Monday, April 20, 2015

Real Life in the Real World (John 15:18-27)

Audio

There comes a point in adulthood when a grown man can say without embarrassment or apology that he enjoys fairy tales. It is not at a specific age, so much as at a milestone of life. Perhaps it comes when, sharing those long forgotten stories with our children, we rediscover that there was more to these stories than first met the eye in our childhood. Though we often consider fairy tales to be children’s stories, I have begun to think they originated more for the enjoyment of the adults who told them to the children. After all, as Chesterton said, “When we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. In fact,” Chesterton writes, “a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him.”[1]

I think one of the reasons I have come to enjoy fairy tales so much is that they provide us a brief escape from the real world in which we live. In fairy tales, the good guys win, the bad guys lose, and everyone lives happily ever after. In that regard, they foreshadow the end times when Christ will right every wrong, vindicate His glory in this sin-stained world, exercise perfect judgment, and bring His redeemed church into eternal joy. But until that time, this fallen world is the scene of suffering, tragedy, hardship, and injustice. Christians are not immune to these difficulties on the basis of our personal relationship with God through Christ. No, rather the Lord Jesus tells us that on the basis of that personal relationship with Him, we should expect to be treated harshly by the world around us. This is not a fairy tale life, it is real life. This is not fantasyland, it is the real world.

Six times in two verses of our text, we find the word “world.” In Greek, it is the word kosmos, and the word has a wide range of meaning. It can refer to planet earth, and it can refer to the human race. But, its most common use in the New Testament, particularly in John’s writings, is the system of fallen humanity operating in rebellion and opposition to the God who created them. The “world,” when used in this way, refers to the “values, pleasures, pastimes, and aspirations” of human beings who are fully driven by their sinful natures.[2] This is the “world” in which we live. And Jesus promises us here in our text, among many other places, that real life in this real world is going to be difficult for the followers of Christ.

We see it in the culture around us every day, do we not? For some of us, the recent shifts in our cultural climate have been a rude awakening. In the American south, Christian values have been the predominant cultural influence for generations. Today, that influence is all but vanished, replaced by the values of the world. As Trevin Wax has recently said, “It’s time we recognized we are no longer the “moral majority” and embrace our identity as the “missional minority.” This is particularly true of the church in the American South. Whereas once in my own lifetime, I can remember a value system, rooted in the Christian faith, that influenced even the unbelievers in our culture; today we find churches influenced by the world’s value system, with only a small remnant of Gospel-focused Christianity holding fast to the faith. This remnant is the missional minority which must confront the hostile world around it with a humble but prophetic witness for Christ.

While we bemoan the changes that are occurring in our society, the Lord Jesus promised His followers that days like this would come. Most Christians around the world and throughout history would wonder what has taken so long for it to come to us. What we are only beginning to experience has been the norm for Christians over the last 2,000 years. We have been living out a spiritual fairy tale in a relative fantasy land. But now it is time for us to live real life in the real world. And Jesus tells us how to do that here in these verses. These are His promises for living real life in the real world.

The first one is this …

I. We will experience the world’s hatred.

At least seven times in the passage before us, we find the word “hate” in some form. Every time we find it, Jesus is either telling how the world has responded to Him, or how the world will respond to His followers. So, we have in verse 18 a conditional statement, “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you.” When we as Christians find ourselves on the receiving end of the world’s hatred, we must remember that we are receiving what Jesus Himself received. Jesus is telling us that the hatred of the world is normal and to be expected. It is what He endured, and as He says in verse 20, “A slave is not greater than his master.” He tells His disciples there, “Remember the word that I said to you.” He said it in John 13:16, but there it was as a positive exhortation. He was telling them that if He served them in love, they should serve one another in love, because the servant is not greater than his master. They will know that we are Christians by our love for one another. But here the same principle applies negatively. If Christians are known by their love, the world is known by its hate. Not only do we have the same responsibilities as our Master, but we can also expect the same response as He did. Jesus said, “I’ve told you this already – don’t expect the world to treat you any better than they treated Me.” And they hated Him, so they will hate us. We will experience this, and we must expect it because Christ has promised it. As John writes in 1 John 3:13, “Do not be surprised, brethren, if the world hates you.”

