, not Caesar.  When he hears this, Pilate agrees to Jesus’ crucifixion.  Doing the right thing is infinitely less important to him than saving his own skin.

In this narrative, two main forces are evident:  the chief priests’ persistent hatred. . . and Jesus’ acquiescence in His own death.  As Isaiah 53:7 predicted would happen, Jesus does not speak to defend Himself.  Rather, He is the prosecution’s star witness.  His twin affirmations of His deity and kingship are the two reasons why He is condemned.

In worldly terms, this is madness.  Jesus knew, though, that it had to happen for Him to carry out His Father’s will.  If Jesus is not the victim of great injustice, there will be no sinless sacrifice to enable God to be both just and the justifier.  Jesus knowingly brought that injustice upon Himself—all so that He could ransom us.

What's a Mercy Seat?

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The other evening at Jackson Heights, we sang “From Every Stormy Wind” during worship.  I received it with great joy.  I remember singing it during my childhood out of Great Songs of the Church and not at all since, at least not congregationally.  It made my worship evening.

However, on the car ride home from services, Lauren and I were talking about it, and Zoë piped up from the back, “What’s a mercy seat?”  Zoë probably was not alone in her confusion, so I decided that it would be an appropriate subject for a blog post.

The first appearance of “mercy seat” in the Bible is in the context of Exodus 25:17-22.  The mercy seat (the usual English rendering for a Hebrew word that is derived from the verb “to make atonement”) was the lid of the ark of the covenant, decorated with two statues of cherubim, one at each end.  In the place where an idolatrous temple would have had an idol, there was nothing, signifying a God whose nature could not be represented.  The mercy seat was where God met with the Israelites, from which He spoke. 

However, the Israelites did not interact frequently with the mercy seat.  It, along with the rest of the ark of the covenant, was located within the Most Holy Place, first of the tabernacle, then of Solomon’s temple.  As related in Leviticus 16:11-19, only the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place, and he only once a year, on the Day of Atonement.  On that day, he would sprinkle the mercy seat with sacrificial blood from a bull and a goat.  Thus, he would atone for his sins and the sins of the people.

This solemn ceremony, though, was nothing more than a type, a spiritual illustration of the atoning work of Jesus.  The tabernacle and its furniture were only a representation of the true Most Holy Place, the heavenly dwelling of God.  According to Hebrews 9:11-15, after His offering on the cross, Jesus entered that heavenly Most Holy Place, offering His own blood before the reality of God as the propitiatory sacrifice for our sins.  The high priest had to return to the earthly Most Holy Place year after year, but Jesus offered Himself once for all time.

As awesome as the above is, on that fateful journey, Jesus did still more.  Hebrews 10:19-22 explains that with His offered body, He opened a way for us through the veil that separated us from God.  Now, we can come into God’s presence with boldness.  Indeed, every time we gather in His name, we do exactly that.  Spiritually, we assemble around the true mercy seat in heaven. 

“From Every Stormy Wind” rightly observes that the mercy seat is a sanctuary in which God protects us from everything.  We rejoice in Jesus there, and we are united with beloved brethren who are far distant from us.  We ought to sing about such a place, not only as a reminder of the greatness of our blessings here, but in anticipation of the full joys of fellowship in heaven. 

The Purpose of the Christian

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

To say the least, there are many advantages to being a Christian!  Not least of these is that it gives meaning and purpose to our lives.  Think about it.  If you’re an atheist, you have to believe that life is meaningless and purposeless.  Your existence represents nothing more than a chance combination of atoms, you don’t have free will any more than a dog does, and after you die, in a few hundred years, it will be as though you never had existed.  There’s no point to any of it.

Of course, the lives of millions who aren’t conscious atheists aren’t any more meaningful.  They go to work every morning to get the money to buy stuff that doesn’t make them happy.  They distract themselves from the banality of their existence with a steady diet of TV, video games, and cat videos on YouTube.  They spend their lives chasing a peace that is always out of reach.

We, by contrast, are blessed with lives that are meaningful, not because of our concentrated selfishness, but because we have given them over to someone else.  To see how this works, let’s see what Peter says about the purpose of the Christian.

