I don’t enjoy working out. I’m not the same man I was when I was 22, or even when I was 35. I’m about as flexible as a 2x4. My knees hurt. I get embarrassingly sweaty. My conditioning improves slowly and painfully and declines with ridiculous speed.
Nonetheless, several times a week, I steel myself and trudge into the schoolroom to exercise. This is not because I am a masochist and enjoy suffering. Rather, it is because I know that the consequences of not exercising are worse than the pain of exercising.
My weight would skyrocket. My physical fitness would plummet. I wouldn’t be able to play soccer with my son, help brethren move, or go on hikes with my family. As my core strength declined, sooner or later I would do something to blow my back out.
In short, I would rather suffer now and lead the life I want to rather than suffering later and losing things I value. Planting myself on the couch wouldn’t avoid pain. It merely would defer it.
Not surprisingly, our pleasure-loving society prefers not to believe this. Most Americans are self-indulgent and short-sighted, and they are not good at recognizing the holes that they are digging for themselves. The holes are numerous: health holes, financial holes, relationship holes, and spiritual holes. They think that by postponing pain, they are dodging it. Sooner or later, however, the bill comes due, often in crushing fashion.
As Christians, we must be wiser than that, especially when it comes to the things of the Spirit. Nobody ever said that following Jesus would be easy. Indeed, in Matthew 7:13-18, the Lord says the opposite! If we want to inherit eternal life, we are going to have to suffer and give up things we enjoy. If we choose pleasure instead, we will not inherit eternal life.
This is true most obviously of our favorite sins—the ones that enthrall us rather than disgusting us. Maybe it’s a porn habit. Maybe it’s a self-righteousness habit or a gossip habit. Regardless, we can rest assured that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Less obviously, it can be true of people. As Jesus says in 10:37, those who love family more than Him are not worthy of Him. I once baptized a woman on Monday who fell away by Wednesday. She called me and apologetically informed me that she wouldn’t be coming back to church. Her husband had learned that she had been baptized, he flew into a rage, and it was more important to her to keep him happy than to serve God. Anyone who seeks to turn us aside from righteousness is a deadly spiritual danger, no matter how much we love them.
The world’s prescription in these cases is to avoid the pain. Indulge the favorite sin. Placate the godless spouse or friend. Life is too short to be unhappy, after all!
Rather, we should remember that eternity is too long to be unhappy in it. The pleasures of sin are passing, but the pain of separation from God is eternal. We cannot avoid suffering. All we can do is choose when we want to suffer: Here, for the Lord’s sake, or there, for our sins’ sake.
Either way, we will have a long, long time to savor the consequences of our decision.
O Lord, according to Your pledge
Have You dealt well with me;
Teach wisdom to my trusting soul;
Instruct by Your decree.
Before distress, I went astray,
But now I serve with awe;
In heart and action, You are good;
O Lord, teach me Your law!
Though men besmear me with their lies,
I keep to what is right;
Despite the hardness of their hearts,
Your law is my delight.
The grief was good that taught my mind
To hear what You have told!
Your spoken word is better far
Than silver joined with gold!
Suggested tune: BROWN
(“How Sweet, How Heavenly”)
If we are to be honest students of the Bible, we must squarely address not only the passages that conform to our preconceptions but also the ones that challenge them. Most of us would put 2 Corinthians 5:21 in the latter category. Calvinists love 2 Corinthians 5:21 because it appears to support the Calvinist doctrine of imputed righteousness (my sin is imputed to Christ; Christ’s righteousness is imputed to me).
If, on the other hand, we aren’t prepared to accept imputed righteousness and its implications (which are enormous in scope), the straightforward Christ-became-sin reading of the text poses problems for us. Usually, I’ve heard brethren say that rather than becoming sin, Christ became a sin offering for us.
While that’s true, as an interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21, I think it is more convenient than strictly faithful. After all, the text doesn’t say “to be a sin offering”, and I am not aware of any textual basis for so rendering it. It says, “to be sin”.
I am suspicious of rewriting the Bible to avoid the difficulty in difficult passages. It seems like a marvelous way to get into trouble.
Instead, I prefer to resolve the difficulty by considering the apparently less challenging half of the verse. Jesus did [bracketed thing] so that we could become the righteousness of God in Him. So far, so good, except the second half of the statement is not literally true. I am not God’s righteousness. The church is not God’s righteousness. He is ours.
Clearly, Paul is speaking elliptically here, but that leaves open the question of what lies within the ellipsis. We must ask what the relationship is that Christ creates between Christians and the righteousness of God.
Numerous passages answer that question, most notably the discussion in Romans 9:30-10:13. Through Christ, we obtain God’s righteousness. We receive it. Our nature does not change, but He credits righteousness to us on the basis of faith.
Once we’ve figured out the second half of the 2 Corinthians 5:21 parallel, we can return to the first. If “become” carries the elliptical meaning of “receive”, it is contextually likely that “be” carries a similar meaning. Otherwise, the parallel doesn’t balance.
Thus, we ought to read the text as saying that just as we received God’s righteousness, Christ received our sins. This is an uncontroversial statement. 1 Peter 2:24 says explicitly that Christ bore our sins in His body on the cross, and many other passages make the same claim.
At this point, some might ask, “What’s the difference between Christ receiving our sins and Christ becoming a sin offering?” Practically, not much, but the former is founded on a careful parsing of the text, and the latter isn’t.
I am convinced that it’s important for us not only to be right about the Bible, but to be demonstrably right. We can’t merely know the right answer and say, “This is right! Trust me!” We must be able to start with the evidence of the text and reason to the correct answer, even with texts that appear to teach something different.
Nothing in the Bible is an affront to the truth, 2 Corinthians 5:21 included. A difficult passage is nothing more than a passage that we have not taken the time and trouble to understand. When we do invest that time and trouble, it will bear the fruit of renewed confidence in the word of God.
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.
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.