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A Matter of Fact

Χριστός ἀνέστη! (Cristos Anesti!) someone calls out.
Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη! (Alethos Anesti!) comes the response.
In English, “He is risen!”
“He is risen indeed!”
Ages before anyone spoke English, this traditional Easter greeting about Cristos (Jesus Christ) was stated in Greek. Alethos (truly) Anesti (has been raised) affirms that Easter is not a belief in a good teacher’s example. Rather the resurrection is a matter of truth, not only for your own soul, whoever you are, but also first a truth of human history. The Apostle’s Creed contains perhaps the most controversial thing about Christianity, that of Jesus suffering “under Pontius Pilate.” Why mention the Roman governor of the time? Only because this affirms that Jesus lived in real history and raised not metaphorically, which would be untestable, but that he rose bodily, leaving a physically empty tomb “on the third day.” God’s good news is tangible and testable and begs anyone to ask honest questions as to why this news should be believed or how it has any connection to modern people.

This is not a matter of blind faith, but of sure faith in the one who is the main character of history: God. Some may ask, “What difference does it make if it happened?” But if they really wondered about it, they would realize that the created owes everything to the Creator, or that the guilty must settle their accounts with the Judge, or at minimum, that a victim calling for rescue ought to recognize their Rescuer. Would someone demanding an answer to why there is so much injustice in the world turn a blind eye to The Answer for which they passionately cry?

Take the challenge for truth and come to trust in Christ’s once-and-for-all-time sacrifice for sins, whether to believe it first yourself or to grow in boldness to share this wonderful Good News with skeptical friends and family. It matters, because “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (1 Corinthians 15:17)

[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt:

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
(Luke 18:9-14 ESV)

In this story, Jesus is not just criticizing someone on the religious right. He is criticizing anyone who is arrogant enough to forget or whitewash the sin they have done and focus on all their perceived great accomplishments. That seems to hit both sides of the political spectrum. There are many “Pharisees” who pretend to be religious and pure (sinner is always a word for others and not themselves) and there are many who are liberally approving of all kinds of actions and omissions so that they won’t be able to consider themselves sinners either. Both are trusting in themselves that they are righteous (aka self-righteous), and both demonize and hate others who don’t fit their personal standards. The humble person who takes up God’s standards, sees his evil and due to acknowledging pride expects more evils that he can’t see, that person will be forgiven and justified as righteous before God for his faith in God’s Word. So says Jesus (see also Rom 3-4).

The Tax collector’s prayer was heard and his faith rewarded because it was not a blind faith in his own ability to clean up by his own standards. It was not even a faith in his ability to meet God’s standards. Rather it was a faith in God’s guarantees that He forgives truly repentant sinners, cleans them up, and considers them righteous until such time as they really are made righteous (i.e. sinless by God’s standards). Until then, our faith in God and his Word about Jesus is counted as righteousness. I pray you are enjoying that very gift with me.

“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”
(Romans 3:20-25)

credit Daniel Eisenstein and SDSS-III

A map of galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and its Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey.

Many use the phrase “the Abrahamic religions” to describe Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. But what does this mean? Do we mean that each religion is a legitimate descendant of the faith Abraham shared or that these three religions merely claim it? If we care about truth, we must accept the second definition, because the three expressions radically contradict. Therefore they cannot all express Abraham’s faith. So what was the faith of Abraham? We must look to Genesis (the earliest account of Abraham’s life) and compare it to Jesus’ own teachings as passed on through his apostles. Doing so, the Christian faith is found to follow Abraham’s faith.

And [God] brought [Abraham] outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:5-6 ESV)

For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void . . . That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” . . . No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
(Romans 4:13-25)

Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Galatians 3:7-9)

For more, read Galatians and Romans 4-5, and of course the rest of Genesis. Discover that Abraham’s saving faith was a faith in God’s grace and promises rather than an obedience to laws. We must conclude that the only truly Abrahamic faith is one that trusts that God saves by faith in his promises and good news.

Image credit: Daniel Eisenstein and SDSS-III (http://www.eurekalert.org/multimedia/pub/119797.php)

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:1-6 ESV)

Are all religions essentially the same? Aren’t they just superficially different? As the Beatles have said in song, “Love is all you need.” Yet love seems to be in short supply! It is not as easy as they make it seem, because Love for God is the only command God has given us and yet how many of us have loved God with all our heart a single day of our lives? Jesus taught that the love of many will grow cold and people will be judged for their evil thoughts and activities unless they believe Jesus was the real deal. And our text today shows that the original preachers did not consider their message of “first importance” to be “love is all you need.” Rather they preached that Jesus physically resurrected and that his innocent death on the cross paid for the problem many refuse to admit, that we love ourselves more than God.

At least love seems to matter to us, but does the truth about reality matter to us? Should we not love truth as well? Everyone seems to have an opinion, but does our Great Designer have His say in the matter? Christianity is essentially based on what Jesus said and did. And He didn’t come preaching about kindness and love. He came preaching forgiveness from a Holy God who has promised wrath and judgement for the loveless sins you and I have committed. He came offering himself as a substitute “ransom” to pay for the sins of many who will trust and believe him. Sin is a debt. Sin is misplaced love. Sin is an evil crime. Sin is setting our own purposes for our life above and against God’s purposes for us. In short, sin is a refusal to love the truth.

What is God’s purpose for us? We exist to worship him and to enjoy him forever. How do we accomplish that? It can only start by trusting that Jesus told the truth that he came from God to fix us and that all others who claimed the same were “thieves and robbers.” All religious founders cannot all be correct about God and eternal life because all religions fundamentally contradict each other. How does one begin to sort through all that confusion? Ideas and theories are abstract and hard to test. But the story of Christianity has, from the beginning, been a story that tangibly enters into human history for us to test.

