Monday, April 24, 2017

One Reason Why the World Hates God's People So Much-Rom. 2:17-24

There is at least one thing that you be sure that I will never claim—that I am a good athlete. There is a good reason for this—I’m not! Not in the least! As a youth I can remember trying my hat at soccer and basketball. They put me in as a defender in soccer where I kicked more dirt around than I ever did the ball and when they did let me play basketball, I was rarely trusted with a shot. Swimming? the best place I received in any swim meet was 2nd out of two! Running?—not too much. Why? I'm prone to dry heaves. Baseball? never tried it (probably a good thing too as that may have led to severe injury behind the plate). Football…get real? The one sport I did enjoy somewhat was tennis. However, there is at least one person I could never beat and he is sitting here today—my dad. Though I had the newest racket around, my dad mercilessly beat me time and time again with his wooden racket! He would claim in a cheeky tone of voice after our matches that he had the advantage and would hold up that old Wilson racket with the word "Advantage" printed on the handle. Intramural stuff in college? Please, the most exercise I got was walking to the library and back from my dorm room. For me to claim any athletic ability whatsoever would be to smack of the greatest hypocrisy. Why? Because there is no walk to back up such talk. There is no back up in my giddy-up. Seeing as how no one likes a hypocrite, I stay away from pretending I’ve got it going on in the sports department.

Hypocrisy of any kind is off-putting. In fact, it is a charge lodged against Christians and it was a charge lodged at the very people Paul determines to discuss next in Romans 2. Let us look at three characteristics of the hypocrites he address so that we might learn how to keep unbelievers from hating us and the God we serve so much.

1)  The Talk-2:17-20

Let us remind ourselves of where we are at in Paul’s presentation. For the Better part of Romans 1-3 Paul is working on making one crucial point—all are sinners and therefore, in desperate need of what only Jesus can provide in salvation. In Romans 1:18-32 Paul demonstrates how the irreligious lost are guilty. He states that although these had the truth of God in creation, they suppressed the truth in unrighteousness and were handed over to their sins. In Romans 2:1-16, Paul discusses the culpability of the religious/moral gentile. Though these do not have a law like the Jews, they are still guilty of breaking what Paul calls the law written on their hearts—i.e. their conscience. Every human being is capable of discerning right and wrong and therefore more than capable of being guilty, including the lawless gentiles. This leaves only one group left to discuss—the Jew. Are the Jews, God’s chosen people, as in need of Jesus as the irreligious and the moral Gentile? Paul answers this question in the remainder of chapter 2 and the beginning of chapter 3.

To this end, Paul first describes the “talk,” or, what it was that the Jews of his day were claiming/saying. Just to make sure his reader understands exactly whom Paul is addressing, he provides a helpful transition—“but if you bear the name ‘Jew’ and rely upon the law” (2:17). Any self-respecting Jew reading this would have heartily affirmed their status as one of God’s chosen people. After all, this is what being a “Jew” was all about! Only this particular ethnic group could claim this label and all of the historical implications thereof. Not only that, but Paul also mentions the “law” that set them apart—“and rely upon the law” (2:17). Just as the name Jew rendered God’s people unique, so did the Law that he gave them on Sinai and in the Old Testament. No other people had a law like this handed down to them.

it is clear that Paul is now talking about someone new. No longer is he referring to the obviously lost or the moral, yet uncircumcised Gentile. Here, Paul is addressing the very center of the religious in-crowd. Surely if anyone had it going on spiritually, it would have been the Jews with their law.
That many Jews in Paul’s day believed that they populated the very center of the in-crowd surrounding God almighty is made clear in the remaining conditional clauses of verses 17-19. Each of these identifies something that you would have no doubt heard from the religious Jews during the first century. First, in so many words the Jews would have claimed “We are the children of God!” This is what Paul means when he says “and boast in God and know His will and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law” (2:17b-18). Because the Jews enjoyed a special place in God’s historical program, many boasted about their connection with God and the will of God that always seemed to include them especially. Again, having such a connection with the God of the universe gave them, at least in their own mind, unprecedented access to the “things that are essential” and awarded them exclusive blessings (such as the Law itself).

Like the A-list actors and actresses we watch in the movies and read about in magazines, these Jews believed that they had it going on in more ways than one.  

Not only were the Jews claiming to be children of God, they were claiming to be a shining example to others—“and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness” (2:19). Think about it: if you were convinced that you and your people had exclusive access to and affiliation with God, it would be easy to begin believing that you have a monopoly on wisdom from which others could stand to learn. After all, God had called the Jews, not the Gentiles (at least in the Old Testament). God had given the Jews the Law, not the Gentiles. Surely if anyone was qualified to help his fellow man it was a first century Jew!

