Category Archives: Gospel
Who’s Going to Clean Up after the Horse? (5 Reasons the Ascension Matters)
Why do heroes ride off into the sunset? Wouldn’t it be better if they stayed? Who wants a hero who skips town as soon as the crisis is over? The hard stuff is what comes next. Sure you beat up the big bad guy, but what about all the little ones? What about all the problems you didn’t fix? What about the daily grind of living in a broken world? Look at you on your cool horse. Who do you think is going to clean up all that poop it left behind?
Forget the sunset. I want a hero who sticks around, not one who takes off.
But isn’t that exactly what Jesus did? His people waited thousands of years for him to come. And finally, the Messiah arrived. Then….bam! He’s gone. One minute he’s there with the disciples, and then “he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight” (Acts 1:9).
He ascended. He left.
I can just picture the disciples standing there, staring into the sky like a bunch of kids watching all their balloons float away.
The Messiah rode off into the sunset.
What is that all about? Why wouldn’t Jesus stick around? You’d think a few thousand years would be enough waiting already. Did he really need to take off and make us wait longer? That’s like telling the kids on Christmas morning that they’ll need to wait until New Year’s to open their presents.
That’s just mean.
So something must be wrong with how I’m telling this story. The ascension isn’t a mean trick that God played on us. And it certainly isn’t about Jesus leaving us just when we needed him most. The way the Bible tells it, the ascension is fundamental to God’s story.
5 Reasons the Ascension Matters
Luke begins the book of Acts with the ascension for a reason. In Luke’s story, which includes both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, the Ascension is the critical hinge between the life/death/resurrection of Jesus (Luke) and the story of his Spirit-empowered people at work in the world (Acts). And that’s because, for the biblical authors, the Ascension is critical.
1. The Kingdom
It’s really with the ascension that Jesus establishes the Kingdom. Although Jesus lived his entire life in fulfillment of God’s Kingdom promises, the ascension is key. That’s why the Bible pictures the Ascension as Jesus going up into heaven leading a host of captives (Eph. 4:8), the defeated enemies of the Kingdom. And, arriving in heaven, he sits down at the Father’s right hand (Ps. 110:1; Heb 1:3). His rule has begun. The Kingdom is here! With his birth the King arrives. With his life, death, and resurrection the King redeems. With his ascension the King rules. If you stop short of the ascension, the story dies.
2. The Priest
And, having returned to the father, Jesus also serves forever as our true High Priest (Heb. 9), the perfect priest who cleansed the people from their sins and will always represent them before the Father. The ascension breaks the cycle of God’s people continually needing a new priest to offer a new sacrifice. With the ascension, Jesus becomes our true priest forever.
3. The Spirit
In one of the most amazing statements in the Bible, Jesus says that “it is to your advantage that I go away” (Jn. 16:5). I can think of several people who could make the world a better place just by leaving it. But Jesus? How can his departure be good for us? Because the ascension is when Jesus sends the Spirit to God’s people. His departure is good news because the Spirit is good news. So, having promised to send the Spirit once he was gone, that’s exactly what he did. After Acts 1 comes Acts 2 – Jesus ascended and the Spirit came. Good news.
4. The People
But now for an interesting question: Why did Jesus need to leave in order to send the Spirit? Couldn’t the Spirit have come while he was here? To be honest, I have no idea if God could have done things differently. Probably. So why do it like this? As I’ve said before, I try to avoid answering “Why did God…?” questions. But I do wonder if Jesus ascended and sent the Spirit to empower God’s people so that we could do what we were always supposed to: image God in creation as his people. Jesus could have continued doing that for us. He does it far better than we ever could. But God’s plan was never to carry out our role for us. He wants us to do it. So I wonder if the ascension is about God creating space for his people to be his people and carry out their calling in the world. I don’t know, but I wonder.
