November, 2015

Hide and Seek

My kids love the game of Hide and Seek as much as I did when I was a kid. They love the thrill of pursuit. They love the stealth and sneakiness of hiding. They love the discovery of finding their friends. But hiding isn’t always a good thing. I remember in school sitting through Fire Safety presentations from the local Fire Department. Every year the firefighters would warn us not to hide if there was a fire. They told us that children often become afraid in a fire and try to find a safe place by hiding in a closet or under a bed. I’m not sure we ever really outgrow that instinct. Perhaps we aren’t hiding from fires, but when we feel danger we still try to hide.
The prophet Zephaniah opens his prophecy with a terrifying description of the judgment that is coming to Judah. “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth” (Zeph 1:2). In fact, the destruction will be so severe that it will be a more comprehensive judgment than the Flood. The Flood was a global disaster that wiped out all mankind, save a few. It wiped out the creeping things and birds of the heavens (Gen 6:7). But at least the fish of the sea got a pass in the Flood; not so much this time. “I will sweep away man and beast; I will sweep away the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea” (Zeph 1:3). The coming Day of the LORD would be a complete and all-consuming fire.
But there is great hope in the prophecy of Zephaniah. The fire of the Day of the LORD is not a fire to destroy but a fire to purify. This is the same visual that Peter gives us in 2 Peter 3:1-13. It will be a fire that exposes all the fruitless and sinful works of man. And that dross will be burned up and removed as God recreates and restores his good creation; “a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 3:13). So Zephaniah gives the people of Judah some interesting instructions. In light of this coming Day of the Lord you should gather, seek, and perhaps you’ll be hidden (Zeph 2:1-3).
Zephaniah tells the people to “Gather together, yes, gather…” (v. 1). Before this judgment comes upon you, gather together. You are the people of God. You are the chosen ones of my blessed covenant. You are the ones whom I have called by my name. You are mine and I am yours. Gather together before this great calamity comes upon you. Gather and seek the LORD; seek righteousness; seek humility (v.3). Gather and seek. Why? So you can hide.
Zephaniah calls the people of God to play Hide and Seek but in reverse. He tells them to Seek and Hide. Seek the LORD; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the anger of the LORD (v. 3). When terror falls upon us, we will want to hide. It was the same with Adam and Eve in the Garden. After Adam and Eve had sinned against the Lord, they realized their nakedness before a holy God. “And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden” (Gen 3:8). They were terrified of God’s judgment on their sin, so they hid, just like a frightened child in a house fire. This isn’t what Zephaniah meant by hiding. In fact, Zephaniah used it in a passive way, “be hidden.” How might we be hidden by seeking?
The apostle Paul offers an answer to this riddle. He explains to the church at Colossae that by faith and repentance they are united with Christ. His death on the cross was the propitiation for their sins. “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:13, 14). And in their union with Christ, “you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). Seek the LORD and you will be hidden on the day of the anger of the LORD. On that day when all sin will be ultimately judged, we will endure the flames. Not because we tried to hide from them, because that is pointless. It didn’t work for Adam and Eve. It doesn’t work for the scared child. It won’t work for us. Rather, we will endure the flames because our sin has been reckoned by Christ and the burn of the flame has been removed. We are hidden in him. Instead of Hide and Seek, we should seek and be hidden.

On Membership and Fencing the Table

On Membership and Fencing the Table

The Apostles’ Creed: Crucified

When the Apostle Paul addressed the church at makes this simplest of statements of faith, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). The Dutch theologian Herman Witsius notes, “The cross of Christ is the foundation of foundations, and the pillar of sacred wisdom; without which it is impossible to understand the mysteries of our Religion, to attain genuine holiness, or to inherit eternal life.”[1] In simple terms, the crucifixion is kind of a big deal. What the Creed distills to one little word, could also be expounded in countless volumes. We believe in Jesus Christ and him crucified.

There are many different angles from which the crucifixion can be studies but two of the most helpful are the historical and the theological. The historical angle seeks to understand what crucifixion was in the context of Roman-occupied Palestine in the first century AD. The theological angle seeks to understand what this historical concept of crucifixion means for the Christian faith when it is applied to Jesus Christ.

Crucifixion was a particularly brutal manner of execution. It was typically reserved for the worst offenders. As such, it was considered too barbaric a practice to impose upon a Roman citizen. Crucifixion took a variety of forms, but typically included a beating or scourging of the accused, the bearing of the cross to the location of execution, the stripping of his clothes, and his imposition upon the cross.

The beatings were performed with rods or whips; whips being more brutal and common. Scourging was of sufficient brutality that Pilate thought the bloodlust of the Jews could be satisfied with it alone (Lk 23:22).

The condemned was then ordered to bear his cross to the place of execution. Jesus was physically unable to finish this task, so soldiers recruited Simon of Cyrene to carry it (Mt 27:32, Mk 15:21, Lk 23:26). This was done out of cruelty, not mercy. They did not want Jesus to faint or die before he suffered on the cross.

Before being hung on the cross, the accused would be stripped of all clothing. While they don’t explicitly state that Jesus was completely naked, only saying that his garments were divided among the soldiers, historical documents detailing other crucifixions show that the accused being stripped naked was standard practice. This was part of the disgrace of crucifixion and was likely true of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Finally, the condemned would be fastened to the cross. This was done either with lashing or nails, but typically nails. Death would come either through loss of blood, shock from the trauma, privation, wild animal attacks, or most commonly asphyxiation. The asphyxiation came from the chest muscles being required to lift the whole weight of the body to breathe. Eventually, the muscles tire and the body suffocates. This is why the legs were often broken. With broken legs the crucified could no longer push up to assist with breathing, and they died more quickly.

