It is good to start by asking why Jesus matters, why He is at the heart of discipleship, and why disciples aim to become like Him.
We can explore this by looking at three good reasons which come from who He claimed to be. We can flesh out our understanding (and questions which arise such as, “How can a human being be God?) by looking in particular at four titles given to, or used by Jesus, which describe His nature and purpose.
Three good reasons for becoming like Christ (which we affirm at our baptism) are:
We can know God through Him: Christ is the fullest specific way in which we can know the character and self-giving love of God. (Do you come to Christ?)
We can offer Him what He deserves: Christ is God acting in the world to bring His healing, and so is the one to whom we give our greatest allegiance. (Do you submit to Christ as Lord?)
We can be freed to come to God through Him: Christ is the one whose death and resurrection defeat sin and evil and open the way for us to know a holy God. (Do you come to Christ as Saviour?)
We can also explore this by looking at the names given to Jesus, or that He gave to Himself.
While there are a lot of titles given to Jesus throughout the Bible, we can focus on the meaning of four to unpack these reasons:
Messiah/Lord – Jesus as the one who fulfils God’s purposes.
Emmanuel/God the Son – Jesus as the one who is “God with us”.
Son of Man – Jesus as the one who reveals who we can be.
Jesus – meaning “God saves” – Jesus as the one who restores human beings and creation.
The American writer Donald Miller tells this story, “A guy we know named Alan went around the country asking ministry leaders questions. He went to successful churches and asked the pastors what they were doing, why what they were doing was working. It sounded very boring except for one visit he made to a man named Bill Bright, the President of [Campus Crusade for Christ].
“Alan said he was a big man, full of life, who listened without shifting his eyes. Alan asked a few questions. I don’t know what they were, but the final question he asked Dr. Bright was what Jesus meant to him. Alan said Dr. Bright could not answer the question. He said Dr. Bright just started to cry. He sat there in his big chair behind his big desk and wept.
“When Alan told that story I wondered what it was like to love Jesus that way. I wondered, quite honestly, if that Bill Bright guy was just nuts, or if he really knew Jesus in a personal way, so well that he would cry at the very mention of His name. I knew that I would like to know Jesus like that, with my heart, not just with my head. I felt that would be the key to something.”
Many people may sense God’s reality through things like the creation, the night sky, the qualities of love, truth, beauty and justice. We may even sense a need for God in the world when we experience its brokenness and injustice. (We explored this general revelation in module 1). 80% of the world’s population belong to a religion (32% are Christian).
In the book of Romans Paul writes how, “…since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” We can gain some sense of God’s attributes through this general wisdom and experience.
But the reason Christ is at the centre of discipleship is simple. It is through Him that God has revealed the specific nature of the truth of God’s character, His purpose for life and the way it is possible for us to be in relationship with Him. Jesus said of Himself, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Christ is the one through whom we love God in the fullest way possible. Christ is the one we follow, because in doing so we follow God in the closest way possible. Martin Luther King looked for Christians to have, “zeal for Christ” and “zest for His kingdom”.
As we saw in the previous module, Pope Benedict 16th put it like this, “…faith is above all a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus, and to experience his closeness, his friendship, his love; only in this way does one learn to know him even more, and to love and follow him ever more. May this happen to each one of us.”
As the first Christians pieced together who Jesus was, they looked at His actions, death and resurrection and the experience of His disciples. In addition, we have the benefit of the teaching of the New Testament and the early church Fathers in being able to understand how He reveals God and enables us to know Him. They came to the amazing conclusion that Jesus was God made human. God in His love had emptied Himself to become one of us, so that we could see and know Him in a way we could understand.
After telling His disciples that a relationship with Him is “the way, the truth and the life”, Jesus said, “If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:7-9)
In other words, if we want to know God’s character, God’s heart, or God’s purposes, the fullest possible way of seeing that is by looking at Jesus, by “coming to Christ”. The mystic St John of the Cross argued that, compared to looking at Christ, only knowing God through common wisdom seems foolish.
He wrote, “…anyone today who wants to ask God questions, or desires some further vision or revelation, is not only acting foolishly but offending God by not fixing his eyes entirely on Christ, and instead wanting something new or something in addition to Christ.
To such a person God might give this answer: “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased: Listen to him. I have already told you all things in my word. Fix your eyes on him alone, because in him I have spoken and revealed all. Moreover, in him you will find more than you ask or desire.” Irenaeus put it like this: “In Jesus Christ, God allows himself to be seen, and in seeing God we come alive.”
As we have said, a further two reasons for becoming like Christ are because He is God and so deserves our greatest allegiance, and because through His death and resurrection He opens the way for us to know God.
Christ as God: A good motive for wanting to become like Christ is not only that He reveals God’s character through being “the image of the invisible God”, but that He is God. As might be expected, Jesus’ first disciples only came to understand this in a gradual way, though soon after Jesus’ resurrection John was writing that He “was with God and…was God.” (John 1:1). Matthew wrote that Jesus was the “Emmanuel” – prophesied many centuries before – meaning “God with us”.
Similarly, the apostle Paul wrote of Jesus as the ultimate source of all things: “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth…all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:16-17) The ultimate end of all things: “…God placed all things under his feet.” And the most definitive statement about God we will ever have: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him….” (1 Corinthians 15: 1-4)
The first Christians had to wait several centuries (largely because of persecution) until they had the opportunity to express their continued faith that Jesus was God in 325 AD. They agreed on a statement of belief called the Nicene Creed, still used regularly today, which included the phrase that Jesus was “true God from true God” and “one in being with the Father”. We will look at some of the evidence for this in these two sessions.
Christ the Way to God: St Augustine wrote, “It was not enough for God to make his Son our guide to the way; He made him the way itself that we might travel with him as leader, and by Him as the way.” In session two we will explore more fully how by dying and rising again, Jesus not only put God’s character fully on display, but made it possible for everyone, and everything, to be brought back to God in total forgiveness. In an act of complete self-offering, He defeated the power of death and every spiritual force of evil, becoming the way through whom the universe, and every human being, can ultimately be restored.
It’s no wonder that St Ambrose said, “Let your door stand open to receive Jesus, unlock your soul to him, offer him a welcome in your mind, and then you will see the riches of simplicity, the treasures of peace, the joy of grace. Throw wide the gate of your heart.”
As human beings, we are all being formed by something or someone, whether on purpose or not. We all long to know the particular story and shape of our lives. Jesus’ invitation to His disciples was to be apprentices, who would intentionally become like Him.
He called His disciples to “follow Him” by “taking up their cross” and “losing their lives” in the same way that He did – the closest possible way of identifying with Him. He provided the pattern for their relationships. “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34) He told the Pharisees that, “The student (disciple) is not above the teacher but will be like the teacher.” (Luke 6:39). Becoming like Him was an assumed aim of discipleship.
Peter and Paul spell this out in their letters, with Peter writing that we become like Him in what we do: Christ was “leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps.” (1 Peter 2:21). Paul writes, “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” (Ephesians 5:1-2)
Paul also wrote that God is changing us to become like Him in who we are: “We all who contemplate Him are being transformed into His image with ever increasing glory.” (2 Corinthians 3:18). God’s aim for those who love Him is to be “…conformed to the image of his Son…” (Romans 8:29)
So early Christians, such as Augustine, saw becoming like Christ as the goal of life. An early Christian book is called ‘The Imitation of Christ’ (Thomas a Kempis) The more contemporary writer, C.S. Lewis, famously wrote that Jesus, “came to this world and became a man in order to spread to other people the kind of life He has — by what I call ‘good infection’. Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.” (Mere Christianity)
To become like Christ is obviously not to take on the literal pattern of His life (e.g. by moving to the Holy Land!) but to be increasingly “possessed by the character traits of Jesus…Discipleship is being with another person, under appropriate conditions, in order to become capable of doing what that person does or to become like that what that person is. An ‘apprentice’ of Jesus is learning from him how to lead their life as he would lead their life if he were they.” (Dallas Willard)
The four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John give us our main portraits of Jesus. Each of them unpacks two things – Jesus’ public life and ministry, and His more private teachings with His disciples, leading up to His death and resurrection.
They each provide different lenses or emphases for us with, for example, Matthew focussing on the way Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, Mark writing to strengthen people being persecuted, Luke emphasising that Jesus came for all people, and John exploring how God became human, how the “Word became flesh.”
We regularly read from the gospels when we gather together (standing up to show their importance) and there are parts of the gospels that are used regularly in some churches – there are three prayers from Luke known as the Annunciation, the Benedictus, and the Nunc Dimittis, which unpack who Jesus is.
Looking at the story Jesus saw Himself as part of, as well as some of the names He used to describe Himself, helps us to see what He understood His purpose to be, and what discipleship is.
It will help us to become disciples for whom following Him is more than just about our own personal story – we will want to become like Him because we are more interested in joining in with God’s story.
Jesus didn’t think that He was starting something completely new, but instead that He was fulfilling God’s story for the world and His people – we can only fully appreciate His significance by looking at what leads up to His life, death and resurrection.
The story of the Old Testament is a story much like the experience of human beings today. God’s story has always been to have a (covenant) relationship of love with people and the world in which there is peace and wholeness. God creates human beings to be a blessing in His name to the whole creation – He gives human beings a royal calling.
But human beings distort that calling by going their own way – and the result is death and chaos. In our time we can sense this double reality – we long for justice, truth and beauty, and yet consistently struggle with selfishness, greed and brokenness.
However, the story shows that God does not give up on His people, wanting them to be restored (saved) to their original calling. Starting with Abraham, He makes a covenant-people (Israel) who will bring His healing and be a blessing to the whole world, calling them back to God. The Israelites long for God, and God keeps reaching out to His people, but they keep wandering away, forgetting Him, replacing Him, ignoring Him. Eventually, their wandering leads them to be enslaved by others, their place of worship destroyed.
As the story develops, a new hope emerges. The people look forward to a time when God will fully rule over His people as King and they will be restored. It will be a time anointed with God’s presence (the Hebrew word to describe this anointing is ‘messianic’). This hope emerges under the time when they are most blessed – King David’s reign – when God promises: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.” (2 Samuel 7:16)
Israel’s prophets started to look for a particular anointed individual (Messiah) who would bring in this restoration, a king/priest who would finally bring God’s ‘kingdom’ to His people again. It was into this atmosphere of longing that Jesus came, while His people were under Roman occupation. (We look at this story in more detail in module 4, but there is a handout on Old Testament Messianic expectation.)
Knowing this background makes sense of the first words Jesus used to describe His purpose. Jesus began His ministry by saying, “The time has come…The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the gospel (good news)!” (Mark 1:15)
The word ‘gospel’ means ‘good news’, but originally in quite a specific way. It is normally good news connected to how rulers and their kingdoms are now victorious. You might spread a ‘good news’ announcement when someone had won a battle, or a new king was in charge.
But by saying that this was a “gospel” about the coming of God’s kingdom, Jesus was not only saying that He was bringing “God’s rule” to His people at last, but that He was Israel’s true King, the fulfilment of the entire story of the Old Testament. (There is a study handout from the Bible Project about how and when this word is used.)
Therefore, to be a disciple was (and still is) someone who will respond to this announcement by letting Him be King and live under His rule (kingdom). The kingdom is where God is reigning – wherever what God wants done is done.
It also makes sense of what it means to call Jesus “Christ”. In three of the gospels we read the same story. “Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say I am?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.’ ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Peter answered, ‘God’s Messiah.’” (Luke 9:18-20)
Peter recognised that Jesus was the Messiah, the anointed royal Saviour who had come to save the world from death and evil, restoring God’s healing rule once again. (Christ is the Greek translation of Messiah). The Gospel of Mark even begins with the words, “The good news about Jesus the Messiah, the son of God.”
Disciples who are seeking to ‘become like Him’ will desire the Kingdom of God above everything else (it is named over 100 times in the gospels). But in teaching and showing what the Kingdom looked like, Jesus needed to deal with some false expectations. For example, the kingdom was not one earthly location or country. So, the kingdom was not about getting rid of your enemies to establish this or about bringing about earthly political power.
In fact, God’s kingdom operates in an entirely different way from many human understandings of power. For this reason, He resisted His disciples using the title “Messiah”, and did not use it for Himself, to avoid being interpreted as a political/military leader.
Yet in His three years of public ministry, Jesus reveals to us the heart of God’s reign in several ways:
He clearly establishes that He is the true King and that God’s Kingdom is only worth complete loyalty and commitment.
Jesus acts in ways which signalled that, in Him, God’s king had arrived. For example, God’s people of Israel were made up of twelve tribes. By gathering twelve disciples around Him, He is now deliberately reshaping God’s people around Himself. By going into the temple in Jerusalem and throwing out those who had corrupted its worship, He is cleansing God’s throne room as only a King could do.
He is clear that the Kingdom of God was precious enough to be worth everything – painting a picture of its value as being like a pearl or treasure worth selling everything for (Matthew 13:44-46), but also challenging those who wanted to follow Him to complete obedience (Matthew 8:18-22)
Disciples who are becoming like Him will be growing in giving Him their ultimate allegiance.
He teaches and shows in His life the nature of God’s kingdom and the character of those who seek it.
Jesus reveals God’s kingdom as upsetting the way the world operates and the ways people expect God to act. As God rules the last become first, the poor and sinners are included (“For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” Matthew 9:13) and, shockingly for His disciples, those who were previously not part of God’s people of Israel are now included (“People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.” Luke 13:29) (The one-page handout ‘Conversations Jesus had in the gospels’ shows how Jesus focussed on individuals from all backgrounds.)
People who live under God’s rule will be expressing in their lives the covenant partnership of love God always desires for human beings – this is why the two big themes of the whole Bible – covenant and kingdom – are so closely linked. The Kingdom of God is the community of those who have accepted God’s covenant. Jesus’ life and teaching reveals how the character of God’s covenant people will be beautifully and radically different – most specifically in the Sermon on the Mount.
Its opening statements show that God’s covenant people will be humble, not self-seeking, thirsty for justice, peacemakers…because these characteristics will threaten worldly power they will also often be persecuted. (Matthew 5: 3-10)
In His teaching Jesus gathers people towards God’s kingdom not by establishing a set of rules, but by painting pictures of it with words, using parables and images beginning with, ‘The Kingdom is like…’ By doing this He motivates through creating a new vision, but also challenges people to make their own responses.
Disciples who are becoming more like Christ will be seeking to express their covenant love for God in lives marked by the values of the kingdom.
He demonstrates the rule of God as bringing restoration in body, mind and spirit, and driving out evil.
In announcing that in Him God’s kingdom was near, Jesus is claiming that God’s reign was entering reality, on earth as in heaven. His healings and miracles are more than proof of His identity – they are demonstrations of God’s saving and restoration of His people and creation. At the beginning of His ministry He applies a promise from Isaiah that God will send someone “to proclaim good news to the poor…liberty to the captives…recovering of sight to the blind…liberty those who are oppressed” to Himself, saying “Today, this is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4: 17-21)
Having cleansed lepers (Matt 8:1-4), raised the dead (Matt 9:25), healed the blind (Matt 9:27-31) and cast out demons (9:32-34) he tells His disciples to do the same, “And proclaim as you go, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!’ (Matthew 10:7-8). The proof of God’s rule of heaven on earth is this new wholeness. Similarly, Jesus demonstrates God’s rule by assuring people their sins are forgiven, in a way only God can.
Importantly, Jesus understands that the reality of God’s kingdom sometimes involves spiritual freedom from the presence of evil. He demonstrates God’s rule by seeing it as coming against opposite (and sometimes hidden) forces of evil – which He ultimately confronts in His death and resurrection. “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Matthew 12:28)
Disciples who are becoming like Christ will want to be growing in seeing God’s healing reign in their own lives, the lives of others, and of creation.
He sees Himself as decisively establishing the fulness of God’s kingdom, but also looking to a future completion.
While in Him “the kingdom has come near” (Mark 1:15) and the power of evil broken in a decisive way, Jesus also looked to a future moment (which He expected to come soon) when it would come fully. Creation and people will be restored and evil, sin and death ultimately defeated. Many of the parables look to this future “banquet”. This is also why two of the ‘Beatitudes’ talk about God’s kingdom being in the present moment, but the rest talk about a time when the kingdom “will be”.
It’s also why Paul can write about God’s presence and action in the present, but also look to “the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” (Romans 8: 18-19) The final verses of the Bible strain for this future completion saying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
Disciples who are becoming like Christ will be growing in the wisdom to seek God’s kingdom, knowing that there is still struggle and incompleteness.
There are a number of titles for Jesus throughout the Bible (and as we have seen He didn’t use all of them) but the one He most consistently uses for himself is the ‘Son of Man’ (14 times in Mark alone) – even though others don’t use it when speaking of Him.
In using it He is drawing from the Old Testament hope that the humanity God designed to be gloriously and peacefully reigning with Him, yet which walked away from God and has fallen into such self-destructive and chaotic ruin, will one day be restored to its original calling. And this will be achieved because throughout the Bible God promises that one day a human being will come who will fully represent His glory and break the power of evil.
The prophet Daniel focusses in on this hope by describing a vision in which a human figure “like a son of man” is raised up by God over all the brutal kingdoms of the world, ruling with God and being worshipped with Him. (Daniel 7: 13-14) This figure is a human yet divine character, opening the way for human beings to be restored to our original destiny. At His trial, while refusing the title of Messiah, Jesus says, “But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God” (Luke 22: 67-69), clearly understanding His mission to be fulfilling this promise.
By adopting this title, Jesus reveals that He is both the representative human being, showing us how to live fully in God’s kingdom, and the one through whom we can receive God’s life and love.
The claim that Jesus was more than a ‘good teacher, but actually “God with us” asks us to be disciples who do more than follow an example but who offer our whole lives to Him. In what ways did Jesus claim to be God?
We have already seen how Christ acted as God’s kingly representative, doing things only God can do, and adopted a title for Himself which reflected a human-divine nature. In addition, throughout Mark’s gospel Jesus is called “Son of God” (the title He is given in the first sentence of the book). In Mark 5:7 demons recognise Jesus as “Son of the Most High God”, God calls Jesus his Son at the Transfiguration (Mark 9:7) and even the Roman centurion near the cross calls Jesus by this name. (Mark 15:39)
In case we think Jesus’ claim to be God was a misunderstanding, the clearest statement about it comes in the gospel of John: “Again his Jewish opponents picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?’ ‘We are not stoning you for any good work,’ they replied, ‘but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.’” (John 10:31-33)
Finally, despite it being clear from the commandments that only God should be worshipped, Jesus’ disciples worshipped Him. (Luke 24.50-53)
At the same time, while the early Christians in particular wrestled with how to understand it, the clear understanding they arrived at is that Jesus was fully God AND fully human (see the Athanasian creed). In the ‘incarnation’, entering into our flesh, Jesus didn’t stop being God in any way, but instead took on what it means to be human. He didn’t leave behind anything of what it means to be God, and He took on all it means to be human. Whatever happened to Jesus, happened to, and inside of, God. Neither was Jesus a mixture of “human body/divine mind” – He was completely human in every way.
In the next session we shall see why this is important in understanding the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In terms of becoming like Him, knowing that Jesus was fully God and fully human also helps us because:
We don’t have to choose between being ‘godly’ and human. Jesus being fully God and fully human shows how God can be present in a human life without restricting what it means to be human. When we allow Him to work in and through us (like, for example, Mary) He does not overwhelm us and paint us out of the picture but releases us to contribute even more than we could by ourselves. Becoming like Christ is not about leaving our humanity behind – it is about allowing God to liberate us to live a fully human life.
Because the “divine doesn’t swamp the human” (Mike Lloyd) becoming like Christ is about combining practical human wisdom with spiritual power. As Mike Lloyd continues, “Some people say you shouldn’t take out an insurance policy. Compare this with Nehemiah, who when the walls of Jerusalem were under threat of an attack ‘prayed to God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.’ In a properly incarnational mindset the divine and human belong together, with prayer and preparation not squeezing each other out.”
We have an example we can truly follow. St Athanasius said, “He became what we are so that we could become what He is.” By meeting us as we are, in Jesus God makes Himself truly accessible to human beings. The WW1 army chaplain Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy put it like this: “In Christ I meet the real God. In him I find no metaphysical abstraction, but God speaking to me in the only language I can understand which is the human language.”
