Wrapping Your Head Around…

I am writing on Tuesday April 7th, 2020, three days before Good Friday and five days before Easter Sunday.  I have been writing on what J.I. Packer calls the heart of the Gospel.  For him, the heart of the Gospel is that God sent his Son to earth to sacrifice Himself for sinful man.  We have discussed repeatedly that to know God is to know that He is capable of being wrathful as He is disappointed with man.  As we conclude Packer’s heart of the Gospel chapter, it is pretty clear that he sees God saving man from God’s wrath by sacrificing God [incarnate].  That is a lot to “wrap your head around” to use a contemporary cliché.

What better timing than Easter to discuss “vital matters which cannot be properly grasped until we are on top of the truth of propitiation” [Packer, 191].

Here are the final three of five vital matters [see the previous two posts for discussions of the driving force of Jesus’ life and “What of those who reject God?”].

First is the idea that the Gospel offers us the peace of God.  When one uses this phrase, it calls up ideas of inner tranquility, that God gives us a carefree happy life.  When we truly become believers, God is our shield from life’s hard knocks. 

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Believers go through tough times just like nonbelievers do, so that is not the “peace” that God offers.  Pastors who preach that God offers us a carefree life are ignoring what I mentioned in paragraph one: God is a wrathful God.  Packer says we should also add in that God can make us feel guilty when we sin.  God can condemn us when we do wrong.  God can feel enmity, hostility and animosity when we let Him down.  Does that sound like peace?

I think not.

So what is this peace?

Well, if we do finally wrap our head around propitiation, we begin to understand that peace means that God is for us, not against us.  It is based on a new relationship we have with our Father, a new relationship of forgiveness and acceptance.   When Jesus came to visit His disciples at the evening of His resurrection He showed them His hands and His side.  I have always read that as Jesus was trying to prove His identity, but Packer says that is not so.  They knew Jesus when they saw Him.  He was trying to make the point that He loved them and all men so much that He suffered a gruesome death on the cross so that they would have peace with God.  That’s why John cried out “look the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”  Understanding propitiation gives us a way to understand the vital matter of Jesus making “peace through His blood, shed on the cross” [Colossians 1: 20].  When this vital matter is understood, one can grasp the true knowledge of the peace that God offers.

Next is the idea of how wide, how long, how high and how deep is the love of Christ; aka the dimensions of God’s love.  You might think how silly to think about the width, length, height, and depth of an abstract concept like love. Turn to Ephesians 3: 18-19 and you will see those very words about the dimensions of love used in Scripture.  Packer thinks the apostle Paul expresses these words because he is trying to communicate that God’s divine love is “inexpressibly great.” 

Packer believes we can begin to understand the dimensions of God’s love by reviewing the context of Ephesians.  The first two chapters of the letter review the whole plan of grace [election, redemption, regeneration, preservation and glorification].  “The atoning sacrifice of Christ is the centerpiece” [Packer, 197].  Pulling phrases from Ephesians, Packer points out “Christ’s love was free, not elicited by any goodness in us.”  It was eternal, “being one with the choice of sinners to save which the Father made before the creation of the world.”  It was unreserved, for it lead Him to extreme depths of humiliation, of “hell itself on Calvary.”  It was sovereign, for it achieved the final glory of the redeemed, “their perfect holiness and happiness in the fruition of His love is now guaranteed and assured.”  With our limited ability to understand God, even catching a glimpse of His inexpressibly great love gives us some understanding of God’s glorious grace.

The last of the five “vital matters” that we can comprehend if we understand propitiation is the glory of God.  Packer introduces his discussion with a very difficult passage to understand.  In John 13: 31 Jesus says “Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in Him.”  What has happened in the context of this Scripture, Judas has left the Upper Room and has gone to betray Jesus.  That is when Jesus spoke of His and God’s glory.  Jesus knew what was about to happen; He will be lifted up on the cross [that is what Judas was going to set into motion].  Packer writes to his readers: “Do you see the glory of God in His wisdom, power, righteousness, truth and love, supremely disclosed at Calvary?”  It is in the propitiation of our sins; that is where we see the glory of God. 

Packer ends his chapter on the “Heart of the Gospel” with lyrics from songs.

Hallelujah what a Savior by Phillip Bliss:

“Bearing shame and scoffing rude,

In my place condemned He stood;

Sealed my pardon with His blood.”

Hallelujah! What a Savior!

And Can it be that I should Gain by Charles Wesley:

“He left His Father’s throne above,

So free, so infinite His grace;

Emptied Himself of all but love,

And bled for Adam’s helpless race:

’Tis mercy all, immense and free;

For, O my God, it found out me.

’Tis mercy all, immense and free;

For, O my God, it found out me.”

