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Friday, April 29, 2011

Raising Our Conception of the Resurrection

This past Sunday, the day after the Sabbath during the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Leviticus 23:10-11), was the day of the Wavesheaf offering, which typifies the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. It also happened to be the same day that most of this world's Christians observed Easter, on which they celebrate His resurrection. Churches held sunrise services because this is when they suppose Jesus to have risen from the grave, and they joyously proclaimed, "He is risen!" (Mark 16:6). Churchgoers wore their finest new, spring clothes, with many ladies sporting the modern, stylish version of the Easter bonnet. Later, children hunted for Easter eggs and gorged themselves on chocolate bunnies, chocolate eggs, sugared marshmallow chicks, and other goodies. It was all great fun.

But is this the extent of today's understanding of the resurrection of our Savior? Has His awesome overcoming of death become little more than a trite service, new clothes, and candy? Do we realize the profound implications of what happened in that new, rock-hewn tomb just outside of Jerusalem all those years ago? From the way many people treat the holiday, it would seem that they have not truly—deeply—considered what it means.

First, if they had studied the gospels on the subject, comparing the various biblical accounts with the traditional teaching, they would have realized that the Bible's accounts make it clear that Jesus could not have risen with the sunrise on Sunday morning. Notice John 20:1: "Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb" (our emphasis throughout). Jesus had already been resurrected! If this part of the "Easter story" is incorrect, what else is wrong? Taking all the clues together, we find that the Bible indicates a Wednesday crucifixion and a late Sabbath—Saturday—resurrection, since, to fulfill the sign of His Messiahship, He had to remain in the tomb a full three days and three nights or 72 hours (for a complete explanation, see our booklet, "After Three Days").

Second, most professing Christians believe that Christ's resurrection focuses on the fact that, having suffered crucifixion and then being buried in the tomb, He was dead, but three days later, He was alive again. As far as it goes, this is true. Jesus Himself writes to the church at Smyrna in Revelation 2:8: "These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life." However, we must be careful not to be satisfied with the basic truth that He returned to life, for if we do, it does a grave injustice to the spiritual magnificence and significance of the event.

His was no ordinary resurrection, if any resurrection could be considered so. Other resuscitations down through history have been shown to be what we would call "reviving from clinical death": The person's heart stops, his breathing halts, and in effect, he appears dead, yet suddenly, he returns to life. In a similar way, just a short time before His own death, Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11), and later, at Christ's death, "many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many" (Matthew 27:52-53). These people were all returned to physical life, and while they are astonishing miracles and must have caused untold wonder and joy among their grieving relatives, their mortality was merely postponed. They would die again.

Jesus' resurrection was something altogether different: He was raised to everlasting life; He would live forever! In his first sermon on the day of Pentecost, Peter informs the gathered crowd, "God [the Father] raised up [Jesus], having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it" (Acts 2:24). Paul explains what happened in a similar way in II Corinthians 13:4, "For though He was crucified in weakness, yet He lives by the power of God." Finally, the risen Christ Himself says to the apostle John, "I am He who lives, and who was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen." (Revelation 1:18). The life that the Father returned to Him was not mere physical life but the immortal spirit life of God.

Third, because He has passed from death to life, He makes our salvation and eternal life possible. Paul writes in Romans 6:8-9, "Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more." He puts it succinctly in Romans 5:10, ". . . we shall be saved by His life," that is, the life He now lives as our Savior and High Priest. Hebrews 7:24-25 tells us, "But He, because He continues forever, has an unchangeable priesthood. Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them." In His final prayer with His disciples, Jesus begins with this thought: "Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You, as You have given Him authority over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given Him" (John 17:1-2).

In these verses, we see hints of a fourth momentous product of Christ's resurrection that contains weighty implications for us. Paul writes in Hebrews 1:3, ". . . when He had by Himself purged our sins, [Jesus] sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high." Peter also mentions this in his Pentecost sermon: "This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear" (Acts 2:32-33).

Because He was raised from the dead, having paid for our sins in His sinless body, the Father has exalted Him to sit with Him on His throne, where He has the power and the authority to "pour out" the Holy Spirit on the elect, giving them the ability to have a relationship with God and to have eternal life through a similar resurrection. Paul writes in Philippians 3:8, 10-11: "Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, . . . that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, . . . if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead."

In this way, He is "the captain of [our] salvation" (Hebrews 2:10), the archegos, the Forerunner and Trailblazer, who opens the way before God's people and makes it possible for them to attain what He has. And this potential is not limited to some kind of quasi-angelic existence, for the apostle John writes, ". . . when He is revealed, we shall be like Him" (I John 3:2). Paul concurs in I Corinthians 15:49: "As we have borne the image of the man of dust [Adam], we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man [Jesus]." Man's potential reaches to the divine!