The historical perspective shows that crucifixion was a particularly heinous way to die. But the theological perspective only magnifies the horror. Paul relates the cross to the curse of Deuteronomy 21:22, 23, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” The cross is the curse of the covenant between God and his people. The curse is best understood in contrast to the blessing of the covenant. The greatest covenant blessing was the presence of God in the midst of the people. The greatest curse was to be removed from God’s presence. R.C. Sproul says that the “greatest Jewish terror was defilement – being pronounced ‘unclean.’”[2] Those who were “unclean” were removed or “cut off.” This was the fate of Adam and Eve after their sin. The scapegoat of the sacrificial system was cast out into the wilderness. Circumcision was the cutting off to symbolize their separation and holiness before God. To be cursed was to be cut off from the presence of God, and this is the worst outcome possible.

On the cross Jesus bore the covenantal curse of being “cut off” (Gal 3:13, 1 Pet 2:24, Heb 9:15, Col 1:22, 2 Cor 5:21). Jesus took the place of covenant law-breakers and experienced the full weight of the curse of sin upon himself. The greatest agony of the cross was not the physical pain. The greatest agony of the cross was that the Son of God, who eternally enjoyed the delight and fellowship of the Father and the Spirit, was suddenly and completely cut off. He was forsaken on our behalf. That the sky went black and the earth shook only underscored the depth of Jesus’ spiritual anguish. It was as if all of creation shuttered.

But this curse brought blessing to those who believed in Christ. By his wounds you have been healed (Is 53:5, 1 Pet 2:24). The crucifixion is the reconciliation of covenant law-breakers with their covenant God. This doctrine is profound and fathomless and yet it is simple enough for children to embrace and proclaim. Jesus Christ crucified is the simplest creed to profess and the most profound of our religion’s mysteries.

[1] Herman Witsius, Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed, 2 Vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 62.

[2] R. C Sproul, Renewing Your Mind: Basic Christian Beliefs You Need to Know (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1998), 118.

The Apostles’ Creed: Suffered Under Pontius Pilate

I find it astounding that the Apostles’ Creed, the most universally accepted statement of the Christian faith, summarizes the life of Jesus Christ in such a succinct manner. It could have said so many different things to describe the period of Jesus’ life between his birth and his death. John says that if everything Jesus did was written down, “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). And yet, the Creed describes the entirety of Jesus’ life between his birth and death as, “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” His whole life is described as suffering. Why did Jesus have to suffer? And what does that mean for us?

Growing up in the Methodist Church, we never used the term “saved” to refer to believers in Jesus Christ. It sounded too “Baptist-y.” So, I remember one time being asked if I was “saved.” That question sounded so odd to me. Saved from what? Even as a young Christian, I’m not sure that I would have answered rightly. I might have saved that I was “saved from my sins,” and that would be partly right. But a more accurate answer would be that I was saved from God. We don’t often think of salvation in that way, but the biblical truth is that we are saved by Christ from the wrath of God. This is why Jesus suffered. We had to be saved from the wrath of God.

The wrath of God was set against the whole human race on account of sin. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Rom 1:18). God will judge and punish unrighteousness because he is holy. “For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you” (Ps 5:4). God hates sin and must punish the sinner. “The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man” (Ps 5:5, 6). God jealously guards and vindicates his glory and so the sinner must face his wrath.

But God in his mercy does not leave his elect in their sin. Christ’s sufferings were “to reconcile elect sinners unto God and restore them to divine favor, in which life and happiness consist.”[1] Paul writes, “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Rom 5:10) and that God “who through Christ reconciled us to himself” (2 Cor 5:18) and “through [Christ] to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col 1:19). The Scriptures continually refer to the reconciliation that comes through the suffering of Christ. Witsius points out, in order to quell any doubt, that Christ is the meritorious cause of reconciliation. Scripture calls Christ the “propitiation.”[2] The author of Hebrews points out that Christ is the better and perfect sacrifice (Heb 9). And that “for a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb 10:14). In short, the wrath which our sins deserve was transferred onto Christ. The punishment we merited was meted out on Christ. “For our sake, he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:20). God satisfied his justice against us by pouring out his cup of wrath on Christ. This is what the term “propitiation” means.

The compilers of the Creed mention Pontius Pilate in order to anchor the death of Christ in real history. This was no myth or fable about forgiveness. This was real history. Jesus’ death at the hand of Pilate also shows that Christ died “outside the camp.” Sin offerings in the Old Testament were made outside the camp. Criminals and blasphemers were sent there. The unclean lived there during their time of uncleanness. Outsiders remained there until they were brought in. “Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his blood” (Heb 13:12). God providentially orchestrated human history in order to accomplish his plan of redemptive history.[3]

And it is helpful to note that Jesus’ suffering was not limited to his time on the cross. The Son of God stepped into creation as man by “making himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil 2:7). The Westminster divines spoke of this as the “humiliation” of Christ (WSC 27, WLC 46-50, WCF 8.4). When we take into account what Christ gave up to be fully man, we can understand how all of his life was one of suffering.

The Good News we have in the suffering of Christ is that because he entered into our suffering, we can have gratitude and hope. We have gratitude because of our reconciliation. If we grasp the misery and wretchedness of sin, then the propitiation offered in Christ becomes that much more glorious. Our hearts should sing with gratitude. Second, we can have hope. Because Christ suffered for a great purpose, we can know that our suffering is not meaningless. Our suffering points us to the great hope of redemption won for us by Christ in his suffering.

[1] Herman Witsius, Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed, 2 Vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 2:46.

[2] Ibid.

[3] R. C Sproul, Renewing Your Mind: Basic Christian Beliefs You Need to Know (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1998), 116.