“These are the songs of the heirs of Heaven, those who have seen ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ’” [Second Corinthians 4: 6]. 

This is the joyful news of the gospel that God cares for us, extends His peace, His love and His glory into our lives.  He truly deserves our praise.  People who understand God’s substitution, God’s propitiation are always ready to give Him praise.

I like the way he ends his chapter, with a question directly to the reader.  A question about five vital matters which can be grasped if you understand propitiation, five vital matters which lead us to praise God.

“Are you among their number?”

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The Mundane Things of Life…

I don’t dwell on this all the time, but sometimes I find myself doing the mundane things of life and I stop and I thank God for being able to do those things.  Here is a sampling: standing in the shower, going to the kitchen and making my own coffee, coming up the stairs to sleep in my own bed and driving to the grocery store and shopping.  You see, four years ago I could not do any of that and a lot more.  I suffered an accident and I was immobilized for more than three months.  I found myself having to spend my days either in bed or in a chair.  When I had to move, I had to use a walker.  I had a complex pelvic fracture and could not put weight on my body.

What is the point of this introduction?

Most of us never miss what we have, until it is gone.

As we explore the “Heart of the Gospel”* further, Packer comments on the driving force in Jesus’ life.**  He calls that a vital matter which really cannot be grasped until “you are on top of the truth of propitiation.” He also has other matters to consider, one of which is the destiny of those who reject God.

This raises the question, are there consequences for people who reject God?  There are those who believe that rejecting God really has no consequences.  Packer refers to them as Universalists, otherwise referred to as Unitarian Universalists.  They espouse the theology that all human beings will ultimately be “saved” and restored to a right relationship with God.

Packer disagrees and uses Galatians 6: 7 as evidence of God’s ability to hold man accountable: “Do not be deceived, God cannot be mocked.  A man reaps what he sows.”  Those in this life who reject God will forever be rejected by God.  By turning to Judas, Packer further makes his case.  A Universalist would argue that even Judas would be reconciled with God the Father.  Packer says turn to Mark 14: 21 where it says “The Son of Man will go just as it is written about Him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man!  It would be better for him if he had not been born.”  Why would Jesus speak those words if He thought Judas would be saved?

He wouldn’t.  Jesus knew that Judas turned his back on God and Judas would have to pay and his payment would be eternal. 

In my previous post, I tried to explain Packer’s idea that Jesus had every reason to fear His coming fate on the cross.  “Jesus was to be made sin, and bear God’s judgement on sin, that He trembled in the garden, and because He was actually bearing that judgement that He declared himself forsaken of God on the cross” [Packer, 193].  Think about it.  He bore the brunt of our sins and in the process He experienced the wrath of God…

For us…

Expressed another way, Jesus knew what He was going to miss by being made sin.  He knew He would lose all the God that he had in His life: He would lose His Father’s love, He knew He would lose “all sense of physical, mental and spiritual well-being,” all the joy of created things, and the comfort of friendship.  In place of all this, His being made sin gave Him nothing but “loneliness, pain, a killing sense of human malice and callousness, and horror of great spiritual darkness” [Packer, 195].

It is a well-known fact that crucifixion is the cruelest form of execution in the world but the pain of the torture paled in comparison to the mental and spiritual anguish of Jesus.  Jesus knew what He would be losing in His crucifixion and went through it anyway. 

As ordinary human beings with little day-to-day awareness of the blessings God has given us, we can give into temptation and turn our backs on God with little sense of the retribution that will follow.  We can’t conceptualize eternal punishment or rather we would rather not think about it. 

I know a woman who has little in the way of material possessions.  This is no fiction, no exaggeration.  I have heard her give thanks to God for the sink in her bathroom, the water that runs out of the faucet and the light overhead.  There is a saying that goes like this: “happy are those who take life day by day, complain very little and are thankful for the little things of life.”  She notes the things in her life that she has because there was once a time when she had nothing.  I listen to her and I realize how much I take everything for granted.  Packer writes “In ordinary life, we never notice how much good we enjoy through God’s common grace till it is taken from us.  We never value health, or steady circumstances, or friendship and respect from others as we should till we have lost them.” 

Until we truly understand the sacrifice Jesus made for us on the cross, we run through life accumulating possessions, reveling in our life experiences, and trying to garner as much status as we can.  It is good to slow down, maybe even stop and think about the most important things in life, that Jesus died for our sins and through His death, He made us right with the Father.   Without His sacrifice, we would not have the relationship we have with God.  We did not have the ability to communicate directly with the Father until the temple veil was rent in two.  The veil in the temple was a constant reminder that sin renders humanity unfit for the presence of God.  Through His death, Jesus gave us free access to God.