5. The Future
Finally, I think the ascension is a powerful reminder of our destiny. Here it’s important to remember that Jesus did not stop being human when he ascended. It’s not as though his humanity was a costume that he put on at Christmas and hastily discarded at the ascension. Jesus represents us as our High Priest forever specifically because he remains one of us forever. So the ascension points to our destiny as humans – ruling over God’s creation and manifesting his glory everywhere.
The ascension is not an optional add-on to the story, a piece that we may choose to discuss if we have any time after dealing with the more important parts. The ascension is critical. The ascension is when the King rules, the Priest represents, the Spirit comes, the People serve, and the future shines with the brilliance of God’s plan.
Jesus didn’t just ride off into the sunset, leaving us to clean up the mess he left behind. Jesus ascended to the right hand of the father so that God’s plans could be accomplished. Once we really understand that, we’ll agree that it truly was better for us that he go.
[I asked someone to read through my gospel book, and he pointed out that I didn’t have anything in there on the ascension. What a tragic oversight! So this is my first shot at addressing that omission. Let me know what you think.]
4 Key Problems with Our Gospel
Over at Western Seminary’s Trans·formed blog, I’ve been reflecting on 4 key problems that arise from the way that we normally tell people about the gospel. (It was originally supposed to be 3 key problems, but I cheated.) If you haven’t been following along, here are all the posts in that series.
- What’s Wrong with Our Gospel?
- What’s Wrong with Our Gospel? There’s Power in What You Don’t Say
- The Problem with Our Gospel #1: The Self-Centered Gospel
- The Problem with Our Gospel #2: The Individualistic Gospel
- The Problem with Our Gospel #3: “getting in”
- The Problem with Our Gospel #4: The (un)Social Gospel
Punish my substitute? Sounds like a sweet deal to me
[The following is a section from the Gospel book where I’m trying to deal with the concept of “substitution” in the atonement. I’d love to hear what you think about how I’ve approached this one.]
How well do you think this would work as a threat: “If you don’t behave, I’m going to spank your brother?” I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure this would make me want to misbehave even more. Not only am I not going to be punished for this, but you’re going to punish him instead? Outstanding! Sign up me.
I actually use this threat with my high schools guys sometimes. If one of them is acting up, I’ll tell him that if he doesn’t start behaving, I’m going to beat up one of the other guys. They usually stop for a second and then laugh at how absurd that sounds. It’s such a stupid threat that it makes them pay attention just long enough for me to get them back on track. Punish someone else for what I’ve done? That’s just dumb. It doesn’t make any sense.
If you think about it, punishing another person for my actions isn’t just dumb; it’s unjust. Think about all the stories we’ve heard in the last few years of people who were on death row, about to be executed for some crime, and then it was discovered that they were actually innocent (of that crime at least). Every time that happens, the country is outraged. We were all set to kill these men for crimes someone else had committed. That’s not just. It’s not right.
But isn’t that exactly what God did with Jesus? According to Paul, Jesus “gave himself up for us” as a “sacrifice for God.”[i] In other places, he says that Jesus “died for our sins.”[ii] He even goes so far as to say that though Jesus himself “knew no sin,” God “made him to be sin” so that his people could be made righteous. Elsewhere, we find Peter talking about the “just” dying for the “unjust,”[iii] and in Isaiah we have a promise that someone would come and be “crushed or our iniquities.”[iv]
How can this make any sense? If we’re the ones who sinned, how does punishing Jesus accomplish anything? Isn’t that like getting angry at someone you work with, and then coming home and taking it out on your kids?
And yet we know something deeper must be going on here. The Bible makes it clear that God is a God of justice and righteousness: “His work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.”[v] God is so concerned about justice, that he routinely commands his people to live just and fair lives.[vi] So we must be missing something here. If it’s unjust, God wouldn’t do it. If God did it, then it’s not unjust. Those are our only options.
The problem is that we’re probably looking at Jesus’ death the wrong way. It’s not as if God suddenly reached the point where he was ready to fix the whole sin problem, so he looked down at Palestine and thought, “Hmmm, that carpenter looks nice. I think I’ll kill him.” And then, after killing some random person, he went on to forgive the rest of us. That would be unjust.