This makes me think about famous people who are given something or awarded an opportunity. Often times, these then turn around and believe that they are now somehow an expert on an exemplar on a particular subject. One of my pet-peeves is how this plays out in celebrities, actors, and other Hollywood types. Some of those in this arena believe that by playing a role—especially a moral or inspirational role—they are automatically worthy of being an example to others in a particular area.
However, like these Hollywood types I mentioned earlier, the Jews took it another step further. These not only claimed “we are children of God!” and “we are an example,” they also were prone to saying “we are correct!” Paul continues describing the “talk” of the Jews thusly: “a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth.” 
Let us return to our Hollywood types mentioned earlier. Many in the world of showbiz and cinema believe that playing a certain role automatically awards them the kind of experience and education that few others have on a particular person of subject. These then become exceedingly preachy to those devoid of such an experience. Because I played a scientist I am now some kind of leading expert and advice-giver on environmental matters. Because I played in an old western I now can preach about civil rights and racial inequality today. The list goes on. Though reasons behind these logical leaps from pretend to activism and dogmatism elude me, this is eerily similar to how the Jews of Paul’s day behaved. It was part of their “talk.”

However, what the Jews were claiming was not incorrect. They were, in fact, the children of God and as such they were supposed to be an example to others and speak on moral matters with authority. The talk was big talk, but it was accurate talk—that is, if they were willing to back it up.

What we have in this passage is a classic example of a grand build up before an epic take down. As the diverse church to which Paul was writing would have read this, I imagine at this point the Jews in the audience would have been sitting comfortably. Paul had already convicted any lost soul that had accidently walked in to service that day (in his comments made in Rom. 1) and had already called out the religious Gentile (in Rom. 2:1-16—after all, they do try really hard). Here, Paul seemed to be telling a different story about a different and distinct people. People who, given these comments made thus far, would have felt pretty comfortable and justified. Some may have even been starting to say things like “see, I told you to listen to me and follow my lead! I’m a Jew, you are not!” However, Paul will soon cut many of these self-righteous Jews down to size as he moves on and describes their “walk.” In so doing, Paul proves the adage “there is no one quite so blind as those who are confident they can see” (Mounce, 99).

2) The Walk-2:21-23

Just to be sure that the right audience members were paying close attention Paul continues by saying “you”—i.e. you Jews that I have just spent a while describing—“You therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself?” (2:21). Here, Paul begins a series of biting rhetorical questions, each more painful than the last. Every one of these calls into question the “walk” of the very ones who “talk a big talk.” In his first question—“do you not teach yourself?”—the assumption is that they were not carrying out what they were teaching. In other words, these were not taking what they were dishing nor where they personally subscribing to what they were selling.

I cannot help but draw an analogy between this and many celebrities who seek to save the environment. These same save-the-planet types make no qualms about jetting around the world, insisting on expensive gas-guzzling cars, lavish parties, often with exotic meats, and producing multi-million dollar movies on location in the third world that would/could put that money to far better use. Not much back up in the giddy-up. Not much walk to match the talk—that is, in some cases.

Ultimately, Paul calls out self-righteous Jews for the hypocrites they are. As they were teaching others from atop their pedestal how to live, they themselves were not following their own instruction.
However, Paul doesn’t stop there, he gets personal and specific. In the next rhetorical quip Paul asks, “You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?...”(2:22a). It is obvious here that Paul believed many of the Jews he was addressing were not as “buttoned up” and pious as they let on. It is the same observation that Jesus makes in John 8.

In John 8 Jesus confront a spectacle in which a young woman caught in adultery is about to be stoned by the scribes and the Pharisees. After interrupting the proceedings, Jesus says these famous words—“He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (Jn. 8:7). Many scholars believe that the “sin” Jesus is referring to is the same sin for which they were about to stone this woman—adultery. In other words, the subtext was—“He who has not committed adultery like this woman, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” What is so compelling about this scene is after Jesus’ words “they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones,…” (Jn. 8:8).
It is obvious that in Paul’s day there were still some self-righteous, religious Jews who were guilty of the very things they were accusing others of behind closed doors!

However, that is not all that some of the Jews were guilty of. Paul continues and asks “You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?” (2:22b). Paul is calling out the exaltation of something worldly above God. Though this was to be expected of the godless and lawless (see Rom. 1-2), surely the Jews would not fall prey to idolatry. Unfortunately, many did. In fact, Josephus reports an incident in which several Jews appropriated for their own use a gift from a recent convert intended for the temple in Jerusalem (Ant. 18.81-84). After all it was widely known that large stores of valuable treasures were often kept in the temples. What was supposed to be used for worshipping God, was, on occasion, taken and applied in other ways—demonstrating that something else had taken God’s special place.

Paul tells these Jews that they can preach against idolatry all that they want, but their robbing of the temple for personal gain proved that they were guilty of idolatry themselves!

The final question Paul asks is perhaps the most personally convicting and general of the four—“You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God?...” (2:23). Paul’s point is this: if you are so proud of your exclusive Law and believe that it sets you apart, why don’t you follow it? Instead, by acting like everyone else without the Law, you dishonor God! In fact, the participles used here describe an ongoing kind of dishonoring—i.e. “you are continually bringing dishonor to God.” Such dishonor is brought on by consistently breaking the Law that claimed to cherish.

When Paul addresses the “walk” of many of the Jews, he is unimpressed. He asks in vv. 21-23: 1) Are you really walking the walk? 2) Aren’t you just as idolatrous? 3) Can’t you be just as idolatrous? 4) Don’t you break the law too? Though proud as the beginning of this passage was read, I imagine many self-righteous Jews embarrassingly sinking into their chairs as this was read. That said, what is more troubling than their embarrassment, is the consequence that this kind of living spells for the unbelieving world.