It is a horrible thought that man can be so distracted by this world that he can turn his back on God, but we would do well to remember Mark 14: 21 “It would be better for him if he had not been born.”   Stop today [3/31/20] and ask what we are having to give up to be safe in world that is being altered by a pandemic.  What are we going to learn from this as we have to shelter at home.  Will we appreciate that meal we will have in the restaurant with friends?  Will we appreciate going to that job that we did not appreciate in the past?  Will we appreciate going back to church as we now have to close the church doors and avoid gathering in groups?

Stop and thank God for the good things that He has given us, those mundane things that we take for granted.  God is so good to us.  Never turn you back on Him.  Packer writes “God help us to learn this lesson…may each of us be found in Christ, our sins covered by His blood”…

Especially, “at the last”……..

*Chapter 18 of J.I. Packer, Knowing God

**See the post “He Deserved None of It” St. John Studies

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He Deserved None of It…

As we explore “The Heart of the Gospel,”* Packer writes about the driving force in Jesus’ life.  To understand the key motivators for Jesus, he urges us to read the Gospel of Mark.  If we do this, he feels we will get four “impressions.”

First, Jesus was a “man of action.”  In His ministry, He never really had a true home base, He was always changing things around Him and precipitating activities around Him: “working miracles; calling and training disciples; upsetting error that passed for truth and irreligion that passed as godliness” [Packer, 191].

Secondly, Jesus was a person who knew He was divine.  In the Gospel of Mark, the more Jesus tipped off His disciples that He was God, the more they were confused.  The closer they got to Him, they understood Him less.  It is very clear that Jesus is divine when you consider that God spoke at His baptism and then again at the transfiguration.  Jesus stated His absolute authority in everything He said and did, culminating in the ultimate condemning statement He made to the high priest: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed one?” to which Jesus replied “I am.”

Thirdly, Jesus had a messianic mission that was going to lead Him to death and He knew it.  Jesus predicted four times that He was going to die and that He would rise.  Other times He predicted that He would give His life for many and pour out His blood for many.

The last impression is the shocker and it is the hardest to understand.  Jesus knew He was going to die and He was scared.  In Gethsemane, “horror and dismay came over Him, and He said… ‘My heart is ready to break with grief’”.  It is reported that Jesus threw Himself on the ground.  Then the famous scripture “take this cup from Me.”  Toward the end of His life He uttered “My God, my God, why hast though forsaken Me”.

Packer describes this whole situation as a “frightful ordeal.”  “Jesus, the perfect Servant of God, who had never before showed the least fear of man or pain or loss, manifested in Gethsemane what looked like blue funk, and on the cross declared Himself God-forsaken?”  Quoting Martin Luther, Packer writes “Never man feared death like this man.”

Scared…

My Savior?

Some who do not understand His sacrifice might say things like His death was a tragic accident.   That would elicit fear if one is shocked but Jesus knows what is going to happen.  Others think that Jesus had a morbid streak which caused Him to focus too much on His death.  As the time of His death approached, He merely had a panic attack.  That makes little sense, due to the fact that Jesus knew He would rise again.  Death was not an end; rather it was a beginning…. Why panic?

My concern is much different.  My Savior is scared…

How could He be afraid?

Let me interject a personal story here, a story of injustice.  As a young kid, I suffered a broken shoulder in a playground accident.  To heal this shoulder, I had a special cast that went from my right wrist up to the bicep and to make it even harder to adapt to, the cast had a weight added to the plaster at the elbow.  I had to wear this for an extended period of time to pull the shoulder down and then it would heal properly as it went into the shoulder socket. 

I had a brother and like all boys, we did not see eye-to-eye in all matters and one day we got into a heated argument.  Despite the fact that I had a long cast on my arm, my brother decided to take a plastic baseball bat and hit me on the head.  He did that about seven or eight times.  I don’t know how I did it, but finally I got the bat out of his hand and bopped him on the head one time, about the time my dad entered the room.  He howled.  Dad was indignant.  I was abusing my little brother!  Despite my protestations, I was on the receiving end of a paddling and my brother got off “Scott-free.”

My little example of injustice pales in comparison with the injustice inflicted on Jesus Christ.  Jesus took on the sins of man and He did not deserve to be punished.  He was a perfect man.

Let’s go further in our statement.  Packer relates that Jesus took upon Himself the burden of the world’s sin.  “Jesus was to be made sin, and bear God’s judgement on sin, that He trembled in the garden, and because He was actually bearing that judgement that He declared himself forsaken of God on the cross” [Packer, 193].

Think about it.  He bore the brunt of our sin and in the process He experienced the wrath of God…

For us…

Centuries before, in Isaiah we read these words:  “We considered Him stricken by God…. The punishment that brought us peace was upon Him….The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all….For the transgression of my people He was stricken….It was the Lord’s will to crush Him…the Lord made His life a guilt offering” [53:4-10].