If we were to ask, “Why does the world hate Christians?” the first answer would be because the world hates Christ. We are hated because of our representation of Him. But why does the world hate Jesus? In John 7:7, He says that He is hated by the world because He testifies of it, that its deeds are evil. In verse 22 of our text, Jesus says, “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin.” He does not mean that they would have been innocent of all sin, but they would have been able to say that they didn’t know they were sinning if Christ had not come into the world to preach to them. But, they have no excuse. They have seen Him; they have heard Him. They cannot claim ignorance of their sinfulness anymore.

He says similarly in verse 24, “If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would not have sin; but now they have both seen and hated Me and My Father as well.” Again, it is not that they would have been innocent of all sin, but they would have been able to plead some kind of special exception that they did not what or in whom to believe. But Jesus said, “I did works among them that no one else did.” His works were the testimony of His divine authority, the validation of His words. God had come to confront the world in its sin and save them from it, but rather than turning to Him in repentance and faith, they turned on Him in hatred and murder. But Jesus said in verse 25 that they did it to fulfill what was written in their own Scriptures, “They hated Me without a cause.”

The world hates us because of our representation of Him. As our lives are being transformed by Christ into His own likeness, we are a visible reminder to the world of Jesus Christ. Our refusal to join the world in the folly of its sin is an unspoken message of condemnation against them. Our witness to them, offering them the message of salvation in Christ, is often despised. We should not be surprised. The world hated Jesus. As we become more like Him, speak His words, and do His works in the world, they will hate us to because we represent Him.

The world also hates Christians because of our relationship with Him. He says in verse 19, “If you were of the world, the world would love its own.” If you had the same values, the same outlook, the same desires, motives, and pursuits of the world, you would be the most popular person in the world. In fact, if you find yourself receiving the adoration of the world, you should beware. John Calvin said, “It is not right for Him to be hated by the world and we who represent Him to enjoy the favor of the world.”[3] Jesus said in Luke 6:26, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for their fathers used to treat the false prophets in the same way.” The love of the world is an indicator that all may not be well in your relationship with Christ. But if all is well in your relationship with Him, your desires, motives, values, and outlook have been changed. Those changes in you are a demonstration that you no longer belong to the world. You belong to Christ. He says, “Because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.” The world hates you because of your relationship with Jesus.

William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury during World War II, said that the world “would not hate angels for being angelic; but it does hate men for being Christians. It grudges them their new character; it is tormented by their peace; it is infuriated by their joy.”[4] Let’s suppose that you suddenly discovered that you could fly. You simply woke up one morning and found that by snapping your fingers, you could lift off the ground and fly wherever you wanted to go with ease. Well, this is something that can obviously not be kept secret, so you begin to tell others about your newfound ability. They snap their fingers, but nothing happens, they can’t fly like you can fly. Now, at first they may pat you on the back and smile as they say, “That’s really great for you. I am really happy that you have discovered this about yourself, and I hope you really enjoy it.” But every time you go zipping past them through the air, there is an increasing burden of bitterness in their heart toward you. “There goes that old show off again. I hope he hits a tree.” Soon, you may find that it is very lonely being the only person you know who can fly.

John Gillespie Magee was a Word War 2 pilot who wrote a poem about the sensation of flying called “High Flight” which begins, “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth.” This is what the Christian can say: I have slipped the surly bonds of this world, having been chosen out of it by Jesus. The rest of the world hates that about you. As Carson writes,

The world is a society of rebels, and therefore finds it hard to tolerate those who are in joyful allegiance to the King to whom all loyalty is due …. Former rebels who have by the grace of the King been won back to loving allegiance to their rightful monarch are not likely to prove popular with those who persist in rebellion. … [H]aving been chosen out of the world, having been drawn by the Messiah’s love into the group referred to as the Messiah’s ‘own’ who are still in the world (13:1), their newly found alien status makes them pariahs in … the world of rebels.[5]