In addition, Jesus has taken our full humanity into the heart of God, showing us that God fully understands us. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin.” (Hebrews 4:15). What difference might it make to know that the fully human Jesus understands grief, pain, or injustice?
While these first two sessions are focussed on our understanding of who Christ is, and why we become like Him, we can nevertheless start to look at the pattern of His life as something on which to shape our lives in a very practical way. When Jesus called His disciples to follow Him, He was also doing so to offer them “life in all its fullness”. (John 10:10)
What does this life look like?
In the life of Christ, we can see this fullness in the way Jesus lived out a balance between three relationships: with God, with His close community, and to the wider world. Sometimes the three dimensions of UP (to God) IN (to community) and OUT (to be a blessing to others) are used to describe this.
For example, in Luke 6: 12-17 we can see that Jesus first went up a mountain to pray (spending time with God – UP). From there, He chose disciples to be with Him (IN). Then together they went and blessed others (OUT). Why might it be important that things happened in this order? Why do you think Jesus only chose a small number?
In John 15 Jesus tells his disciples that they must “bear fruit” (OUT), but that first they must love one another (IN) and cannot do either unless they remain in Him (UP).
We see the same balance of relationships with God – community – others, in the Old Testament prophet Micah, who asks, “What does the Lord require of you?” Three things: To love mercy (have peaceful relationships with others – IN). To act justly (be a blessing in the world – OUT). To walk humbly with your God. (UP).
A spiritually balanced life is healthy and fruitful. The consequences of being unbalanced may lead to burn out, isolation, or being ineffective in the work God has given us to do. For example, what might be the difficulties we face if we only pay attention to our relationship with God and close community, but never look outwards? Or if we look outwards with others, but do not focus on God? Or if we spend time with God, looking outwards, but do not connect with a close community?
Christ lived the best life possible. Dallas Willard wrote that He “is the smartest man who has ever lived…He always has the best information on everything and certainly on the things that matter most in the human life.”
We have already seen that the kind of relationship God invites us into is one of covenant love – because God IS love in Himself. Daily discipleship means ‘being with God’ – paying attention to Him and responding to Him. As apprentices, we are also looking to become like Christ, and join in with what God is doing.
In session 1 we have explored two of the three reasons why disciples seek to “become like Christ”-
because He is the one through whom we can know God – He is ‘Emmanuel’, God with us and the ‘Son of Man’ who reveals God in human likeness – and
because He deserves our allegiance – He is the anointed King (Messiah) who in His coming brings God’s kingdom – God’s healing and loving rule – on earth as it is in heaven.
However, the possibility of experiencing all of this first requires that all that is wrong in our lives and in the world needs to be put right. This is something which human beings cannot do in our own strength or merit.
The third reason we are exploring for becoming like Christ is because He is the one who has made this possible. He is the one who rescues us from evil, or what the Bible diagnoses as sin. The name ‘Jesus’ in itself reveals this as the centre of His purpose – it means ‘God saves’.
At the heart of being able to know God and become like Christ is receiving forgiveness and salvation – being completely restored by God to the dignity and calling for which He made us.
One of the stories that is found in all four of the gospels describes how a ‘sinful woman’ anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume and her tears and dries them with her hair. She is pouring out her love and gratitude to Him because she has experienced the freedom of forgiveness. Jesus tells a story to show the guests who are there that, “her many sins have been forgiven – as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little”. (Luke 7:47)
When Jesus asks Zacchaeus a corrupt tax collector if He may stay at His house, the result is “salvation”, as Zacchaeus’ life is transformed and he is restored to being one of God’s covenant people: “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10-11).
We also see how the more people recognised the goodness and purity of God in Jesus, the more they became aware of their need for forgiveness. When Peter saw God’s power through Jesus being able to enable a miraculous catch of fish, his response was to fall down and say, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8)
In the middle of the prayer Jesus taught us is the invitation to pray regularly, “Forgive us our sins…” In one of his letters Paul writes, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Colossians 3:13) He also wrote that not only was Jesus “…the image of the invisible God” in whom “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him” but He is also the one through whom God is able “to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:15-20)
Being restored (saved) through forgiveness is at the heart of the good news of being a Christian, and at the heart of who Jesus is. For Jesus, His death and resurrection were necessary to fulfil God’s plan to bring the world back to Himself. After His resurrection, He comforts two of His disciples by showing them, “Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” He came “for us and our salvation” (Nicene Creed). By becoming human, dying and rising again, God through Christ has rescued the world from sin and death.
In one of his letters Paul gives himself a blunt assessment, but without any hint of this being anything but a healthy approach: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.” (1 Timothy 1:15)
While most religions teach about ‘sin’, it’s true that there are many examples of people who have been crippled by guilt, shame and even ‘bad religion’ in a life and soul-destroying way. Even while coming as Saviour, Jesus angrily criticised religious leaders who “tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders”.
At a time when identity and mental health can be fragile, it is vital to have an understanding of sin, forgiveness and salvation which offers a real diagnosis of our condition and is about restoring people in God’s image. The best starting place for our wellbeing has to offer a realistic view of God and of ourselves and the world.
Moses once came across the presence of God in the desert. Yet when he approached the bush God said, “Do not come any closer…Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Similarly, the prophet Isaiah had a vision of God being worshipped by angels singing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” His response to seeing God was, “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” Again and again throughout the Bible God is described as “holy”. The more realistic our approach to God, the more we will be overwhelmed by His holiness.
We think of being holy as simply being good or unholy as being bad. While God is good, He is holy because He is unique, different, set apart from anything else. He is the only Being with the power to create the universe and to give and sustain life. It is not that He is holy and loving (as if they are separate), but that He is “set apart” by being pure Love, in all its intensity.
The unique holiness of God is like the sun which is life-giving to all around it. But the sun is also dangerous – you cannot get too close. The paradox at the heart of God’s holiness is that it will destroy anything that is not equally holy, not because it is bad, but because it is good. This attribute of God is described as a “consuming” or “refining” fire in the Bible.
This is really important when talking about God’s wrath. This word doesn’t describe an unrestrained destructive God, but the way evil experiences God’s holiness as judgement. Just as the same radiant light and heat from the sun gives life or destroys depending on how close you are to it, so God’s intense love for people, and His “wrathful” judgement are from the same burning ‘white heat’ of His Holy Love – but experienced in different ways. The more accurate our view of the unique, loving, holy God the more we will have a realistically healthy understanding of ourselves.
The writer Donald Miller has this reflection on trying to be good: “I found myself trying to love the right things without God’s help, and it was impossible. I tried to go one week without thinking a negative thought about another human being, and I couldn’t do it. Before I tried that experiment, I thought I was a nice person, but after trying it, I realised I thought bad things about people all day long, and that my natural desire was to love darkness.”
If we are made to love God and love other people as ourselves, Miller is honest that he both fails to do it and finds it impossible to do. He knows what is good but falls short. Or as St Paul says, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:19)
This reflects the robust description of the reality of the human condition we find in the Bible, and which accurately portrays our world today. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “Sin is the one doctrine you can’t dispute.”
We see it right from the beginning. In the story of Adam and Eve, choosing to eat the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil – deciding for themselves how to live rather than listening to God. We see it in Cain killing his brother Abel, God warning Cain that, “But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” We see it throughout the Bible in countless examples of people destroying themselves and each other.
The story shows how we have fallen from our original calling and identity – and that the consequences are around us every day. Something pulls us towards destruction and evil and key biblical words illustrate the effects of this.
Sin is not a religious word for bad behaviour, but a description of what happens when we fall short of the goal – it’s a failure of the truly human calling to love God and love others, and the Bible views it as embedded in the story of humanity like a chain reaction, creating a kind of slavery to sin.
There is a word which describes the breakdown of relationship between people or between people and God – when we betray trust we transgress. By ignoring God’s will, Adam breaks trust.
There is a word which describes what happens when something originally good has been bent out of shape or distorted, or what should be a blessing is corrupted – iniquity is distorted behaviour which leads to wickedness and guilt. (In the Bible, the idea of punishment is more often about people being left to deal with the consequences of their own disfigurement.)
The Bible also describes the human capacity for self-deception – in the way we can be unaware of sin, or even call it good, or find it easier to see others’ faults than our own. It warns that “The heart is deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9) and Psalm 139 ends with the honest prayer, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.”
Sin has to be dealt with. In order to be a disciple experiencing God’s covenant love there is a direct need for every person to be able to be put right with God, and for the consequences of sin to be reckoned with.
If it’s true that, as the Russian writer Solzhenitsyn said, “The battleline between good and evil runs through every human heart”, everyone is equally in need. As fallible people, our longing for justice is a small reflection of the need we have to be put right before a holy God.
The destructive effects of sin need to be defeated. The Bible reflects a world in which the effect of this fall affects not just the individual person, but in which the environment of our relationship with God, with others and with creation has been polluted. The world is not as God wants it to be. We long for liberation in two ways:
from the chaos, disease, war, decay and ultimately death which dominate the physical world.
But this is linked to an unseen conflict in ‘the heavens’, in which prideful spiritual forces of evil, represented as a snake, or satan, or ‘principalities and powers’, seek to undermine God’s kingdom.
Many of the origins of this are mysterious, yet the fundamental picture is that, just as human beings can ignore God with destructive consequences, so unseen spiritual beings have chosen to do the same. While they cannot control humanity, they can influence through the power of suggestion or lies – think of the snake in the Garden of Eden.
Early Christians were keenly aware that much of our suffering is the fallout of this earthly and spiritual struggle. That we fight “not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12).
We struggle against the values of a world which seeks to go its own way (the world), the personal selfish instincts which might pull us away from self-giving love for God and others (the flesh), and unseen spiritual forces which seek to influence us (the devil).
The meaning of the cross is like a diamond – one gift with many ways to see it. But in the letter to the Colossians Paul writes that by dying and rising again Jesus achieved (at least) two things for us which we could not do for ourselves:
Dealing with sin through complete forgiveness which saves us and puts us right with God: “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.”
Dealing with its destructive effects through victory over the fallen powers which pollute the world and lead to death: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” (Colossians 2:14-15)
So the meaning of the cross is personal and cosmic – and it is at the centre of God’s purpose.
This is why the four gospels focus as much on Jesus’ death as His life. (One writer said that the gospels are like “passion narratives with extended introductions”.) In one of his letters, when Paul outlines the things that are “of first importance” he says, “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures …” (1 Corinthians 15:1-4) For Paul, the meaning of the cross and the meaning of the good news were one and the same thing. He wanted to know nothing, “except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2)
The word ‘crucial’ refers to something that we cannot do without – and literally means ‘like a cross’. The teaching of the Bible is that we cannot put ourselves right with God. But through His torture, death and resurrection Jesus “ransoms, heals, restores and forgives” us in a way that nothing else can achieve.
At the heart of the cross is ‘atonement’. God always wants to be reconciled with His covenant people. But for the forgiveness which restores the relationship to be possible, there must be a way to make amends for the damage caused – to ‘atone’ for it in a way that heals its effects forever.
To atone literally means to cover over someone’s debt – whether that is a direct debt because of specific harm done or, as in much of our experience, how our sin can indirectly pollute our relationships with God, creation, and each other.
As God’s relationship with people developed, He gave the people of Israel a system of animal sacrifices as a sign of this atonement – the animal was taking on or substituting for the death-bringing consequences of human beings’ sins. Animal sacrifice was common as a way of ‘appeasing the gods’ at the time. But for the Israelites it was different – it was not that God needed the death of animals to deal with His anger, but by the shedding of blood which gives life He was communicating the seriousness of their sins and the need for holy justice. The death of the animal also showed how God wanted to deal with sin in a complete and final way. Rather than the sinner ceasing to exist because of sin, the animal had taken their place.
Not only that, but the priests would then sprinkle the animal’s blood to show that the animal’s death dealt with the destructive consequences of sin in the wider community. Not only did God want to forgive His people, but to restore them in His image – purify them again.
The story of the Old Testament is that this became a temporary solution – it did not effect the change God was looking for. While they continued with the outward rituals of sacrifice, nevertheless these became increasingly meaningless to God. While He longed to live in love and forgiveness with them (“Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” [Isaiah 1:18]) He was looking for a covenant people after His heart, living in love and grace. (“Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” [Isaiah 1:17])
God promises an atoning sacrifice which will deal with sin once and for all, through a person – a King – who would become a “suffering Servant” – and die for the people. Isaiah promised that this person would bear the consequences of all the kinds of brokenness we have described:
“But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all….For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished….Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin.” (Isaiah 53: 4-10 abridged)
Jesus and the New Testament writers rarely use the actual word ‘atonement’ to describe His death and resurrection. Yet Jesus clearly understood Himself to be the one who fulfils God’s atonement with His people through the cross in ways which are more wonderful and mysterious to be described through one lens.
Instead, a variety of descriptions and images build up an understanding of the atoning work of the cross as God enabling us to be reconciled to Him.
Different words emphasise the wonderful way in which Jesus saves us by taking the consequences of sin upon Himself. These different pictures serve to reveal the completeness of what God has done.
Who He is on the cross:
Through the cross Jesus gives “His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45) He is the “…one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.” (1 Timothy 2: 5-6)
He is the “sacrifice” (Ephesians 5:2), the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) “….our Passover lamb, (who) has been sacrificed.” (1 Corinthians 5:7)
He is the way God revealed His love as He “sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10) “through the shedding of his blood.” (Romans 3:25)
He represents us, standing in our place and bearing the punishment for our sins: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us…” (2 Corinthians 5: 21) “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross…” (1 Peter 2:24) He becomes “a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.’” (Galatians 3:13)
Fully God and fully human:
Only by being fully divine and fully human is Jesus able to do this. Because He is divine Jesus lives a sinless life – God “made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us”. (2 Corinthians 5:21). We “have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15) and is uniquely able to offer the redeeming ransom through “the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” (1 Peter 1:19) Only someone who is not standing in quicksand can pull others free. By being divine Jesus isn’t only able to take sin into God at the cross – He destroys it as sin dissolves on contact with the undiluted holiness of God.
But only by becoming fully human is it possible for a holy God to enter in to the full depths of sin, evil and death, taking our place and responsibility for our history of failure. Unless He is one of us, He can be our judge but not our saviour. His full humanity means he can take on (assume) all the darkness and suffering of humanity, and so bring healing to every part.
Early Christians, debating the human/divine nature of Jesus, came to the conclusion He had to be fully human, otherwise “What is not assumed is not healed.” (Gregory of Nazianzus) In addition, by taking our place and making the chaos of sin and darkness His own God comes to complete knowledge of human beings.
How this reconciles us to God:
Redemption and freedom.
To be redeemed is to be bought out of slavery and the bondage of sin and being under a law we could never keep. “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us…” (Ephesians 1:7-8) “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…” (Galatians 3:13)
Justification and no condemnation
Atonement also means that the consequences we might expect from a holy God for sin are removed. There is now “no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1) He “rescues us from the coming wrath (the judgment of God’s love). (1 Thessalonians 1:10) All are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:24) “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” (Romans 4:25)
Any charge that may have counted against us has been placed on Him. “He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:14)
Cleansing and purification
Just as the sprinkled blood in the Temple symbolically purified the community, so on the cross while Jesus takes on the sin of the world, human beings now receive His purity in exchange: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
This purification is permanent and transforming: “The blood of goats and bulls…sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Hebrews 9:13-14)
Through the cross, the peace with God we could never earn for ourselves is achieved. “…we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Romans 5:11) We can return to a holy God as holy people: “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.”
For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” (1 Peter 2:24-25) We have a new relationship with God because “Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.” (Hebrews 9:15)
One possible understanding of the cross is to see a ‘good Son’ protecting the world from an ‘angry Father’ – as if God has a split personality. Some have described it as “cosmic child abuse”. Rather than being good news of freedom and forgiveness the cross becomes a place of fear and guilt. Rather than seeing a God of love and grace we see a God of contained anger.
While Jesus certainly died as a substitute, to see this as a way that God “let out His anger” raises several questions. For example, Can God be truly angry with God? Can God actually punish God? Or if God the father needs someone to ‘pay the price’ for sin, does the Father ever really forgive anyone? The concept of forgiveness is surely about releasing a debt — not collecting it from someone else. And how are we to understand the Father justly punishing Jesus when He knew Jesus never did anything wrong? (A handout outlines some of these questions).
If the picture we have of God is the most defining thing about us, it is vital that at the cross we see that:
God is fully involved in every way. As Jane Williams says, “…through all this, the love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit for each other and for us remains intact. In all things, God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is united in action, in purpose, in will and in love….God remains at all times God.” (Why did Jesus have to die? SPCK) It is impossible for the Trinity of God to do anything except in loving unity.
So while the various pictures God gives us to understand the atonement speak in many different ways, the foundational truth is that on the cross “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19) pouring Himself out in the only way His nature allows.
The love of God for us is on display. God IS love and therefore cannot do anything but love. Even before the cross Christ revealed the nature of that love in forgiving sins and restoring people. John 3:16, perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible, says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son.”
The cross is not just something that God who is love does; it is the expression of who He is. One saint said that “God’s Incarnation is not only an act of restoration in response to our sin, but also and more fundamentally as an act of love, an expression of God’s own nature.” St Catherine of Siena said, “Nails were not enough to hold God-and-man fastened to the cross, had not love held him there.”
The Catholic priest Brennan Manning tells a story about how his name changed. His real name was Richard Xavier Francis Manning. While growing up, his best friend was Ray. The two of them did everything together: went to school together, bought a car together as teenagers, double-dated, and so forth. They even enlisted in the Army together, went to boot camp together and fought on the frontlines together in the Korean War.
One night while sitting in a foxhole, Brennan was reminiscing about the old days in Brooklyn while Ray listened and ate a chocolate bar. Suddenly a live grenade came into the trench. Ray looked at Brennan, smiled, dropped his chocolate bar and threw himself on the live grenade. It exploded, killing Ray, but Brennan’s life was saved.
When Brennan became a priest, he was instructed to take on the name of a saint. He thought of his friend, Ray Brennan. So, he took on the name “Brennan.”
Years later he went to visit Ray’s mother in Brooklyn. They sat up late one night having tea when Brennan asked her, “Do you think Ray loved me?” Mrs. Brennan got up off the couch, shook her finger in front of Brennan’s face and shouted, “What more could he have done for you?”
Brennan said that at that moment he experienced an epiphany. He imagined himself standing before the cross of Jesus wondering, Does God really love me? And Jesus’ mother Mary pointing to her son, saying, “What more could he have done for you?”
In a vision Julian of Norwich was asked by Christ, “’Are you well satisfied with my suffering for you?’ ‘Yes, thank you, good Lord,’ I replied. ‘Yes, good Lord, bless you.’ And the kind Lord Jesus said, ‘If you are satisfied, I am satisfied too. It gives me greater happiness and joy and, indeed, eternal delight ever to have suffered for you. If I could possibly have suffered more, I would have done so.’”
She reflected, “In his word ‘If I could possibly have suffered more, I would have done so,’ I saw that he would have died again and again, for his love would have given him no rest until he had done so.”
If God is to genuinely change us, we need to be able to come to Him with confidence and trust. As the writer to Hebrews puts it, “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)
Religion can be about how human beings build a bridge to God through a series of outward behaviours or sacrifices. This can lead to ‘performance anxiety’ – we are never quite sure if we have done enough to earn God’s favour.
But through His life, death and resurrection, Jesus reverses this direction – God builds the bridge towards humanity and becomes the sacrifice. His “perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18) As a result, this is how Saint Bernard of Clairvaux says Christians can be: “So what are you frightened of? Why are you trembling before the face of the Lord when he comes? God has come not to judge the world, but to save it! Do not run away; do not be afraid. God comes unarmed; he wants to save you, not to punish you.
“And lest you should say ‘I heard your voice and I hid myself,’ look – he is here, an infant with no voice. The cry of a baby is something to be pitied not to be frightened of. He is made a little child, the Virgin Mother has wrapped his tender limbs in swaddling bands; so why are you still quaking with fear? This tells you that God has come to save you, not to lose you; to rescue you, not to imprison you.”