Would you fear God’s wrath?  This is the God who opened up the earth and swallowed the families of Moses’ detractors (Korah, Dathan and Abiram).  This is the God who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.  This is the God of the flood.    Packer has already discussed the wrath of God in one of the hardest chapters I have had to comment on (entitled “The Wrath of God”).

I would fear God’s wrath and so should you.

Jesus knew of His wrath but that does not mean that He did not dread it.  In Phillipians 2:8 it says “He was obedient to death—even death on the cross.” To make matters worse ,to use my little example of injustice, he suffered and suffered and when He had a chance to strike back at His enemies, what did He say?   “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’  But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well” [Matthew 5: 38-40].

Should we blame Him for acting fearful in the garden?  Should we blame Him for dreading what was to come?  Should we wonder why He cried out  “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

I don’t think so. 

“He was tasting on Calvary the wrath of God that was our due” [Packer].  He lived a life without sin and it is no wonder that He trembled.

He knew what was coming and He deserved none of it…

*Chapter 18 in J.I.Packer’s Knowing God

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No Easy Task

“The Significance of the Second Goat”, “Why John 3:16 is So Important”, The Heart of the Gospel: We Need them All” “Two Very Important Words”                           

The four previous posts have all been about propitiation. 

Why?

“Do you understand this [propitiation]?  If you do, you are now seeing to the very heart of the Christian Gospel.  No version of this message goes deeper than that which declares man’s root problem before God to be his sin, which evokes wrath, and God’s basic provision for man to be propitiation, which out of wrath brings peace” [J.I. Packer, Knowing God, 189].

Many gospel studies do not get to the point where there is an explanation of the idea that God saves man through allowing Himself to be Killed. 

But that is what happened, in the very heart of the Christian Gospel

Do we dwell enough on the meaning of Paul’s explanation of this in Romans 3:25-26?  “God presented Him [Jesus] as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in His blood.  He did this to demonstrate justice, because in His forbearance He had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished.  He did it to demonstrate His justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”

If we did dwell on Romans 3, we might focus on a key word in this scripture: justice.  Ordinary human conceptions of justice mean a world where everything works out right for those who deserve it.  For those who don’t deserve it [people who do wrong] there are problems; serious punishments.  In Psalm 82:3 it says “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.”  In Isaiah 1:17 the prophet says “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, and please the widow’s cause.”  There is some sense of justice in the Old Testament.

Certainly in Genesis, God was so upset about man’s behavior that he flooded the earth, destroying sinful man.  This was a public way of showing that God will not allow man’s lawlessness to continue unabated.  But what about since the flood?  Did that episode change man or has man continued in his sinful ways?

You know the answer to that question. 

Man has continued his sinful ways.

Where is the justice?  Are we getting what we deserve?  Packer writes “God had not reacted to their [man’s] impenitence and irreligion and lawlessness by public acts of adverse providence” [Packer, 188].  Instead He has shown “kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” [Acts, 14: 17].  We have continued on in our disregard for God’s commandments, Packer saying “People since the flood have been no better than their forebears were before the flood.”

Where is eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, that supposed “golden rule” of justice?  In Exodus we find “If men who are fighting strike a pregnant woman and her child is born prematurely, but there is no further injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband demands and as the court allows.  But if a serious injury results, then you must require a life for a life—eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, and stripe for stripe.”  In this specific circumstance the “golden rule” occurs but does it expand to all mankind, in all cases of injustice or does it apply to men injuring a pregnant woman in a fight.  In Matthew 5:38-42 in the New Testament, Jesus repudiates the notion of eye for an eye justice. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I tell you, do not resist an evil person: if someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.”  There is no “eye for an eye” strictly regarding retribution and/or justice.  That concept came from Hammurabi’s Code [from the Mesopotamian Empire]. 

Nevertheless, N.T. Wright writes about Christianity and justice.  He feels that it is an innate need in the Christian to “put the world to rights.”  “The Christian faith endorses the passion for justice which every human being knows, the longing to see things put to rights” [Wright, 12, Simply Christian]. 

What if God had that attitude toward us, He wants to put us “to rights”?

We would be in trouble again [another flood?].

So what is God up to?  Is he rewarding us sinners for the bad that we do?  Packer thinks the “passing over” of sins [ref. “forbearance” in Romans 3: 25-26] is not really forgiveness, it is a postponement of judgement.  “If …humans do evil and the Judge of all the earth continues to do them good, can He be as concerned about morality and godliness, the distinction between right and wrong in the lives of His creatures, as He formerly appeared to be, and as perfect justice would seem to require?  Indeed, if He allows sinners to continue unpunished, does He not Himself come short of perfection in His office as judge of the world?” [188].