First, consider his words about GROWING INTO SALVATION.  Here, let’s read 1 Peter 2:1-3.  Like many passages of Scripture, this one is about spiritual renewal.  It’s about getting rid of some things while pursuing others. 

The get-rid-of list, though is really interesting.  We might expect Peter to warn us to get rid of drunkenness, adultery, theft, and all the other sins we think are really terrible.  That’s not where he goes, though.  Instead, he highlights the dangers of malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander. 

These are all subtle sins, sins that we could practice while sitting on a pew on Sunday morning for decades.  And yet, they also are the ones that Peter singles out as most likely to hinder our purpose.  He wants us to see that the sins that corrupt the heart are the most dangerous.

It’s also worth noting that these things are opposed to longing for the word.  All my life, I’ve thought of this list as sins that originate in us.  However, that’s not how the word works.  Instead, it’s something that we take in.  In the same way, I think, we need to beware of the malice, deceit, and slander that we also can take in that will corrupt us.

As the old computer-programming saying goes, garbage in, garbage out.  In our politically charged era, it’s not hard for Christians to find malice and slander that accords with their political views.  Brethren, those things will eat us up like rust on a backyard grill!  If we spend our days drinking partisan venom rather than the pure milk of the word, that will make us useless in the kingdom.

I have a challenge for you, then, for the next week.  You can keep it up for longer than you like, but try to keep it going at least for a week.  For the next seven days, then, for every minute you spend on politics, reading or watching the news, worrying about the country, spend a minute reading your Bible.  Drink deep.  Grow spiritually.  Taste that the Lord is good.  I think that even after a week, it will give you a whole new perspective on life.

Second, Peter discusses our relationship with OUR CORNERSTONE.  This discussion appears in 1 Peter 2:4-8.  The imagery here is fascinating.  Peter tells us that we come to God as living stones, precious to Him.  However, He doesn’t want us so that we can sit around isolated like a rock garden.  Instead, He wants to build us together into a spiritual house where we can offer sacrifices to Him through Jesus. 

We don’t find meaning in life by ourselves.  We find meaning in life as part of the church, and apart from one another, life can only be meaningless.  Don’t be fooled into thinking that you’d be just fine without God’s people.  The only purpose we can have is the purpose we share.

In this spiritual stonework, the cornerstone must be Jesus.  Back in the day, apparently, the cornerstone was a stone with perfectly square edges, such that you could use those edges to line up the rest of the building.  So too with Jesus. 

If we want to be part of His spiritual temple, we have to line our lives up with Him.  Our society is not the standard.  Our friends are not the standard.  Our Lord is the standard.  What He says needs to go for us in everything.

Sadly, lining up with Jesus is not the alternative that most take.  For us, he’s the cornerstone.  Others, though, reject Him and find Him to be the stone that they stumble over.  He says things and tells them to do things that they can’t accept.

As I said last week, if we think everything Jesus says is easy, we aren’t listening hard enough.  However, whether we listen to the hard sayings of Jesus determines the course of our existence.  If we hear Him, we are destined for everlasting glory.  If we reject Him, we are destined for everlasting failure.

The first option is possible, though only because we have been PREPARED FOR GOD’S PURPOSE.  Let’s finish our reading with 1 Peter 2:9-10.  In this text, Peter contrasts Christians with the world.  They are doomed, but even now, we have been glorified with Christ.  We are the spiritual race of Israel.  Every one of us is part of His royal priesthood.  Our whole nation has been consecrated to His service.  We, and we alone, are His own special people. 

From time to time, I’ll talk with Christians who like to run down the church and other Christians.  They zero in on the flaws and imperfections, sneering at congregations of the Lord’s people.  Brethren, people like that are judging what God has consecrated, and that is a very dangerous thing to do!  When we deny the glory of His spiritual creation, we indict Him as a failure.

Because of our spiritual position, we can do something that no one else can do.  We can proclaim the excellencies of the One who saved us.  Indeed, that is precisely what we ought to do.  We ought to give our lives over to declaring the glories of God.  If we truly understand what we have in our salvation, we won’t be able to be quiet about it!

However, our special status shouldn’t give us a big head.  We can do these things not because we are intrinsically fit to do them, but because God chose us as His people and poured out His mercy on us. 