To become like Christ, we need to be set free from guilt or shame at our core. In our Western context, we are familiar with the idea that our guilt has been dealt with through Jesus’ atoning death making us righteous before God. Instead of us having to be pure to come to Him, His purity transforms us.
But other Christians (from the more Eastern Orthodox tradition) have emphasised that the cross takes away the shame that creates distance from God and others. In fact, the idea that God replaces our shame with honour and restored relationship has been called “the pivotal cultural value” of the Bible.
Most people in the world identify more with an honour/shame understanding than a guilt/innocence one, and the issue of shame is referred to far more widely in the Bible than that of guilt.
In a ‘guilt culture’ we could say that God deals with what I have done by taking its consequences away.
In a ‘shame culture’ we could say that God restores who I am and my relationship with Him and others.
This is the message of the lost sheep or coin that has been found. Of the Prodigal Son who returns to His father and is restored to relationship.
In a world where ‘honour/shame’ cultures are increasingly more relevant, the good news is how God “puts a ring on our finger and a robe around our shoulders”, restoring our dignity and relationship. James Brian Smith tells this story: “John of Kronstadt was a nineteenth-century Russian Orthodox priest at a time when alcohol abuse was rampant. None of the priests ventured out of their churches to help the people. They waited for people to come to them.
John, compelled by love, went into the streets. People said he would lift the hung-over, foul-smelling people from the gutter, cradle them in his arms and say to them, ‘This is beneath your dignity. You were meant to house the fullness of God’.” Genuine change begins with choices we make in the light of who we are as people “housing God’s fullness”, not to determine who we are.
Linked to this is being freed from the need to earn God’s favour. The elder brother in the story of the Prodigal Son illustrates how difficult human beings can find it not to have a relationship with God based on a “contract”. But the basis for becoming like Christ is knowing that God’s favour is given to us without regard to whether we deserve it or not. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
The cross shows that nothing can stand in the way of God’s love for us. “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one….For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:31-39 abridged)
For Paul it was this grace that was transforming: “The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” (1 Timothy 1:14)
And a sentence later he demonstrates how the meaning of Jesus’ life and death helps us become more like Christ by growing humility: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” (1 Timothy 1:15)
The most revealing aspect of our sinfulness can be the easy way in which we mentally judge or compare ourselves with others. But the more we understand the cross, and the more we see people as those for whom Christ died, the less likely we are to judge others. “When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of glory died, My richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.”
When Paul reminds the Philippian Christians of how Jesus, “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross” he frames it by reminding them to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus….in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2: 4,5,8)
Genuine change comes not from fear, but from love for a Saviour (and allegiance to a Lord). Paul wanted to “live for God…who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2: 19-20) The more disciples are rooted in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, the more the desire and power to ‘become like Him’ grows. “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” And so, as one Orthodox writer puts it, “The spiritual life is not a life of laws and precepts but a life of participation, affection and love, a life mingled and mixing with God.”
As we grow in being with God and becoming like Christ in our lived experience, the covenant relationship God offers us means that He never forces His love on us but invites us to respond in our daily lives. In doing so, the confidence, healing and restoration that God offers can move from idea to reality through embracing two attitudes which are expressed through one habit.
The attitudes are repentance and faith.
The habit of confession can help us to be rooted in these attitudes in our daily lives.
Repentance. Jesus’ call to people was ‘repent and believe’ (Mark 1:15). In the Bible, being able to repent is the first step that “leads to life”. (Acts 1:18). It is much more than feeling sorry. It means ‘return’ or ‘turn round’, literally to change your mind. It is the decision to go God’s way – the first essential step towards change and healing. The first steps of Alcoholics Anonymous illustrate repentance well:
When we repent, we surrender to God as being in control. “When we fall through our weakness or blindness our Lord in his courtesy puts his hand on us, encourages us, and holds onto us. Only then does he will that we should see our wretchedness, and humbly acknowledge it. It is not his intention for us to remain like this, nor that we should go to great lengths in our self-accusation, nor that we should feel too wretched about ourselves. Rather he wants us to look to him. For he stands there apart, waiting for us to come to him in sorrow and grief. He is quick to receive us, for we are his delight and joy, and he our Salvation and our life.” (Julian of Norwich)
Faith. The Bible repeatedly contrasts the fruitless path of trying to be put right with God by obeying the law with instead receiving His righteousness through faith. Paul writing to the Romans reminds them that “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness (and so)…to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.” (Romans 4:3-5)
Receiving God’s salvation is about turning towards Him and having confident trust, “faith in” Christ. John’s gospel is written so that, “…you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” (John 20:30-31) As we explored in module 1, faith is not so much about giving intellectual assent to Jesus’ existence, but more about entrusting and surrendering to Him.
However, in recent years a healthy discussion has been happening in the church about what this actually means, prompted by questions such as, “If I need to have faith in Christ, how do I know if I have enough faith to receive salvation? What happens if my faith feels weak?” How can our faith level not become another way in which we suffer from ‘performance anxiety’?
Apart from the fact that this approach might lead us to come to God with more of a ‘contract’ mentality than through a loving covenant, it highlights a potentially life-changing difference of the way two words in the New Testament (which was written originally in Greek) are translated. Does pistis Christou mean that we are saved by faith IN Christ – in other words by the trust we place in Him – or by the faithfulness OF Christ. In other words, which is more important – how much you or I can place our trust in Christ, or how faithful He has been in carrying out God’s saving plan?
However the Greek is translated, it is probably safe to assume that God does not want the level of our faith in Him to become the kind of legalistic demand from which Jesus’ death was meant to release us. It is good to know that Christ is faithful to us (“if we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself.” 2 Timothy 2:13), that He taught that faith can be as small as a mustard seed (Matthew 17:20) and that “a smouldering wick He will not put out.” (Matthew 12:20)
Confession is a practice or habit through which we can consciously receive God’s forgiveness. It involves repenting and placing our faith in the faithfulness of Jesus.
As we have seen, we do not have to earn God’s forgiveness, and once we have put our trust in the cross as the way into our covenant relationship with God we can approach Him with confidence. Nevertheless, we remain people in process of becoming more like Him, still capable of sinful ways which have consequences. This is why Jesus taught the disciples who were in relationship with Him to regularly pray, “Forgive us our sins”. This is why John wrote to disciples, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
There is a symbolic way we can see this in the Bible. During the Last Supper when Simon Peter refuses to let Jesus wash his feet Christ replies, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean…” (John 13: 8-10) The preacher Charles Spurgeon linked this to confession when he said, “We have been cleansed once for all, but our feet still need to be washed from the defilement of our daily walk as children of God.” Confession is a practice for those who are fundamentally “already clean”.
In terms of the attitude we bring to confession, the word used in the Bible means ‘to say the same thing’. In other words, to agree with God about our sins – not to cover up. As we have seen, God wants an honest relationship with us.
A helpful insight from Spurgeon is that we come as children to God in confession: “There is a wide distinction between confessing sin as a culprit and confessing sin as a child. The Father’s bosom is the place for penitent confessions.”
Bernard of Clairvaux offers this counsel in terms of feelings of sorrow: “Sorrow for sin is necessary, but it should not involve endless self-preoccupation. You should dwell also on the glad remembrance of the loving kindness of God.” Similarly, Julian of Norwich writes, “Our courteous Lord does not want his servants to despair even if they fall frequently and grievously. Our falling does not stop his loving us.”
Practically speaking, there is no specific rule about how often confession is good, but it is always wise to keep short accounts with God and to give time to think through the things we need or want to confess.
We are, first and foremost, confessing to God alone: “I acknowledged my sin to You, and I did not cover my iniquity…” (Psalm 32:5) However, the Bible also offers the possibility of confessing before other people, whether this is through using particular forms of words when we gather, or with a specific person. “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed.” (James 5:16)
Some Christians – Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and some Anglicans – do this through the sacrament of confession (also called the sacrament of penance or the sacrament of reconciliation), as they confess their sins to a priest. Others find they can confess to trusted Christian friends.
Martin Luther said that this “secret confession” to another was not required by Scripture but can be “useful and even necessary.” Sometimes it is hard for us to be truly set free from guilt or shame and God gives us one another to make His presence and forgiveness real to us.
Richard Foster says that if we want to confess before someone else we should look for, “spiritual maturity, wisdom, compassion, good common sense, the ability to keep a confidence, and a wholesome sense of humour.”
He writes that if we want to listen to someone’s confession these things are helpful:
When someone is opening their griefs to you, discipline yourself to be quiet. Do not try to relieve the tension by making an offhanded comment, as it’s distracting and even destructive to the sacredness of the moment.
Do not try to pry out more details than necessary. If you feel they are holding something back due to fear or embarrassment, it is best to wait silently and prayerfully.
Pray for them inwardly and imperceptibly, send prayers of love and forgiveness toward them. Pray that they will share the ‘key’ that will reveal any area needing the healing touch of Christ.
Once they have confessed, pray for them out loud, and in the prayer, state that the forgiveness that is in Jesus is now real and effective for them. You can say this in a tone of genuine authority because “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.” (John 20:23)
Ask God to heal their heart and mind from any wounds the sin has caused.
The purpose of the practice of confession is greater closeness to God, opening us up to God working in our lives as we are “entrusting ourselves, beyond sin, to the mercy of a loving and forgiving God.” (Pope John Paul II)
It deals with pride and brings psychological wholeness… “it breaks the build up of shame within which happens when we hoard our mistakes and keep them to ourselves. The fear of rejection gets shattered when we sit in front of someone and get to hear the sweet words, ‘You are forgiven’.” (KXC website)
It rebels against individualism by opening us up to one another and creating community. It helps us acknowledge that our behaviours have consequences while healing the “loneliness of sin”. “Sin wants to be alone with people. It takes them away from the community. The more lonely people become, the more destructive the power of sin over them. The more deeply they become entangled in it, the more unholy is their loneliness. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of what is left unsaid sin poisons the whole being of a person… In confession the light of the gospel breaks into the darkness and closed isolation of the heart. Sin must be brought into the light. What is unspoken is said openly and confessed. All that is secret and hidden comes to light.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
One way of thinking about why we might want to ‘become like Christ’ is to ask: how much of my allegiance does Jesus really deserve?
As well as loving and receiving Jesus as “Saviour” – the one reconciles us to God by who taking our sins upon Himself – Christians have predominantly recognised and obeyed Him as “Lord” – the one who has broken the powers of evil and death through His life, crucifixion and resurrection. In fact, seeing Jesus as ‘victorious’ in this way (known as “Christus Victor”) can justifiably be said to be the main way Christians have understood God’s atonement on the cross.
Lord is the name with which the early disciples responded to Christ and it is why we ask people at baptism, “Do you submit to Christ as Lord?”
As we seek to become like Christ, Jesus being both Saviour and Lord shapes our priorities in life, affects the way we relate to other people, and frames the way we face life’s difficulties, including our own mortality.
The cross covers over the debt (atones) for the fact that human beings are affected by sin – whether that is through falling short of what it means to be made in God’s image, through broken trust, or through being ‘bent out of shape’. God in Christ wonderfully absorbs our sin so that we can be restored and can approach a loving and holy God with confidence.
But the Bible teaches how God wants to do much more than rescue individual people. There is a bigger task to be done. We have seen how in the Old Testament priests would sprinkle blood over the “land” to symbolise how God needed to cleanse the world from the polluting effects of people’s sin. There is no doubt that the origin of much of the pain caused in the world stems from the decisions of human beings, and the harm we do to ourselves, one another and the planet.
God wants to deal with evil and oppression. People in the (perhaps more comfortable) West are used to understanding the cross through the lens of our individual atonement – being set free from guilt or shame. But as we examine how on the cross Jesus defeats evil and oppressive powers we will be connecting with an understanding which offers liberation to those who suffer under the weight of evil in the world. Not surprisingly, this perspective (including an awareness of supernatural powers) is often more emphasised by global majority Christians in countries where the realities of political oppression, poverty and spiritual conflict are more obvious.
Just as we need to be realistic about ourselves, so we need to be realistic about the impact we have. Archbishop Desmond Tutu says that we can only be healed through this kind of honesty: ““This is what healing demands. Behaviour that is hurtful, shameful, abusive, or demeaning must be brought into the fierce light of truth, and truth can be brutal.” (Desmond Tutu, The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World).
He is realistic about the “random suffering and chaos that can mark human life” and says, “we all experience sadness, we all come at times to despair, and we all lose hope that the suffering in our lives and in the world will ever end.” But that, “Our God is an expert at dealing with chaos, with brokenness, with all the worst that we can imagine. God created order out of disorder, cosmos out of chaos…because God loves us.” (Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time)
The famous American psychotherapist M. Scott Peck was for many years an agnostic believing there was no such thing as evil. But as he came to Christian faith, he began to believe that sometimes people were not simply ill or confused or poorly educated.
In his book ‘People of the Lie he argued that there is such a thing as a force or forces of evil which can appear to take over humans as individuals or, occasionally, complete societies.
Importantly the Bible consistently describes how there is also a polluting reality to evil which is bigger than, and has a wider impact than, the actions of human beings. Whether we are thinking of the 188 million people killed by Hitler, Stalin, or Mao, or the 10 million children in slavery in our era, or the simple ways that lies we believe about ourselves and each other can shape us, the existence of evil far outruns what just referring to human decisions is capable of explaining.
The Bible describes the reality we live in as being an overlap of “spiritual” and “material” realms – what we know as “heaven and earth”. This might sound obvious but thinking about “spiritual” realities in a world where what we can see, feel, and hear is seen as the only truth (a materialist view of the world) can feel strange. So, it is important to know that right from the beginning to the end of the Bible that the battle between good and evil exists not only in human beings, but also between spiritual forces. These are described in various ways, but, like a mosaic, build up a consistent picture of evil which results in sin, brokenness, suffering and death. There is in Scripture simply more to reality than can be described in materialistic terms.
Within the first three chapters of the Bible we see God making the earth and humans, but we are also introduced to a world in which there are other spiritual beings apart from God. For example, God speaks to other divine powers: “Let us make humans in our own image” (Genesis 1:26) and says that “the human has now become like us, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:22). A serpent (Genesis 3:1) representing evil, seeks to influence humans with a lie (Genesis 3:1) and a cherubim (angel) is placed in the garden. (Genesis 3:24) to guard it.
From the beginning we see that, just as humans turn from God and choose their own path, some spiritual beings have rebelled in the same way and seek destruction. For example, throughout the Bible there are spiritual forces that God struggles with (often described as God’s battling with hostile waters and vicious sea monsters). These forces seek to influence individuals but can also shape whole societies.
Whenever the people of Israel fought a battle on earth they would understand it as also taking place among the gods – they could not win unless God went ahead of them. Isaiah talks about the Babylonian people as being a human and spiritual enemy, who has “been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, ‘…I will raise my throne above the stars of God…’” (Isaiah 14:12-13).
Evil has a bigger source and impact than human beings. Yet crucially, the first hint we get in the Bible that a ‘Messiah’ would come to defeat it is right back at the beginning of the story. God promises the ‘snake’ that a human being would come who will “crush your head, and you will strike his heel”. (Genesis 3:15) This is the first promise of the way in which God will deal with spiritual forces of evil decisively.
Jesus and His followers saw His mission as being the one who would finally crush evil in this way. The final defeat of evil was at the centre of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
Jesus and New Testament writers continue with the Bible’s story of the cosmic battle between good and evil. Jesus names satan the “prince of this world” (John 12:31) a term which meant ‘the highest official in a city or a region in the Greco-Roman world’. While God was the ultimate Lord satan has functional power.
Luke portrays satan as possessing “all the kingdoms of the world” believing he can give authority to rule these kingdoms to anyone he pleases, even to Jesus (Luke 4:5-6). In later letters John says that the entire world is “under the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19) and Paul names him as “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4)
So crucially, when Jesus the “Messiah” announces that God’s kingdom has come, that He is putting the world right, and heals sick people and drives out spirits, He does it by driving out satan’s influence and power as God’s kingdom advances. Every one of Jesus’ healings and deliverances were diminishing satan’s hold on the world and bringing freedom. Jesus tells the Pharisees, “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Matthew 12:28).
Everything Jesus was about was taking hold of the world which satan had grabbed and restoring people to their original calling and identity. He has come to expel the “thief” who “comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)
In Luke 4 Jesus begins His ministry by saying that He is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s promise that, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me…to set the oppressed free.” Straight after this announcement, he encounters “a man possessed by a demon, an impure spirit. He cried out at the top of his voice, ‘Go away! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!’” (Luke 4: 18-19; 33-34)
When his disciples were later reflecting on Him, Peter summarised Jesus’ ministry to Cornelius when he said that Jesus “went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil…” (Acts 10:38) John is even clearer: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” (1 John 3:8)
We have seen that the meaning of the cross is like a diamond which can be seen in many ways. With the background perspective of the cosmic conflict throughout the Bible and in Jesus’ ministry, we can see the cross not just as the way God reconciles humanity to Himself, but as a cosmic victory through which God finally defeats His enemies. This is known as “Christus Victor” – the victorious Messiah.
By dying and rising from the dead, Jesus was enthroned as the King who freed the whole universe from its slavery to an evil ruler and the power of death. In this victory is included the salvation of people – He is Saviour and Lord.
We can trace this throughout the gospels in the lead up to His crucifixion. In Matthew as soon as Jesus is born, we see evidence of gathering darkness as Herod orders all baby boys under the age of two to be killed (Matthew 1: 16-18) As one writer puts it, “if there are demonic forces, it stands to reason that true goodness and godliness would actually attract and stir up those powers to attack.” In John as Jesus speaks of His coming death He says, “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.” (John 12:31)
In Luke, as the end draws near “Satan entered Judas” to prompt him to betray Jesus. (Luke 22:3) At His arrest Jesus tells the soldiers, “This is your hour – when darkness reigns.” (Luke 22: 53) It is as if all evil is being lured to the cross.
Yet the accounts of Jesus’ death make it quite clear that his execution is in fact the beginning of His being lifted up to become the divine king. He is given a robe, a crown, and a sceptre as soldiers bow down to him. A sign is placed on His cross naming Him as a King in different languages. While the earthly and spiritual powers believe they are mocking and defeating Jesus, in reality they are seeing the fulness of God’s victory.
Jesus is being lifted up as the cosmic king of the world on a wooden throne, making a ‘royal announcement’ that God’s purpose is to rescue his world by dying for it, allowing sin, evil and death to overwhelm Him. No one can fully describe exactly how this victory is achieved, but the evidence for it arrives three days later. The only way anyone can rise from the dead is if evil and death have been dealt with.
Jesus’ resurrection is the proof that death, sin and evil are overcome and that Jesus is Lord: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15: 55-56)
How can apparent defeat lead to victory? A more modern analogy may help. On April 4th 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis Tennessee. King was one of the key leaders of the American civil rights movement and was working tirelessly to bring about racial equality in America. But while this was a tragic moment in American history some historians have noted that rather than silencing Martin Luther King his murder had the opposite effect.
The very week he was shot the American Government was debating the Civil Rights Act. The waves of protests that swept the country immediately after King’s assassination forced lawmakers finally to act.
Politicians knew that they had to act to address injustices in American life to fulfill the dream that King had so eloquently preached. President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law on April 11th, exactly one week after King’s death. (Taken from “Three Minute Theology: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5VUp5AJje4)
As the early Christians experienced the risen Jesus and reflected on His victory, they were able to grasp some life-changing realities:
The power of death is broken.
The full meaning of the ransom (‘price of release’) paid on the cross was that in Christ God had paid to rescue His creation (including human beings) from slavery to the powers. By becoming one of us, living in defiance of evil, driving out sickness and evil, and ultimately by dying sacrificially and rising victoriously, God has overcome.
As the writer to the Hebrews put it, “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” (Hebrews 2: 14-15).
As Eastern Orthodox Christians (who emphasise Christus Victor) say repeatedly every Easter midnight service, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs he has given life.”
Evil can no longer have the final word, and we can be who God calls us to be.
Being saved is more than individual forgiveness – it is about being “set free from this present evil age” (Galatians 1:4) and liberated from a time when “we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world.” Through Jesus, “you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.” (Galatians 4: 3-7) We are “enabled …to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light” by being “rescued…from the power of darkness and transferred…into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” (Colossians 1: 12-13)
This affects all of creation.