Here is the heart of the Gospel…

Our sins have been punished.  Justice has been meted out.  Retribution has happened.  It has happened to Jesus, standing in our place.  The gospel says that our Creator has become our redeemer, a much different approach than the flood.  Jesus has shielded us from God’s retribution by becoming our substitute.  He took the stripes that we deserved on His own back.  He died the death that we deserve.

The question is still there…why did He do this?

The answer may be found in man’s desire for a relationship with God and God’s desire for a relationship with man.  If God wants to have a relationship with man and He found a way to have that through His son’s propitiation.  Most of what is wrong in the world today is man sinning against other men.  Most of what is wrong today in man’s relation with God is man sinning against God.  N.T. Wright comments that “relationship” is part of the way we were meant to be fully human.  We need to have a relationship with God.  “We do indeed know that we are made for relationships and that we find relationships difficult….One of the central themes of the Christian story is the claim that the paradox of laughter and tears, woven as it is deep in the heart of the human experience, is woven also deep into the heart of God” [Wright, 38].

When a believer understands propitiation, he or she can put the whole Bible in perspective. Packer compares the believer’s grasp of propitiation as “standing on the top of Mount Snowdon in Wales, you can see the whole of Snowdonia spread out around you, and you have a wider view than you can get from any other point in the area” [191].  With knowledge of propitiation, you can see the Bible from a position “to take the measure of vital matters which cannot be properly grasped in any other terms.”

My fifth post on propitiation…

Why?

We are trying to wrap our minds around the very heart of the Christian gospel, trying to take the measure of vital matters which cannot be grasped in any other terms.

No easy task…

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The Significance of the Second Goat

When a reader encounters the Bible, it is imposing at best.  It is long.  It was written in a culture that is not our own and it often uses language that can be difficult to understand.  Language is the medium of communication, whether spoken or written.  We have to have it for thoughts to be transmitted from one person to another.  But what if the language that is used is language from God, special language written over a period of 1,500 years, through the pens of almost 40 human writers?

One Divine Author….

I have read the Bible on a purely emotional level, trying to piece together the information, sometimes the stories, imagining characters and what they are doing.  I have seldom read the Bible on a deeper level, looking for symbols and patterns.

J.I. Packer says the Bible can be read in a deeper more meaningful way.  When a reader can step back from The Bible and see symbols and patterns, God begins to emerge in The Word. 

This post will focus on one very symbolic word that is a key to understanding God’s intentions.  That word is blood.  Even outside of a Biblical context, blood is rife with meaning.  Blood is a body fluid that delivers necessary substances such as nutrients and oxygen.  It literally is life giving.  Blood has a bright red color and it is easily seen on most surfaces.  When we see it coming from our body or someone else’s, many people are prone to faint or react with alarm.

I am reading Leviticus right now and I am struck by the focus on blood; for the Israelites, it is a special life-force element.  Blood must be shed by sacrificial animals to atone for man’s sins.  It says in Leviticus 17: 11 “For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes that atonement.”  God is deadly serious about animals shedding their sacrificial blood on the altar but God is also deadly serious about the Jewish people not taking animals’ blood in their bodies.  “If any Israelite or any foreigner living in the community eats meat with blood still in it, the Lord will turn against him and no longer consider him one of His people….Blood which is life, takes away sins.  That is why the Lord has told the people of Israel that neither they nor any foreigner living among them shall eat any meat with blood still in it [Leviticus 17: 10 and 12].

So in the Old Testament context, blood is a word associated with a violent death of a sacrificial animal.  Packer explains in his book Knowing God the idea of representative substitution.  My wife has a huge heart for animals [like many in our western world].  She has always had a problem with an innocent animal taking the place of a guilty human but that was what God demanded of man.  The animal was often not only innocent but as perfect as it could be.  The sinner would lay hands on the animal’s head and “it was killed as a substitute for the offerer, the blood being sprinkled ‘before the Lord’ and applied to one or both of the altars in the sanctuary” [Packer, 187].  See Leviticus 4:4, 24, 29, 33 and Leviticus 4: 6-7, 17-18, 25, 30 for specifics.  This was God’s way of restoring fellowship with man and man’s way of atoning for sin.  The animal was man’s expiation.

As I read Leviticus the other day, Aaron finished his ritual to purify the Holy Place and put both hands on the head of a perfect goat.  He confessed over that goat all the evils, sins and rebellions of the people of Israel.  The translation* I am reading says those evils, sins and rebellions “transfer…to the goat’s head.  Then the goat is to be driven off into the desert by a man appointed to do it.  The goat will carry all their sins away with him into some uninhabited land” [Leviticus 16: 20-22].  Another perfect goat was killed in the ordinary way, at the entrance of the Tent, with blood thrown against the sides of the altar.  After reading of ordinary procedures, this extraordinary instance of the “scapegoat” seemed important, symbolic if you will.  The goat sent away was sacrificed by losing its life due to unseen harm, Packer refers to this as expiation for “sins borne away out of sight, never to trouble our relationship with God again.”