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is nothing to be taken lightly. We would do well to consider it deeply, since it is so vital to God's purpose and to the eternal future of God's elect.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Why Passover and Not Easter?

While most professing Christians consider the Passover to be a Jewish festival, it should also be a sacred observance for all Christians. The apostle Paul writes to the predominantly Gentile church in Corinth:
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same manner, He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” (I Corinthians 11:23-25)
This is not, as is commonly believed, the command to take communion as often as one likes. In reality, this is Jesus’ own command, communicated through the apostle Paul, for the church to celebrate the Passover “on the same night in which He was betrayed,” which was the evening of the Passover, Nisan 14 on the Hebrew calendar (see Leviticus 23:5). This was the practice of the New Testament church—in fact, it kept all of the holy days of Leviticus 23—as long as the original apostles lived.

However, like all men, the apostles died one by one until only the apostle John was left, an old man living in or near the city of Ephesus. Around the turn of the second century, John died at an advanced age. For a few generations under the leadership of John’s disciple, Polycarp (AD 69-155), and a successor, Polycrates (c. 130-196), the Ephesian church remained faithful to the teachings and traditions of the early church, including the keeping of the Passover on Nisan 14.

Those few who stubbornly resisted the change to the celebration of Easter, which had supplanted Passover throughout most of Christendom, were called Quartodecimans (“fourteenthers”) and Judaizers. By Origin’s day (c. 185-254), they were, he wrote, “a mere handful” among the millions living in the Empire. Even so, the Roman Church did not effectively ban the practice of keeping the Passover on Nisan 14 until AD 325 at the Council of Nicea, when rules were set down to calculate the date of Easter for the entire Church. Canon 29 of the Council of Laodicea (held in 363-364) later anathematized those Judaizers who kept the seventh-day Sabbath, many of whom were also Quartodecimans.

The controversy over Passover or Easter boils down to following Scripture versus following Roman Catholic tradition. Frankly, the reason that the Roman Church chose to keep Easter rests on two faulty pillars: 1) an intense prejudice against “the perfidy of the Jews” in the crucifixion of Christ (which has come to be known as the “blood libel”) and 2) the widespread celebration of Easter among pagan cultures throughout the Empire. The convoluted theological arguments that have come down from the so-called apostolic fathers, repeated endlessly by their successors, are window dressing to obscure these unpleasant factors.

Even during the first-century, an anti-Jewish element had begun to creep into the church of God. In his epistles to the Romans and to the Galatians, the apostle Paul had attempted to explain the place of God’s law under the New Covenant, but as Peter later testified, in Paul’s epistles “are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction” (II Peter 3:16). And twist them they did, moving the church away from the truths written in the Old Testament and expounded by Christ and His apostles. Soon, many Greek-speaking Christians, not wanting to be constrained by the “Hebrew” law, entertained Gnostic ideas that encouraged spiritual license. Finally, the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 ratcheted up anti-Jewish fervor to a fever pitch, and across the Empire, association with Jews and things Jewish was generally avoided.

In this way, the church that appears in second-century history is quite different from its first-century counterpart. It is largely Gentile, keeping Sunday (which it calls “the Lord’s Day”) rather than the Sabbath, and growing in power and political influence. It is also attracting new converts, not only out of Greco-Roman paganism, but also from the gods and goddesses of the frontier areas like Britain, Germany, and Dacia. This church found it easier to assimilate these new converts by syncretizing the “Christian” Easter celebration with their pagan spring festivals, often called after the name of the widely worshipped fertility goddess, Ishtar (or some close variation: Astarte, Eoster, Ostara, Isis, Aphrodite, etc.). It is from these heathen influences that the Easter Bunny, dyeing eggs, giving candy, and other non-biblical Easter traditions have sprung.

Conversely, the Christian Passover is not a celebration but a solemn observance that commemorates the agonizing blood-sacrifice of Jesus Christ to pay for our sins (Matthew 26:28; Romans 4:25; I Corinthians 15:3; Ephesians 1:7; Titus 2:14; I John 1:7), to redeem us from spiritual bondage (Matthew 20:28; Galatians 1:4; Ephesians 2:1-3; Hebrews 2:14-15; I Peter 1:18-19; Revelation 5:9), and to open the way to fellowship with the Father (Romans 8:34; Ephesians 2:18; Hebrews 7:25; 10:19-22). Each year in the Passover ceremony, baptized Christians wash one another’s feet to follow Christ’s example of selfless service (John 13:1-17), as well as partake of the bread and the wine, recommitting themselves to the everlasting covenant that they have made with God. As Paul writes in I Corinthians 11:26, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.”

Easter, however, celebrates, not the Savior’s death, but His resurrection, which most professing Christians believe occurred at sunrise on the Sunday morning after His death (please see “After Three Days” which explains from the Bible that this is not the case). Neither Jesus nor His apostles mention anything about observing or memorializing His resurrection. In fact, His death is the only event of His life that the Bible consistently commands us to remember (Luke 22:19; I Corinthians 11:24-25; see the principle in Psalm 116:15; Ecclesiastes 7:1).