The suffering of the whole of creation, which is itself somehow in “slavery” due to this cosmic battle (the letter to the Romans says the “whole creation is groaning” in its “bondage to decay”), is dealt with through cross and resurrection. The writer James Kallas puts it like this, “…. since the cosmos itself is in bondage, depressed under evil forces, the essential content of the word “salvation” is that the world itself will be rescued, or renewed, or set free. Salvation is a cosmic event affecting the whole of creation…Salvation is not simply the overcoming of my rebellion and the forgiveness of my guilt, but salvation is the liberation of the whole world process of which I am only a small part.”
Our first discipleship question was: why should Christ be at the centre of my life and how much of my allegiance does He deserve? Through the victory of cross and resurrection, the first Christians recognised that Jesus is Lord. Thomas’ response to seeing the risen Christ was to fall down and say, “My Lord and my God.”
Sherry Weddell writes that knowing about the “life, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ…leads a person to be able to say Jesus is Lord. Pope John Paul 2 described it as the initial ardent proclamation by which a person is one day overwhelmed and brought to the decision to entrust himself to Jesus.”
The very first sermon Peter preached celebrated how complete Christ’s victory and Lordship is: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses….(He is) therefore exalted at the right hand of God.” Peter then quotes from Psalm 110, saying that Jesus had fulfilled its promise: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’ Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2: 32-36)
The central thing Jesus did, according to Peter, was to be raised to a position of divine power over his defeated and humiliated enemies (who are now his ‘footstool’). Jesus is Lord in bringing the kingdom of God by defeating the kingdom of satan.
Psalm 110 is the most frequently quoted verse in the New Testament to explain what Jesus did and to emphasise repeatedly that He is the one who has defeated God’s enemies. The writer Oscar Cullman says that, “Nothing shows more clearly how the concept of the present Lordship of Christ and also of his consequent victory over the angel powers stands at the very centre of early Christian thought than the frequent citation of Psalm 110 not only in isolated books, but in the entire New Testament.”
A strong image Paul uses demonstrates the completeness of Jesus’ victory. He describes Jesus as a conquering ruler, bringing His defeated enemies in a humiliating procession behind Him: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” (Colossians 2:15)
The most common statement early Christians made to describe discipleship was that “Jesus is Lord”. Today these three words are the motto for the World Council of Churches. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who was executed by the Nazis for resisting Hitler said that to celebrate Jesus as “personal Saviour” but not as Lord is “Christless Christianity”.
When we are baptised we are asked, “Do you submit to Christ as Lord?” For early Christians to call Jesus Lord was to acknowledge both that He is God, and that, having overcome the powers, He has “all authority in heaven and on earth”. (Matthew 28: 18) Paul writes that one day every knee will bow “and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:11)
To declare someone is Lord is to say they have power and authority over your life. Yet to say they are Lord without doing what they say is a self-contradiction. This is why Jesus asked, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things that I say?” (Luke 6:46)
As we have said, we do not earn our salvation by what we do. But the logic of being a disciple who is becoming like Christ is that we demonstrate He is Lord through our willing discipleship and obedience. As Bonhoeffer put it, “Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes.”
The Franciscan writer Richard Rohr makes this even more clear: “The Word of God is telling us very clearly that if you do not do it, you, in fact, do not believe it and have not heard or understood it…We do not think ourselves into a new way of living as much as we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.”
For many Christians today, and for early Christians under Roman rule, to say “Jesus is Lord” a pledge of allegiance which puts their lives on the line. Roman citizens had to say, “Caesar is Lord”. Lots of Christians lost their lives because they refused to do so – after the resurrection there was only one Lord they could submit to.
(Fascinatingly, Rome had a tradition that whomever an eagle settled on would be the emperor- so when early Christians read about a dove descending on Jesus at His baptism one thing they would have realised is that this was God’s choice to be king – though with a dove-like power totally the opposite of the emperor’s.)
In this context Christians saw their baptism as an oath (the original meaning of sacrament) to serve the Lord and forsake all other false rulers. (A Roman soldier would pledge a sacramentum to serve Caesar). Rather than serving the empire’s kingdom, they were serving God’s. To be baptised and say Jesus is Lord was a complete change of priorities.
If Jesus is our Saviour we seek to become like Him because He is the one “who loved me and gave himself for me”. If He is Lord we place Him at the centre of our priorities because He deserves nothing less.
Jesus’ death and resurrection defeats the powers and rescues those in slavery. But He does so to bring about what God had wanted for a humanity all along – a covenant relationship with Him in which we are restored to bring about His purposes in the world (Module 4: Knowing the Story will explore this in greater detail). An early saint, Irenaeus, described this in amazing terms: “Jesus became what we are so that we could become what He is”.
He is not claiming that we can be ‘gods’. But he is saying that through His life, death and resurrection Jesus has made it possible for us to be covenant-partners with God, putting Him at the centre, sharing in His work in the world, and being loved in the same love that Christ shares with the Father and Spirit.
It also means that we can take on the character of Jesus. As we have seen, Paul longed for us to be “mature in Christ” and that “Christ would be formed in us”.
Jesus’ death and resurrection deal with the barrier of sin – reconciling us to covenant relationship with God as His children. His victory over the powers of evil and death is decisive.
Yet is clear that we live in a time when, while the power of evil (or the “sting of death”) has been defeated, the effects of it remain – throughout the world, and in our own lives. We await the day when God’s plan will be completed. (We look at this more in future sessions.) And we await the day when we will be fully like Christ.
For Paul, writing to early Christians, the expectation is not perfection, but that, as disciples, they will be in a process of becoming more Christlike – embracing for themselves the new self God offers. Because He is love, God does not force obedience on anyone, even when we submit to Him – we still have the ability to choose.
“You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4: 22-24)
This amazing view of human potential reflects three senses of what it means to be made whole (or saved). The nineteenth century scholar, Bishop Westcott was once asked, “Are you saved?” The Bishop replied, “Do you mean that I have been saved, or I am being saved, or that I will be saved?”
The biblical picture is that through the cross we have been saved from the result of sin.
As we grow as disciples, submitting to God’s work in us, we can be set free from the power of sin.
But we are still waiting for the time when the world, and everyone in it, will be set free from the presence of sin.
The ‘powers’ have been defeated, but not yet destroyed. They still have influence through the power of lies. Peter acknowledges the struggle continues saying, “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.” (1 Peter 5: 8-9)
Paul counsels disciples that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Yet they need to “take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” (Ephesians 6: 12-16) (In session 5 of this module we look at how we deal with testing in our own lives, and in Module 3: Joining in with the Spirit we look at how we resist evil and brokenness in the wider world.)
As we grow in becoming like Christ, our expectation is that while we cannot be perfect while sin remains present in the world, we will be being transformed into His image. As John Newton put it, “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.”
Every Lent, Christians are encouraged to intensify the practices which lead us to “grow in holiness”, yet the purpose of the season is to shape our whole lives. It is a time when we remember that obedience to Christ as Lord is not so much about our external behaviours, but about our willingness to live in ways that draw us into relationship with God. As we do so, we allow the grace of God to change our inner selves to become like Christ – shaping our thoughts, feelings and choices. We change not only because we have the right information or inspiration, but because we are in right relationship.
Practices grow our relationship – enabling us to experience a change in our minds so that we see the world as God sees it, and a change in our hearts as we allow God’s Spirit to change us from the inside out.
We have looked at Christ through the different lenses of being Messiah/Lord – the one who fulfils God’s purposes, Emmanuel/God the Son – Jesus as the one who is “God with us”. Son of Man – Jesus as the one who reveals who we can be. Jesus – meaning ‘God saves’.
As we look at Him our minds can be renewed to see the world and ourselves in the light of Christ. As we continue the module we will begin to look at the practices and choices that enable us to become more like Him in our priorities – specifically in three areas in which every human being needs freedom:
Being free from the distorted desires of materialism/other gods through becoming like Christ in generosity and simplicity.
Being free from the hopelessness of ‘worldly’ power through becoming like Christ in self-giving love. (Session 4)
Being free from the despair of suffering, temptation and spiritual conflict through becoming like Christ in eternal hope. (Session 5)
Discipleship is essentially about what is at the centre of our lives – for Christians the reason we want to be with God, become like Christ and join in with Him is because He is Lord. Whatever or whoever we submit to is our lord.
Every human being is ‘religious’ in the sense that we are all ‘meaning-hungry’ creatures who will always place something at the centre of our lives, and worship it. God always knows that His love, shown in Jesus Christ, is the only place in which our foundational need for worth and security can be found.
But we can only be truly free to submit to Jesus as Lord if other things which claim our attention are not. Healthy discipleship is both placing Christ at the centre and resisting the pull of ‘imitation-gods’ which the Bible calls idols.
The story of the Bible shows how if God is not at the centre, human beings will quickly turn to other things to fill what only God can fill. This is the meaning of idolatry. It is when human beings try to establish our foundational security on our own.
The commandment on which everything else in life rests is: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them…” (Exodus 20:3-5)
God is not forbidding idols for His benefit, but for His covenant people’s. He is the one who has brought them out of slavery – He does not want them enslaved again.
One of our deepest reasons for turning something into an idol is the urge to get control of life. But ironically by giving ourselves over to something that is less than God, we turn away from what can truly give us life, becoming less than we are made to be. In these circumstances the idol usually ends up controlling us. Indeed, idols can be one of the spiritual powers which Jesus came to defeat through His life, death and resurrection.
Our common idols such as money, power, reputation, ambition (or even religious ritual or status) will always fail because they cannot fill that “eternal hunger”. They leave us disappointed or worse, and our response to that lack of fulfilment can lead to behaviours in which we try and numb painful emotions by trying to find our identity through distraction (overwork, too much TV, obsessive political power) or even addiction (alcohol, drugs, pornography). We end up far from home.
This is why the biggest challenge to discipleship, according to Jesus, was the idolatry of making money a “lord”. Christ says it explicitly: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)
He taught, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” He told a story of a man who was a fool because his money had made him blind to the reality of life – saving as if this is the only life that counts. (Luke 12) For these reasons “…it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:24)
In the Gospels, an amazing one out of ten verses (288 in all) deal directly with the subject of money. The Bible offers 500 verses on prayer, less than 500 verses on faith, but more than 2,000 verses on money and possessions.
Paul writing to Timothy describes where the idolatry of money can lead: “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” (1 Timothy 6: 9-10)
The issue is not having money – we are physical beings who express ourselves through physical things – Paul does not command people to give all their money away. The issue is placing our hope in it.
Rejecting money as a god and putting it in the right place can help bring freedom, contentment, and give an eternal perspective to our lives.
Freedom. The writer of ‘Fight Club’ describes how consumerism, built on advertising which always makes us want more, has led to a ‘depressed’ society: “You have a class of young strong men and women, and they want to give their lives to something. Advertising has these people chasing cars and clothes they don’t need. Generations have been working in jobs they hate, just so they can buy what they don’t really need. We don’t have a great war in our generation, or a great depression, but we do, we have a great war of the spirit. We have a great revolution against the culture. The great depression is our lives. We have a spiritual depression.”
The alternative, as described by Mark Powley in ‘Consumer Detox’ is to find freedom.
“Freedom isn’t when our possessions mean nothing to us.…But the way we use our possessions can become something different:
Less about finding an identity and more about expressing an identity we’ve been given.
Less about excluding others and more about welcoming them.
Less about outdoing others and more about empowering them.
Less about having and more about being free to give away.
Now that is an identity. That’s what I want.”
Contentment. “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.” (1 Timothy 6: 7-8) Consumerism is an issue that cannot be solved through human means alone – it is a religious question because it is all about the meaning and purpose that makes us happy. Contentment comes when we are free from chasing ‘gods’ that cannot fulfil us. Instead we are living with God as Lord at the centre of our lives – the only one who can truly satisfy us for ever.
The real measure of our wealth is how much we would be worth if we lost all our money.
Eternal perspective. Rather than focussing on material wealth in this life which does not last, Jesus advised His disciples to “store up for yourselves treasure in heaven”. (Matthew 6:20) Paul explains, “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.” (1 Timothy 6: 17-19)
“The only thing that counts at the end of life is what we can take with us at the moment of death, which is I myself as I was in the ultimate depths of my own heart – a heart that was either full of love, or full of spite and hidden selfishness.” (Karl Rahner)
How can we not let money have the power of a ‘god’ in our lives and instead let Christ be Lord? As we have seen, change only happens as we are able to turn away from things (repentance) – and so the first step is always becoming aware of something we need to resist.
But genuine change occurs as we step into a different way of living – showing what we trust in through the choices we make. We have seen that in the practices we adopt we can grow into being with God. But practices also over time shape who we are, so that we become the people God is calling us to be.
As we seek to let Jesus be Lord and turn away from placing our hope in money, we finish this session by looking at two transformative practices which not only give Him the place He deserves in our lives, but over time can change us to become the kind of people who live in freedom and contentment.
These two practices are generosity in giving and simple living. They are the key to being freed from any ‘idolatrous powers’ and putting Christ at the centre.
Desmond Tutu says a generous heart is the way to life: “The Dead Sea in the Middle East receives fresh water, but it has no outlet, so it doesn’t pass the water out. It receives beautiful water from the rivers, and the water goes dank. I mean, it just goes bad. And that’s why it is the Dead Sea. It receives and does not give. In the end generosity is the best way of becoming more, more, and more joyful.” Generosity is the way to break the hold of money in our lives. John Wesley said, “When I have money, I get rid of it quickly, lest it find a way into my heart.”
In an atmosphere of generosity it is easier to sense God’s presence. Jennie Appleby describes a community where, although people had little, “Life amongst this new community was transformative and there was never a dull moment. Frequent sights of furniture being moved between houses (usually on foot), early morning police raids and unconventional offers of cheap electrical items were everyday occurrences….I discovered a sense of the tangible presence of God.
“I could imagine Jesus himself walking the streets with me and I experienced signs of God’s kingdom: people sharing their lives and possessions together – not out of a sense of Christian love or duty but because they had so little themselves. I had never witnessed people sharing on this level before – they were teaching me lessons about how to live the Christian life.” (community.sharetheguide.org/views/joiningthe-marginalised)
Generosity can be expressed in many ways – through the giving of time, friendship, hospitality or service. But, as the area of our lives most likely to be like a ‘god’, the Bible has some clear teachings on how we approach giving financially to those in need.
Financial giving is a response to God’s love, and not a rule to obey. Paul writes to the early Christians who were collecting for those in the church who were in need, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7)
Financial giving comes freely, cheerfully (the Greek word is more like hilariously – in other words shockingly extravagant!) and from the heart.
The question is not, “What is the minimum I can get away with?” but, “How much can I show love for God in my extravagance?”
Financial giving which breaks the power of money will always be sacrificial in this way. When we can give at cost to ourselves, we are placing our trust in God’s wealth and provision, rather than our own. The story of the widow’s mite demonstrates how Jesus saw generosity not in what people gave, but in the amount they had left over.
“As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. ‘Truly I tell you,’ he said, ‘this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.’” (Luke 21:1-4)
In financial giving a tenth of income (tithe) is a useful principle. The first biblical story about tithing comes from 4600 years ago Abram gave a tenth of his goods to the priest in thanks for God’s protection in a battle. (Genesis 14:20) Moses then gave the people a law of God telling them to bring all their tithes to the priests. “I give to the Levites all the tithes in Israel as their inheritance in return for the work they do while serving at the tent of meeting.” (Numbers 18:21) Through the prophet Malachi God accused the people of robbing Him. “But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’ ‘In tithes and offerings.’” (Malachi 3:8)
In Proverbs we read how the tithe was a way the Israelites offered the first and best parts of their harvest to God. “Honour the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine.” (Proverbs 3: 9-10)
Yet the tithe was never intended to be a rule, but a springboard for generosity. It is a useful guide – for some it may be an aim, for others a minimum. The Israelites’ tithes often amounted to 23% of their income – when temple, widows and orphans, and thanksgiving tithes were factored in.
Jesus came to “fulfil the Law” – including tithing, (Matthew 5:17) yet He was much more concerned that people pursue “justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things.” (Matthew 23:23) For Jesus, the tithe was a useful principle, given originally to people who lived by laws. But if disciples, for whom financial giving comes from the heart, rightly understand that all they have is God’s, then God could easily ask them to give more than ten percent.
Financial giving expresses love. In a very practical way, the early church showed their love for other parts of the church through taking an offering. Similarly, today the only people who should financially support the work of the church are disciples. For this reason, the Church of England offers an aim of 5% of income as a realistic amount for giving financially to the church community.
The story of Zacchaeus shows how the practice of generous, consistent and sometimes spontaneous financial giving sets us free, changing us into people who are increasingly able to make Christ Lord.
The story of Sheelah Ryan, a lottery winner, who won $55 million in 1988 (see handout) demonstrates that freedom. Just before she died she said: “I thank God every day that I have the ability to help others, not that I won.” Someone said, “We don’t think we can live generously because we have never tried. But the sooner we start the better, for we are going to have to give up our lives finally, and the longer we wait the less time we have for the soaring and swooping life of grace.”
A content and generous heart, able to place Christ at the centre, is worth more than any bank account contains. “A certain woman had a vivid dream. In it she saw a man with untidy long hair and bare feet sitting on a bench outside the post office. A voice said to her that if she were to ask this man, he would give her something which would make her rich forever. She woke and shrugged the dream off.
But the next day while walking through town, she saw the man from her dream sitting on the bench outside the post office. Feeling somewhat foolish, she approached the man and explained her dream. He listened, and then reached into his rucksack. He produced an enormous gold nugget, saying, ‘I found this beside the road. Here, it’s yours if you want it.’ She looked longingly at the nugget. It was huge, sufficient to make her wealthy. That night she could not sleep, tossing and turning in her bed. At dawn she set off to find the tramp, who was sleeping under a tree in the park. She woke him and said, ‘Give me that wealth that makes it possible for you to give this treasure away.'”
A further practice which can shape us in turning away from the ‘gods’ which cannot satisfy is to develop simple living. This is sometimes called the discipline of simplicity. Like generosity, simplicity gives birth to contentment because it helps us be free of false gods, while making room for the only God who can fulfil us.
It is deliberately choosing not to need, get or buy “more” to be happy – to organise our lives around what is enough, rather than what our society, or our greed, tells us we want. We will consume only what we need.
It is not about having ‘no possessions’ or turning our back on things. (This is called asceticism and some disciples have chosen to practise this). It is about setting things in their proper perspective so that we can enjoy owning possessions without them ‘owning’ us.
Jesus’ most famous statement which reflects this is “Seek the kingdom of God first, and all these things shall be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33)
Because of strength of the pull in our society to live as consumers, this practice requires real intention, and challenges many of the ways of thinking we can find it so easy to fall into. Richard Foster says living simply occurs through our ways of thinking and our outward behaviours.
Ways of thinking:
Everything we have is a gift from God, and not ours.
It is God’s business, not ours, to care for what we have.
All that we have can be available to others.
Things we can do:
Foster suggests ten (see handout), but these three are a good place to start:
Buy things for their usefulness, rather than their status.
Learn to enjoy things without owning them.
Develop a deep appreciation for God’s creation.
Every book of the New Testament carries the same message, calling Christians to live a distinctive way of life based on the character of Christ, to become ‘mature in Christ’. For Christians, we have seen that being an apprentice of Christ means that you increasingly live your life as Christ would live your life if He were you!
But becoming like Christ is not just what we choose to do, but who we are. Whether we are Christian disciples or not, we are all becoming someone, and our characters are being shaped in some way by those who influence us.
We are learners who are not simply gathering information but becoming like the teacher – spiritual formation is increasingly growing into the character traits of Jesus. This is the goal. And the fruit of it will be renewed and transformed relationships.
But what is Christ’s character? What should we be growing into becoming? In the gospels Jesus is gentle: “Let the little children come to me…” (Mark 10:14) and compassionate to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:4), but He is also sometimes angry and challenging – passionately opposed to injustice: “You hypocrites!” (Matthew 15:7) and unafraid turn over tables in the temple. (John 2:15) He combines love and justice.
There are various lists of character qualities in the New Testament. The “fruit of the Spirit” is the clearest summary of Jesus’ character. He is a person of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) In Colossians Paul gives another description: “…clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience…forgive one another….” (Colossians 3: 12-13)
How can we helpfully summarise all these Christlike qualities? The New Testament says they all spring from one source: “And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Colossians 2: 14).