This is different. Jesus isn’t just some carpenter; he’s the second Adam.
In an earlier post, I argued that Adam and Eve’s sin impacted all of us because we were “all in it together”? Although it’s hard for us to understand, their actions in the Garden affected us all. Standing at the beginning of the story of humanity, their decision shaped the story for everyone who followed. Every human since then has been “in Adam.” That means that we are in the family that Adam began, part of the story he created. And, as we’ve emphasized throughout this book, being “in Adam” means being east of Eden, in the darkness of the fall.
So what we need is another Adam, someone who can start a new story—one with a much better ending.
And that’s exactly what we have with Jesus. He’s the “last Adam” who has come to include all of us in a new story, a new humanity.[vii] Jesus didn’t replace us when he died for us on the cross, as though God just picked some random victim to abuse, he included us in his death on the cross so that we might experience the new life of being “in Christ.” Everyone who belongs to Jesus died with him on the cross.[viii] But we died with him so that we might be raised with him into the new life of the people of God.[ix]
Our problem is with thinking that Jesus was just our “substitute” when he died on the cross. He didn’t just take our place, but he made a place for us within him so that we might all be included in his death and the blessings that flowed from that act of loving faithfulness.
That’s why the New Testament places such strong emphasis on the fact that God’s people are now “in Christ.” Jesus is the “last Adam” who has come to bring life and recreate humanity after God’s image.[x] Both “Adams” made decisions that affected everyone, but in very different ways. All of those who are “in Adam” experience sin, death, and condemnation; but those who are “in Christ” receive grace, righteousness, and forgiveness.[xi] Or, as Paul says elsewhere, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”[xii]
If you want to sink your teeth into this one, I strongly recommend spending some time reading Ephesians 1. Just notice all the times that Paul emphasizes that God’s people are “in Christ” or “in him,” and consider the tremendous blessings that come as a result of being a part of that new family, that new story.
The good news is that Jesus included all of God’s people “in him.”
[i] Ephesians 5:2
[ii] 1 Corinthians 15:3; cf. Galatians 1:4
[iii] 1 Peter 3:18
[iv] Isaiah 53:5
[v] Deuteronomy 32:4
[vi] e.g. Deuteronomy 16:20; Leviticus 19:36; 1 Kings 10:9
[vii] 1 Corinthians 15:45
[viii] Romans 6:8; Galatians 2:20
[ix] Ephesians 2:4-6
[x] 1Corinthians 15:45
[xi] Romans 5:12-21
[xii] 1 Corinthians 15:22
[This post is part of our series on the Gospel. Please feel free to check out the posts and let me know what you think.]
Dung Beetles in Heaven
“I’m bored,” the young man says, setting his golden harp down on the soft, white mound next to him.
His companion sits up quickly, sending small puffs of cloud scattering in every direction, several catching on the shimmering halo that had slipped slightly to one side at her sudden movement. “Stop saying that. You’re going to get us in trouble.”
“But I am bored. There’s nothing to do.” Reaching down he fiddles absently with one of the harp strings, sending soft notes through the golden light and causing the small cloud puffs to float rhythmically around his head. “All we ever do is play these stupid harps and sing.”
“Shhhh. Someone will hear you!” she says, glancing around in a futile effort to see if anyone was close enough to hear. Futile, of course, because in this place, someone always hears.
“What are they gonna do? Kick me out?” Jerking his head, he slaps at the swirling could puffs, looking every bit like an angry camper trying to disperse a swarm of hungry mosquitos. “I almost wish they would.”
She just stares at him, too stunned to reply. After a long silence, she whispers, “You want out?”
He responds with a deep sigh, “I don’t know. Four thousand years is a long time to sit on a cloud playing a harp. A little change might be nice.” Staring down at his white robes, he adds, “I know the other side is for bad people. But maybe they’re at least having some fun.”