3) The Consequence-2:24

In revealing the egregious implication of hypocrisy Paul says “’For the Name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of You,’ just as it is written” (2:24). Here, Paul endorses a quote from Isa. 52:5. There, God’s name was blasphemed because his chosen people were being oppressed (many weren’t keen on believing in a God that would allow such). Paul applies this sentiment differently in Romans 2. In verse 24, Paul makes the case that God’s name is being blasphemed among the Gentiles because of the reprehensible conduct of the Jews.

Their hypocrisy proved to be the biggest kind of turn-off for the observing world. This grieved Paul greatly. Who cares about what this meant for the individual Jew; the very Name of God (all that He is and stands for) was being drug through the mud.

So What?

“Shame, shame!” We shout along with Paul in this portion of his letter to the Romans. “How hypocritical! Could the Jews not see acute damage they were doing to God’s kingdom-building work?”

However, before we pack up our things and go our separate ways with an air of self-righteousness ourselves, perhaps we ought to ask ourselves a few questions lest we become the pot calling the kettle black. After all today’s conservative Christian is, in many cultural respects, quite similar to yesterday’s traditional Jew.

Are we, am I, walking the walk? Or, like the Jews in Paul’s day, are we just a bunch of talk?
Can’t we prove just as adulterous? Would it surprise you to learn that the divorce rate in the church is the same for those outside the church, that 50% of Christian men have a problem with pornography according to most statistics, and that 50% of evangelical pastors have viewed porn at least once in the last year?

Aren’t we, at times, just as idolatrous? So many people, including myself, betray that their real hope and their real security in a season or in a moment is in something other than God. So often we fear other things more than God or long for things more than Jesus or are preoccupied with agendas that are in no way connected to our mission.

Don’t we break the law also—that is the very law in God’s word that we hold up and preach week after week?

So often we talk a great talk but do not back up our giddy-up with the right walk. As a result, the world is turned off from God. One of the biggest criticisms unbelievers lodge at today’s church is the same that was lodged at so many Jews—“they are a bunch of hypocrites!” So what are we to do?

Correctly answering the charge of Hypocrisy and reaching the lost is not pretending that we’re perfect. The answer is confessing that we are not—Jesus is! We, those who some might consider “close to God,” just like the those in the who are far from Him, are desperate for what only Jesus can provide in Salvation. This is Paul’s point. It doesn’t matter if we are a Jew, a Gentile, or a back-row Baptist, we are the kind of wreck that only Jesus can mend. Let’s at least be honest about that! To do thus is the beginning of salvation and the first step in reaching a world of brokenness. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Religious vs. Righteous - Romans 2:12-16

When I was coming up in high school I had two sets of friends. My high school friends and my church friends. I did not differentiate the bunch for any other reason other than my school was relatively far away from my church, meaning that those I went to class with were distant from where our family served. That said, if we were to mix the two groups up and put them in a line up with a brief description of each, I’m sure you would have a hard time differentiating which friends were from which place. Most of my friends (from both places) had excellent families, parents were married, good jobs, excellent citizens, morally upright, involved in the community, helpful, kind, etc. Though, to be sure, not all of my church friends may have been saved and not all of the school friends may have been lost, it proved difficult for me not to assume that people knew Jesus the way I did. After all, they looked the part and, in many cases, acted the part also.

This phenomenon never ceases to amaze me, event to this day. In my many interactions around town and at the hospital I am often struck by how “good” some people behave and yet, after some digging, how lost and in desperate need of Jesus they really are. How does this happen? Thankfully, Paul provides an explanation in Romans 2:12-16. In this passage Paul answers three questions that describe the culpability of the lost—even those of a religious and relatively moral sort.

1) How is one Lost?-2:12

In the brave new world in which Paul was writing, there were several different kinds of lost people: the irreligious (those who were lost and couldn’t care less), the religious Gentile (those who tried their best to be morally upright), and the Jew (those who had been given and sought to follow the Law of God). Paul seeks to address each of these groups in a systematic way in order to demonstrate a crucial truth concerning the Gospel—that all are in desperate need of what only Jesus can give. In Romans 1 (particularly, vv. 18-32), Paul uncovers the culpability of the irreligious lost. Though these were given the truth of God in creation, these suppressed the truth and were handed over to their sins. In Romans 2:1-16, Paul describes the culpability of the religious Gentile—that is the merely religious. Devoid of a real relationship with God, Paul makes the case that it does not matter how religious one is, God will judge the religious by the same standard that the religious often judge others! We pick things up in vv.12-16 as Paul is demonstrating how religious Gentiles are culpable before God.

To this end, Paul answers the following question: “How does one become lost?” To this inquiry Paul gives a twofold answer. First, Paul deals with those without the Law (again, religious Gentiles)—“…For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law,…” (2:12a). Here, Paul suggests that sinners are guilty whether they have a formalized law or not!

Though my wife and I have laid out rules for our children, there are certain things that they do that fall outside the scope of what has been specified or formally articulated. That said, when they discover new “activities” (not yet specified in the house rules that my wife and I are building) that are either dangerous and/or annoying, they are disciplined, regardless of there being a “law” yet present. Why? Hesitation and a second glance gives them away every time. Some things do not need to be written out and children are far more sophisticated morally than many given them credit for. You have heard it said, “If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one around to hear it, does make a sound?” Paul here is asking and answering a similar question. “if, say, an atheist steals his brother’s wife in a third world country, having never seen a Bible or having never heard a law against the matter, did he really sin?” Paul says that the answer is a resounding “Yes!”  Not only did the man in question sin, according to this passage he will be held accountable for his sin.