The command to love God and your neighbour is the greatest command, encompassing all others (Luke 10:27) “…whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” (Romans 13:8) It is the “royal law.” (James 2:8) “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:40)
Nothing, even things which seem good, has value apart from love: “…if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” (I Corinthians. 13:3) “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:6)
But this begs the question…
The Bible says, “This is how we know what love is…” While there are things about God that we rightly cannot understand, the covenant love that God is, and which He wants us to be shaped by, has been fully revealed.
There are different ways to understand love, and so its power can be misunderstood, but the Bible offers four words (in the New Testament Greek) which we can compare to help us fully understand the nature of God’s love. The writer C.S. Lewis explored these in a book entitled ‘The Four Loves’.
There is the kind of love that looks AT someone or something and finds them attractive in some way. (I love your hair/your car/your smile.) The Greek word for this is storge.
There is the kind of love that looks at life WITH someone, sharing friendship, a sense of purpose and values. (I love your opinions/outlook/the way you see life.) The Greek word for this is philia.
There is the kind of love that looks INTO someone – the love of intimacy, soul touching soul. The Greek word for this is eros.
While all these things are good gifts, when the Bible defines the love of Christlike character it uses a different word. And it does not give us an abstract definition of this kind of love, but says, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us.” (1 John 3:16)
The Greek word for love here is agape – and we see it demonstrated in Jesus dying for us It is the kind of love that bears the cost of emptying itself on behalf of others.
Agape is blind: Unlike storge (looking at) philia (looking with) or eros (looking into) it is blind because it has nothing to do with ‘looking’ for qualities in other people. The first three can come and go depending on the relationship – you can fall in or out of storge, philia or eros.
But it was while “we were still sinners” that Christ died for us (Romans 5:8) – His agape gave at cost to itself without looking at the merits, or otherwise, of the other He was dying for.
Agape sees: Ultimately, agape is a choice at the centre of who we are to see other people as those who were worth Christ dying for. In terms of loving people, it is blind to their qualities but sees beyond those to view them through the lens of how God sees them. To do this is how the Bible defines love.
While everything Jesus did and said revealed the character of God, His self-sacrificial agape nature is most fully revealed by His suffering and death on the cross. By being tortured, humiliated and killed, Jesus reveals how God is willing to go to the furthest extreme possible – to become the opposite of who He should be – to set us free.
Jesus set aside his divine rights and “made himself nothing,” and “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-9) A holy God becomes sin and a curse for us. The source of life dies. The unified, loving God is abandoned. A radiant, beautiful God becomes ugly and disgraced.
The depth of love one has for a beloved can be measured by the sacrifice the lover is willing to make for the beloved. This is the fullest picture we have of the nature of God’s character and love which overflows to us.
Theologian Jurgen Moltmann puts it like this:
“When the crucified Jesus is called the ‘image of the invisible God’, the meaning is that THIS is God, and God is like THIS. God is not greater than he is in this humiliation. God is not more glorious than he is in this self-surrender. God is not more powerful than he is in this helplessness. God is not more divine than he is in this humanity.”
To become like Christ is to grow in this self-sacrificial agape, being willing to go as far in love towards others as He does. Paul says, “Be imitators of God. Live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us…” (Ephesians 5:1-2)
We have seen how through the cross Jesus achieved victory over the powers of evil which ruin our lives and our world.
We have also seen that the cross is the fullest way in which who God is, and the way God loves is revealed – it is the greatest example of love human beings have been given.
And so we can see how the decisive battle over evil was won through the power of self-sacrificial love. God won by letting go of His (rightful) power over others so that He could express the power of His love towards others.
While Jesus’ death was the fullest expression of this kind of power, everything He did led up to it and was part of it. In every aspect of His life brought in God’s kingdom and pushed against the way evil had warped the world with precisely the same kind of agape He demonstrated on the cross.
He pushed back against the powers of religious legalism and tradition by lovingly and radically welcoming prostitutes and sinners, and healing on the Sabbath.
He resisted the powers of racism and the way people are marginalised by speaking well of outsiders like Samaritans and compassionately touching lepers.
He overcame the sexism of the patriarchy of His time by treating women with dignity and respect.
Everything in His life was a beautiful anticipation of the cross, defying evil with love while taking no earthly power for Himself – having nowhere to lay His head (Matthew 8:20), refusing to be protected with violence or heavenly protection and letting Himself be crucified:
“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” (Matthew 26: 52-54)
Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and resurrection unite to reveal that the way God works in the world – God overcomes evil with good. The kingdom of God conquers the power of evil only by self-sacrificial love.
Cross-shaped agape for people means that what often makes Christian love distinctive is choosing to act for the good for others whether they can repay you or not, whether you storge, philia or eros them or not, or whether they love you back or not. In a story about putting on a wedding feast Jesus encourages us “…do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14: 12-14)
Even further than that, the true hallmark of becoming like Christ is in our capacity to love our enemies – giving worth to them not because of what they do, but because of their true value as those Christ was willing to die for. Our enemies are not only those who do not love us, but even those who actively oppose us.
As Jesus says, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.
“But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
Being able to love even our enemies is the jewel of what it means to become like Jesus Christ in our character.
When we experience antagonism, we immediately receive an increase in adrenaline in our bodies – causing a ‘fight or flight’ reaction. Our natural first response to being attacked in some way is to fight back or run away. But agape goes beyond that reaction.
In both the passages where Jesus talks about loving enemies, He emphasises not just stopping ourselves from being aggressive, but positively blessing those who oppose us. Just as He reached out and gave His life for those who were still His enemies. While storge, philia and eros are linked to how we feel, agape is not. It is a choice at the centre of who we are to see others as God sees them, even if it costs. So it is not just an inner attitude, but is always expressed in how we act.
“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them…do not resist an evil person…pray for those who persecute you…” (Luke 6:27-28; Matthew 5 39 and 44)
It is important to know that Jesus is not telling us to be passive in the face of evil. Rather, He is showing us the most powerful way that evil can be truly resisted.
Self-sacrificial agape is a ‘weapon’ because it stops us from becoming similarly evil and instead overcomes evil with good. It shows evil up for what it is, breaks the cycle of people hurting one another, and is the only way of creating the opportunity for genuine change.
This is why, writing to Christians who were suffering under a very oppressive dictatorship and in fear of their lives Paul told them: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 17: 20-21)
When accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Martin Luther King put it like this, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”
To summarise, Christian character is most demonstrated when we can choose to love others, at cost to ourselves, whether they love, ignore or hate us, because we see them as God sees them – as those who were worth Christ dying for.
The Jewish people were looking for a Messiah who would defeat God’s enemies by driving them out of the land. In their thinking God’s power was in His ability to get people to do what He wanted. For this reason, many could not understand or accept that an all-powerful God could stoop to become human, serve in humility, refuse to fight, and ultimately be defaced and disgraced on a cross. Jesus’ claim was that in Him the very essence of God was revealed. But to many Jews such a God looked foolish and weak – the very opposite of who He should be.
From the beginning, Paul recognised that “…we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…” A stumbling block because it is offensive to believe that a holy, powerful God could take on sinful flesh, let alone be crucified. Foolishness because in a world where power is so often about the ability to force your will on others, Jesus did precisely the opposite.
Many people in the world today continue to find the idea of a human and crucified God offensive, or even foolish for the same kind of reasons. But Paul goes on to write that “…to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1: 24-25)
Christians believe that God is ultimately all loving and powerful, and able to work His will for the world. However, by becoming a crucified human being, God’s love and power are not compromised, but fully revealed.
God does not reveal His loving essence by imposing His will on people – any ‘god’ can do that. God reveals the glory of His love by being willing to stoop to the furthest extreme of weakness possible.
And God’s power is not restricted by being crucified, but rather He overcomes evil in the only way truly possible – through self-sacrificial love.
God’s power is made “perfect in weakness”. The crucified God is more powerful and loving than any god who could impose its will on others could ever be.
The mysterious beauty of this kind of “power in weakness” is also revealed in the risks God is willing to take with His people.
It is demonstrated in the way that God continues to allow human beings to have genuinely free choices, so that we can choose to obey Him or not.
Yet His supreme wisdom is revealed in the way that through the endless possibility of human actions God is still able to work His will. (We will explore this more when we look at “Joining in with the Spirit” – module 3.)
Including and welcoming.
At the beginning of the greatest sermon ever preached, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lists those who are blessed in God’s kingdom (the Beatitudes). Many people of the day would have expected Him to uphold the teaching that God’s kingdom was for people who were Jewish, male, physically whole and healthy, religiously law-abiding and prosperous (poverty was a judgment from God).
But Jesus’ list is the opposite. Those who are truly welcomed and included in God’s kingdom, the truly “well off”, are the people who feel on the edge spiritually, those who feel wretched, or who can’t stand up for themselves, or who are starving for things to be put right, or who long to do right, or who don’t fight back, or who are ostracised.
This was an upside-down order of things. But as we grow in Christ’s agape love, like Him we will become the kind of people who notice and invite those who are at the bottom of the world’s pile. The monk Thomas Merton said a key to this is loving a person in such a way that we are “able to see things as he sees them, love what he loves, experience the deeper realities of his own life as if they were our own.” The more we can do this, the more we will love someone “for what he is in himself, and not for what he is to us. We have to love him for his own good, not for the good we get out of him.”
Practically this might be expressed the more we can reach out to those who cannot repay us.
While we can sometimes assess people in a helpful way (for example in a job interview), judging people is about making a negative assessment of them without acting in love towards them. In many ways the opposite of loving people is not hating them but thinking we can judge them. This is because in making a judgement on others we are imitating the first way humans disobeyed God.
Rather than letting God be the judge of what is good and what is bad, the story of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the “knowledge of good and evil” paints a picture of human beings who want to be those who can judge for themselves. Rather than looking at life, and others, as God does, we take on that “godlike” role for ourselves.
But the more God becomes king in our lives, the more we will let go of the right to judge others. Jesus is clear: “Do not judge…” (Matthew 7:1) Yet we live at a time when, as well as our own internal habits of assessing others for their opinions, looks, tastes, the polarised external chatter in which people judge one another is constantly in front of us.
The agape love of Christ on the cross gives us the most powerful way to stop judging others. It first reminds us to see ourselves as those who have been forgiven and accepted by God. Being realistic about ourselves is the first step away from a judgemental character. “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:4-5)
As we have seen, agape helps also helps us to be ‘blind’ to others’ qualities, and instead to see them as God sees them – as someone whose worth is found in Christ’s death. Historically, while Christians have sometimes been perceived as those who look down on others, the more we see ourselves and others as God sees us the more we become the least judgemental people of all.
Practically this might mean first of all noticing when we are being judgemental of others, remembering God’s grace to us, and choosing to see them as God sees them.
To honour someone means to show them what they are ultimately worth. Paul writes to the Romans. “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honour.” (Romans 9:10) It is nothing to do with what they deserve, how high or low-ranking they are, or how much they thank us.
It is affirming their God-given worth in such a way that we help draw out the goodness in them, to deliberately treat them as Christ.
Agape love and honour are the foundations for the most intimate relationships of all. For example, in the Bible the context for the beautiful gift of sex is portrayed as being for the sealing of a covenant relationship in which two people self-sacrificially honour each other completely, becoming “one flesh”.
A sexual relationship centred on agape and honour makes sex into something in which two people put the other first. They honour one another by expressing in the most vulnerable way possible the complete God-given worth of the other person. Sex without honour and agape loses the purpose for which it was made when God said, “It is very good”.
Practically this will mean that we love people in a Christlike way the more our first priority is to honour them by showing them what they are worth to God.
Someone said that the parts of the Bible we find most difficult are not the parts that are hard to understand but the parts that are as clear as day. At the centre of the Lord’s prayer is the sentence, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” There is an acknowledgement here that we will always need to forgive others in some way. Indeed, one of Jesus’ last acts was to forgive the people who had put Him to death: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:24) Without forgiveness lasting community is impossible.
As hard as forgiving people can be (and it is often a journey we need to help each other with) Jesus said that there should be no limit on how much we forgive others. Peter suggests forgiving people up to seven times (thinking he is being generous). But Jesus’ replies, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22) In other words, always.
There are many perspectives the Bible offers which can help us forgive, not least knowing that God always overcomes evil with good. Being able to forgive is also about our own freedom. When leaving prison, Nelson Mandela said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” And the holocaust survivor Corrie ten Boom puts it like this: “Forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door of resentment and the handcuffs of hatred.”
But Jesus and Paul always link our ability to forgive others with knowing how much we have been forgiven. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4: 32) For disciples, the only motive and strength there could possibly be for offering this kind of forgiving agape to those who have hurt us is because we see how much God has forgiven us, and because we begin to see even our enemies as God sees them.
Practically this will always mean when we are seeking to forgive others that we always start by looking at ourselves first.
Coming against things in the opposite spirit.
In some forms of martial art, the way you defeat your enemy is not by responding with greater aggression, but acting in such a way (for example stepping aside at the right moment) that your opponent is brought down by the force of their own attack.
In many ways this is a good picture of how agape love overcomes evil. By replying to an insult, not with another insult, but with silence, or even with blessing, the insult is robbed of its power.
Time and again, we see this in the way Jesus demonstrated love. He refused to answer back, He said that if someone slaps you on one cheek offer them the other. He allowed evil to run its course on the cross, but ultimately triumphed. As we have seen, this was not a surrender to evil, but the way of truly defeating it. Again, as Martin Luther King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Christlike love comes against things in the opposite spirit.
Practically if we are in a difficult relationship this will mean checking our first ‘fight or flight’ reaction, and asking, “What is the opposite reaction to what I am experiencing?” In this way we will be becoming more like Christ.
To be a church is to be filled with the same kind of agape for one another that God has shown to us: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (1 John 4: 10-12)
More than anything else, Jesus said people would come to see us as disciples when they see the love that we have for each other. He gave His final command to them at the Last Supper: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13: 34-35)
Juan Carlos Ortiz was the pastor of a church in Buenos Aires, Argentina. One Sunday he had prepared a sermon on ‘loving one another’. He had spent hours on this sermon and prayed over it. But as he got up from his chair to preach, he sensed God saying to him: “How many sermons have you preached on this theme of loving one another?” “I don’t know Lord, maybe a dozen or more.” “And how many times have you exhorted the congregation in other sermons to love one another?” “I don’t know Lord, maybe a dozen or more also.” “Have they done any good?”
He thought to himself, “I have preached dozens of sermons on love. What good have they done? This congregation barely know one another. They are not friends with each other. They barely talk to one another after the church service.”
The congregation waited for him to preach. Pastor Ortiz began his sermon,
“Love one another.” He then went and sat down. People looked at each other thinking that they had missed something. They were used to hearing a sermon of nearly an hour, not 3 seconds. They did not know what to do. After what seemed like an age, Juan Carlos walked back to the pulpit. He said, “Love one another,” and then he sat down.
Some began to murmur. No one knew what to do. Pastor Ortiz again walked to the pulpit. For the third time he said, “Love one another”. Then he returned to his chair behind the pulpit.
By now there was a restlessness stirring. What did he mean? Finally, an elder stood up and spoke. He said, “I think that I understand what Pastor Ortiz means. He wants me to love you.” (Pointing to someone in the pew behind him) “But how can I love you, when I do not know you.” With that, he introduced himself and began to meet the people behind him.
Others got up from their pews and introduced themselves to people they had seen, but not met. Phone numbers were exchanged. Dinner invitations extended. Arrangements were made for financial assistance. Before the service ended, someone raised enough money for bus tickets so a family could return to their village. Another man arranged employment for a man out of work and someone offered an apartment to a homeless family. The most powerful and most remembered sermon Juan Carlos Ortiz ever preached was just three words.
Above everything else, it is the love that disciples have for each other that reveals the love of God in the world and attracts others to the love of God. Practically speaking, growing in agape love will be expressed in at least two important ways:
No hierarchy or division.
It is true that some roles in the church are more public than others. But in a community of agape love, no one will be more important than anyone else. In contrast to the values around us in which “….rulers …lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.” Jesus says the greatness is only in service: “Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant…” (Matthew 20:25-26)
Just as Jesus’ greatness was in emptying Himself and becoming a “slave” (Philippians 2), so rather than pursuing significance in front of others, disciples will be downwardly mobile: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all”. (Mark 9:35)
In fact, agape love which honours others will lead to those seen as least significant in human terms being given special attention. Using the picture of the church as a body, Paul writes, “…those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour.” (1 Corinthians 12:22-23)
Whereas outside the church community people might be divided up by being in this tribe, or in this social grouping, or in that gender, these have no longer have relevance in a family in which the main thing about its members are that they are “in Christ”. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28). Thomas Merton said, “I must learn that my fellow human being, just as they are, whether my friend or my enemy…is Christ.”
So Paul writes that because “God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it… there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.”
With this in mind, the essential qualification for those who want to lead is a desire to be downwardly mobile. Telling a story about a wedding feast in which people often want the seat of honour, Jesus counselled us not to look for the highest place. Instead “….when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honoured in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14: 10-11)
The more our deepest security is in the agape love God has for us, the easier this will come to us. We will know that, as the Puritans said, we can “Live for an audience of One.” We will be able to do things for others in secret without looking for a reward. And we will not need to “claim anything as coming from us (because we will know that) our competence is from God.” (2 Corinthians 3:5)
Offering my gifts.
If there is a perceived division in the church between those at the front who are leading and the rest of the community, it can feel hard to build the equal family which Paul writes about in which each part of the body can share gifts.
Yet it is clear that every disciple is given gifts to share. “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27) “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” (Ephesians 4:16) It is impossible for the church to flourish properly if only some parts are working. But there can be at least two reasons why this some don’t use their gifts.
We may not be aware of what the gifts God has given us or lack confidence.
We can encourage each other by recognising and naming the gifts we see in each other. There are many resources which help us see what our strengths are. In ‘The Way of Servant-Leadership’ two of the sessions are focussed on helping people discover and use their gifts. In the extended materials for this session there is a three-session resource from Bristol helping people discover their particular gifts, based on the gifts outlined in the Bible.
We might misunderstand humility.
In a prophecy about the Messiah, Isaiah writes, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2) Christ was the most humble person who ever lived. Yet He used every gift God had given Him to the full for God’s kingdom.
People who are becoming like Christ will be humble, but with that they will also have a healthy ambition and desire to build each other up by sharing their gifts.
There can be a false humility (or even an upside-down pride: “I don’t want to look stupid or fail”) about not being able to offer my gifts. But true humility is not thinking of yourself too little, or too much. It is the freedom that comes from not having to think about ourselves at all. The freedom to offer what we have without worrying what others will think. As we become like Christ, agape love will free us so that we can “… let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds” knowing that above all this will “glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
Just as it is impossible for human beings to change significantly by willpower alone (how many people give up on diets?), so it is hard for us to become like Christ just because we decide to. Discipleship is not just about becoming people who can behave in the right way, but people who are being transformed to become the kind of people who love like Christ loves.
Genuine change happens from the inside out. While human beings “look at the outside, God looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) In the Sermon on the Mount it is not the actions we do that matter to God, but the inner attitudes we have. Jesus taught that it is the inner person that generates our outward responses and actions. “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (Luke 6: 45)
This is why Paul said that the “…life which I live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” It is why he prayed for disciples that Christ would be “formed in you”.
Paul could only love as Christ loves as he depended on the faithfulness of Christ in the deepest part of himself and became inwardly the person that Christ has made him to be.
Over time he did the things Christ does because they became things he wanted to do. The natural choices he made were to do what Christ would do if He were in Paul’s situation, in the strength that He gives. Paul’s habitual thoughts, feelings and actions became more like Christ’s.
We have already looked in module 1 at how it is through the habits we live by that we are transformed in two areas: Our minds are renewed so we see the world and people more and more as God sees them. Our innermost selves (hearts) are changed by allowing God’s Holy Spirit to change us from the inside out.
For most people the problem is not that we do not want to change, nor is the problem that we are not trying to change. The problem is that we have never been apprenticed in a way of changing that is reliable.
As we have looked at the picture of Christian character in more detail, we end this session by reinforcing our understanding of the way in which every human being can be truly transformed.
