No substitution


“No pain, no palm; no thorns, no throne; no gall, no glory; no cross, no crown.” — William Penn

“Why was there no substitute for Jesus when it came time for him to die?”

There’s a substitute for everything. Put a little lemon in your milk and you’ve got buttermilk. Use turmeric instead of saffron. Sprinkle that artificial sweetener in your coffee. Switch shortening for margarine. There are substitute teachers and substitute quarterbacks. Sometimes mom subs for dad, and sometimes the other way around.

Even the Bible has its share of switches. Seth took over for the murdered Abel. The ram in the thicket took the place of Isaac on the altar. At Passover the children of Israel slaughtered a lamb so they would not die when the death angel passed by. Jesus was crucified so that you and I would not have to die for our sins.

Wait. Why wasn’t there a substitute for Jesus?

So there isn’t a substitute for everything. There’s no substitute for hard work. There’s no substitute for experience. No one can take the place of a good parent. And no one could take the place of Jesus when it came time to die.

Not that we don’t try to put other things in his place. The world says there are many substitutes: Islam, Buddhism, humanism, atheism or whatever path you prefer. But if any path is acceptable, why did Jesus need to die?

No one else was sinless. A perfect, unblemished sacrifice was needed to take the place of our sin, but men inherit the sin of Adam and we all undertake our own sinful lives. Jesus “appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin” (I John 3:5).

No one else was both God and man. The measure of our sins is the one we sin against. We sin against an infinite and holy God, so only an equal sacrifice can buy our pardon for once and for all and forever. Because Jesus is God, he could pay “for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2). Yet Jesus was also necessarily human. “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law” (Galatians 4:4).  Human blood was required, for “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22). Human experience was needed, so that our savior could sympathize with us, since he was tempted in every way as we are (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus was our kin so that he could be our kinsman-redeemer and have the right to buy us back when we were sold into the slavery of sin.

No one else would drink the cup. Jesus met all the qualifications of a savior, but he still needed to submit to God’s will in order to complete the transaction that substituted his blood for yours and mine. Would you have done the same, knowing the suffering that you would endure, and being completely capable of stopping it? I believe no one but Jesus possessed the love and obedient will to choose the cross.

No one else could show us the way. Jesus said he was “the way, the truth, and the life.” He didn’t say a way, but emphatically the way. Peter affirmed it when he said that there was salvation in no one else. Only Jesus came from God and returned to God. No one else talked like Jesus. He was the Word. As the people shouted when they heard him, “no one ever spoke like this man.” As Peter said to him, “you have the words of life.” No one else walked like Jesus, always obediently doing what he saw God doing and remaining sinless. No one else died like Jesus, willfully choosing horrible suffering when he could have rejected it, offering up his perfect blood as God and man.

And no one else rose from the dead like Jesus, never to die again, the first fruits of all believers who will one day follow him on that future resurrection day. Hallelujah! He is risen. He is risen indeed!

Image from Waiting for the Word, by Del Parsons, on Flickr, CC by 2.0

Not of this world: John 17


Today’s reading: John 16-18.

For me, there may be no truth so difficult to hold onto as the truth that I am not of this world. All I have ever known, physically, is in this world. The people I love most are the ones I have known in this world. The times I have enjoyed most have been spent in this world. Yet Jesus declares, and I believe it to be true, that I am not of this world.

I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. John 17: 14-18

Jesus means that in the truest and deepest sense believers are not of this world. Spiritually we belong to the kingdom of God. Eternally we will be in Heaven. We are citizens of another country. We may live here now but we will not live here long. In yesterday’s post I wrote that we must abide in Christ by remaining with him in presence, by remaining with him through the duration of time, and by remaining with him in like character. In a similar way, true believers are already in the heavenly realm in presence, will remain there throughout eternity, and have a character modeled after Jesus rather than the ways of the world.

The ways of the world. There is the problem. The ways of the world envelop us like the weeds in Jesus’ parable. They weigh us down and trip us up like the entangled runner in Hebrews 12. They lure us away as the prodigal was led astray. They threaten to make us ignore God’s saving grace as the man with bigger barns ignored his salvation. They flood over us like the man who built his house on the sand.