I see this event in Leviticus as a transition to the most significant act of sacrifice in the New Testament, the death of Jesus Christ for mans’ sins.  Jesus was the representative substitution for man in the New Testament, the scapegoat if you will.  Packer cites the Apostle Paul who tells us that Jesus’s blood is what quenched the wrath of God toward man.  “What redeemed us from death was not Jesus’ life or teaching, not His moral perfection nor His fidelity to the Father, but the shedding of His blood….the innocent taking the place of the guilty, in the name and for the sake of the guilty, under the axe of God’s retribution.”    In Galatians, it says “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law…by becoming a curse for us.”  Second Corinthians says “God made Him who had no sin to be the sin for us.”  As I have been reading Leviticus, I have also been reading Mark where Jesus said the symbolic words “He took the cup and gave thanks to God and handed it to them; and they all drank from it.  Jesus said ‘this is my blood which is poured out for many, my blood which seals God’s covenant” [Mark 14: 22-24].

Often, Bible readers succumb to the temptation to give up on reading God’s word.  This Book is too long and I can’t finish it quickly and it just demands too much of my attention.  Why are these ancient people doing what they are doing?  These rituals and this lifestyle are so foreign to me.  The language can be tough; words which we don’t use anymore are used and that can be confusing.  I would comment that these are all valid excuses to stop reading the Bible, but there are very good reasons to stick with it.   Evangelist and publisher D. L. Moody says the “Scriptures were not given to increase our knowledge but to change our lives.”  Pastor Skip Heitzig writes “God has taken our frailties into consideration and has given us His Word in such a way that our minds can understand its truths and our souls can be nourished by it.  God wants us to read the Bible….It is a means of getting to know Him.”**

He loves us.  He wants us to know Him. He wants to know us so badly that He sent His son to be sacrificed for our sins.  Yes, Jesus’ blood was shed for us, the first goat and the second: the first blood was obvious but the second goat’s blood was not, but as it suffered out of sight, those sins were taken away never to trouble our relationship with God again.

*The Good News Bible 

**How to Study the Bible and Enjoy It

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Why John 3:16 is so Important….

“And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.  And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:  That whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.   For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.   For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved.   He that believeth on Him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.   And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” [John 3: 13-19].

“For God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” [John 3: 16].  We see someone hold up John 3:16 at a sporting event, we hear this verse quoted in conversation and we hear it read from the pulpit.  Recently, I looked at banners at the front of my church and sure enough, both banners have John 3: 16 on them.

But what does this oft-quoted Scripture really mean?  Do we just rattle it off, not really appreciating the meaning?

In the opening paragraph, I quoted from John 3: 13 to John 3: 19 to provide some context for this famous verse, hoping to glean some additional interpretation by examining surrounding words.  The key to understanding John 3:16 comes from comprehending its context.

John 3 begins with Jesus discussing being born again with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Jewish Ruling Council.  Jesus has confused him by telling him that to enter the Kingdom of God, one has to be born again.  Nicodemus replied “How can this be?…How can a man be born when he is old?  Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus chastised Nicodemus “You are Israel’s teacher, and do you not understand these things…still you people do not accept our testimony.”

Then Jesus hit Nicodemus with the verse “No one has ever gone into heaven except the One who came from Heaven.”  How will Nicodemus believe heavenly things; Jesus “has spoken to him about earthly things and he did not believe.”  How will we believe of heavenly things?  Jesus doubted that he would believe.

Then the Scripture  “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.”  Is Jesus comparing Himself to the serpent?  One would think not, but maybe He is.  The serpent deserves to be condemned; for he has bitten man with a deadly poison called sin; in fact, that poison is flowing in man’s veins.  Jesus does not deserve to be condemned but He will be lifted up as a substitute for the sins of man “that whoever believes in Him [Jesus/ God] may have eternal life.”

Then the famous John 3:16, which now clearly establishes that God sent His own Son into the world to save it; in fact, belief in [Jesus/ God] will insure that the believer will not perish but have eternal life. 

Again in John 3:17, Jesus restates His mission on this earth: not to condemn the world but to save it.  All one has to do is accept Jesus/ God and they won’t be condemned.  However, Jesus knows it is often not that simple.  The poison of sin is too strong man; prefers darkness instead of the light.  Love for sin causes man to reject the light of Jesus Christ.  That choice of darkness over light condemns man.  The choice of light shows great faith and great faith will be rewarded with everlasting life.