Whatever we focus our minds on, and the ideas we have about God, ourselves and others, is the gateway to changing. What we think about shapes us. In many ways we live at the mercy of our ideas. We become what we believe.
The first step to change is always the renewal of our minds – seeing things as much as we can as God sees them. When Jesus called people to turn back to God the first step was to “repent” – literally to change their way of thinking.
Paul encourages us to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus”. (Philippians 2:5) To be replacing what might be negative or destructive ways of thinking with the images and visions that soaked Jesus’ mind – to be thinking God’s thoughts after Him. To be people who “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” (Colossians 3:2)
The focus of Jesus’ teaching was to help people see the world as God sees it. Whether through the upside-down statements of the Beatitudes, or the parables about God’s kingdom. They were calling people to reimagine their lives with God at the centre. His teaching (and all helpful Christian teaching) always helps people to be given a vision of the goodness of life God’s way.
The more we think about something, the more it becomes a natural part of the way we understand reality. Our thought patterns are like the development of a footpath in a field. When people first start walking through an overgrown field it is hard work, and the path is barely visible. But over time, the more we walk that way, the easier and more visible the path becomes.
The stories we pay attention to shape us deeply. Just as the more we listen to negative ‘voices’, the harder it will be to love ourselves, the more our minds are focussed on God’s words, the more likely we are to experience ourselves as He sees us.
Having our minds and imaginations renewed is the first step but not the last. We cannot think our way to becoming like Christ. Our challenge is not often that we lack knowledge. Knowing something isn’t the same as acting on it. And acting on something isn’t the same as wanting it.
Genuine change occurs as we grow into wanting what God wants. In the Bible, the word used to describe where the deepest desires that shape us come from is the heart. Another word we could use is the “will”. The part of us that wills things. Our will is what controls us.
There is an ‘automatic’ and immediate aspect of our will, driven by appetites. It’s the part of us, for example, which sees someone’s shiny new car and reacts by wanting it. (The New Testament calls this the “flesh”).
But our “heart” is the deeper “reflective” will, from which the true, long-term choices, longings and visions for our life come – the place where we sometimes “want to want” things. It’s where we want to do the right thing. While our “flesh” might want to eat that éclair, our deeper will wants to diet to be healthy. It’s where our character is born.
The writer James Smith puts it like this: “Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t just inform our intellect but forms our very loves. He isn’t content to simply deposit new ideas into your mind; he is after nothing less than your wants, your loves, your longings.” To be a disciple is to let the character of Jesus’ will become our will.
Mark Greene tells this story: “Louise worked for an absolute ogre. She was PA to probably the most unreasonable boss in Buckinghamshire. He was bad-tempered, he was changeable, he was indifferent to other people. And she worked for him for three years. She prayed for strength, she prayed that he would change but he didn’t, and she often felt like a failure. In the end, she just couldn’t take it any longer and she left – feeling like she’d let God down.
“Three weeks later the woman who replaced called her up and said, ‘He is impossible, I’ve been here three weeks and I’m already thinking about leaving. How did you do it? I talked to other people and they said you were fantastic, you were patient, you were gracious, you were always upbeat despite his impossible ways. How did you do it?’
“How did she do it? Well, of course the first thing is that Louise didn’t really think she’d done anything at all. Often we don’t think we’ve done anything, but then someone tells us you were so patient, you were so calm, you were so thoughtful, when everybody around you was completely losing the plot. The truth is that when we became Christians, God changed us.… Paul says: ‘Therefore if anyone is in Christ they are a new creation. The old has gone behold the new has come.’”
Thankfully, becoming like Christ in our will and character is much less about what we do, and much more about what God does in us. In fact, becoming like Christ always takes more than our own will power. Jesus said, “Without me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
Paul writes that “…we all… are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)
Our wills and character can only become more Christlike as allow God to work in us and give Him the space to do this.
The ‘Keeper of the Spring’ story (see handout) shows us how by doing small and simple things like picking up leaves that allowed a spring to continue to flow, an old man helped it flourish and stay alive. In the same way, the deepest desires we have can become more like what God wants by allowing Him to flow in our hearts.
Module 1 introduced the idea that it is through the habits and practices we live by that we create an environment in our lives in which the Spirit of God can create character change. We give space for God to work.
In the verse we just read Paul writes that it is as “we all…with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory…” that we experience the Spirit changing us into God’s image. In other, the more we arrange our lives so that we can see God’s glory, the more we are changed.
Just as long before a footballer takes a World Cup penalty, it is the hours and hours of repetitive practice that have made her into the kind of person who can naturally aim well, so it is the everyday habits which open us up to God over a long period which make us into people who naturally want what God wants.
It is our habits which shape our desires and which make us want the things we know in our minds are true and good.
For example, the habit of shopping shapes us. Most people know that the more we get the more you want. But whenever we buy something, we think that will satisfy us. Yet the habit of shopping ends up making us want more. The more we shop, or the more we eat…the more we want. It is things we do which set the direction of what we love.
If someone is addicted to pornography and is tempted to watch it at night, simple will power won’t be enough.
What will count is whether, long before the moment of temptation, they have been shaped by in their mind and heart by habits through which they are allowing God to change them into someone who wants to turn away from it. Only then will they have the ‘soul reflex’ to be able to say no to what they want in the moment, and yes to what they really want in their heart.
One picture from the Pacific islands puts it this way. A man keeps two dogs in a cave. These two dogs are in continual conflict with one another and are compared to the Holy Spirit living in us, in conflict with our self. The man has a choice about which dog he feeds. The dog that is fed and nourished will grow stronger and will gain the upper hand over the animal that is starved.
It is through habits that engage our mind and heart with God that we access the power of God’s Spirit, enabling Him to deal with the parts of us that need to change.
While it is possible for God to change our character in ‘Damascus’ moments, most of us only grow in becoming Christlike over time through the process of day-to-day life. God works through the everyday, as we make space for Him.
Frances de Sales has some useful advice with this in mind: “One form of gentleness we should practise is towards ourselves. We should never get irritable with ourselves because of our imperfections. It is reasonable to be displeased and sorry when we commit faults, but not fretful or spiteful to ourselves.”
In essence, lasting character grows indirectly. Habits or practices are things we do regularly by effort in order to be able to do something by no effort. We are training, not trying. (See the value of habits handout from the book ‘Holy Habits’)
By “waxing on and off” the Karate Kid can perform fantastic karate moves when needed. By reading the Scriptures over time we might more easily see our difficult neighbour as God sees them. By worshipping regularly with others our openness to God’s presence may grow.
Our relationship with God is a partnership in which God never forces His will on us. Because He is agape love, God always invites us to be in covenant with Him.
This means that He will only change us to the extent that we are willing to allow Him. In any kind of relationship, both parties have a part to play.
By adopting the practices of Christ, we are playing our part – creating the conditions for God’s Spirit to change us.
We must do something, but we rely on God to provide what is needed to change us. Sleep is an example of the combination of our habit and God’s work in us. We cannot make ourselves fall asleep. Sleep is an act of surrender. We can only create the conditions for sleep.
We have very little power in ourselves to transform into being those who love like Christ. Only God can do the real work. Yet as one writer put it, “Without Him we can’t, but without us He won’t.” God’s cooperation with us is another example of His self-giving love.
Richard Foster describes this as ‘the path of disciplined grace.’ “It is ‘grace’ because it is free; it is ‘disciplined’ because there is something for us to do.”
The character of Christ grows in us as the beliefs in our minds are renewed and the desires of our hearts are shaped by God working in us. The ‘method’ of this is simply by giving God room as we centre our lives around the life-giving practices of Jesus. But there is one more essential way in which we can open ourselves up to God’s work in us, and that is through relationship with other disciples, in which we are intentional about growing together.
Community with others will change us if relationships are genuine and close enough to reveal the parts of us which need to change, but which we might be unconscious of when we are on our own. Particularly in the Christian community, where we do not choose our brothers and sisters, we can come face to face with the ways in which we need to be shaped by agape love.
But community also helps us grow and mature in Christ by being a place of encouragement and love. It is only through relationship that the wounds we have received from others can be healed. In the day-by-day journey of becoming like Christ, we can cheer each other on and celebrate where He is at work. Those who stay in community, grow in character.
To summarise, the ‘Way of Discipleship’ modules aim for this environment in which God can change us. We have our minds renewed by understanding key beliefs. We are encouraged to step into practices through which God we can be with God and He can shape our hearts (We have looked at prayer, meditation, worship, celebration, hearing God in the Bible, study, meditation, Holy Communion, sabbath, stillness, solitude, generosity, simple living, confession. In future sessions we cover prayer for others, fasting, sharing faith.)
And we do so in relationship with one another where we aim to grow in helping one another be maturing in Christ. The success of this resource will be in how much this enables us to be on a lifelong journey of being with God, in which we are becoming like Christ.
As we have seen, to be a disciple of Christ is to live in a covenant relationship with God, who is love. Unlike the false idols that surround us, God offers us forgiveness, grace, a sense of identity and purpose, and wants to restore us to be fully human.
But becoming a disciple will not necessarily make life easier. As one writer puts it, “…the Scriptures teach us that there is no path to God that does not pass through the wilderness. The God of the Bible is the God of the desert.” (David Runcorn)
There are at least four good reasons why in some ways the fact that ‘life is difficult’ can intensify in the adventure of being a disciple.
You are now a ‘new creation’ – open to God changing you from the inside out. God’s desire is to make our characters holy – set apart to become more like Him. Through the forgiveness of the cross we have been made “perfect forever” as a once for all act. (Hebrews 10:14)
But the same verse from Hebrews also says that throughout our lives we are “being made holy” as who we are becomes more and more like Christ. This is a process which involves increasingly being able to allow God to be in control.
You are now seeking what He wants in the world above everything else – which can put you in conflict with your own instinctive desires (what the Bible calls the “flesh”) – and with the some of the values which surround you (what the Bible calls “the world”).
You are now engaged in the spiritual battle between good and evil. Ultimately the presence of sin in the world, and in each of us, will be totally removed when Jesus finally makes “His enemies His footstool”. But while we long for that to be complete as disciples we join with God’s kingdom in confronting evil. As Jesus warned, for some throughout history (and many in the world today) that will include experiencing persecution.
Two Iranian Christians, Maryam and Marziyeh, were arrested in 2009 for their faith. They were blindfolded, interrogated and taken to court. The lawyer asked whether they regretted becoming Christians, to which they replied, ‘We have no regrets.’ The lawyer stated, ‘You should renounce your faith verbally and in written form.’ After a period in prison to think about their options, returning when they were ready to comply, they responded, ‘We have already done our thinking.’
And you are not immune to the common sufferings of being human, as we wait for the completion of God’s victory.
In this session we explore how discipleship means becoming like Christ through difficulties, not despite them.
An American woman called Nancy is crippled and confined to a wheelchair, yet she has embraced a stunning vocation. Nancy runs adverts in the personal section of her local newspaper that read: “If you are lonely or have a problem, call me. I am in a wheelchair and seldom get out. We can share our problems with each other. Just call. I’d love to talk.” The results have been amazing. Each week at least thirty people contact Nancy and she spends her days counselling and comforting people.
When asked how she became crippled she replied that she had tried to commit suicide! She went on to explain, “I was living alone. I had no friends. I hated my job, and I was constantly depressed. I decided to jump from the window of my apartment, but instead of being killed I ended up in the hospital paralysed from my waist down.
“The second night I was there Jesus appeared to me and told me that I’d had a healthy body and a crippled soul but from then on I would have a crippled body and a healthy soul. I gave my life to Christ right there and then. When I got out of the hospital I tried to think of how a woman like me in a wheelchair could do some good, and I came up with the idea of putting the ad in the newspaper. And the rest, as they say, is history.”
As we grow as disciples we can also grow in knowing how to react when times are difficult, in our understanding of suffering and death, and in our response to God. We can increasingly grow in responding to difficulties as Jesus did. He was a “man of sorrows” and “acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3), but He was also the “pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:2) – the greatest example of how to respond to suffering. Like Nancy, we can become those whom God is able to use and transform in the midst of difficulty.
We will see how to become like Christ in suffering by looking through two lenses:
As we finish this module, we will be formed as people who live in hope of resurrection. It was through hope, because of the “joy set before Him” that Christ was able to “endure the cross”. It is as we grasp the beauty of God’s ultimate destiny for us, and all creation, that we can truly start to live as disciples in the here and now.
By “fixing our eyes on Jesus”, specifically looking at how Jesus, and early Christians, met suffering, evil and death, we can be shaped as people who “will not grow weary and lose heart”.
Any journey you go on is shaped by the destination. As we navigate the joys and challenges of life as disciples, having a vision of life after death, the meaning of resurrection, the defeat of evil and suffering, and God’s ultimate purpose is essential in helping us to live in the present – particularly in difficult times.
While there are many aspects of God’s future that are naturally beyond our understanding and imagination, there are clear directions God has revealed to us that we can hope in. He wants us, as His covenant-partners and children, to have a “hope which doesn’t disappoint us.” (Romans 5:5) Paul writes, “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13) In some senses Christian hope is a mystery, but it is not a guess.
Before we look at the individual hope we have beyond death, seeing the big picture of God’s plan will help us understand how our ultimate destiny is found within the future hope for everything God has made and wants to restore.
The first wonderful and important truth about ultimate hope is that it must make sense of the whole story of Bible.
For example, however we understand Jesus’ rising from the dead, or our own experience of life after death, the more it completes the direction the whole story of the Bible and the mission of Jesus has been moving in, the more we can have confidence in it. (We look in more detail at this big picture story in module 4.)
In brief, the whole story of the Bible can be seen as God’s plan to reunite God’s space (heaven) with human beings’ space (earth). The crucial thing is that ‘heaven’ in the Bible is not so much an other-worldly place we go to when we die, but a way of saying ‘wherever God is fully present’. It also points to an unseen spiritual landscape which is full of all kinds of angelic creatures.
From the beginning the picture we are given is that God wanted to be dwelling with human beings completely – for heaven and earth to be one. These two dimensions overlapping in the same space in a life-giving, harmonious relationship.
Yet, as we have seen, the choice of human beings to decide that they have the “knowledge of good and evil”, replacing God, has led to the chaos and dysfunction of sin we can see throughout history, and in our own hearts.
Crucially it seems that some of the spiritual beings belonging to this unseen heavenly kingdom also made the same choice – choosing to turn from God in rebellion. This is why Jesus’ victory over the powers on the cross was so necessary.
So this fall results in brokenness at all levels – spiritual, human, and even in creation. Heaven and earth were violently separated.
The story of the world, and in the Scriptures, is that God is working to bring heaven and earth together. To reverse the effects of the fall, defeat evil, and restore human beings to their original purpose – to work alongside Him in His creation. Throughout the Bible God longs for the day when, “You will be my people, and I will be your God.”
The Old Testament is the story of God seeking to bring heaven back to earth through a covenant people, who meet Him in the Temple – the one place in which heaven and earth can touch. This is why the Temple was decorated like a restored Garden of Eden.
But it is through Jesus, who united God and humanity in Himself again, that God began to reunite heaven and earth. This is why when Jesus arrived John proclaimed, “The kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.” This is why John wrote that Jesus was like a moveable temple (tabernacle), living among us.
Wherever Jesus went, he brought the kingdom of heaven to earth, restoring what was broken, and through the cross became the ultimate temple sacrifice which broke down the barrier between God’s space and us (this was why the curtain in the centre of the Jerusalem temple which was meant to separate us from God’s presence was ripped in two when Jesus died (Matthew 27:51)).
We are still waiting for this reunion between heaven and earth to be complete. This is the Christian hope. At the end of the Bible, the poetic images in the book of Revelation point us towards this, painting strong images of the defeat of evil, and ultimately promising a renewed creation. The age of sin and death is over, and God’s space and humanity’s space completely overlap once again.
There will come a ‘Day of the Lord’ when the Saviour we eagerly await from heaven (Philippians 3:20) will return to free the world from corruption, completely defeating evil by judging with justice, and restoring us. The rivers will clap their hands and the mountains will sing for joy that their liberator has finally come. (Psalm 98:8; Romans 8:21-22) He will not be ‘out for blood’ but will judge evil through the power of His own shed blood – the power of self-sacrificial love.
God always planned that in Jesus He would not “condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17) He will make “all things new” (Revelation 21:5) – new in the sense of not being a completely different thing, but a restored and renewed version of something that already exists.
Because the destination always shapes the journey, there are some important aspects to the picture of ultimate destiny that matter now and can sometimes be misunderstood.
It shows that our ultimate end is not to ‘go to heaven when we die’ or that we will not be taken off the earth to go to ‘heaven’.
If God makes a covenant with His people and creation, and sent Jesus to bring heaven to earth, the idea that ultimately He wants us to be with Him in a purely spiritual heavenly existence, removed from the earth, would be a departure from the story, not the completion of it. God would be untrue to Himself – breaking His promises and reversing the mission of Christ.
The language and ideas of being removed from anything earthly to be in heaven has found its way into Christians’ imagination from early Greek philosophers. They believed that human beings could only be truly free by existing in an entirely spiritual realm.
An image Paul uses in one of His letters has encouraged some Christians reinforce this by understanding God’s plan as to snatch us away from the earth to be with Him. (This has been popular since the 1830s when it gained prominence.) Paul writes how when Christ returns “… we who are still alive and are left will be caught up … in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” (1 Thessalonians 4:17)
Interpreting this as a ‘Great Escape’ is a problem for two reasons. Firstly, as we have seen, it makes no sense of the big picture story of heaven and earth being reunited. But secondly, the image Paul is using is comparing Jesus’ return to that of a Roman conqueror, returning victoriously to his home. When this happened, people would welcome him back by going outside the city and lining the streets to applaud him on his way in. In the same way Paul is saying we will be so eager to receive Jesus as He restores the earth, that we shall go out to greet Him and welcome His return.
It shows that ultimately God does not want to bring about the “end of the world”.
Linked to the idea that we ‘go to heaven when we die’ is the vision that God will ultimately destroy the earth. Again, while this makes no sense of the biblical story, a passage in one of Peter’s letters about the day of the Lord needs looking at: “…the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire…The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare….Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be?” (2 Peter 3: 6-7; 10-12)
Here, Peter is not talking about complete destruction, but the hope that God’s return will completely purify His world – laying bare all the injustice, pain, sin, evil and brokenness – and dealing with it once and for all. This is why he compares God’s ultimate judgement with the flood at the time of Noah, when God did not totally destroy His creation, but dealt with its corruption – following which He made a covenant never to ‘destroy’ it again.
This is also why immediately after this Peter writes, “But in keeping with his (God’s) promise we are looking forward to a renewed heaven and a renewed earth, where righteousness dwells.” (2 Peter 3: 13). As Christians we look forward to “the life of the world to come.”
This matters because the picture we have of God’s ultimate future completely shapes our discipleship today.
If we believe that the world will be destroyed and that our final aim is to escape to heaven this has potentially disastrous results.
We might stop caring for the earth because we believe it has no long-term future anyway.
We might think God is only interested in the “spiritual” parts of our lives – because these are the only things that ultimately matter – rather than the everyday work we do.
We might not experience God when we are not engaged in “spiritual” pursuits.
We might think that church callings matter to God more than other callings because they are more “spiritual”.
We might not value the fact that we are physical creatures with the gift of bodies, which God rejoices in, because we think that one day we will just be some kind of “spirits”.
Instead, the Christian hope for a reunited heaven and earth opens up a vision of life in which everything we do now matters.
God will take everything we do in line with His kingdom into the future. Tom Wright puts it, “What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbour as yourself—will last into God’s future.
“These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether. They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.” Or as another writer says, “…the noble products of human ingenuity…will form the ‘building materials’ from which (after they are transfigured) ‘the glorified world’ will be made.” (Miroslav Volf)
We will explore the day to day implications for living out our discipleship in the world God wants to restore in module 3.
There are many things we can only dream of when thinking about life after death. One of the best pictures the Bible gives to describe it is as a banquet, and Paul writes, “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” — the things God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9)
Yet even while he is saying that there are many questions we can only speculate about, in the same letter Paul offers clear pointers to the kind of existence God invites us into, (he does not want us to be uninformed) and the reasons we can hope in it.