I’m sorry to say that the way most people describe Heaven sounds rather boring to me. Ask what they’re looking forward to about Heaven, and many people will say something about finding lost loved ones—sometimes even lost pets—the end of pain and sorrow, finally being able to dunk a basketball, run a marathon, or possibly even fly through the clouds. And these are all great things, I suppose. But I’m guessing that after a few thousand years, they’d all grow a bit stale. I love my friends and family, but after a millennium or two, I can pretty much guarantee that I’d be hiding in a closet every time I heard one of them coming around the corner. It’s possible that I just have an unusually short attention span and get bored easily. But 4,000 years of the same old thing sounds boring.
The problem is that our idea of eternity is badly confused. Ask us about Heaven, and we start describing some ethereal city in the clouds. When people do that, I always ask, “Where are the trees?” After waiting a few seconds for that to sink in, I’ll add, “God made trees, so apparently he likes them. Where are the trees in Heaven?” Then, while they’re scrambling about for an adequate answer, I’ll follow up with, “And don’t forget dung beetles. God made those too, so we should figure out where the dung beetles will be in Heaven.” Finally, pausing for effect, I’ll add, “And the fleas.” That always gets their attention. Trees are okay. Everybody likes trees. But dung beetles sound rather disgusting. And who wants to believe that there will be fleas in Heaven? That can’t be right. Heaven is holy and spiritual. Surely there won’t be fleas in Heaven. (By the way, in case you’re wondering, the logic of this argument cannot be applied to cats since they were the result of an evil scientist’s failed experiment and were not actually created by God. It’s true, Google it.)
Since we see Heaven as a wholly spiritual place, we have a hard time conceiving of it having any room for such earthy things as insects. But “earthy” is exactly how the Bible describes our eternal destiny. The focus of the Bible is not on our eternal destiny up among the stars somewhere, but a new city coming down on a new earth completing the plan that God has had in mind since the beginning (Rev. 21).
Our picture of “Heaven” is wrong because we’re looking in the wrong place. Rather than gazing up in the clouds trying to picture what heaven will be like, look down at your feet. Take your shoes off and dig your toes into the damp soil. Reach down and tip the little pill bug over on its back. Watch its squiggly legs kick in the air. Then, turn it over again and let it scurry away. Nearby, see the earthworm wriggling deeper into the freshly turned earth. Look closer and examine the tiny grains of dirt, each a different shape and color, yet combining to form the lush hue of fertile soil. It even smells brown. Turn over the small rocks and explore the exquisite glories that hide in even the most innocuous crevices of creation. I can’t tell you what the new earth will be like. The Bible gives us very little detail. But I can say that this one’s pretty amazing. And, whatever God has in mind for our future, it will not be any less than this.
Who came up with the idea that we’d be disembodied spirits living in some spiritual universe forever? The Bible never says anything about that. Indeed, the Bible describes our future lies as resurrection to a true physical body, appropriately fitted for our new life (1 Cor. 15).
And our picture of eternity is out of whack because we’re selfish. Once again we find that we tend to twist the story so that it’s primarily about us—no more pain, sadness, loss, or loneliness. We can be happy forever. It sounds great. Why wouldn’t it? It’s all about us. For deeply selfish people, this sounds like the ultimate paradise.
But once again we have to remind ourselves that this story isn’t about us. Sure, eternity will be great. God loves us and wouldn’t have anything less than the best for his people. But that doesn’t mean that this is all about us. The new earth is still about God (Rev. 21:22). And that’s good news. As long as eternity is about us, it will be a boring place to be. We’re just not that cool, and eventually we’ll get bored with ourselves and our own happiness. But God? He’s another story entirely. We could spend an entire eternity pursuing him in his infinite mystery: constantly learning new things, being challenged in new ways, rediscovering over and over again how far beyond us he truly is.
Setting his harp down on the velvety soft grass, he looks over at his companion. “That’s enough for now,” he says. “I’m going to go tend the garden for a while. The corn is almost ready.”