What is John 3: 16 really saying?

Many feel this single verse underpins the entirety of the biblical narrative.  Why is John 3: 16 quoted so much?  No other verse in the Bible summarizes God’s relationship with man the way this verse does.  Some consider John 3:16 the “theme verse” for the whole Bible.  This one verse explains that Jesus came to take our place on the cross to satisfy God’s demands for sinless man.  Matthew Henry* states that “giving His Son for this world is God’s way of negotiating a peace between heaven and earth.”

The irony of all this is that God has given His only Son to save man from His wrath over the sinfulness of man’s behavior [John Stott’s comment “God gave Himself to save us from Himself”].

Let’s be honest, what god would do this?  Only our God.  Instead of experiencing the wrath of God [which we so richly deserve] Jesus turned God’s wrath into love.  Since this was God appeasing Himself, that makes it even more difficult to understand.  Man gets off “scott-free”.  We all sin, yet we are made right with God [justified]. 

This introduces an idea that so many people struggle to accept, the doctrine of grace.  Grace is the opposite of the popular word “karma” which means getting what you deserve.  Grace means getting what you don’t deserve.  We don’t deserve salvation; we don’t deserve eternal life.  It is a core concept in the Bible.  It is God’s undeserved love for you and for me.

This past Sunday my church was graced with a first time visitor who stood during prayer time and gave his testimony.  He revealed that he had a battle with alcohol; in fact, he said that three or four times in the few moments he was speaking.  He began crying and saying that he was sorry.  Later in the service, it was my honor to serve this same man communion and I just said to him simply “bless you brother.”  He began crying and saying, “I am sorry; I am sorry; I am sorry.”

We should all be sorry for how we conduct ourselves.  I hope this man does not assume that my church has pews filled with saints.  My church [like all churches] is full of people who should be saying to God, “I am sorry; I am sorry; I am sorry.”  We are saved, but only by God’s unmerited grace.  We are saved by the redeeming sacrifice of His own Son Jesus Christ.  We are saved by our belief in our loving Father.  We are saved by our belief in our loving Father.

Is there anything, anything that we can do to begin to be more deserving of God’s love?  In the Book of John Jesus says “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”  This is a bit vague but one must realize that Jesus’ life was inspirational.  Of course we cannot achieve a love like that of our God, our Father who gave His only Son, but we must make an effort to imitate Jesus, to grab that “bar” of love which God and Jesus set so high.

We have been trying to understand the word propitiation as what man must do to appease gods.  It is a common idea in pagan worship.  In Christianity, Christ is used to appease God and God initiates propitiation.

God is angry at man and He appeases Himself by His own action.

What greater love is this?

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

*From Matthew Henry’s Commentary on “Biblegateway.com.”

Based on ideas expressed in J.I. Packer’s Knowing God

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The Heart of the Gospel: We Need Them All…

J.I. Packer entitles Chapter 18 “The Heart of the Gospel.”  Then he spends many pages on two terms that we don’t use very often, propitiation and expiation.  We don’t use those words as part of our day-to-day vocabulary, so most of us aren’t really sure what they mean in Scripture.  As I indicated in the previous post, I found the word propitiation used three times in the Bible.  I had to use a concordance to confirm the word’s use.

Not being a theologian, I had no idea that there is ongoing debate about the ideas of propitiation and expiation, some theologians arguing that there is no need for propitiation, that expiation is good enough. 

But we are discussing J.I. Packer’s book and for him, man needs both propitiation and expiation.

You see, he is writing about “The Heart of the Gospel.”

By way of review, expiation is the blotting out or removal of sin.  After expiation, communion with God can occur.  Packer elaborates: “Expiation means only half of what propitiation means.  Expiation is an action that has sin as its object; it denotes the covering, putting away or rubbing out of sin so that it no longer constitutes a barrier to friendly fellowship between man and God” [182].  Note that the quote from Packer says “only half of what propitiation means.” 

To represent the point of view of expiation alone, Packer chooses theologian C.H. Dodd who believed “there is no such thing as anger” in God due to man’s penchant for sinning, so there is no real need for propitiation.

Remember that propitiation is the need to offer a sacrifice that turns aside the wrath of God.  Anyone who believes in a god knows there is a terrific need to stay on the friendly side of that god.   It is a universal belief across many religions in order to appease the “gods” sacrifices should be made, alms should be offered up, or some price must be exacted.  Dodd and others cannot accept this idea [especially in the New Testament context] that God’s wrath must be appeased with a sacrifice.

But again, Packer is discussing what he calls “The Heart of the Gospel.”

I stand with Packer.  As Christians, we need both propitiation and expiation.