However, inasmuch as “there is no partiality with God,” those who sin under the Law will also be judged—“and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law” (2:12b). In other words, for those who have a sophisticated set of rules that guide righteous living, disobeying the law lands them in the same trouble as those who sin without such a law. These will be judged by the law—that is evaluated and condemned for their transgressions.

Going back to the previous example, when my children disobey rules that have been articulate, they are in trouble—they have heard the law and have disobeyed it. It is not only the act that renders them culpable, but their transgression of the law that has been made explicit. Similarly, if our third world atheist is made aware of the law against adultery and then commits it, he is now guilty in light of the law.

Therefore, as far as gentile culpability is concerned, for Paul, it doesn’t matter if they have a codified set of ordinances or not, they are guilty—just as guilty as those with a law (namely, the Jews). Jew and moral Gentile alike are guilty of sin—Gentiles without a law and Jews with one. The sin of both groups are just as lost as those Paul discussed in Romans 1:18-32. The answer to Paul’s first question—“How does one become lost?”—is simple: they sin (with or without a law present).

2) How is one Justified?-2:13

In a quick shift, Paul moves to answer an equally important question in verse 13—“How is one justified?” In answering this question, he dispels a nasty rumor that has percolated among the religious for thousands of years. This rumor takes on many forms but it ultimately be distilled as follows: as long as I know the right stuff, I’m good to go with God. Paul blows this out of the water with the following remarks: “for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God” (2:13a). In no uncertain terms, Paul says that hearing the standards of God or being superficially familiar with these standards is not enough to be right with Him.

Too often people in Paul’s day equated information with transformation and familiarity with doctrine with acceptance of a robust gospel. However, hearing something long enough doesn’t necessarily lead to moral maturation nor does learning necessarily equal discipleship.

I could hear all day long that Dr. Pepper is bad for me and yet, unfortunately, I continue to drink it, and do. . .lots of it. Though I’ve been made aware of how much sugar is in Dr. Pepper and know the health risks, simply learning this information has not led to, at least up to this point, any transformation in my life.

Paul’s comment here is directed to the Jews in his audience. Feeling as though they had a special relationship with the God that the Gentiles did not share (because they had been given a law that the Gentiles did not receive), Paul says, just because you have heard what God gave you doesn’t mean you have been transformed by it!

Instead, “the doers of the Law will be justified” (2:13b). Those who actually refrain from drinking too much Dr. Pepper will be healthier. Those who practice what God has said, reveal that they have been transformed by Him and belong to Him.

One must be careful not to misinterpret Paul here. Paul is not saying that people are justified before God because of their works. In fact, notice what he will say in just a few verses:

Romans 3:20-“because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in HIs sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.”

Not only that, but remember what Paul says elsewhere in Ephesians:

Ephesians 2:8-9-“for by grace you are saved through faith and this is not of yourselves; it is a gift of God, not of works lest any man should boast.”

So what is Paul saying when he says “but the doers of the Law will be justified?” Paul is teaching that those who do the Law of God reveal by their doing it that they have not only heard it, they have taken the added step of being transformed by God so that they can obey it. “What the law requires is ultimately neither ceremonial nor moral conformity…but believing obedience, or obedient faith” (Barrett, Romans, 51). “Unless hearing becomes doing, it has no particular benefit.”

James 1:22-25-“but prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the work and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.”

This applies to Jew and Gentile both. For both groups “passive agreement” does not equal “action.”
However, let’s be fair, how is it that we can really hold people accountable for something when they do not have a law under which they operate?

3) How is this explained for the Gentiles?-2:14-16

Paul reveals how this takes place when he answers the third question we will ask in light of this passage –“How is this (that is guilt and justification) for the Gentiles?” He states “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves?” In other words, whenever Gentiles, by natural instinct, did what the Law of God required, they demonstrated the existence of a guiding principle within themselves (Mounce, 94). Caring for the sick, looking out for the less fortunate, keeping from murder and adultery, etc. are all things that both Jews and Gentiles alike are capable of doing irrespective of their knowledge of the formal Law of God.

What gives men and women this capacity? From where does this “instinct” come? The answer lies in the imago Dei. Calvin called it, the sensus divinitatis and we know as the image of God in mankind. Because we are made in God’s image, we cannot help but know something of what is morally right, even as fallen and desperate as we are. Therefore, anytime anyone choose to do good or, on the flipside, chooses to go against what some might call an instinct or his/her conscience, he/she is transgressing this very part of who he/she is, rendering him/her culpable before God.

Paul explains it this way—“in that they show the word of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them…” (2:15). Paul is not saying that the Gentiles know the Law that was given to Israel instinctively. Instead, he is saying that “in a broad sense what was expected of all people was not hidden from those who did not have the revelation given to Israel” (Mounce, 95). Some commentators suggest that in the pagan world the conscience acted in roughly the same way as the law behaved for the Jewish community.