When it comes to real life in the real world, Jesus has promised us that we will experience the world’s hatred. Now we come to the second promise:

II. We may encounter the world’s persecution.

Persecution is a word that seems to take on degrees of meaning. Like “beauty,” persecution seems to be in the eye of the beholder. When I was threatened with arrest in Massachusetts several years ago for handing a man a gospel tract in the street, I did not consider it to be persecution. I was not being singled out because I was a Christian, but rather it was because this guy went into a rage and began causing a scene, and blamed me for “disturbing the peace.” Thankfully the officer was reasonable and, no harm was inflicted upon me. Some may call that persecution. I wouldn’t. Last week, a 15 year old Christian boy in Lahore, Pakistan was walking to his job, and he was approached by two Muslims who asked to what religion he belonged. When he said he was a Christian, those men beat him, covered him in kerosene, and set him on fire. On this past Wednesday, he died. That is most definitely persecution, no matter how you define it.[6]

Christians do not have a monopoly on persecution. Others are persecuted in the world, and Christians have been guilty of persecuting others – even fellow Christians. But Jesus promised His disciples that they may encounter persecution. He said in verse 20, “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.” This is a conditional statement. If one part is true, the other will follow. So, how did they treat Jesus? They persecuted Him. There you go; you may experience it as well. It is, as one writer has said, “that the wave that began to rise with the murder of Abel by his brother Cain gathered through the ages until it ‘broke in fury on the cross, and we are struggling in its broken waters.’”[7]

Hatred is an emotional state of being; persecution is its physical outworking. All of us will experience the hatred. Some of us may encounter the persecution, in varying degrees. The Apostle Paul said in 2 Timothy 3:12 that all those who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. That seems pretty certain. But Jesus says in verse 21 that “all these things they will do to you” are being done “for My name’s sake.” When the world persecutes the believer in Christ, it is still taking out its frustrations with Jesus upon those who follow Him. We are receiving the brutality that the world would give to Him if they could. But what the world does not realize is that Christ is receiving it that way as well. You may recall how, prior to his conversion, the Apostle Paul was a zealous persecutor of Christians. When he encountered the risen Lord Jesus on the Damascus Road, Jesus said to Him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” What Saul was doing to the followers of Christ, Christ Himself was receiving as being done unto Him. So as we suffer for Him, we know that we share in His sufferings, and He shares in ours. Thus Paul says in Philippians 3:10 that he wants to know Christ and the fellowship of His sufferings. He suffers with us when we suffer for Him.

Now, there are a few disclaimers we need to issue here. First, just because someone is hated or persecuted does not mean that they are followers of Christ. All kinds of people are hated and persecuted in the world, and some have concluded that their sufferings must be an indication of God’s favor upon them. While sufferings are no sure sign of God’s displeasure, neither are they a sure sign of His pleasure. So, we must not think that all is well with ourselves or anyone else just because they are hated and persecuted. We should not go out seeking persecution and hatred in order to prove our faithfulness to God. If we are faithful, it will find us. Second, we must live in such a way that when we are hated and persecuted, it will be for the offense of the Gospel, and not the offensiveness of our own personalities and dispositions which may be unnecessarily offensive. So, our mission is not to go out and be offensive. I have known many pastors who were hated by their congregations, and they say, “Those people hate me because of the Word of God.” What I want to say, and sometimes do say, to them is, “No, they hate you because you are a jerk, and that has nothing to do with how they feel about the Word of God.” We are to live humble lives, saturated in love, as pleasant and joy-filled followers of Jesus, so that the reason for the world’s hatred is the name of Jesus and His Word. The Gospel is to be the great offense, not our personalities or presentations of it.

And this brings us to the final promise concerning the Christian’s real life in the real world:

III. We must engage in the Lord’s mission.

How should a Christian live in a world that hates and persecutes Christians? Should we retreat from the world? Hide in our church buildings and busy ourselves with religious activities so that we never interact with the world? Be silent about our faith so as to not cause any trouble? Maybe just do good humanitarian deeds in hopes that by so doing, someone may detect that we are followers of Jesus and want to join us? No, Jesus actually calls us to engage the world with our testimony for Him as we become part of His mission to redeem this lost and dying world.