But we are not of this world. Look how Jesus describes us:

  • We belong to God.
  • We obey his word.
  • We accept Jesus and believe he was sent by God.
  • We glorify Jesus.
  • We are hated by the world.
  • We are sent into the world.
  • We are one in Christ.

If you want to know how to define a disciple of Jesus, this makes a good definition, and it is straight from the Lord. John expands on these proofs of a believer in 1st John.

What are we meant to do then, as believers who are not of this world?

We claim heaven as our home. “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20).

We focus on the eternal things. “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:1-2).

We are united with other believers. “So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household” (Ephesians 2:19).

We abandon the ways of the world. “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11).

We engage the world to glorify God. “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20).

He did not pray that his disciples should be removed out of the world, that they might escape the rage of men, for they had a great work to do for the glory of God, and the benefit of mankind. But he prayed that the Father would keep them from the evil, from being corrupted by the world, the remains of sin in their hearts, and from the power and craft of Satan. So that they might pass through the world as through an enemy’s country, as he had done. They are not left here to pursue the same objects as the men around them, but to glorify God, and to serve their generation. The Spirit of God in true Christians is opposed to the spirit of the world. – Matthew Henry

Image by Foxspain Fotografia on Flickr, CC by 2.0

How to give: Luke 21


Today’s reading: Luke 21-22.

“How much should I give back to God?”

Christians disagree on how much we should give in our offerings. Some promote the Old Testament practice of tithing, giving ten percent of their income. Others insist the New Testament doesn’t set a limit but says we should give out of gratitude, as stewards of all God has given us, and as the Holy Spirit leads. The fact is that on average believers give only a small percentage of their income, around three percent among Southern Baptists. Many give nothing. Yet Jesus was emphatic that the man who stored up everything for himself and gave nothing back to God was a fool.

Jesus sat down in the temple to rest after an extended dispute with the scribes and Pharisees. He was sitting beside the collection boxes, and many people were dropping in various amounts of money as they passed by.

As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “I tell you the truth,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” Luke 21:1-4

Jesus didn’t hesitate to make a comparison between the widow and the other givers. He found much about her to commend to his disciples and therefore to us.

She gave by faith in God’s mercy.  “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care” (Matthew 10:29). The two small coins she gave added up to one penny, the cost of two sparrows. The woman gave by faith, not trusting in her own resources but trusting in God’s care for her.

She gave greatly in comparison to the wealthy givers. God “estimates money gifts not by what we give, but by what we keep – not by the amount of our contributions, but by their cost in self-denial … The others reserved what they needed or wanted for themselves, and then gave out of their superabundance (perisseuontos). The contrast is emphatic; she ‘out of her deficiency,’ they ‘out of their super-sufficiency.’ ” – Rev. Arthur T. Pierson

She gave for eternity. The rich gave a little of their abundance, like crumbs from a feast, but they spent the greater part on themselves. The widow invested everything she had in God’s economy, investing for an eternal return and reward, and trusting God to meet her present needs.

Here are a few questions we can ask ourselves about our own giving:

  • Am I giving with eternity in mind, or keeping for my present use?
  • Am I giving with faith that God will provide for my needs, or keeping out of fear of want?
  • Am I denying myself in order to give, or giving the crumbs that are left after filling my own needs?

Reading the whole counsel of God reveals many other considerations about giving. We are told to provide for our families, including our extended families. We are told to give out of our means, and not beyond them. We are to give according to our prosperity. Our plenty should supply those who are in need. Perhaps most important of all, we should give willingly and joyfully, not regretfully.

But I do say again, if Christianity were truly in our hearts; if we were what we professed to be; the men of generosity whom we meet with now and hold up as very paragons and patterns would cease to be wonders, for they would be as plentiful as leaves upon the trees. We demand of no man that he should beggar himself; but we do demand of every man who makes a profession that he is a Christian, that he should give his fair proportion, and not be content with giving as much to the cause of God as his own servant. We must have it that the man who is rich must give richly. – Charles Spurgeon

Image, “The Widow’s Mite,” by Tissot

Lost and found: Luke 15


Today’s reading: Luke 14-16.