Interestingly, in this singular verse, Paul says that three things in the life of a religious Gentile render them culpable before God: 1) the law (written on their hearts), 2) his conscience, and 3) his thoughts. It is that hesitation I see in my children when they do not immediate obey. In them there appears an internal struggle that says “I know what I need to do, but I am choosing whether or not I’m going to do it.” The same happens in those without the law of God. People are far too sophisticated to get out of guilt by claiming that they have not seen the law of God spelled out for them on paper. In the same way my kids are not going to get away with things because I haven’t explicitly told them this or that. Paul says and I concur—they know better!

And because they do, “on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus” (2:16). Many Bible scholars consider vv. 14-15 to be a parenthetical remark (i.e. a brief rabbit trail for emphasis and explanation). That said, Paul picks up the thought of verse 13 (“For it is not he hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified”) in verse 16 here “on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.”  

Paul had an intimate connection with Gospel message. In fact, he calls it hear “my gospel” meaning that it was given to him to share by revelation from God. Therefore, Paul knows it backwards and forwards. According to it, God will judge the secrets of all men (Jew and Gentile alike) because, as he has made abundantly clear, all are guilty—even those without a formal law!

So what?

What about this passage could possibly be applied to my life? Consider this a warning. Affiliation with, knowledge of, and even respect for the Law of God, the Word of God, and even the Son of God, is not going to cut it. Paul says here that transformation must take place in the life of an individual—the kind of transformation that turns passive hearers of the Law into active doers. No one is going to be able to say when he/she stands before God that they didn’t know better. Either they have been given a law that explicitly points out their error and need for salvation, or they have a conscience that bears witness to the fact that they are in desperate need of what only Jesus can satisfy.

My heart breaks for this nation in general and our community in particular as so many I come into contact are like the ones spoken of in this passage—merely religious. They know just enough to feel safe, do just enough to fit in, and appear good enough to fool those around them and themselves that they are without fault. The problem is, the little they do know renders them just as guilty before God as anyone else and, by proxy, in desperate need of Jesus. Perhaps this is why Jesus has brought us here to South Roanoke and left us here. Perhaps this is why Jesus showed us our need and saw fit to transform our lives from passive hearers to active doers—so that we might take this message to those who feel safe but are anything but.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Long Night's Journey into Day Pt. 6-John 20:11-18

Significant events throughout the lifespan are often catalysts for great personal transformation. For instance, things drastically changed when I went from being single to getting married and in many ways I am still being transformed by that today. People can also change when they suffer loss—either of a job, one’s health, or a loved one. Big events also have the potential of inciting change on a national or even global level. 9/11 was such an event that forever transformed the American story and experience. The breaking down of the Berlin Wall changed Eastern Europe indefinitely. Truly, we survey human history and document countless events that changed the world and the individuals that populate it. However, no event is as transformative as the one we are going to look at today. In John 20:11-18, a description of one woman’s confrontation with the greatest event in all of history is given. Her interaction with what has happened in this passage leads to her personal transformation and provides a symbol for the potential change everyone can experience in their own lives regardless of their socio-historical localization or demographic. 

Image result for Garden Tomb

a) Mary Weeps as a Grieving Loner-20:11-13

A lot happened on Easter morning . Here is a brief look at what took place up to 20:11 in John’s narrative.

Read 20:1-10-Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene *came early to the tomb, while it *was still dark, and *saw the stone already taken away from the tomb. So she *ran and *came to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and *said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.” So Peter and the other disciple went forth, and they were going to the tomb. The two were running together; and the other disciple ran ahead faster than Peter and came to the tomb first; and stooping and looking in, he *saw the linen wrappings lying there; but he did not go in. And so Simon Peter also *came, following him, and entered the tomb; and he *saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the face-cloth which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself. So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb then also entered, and he saw and believed. For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead. So the disciples went away again to their own homes.”

We join the chaos following the revelation of the empty tomb late and see Mary “standing outside the tomb weeping; and so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb” (20:11). The action of her weeping is described as a continuous stream of loud sobs.  No doubt Mary was driven to this because (as we will soon learn) her worst fears seemed to be confirmed in the absence of Jesus’ body. 
Abusing or tampering with the dead was considered an abhorrent offense and this is what Mary believes has happened to Jesus. (All the while her greatest joy should have been realized). By this point, the other disciples, following their brief investigation of the empty tomb, have already left. They had already lost their Savior and now His body was missing.

Left to sob outside the tomb by herself, Mary decides to do some investigating. Some speculate that her sense of grief and loss may have driven her back to the tomb after some time passed in order to find someone or something that could provide answers. Therefore, “she stooped and looked into the tomb”(20:11).

 “and she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying” (20:12). The tomb is no longer empty. Instead, two heavenly messengers clad in white catch Mary’s attention. These two angelic beings stand alongside Jesus’ resting place as evidence to Mary that God has been at work in some way (as in every situation in which angels are presented in Scripture).

All these heavenly messengers do is ask Mary a simple question, “Woman, why are you weeping?” (20:13a). Though the reason for Mary’s grief might seem obvious, this question is asked in  order to give Mary an opportunity to reflect and put aside her grief for a moment with the hopes of putting two and two together (missing body + angelic beings + Jesus’ teaching = ?).