And, yes, this excludes His birth too, making Christmas another non-biblical addition to the liturgical calendar. Despite the human desire to mark such times, Christians must be careful to do only what God’s Word commands lest they be guilty of adding to or taking away from it (Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32; Joshua 1:7; Proverbs 30:5-6; Revelation 22:18-19). When we add to or take from what God has said, we alter His revelation to us and are sure to veer from His way.

If you are interested in further information regarding God’s Sabbath and holy days, please visit our website on this subject, www.Sabbath.org.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Repentance: The Genuine Article (Part Six)

John the Baptist is the first of God’s messengers to address repentance in the New Testament:

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! . . . Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance. . . . And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3:1-2, 8, 10)
John prepared the way for Christ’s coming by preaching a message of repentance because, in order for righteousness to be developed in the people, they first had to repent. They could not accept Jesus’ teachings until they had been convicted of their sins and turned from them. The proof, John says, that a person has truly made a change of heart and lifestyle appears when his life begins to show him doing what is right. Right living is the fruit of repentance.

If we think that we have repented but are still walking the old road leading to death, then we probably have not fully repented. If that is the case, we need to do so right away! As Peter writes in I Peter 4:17, judgment is on us now, and whoever fails to live righteously—fails to show godly fruit—will be, in John the Baptist’s words, “cut down and thrown into the fire.” Stiff words, indeed, but necessary to motivate us toward the goal.

So, having gone through all of this, how do we repent? Have we ever considered that Jesus could not show us how to do it? Though He is our perfect example in how to live, He can never Himself show us how to repent because He never had a sin to repent of. To whom do we look as an example of true repentance?

Jesus left that job to “a man after His own heart” (I Samuel 13:14), His own ancestor, David, whose attitude was one of going on to perfection (Hebrews 6:1). God loved him so much because he had a heart that always tried to do what was right, and when he slipped and fell, being humble and teachable, he repented and moved forward.

Psalm 51 is David's well-known and well-loved Psalm of Repentance. We will observe only the highlights—twelve in all—that focus on the most critical aspects of genuine repentance:

First, David simply throws himself on God’s mercy when he asks for forgiveness. He does not try to justify himself or explain away his sin. He pleads, “Do to me what You think is right, but please be merciful.”

Second, he confesses his sins unequivocally—he admits that he did them—and does not attempt to hide himself or his sins from God.

Third, he acknowledges that his sins are against God, as all sin is. Every sin we commit affects our relationship with Him, since sin separates us from God (Isaiah 59:2). Thus, David acknowledges that he has wronged God primarily (II Samuel 12:13). Of course, he had hurt others in the process and caused the whole nation great distress, but of all these, God is by far the most important.

Fourth, David acknowledges that his entire nature is sinful, and that sin is a fact of human existence. However, he also accepts that God requires us to overcome it with His help.

Fifth, he recognizes that God and God alone can cleanse him of sin. By using the word “hyssop” (Psalm 51:7; see Exodus 12:22), He hints that only the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, can remit our sins and make the passing over of our sins possible. Only by washing in the blood of the Lamb of God can we be whiter than snow.

Sixth, he asks God to change his heart and to grant him true repentance. Paul teaches in Romans 2:4, “. . . the goodness of God leads you to repentance,” and in II Timothy 2:25, “God perhaps will grant them repentance.” Because we have a part to play in it too, repentance is a cooperative act with God to change our hearts.

Seventh, he appeals to God to renew His Holy Spirit in him. He begs, “Please, do not take it away from me! Please do not cast me away from your Presence. Help me to overcome this by Your power because by my own strength I can do nothing.”

Eighth, by saying, “Restore to me the joy of Your salvation,” he asks God to return him to the path toward His Kingdom. He had discovered that the way of sin leading to condemnation and death was a dark, dreary, hopeless road. He needed God to set his feet on the right path again.

Ninth, he requests that God help him to become a good example to others and to teach them His way of life. He wanted, not only to repent of this sin, but also to pursue righteousness to the point that others could follow his example and learn from him. No half-measures for David!

Tenth, he praises God for His goodness and mercy. Showing Him our sincere gratitude for His grace and forbearance does wonders for our attitude, as it acknowledges our reliance on Him.

Eleventh, David lets God know that he understands that no physical act will ever atone for his sins. He can do nothing—no amount of sacrifice—to make up for them. What God desires is a change of heart and mind, asking for a humble spirit that will transform one’s way of life. He respects the person who is submissive and willing to change.