God offers us Jesus as a test for truth. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father but by me.” How do we know that Jesus was telling the truth? The whole religion stands or falls, according to Paul if we continue reading this chapter, on whether Jesus really did rise from the dead or not. If so, then God has given us proof about who he is and how to relate to him and proof that Jesus’ warning of hell is not just some fear tactic to gain converts. If not, then the search goes on into ever foggier territory, but I have found that Jesus’ claims and the original Christians’ claims about Jesus are all true. Whether we know it or want to admit it or not, all the historical evidence points to the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead, and in this hope, we are saved from our pride, from the devil, from death itself, and from God’s eternal punishment for our otherwise unquenchably rebellious spirit. Would you begin to consider Jesus and his resurrection? And consider the Word of God. These have been given as accessible proof, not only of our desperate condition and the frightful punishment for evil, but also for the good news about Jesus and his cross and resurrection which saves us from it.

A Pardon Denied by Unbelief

The Good News about Jesus is a lot like a Presidential pardon from a prison sentence of treason. It proclaims that because we sin continually against our holy and good Creator Sovereign that we can only expect a verdict of eternal guilt for our on-going “cosmic treason.” It proclaims that the means by which we may be forgiven this guilt and debt to God was accomplished by the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, almost 2,000 years ago on a Roman cross, that though he was innocent of our treason and sin, he took the penalty for many, that whosoever believes in him and calls on his name will have their eternal guilt taken away (John 3:16; Rom 10:13). Instead of appearing before the judge with our own record of crimes, as if dressed in filthy clothes before a King, we who believe are given a clean record just as if given a set of new clothes that had belonged to the prince, Jesus. The Good News does not stop there and, in fact, it gets even better, but at this point it seems to some so foolish and far-fetched that they will not even look into whether it is true or not. They will just deny it outright, yet at the same time these same people will declare the Bible to be “unfair” because it requires belief in this Good News to be thus saved.

Now this accusation of “unfairness” is just what I would like to put to the test now. I have just reviewed what the Good News is, that of factually received news about who Jesus is and what Jesus has done on the behalf of those who believe. I have pointed out in previous posts (here and here) that our belief acts as a rudder, steering our lives, and thus, logically, matters a great deal to the outcome of our lives. But is God unfair to offer a pardon that only some believe and receive? We can ask that question another way. Is God fair to refuse a pardon to those whom deny it has ever been offered?

Do you see how this disbelief is actually a denial, not only of the work that Jesus has, in fact, done, but also a denial of any substitution granted on our behalf? It is as if one has said, “No one has paid for my sins, so I will take the responsibility to pay for them myself.” This self-righteous denial leads to a full conviction without pardon, since it was not only rejected but denied as if the pardon had never been offered. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘All right, then, have it your way.’”

How is it that the Bible’s view of God is that He requires faith in or belief in Him in order for Him to save us? Why does it matter what one thinks about God so long as we treat others as we would like to be treated? It matters a great deal, because what we think often extends into what we do and thus how we treat others. God is the ultimate standard for Good, which makes our beliefs about Him and about what goodness is, logically prior to our actions. Not only this, but beliefs in the wrong direction from God lead us into trouble. If we reject God, the only true hope for Life, by putting our trust in a false hope, then we are heading to a destination other than Life. This is demonstrably true in everyday examples: Superstition keeps polio victims in Pakistan from receiving the vaccine that would save them. And over-confidence has no doubt been the final attitude of many a drunk driver who would save himself. Wrong beliefs can lead to death. How much more when the stakes are eternal?

Most importantly, it matters a great deal to God, and He’s the real factor worth considering in this. If God desires to save only those who have faith in Him, then that is completely His business. There is a wisdom in it that goes well beyond a parental “because He said so,” but that He has said so (John 3:16) is no small thing in itself. Our ideas about God are false hopes unless they are grounded in what God is actually like, and the most reliable material revealing God is still God’s own Word, the Bible.

Many have the idea which describes God as “the God of second chances.” But “second chances” would just mean we’d have a chance to try harder this time to follow the moral law (the law to love God and people). Inevitably, we’d fail again and discover that law is not an instrument that is meant to save but to condemn (Rom 3:20; Gal 2:21; 3:21-22). How, then, could belief that it could save ever actually save? Rather, God is the God of Life who creates new hearts from these dead ones, so that even our desires begin to change. Salvation is the adoptive rescue from the system of second chances and merit (Gal 3:26; 5:1). Only when we receive new hearts will we be enabled to obey that law. One day, when we receive new bodies as well (Acts 24:15), we will be as sinless as our heavenly Father (Matt 5:48).

How did Jesus read the Bible? He taught that the Bible, while containing wisdom, was chiefly about him and his gift of eternal life to us, not about us and how we can have our best life now. He frequently showed how the Old Testament ultimately pointed to him. “For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” (Luke 22:37 ESV)

Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.’ Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.‘”
(Matthew 16:21-24)

Peter had in mind what was best for him, but Jesus had a secret ambition which had been in writing for centuries (Isa 53), though how suffering could lead to victory was not understood. When we read the Bible, we will learn wisdom for life, but it is more important that we deny ourselves the center stage as we read it. Then we will see that it is God’s story of redemption.

The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!” (Mark 14:21)

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. . . . For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?
(John 5:39-40, 46-47)

These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. . .
(Luke 24:44-48)