However, unfortunately, Mary is unable to wipe away her tears and add up what she sees to get the sum of what has happened. Instead, she is so disturbed by the missing body that she replies to these two, “because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him” (20:13b). Instead of realizing the greatest joy that Jesus has made possible through what He said He would do (rise), Mary along with the disciples assumes the very worst. Blinded by grief, she is unable to remember what Jesus said of Himself and believes His body to be the victim of thievery. 

b) Mary Begs as a Concerned Investigator-20:14-15

As she speaks to the angels, someone emerges onto the scene. Suddenly aware of this third presence, Mary “…turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus” (20:14).  If we were to associate her stage of grief at this point, she is at the point of denial—not denying that Jesus was dead (as she was one of the few witnesses of Calvary), but denying that He was now alive. As is common in resurrection narratives, Jesus is not recognized immediately (see 21;4; Luke 24:16; Matt. 28:17). Mary’s failure to recognize Jesus continues this pattern. Neither the stone that has been rolled away, nor the empty tomb, nor the angels inside, nor even the risen Jesus Himself are able to enlighten Mary!

The failure of Mary to recognize Jesus becomes even more dramatic when she hears His familiar voice question her about her actions, “Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’”(20:15a). Perhaps Jesus’ first question is a mild rebuke, “why should you weep?” or is Jesus’ way of caring for this woman’s deep concern. Either way, Jesus’ second question (“whom are you seeking?”) is asked to direct Mary’s attention away from herself and to Jesus. Knowing the answer to His own question, Jesus wants Mary to articulate her thoughts in order to set up His revelation for her.

Mary’s response is predicated on her misunderstanding of who this man is, “…Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said to Him, ‘Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away’…” (20:15b). Aside from grave robbers or other mourners, neither of which would have been likely visitors at this hour, gardeners attending to the grounds where the tomb was located would have been the only people around” (Kostenberger, 568). Her guess of this man’s identity could not have been more wrong, for in this moment she is asking the body she is seeking for the answer to the mystery of the empty tomb!

In Mary’s mind she seems an empty tomb and assumes that Jesus has been stolen. She observes Jesus Himself and assumes that he is a gardener. However, once things are revealed, all that Mary has observed will prove far greater than she could have ever imagined.

c) Mary Clings like a Beloved Child-20:16-17

In verse 16, Mary is given the clue that answers the riddle, the secret word used to decode the mysterious happenings of the previous hours, and the final piece to the puzzle that pulls the whole picture together. “Jesus says to her, ‘Mary!’…”(20:16a). Though this seems simple enough, when Mary hears her name spoken from Jesus’ lips, she is launched out of grief and into pure ecstasy, travels from despair to delight, and trades her tears of grief for tears of triumph.

This is evidenced by her response to Jesus, “she turned and said to Him in Hebrew, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means Teacher)…”(20:16b). Though this word is not wrought with theological significance nor is it a weighty Christological proclamation, it is a familiar term that Mary probably used throughout Jesus’ ministry when she spoke to Him. This specific episode is more about the remaking of her personal relationship with Jesus than it is about doctrine (at least at this point). With that said, this verse does confirm what Jesus communicated in John 10:3-4, “To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he puts forth all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.

It is obvious by what Jesus says next that Mary probably rushed toward Him in a tight embrace. Not wanting to lose her Savior again, this response resembles what a small child might do when his or her parents come home after a long trip. Here, Mary’s teacher had been gone three days and upon His return she did not want to let Him loose!

However, Jesus suggests that this is not the time for clinging nor for sentimentalities, “’Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father’” (20:17a).  Jesus assures Mary that He is not going anywhere (at least for now) and can let go of Him. 

Rather than remain and cling, Jesus calls Mary to use her newfound joy to proclaim the news of His resurrection to others, “but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God’…” (20:17b). Mary’s appointment is incredibly significant as she is not a trained messenger nor a man. That a woman with a shady past was one of the first to send word of Jesus’ resurrection is compelling evidence of the legitimacy and historicity of this event. Had this story been fabricated, no one would have given the part of first responder to a women given the gender roles and stereotypes of the first century.

The content of the message is simple. In so many words, Jesus wants Mary to tell the other disciples that He had risen and was now in the process of ascending into heaven (something that would take place a few weeks later). He also wants her to tell them that His Father and God is also their Father and God. This statement would have brought incredible hope to the disciples for in it Jesus subtly reveals that the same Father and God who raised Him from the dead is the Father of God of the disciples who follow Him.

d) Mary Shares as a Faithful Messenger-20:18

Mary faithfully answers her commissioning and immediately sets out to complete her assignment, “Mary Magdalene came, announcing to the disciples…”(20:18a). The way this is written almost seems to suggest that Mary was in a continuous state of proclamation as she carried this message to her friends. As the first sent one beyond the empty tomb, Mary is the first missionary. The first to receive this “good news” are Jesus’ close confidants.

After making it to the disciples, Mary shares, “’I have seen the Lord,’ and that He had said these things to her…” (20:18b). Answering the call to be sent, Mary the shared the message she was given to proclaim without fail. 

So What?