In verse 21, Jesus says that the world will do “all these things … to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me.” Why does the lost world do what they do? Friends, the reason the world hates and persecutes Christians is because the world does not know God! In fact, we can see by a thread of logic running all the way through this passage that the world hates God, because it hates Jesus and His followers. So, Jesus says to His followers that in this world filled with people who do not know God and hate what they do know about Him, we must engage in His mission to rescue them from perishing.

Remember that we were once there, without hope and without God in the world (in the words of Ephesians). We too were ignorant of God and at enmity with Him. But we were rescued. Jesus says that He chose us out of the world (v19). There are some people who misunderstand the purposes of Jesus’ sovereign grace, and think that this is something to boast of. “I am among the chosen ones! Look at me!” No friends, we are looking at this upside down. Jesus chose us because we were too ignorant and sinful to choose Him. We loved darkness rather than light. We were dead in our sins and could nothing to move ourselves toward God. And so it was in grace and mercy that the Lord chose us, not because we were worth choosing, but because He had PITY on us. He loves us, not because we are lovable, but because He is loving. We are no better than the world. We aren’t smarter, more beautiful, more charming, or in any other way superior to the world. We are simply saved out of the world by God’s grace in Jesus Christ. So, this should humble us and move us to have love and pity for those who are still enslaved to the world. Someone, maybe several of those who had been rescued by saving grace, was humble enough to lovingly bring us to Jesus. We must be humble enough to do the same.

Now, we might say, “How in the world are we to engage a lost world that hates Christians and wants to persecute us?” It sounds pretty intimidating, doesn’t it? Its like when Jesus said to His disciples that He was sending them out as sheep in the midst of wolves. I think I saw that movie on National Geographic, and it didn’t go well for the sheep. But Jesus says here in verse 26 that we are not to engage the lost world alone. He says that the Holy Spirit is coming. He is our Helper, sent by Christ from the Father, the Spirit of Truth. The Holy Spirit is coming into the world to testify. He will give testimony to the Person and work of Jesus Christ. How will He do this? Verse 27 says, “and you will testify also.”

The Holy Spirit’s testimony to the Person and work of Christ comes into the world through the testimony of us, the followers of Christ. His testimony of truth about who Jesus is and what He has done and said begins to flow through us as we add our testimony to His. It is an interesting thing that the Spirit is here called “the Spirit of Truth.” Testifying must be rooted in truth. The Spirit is testifying of the truth, and we are proclaiming the same testimony of truth, and the Bible says that the evidence of two or three witnesses is sufficient to establish a fact. Friends, as we give testimony to Christ through our words and deeds, we are adding our testimony to that of the Holy Spirit Himself and making a compelling case to a lost and dying world.

The good news is that, though we will experience hatred and persecution, we will see some believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved. Look at verse 20 again. Jesus says, “If they kept My word, they will keep yours also.” Now, by and large, the world did not keep the word of Jesus. But, some did. It was a relative few, but there were some. He was saying these very words to some of them. Some of us are here in this room today. We have kept the word of Jesus. When it came to us we believed it and turned and trusted in Him. And Jesus said that the world will respond to His word when we share it the same way it responded when He shared it. Some hated Him, some persecuted Him, but some – a relative few – believed, and we can expect the same. There will be some who will believe. It will be a relative few more than likely. Jesus still says that the way is narrow that leads to life and few there be that find it. But thank God for a relative few! It is for the sake of those relative few whom Jesus will choose to remove from this world and make His own that we must weather the hatred and persecution and move forward engaging in His mission to redeem a lost world. We will do this as we give Spirit-empowered testimony to who He is and what He has done for us.