“Thank you,” she replies, “that was lovely.” She moves slowly away meditating on the song, already looking forward to sharing it with everyone at the feast later, so they can all sing it together. But right now, she’s going to the lake for a swim.
A dung beetle watches her pass.
[This post is part of a series on the Gospel and understanding the story of the Bible. You can check out the rest of the posts in the series on the Gospel book page.]
What’s Wrong with Our Gospel?
If you haven’t seen it yet, I’m doing a series over at Western Seminary’s new blog on What’s Wrong with Our Gospel? The first post looked at Paul’s Gospel summary in 1 Cor. 15:1-3 and pointed out that Paul assumed that his readers already knew the story of redemption as the proper background for his concise summary. But, since most people today don’t know the story, we need to be much more careful about offering story-less Gospel summaries. And the second post, which just went up this morning, offers a brief summary of the story.
These two posts are really just setting me up for the real focus of the series: three key ways people misunderstand the Gospel when they only hear our story-less Gospel summaries.
Follow along over at Transformed and let me know what you think.
The Most Important Question?
Leaning back against the soft cushions, book held loosely in one hand, chocolate chip cookie in the other, coffee cup perched delicately on my knee, I snuggled in and looked forward to a quiet afternoon of reading. Does it get any better?
The doorbell rang.
Normally I would have ignored it, but I was staying at my parents’ house for a few days, and I thought I should at least see who it was. So, with a sigh, I thumped my cup on the table, set aside my barely tasted cookie, jammed a bookmark in its place, and hoisted myself out of the comfy confines of my parents’ couch.
Opening the front door, I was greeted by three older gentlemen in their Sunday finest. One even held a black leather Bible in front of his red tie. Another fiddled with several small pamphlets that looked suspiciously like evangelistic tracts. And, the third stepped forward with a warm smile: “Hi, we’re from First Baptist Church. You filled out a visitor card last Sunday and we’re following up to see if we can answer any questions for you.”
“Oh, I don’t live here,” I responded. “My parents moved to town a few weeks back and they’ve been checking out a few churches in the area.” Looking for a quick end to the conversation I quickly added, “If you want to leave some information, I’ll make sure they get it.”
But, these were men on a mission; they wouldn’t be dismissed that easily.
“Do you know Jesus?” Pamphlet Man asked. It probably wasn’t quite that abrupt, but that’s how I remember it.
Fortunately, I was just about to graduate from Bible college, so I was well-prepared for difficult theological questions like this. With a little smile, I looked him in the eye and confidently replied, “Yes.”
That was four years of college tuition well spent.
But, they still weren’t done. Leaning closer with his Bible clutched in both hands, the third man asked, “But, do you know where you’re going after you die?”
And there it was. The question that trumps all other questions. What could be more important than knowing the answer to a question about your eternal destiny?
Still a bit annoyed that I wasn’t back on the couch with my book, I nearly said, “Disneyland.” But, he didn’t seem like the type to appreciate a joke about eternal destinies. So, instead, I gave him what he was looking for. “I know that I’ll live forever in heaven after I die,” I said, “because I believe in Jesus with all my heart and trust him as my Lord.”
That’s what they needed—assurance that I’d reserved my spot in Heaven forever. So, they gave me some material about the church, shook my hand warmly, and went on about their business.
Too bad. They missed an excellent opportunity to explain what I’d gotten wrong.
Where did we get this idea that the whole point of the story was to make sure that we make it into heaven, and that our primary concern should be where we go after we die? Do you know that if you read through the entire New Testament, you’d end up with only a handful of verses that have anything to do with what happens to us after we die? They are there, and we shouldn’t neglect them. But, why make them such a central part of the story? Why make that the most important question you can ask someone?
Interestingly, that’s the one question Jesus almost never asked. And, he asked a lot of questions:
- Do you really think it’s that impressive if you’re nice to people who are just like you?
- Why are you anxious about little things like clothing?
- Why do you spend so much time considering the flaws of other people and ignoring your own?
- Why are you afraid?