In this passage Mary transforms from a grieving loner to a faithful messenger. What is to blame for this dramatic transition in her life? –the change demonstrated in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Once He was dead and now He is alive. Because of this, grieving loners everywhere can know hope, obtain a mission, find purpose, and joyfully live in this world full of all kinds of life-changing events. However, in order to experience this change, one must take the steps that Mary demonstrates in her odyssey here. First, people must recognize they are grieving loners. Grieving what? The loss of answers, the loss of meaning, the loss of understanding one’s place in the grand scheme of things, and ultimately the loss of a right relationship with God. Once achieved, they must pursue answers to these questions and satisfaction for these needs by becoming concerned investigators of Jesus Christ who claims to provide for these things and more. Thoroughly and honestly vetted, Jesus will inevitably be found alive and well and be understood as God made flesh. When people trust in this, they become children of God who want as much of Jesus as possible. This will ultimately bring individuals face-to-face with Jesus’ commands, specifically, the commission to go and share the greatest news ever! What is this news? That Jesus was once dead but is now alive! His change gives all the opportunity to transform from grieving loners to faithful messengers. What stage of the journey are you in today? 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Long Night's Journey into Day Pt. 5 Luke 23:39-43

Faced with certain death, what would you say to God? Interestingly enough, all of the answers to this question can be divided into two distinct categories that are represented by the two thieves on the crosses on either side of Christ. Their voices heard in the midst of their suffering are emblematic of the choices people make concerning God in light of their suffering today. However, in order to learn from the dichotomy represented in their statements, one must listen carefully to what he hears in between the gasps for air and vociferous cries of the spectators in Luke 23:39-43 on top of the skull rock. As gross and dark as this scene proves to be, journeying through this text is fruitful those who follow the man who hung in the middle as they learn the invaluable role of brokenness before God.
Image result for Golgotha


Crucifixion was viewed by ancient writers as the cruelest and most barbaric of punishments. Recent historical and archaeological studies have helped bring a more realistic sense of crucifixion’s horrors. Bone fragments of a crucified individual were discovered in 1968 and revealed that his feet were each nailed laterally to the beam. In many cases, both the feet and wrists were nailed to the crossbeam the victims carried. This would have taken place after the victim was stripped of his clothes to increase the humiliation. After being nailed to the crossbeam, it would be raised high enough for the victim’s feet to clear the ground and then placed on a stake. Most guess that Jesus’ cross stood about 7 feet high. This method of execution was designed for one thing, a slow and tortuous death.  Death by crucifixion was a result of loss of blood, exposure, exhaustion, and suffocation, as the victim tried to lift himself to breathe. Sometimes, victims would linger for days in agony! This horrific spectacle even inspired words like “excruciating,” which derives from the Latin excruciatus, “out of the cross.”

Though many tend to focus their attention on Jesus in the center of the Golgotha scene, it is important to remember that Jesus was one of three currently facing this unthinkable horror. Given the nature of their current predicament, it is no wonder that one of the thieves speaks up and in his rage says hurls abuse in the midst of his ever-shallow breaths (Lk. 23:39).

Though ill-advised in retrospect, one might understand how such a voice could be heard in the midst of agony. The first thief’s voice illustrates one of choices everyone has in a difficult/painful situations—rage.  This is not a voice coming from a heart of brokenness, but a voice offered from a hardened heart bent against God.

In many ways this first thief represents a large sector of humanity. Those who in the face of suffering shake an angry fist at the God they  do not even believe in find a sympathizer in this man and might even be caught saying what he says here, “Are you no the Christ? Save Yourself and us!”

In the last moments of life and in the midst of incredible pain, people will reach for anything to provide relief, even that which they blaspheme. However, instead of looking to Jesus in real hope of real salvation, this thief questions who Jesus claims to be and is sarcastic in his plea.

This Hellacious cry echoes throughout the generations among those who fail to believe in Jesus Christ. Seeing no way of escape from their death or agony, instead of reaching out to Jesus in Faith for salvation, they question Him, His love, His sovereignty, and in their unbelief grasp only at straws.  Calvin says of this raging blasphemer, “this objection is directed against God Himself; just as wicked men, when they do not obtain what they wish, would willingly tear God from heaven. They ought indeed, to be tamed to humility by strokes; but this shows that the wicked heart, which no punishments can bend, is hard like iron.” The voice of rage says, “There is no God, look how much I’m hurting! If there was a God, why would he allow me this pain?”


As we continue to watch the spectacle unfold, there is a second voice screaming 7 ft. above the ground. The second thief cannot put up with the insistent blaspheming of Jesus while on the cross and instead of holding his tongue or saving his breaths for himself as he too reels in pain on a cross of his own, he openly rebukes the statements being made on the other side of the skull rock.

In what this second criminal says, the reader is made aware of another way, the proper way, to view one’s own predicament before Christ. Though in the first man’s response to pain and agony one can hear the voice of a raging blasphemer, here the surprising and yet unmistakable voice of reason is distinguished. 

The first thing offered by this second voice is a statement of rebuke. “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?” In this question, the second robber is hoping that the first recognizes that death is coming soon and it is probably not the best time to be blaspheming an innocent man. Though their present predicament was desperate and difficult, it would not compare to what they would feel before God in the judgment seat. Though they were now feeling the results of being condemned by the Roman government, they would soon discover what it would feel like to be condemned by God Himself!