Jesus came into the world and spoke like no one before Him ever did. He did things that no one else can do. Most importantly, He died for our sins when He laid down His life on the cross that we might be saved. He said that if anyone believes in Him, they would not perish but have everlasting life. Some hated Him for saying and doing those things. Some persecuted Him and took part in calling for and carrying out His murder. But some believed. Some still do. I wonder if you have? If you never have before you can today. Turn to Jesus and trust Him to save you. And if you are a Christian, though you are still in the world, you are not of the world. Jesus has taken you for Himself from this world, and the world may hate you and persecute you for His sake, but you must continue to engage the world, in the power of the Holy Spirit, for the sake of those who will believe upon Him in response to your testimony.



[1] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Moody: Chicago, 2009), Kindle Electronic Edition: Chapter 4, Location 1078.
[2] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 4.1190.
[3] John Calvin, John (Crossway Classic Commentaries; Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994), 363.
[4] Cited in Robert H. Mounce, “John” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (rev. ed.; Vol. 10; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 581.
[5] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 525.
[6] http://www.persecution.org/2015/04/17/christian-boy-torched-by-muslims-dies-in-hospital-days-after-attack/. Accessed April 17, 2015.
[7] Mounce, citing George Reith, 581.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Praise God for the Risen Jesus (1 Peter 1:3-5)

Audio

When the Patriarch Jacob met the Pharaoh of Egypt in Genesis 47, the Bible tells us that Pharaoh asked him, “How many years have you lived?” Jacob responded “The years of my sojourning are one hundred and thirty; few and unpleasant have been the years of my life.” Most of us will not live to the ripe old age of 130, but all of us can look over the landscape of our lives and say that our years have been few and difficult. Each of us experiences hardship on a daily basis. Since the fall of humanity into sin, every person who has ever lived in this world has been affected by suffering and sorrow in countless ways.

The original audience of Peter’s first epistle could relate. In the most plausible reconstruction of the historical background of this letter, the Christians to whom Peter was writing had been uprooted from Rome and deported under the Emperor Claudius, sent off to live in the newly established Roman colonies in Asia Minor. Why? We don’t know for certain, but we have reason to believe that they were singled out because they were Christians. And they were scattered across this enormous new territory where they came into contact with people who had lived there for a long time and were not too pleased about being under Roman control or having to deal with these new residents. These Christians were treated harshly by their new neighbors in a number of ways. Peter describes how they underwent “various trials,” “evil,” “harm,” a “fiery ordeal,” being slandered, reviled, and socially ostracized because of their faith in Christ. Not all suffering that we have endured is a direct result of our faith in Christ, but live long enough and you will experience some of it. Some of you have already experienced it to a great degree. Your decision to follow Christ may have cost you relationships, privileges, or possessions. But the Word of God points us to help and hope by turning our focus to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which we celebrate today on Easter.

Peter writes, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, in verse 3: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He calls them to worship the sovereign God of the universe in spite of their difficult circumstances. Instead of looking at the hardships around them, Peter directs their focus upward to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and says, “Blessed be Him!” In other words, “Praise Him!” Our worship of God is always rooted in the objective realities of who He is and what He has done. Peter uses very precise theological language in the opening verses of this letter to identify the one true God in His Trinitarian Nature, referring in v2 to God the Father, the Spirit, and Jesus Christ. Here in v3, he refers to Him as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, further establishing his conviction in the sovereignty of God and the deity of Christ. He is supremely and uniquely worthy of our praise and worship because who He is in and of Himself. But then notice that Peter points to a particular act of God as a foundational basis for this worship: The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

God has done many wondrous things in the history of the world, and the Lord Jesus did many wondrous things recorded in the Gospels, and many more that are not. John said that if we recorded everything He said and did, the whole world wouldn’t contain the books. But the resurrection is the singular and specific event to which Peter points these struggling Christians. It is this event in history that he uses as a basis of his call to worship in the present. Praise God, he says, on the basis of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. And in the words that fill this passage, Peter tells us why the resurrection of Christ is so foundational to our worship as we live out our lives, few and difficult though our days may be.

