Friday, June 20, 2008

The Ultimate Sacrifice

Sacrifice is not a concept that anyone really enjoys. Although we are hearing the word more often these days due to price inflation in such core areas as food and energy, most of us do everything we can to avoid having to make sacrifices. As ironic as it sounds, we will make sacrifices in one area to circumvent having to make a sacrifice in another! This points out the human tendency to hold some part of our lives closer and dearer than others—and we are loath to let go of even a small bit of what we love the most.

Jesus Christ did not live this way. In His human life, He was all about sacrifice—His whole life was a sacrifice. And His is the life that has been exalted as the perfect pattern for our own.

In terms of Jesus' sacrifice, anyone familiar with the Bible will first think of His sacrificial death at Calvary to atone for the sins of mankind. His crucifixion was indeed the greatest act of sacrifice in the history of the world, a perfect demonstration of His own teaching in John 15:13, "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends." His supreme offering of His sinless life paid the terrible cost of all of mankind's sins for all time (see Hebrews 9:26-28; 10:10, 12, 14).

In John 3, speaking to Nicodemus, who later helped Joseph of Arimathea to prepare Him for burial, Jesus states a primary purpose of His incarnation: "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up [signifying His crucifixion]. . . . For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved" (John 3:14, 17). He was, as described by John the Baptist, "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29), who was "slain from the foundation of the world" (Revelation 13:8). The apostle Peter makes it personal for us:

. . . knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you. . . ." (I Peter 1:18-20)

His sacrifice had been prophesied in many places in the Old Testament, as in the first recorded prophecy, Genesis 3:15: "And I will put enmity between you [the serpent, Satan] and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel." Isaiah 53:6 encapsulates the prophecy of the Suffering Servant: "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all." Jesus Himself refers to the prophecy of His death in Psalm 22 with His cry from the cross, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46). Many places in the Old Testament show either a need for or a hope in a coming Redeemer (see, for instance, Job 19:25; Psalm 19:14; Isaiah 47:4; 59:20; 63:16).

It is difficult for short-sighted human beings to realize how the foreknowledge of His suffering and death must have weighed on His mind, perhaps from His childhood, since at the age of twelve, He told Joseph and Mary that He "must be about [His] Father's business" (Luke 2:49). Knowing He had come into the world to bear the sins of every man, woman, and child must have been an unimaginably heavy burden for Him. It was an obligation that was constantly before Him. Certainly, the expectation that on His shoulders rested the destinies of countless billions of people was a cup—His weighty lot—that He would gladly forgo if He could (see Luke 22:41-44). However, He was committed to doing God's will in everything (see John 6:38; 8:28-29), so He bore it in faith.

We must look further, deeper, beyond His sacrificial death to His equally sacrificial life. His daily walk was an example of the Golden Rule, doing for others what we would have them do for us (see Luke 6:31). As Jesus says of Himself, "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28). Thus, His life was dedicated to exhausting Himself through giving to others. The gospel accounts relate occasion after occasion when He preached or healed or cast out demons or comforted everyone who came to Him for help (see Mark 3:7-11; 6:54-56; Luke 4:40; etc.).

Yet, He made many other sacrifices, ones that we do not often consider. Perhaps the greatest one is that He never married and had children. Of course, His Father had already promised Him the church as His Bride (Ephesians 5:25-27, 32; Revelation 19:7), but He never experienced the joys and comforts of having His own family. He gained all His experience in family matters as an obedient Son and loving Elder Brother in the house of Joseph and Mary.

In addition, He sacrificed things that most people prize as good and worthy, like ambition, wealth, prestige, position, popularity, and many other such elements of "success." He had the wherewithal within Himself to attain any or all of these pinnacles of human achievement, but He shunned them all for the greater reward before Him: "Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, . . . for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:2). He considered His many fleshly sacrifices as nothing compared to the tremendous future He would enjoy in the Kingdom of God.

This is the lesson that the apostle Paul teaches in Philippians 3. Using his own life as an example, he relates that he had just about anything a person could want: the right genes, the right social standing, the right education, the right enthusiasm, and the right reputation. "But," he writes:

what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things . . . as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, . . . that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:7-11)

So he advises in verse 15, "Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind." Like our Savior Jesus Christ, we must be willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to "press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (verse 14). The glorious life of the coming Kingdom of God is attained through sacrifice, and the way we know (John 14:4).

Monday, June 16, 2008

Scarcity Amid Plenty

Forerunner, "Prophecy Watch," March-April 2008

The U.S. Census Bureau's World Population Clock recently estimated that the earth's 6,666,666,666th child has been born somewhere on the planet. Despite the fact that the number of the Beast is 666, this population figure is relevant only because of its sheer enormity. The world's population seems to be exploding, causing many to wonder if the earth can sustain such a vast number of people. In a 2004 report, the United Nations projected earth's population to reach seven billion by 2013 and eight billion by 2028. . . .

To read more, please click here.

Friday, June 6, 2008

In the Presence of Enemies

David writes in Psalm 25:19, “Consider my enemies, for they are many; and they hate me with cruel hatred.” This verse applies equally well to Jesus of Nazareth, a Man who, because of His goodness and truth, attracted enemies like ants to honey. From His birth to His death, he was surrounded by antagonists, many of them out to kill Him for who He was and what He taught.

Just a list of His enemies would be fairly long, but there are several major people or groups who require a few lines of explanation, as a few of them are frequently confused.