“How big is God’s heart for lost persons?”

“Every parent is at some time the father of the unreturned prodigal, with nothing to do but keep his house open to hope.” – John Ciardi

“I am the prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found.” – Henri J. M. Nouwen

Jesus hammers home a lesson about saving the lost with three successive parables. The Pharisees are listening all the while, and are the ones who most need to learn the lesson. Pretend you are a Pharisee as you listen to these stories, especially the story of the Prodigal Son and the Loving Father.

The Lost Sheep. The lost sheep who is found is the sinner who repents. Though he is only one out of a hundred souls, heaven rejoices at his salvation.

The Lost  Coin. The lost coin is also the sinner who repents. God strives to regain the lost person as earnestly as the poor woman who searches for one of her few precious coins. God and the angels celebrate the salvation of the repentant sinner.

The Prodigal Son and the Loving Father. Traditionally the prodigal son gets all the attention in this parable. His redemption from depravity gives preachers a story to inspire all lost persons to hope in God’s grace. Next comes the loving father, God himself, who didn’t stop looking for his son from the moment the boy ran away. He shamelessly runs to the boy as soon as he appears, and proclaims a feast before his son can finish his confession. This is how big a heart God has for lost persons.

Then there is the older brother. Remember the Pharisees? The brother is their kind of man. He’s the legalist, the one who has always done what was expected of him.

But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’  And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’ ” Luke 15:28-32

Jesus is telling the religious leaders that everything God has is theirs, but it’s time for them to celebrate the salvation of all who are entering the kingdom because of Christ. Instead they keep condemning the lost, even though God has shown his love for them by sending his own son to save them. At the moment that God swings open the doors to heaven, they foolishly try to shut them.

We should be like God, with just as big a heart for the lost, but we fall short in many ways.

  • We lack faith in Jesus’ story and don’t believe that God cares for the lost as much as we have been told.
  • We think God has taken care of it and doesn’t need our help.
  • We give up because it isn’t easy.
  • We look down on the lost because they don’t measure up to our standard.

I want you to think about someone who is very dear to you. Imagine that you were in danger of losing them. Wouldn’t you do everything to rescue them? That’s how much God wants to rescue sinners, and it’s how much he wants us to celebrate their salvation. There were two prodigals in Jesus’ parable. One was the son who was prodigal in his excessive debauchery, but the other was God who was prodigal in his exceeding love. We should all be God’s kind of prodigal.

Image by Matthew Kirkland on Flickr, CC by-nc 2.0

Forsaken? Mark 15


Today’s reading: Mark 15-16.

“Did God abandon Jesus on the cross?”

At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ” “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? ” “–which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.” One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. Mark 15:33-37

Jesus hung near death after hours of torture. Jeering crowds looked on. Unnatural darkness covered the land. With some of his last breaths he cried out loudly, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Was he declaring the reality of his suffering or compelling the crowds to compare his death to an Old Testament prophecy?

The Agony and the Victory (with thanks to David Guzik)

Psalms 22, 23, and 24 form a Messianic trilogy of psalms that would have been familiar to the Jews of Jesus’ day. In crying out the first line of Psalm 22 he was saying something as familiar to the crowds as “the LORD is my shepherd.” He was telling his followers to keep the faith as God’s plan worked out through his suffering. He was giving the unbelievers one last chance to see him as their Messiah. He was living out the agony of Psalm 22 before their eyes:

  • All those who see Me ridicule Me; they shoot out the lip, they shake the head
  • My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and My tongue clings to My jaws; You have brought Me to the dust of death
  • For dogs have surrounded Me; the congregation of the wicked has enclosed Me. They pierced My hands and My feet
  • They look and stare at Me. They divide My garments among them, and for My clothing they cast lots

But he was also declaring victory through his suffering on the cross. He was calling out to God for help (Deliver my life from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs). God would deliver him – not by freeing him from the cross but by raising him from the dead. He would live again to praise the Father ( I will [in the future] declare your name to the brothers; in the congregation I will praise you) and the kingdom of God was still coming on the earth (All the ends of the earth will remember and will turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations).