I. Because of the Resurrection, we can be born again (v3)

I’m not much of a handy man. When something has to be assembled, my tendency is to tear into it and start trying to put it together without looking at the directions. Invariably I reach a point where I realize I am stuck and pull out the instructions to see where I went wrong. Often it was with step one. So I have to take it all apart and start over. Don’t you wish life was like that? Wouldn’t it be great if you could go back and start over, knowing what you know now? See, by the time we come to understand what God expects of us in this life, we are already guilty of violating His holy standard. In fact, we were born guilty because we inherited a sin nature from Adam. So we are sinners by nature and by choice, from the worst of us to the best of us. We deserve to be eternally separated from God because of our sins. But praise the Lord, God has not given us what we deserve. He has shown us “great mercy.” When the Bible speaks of mercy, it means that God is withholding from us some penalty or consequence that we deserve. In His great mercy, Peter says, He has “caused us to be born again.” And this new birth is a direct result of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

You remember when Jesus was talking to Nicodemus in John 3. This man was a religious leader among the Jewish people. As far as human standards go, he was a good man. But his goodness was not good enough to please God. Jesus told him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” And Nicodemus asked Jesus a very natural question in response: “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born, can he?” And Jesus spoke to him about a different kind of birth – not the natural birth by which we are brought into the world, but a spiritual birth that comes to us from above. This new, spiritual birth is accomplished through Jesus Christ. Because God loved the world, He came into the world in the person of Christ to die for sins. He died the death we deserve because of our sins. And because of His divine power, He conquered sin and death by rising from the dead. Therefore, He is able to impart new life to all who come to Him by faith. He is able to “cause us to be born again” through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  

The solution to our spiritual predicament is not to try harder or do better, but to have a brand new life given to us by God Himself in the new birth. We need a new nature to replace the sinful nature we are born with. Thus Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again if he would enter the Kingdom of God.” We are born again with a new nature, and are made to be part of a new family. In this new family, God is our Father, and fellow believers in Jesus are our brothers and sisters. And the bond of this family is not just for this life, but for eternity. Because Jesus has conquered death and given us new life, our life with Him in this new family will be everlasting as well.

In 1 Corinthians 15:17, Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.” What he means there is that if Christ is not risen from the dead, then He has not defeated sin or its penalty for us, and thus there is still a price to pay for sin that we must pay ourselves. That price will be eternal separation from God in suffering and perishing in that horrific place the Bible calls hell. But if Christ has been raised, as we preach and believe, then He has made a sufficient sacrifice for our sins so that we can be born again by faith in Him. All the sins of our past are removed. Our nature is transformed by His indwelling presence within us, and eternal life will be ours to enjoy forever with Him and our new family in Christ.

Peter is writing these words to people who have made that commitment to believe in Christ alone to save them from their sins. They have been born again. And as a result of their commitment to Christ, many of them have suffered great loss in their lives. They may have been cut off from family, they may have lost friends, they may be undergoing persecution from others, but Peter calls them to worship God, because Christ is risen, and as a result of His resurrection we have been born again into a new life and given a new family with a new Father in Heaven, and new brothers and sisters in the Church of Jesus Christ. And this is true for all of us as well. Christ is risen, and therefore we can be born again and have new life, abundant life, and eternal life in Him. Praise God for the Risen Christ who makes it possible for us to be born again.