The chief and most dogged adversary of Jesus Christ is, of course, Satan the Devil. Knowing that God had sent His Son to replace him as ruler of this world (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), Satan pulled out all the stops to destroy Jesus physically or to tempt Him into sin, destroying Him spiritually. From the killing of the Bethlehem innocents (Matthew 2:16-18) to rousing the rabble to choose Barabbas and condemn Jesus to crucifixion (Matthew 27:20-23)—and beyond—Satan was intent on manipulating people to obstruct and derail God’s purpose. He even personally confronted Jesus in the wilderness just prior to the beginning of His ministry (Matthew 4; Luke 4), but that ended in utter failure to tempt the Son of God into sin. Insanely, he still thinks he can win, seeking to “devour” the elect (I Peter 5:8), and at the end of this age (Revelation 13) and at the end of the Millennium (Revelation 20:7-10), he will again attempt to incite humanity against Christ.

Jesus’ earliest human enemy was none other than Herod the Great, King of Judea at the time He was born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2). When the wise men from the East asked the whereabouts of the One born King of the Jews, Herod was troubled—a classic biblical understatement. Herod was paranoid about usurpers of his throne, having killed at least a half-dozen people—all of them relatives—whom he suspected of conspiring against him. A claim that a newborn was the real King of the Jews only fueled his paranoia, which was perhaps heightened by advancing years and failing health. He died soon after his attempt on Jesus’ life and his actual massacre of all boys two and under in Bethlehem and its environs.

Perhaps Jesus’ best-known adversaries were the Pharisees. These men belonged to a sect of Judaism that prided itself on its strict adherence to the traditions of the Jewish people. Their name, Pharisee, refers to being “separate” by means of their practice of religion—that they had separated themselves from all ritual impurity. They set themselves up as lay-interpreters of God’s law and vowed to follow the thousands of uninspired rules and regulations regarding proper conduct, particularly on the subjects of the Sabbath, tithing, purification, foods, and other various religious procedures, many of which Jesus criticizes in Matthew 23. They opposed Jesus so vehemently because He upset, not just their religious sensibilities, but also their popularity with and esteem of the people, as well as their political power under the Romans.

Closely linked to the Pharisees were the scribes or lawyers. Originally, they were simply writers or copyists of the law, but over time, due to the growing use of Aramaic rather than Hebrew among the people, their occupation had become a prominent, learned profession: They became doctors of the law whose job was to interpret biblical statements for the people. Thus, they became the jealous guardians of both the text and interpretation of Scripture. Jesus’ teachings frequently overthrew their rulings, and they did not take kindly to it.

Another sect of the Jews called themselves Sadducees. The name evidently derives from the Hebrew word tsadaq, which means “righteous.” As the party of the aristocracy and the priests, the Sadducees were the bitter rivals of the Pharisees, and other than at His trial, only once are they shown united with the Pharisees against Jesus (Matthew 16:1, 6). Jesus does not denounce them as vehemently as He does the Pharisees, yet He still warns His disciples against their doctrines (Matthew 16:12). They were the arch-conservatives of Judaism, clinging to their historical responsibilities and interpretations and rejecting the Oral Law touted by the Pharisees. The Sadducees were extensively involved in the politics of the time, and in fact, held many of the chief positions in Judea. The Herodians, also called Boethusians, were a sub-sect of the Sadducees and were political partisans of Herod. Their particular opposition to Jesus was almost entirely political. The chief priests were Sadducees of a handful of distinguished and wealthy families of the Levitical aristocracy.

Although the Zealots were not an organized political or religious party at the time, there were some zealous groups that were intent on overthrowing the Romans and installing a Jewish king on the throne of David. Early on, some of them probably had high hopes that Jesus, a Son of David, would fulfill the earthly Messianic role that they envisioned. However, He soon disappointed them by refusing to take the path of armed rebellion against the Romans. Some believe that Judas Iscariot, His betrayer, may have been the member of such a group, as his surname is thought to mean “dagger-man,” hinting at political skullduggery.

The Romans themselves in due course became His direct enemy through Pontius Pilate and his sentence of crucifixion. The Empire probably did not care what Jesus taught one way or another, but they were terribly concerned about two matters: treason and riot. The Jewish authorities tried to compel Pilate to convict Jesus on His assertion that He was a king, which Pilate found not to rise to treason (John 18:38). The Jews then switched the charge to “He made Himself the Son of God” (John 19:7). Pilate tried to release Him, but the Jewish leadership and the crowds forced his hand to crucify Jesus.

So Jew and Gentile, rulers and rabble, priestly and secular—all had a hand in opposing and ultimately killing our Savior Jesus Christ. This fact leads to the inescapable conclusion that they represented each one of us, for had we been in their shoes, we would have done the same. No matter how vociferously we deny that we also would have shouted with the crowd, “Crucify Him!” we cannot deny that we have sinned, making His atoning death necessary (see Isaiah 53:5-6, 10-12). Paul writes: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. . . . For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Romans 5:8, 10; see Colossians 1:21-22).

So, though our names may appear on the list of His enemies, upon God’s calling and the acceptance of Christ’s blood in our behalf, they have been struck through, transferred to the list of God’s redeemed.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

God's Two Witnesses

Forerunner, "Prophecy Watch," May-June 2008

Over the past year, certain groups among the churches of God have brought the subject of the Two Witnesses to the fore once again. One minister is proclaiming that he and his wife are the pair of prophets that Revelation 11 foretells will appear in the last days to testify in God's behalf for the final time before Christ's return. Another minister has said that, no, he is not one of the Two Witnesses, but they will arise under his auspices. No doubt, many church members, seeing the worsening conditions around the globe, have privately speculated about who the Two Witnesses will be.

To read more, click here.