As we have seen, our understanding of life after death must make sense of the whole story of the Bible. But the clearest lens we can look through is Jesus’ own resurrection. Because He is the one who has first broken the power of death, He is the pattern, the “’firstfruits’ of those who have fallen asleep.”
Paul promises that “in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.” (1 Corinthians 15: 20-23) What happens to Christ, then happens to everyone.
In other words, looking at the whole Bible story, and the nature of Jesus’ resurrection is the best way of understanding what happens to us after we die. The promise is that after death human beings (and all creation) will be given a new existence in which we will be “raised imperishable; (we can’t die again)…in glory…in power…raised a spiritual body.” (1 Corinthians 15: 42-44)
We are promised that we will see God “as He is” (1John 3:2), with our covenant-relationship finally restored: “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” (Revelation 21:3)
All evil, death and sin will have been completely dealt with “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4) because Jesus will have finally “destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” (1 Corinthians 15: 24,27)
As a result, God will be “all in all”. (1 Corinthians 15:28) God’s presence will fill once again fill a renewed heaven and earth: “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light…” (Revelation 21: 22-24)
In other words, this is the completion of God’s desire throughout the whole Bible to bring together His space and ours – to reconcile all things to Himself again. (Colossians 1:20) As the famous hymn puts it,
“But this I know, the skies will thrill with rapture, And myriad, myriad human voices sing, And earth to heaven, and heaven to earth, will answer: At last the Saviour, Saviour of the world, is King.”
With the end of evil, just as there will no longer be any barrier between God and people, so too the removal of sin means that any division between human beings caused by war, tribe, racism, conflict or suspicion will be completely removed. “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9) The wounds of history are healed and human divisions gone.
While in a general sense there is the promise that resurrected people will see and know each other – completely – family reunification is not the main focus. (This has been a popular version of life after death, particularly since Victorian times.) Rather, in the joy of complete unity with and under God, everyone who lives in that light is part of a glorious, eternal family, holding out tremendous promise for those for whom their earthly families have been a source of grief or pain.
Resurrection promise is a restoration of original relationship, but also of our original calling. The Bible begins with God seeking covenant-partners who will work with Him to look after and develop His creation. Logically, it ends with human beings recovering the dignity of this image of God in us, being able, once again, to take part in ruling over God’s renewed creation.
There are several pointers to this. In a parable, Jesus describes how the work that we do in this life can lead to God entrusting us with work in the life to come: “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’” (Matthew 25:23). Peter writes that we will receive the authority of those who rule: “…when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.” (1 Peter 5:4)
Jesus promises His disciples: “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones…” (Matthew 19:28) In many ways, our work now is merely preparation for the eternal restoration of the task God made us for.
When we look more specifically at what Jesus’ resurrection reveals about the kind of existence each of us might experience, it is not surprising that it is consistent with this vision of hope.
It is clear that the risen Jesus was not just walking around in His human body brought to life again. While it was recognisably Him, it was what Paul calls a ‘resurrection body’ – an existence in which His physical humanity and heavenly existence were now both fully brought together. A body in which death and sickness no longer could exist because the sting of death has been removed.
This is why His resurrection existence is the “firstfruits” – what happened to Him, is the prototype of heaven and earth being reunited completely. It is also the only place we can look to begin to see what our post-death existence will be. As Paul says, “…so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man…we will all be changed…For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.” (1 Corinthians 15: 49-53)
This is a physical and heavenly existence in a body suited to be with God, and partner with Him, in a renewed heaven and earth. We will be similar, but also changed.
For example, we can see that Jesus was still recognisable – the disciples knew who He was – but as both earthly and heavenly He was significantly different – people didn’t always recognise Him straight away.
We can see that His wounds were still visible, but rather than being signs of pain and shame, they were evidence of His glory. This points to a resurrection existence in which who we are becoming in our lives now will be relevant in the future, and also, more wonderfully how in resurrection God may change some our deepest hurts into parts of us that bring Him glory.
We can see that He has physical qualities (He could eat fish!) but also heavenly ones – He could appear in a locked room.
This kind of heavenly/earthly resurrection existence is exactly what we would expect as an outcome which completes the whole story of the Bible, and the life, death and victory of Christ.
The full joy and beauty of it is hard to visualise, so a handout includes two fictionalised visions of this resurrection existence, which are faithful to the evidence we have to inspire our imaginations!
An important clue to know about life after death is that the Bible talks about an experience of two stages. Whereas the resurrection is described as God’s ultimate plan, to be completed when all things are fulfilled, those who have already died are said to have “fallen asleep in Christ”.
This is a temporary state until the end – as Paul says, “…we will not all sleep (in other words, for ever), but we will all be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:51). So there are two stages – this is why we talk about ‘Resting in Peace’ and ‘Rising in Glory’. We could describe the resurrection as ‘life after life after death’.
The experience of ‘sleep’ can of course be one in which you have no idea how long it has gone on. Perhaps the Bible is just giving us an assurance that on the other side of death, before resurrection, is rest. In his first letter, Paul even promises that those who have fallen asleep will be raised first: “…we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him…. and the dead in Christ will rise first.” (1 Thessalonians 4: 14-16)
There are things in our natural experience that can help us trust in the promise of resurrection:
The longing we have for the world to be put right in the world.
The way in which we can experience death as stealing something from us.
The way when we see something beautiful it can create a longing in us for complete Beauty.
The way death and resurrection occur as part of the natural world.
But for Paul, it was clear that it was only the fact of Christ’s resurrection which could be the basis for trusting that God’s plan to bring earth and heaven together, and that Christ is the Lord who has defeated sin and death. “…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15: 17-19)
While the cross gives comfort, it is the resurrection that gives hope – that heaven has come to earth, and that we can live in God’s kingdom from today. N.T. Wright puts it like this: “…the bodily resurrection of Jesus isn’t a take-it-or-leave-it thing, as though some Christians are welcome to believe it and others are welcome not to believe it. Take it away, and the whole picture is totally different. Take it away, and Karl Marx was probably right to accuse Christianity of ignoring the problems of the material world. Take it away, and Sigmund Freud was probably right to say that Christianity is a wish-fulfilment religion. Take it away, and Friedrich Nietzsche was probably right to say that Christianity was a religion for wimps….
“…The resurrection of Jesus doesn’t mean, ‘It’s all right. We’re going to heaven now.’ (It means) God is now in charge, on earth as in heaven. And God’s ‘being-in-charge’ is focused on Jesus himself being king and Lord. The title on the cross was true after all. The resurrection proves it.”
It is clear that something dramatic happened in history that had the power to turn a small and local story in a backwater of the Roman Empire into a global movement within a few decades. Yet Jesus’ resurrection was as unexpected and beyond the understanding of the early Christians as it is for us. This is why the New Testament wants to give its readers the confidence to live as disciples of a risen Lord through offering rational evidence – when it comes to the resurrection, we are not expected to have blind faith, but reasonable trust. There are twelve recorded appearances of Jesus to His disciples after the resurrection (see handout).
For Paul, this was of “first importance”:
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, (Peter) and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” (1 Corinthians 15: 3-7)
By emphasising twice that this was “according to the Scriptures” he is making the point that the resurrection completes and makes sense of the whole story.
The handout ‘Jesus: Lord or legend?’ unpacks some of the arguments against this evidence. Objections have centred around three ideas:
Jesus was not really dead.
Not many people give much credibility to this argument. As Tom Wright says, “Jesus didn’t really die-someone gave him a long drug that made him look like dead, and he revived in the tomb. Answer: Roman soldiers knew how to kill people, and no disciple would have been fooled by a half-drugged, beat-up Jesus into thinking he’d defeated death and inaugurated the kingdom.”
The disciples were deliberately lying, joining together to make up a religion to honour their rabbi.
The fact that there is no evidence for this is important. But, as time went on, and Christians were put to death for their belief in the resurrection, it is also hard to understand the motive for lying in the face of such persecution, or why not a single one of them deserted or withdrew their story. In addition, as a made-up story there are so many aspects of it that would have been offensive to first-century Jewish people – not least that a human being could be a crucified God.
Finally, if it were genuinely a lie, it could have been easily disproved by both the Roman and Jewish authorities who would both have wanted to discredit the story by, for example, producing Jesus’ body. In their accounts, the disciples talk about real people – such as Pilate or Caiaphas the high priest, who were close to the events – but there is no record of any ancient person accusing the disciples of making it up.
They were not lying, but were so devoted to Jesus, that a myth quickly developed about Him.
While most scholars do not believe in the lying theory, it is not uncommon (as in a lot of study of religion) for people to put forward this legendary interpretation.
There are at least six reasons why the legend theory has problems:
It is hard to believe that such a speedy development of a risen-Jesus myth could arise among Jewish people who, at the time, saw their belief in one God as an antidote to many of the pagan-god legends that surrounded them from other cultures.
Legends always reflect the culture they come from – it is unlikely that, in first-century Jewish eyes, a myth about a crucified and cursed Messiah would have brought honour to Jesus.
Legends cast their heroes in a positive and larger-than-life light. Yet in the gospels the disciples often appear foolish.
Jesus overturns many aspects of their culture, rather than reinforcing them. For example, in a culture in which it was assumed women were liars (they could not testify in court), the male writers of the gospels emphasise that it is women who first witness Jesus’ resurrection.
The main objection to the legend theory is the short amount of time between Jesus’ resurrection and the accounts of it. Normally legends take generations to develop. Yet 16 years after Jesus, Paul is already calling Him God, as if this is already known. The gospels refer to eye-witnesses who would have still been alive when they were written – for example, Jesus’ brother James.
Finally numerous writers have noted how the gospels read like history, not legend, including countless examples of irrelevant detail. Mark tells us several times, “Jesus looked around him, and then said….” There are numerous historical details which have been shown as accurate by archaeological evidence.
All the earliest witnesses, who staked their lives on Jesus’ resurrection, emphasise that they are neither lying, nor honouring a Lord whom they know to be a myth. As John writes,
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.
“We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.” (1 John 1: 1-4, written between 62 and 77 years after the resurrection)
Dallas Willard said, “I think that, when I die, it might be some time until I know it.” In contrast to a culture which in many ways finds it hard to accept or talk about mortality, the hope of resurrection makes it possible for us to face death without fear or denial.
Disciples can embrace death without fear.
Even long before Jesus’ resurrection, the psalms say, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful servants.” (Psalm 116:15) For disciples, knowing Jesus has experienced our death, dying is now another way in which we can become more like Him – His dying has made death holy in that it is now something that brings us to God. Both life and death can now be a gift.
As Paul wrote, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” (Philippians 1: 21-24)
The day before he was killed at a young age, Martin Luther King preached, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will…. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” (3rd April 1968)
Death is now a time of gain, a time when, “…you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.” (Colossians 3:24) This is why before His own death Jesus told His disciples not to be afraid: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:1-2)
Disciples still resist death.
Yet, while no longer the ultimate evil, death remains an enemy we are longing to see completely overcome. The “victory” and “sting” of death has been defeated (1 Corinthians 15: 55-57) through Jesus’ death and resurrection, but, like Jesus, who cried at his friend Lazarus’ tomb, we can still weep at the significant but temporary grief and pain death and dying can cause.
But the hope of resurrection means that grief might no longer be despairing (“… you do not grieve like the rest of humankind, who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13)) Instead our grieving can rightly express deep love as we miss those who are sleeping, or as we anticipate the grief of those we are leaving. When people saw Jesus grieving for Lazarus they said, “See how he loved him.” (John 11:36) It can also be a way we utter our longing for the day when God promises to wipe every tear away.
It is important in our discipleship that we can welcome death. John Wesley said, “Our people die well” and, “Every Christian should be able to preach, pray or die at a minute’s notice.” But grief and frustration at the pain of death can be a faithful expression of love and longing as well. The well-intentioned funeral poem, “Death is nothing at all…” is one side of the story and is helpful only if it still allows us to bring our genuine pain to God and each other.
Death can help us live well as disciples
For disciples, seeing death through the lens of hope is a gift in living well now in anticipation of the future. The medieval writer, Thomas a Kempis puts it like this:
“Happy and wise is he who endeavours to be during his life as he wishes to be found at his death…Dear soul, from what peril and fear you could free yourself, if you lived in holy fear, mindful of your death. Apply yourself so to live now, that at the hour of death, you may be glad and unafraid.
“Learn now to die to the world, that you may begin to live with Christ…While you have time, gather the riches of everlasting life. Think only of your salvation, and care only for the things of God…Keep your heart free and lifted up to God, for here you have no abiding city. Daily direct your prayers and longings to Heaven, that at your death your soul may merit to pass joyfully into the presence of God.”
Heaven and earth can only be fully reunited when all that currently separates us has been destroyed, and we are fully restored. The way the Bible describes this process is judgment. The writer to the Hebrews says that, “…people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment…” (Hebrews 9:27)
This is because even for disciples if we are to fully live in the light of God’s love as resurrected people it will first be necessary for us to have been freed and cleansed from anything that still fails to reflect His character and glory. As we have seen, it is impossible for any darkness of sin to survive in the light of His holy love. So, the final return of Christ brings about this final judgment in preparation for a renewed heaven and earth.
For many people throughout history, God’s judgement is something they long for. Many psalms and prophetic writings cry out for God to put the world right. Those who suffer injustice eagerly await the time when “the earth and everything in it will be laid bare”. (2 Peter 3:10) Just as flawed human justice is nevertheless a good aspect of our nature, God’s perfect justice reveals His goodness.
Jesus promises, “…will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.” (Luke 18:7-8)
For many of the victims of history, God’s judgment will mean that for the first time their voices will be heard. Cardinal Basil Hume tells this story: “A priest started his homily at a funeral saying: ‘I am going to preach about judgement’. There was dismay in the congregation. Then he went on: ‘Judgement is whispering into the ear of a merciful and compassionate God the story of my life which I had never been able to tell’”.
Yet the language of judgment and of hell, which Jesus uses more than all the other biblical writers put together, can cause fear and a picture of God which can make people run away from Him. Jesus talks about “eternal fire and punishment” (Matthew 25:41,46), “fire of hell” (Matthew 5:22) and “outer darkness” (Matthew 25:30).
He told a parable in which a rich man who had refused to help the poor was in permanent agony in eternal fire, visible to those in ‘heaven’. (Luke 16:19-24) (Some early Christians interpreted this to mean that, “…we will watch the just damnation of the unredeemed, and it will be part of our joy.” (Aquinas))
He tells his disciples, “Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28). The word Jesus uses for ‘hell’ is ‘Gehenna’, a valley outside Jerusalem in which rubbish was constantly burned along with the corpses of those whose families could not bury them.
It is fair to ask questions like: How could an all good God, who IS love torture people in hell eternally? In what way is it loving to keep people alive and burning? Doesn’t the idea of eternal punishment seem to reverse the consistent picture in the Bible that God’s anger burns for a moment, but His love endures for ever?
How could Jesus, who revealed God’s heart on the cross by being willing to die for His enemies, tolerate their eternal punishment? How can God be all in all, and victorious over evil, in a new creation in which there is no more sorrow, dying, or evil, if satan is still torturing people in hell?
How can eternal pain, without any restorative point, and no hope of being relieved, be compatible with even human versions of justice? And, if we take the parable literally, how could I enjoy being in God’s presence if, for example, I could see someone I love in hell?
It is not surprising that, as one writer puts it, “Millions of people, young and old, have given up on Christianity because our way of talking about hell sounds absolutely wacky. ‘God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,’ we say, ‘and he’ll fry your butt in hell forever unless you do or believe the right thing’… No wonder Christianity – or that version of it – is a dying religion in so many places in the world.”
It is important to know that even the early Christians wrestled with these questions in various ways – trying to bring together:
The good hope that God will deal with evil once and for all
It is just as impossible for light and darkness to coexist as it is for sin to come into God’s presence. (That is why as soon as Jesus was present in the world there was a sense of unavoidable judgment already beginning: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.” (John 3:19-20))
and the revelation that God IS agape love, and that there is no shadow side to Him at all.
with the necessity and anguish of the cross
Jesus experienced the hell of separation from His Father. The longer, deeper, and more intimate the relationship, the more tortuous is any separation. The result of Jesus becoming alienated from the source of pure love was therefore that He went as far as possible in the opposite direction.
Without acknowledging the possibility of such darkness, we lose our sense both of the amazing love of God revealed through the cross, and the knowledge of our true value as those for whom He died. His love is not sentimentality but expressed through action.
Some Christians, then and now, attempt to hold these ideas together in different ways in order to try and understand what judgment means.
Some believe that God will indeed judge people and fallen spiritual beings through suffering which is eternal and conscious
(Lots of ideas we have inherited from medieval art portray this). They would emphasise the examples we have looked at as to be taken literally.
Some believe that judgment will mean that some will simply cease to exist (known as ‘annihilationism’ or ‘conditional immortality’.)
They would emphasise that human beings are not essentially immortal – that can only be a gift. That while the wicked are referred to as, for example, bring “destroyed forever” (Psalm 92:7), this does not have to mean that they are forever being destroyed. Scripture’s references to an “unquenchable fire” refer to the finality of judgment – nothing can reverse it – not its duration. That the language of parables such as in Luke 18 must be read as narrative devices rather than literal, just as, for example we might talk about “St Peter at the pearly gates”. That even if He wanted to, God in theory couldn’t save anyone who had the freedom to choose to resist His love. In this view, if God judges people in the sense that He allows them the choice to let evil run its course, He allows evil to lead to its unavoidable self-destruction.
Some believe that all creatures will go through a purifying process which will ultimately mean that everyone will be saved – in the widest sense of the word. (This is known as ‘universalism’.)
They would emphasise that even though everyone will be judged by the “burning heat of God’s love”, nevertheless as Paul wrote the aim will be so that, “their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.” (1 Corinthians 3: 13-14)
While the fruits of our lives may need to be purified, this would not mean our complete end. The fire that lovingly purges all that it can and justly destroys all that it must is the same fire.
Pope Benedict XVI describes how this ultimate purifying will enable us to become fully transformed:
“Before His gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with Him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves… His gaze, the touch of His heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation ‘as through fire’. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of His love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God.”
Whatever view we have, it is important as disciples that we can hold them in humility and love, and that we hold on to some key ideas about our picture of God, ourselves and others:
Our picture of God.
God IS love.
As we have seen, it is impossible for God to act against His own nature in any way towards us other than through self-sacrificial love – there is no hidden side to Him, or split personality. “…in him there is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5) His everlasting essence is the love that is revealed on the cross.
This means that when the Bible talks about God’s “wrath” it is not describing vengeful anger, but it can only be reflecting how evil, rebellion, or hardened hearts naturally experience and react to that love.
It is clear that God doesn’t want anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9).
Thus, whatever understanding we might have of judgment, if there is any way that God could save all, he most certainly would save all.
Ultimately our understanding needs to be consistent with our trust in God’s character. Do we believe God to be more loving, just, fair and wise than we could ever be? As the Bible says, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25)
Looking towards my own judgement, and that of others.
With all these things in mind, a disciple can look forward to judgment and prepare for it: “Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.” (2 Peter 3:11)
The gift of God is that we can have “confidence on the day of judgment” because “in this world we are like Jesus.” (1 John 4:17) Because of the cross, we are forgiven and our covenant status before God restored – we stand before Him “in Christ”.
Thus, Jesus tells us we do not have to “worry about tomorrow” (Matthew 6:24). We do not need to be afraid because God judgement through perfect love is not about punishment, but about healing. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18)
The point of the Bible’s many and different images about judgment are less about giving us crystal-clear information about the mechanics of the end of this age so much as inspiring us to live as disciples in the present. As we have seen, Jesus’ died and rose again not to provide an escape route after death, or an insurance policy, but to invite human beings to live in God’s kingdom, enjoying the covenant-relationship God desires to have with us today.
Understanding that the language of judgment highlights the enormous chasm between God’s holiness and our condition is helpful as it helps us realise we cannot come to God in our own merit or strength. It calls us with seriousness to live eternally by placing God at the centre of our lives, rather than ourselves.
But in our own discipleship, and in our sharing with others, fear of judgment can never be a motivator either for coming to love God, or for changing behaviour.