Though this rebuke was designed to put the fear of God into this man, there is no evidence to suggest it was successful. Instead, the first thief’s hard heart hardened and unfortunately this is no different than many in our world today. Instead of fearing God many distance themselves from Him, harden themselves, and fall into condemnation.  Any reasonable person would understand that they should most fear the God who can kill body and spirit. However, these are blinded by rage in response to pain and suffering.

The second thief understands that what they are experiencing is exactly what they “deserve.” He acknowledges here that the punishment which was common to all the three was “justly” inflicted on him and his companion. However,  Christ had been dragged to the punishment of death, not by his own crime, but by the cruelty of enemies, -“…And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’…” (Lk. 23:41). This second thief reasonably concludes, in light of his crime, that the punishment he is suffering at present is natural and expected, not surprising or unjust. In fact, to not be punished in the manner he was currently experiencing would have been a gross injustice. Unlike his companion thief, who believed God was unjust and/or unreal, this man recognizes that the real injustice is being exercised on the man in the middle.

As alluded to earlier, this man might represent all who reasonably conclude that their present sufferings, agonies, and even anticipated death are a natural result of their own sinful choices, mankind’s depravity, and extant wickedness that infects the entire fallen world. The difficulty they face in life and the hardships around them are understood by these as the product of sin in their lives, the lives of others, and in creation itself.  Therefore, what they are experiencing and will experience after death without Christ is not understood as unjust, but the proper penalty assigned to each of them. The only thing they can do in light of this is call upon the Lord because of their brokenness and desperation.

Calling upon the Lord is exactly what the second thief does next, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!”  (Lk. 23:42).

In this phrase readers everywhere are given one of the most remarkable and striking examples of faith ever recorded! This thief not only had not been educated in the ways of Christ, he instead had given himself over to a life of sin and endeavored to rid himself of any sense of right and wrong (a life of thievery). However, here he suddenly rises higher than all the apostles and other disciples whom the Lord Himself had taken time to instruct and adores Christ as King and asks to be invited to His kingdom! This he does while bleeding out and gasping for air on a cross! All credit for such a display of faith must go to the Holy Spirit, who, upon this man’s understanding of his sin and necessary implications thereof, supplied the grace necessary to make this quantum leap from sin to saving faith.
Those who understand their sin and its effects are those who are broken enough to understand their dependency on the Lord for their salvation. Like this second thief, those who place their faith in Jesus Christ are reaching a reasonable conclusion. Jesus is the only means of escaping the sting of death and entering into eternal life. The voice of reason says, “I am responsible for my actions, expect the consequences, and desperately need Jesus to save me.” Brokenness before Jesus demands the attention of God.


Do not forget that Jesus is suffering under the same excruciating pain these two thieves are experiencing. He too is hanging seven feet above Golgotha and His voice is the third participant in the unique conversation taking place overhead. In His response to what has been said, it is significant to note that Jesus only addresses the second thief and ignores the first. Jesus responds to brokenness and ignores blaspheming rage. In his response to the former, Jesus provides His voice of redemption.
To the reasonable thief Jesus says, “truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43). This promise reveals that Jesus, though presently humiliated before the onlookers, was still the same powerful Savior of the world who was capable of bringing life out of death and fulfilling every facet of His office. The second thief could expect life after death that very day with Jesus in Paradise.

As “paradise” is synonymous with heaven, Jesus makes it clear here that death is not defeat for those who belong to Jesus Christ—it is the beginning of life with God in a more profound way. This is what the second thief could expect following his last breath. In fact, anyone who turns to Jesus, even in the last moments of his/her life, is granted fellowship with Christ for eternity thereafter.

Romans 10:13-“Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Jesus has always been about awarding faith with grace. Here, he awards the faith of a thief at his execution with the grace of eternal life in heaven. This same grace is available today to all who call upon Him, expecting to hear the voice of redemption. The voice of redemption says, “This world and its sufferings is not all that there is. Call upon me and know eternal life.”

Interestingly, Jesus is able to offer grace for the thief and the remainder of the world because of His own brokenness. Jesus’ heart broke so much for this dying world destined for hell that He decided to enter into its situation as a man, live a perfect life in an imperfect world, and die a horrific death. Motivated by this brokenness and love, Jesus provided my salvation and gave me life and he offers it to you as well.

So What?

The sights and sounds surrounding Golgotha draw attention to the multiplicity of horrors and pain experienced by all in this world. Like these three, we are on our way to death and so is the world. Like these three, we are living in the midst of sin and injustice, feeling the very real effects of sin along the way. This predicament affords us two choices. The first is represented by the first thief. To those who speak of God in rage, who do not believe in God or can’t for the life of them believe that anyone would believe in a good God while there is so much pain and suffering, I say this, consider that Jesus’ own heart breaks for the world’s situation. His heart breaks so much that he was willing to travel to the cross and experience the most horrific death imaginable to redeem you out of this mess and into eternal life. He died in the worst possible way and did not deserve any bit of it! We suffer because we are sinful. He suffered though He sinned not!

The second choice is represented by the second thief. To those who have been broken before Christ and in response have reached the reasonable conclusion that only He can give hope in the darkness, I hope and pray that your heart might again break for the world around you as Christ’s does. If our hearts do not break for the world we will not reach the people that need to know Jesus Christ. If we fail to, like Christ, incarnate ourselves in the mess, this city will not receive the revival it desperately needs.