The Mystery

Commentators disagree over the relationship between Jesus and his Father as he died on the cross. Some see the weight of sin he bore for us and accept that God turned away from his son because of that mortal stain. Others focus on the Savior’s perfection, his faithfulness to his Father’s plan, and see no way that God would even briefly abandon his son.

Here are some verses that explain how sin may have temporarily separated Jesus and the Father:

  • God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. 2 Cor. 5:21
  • Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” Gal 3:13
  • Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him. Isaiah 53:10

In contrast the psalm that Jesus quoted includes the following promise:

For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. Psalm 22:24

And from the same chapter of 2 Corinthians as the verse which said that Jesus became sin for us:

God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. 2 Cor. 5:19

In our humanity we long to see these questions settled in black or white, either this way or that. In God’s economy they are sometimes a mystery, sometimes both this and that. I believe this question will have to remain one of those mysteries. It’s no mystery that Jesus was calling the witnesses at his crucifixion to remember Psalm 22. He wanted them to see that he was that forsaken one, but that he was forsaken for God as much or more than he was forsaken by him. Jesus’ last words, “it is finished,” are also a reflection of the last words of Psalm 22, “it is done.”

To put it succinctly, in Psalm 22 we see the cross, in Psalm 23 the crook (the Shepherd’s crook), and in Psalm 24 the crown (the King’s crown). In Psalm 22 Christ is the Savior; in Psalm 23 He is the Satisfier; in Psalm 24 He is the Sovereign. In Psalm 22 He is the foundation; in Psalm 23 He is the manifestation; in Psalm 24 He is the expectation. In Psalm 22 He dies; in Psalm 23 He is living; in Psalm 24 He is coming. Psalm 22 speaks of the past; Psalm 23 speaks of the present; and Psalm 24 speaks of the future. In Psalm 22 He gives His life for the sheep; in Psalm 23 He gives His love to the sheep; in Psalm 24 He gives us light when He shall appear. What a wonderful picture we have of Christ in these three psalms!   – J. Vernon McGee

If ever, from now on, in our lives we should think that God has deserted us, let us learn from  our Lord’s example how to behave ourselves. If God has left you, do not shut up your Bible—no, open it as your Lord did—and find a text that will suit you. If God has left you, or you think so, do not give up prayer! No, pray as your Lord did and be more earnest than ever. If you think God has forsaken you, do not give up your faith in Him, but, like your Lord, cry, “My God, my God,” again and again!  – Charles Spurgeon

Image by Leo Reynolds on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0

The greatest commandment: Mark 12

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Today’s reading: Mark 12-13.

“Do I still have to follow commandments in the Bible?”

I heard Erwin Lutzer preaching recently about the fact that the new covenant of grace does not eliminate commands from God’s word. He was speaking on 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

Three commands in that one sentence: rejoice, pray, give thanks. He could also have referenced today’s passage where Jesus is asked to define the greatest commandment.

“Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 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: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31

One of the teachers of the law asked Jesus the question. It was a very Jewish thing to do, arguing over the tiny distinctions of the law. Was it most important to honor the sacrifices, to be circumcised, to repeat the scriptures contained in the phylacteries, or something else? Jesus made it clear that the most important issue was not the repetitive reading of the verse contained in the phylactery (the Shema from Deuteronomy 6 which Jesus quoted) but actually loving God wholeheartedly as the scripture commanded.

Love God with all your heart. Here heart refers not to the physical organ but to the center of a person’s will and emotion, their spiritual core. Our heart should not be divided between competing interests. Our love shouldn’t be half-hearted. Our devotion should be sincere and complete.

Love God with all your soul. The soul is the eternal essence which is distinguished from the body, but it is also the breath of life from God that animates the body. To love with the soul is to love with our life.

Love God with all your mind. The mind is our thinking and understanding. Our thoughts should be directed to God above all other things, and our love for him should not be blind but based on reason.