II. Because of the Resurrection, we have a living hope (v3)
To most of us, the word “hope” conjures up the idea of something we are less than certain of. You may say, “I hope my team wins the game.” You don’t know if they will, and they could just as easily lose, but you are pulling for them, wishing and wanting them to win. But that is not the way the word “hope” is used by New Testament writers. In the New Testament hope looks toward the future, but not with uncertain wishing and wanting; it looks toward the future with certainty and confidence. To have hope is the opposite of facing the future with fear. As one New Testament scholar said, “To have hope is a sign that things are well with us.”[1] A Christian’s hope is more than wishful thinking, it is a confident expectation of what will be. The logic of the passage is this: the resurrection makes the new birth possible, and the new birth brings hope, and this hope is living.
What is a “living hope”?  To understand that, we would have to understand its opposite–dead hope. Hope that is grounded in futile things is dead. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13, Paul refers to those who do not understand the resurrection as those who “have no hope.” Their hope is dead. Many whom we know today have no hope – the only hope they know is a dead hope because it is not based on anything of real substance or value. The existentialists and materialists of our modern world look for satisfaction in this life only, and wrestle with the seemingly undeniable reality that it will not be attained here. Therefore, their only hope is to endure the hardships of this life until death comes, and at that point, they believe they will simply cease to exist. Death to them is just nothingness, a state of nonexistence, like a candle that has been extinguished. This view was common in the ancient world as well. But this is not how the Christian looks toward the future. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:19, “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” We are hoping for something better beyond death. Our hope is a living hope because we understand that life goes on beyond death. Death is not the end for anyone, regardless of their spiritual condition. Hebrews 9:27 says that it is appointed unto man once to die and then the judgment. And in that judgment, some will enter eternal life and the glory of heaven, while others will perish eternally in hell. The difference is Jesus Christ. Those who have been born again by faith in him have a living hope of life beyond death. Jesus said in John 11, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies.”

Peter would have his Christian friends know that life in this world may be hard. People may mistreat us for no other reason than for our faith in Him. For 2,000 years, many Christians have even been put to death for their faith, and this continues in much of the world today. But Peter reminds these believers that we have a living hope. Because Jesus has conquered death, we will have victory over death as well in Him. What can this world do to you that Christ cannot overcome? The worst of it is death, but we have a living hope that enables us to wait with confident expectation for a better life than this beyond the grave. Living hope means that no matter what the future holds, the believer in Christ does not have to face the future with fear. We have faith in the promises of God and await the fulfillment of those promises with assurance that His word will be found to be true.

How are we to endure the difficulties of life in this world? By considering the risen Lord Jesus Christ and worshiping God. He has enabled us to be born again and given us a living hope.

III. Because of the Resurrection, we have a glorious inheritance (vv4-5)

In the Old Testament, the Promised Land of Canaan was often spoken of as Israel’s inheritance. The various portions of the land which were allotted to each tribe were referred to as that tribe’s inheritance. For them, the idea of an inheritance in the land was of the utmost importance. Many of Israel’s ancient laws about land and family had to do with this reality. Ultimately, that land was lost for centuries to invading powers, and today much of it is contested.

It is helpful to remember the likely scenario of Peter’s readers as we come to this discussion about inheritance. While we do not know for certain, the most likely background scenario of these Christians is that which I stated before—that they had been uprooted from Rome and scattered across Asia Minor by the Emperor Claudius. This is important to keep in mind, because in the ancient world, one’s inheritance often consisted primarily of land. This is still true in much of the world today. When a parent dies, the property is passed down to the heirs. But in the case of these Christians, they have been deported from their earthly homeland, and at this point, any claim to that inheritance is questionable at best, and completely forfeited at worst. If their future hope is dependent on what they might receive in this world, then they are relatively hopeless.

Many Christians today can identify with this. Some have families with no possessions to speak of to pass on. Some inherit only debts and hardships. Beyond this, I have known many Christians around the world, some even here in America, whose grandparents and parents cut them off when they decided to follow Jesus. Maybe some were disowned, struck from the inheritance, and severed from the ties of family and home. When viewed through the lens of life in this world only, that is a very insecure and hopeless position to find oneself in. And most of us can only imagine the intensity of the temptation that must be faced as one wrestles with these realities, understanding that all those things may be restored if only one would abandon following Jesus. Peter’s friends understood that. Had they renounced their faith in Christ, they may have been able to return to Rome, be reunited with their families, and have once again the security of their future inheritance of land and possessions and wealth.