- Why do you think about evil things all the time?
- Do you believe that I can do this?
- Who is truly a part of my family?
- Why did you doubt?
- Who do people say that I am?
- What could you possibly give in exchange for your life?
- Can you endure what I will have to endure?
- What do you want me to do for you?
Those are all great questions, just a few of the ones Jesus asks in a single book (Matthew). And, notice their focus: living faithfully in response to the Gospel today. As far as I can tell, in the entire book, Jesus only once asks a question about a person’s eternal destiny (Matthew 23:33). Instead, he focuses almost exclusively on making people think about what they are doing right now.
Jesus came to announce the arrival of the Kingdom. That’s not a message for some far off future, but it’s good news for right now. It has obvious implications for the future. We’d mess up the Gospel just as much if we thought that this story was only about the here and now. That would rob the story of purpose, hope, and direction. But, the mistake we more commonly make is thinking that the most important question we can ask is about where we’ll be in the end.
What’s the most important question that you can ask? It’s not, “Where will you go when you die?” That’s a fine question. And, it’s one that’s worth discussing. But, the most important question? I don’t think so. A far better question is, “Who will you follow while you live?” Answer that question, and the other will take care of itself.
[This is part of my series on unpacking the Gospel.]
Carson and Keller on Confessionalism, Boundaries, and the Gospel.
Don Carson and Tim Keller posted an excellent piece today: Reflections on Confessionalism, Boundaries, and Discipline. The post wass written primarily to explain The Gospel Coalition position on disagreement and correction among board members. But, it’s really an excellent read for understanding how boundaries and confessions work in any movement.
You should go read the article, but I wanted to highlight a couple of things that I found particularly interesting.
First, they use the distinction between an “boundary-bounded set” and a “center-bounded set” to describe their movement. This language has been around for a while now, and it differentiates between groups that try to establish clear in/out boundaries (e.g. confessional churches), and those that build their commitments on some central agreement(s) but leave lots of fuzziness around the edges (e.g. evangelicalism as a whole). This distinction has been around for a while, so it’s not unique to Carson and Keller. Indeed, Roger Olson recently used the same distinction to argue that evangelicalism is a “centered set” movement. So, what’s interesting here is that although Olson has been rather critical of groups like the Gospel Coalition for having an overly narrow and closed-minded understanding of evangelicalism, it would seem that Carson and Keller actually view the movement in very similar ways.
I also appreciated the discussion toward the end on the relationship between the doctrine of the Trinity and the Gospel, in which they draw a distinction between whether the Trinity is essential to the Gospel and whether having an orthodox view of the Trinity is necessary for salvation. As they rightly point out, those are two different issues:
In some discussion or other, we might claim, rightly, that the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is irrefragably tied up with the gospel. Someone might object, “Surely not! Is an orthodox view of the Trinity necessary for salvation?” In reality, these are two differentiable issues. To say that the doctrine of the Trinity is tied up with the gospel is to make a claim about the structure of the gospel, about what the gospel is, about its content.
Ignoring for a second that they actually used the word “irrefragably,” this is a great point. Doctrines like the Trinity and the Incarnation provide an essential shape and structure to the Gospel. Without them, the Gospel is undermined in critical ways. But, that doesn’t mean that someone who rejects them necessarily rejects the Gospel. It just means that they’re operating with an understanding of the Gospel that has some real weak spots. But, fortunately for us all, the standard of salvation is not how well we understand orthodox theology, as important as that might be.
On Being More Gospel-Centered than Jesus.
Here’s an outstanding discussion of what it means to be too Gospel-centered. The conversation gets started with the question: If we look back on ourselves twenty years from now, what will we think that we’ve missed or underemphasized as we’ve tried to focus more on the Gospel? That’s a great question that is well worth reflecting on. Any movement emphasizes what it thinks people are neglecting in its context, and in the process almost necessarily neglects or excludes other things. Balance is needed, though almost impossible to maintain.