Sometimes, I think we get this mixed up.  We put the burden of our salvation on our own shoulders and spend our lives worrying about whether we’re good enough.  That’s a silly thing to worry about!  Of course we’re not good enough.  I’m not, you’re not, none of us are. 

Instead, it is Christ who is enough, now and forever, and rather than worrying about our own goodness, we need to trust in His.  Without Him, we never could succeed in the work to which we are called.  With Him, we cannot fail.

Making Others Be Righteous

Monday, November 23, 2020

The betrayal of Jesus into the hands of His enemies is the beginning of the darkest sequence in human history.  However, according to John 18:10-11, this grim scene contains a tragicomic episode.  Peter, in apparent fulfillment of his promise in John 13:37, reveals his willingness to die for Jesus by his willingness to kill for Jesus. 

The untrained fisherman produces a sword and takes a wild swipe at a slave of the high priest named Malchus.  He’s likely aiming for Malchus’s skull, but instead he connects with Malchus’s ear.  At this, Jesus intervenes, telling his would-be bodyguard to put away his weapon.  He surrenders Himself into custody, and His disciples flee instead of fighting.

Though it might seem that the situation is unique, in reality, Peter has faced a temptation that many of us experience regularly.  It is the temptation to make others be righteous. 

Last week, a brother posted a picture on Facebook of a T-shirt he had received as a gift.  It read, “Other People’s Free Will Stinks.”  To that, many disciples would give hearty amens, myself included.  Other people’s free will does stink!  They use it to make all kind of horrible, evil decisions, from cheating on their wives to becoming atheists to having abortions to helping arrest the sinless Son of God.

(We, of course, would never, ever use our free will to sin.  Oh, no!  Not that!)

When faced with stinky free will, many of us want to respond in a way that is positively Petrine.  If they’re not going to choose to be righteous, we’re going to make them be righteous!  If they want to arrest Jesus, we’re going to use force to make them back off.  If they want to have an abortion, we’re going to stop them by passing laws to make abortions illegal.  If they want to leave the Lord, we’re going to browbeat them and make their lives pure misery until they come back.

On one level, these strategies appear to offer success.  Jesus remains unarrested.  Babies don’t get aborted.  The straying Christian is filling a pew once more.

The problem is, though, that coercing someone into changing their behavior never results in a changed heart.  Even if the high priests’ posse is defeated, the high priests won’t hate and envy Jesus any less.  Preventing a woman from having an abortion does not lessen her fear or increase her natural affection.  Forcing a Christian to assemble does not inspire them to worship.

Indeed, attempts at coercion often fail to produce outwardly good results too.  If Jesus’ disciples defeat a posse, the chief priests will show up with a Roman cohort next.  The fearful woman is likely to seek an illegal abortion.  The browbeaten Christian often will persist in falling away, bearing a new cargo of bitterness over their bad treatment.

If we truly want godliness in others, then, we must look not to change behavior, but to change hearts.  We must rely not on coercion, but on persuasion.  God isn’t looking for sullen compliance.  He wants devotion instead.

This is hard to do.  The more we care, the more we want to fix others’ ungodly decisions by hammering them flat.  We want quick results rather than engaging in the slow, patient work of winning a heart.  However, only the latter can produce the fruit of genuine righteousness.

Psalm 5

Friday, November 20, 2020

Give ear to my appeals, O Lord,
And listen as I groan.
My King and God, I cry for help
And pray to You alone.

When morning rises, I will speak,
For You will hear my voice;
In faith, I come with eagerness,
That soon I may rejoice.

You take no joy in wickedness;
No evil dwells with You;
They shall not stand before Your eyes,
The boastful and untrue.

You punish those who speak in lies
And all who dare transgress,
But in Your temple I will bow
To praise Your holiness.

Protect me from my enemies
And make my pathway straight;
No truth is present in their words
Of flattery and hate.

So hold them guilty, O my God,
Undone by what they do;
In their transgressions, thrust them out
For disregarding You.

Let everyone who trusts in You
Be jubilant in grace;
May they forever sing for joy,
Your strength, their hiding place.

Let those who love Your name exult
In what You have revealed;
You bless the righteous man, O Lord;
Your favor is his shield.

Suggested tune:  ST. FLAVIAN
("The Army of Our Lord")

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