Finally, he asks God to show favor to Zion—in our case, the church, the people of God—implying, “Please do not let my sin cause others harm or bring dishonor to You or Your people. Please intervene so that the effects of my sin do not ripple out to affect others—in fact, turn this to good.” With the assurance that God has covered our sins, our sacrifices and acts of righteousness and love toward God and man can have real meaning and produce pleasing fruit.

Paul writes in Romans 6:22-23: “But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Consider the slavery and redemption of the Israelites. Like them, we have been redeemed from Egypt, a type of the world. Also like them, the ungodly things that we learned during our enslavement remain in our minds. God does not just make all those habits, attitudes, and inclinations disappear. Certainly, He has cleansed us from our sins, but we are always in need of repentance. We must still turn off the dusty, crowded highway that leads to death and walk the sunlit path to eternal life in God’s Kingdom.

Doing this takes time and a great deal of hard work, but it all begins with deep, earnest repentance—a thorough conversion of mind and attitude and a change in conduct to what is right and godly. Then and only then will we truly be preparing for the Kingdom of God.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Repentance: The Genuine Article (Part Five)

We can learn a great deal from the sore trial of Job, particularly what God did to bring him to the point of repentance. Notice Job 40:1-4, where we begin to see a marked change in the man:

Moreover the LORD answered Job, and said: "Shall the one who contends with the Almighty correct Him? He who rebukes God, let him answer it." Then Job answered the LORD and said: "Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer You? I lay my hand over my mouth."

Job is a different person now. Something had produced a change in him between his assertion of unimpeachable integrity in chapter 27 and his humble admission of vileness in chapter 40. In the speech of Elihu in Job 32-37, a new line of reasoning enters the argument, and God, speaking out of a whirlwind in Job 38-41, lays Job's self-righteousness bare. God exposes Job for what he really was, despite his careful lawkeeping. Job responds in Job 42:1-6:

Then Job answered the LORD and said: "I know that You can do everything, and that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You. You asked, ‘Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?' Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. Listen, please, and let me speak; You said, ‘I will question you, and you shall answer Me.' I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You. Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes."

In listening to God primarily, Job had entered the rā'āh stage, where he deeply considered himself and what he had done, and suddenly, he had an entirely different view of himself: He was not the man he thought he was. Now, in his own estimation, he was not righteous but abhorrent and vile—a wholesale change!

What we see in Job 38-41 is that God leads the man through a process in which He reveals Himself to Job. He does not directly reveal Job to himself, but He helps Job to realize just who and what God is—and this is a major key to true repentance. We truly recognize our need to change when we see, not necessarily how we are, but how we compare to and fall woefully short of the perfect righteousness of God.

A simple illustration may help us understand how this works. Since the United States dollar is the world's reserve currency, there is a considerable problem with counterfeiting here and around the world. U.S. Treasury officials who are specially trained to seek out and identify counterfeit money study, not the counterfeit notes, but the real U.S. currency. They study it until they know it perfectly. Once they do, it becomes relatively easy for them to distinguish a true dollar from a counterfeit: Any bill that does not exactly conform to the real dollar is a fake.

In a similar fashion, God says the same thing to Job as well as to us. If we compare ourselves with the true righteousness and holiness that is in God, we will recognize just how counterfeit—imperfect, false, and sinful—we are. If we are sincere, we will fling ourselves on God's mercy and repent because we do not want to be sinful but righteous and holy like God. We will want to prove to God that we have turned from our old, evil way and will henceforth live His way forever.

Notice that Job says, "I . . . repent in dust and ashes." His wording expresses ideas of humiliation, mourning, burial, and death. Donning sackcloth and ashes was a common Hebrew act of humility and grief (Esther 4:1; Isaiah 58:5; Jeremiah 6:26). In his affliction, the psalmist writes in Psalm 102:9, "For I have eaten ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping." When God informs Adam that he would die because of sin, He says, "For dust you are, and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19). The traditional funeral sermon from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer includes the memorable line, "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust."

Job's turn of phrase reveals the depth of his sorrow, shame, and determination to change. By saying this, he conveys his resolve to put the old, sinful Job to death and become a new man living a life of righteousness. We see this "old man of sin, new man of righteousness" in several places in the New Testament, including Romans 6:1-14, where the subject is repentance leading to a life of righteousness:

What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.

Repentance and righteousness are virtually inseparable. Without repentance, righteousness has no beginning. It is impossible for a person to be righteous while still on the old path that leads to death. One must turn away from that path and then begin living righteously. In the same way, without righteousness, repentance has no fruit, nothing to show for a person's contrition. Thus, one without the other is nothing. They must be done together.

This work in tandem is illustrated in the first occurrence of the word "repentance" (metanoia) in the New Testament, Matthew 3:8, in the preaching of John the Baptist: "Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance." What is repentance without righteousness? Nothing. True repentance is only verified by its fruit, right conduct.

We will conclude this series next time by briefly studying David's Psalm of Repentance.