God’s wrath is real and it certainly can be felt as man sins.  Packer points to Romans 1: 18 where the Apostle Paul says “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of man.”  Many New Testament readers think that type of Godly wrath is no longer relevant; this is an Old Testament thing.  The New Testament is all about grace and mercy, God’s forgiveness of our sins. Not so fast.  Here Paul is revealing that man can turn away from God so much that God can give up on man.  In fact, Packer cites three verses from the King James Version [verses 24, 26 and 28] where it says “God gave them [man] up.” 

In short, God’s wrath is real today.

In Romans 2: 1-16, Paul discusses the idea that it is certain man will experience a day of God’s wrath.  That day will be at every man’s judgement when God will look at man’s earthly works.  Let’s dig into parts of this Scripture that make the case.  “The day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgement of God; who will render to every man according to his works:…unto them that …obey not the truth, but obey unrighteousness, shall be wrath and indignation…in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men, according to my Gospel, by Jesus Christ.” 

Sounds like sinning will incur the wrath of God.  God’s wrath is real today.

Packer continues with Romans 3 with Paul’s argument that every person, Jew and Gentile are “under sin” [verse 9].  We are under sin in the present and we will be under sin in the future.  Paul writes that the natural state of man is sin and without the Gospel, we are subject to God’s anger.   This Gospel exposure is the saving grace we all depend on.  It is the Gospel [Packer writes] that is the controlling reality of our lives.  Without God’s word, we are in danger of experiencing the active anger of God.

Yes, God’s wrath is real today.

Instead of denying the need for propitiation, I stand with Packer.  We do need it and it is a good thing we have it.  Again, it is hard to understand that we have to have a sacrifice to save us but we do. That sacrifice is Jesus Christ.  Without it, we can be considered God’s enemies.  With it, we can be justified in the sight of God.

If God’s wrath is real today, by the sacrificial death of God’s only Son, we have a way for God’s wrath to be pacified.

Unlike other gods who may be seen as moody, grumpy or capricious, our God requires propitiation because He is holy and just.  God has told man repeatedly that sin is not appropriate behavior.  He is consistent in both the Old Testament and the New.  Yes it really says in Romans 1: 18 “[My] wrath is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness.”

God declares what sacrifice He needed and then He provided it.  He is not asking for man to be hung on the cross.  He insists that His only son be put to death up there.  He takes credit for providing Old Testament sacrificial blood [see Leviticus 17:11] and He takes credit for providing our New Testament sacrifice. 

God gives His only Son to die for us.  This is not just a bribe to appease some pagan God, some animal, some alms, some first fruit.  This is God’s only Son.  Theologian John Stott writes “God gave Himself to save us from Himself.”

We have a contemporary expression that fits in well right here.  When a person today  struggles to understand they might say “I am having a hard time wrapping my head around that idea.”  That is very true about God’s need for propitiation.

Let’s go further with two more words that are less obscure than propitiation and expiation.  In fact, they are thrown around so much that maybe we don’t appreciate them. 

One is atonement.  Atonement means the reconciliation of God and humankind through Jesus Christ.  Without Jesus as our “Atoner”, we would be lost.  He took our place up on that cross.  God tried over and over to communicate to man what He needed for us to measure up and He finally did that with the earthly life of His Son.  Jesus experienced a lot of wrath from this world, wrath He did not deserve, for He had lived a sinless life.  The sacrificial death of Jesus appeased God, Packer writing that His act “abolished God’s anger against us and ensured that His treatment of us forever would be propitious and favorable.” 

Yes, instead of showing Himself to be against us. God shows us that He is for us.

The last word is salvation.  The sacrifice of Jesus Christ is God’s way of saving mankind.  Just the other night I heard a pastor give an alter call.  He used that old familiar question, “Are you saved?”  R.C. Sproul [another noted theologian] says “trying to explain salvation can give you a headache, because the word salvation is used about seventy different ways in the Bible.”  But salvation is what we get by the propitiation, the expiation and atonement of Jesus Christ.  We are a people covered by the atonement. We are all sinners and we need to be redeemed from the clear and present danger of our sinning.  We have a God who has every right to be angry about our poor behavior.  We all deserve God’s wrath.  Sproul writes “There is no wrath for those whose sins have been paid.  That is what salvation is all about.”

God’s sacrifice of his Son for us is an act of love for mankind that is so unbelievable most of us cannot comprehend it.  Packer writes “the wrath of God is as personal, and as potent, as His love; and just as the blood shedding of the Lord Jesus was the direct manifesting of His Father’s love toward us, so it is the direct averting of His Fathers’ wrath against us.”

I know it is hard to understand propitiation, expiation, atonement and salvation but I stand with Packer.  As Christians we need both propitiation and expiation [atonement and salvation].

This is the heart of the gospel.

We need them all…

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