In sharing our faith, for example, it is helpful to know that there is no one in the Bible who claims to know that another person is in hell. The only person’s judgment I am called to pay attention to is my own.
Rather than being anxious about those we love who have not yet placed their trust in Christ’s sacrifice and victory, we can trust that God will judge them, like us, with love and truth more than we can comprehend.
We can be confident and eager for God’s future. The last words of the Bible end not with words of fear about the “Day of the Lord” but longing and reassurance. Jesus “who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.” (Revelation 22: 21-22)
Through His life, death and resurrection Jesus brought the healing of God’s kingdom and won the decisive battle over sin, evil and death. He came to “destroy the devil’s work” (1 John 3:8) and declared, “Now is the ruler of this world cast out” (John 12:31)
But our lived experience is that in many ways we already live in the light of God’s victory – His kingdom is among us now. But the complete fulfilment of God’s plan is ‘not yet’. This is why an enemy still walks about like a hungry lion trying to eat us (1Peter 5:8) and we still have to struggle with the pain and battle of a fallen world – with death, suffering, temptation and against the “powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12)
As disciples, we are waiting for that work to be complete, for God’s kingdom to come in its fulness as heaven and earth are fully reunited. We still pray “your kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.” At the end of the age we will receive it in its completion.
The Swiss writer Oscar Cullmann famously compared this to the end of the Second World War, saying that Jesus’ first coming was like D-Day, on June 6th, 1944. On that day the Allies broke into enemy territory, securing a victory which made the end of the war inevitable – the power of the German forces was effectively overcome.
Nevertheless, it was not until nearly a year later (May 8th, 1945, V-E Day) that the Germans finally surrendered. Between D-Day and VE-Day the battle continued, in some ways becoming more intense as the war neared its end.
Cullmann says that while Jesus’ first coming broke the power of the enemy (D-Day), we are living in a time when we are still waiting for the war to be over (VE-Day) and for evil and death to be completely destroyed. We can have confidence in God’s victory (now), but we still long for its completion (not yet).
As disciples we are called to continue to confront evil and suffering (we explore this more in module 3) in a world in which that battle can feel as intense as ever. Paul says that this affects not only us, but the whole world which is “groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time”. The universe longs for ‘VE-Day’, when “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8: 19-22)
That’s why traditional language describes God’s people as still having to be “militant, here on earth”, like soldiers, standing up against evil through self-sacrificial love, until we can be the “church triumphant”.
When we suffer, we do so in hope and in certainty of final victory. Every time we share bread and wine we “proclaim the Lord’s death — until he comes.” We remember that Christ has come, but that He is coming again, and we are strengthened to persevere between the “now and the not yet”.
Even as we have begun to see some of the roots of suffering and evil in the world, the persistent question as to how God can be loving and yet allow suffering to exist can remain the largest stumbling block to our discipleship.
Yet the difficult times of our lives can also be those in which we can most learn to rely on God, allowing Him to be at the centre of our lives and to shape our characters.
This is not a new question for Christians – one of the earliest-written books in the Bible (Job) is a meditation on why God allows suffering, and why He seems silent during it. For early Christians suffering was not a surprise, but, as we have seen, part of the expected result of a world still in conflict. Alongside this understanding there are resources for us to be able to grow through suffering both in our understanding and in our experience.
“Only a suffering God can help.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer). It is essential for any disciple to know that, through Christ, God suffers with us. It helps our understanding, because, while no answer can fully take away or explain our suffering, our picture of God now includes one in which suffering is at the centre of who God is. It helps our experience of suffering because we know we are not alone in it, but God is with us.
The picture ‘The Tortured Christ’ gives us a visual sense of the reality of God’s agony on the cross. The depth of the physical, emotional and spiritual sufferings of God in Christ on the cross are hard to describe. (See three page handout from Tim Keller’s book on the sufferings of God). One writer portrays it as the ultimate darkness we can imagine:
“He was without any comforts of God — no feeling that God loved him — no feeling that God pitied him — no feeling that God supported him. God was his sun before — now that sun became all darkness… He was without God — he was as if he had no God. All that God had been to him before was taken from him now. He was Godless — deprived of his God….This is the hell which Christ suffered. The ocean of Christ’s sufferings is unfathomable…” (Robert Murray McCheyne)
The story ‘The Long Silence’ (see handout) imagines billions of victims of history who stand before God, asking, “Can God judge us? How can He know about suffering?” They come to a conclusion: Before God could be qualified to be their judge, He must endure what they had endured….They “sentence” God to suffer as they have. Yet, “when the last had finished pronouncing sentence, there was a long silence. No one uttered a word. No one moved. For suddenly, all knew that God had already served His sentence.”
Through the cross, God understands suffering. Not only that, but the book of Hebrews suggests He has allowed Himself to be shaped by it: “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered…” (Hebrews 5:8)
Historically, people have struggled with the question as to how a God who cannot change experience suffering. But Richard Bauckham notes how “…it has often been said that if God is personal love, analogous to human personal love, then he must be open to the suffering which a relationship of love can bring.” (See his five page article on God’s suffering: https://theologicalstudies.org.uk/article_god_bauckham.html.) The fact that God IS love means that God can choose to be vulnerable, without losing His power. While not understanding suffering fully, disciples can know that on the cross God shares in, and protests about, our suffering.
The photo ‘Corona Jesus’ also speaks of how Jesus is present with us in our sufferings. He is with those who are most disgraced, having been crucified “outside the city walls” – in other words in an unclean rubbish dump. (Hebrews 13: 12-14) The holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s famous story of witnessing the execution of a child at Auschwitz makes this point powerfully. “…he heard someone behind him groan: ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ And from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where is He? This is where – hanging here from this gallows.’”
Often when we look for God in our sufferings, the answer to our prayer can be less that He rescues out of a situation, and more that He parachutes in to be join us in the midst of it. In the Bible, God does not say, “Do not fear, I will take away all your pain.” Rather, we hear, “You have no need to fear, since I am with you.”
The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that everything happens for a reason – that every event, good or bad, exists to shape our lives in some way. It is common for Christians to echo this thought in the face of difficulty or suffering, perhaps as a way of interpreting the well-known verse from Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him….” Or to offer it as an instinctive word of comfort.
Yet in a world in which both human and spiritual beings have genuine free will, in which there remains a spiritual conflict that is often invisible to us, or in which someone’s prayer for rain (farmer growing crops) may at the same time be another person’s misfortune (groom on a wedding day), it is often impossible for us to truly know why certain things happen.
The phrase “everything happens for a reason” can do damage both to an individual in pain, and to our picture of God. The more we see God as being behind every sickness and tragedy the harder it is to know that He truly loves us. Romans 8:28 is not saying that all things are good in themselves, or God’s will. Rather it is saying that whether circumstances are good or bad, God can continue to work for our good.
What is very important for us to know is that God never wants human beings to suffer. This was demonstrated, for example, by Jesus consistently healing every sick person who came to Him. He never suggested that God wanted anyone to remain sick for a reason.
Some worry that effectively saying some things lie out of God’s control in this way is risking making God too small. What God’s ‘power’ means, and the way in which God can order what comes to pass is an ongoing debate.
Yet as we have seen, by taking the risk of being human, and being crucified, God willingly shows His true power by giving up the ability to control everything. His true greatness is not by being able to make “everything happen”, but being able to work out His purposes even if things do not always go His way because of, for example, our freedom to make bad choices.
While Christians ultimately know that God will reunite heaven and earth – the end of the story is certain – some would say that perhaps God can work for the good through all things not by overriding human or spiritual beings’ decisions, but by being able to anticipate all possible outcomes and adapt accordingly. This is known as “open theism”.
For disciples this means that often (as in the case of Job) there may not be a ‘reason’ for evil or suffering. It is the reality of living in a universe still waiting for God’s complete rule to be present.
This also means that having questions and doubts does not have to be the opposite of faith, but a necessary part of it. If faith is ‘psychological certainty’ then it will be hard for us to face events which are challenging, or to grow in trust.
But faith in the Bible is demonstrated by Israel, whose name means “one who struggles with God”. It is about keeping trust with God as a covenant-partner in the face of uncertainty. A faithful relationship with God is more expressed by people feeling confident enough to express their complaints, confusions, or even accusations to God, rather than never having them.
Paul was confident enough to write that, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.” (1 Corinthians 13:12) Jesus expressed His love for His Father by asking why He had forsaken Him. The more mature our faith, the more confident we will be with the things we cannot understand.
The relationship God invites us into is honest, intimate, and trusting. As such, the Bible gives us many examples of how God does not want us to censor our feelings or our words before Him. The Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila was once travelling by horse and trap to see a convent of nuns. The vehicle had an accident, and she was thrown into a puddle of mud. Feeling embarrassed that she would greet the nuns in a muddy habit, she looked up to the heavens and said: “God, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few.”
The ability to express grief, sorrow and frustration is necessary for genuine healing and wholeness, and so it is notable that Jesus gives us an example of grief, in weeping at his friend Lazarus’ tomb. For Paul, the experience of grief will be different for those with the hope of resurrection.
“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). But because that hope is to be fully realised, Jesus shares with us in the tears at the frustration and loss of bereavement that is our experience in this age. Tears can be a gift of healing.
As well as the reality of grief, the Bible is also full of examples of lament before God. While there are sometimes elements of complaining in lament, while a complaint is an accusation against God that maligns His character, lament is an appeal to God based on confidence in His character.
Many of the Psalms (over one-third of them) and the prophets ask questions, express doubts and even challenge God to be faithful and just. “How long, Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? Remember how fleeting is my life. For what futility you have created all humanity!” (Psalm 89: 46-47) “How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?” (Habakkuk 1: 2-3) Job feels able to ask God, “Why did I not perish at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?” (Job 3:11) Jeremiah cries out, “Why is my pain continuous, my wound incurable…?” (Jeremiah 15:18)
Lament is a direct way of praying. Jesus “offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death.” (Hebrews 5:7) It says that things are not right, they need to be changed, the situation is intolerable and God needs to be faithful to His character and change things. Lament is not an absence of faith, but an act of faith. Deep down we know that our relationship with God counts; it counts to us and it counts to God.
This kind of brutal honesty is expressed in a prayer read by an Orthodox priest while he was with a couple whose two-year-old daughter was dying:
“We confess to You that we cannot see Your divine hand in the suffering of Madeline. Help us, we beg You, to see that in this evil there is some purpose, beyond our grasp and comprehension. Our minds are confused. Our hearts are in distress. Our wills are lost and weak, and our strength is gone…”
Lament is also a place in which we can say things that are not ‘right’ but need to be brought to God. Lament psalms about enemies ask God to do unimaginable things. “Happy the man who shall repay you the evil you have done us! Happy the man who shall seize and smash your little ones against the rock!” (Psalm 137:8-9) While these feelings are wrong, bringing them to God in this way means that they are not pushed underground, to emerge later in more destructive ways.
Most of the lament psalms end with praise. Only by lamenting and expressing pain, can healing begin. It is not our final prayer, but a prayer for the moment, while we wait for resurrection. We know that sorrow does not have the last word.
In the midst of the pandemic of 2020/1 N.T. Wright wrote, “It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell.”
Grief and lament, rather than denial, are a healing gift in the middle of difficulty. Wright’s quote also tells us something about how we pray and to whom we pray. We can wonder whether we are to pray to the Father, the Son or the Spirit?
A handout explores this in more detail, but distinctively Christian prayer will involve the Trinity. Paul writes that, ‘Through him [Jesus] we have access to the Father by one Spirit’ (Ephesians 2:18). Anglican collects (written prayers) are often addressed to God “through Jesus Christ our Lord”. But some are addressed to Christ, and a few to the Holy Spirit. In prayer we can come to a loving Father, accompanied by a Saviour and Lord, and inspired by His Spirit.
In terms of lament and grief, the encouragement here is that God’s Spirit is at work in us to help us pray when we do not know what to say. “Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God.” (Romans 8:26-27)
Jesus’ brother James saw suffering as the greatest opportunity for us to grow in our discipleship: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1: 3-4) Our struggles can sharpen our sense that God alone is all that matters.
But discipleship does not mean we need to seek out ways in which we can be tested – that is why we pray, “Lead us not into temptation” (or testing). James is also clear that God, who is agape love, never deliberately sends testing our way. “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.” (James 1: 13-14)
Nevertheless, the more we can approach suffering as an opportunity for “the Lord’s discipline” to shape us, the more we will grow as disciples. The letter to the Hebrews encourages us to, “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?” Our human parents “disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness.”
God’s discipline is never punishment related to our behaviour, but it can be the way that God can use the sometimes random and meaningless suffering and difficulties we endure to grow our dependence upon Him and shape our characters, if we allow Him to do so. While God never wants suffering, He wants us to grow in His love, and since trials can be an opportunity for this to happen, Hebrews is saying that we can experience them as discipline for our own ultimate good.
“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:7-11) As St Catherine of Siena wrote, “Nothing great was ever done without much enduring.”
Jesus’ experience of temptation in the desert echoes the three most common ways in which we can try and substitute God – by putting our own appetites first, or by living to please others rather than Him, or by seeking power and influence apart from Him. These short-term addictions for appetite, approval or ambition can be the biggest challenges to our discipleship.
Our ability to resist addiction begins long-before the moment of temptation in the shaping of our characters as we allow God’s Spirit room through the practices we have been exploring. Long-term change is always an indirect result of the rhythms we live by because our own willpower will never be enough. The aim of discipleship is for us to become like Christ through practices, so that over time we naturally become the people who will respond as He does – in good times and in bad.
But Jesus offers a simple lesson in resisting each temptation in the moment by being able to do two things. He recognises the lie behind what the temptation offers. And He can replace the lie with God’s truth by recalling what God has said in Scripture. The more our thinking is being regularly shaped by God’s story, the easier this becomes.
Most human beings do not live easily without hope for the future. Though some may say that this world, and the short span of life we have in it, are all that there is, and that everything we are and have will quickly disappear, it is hard for most people to live instinctively as if that is true. Human beings seem wired for hope.
Genuine hope is the only source of lasting peace.
For disciples, the hope of the reuniting of heaven and earth is “an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf.” (Hebrews 6:19)
In his first sermon, Peter said that because he saw this hope King David was able to say, “I will not be shaken….my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest in hope, because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, you will not let your holy one see decay. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.” (Acts 2: 25-28)
We are offered the promise as well that we are not alone but that we are “surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses”. (Hebrews 12:1) There are many disciples who have gone before us who are pictured as cheering us on as they wait for the final resurrection. Remembering disciples who have gone before, at particular times of the year, can be a regular source of encouragement, inspiration and hope in our own discipleship.
Genuine hope motivates us to care for the world, not use it for ourselves.
Karl Marx wrote that the church used Christian religion like a drug to keep people passive in this world by making them focus on the next. But, as we have seen, Jesus announces that God’s healing kingdom has already arrived, and that our hope is not to ‘go to heaven’, but to see the world transformed in preparation for when that hope will be complete. So when someone asked Martin Luther what he would do if Jesus was returning tomorrow he replied, “I would plant a tree.”
If this life is all there is, the temptation to use the world and others as much as we can, clinging to as much as we can, may be greater. But hope of resurrection prevents us both from being passive about looking after the world – because we are seeking God’s coming kingdom on earth – and means gives us the best reason to avoid grabbing hold of it while we can. The greater our hope, the easier it becomes to not treat the world now as if it all that there is.
Genuine hope is about living in the future promise today.
In the light of the future, one way of viewing our purpose and calling in life today is to join in with God in making the present world look as much like it will be when heaven and earth are fully reunited.
In module three we will explore in more detail how our mission and choices of what is right and wrong are shaped in large part by the vision we have of God’s future. Because, for example, in God’s future every tribe and nation will worship together, we seek that reality as much as possible today by resisting racism.
Because in God’s future there will be no more sickness and pain, we look for that to be happening as much as possible now by praying for the sick and developing medicine. Because in God’s future the earth will be renewed, we join with Him in caring for it today.
When Jesus offered His disciples “eternal life” He was talking about the quality of resurrection life that begins today – before our physical death. We have “our citizenship in heaven”, (Philippians 3:20) not because we are simply waiting to go there, but because we are representatives of God’s heavenly life now, wherever we are. To live in genuine hope is to join in with God in pulling His promised future into present experience wherever possible.
Every act of healing, prayer or renewal can be a sign of that hope – creating ‘pockets of heaven’, world-transforming communities, or as Celtic Christians say, “thin places”, where the barrier between the life of heaven and earth is beginning to be lifted. It also says that evil does not have the last word.
Vedran Smailovic is known as the ‘Cellist of Sarajevo’. During the siege of Sarajevo he became famous for playing his cello, dressed in his full orchestral clothes, in bombed out buildings, often under threat of snipers. After a mortar bomb killed 22 people who were waiting for food in a market-place in Sarajevo, he caught the world’s attention by going there and playing Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor for twenty two days, once for each victim.
In the same way, among the ruins of the world, disciples are called to seek God’s beautiful kingdom by replacing destruction with the music of hope – with signs that evil does not have the last word.
In this module we have explored Jesus’ life, His death and resurrection. But His ascension (going up) to be with God the Father is in many ways the ultimate statement about His identity and purpose. Luke sees it as so significant that he records it twice – at the end of his gospel and at the beginning of the book of Acts.
The ascension shows that Jesus’ earthly work was complete – He had accomplished all that He needed to do. Now He could finally “sit down at His Father’s right hand.”
It was the final demonstration of His victory. He returned to His heavenly glory and was lifted up by His Father with honour, receiving the “name above every name”- the reigning king over all powers in all ages.
Early Christians would have been familiar with the idea that when a Roman emperor died his ‘soul’ would go to heaven and he would become divine. But they knew that Jesus’ ascension fulfilled the glory of a divine King who rules in a completely different way.
In becoming like Him in the difficulties of life, His ascension can strengthen us in at least three ways.
The ascension means that He is with us, wherever we are.
It is difficult to imagine the moment at which Jesus’ resurrected body returning to be fully in heaven (God’s space) looked like, but it marked the end of His physical, earthly ministry – in one location – and the beginning of His agape rule through His church throughout the world, in all places.
The ascension meant that the Spirit of Jesus could now be available to everyone. He had told his disciples that it was good for him to go away, because only then would he send them another Helper, the Spirit of truth (John 16:7-16). Forty days after His resurrection, Jesus and His disciples went to Mount Olivet, near Jerusalem. Jesus told them to wait in Jerusalem until the Spirit had come.
On the Day of Pentecost, ten days after Jesus’ ascension, His Spirit descended on the church with power. Whereas in the old covenant God’s Spirit came to certain people at certain times, because of the ascension the Spirit of Jesus is now available everywhere to those who ask.
It is also worth knowing that Jesus’ return to ‘heaven’ does not mean He is removed from us – as we have seen the coming of God’s kingdom means that God’s space (heaven) and our space (earth) are increasingly overlapping.
The ascension means that Jesus takes our humanity into God and prays for us
The resurrected Jesus was more human, not less, than he was before – human but without frailty and dying. This is a promise of genuine humanity. And we can be reassured of our eternal value than knowing that in His return to God, Jesus does not stop being human, but takes our humanity into God.
God’s original plan was always that restored human beings should rule over the creation with justice and wisdom. The ascended, ruling and human Jesus becomes the first in whom that promise can begin to be realised.
Not only that but “we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven…(in Him) we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin.”
Because humanity is in the heart of God, God now knows our weakness and struggles in His experience, and the ascended Christ can open the way for us to come as we are to God.
Because of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4: 14-16)
The ascension gives us the power to do the whole work of Jesus’ through His gifts
Paul connects the ascension with the arrival of the gifts God gives each of us to carry out Jesus’ work on earth. He quotes a Psalm which prophesies that “When he ascended on high…he gave gifts to his people.” (Ephesians 4:7)
Because none of us can individually carry out the full ministry of Jesus, various gifts are shared out to everyone, for example, teaching, pastoring, leading, sharing good news, and listening to God. Only when these gifts are all present in a church community can we “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:12)
In the ‘Way of Servant-Leadership’ two of the sessions help us to discover our particular gifts. In module three of ‘Way of Discipleship’ we look at the calling on each one of us as disciples to join in with God’s Spirit in using these gifts to see the world become more as God wants it to be – on earth, as it is in heaven.