Love God with all your strength. Our strength is our ability. It is the force we exert to accomplish a task. It is the physical complement to the non-physical qualities of heart, soul, and mind.

Charles Spurgeon summed up the command this way. We are to love God:

  • supremely, above all other loves
  • heartily
  • with all our soul, that is with our whole life
  • with all our mind, prizing our belief in God
  • by activity

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God,” says the Law, “with all thy heart,” or, with perfect sincerity; “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy soul,” or, with the utmost fervor; “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy mind,” or, in the fullest exercise of an enlightened reason; and “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy strength,” or, with the whole energy of our being!” – Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible

“Lord, I thank thee that this law can not condemn me, for I believe in Jesus. But now, Lord, help me from this time forth for ever to keep it. Lord, give me a new heart, for this old heart never will love thee! Lord, give me a new life, for this old life is too vile. Lord, give me a new understanding; wash my mind with the clean water of the Spirit; come and dwell in my judgment, my memory, my thought; and then give me the new strength of thy Spirit, and then will I love thee with all my new heart, with all my new life, with all my renewed mind, and with all my spiritual strength, from this time forth, even for evermore.” – Charles Spurgeon

Image by Iryna Yeroshko on Flickr, CC by 2.0

Jesus’ glory revealed: Mark 9


Today’s reading: Mark 8-9.

Within a week after declaring that the religious leaders would condemn him and kill him, Jesus took his core disciples and headed to an isolated mountain.

After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Mark 9:2-4

Transfigured comes from the same word that means transformed in Romans 12:2. In that passage Paul said we should be transformed by the renewing of our minds. The word shows up again in 2 Corinthians 3:18, where Paul says we are being changed, transformed, transfigured into the glory of the Lord by the Holy Spirit. The glory was there all along in Jesus. The change was an external transformation that revealed his glory, rather than an internal metamorphosis that turned him from man to God. Whatever type of change it was, the remarkable thing is that believers go through similar changes. Not changed from man to God, but changed into the image of Jesus.

In the context of telling the disciples about his upcoming death and resurrection, Jesus may have gone through this mountain top transformation to prepare the disciples for the difficult trials ahead. God verbally proclaimed that Jesus was his son, a fact written down by Peter as well as the Gospel writers. Seeing him in his glory and divinity was an act of  grace for the disciples who were so prone to doubting.

Another effect of the transfiguration was to confirm Jesus was greater than the Law and the Prophets. When God told the disciples to listen to Jesus, he was telling them that his authority exceeded that of Moses and Elijah who were there representing the Law and the Prophets. Moses and Elijah were putting their seal of approval on Jesus as the Messiah.

Jesus’ transfiguration was also a fulfillment of his own prophecy, for he had told the disciples in the previous week that some of them would see him in the glory of his kingdom before they died. But the glory they saw was not the glory they expected. The Jews were expecting the Messiah to be a political and military leader, freeing them from their oppressors. Jesus’ glory was the glory of God.

As we read this Gospel story, it is easy for us to miss the point or get only half the picture. The Transfiguration experience does highlight the glory of Jesus. His radiance and the voice of God affirmed that Jesus was not just a bloke from the outback town of Nazareth but that he was the Son of God. The disciples were given a ringside seat and a close up experience of the splendour of God as they witnessed the transfigured Jesus. They were given a future glimpse of the glory of God’s Son beyond his suffering, death and resurrection. Death will not be his end. Beyond death, he will appear in glory, his face ‘shining like the sun’. What they saw must have encouraged and supported them in the gloomy days ahead.

But if that’s all we see then we are missing the point. What the disciples saw that day underscored the announcement of Jesus that he would suffer, die and rise from the dead. This was Son of God speaking – God is not inclined to make up stories – what Jesus said was the truth, “I must go to Jerusalem and suffer much from the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law. I will be put to death, but three days later I will be raised to life.” The disciples suddenly were able to see Jesus in a new light. Yes, he was the Son of God, but he was also the suffering Messiah.  – Pastor Vince Gerhardy

Image by Randy OHC on Flickr, CC by 2.0