There’s also a great piece on not getting so hung up on the labels and language of being Gospel-centered that we miss the whole purpose. If being Gospel-centered means developing such a critical spirit that we can’t see the love for Jesus that others have, we’ve missed something.
And, they spend a few minutes talking about how the Gospel shapes us into being the kinds of people who love the same things that Jesus loved: compassion, justice, truth, etc., without those things becoming the heart of the Gospel itself.
Take a few minutes and check it out.
Life and Death: Twin Moons Circling the Same Planet.
[I wrote this as a guest post for Matt Mikalatos’ blog The Burning Hearts Revolution. Matt is running a series of guest posts to celebrate the release of his new book Night of the Living Dead Christian, a fabulous book that I’ll be reviewing soon. If you’d like to comment on the content of this post, please head over to Matt’s blog and join the conversation there. As usual, though, I’m open to comments about the writing and presentation in this piece. So, if you have thoughts along those lines, go ahead and leave them in the comments here. Thanks.]
It’s been too long. I feel weak. Dizzy. Can’t think.
There. Down there. A woman. She’ll do. She has to.
Drop behind her. Cloak flapping in the wind. Didn’t make too much noise. Perfect.
Grab her shoulder. Push her head to the side. Savor the smell.
It’s time. Bite. Pierce the tender skin. Let the hot blood flow. Taste life. Feel it.
My strength returns. My mind clears. For the first time in days, my cold flesh feels warm again. I’m still dead. Nothing can change that. But, now I get to be dead for another day. She took care of that with her unwilling gift.
Blood is life.
Everything was so good just a few seconds ago. The concert was amazing and I haven’t had a girls’ night out in so long. A quiet walk home under the full moon seemed like the perfect ending to a lovely, summer evening.
Now something has changed. I can’t pin it down, but it’s not right. I’ve got that tingling feeling on the back of my neck that you get when you think someone is staring at you. But, there’s no one here. I’m probably being irrational. Maybe I shouldn’t have walked home alone.
What’s that? It sounds like a flag flapping in a stiff breeze. That’s odd. There’s no wind.
Someone’s grabbed me! I have to struggle, fight, scream, get away, anything. But, I can’t. Something’s wrong. I’m getting weak, dizzy. I can’t think clearly. Everything’s fading. Where am I? What’s going on? What’s happening to me?
I’m on the ground. How did I get here? A few bright red drops hit the ground in front of my eyes. Blood? My blood? I must….
Blood is death.
One substance, two very different results. Life and death. Twin moons circling the same planet.
That’s how the Bible views blood. On the one hand, blood is what keeps us alive and allows us to be what God intended. In Eden, God created blood, and it was good. But, sin and evil entered the world and shattered God’s good creation. And, blood came to mean something else. Still the source of life, it also became the symbol of death.
You can see this most clearly in the biblical sacrifices. If you stop and think about it for a moment, sacrifices are weird. Imagine that you’re an Israelite and you’ve just sinned. What should you do? Why, go lop the head off some poor, innocent lamb, of course. That’s a great system. At least it is for the human; I’m sure the lamb sees things differently.
The point of the sacrifice, though, wasn’t to take out Israel’s problems on some innocent animal. That would be weird. No, the sacrifices demonstrated the devastating connection between sin and death. With clocklike regularity, the Israelites brought their animals to the priests and shed blood as a reminder of the fact that they lived east of Eden, in the brokenness of sin, in bondage to death. As Paul says later, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 3:23). And, every time the Israelites brought forward their sin sacrifices, they reminded themselves of this truth.
At the same time, though, the blood brought a promise of life. Israel always knew that somehow it was only by shedding blood that forgiveness and life would be restored to God’s people. God promised he would forgive and cleanse his people when they brought their sacrifices to him.
But why? What is the connection between blood and death on the one hand and the promise of forgiveness and life on the other? The Old Testament never says. The Israelites just take it on faith that God will be faithful and will do what he promises.
Then Jesus came.
And, we killed him, shedding his blood on the cross.
And the truth became clear.
