We followers of Jesus try so hard to summarize what He means, turning His words into eternal life advice. But Jesus has another message: die first, then live.
“I am not what I ought to be — ah, how imperfect and deficient! I am not what I wish to be — I abhor what is evil, and I would cleave to what is good! I am not what I hope to be — soon, soon shall I put off mortality, and with mortality all sin and imperfection. Yet, though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor what I hope to be, I can truly say, I am not what I once was; a slave to sin and Satan; and I can heartily join with the apostle, and acknowledge, ‘By the grace of God I am what I am.’”
—John Newton1 reflecting on 1 Corinthians 15:10.
- As quoted in The Christian Pioneer (1856) edited by Joseph Foulkes Winks, p. 84. Also in The Christian Spectator, vol. 3 (1821), p. 186. ↩
On the morning of the third day [Sunday] Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus go to His tomb to anoint His body. They expect to find it, and are anxious about how they might roll away the stone that covers His tomb.
And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; He is not here.” (Mark 16:4-6)
It’s this moment that allows the apostle Paul to cry out, years later,
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:54-55)
The empty tomb shows that the greatest oppression of all—the oppression of sin and death—has been defeated. It’s gospel Judo. In Judo, you learn to use the power and movement of your attacker against them, often in moves that end with your opponent landing headfirst. Jesus takes on all that is plagued—He becomes human, taking upon Himself all the wrath of God against sin and all the attack and oppression of death, turning it on its head to provide life for God’s children.
Why did Christianity arise, and why did it take the shape it did? The early Christians themselves reply: We exist because of Jesus’s resurrection. Were there no resurrection, we would have neither comfort nor hope, and everything else Christ did and suffered would be in vain.
—Daniel Montgomery and Mike Cosper, Faithmapping: A Gospel Atlas for Your Spiritual Journey, 59, “The Gospel of the Cross.”
Last week Kari and I finished writing a letter to send to friends and family, including a little bit of an update on church planting with RENEW. Re-reading it yesterday caused me to pause and thank God, while considering the rapid change in our lives. This is a season of dynamic change, while other seasons are more like plodding or trudging through the mud. (Which season are you in? Are things moving fast, or really slow?)
I sat there and thought: “Who is up for this challenge? How can we not lose heart? We’re clearly not doing everything ‘right.’ No wonder most church plants ‘fail’ (on a human level). How can we gain the wisdom, generosity, courage we need for this journey?”
That’s a moment of searching for confidence.
Then this morning this Scripture leapt of the page:
“Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord [the Gospel] may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you, and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith. But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one. And we have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will do the things that we command. May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.”
—2 Thessalonians 3:1-5 (ESV)
All those verbs Paul uses jump off the page (or screen): pray … speed ahead … delivered … establish you … guard you …
It’s remarkable how a passage meant to encourage it’s first readers can also encourage us, while not really being about them or us. It’s centered on Jesus, the Hero. We gain our significance from being minor characters in His big Story.
Will you pray that for us, as we pray the same for you?
If you are curious about RENEW, there are three main ways to support this pioneering church plant, described briefly here. One way is to give financially at the close of this year. We’ve simplified the process, adding online giving to snail mail to the PO Box. You can also sign up to receive not-more-than-monthly updates.
Most of all we ask for your prayers personally, that the Gospel would race ahead of us, and this would clearly be God’s work and not merely ours.
For since the world began,
no ear has heard
and no eye has seen a God like You,
who works for those who wait for Him! (Isaiah 64:4 NLT)
The LORD says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life.
I will advise you and watch over you. Do not be like a senseless horse or mule
that needs a bit and bridle to keep it under control.” (Psalm 32:8, 9 NLT)
“If there is not radical growth in humble love toward everyone (even your enemies), you don’t really know you are a SINNER saved by grace. If there is not radical, concrete growth in confidence and joy (even in difficulties) you don’t really know you are a sinner saved by GRACE.”
Many people are willing to agree that they are sinners. “We all make mistakes,” they say. “It’s part of being human.”
And then comes the self-justifying disclaimer, “I try to do my best everyday,” or a comparison with others (“Well, I’m not as bad as ______, I don’t _______.”)
Let’s really know we are sinners, and really know God’s grace, as He changes our motives, conquering our fears, overwhelming us with His love.
“… the church is called to be for the world what Jesus was for Israel: not just a moral lecturer, nor even a moral example, but the people who, in obedience to God’s strange vocation, learn to suffer and pray at the place where the world is in pain, so that the world may be healed.” 1
We will value hope and healing for others as far as we value these truths for ourselves. That is why rehearsing the Gospel every day is vital. We begin each day voicing our greatest needs, far deeper than financial concerns or relational strife — we are estranged from God until He mercifully brings us back to His table to enjoy the life of His Son.
When He invites us back day after day, we develop an appetite for the nourishment He offers, and cannot go on without inviting others to the table as well. Yet, if we think we’re better than others, we’ll live that way. (E.g., it’s impossible to really forgive someone if you think you are better than him or her.) People who think of others as more important than themselves — like Jesus lived and why He died — people like Him find opportunities to set aside their personal comforts to bring comfort to others. I dare say this is part of the vision Jesus has for our lives. I tend to think many of His so-called followers fail to grasp this and thus fail to become who He rescued us to be.
Grasping the Gospel of hope & healing: If we are convinced all the time that we are worse off and undeserving than we ever realized before, and at the same time more loved than we ever dared to dream, we will be on the right track. Our hearts will be renewed with compassion as we hear Jesus invite us again to His gracious table – just as He invites the lame, sick, and outcasts to dine with Him (yes, you and I are two of them). Furthermore, we’ll pull out a chair for another whom Jesus is also waving into His banquet.
“Given the iterative weakness of our surrender to Jesus’ authority and the frequent frailty of our resolve to follow Him, our lives of discipleship must regularly be punctuated by intentional pauses at the feet of the Servant, not only remembering His grace, but thoughtfully receiving it. In this way, the Spirit will bring the grace of Jesus to bear on our hearts, softening them, inclining them toward God, and enabling them to respond to the virtuous demands of our King.” 2
Will I value hope and healing enough to daily remember, daily receive, and daily respond? If so, I won’t go it alone.
- N.T. Wright, “The Truth of the Gospel and Christian Living,” in The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (ed. Marcus J. Borg and N.T. Wright; New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), 224. ↩
- Jonathan Lunde, Following Jesus, the Servant King: A Biblical Theology of Covenantal Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 286. ↩