We still see the dark side of blood. The betrayals, beatings, mockery, loneliness, pain, blood, and death. Could there be a clearer picture? The Messiah came, and we killed him.
But the blood of Christ means so much more. Jesus died so he could break the power of death. His death was not the pointless sacrifice of a tragic Shakespearean hero. It had purpose. Jesus died so that we might be reborn as those who have the gift of life.
Blood is death. Blood is life. On the cross, both are true.
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
Come and drink. An invitation to vampires everywhere.
[This post is part of our series on the Gospel. Please feel free to check out the posts and let me know what you think.]
Me? No, I’m from Canada.
So, Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden, forced to live east of Eden. And, everyone who has come after them has been born east of Eden as well—separated from God, cut off from the source of life, dead in our sins. We all fell together.
Now, I can almost hear the objections forming in your mind. They’re in mine as well. How can this be fair? We didn’t choose to break that commandment. Why are we being punished?
The simplest answer is to point out that although we didn’t break that commandment, we’ve broken plenty since. Just like Adam and Eve, we’ve made our own choices—deciding to focus on our own plans and desires, rather than pursuing and manifesting God’s glory in the world. So, even if we set aside Adam and Eve’s sin, we’re far from blameless.
But, there’s a deeper answer as well. From the Bible’s perspective, we’re all in this together.
When I lived in Scotland, I learned a couple of interesting facts. First, it’s sometimes a bit awkward to be American in a place where American policies are not terribly popular. And, second, Canadians do not like it when people think they they’re American.
The first point became clear because we lived in Scotland during the Bush/Kerry election, a time when Scottish frustration with the war in Iraq was high. So, American politics and policies were on everyone’s mind. And, people quickly noticed that I was American. You’d think it would be hard to pick out the American in a room full of Scots. But, apparently it’s not. Several times complete strangers walked up and asked me about how I was going to vote in the upcoming election and whether I supported the war. On two different occasions, I got trapped in pretty intense political “conversations”—i.e., the other person vented about the evils of American foreign policy while I scanned the room for a window large enough for both me and my backpack.
Was it fair for these people to associate me with the actions and policies of my country? After all, I didn’t create any of these policies, and I certainly wasn’t involved in any of those actions. I’ve never even been to Iraq. None of this was my fault. I wasn’t responsible.
But I was.
I wasn’t directly responsible, of course. It’s not like I was in the Oval Office making the decisions. But, I am an American. I am a part of the whole. I enjoy the many blessings that come from being a part of that whole, and I also bear some responsibility for the actions of the whole. Even if I thought that a particular decision or action was a bad idea, even if I voted against those who were making the decisions, I’m still a part of that greater whole that we call America. Consequently, I bear some responsibility for what America does. And, I certainly share in any consequences that result. I may not always like it, but there is a real sense in which we’re all in this together.
All of this can be really annoying if you’re Canadian. The second thing I learned in Scotland is that although Europeans have an easy time identifying if you’re American, they have a really hard time telling Americans and Canadians apart. So, if you’re Canadian, people tend just to assume that you’re American. And, then you have to put up with all the grief that being American can bring where American policies are unpopular.
Of course, Canadians have an advantage. They can simply point out that they’re not American. People apologize, and the harassment ends.
Eyeing a window that is clearly too small for both me and my backpack, I consider taking the cheap way out. “Me? No, I’m from Canada.”
But, of course, I’m not. I’m American. And, although I like being American, it does come with some drawbacks at times. Because we’re all in this together.
[Okay, I’m looking for some feedback here. I’m in the part of the Gospel book that deals with the fact that after the Garden sin spreads everywhere (kind of like Justin Bieber – see my post on The Saturday Morning Syrup Monster). And, I want to deal with the objection that it’s not fair for us to experience the consequences of sin when we didn’t do anything. And, I want to introduce the idea that there is a corporate dynamic at work. I don’t want to get into details, but I want to expose people to the idea that “we’re all in this together.” Let me know what you think.]