But Peter tells them here that there is a better inheritance awaiting them. No matter what your faith in Christ may cause you to lose in this world will be more than compensated in the life to come. Because of the resurrection of Christ, we have been born again to a living hope, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and will not fade away. Nothing we stand to gain in this world can be described in those terms. Something that is imperishable means that it will not be corrupted or destroyed. Undefiled means that it is not polluted or stained by sin. Things that will not fade away are those which will never lose their splendor. Everything in this world is perishable, defiled by sin, and posses only a fading beauty. There is nothing you can possess here and now that can’t be broken, stolen, or spoiled. But the things we stand to inherit in the life to come are not subject to any of that. That is why Jesus admonished us in the Sermon on the Mount to “not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal” (Matt 6:19-20)

What will that inheritance consist of? Well, Paul said in 1 Corinthians 2:9 that God has prepared for those who love Him things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard; things which have not entered the heart of man.” What we know is that it will be an inheritance of pure, imperishable, and eternal glory, consisting primarily of life in the very presence of this risen Lord Jesus and all the blood-bought benefits that come through faith in Him.

Israel longed for the homeland that God had promised them; but they couldn’t keep it. Because of their own sin, and because of repeated invasions from foreign powers, they lost that inheritance. But this inheritance that is promised to believers in Jesus is eternally secure. Peter said that it is reserved in heaven for us. This glorious eternal treasure has been stored up for us and is being guarded by the Christ who conquered death and lives forever more. It will never be taken away from those to whom it has been promised.

But what of us? What if somehow we become disqualified from receiving this inheritance before we obtain it? Not possible! Not only is the inheritance being reserved for us, but we are also being protected for it. In v5, Peter says that this inheritance is reserved in heaven for you who are protected by the power of God through faith. We are not maintaining ourselves in this relationship with Christ, but are being preserved in it by the power of God Himself, by the power of the Risen Lord Jesus who saved us and who is alive to keep us in the grip of this saving grace. In John 10:28-29, Jesus said, “I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand.”

How may we know if we are guarded in this relationship with Him? If we have put our faith in Christ to save us, then it is certain. We are “protected by the power of God through faith.” It has been well said that, “Our faith lays hold on God’s power, and His power strengthens our faith, and in this manner we are preserved.”[2] If our faith should grow weak as we walk with Jesus, God’s power works on our behalf to strengthen us so that no one who has truly been born again will ever fall away. We have been redeemed into a salvation, the fullness of which will only be fully and finally revealed in that day when we will see the risen Jesus face to face and know that our living hope has become fully realized. On that day, all that was ever lost in this life will fade from view as we behold the glorious inheritance God has reserved for those who are born again by faith in Christ.

Yes, life in this world is hard. Our days are few and difficult as Jacob said. And for the believer in Christ, there are often hardships that we must face for no other reason than that we have put our faith in Him. There will be sacrifice, there will be suffering to greater or lesser degrees, there will be costly decisions made with severe consequence. But the Word of God says to us today what it said to those to whom Peter wrote this letter. Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ because Christ has been resurrected from the dead! And because of this we can be born again to a living hope and an imperishable, undefiled, incorruptible inheritance that is guarded for us in heaven, while we are all the while being guarded for it by the power of God through our faith in this risen Savior, Jesus Christ.





[1] Rudolph Bultmann, cited in Paige Patterson, A Pilgrim Priesthood (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982), 31. To quote Patterson’s assessment of Bultmann as a scholar, “Bultmann is mistaken in finding in Scripture only a kernel of truth, which must be extracted from its mythological trappings, but he is frequently correct in his evaluation of what primitive Christians thought and believed.”
[2] Curtis Vaughan and Thomas Lea, 1, 2 Peter, Jude (Bible Study Commentary; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 22.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Revisiting the Gospel as the Answer to Evil and Suffering

Earlier this week, I posted a manuscript of a talk I gave on the Gospel as the answer to the problem of evil and suffering. You can find that manuscript here, and if you have not read it, you should before going further in this post.

If you have read that post, you will recall that I categorize all evil and suffering in the world into three categories. These categories are not original to me. I first came across this line of thinking in seminary in a course on the Problem of Evil taught by Dr. Bruce Little. His lectures and his books, A Creation-Order Theodicy and God, Why This Evil?, are primary influences in my approach to the problem of evil and suffering, though there are shades and nuances of difference in how I present the case and how he does. That is not to suggest that I think I have improved on his argument. I think it has more to do with how I have implemented some of his reasoning in ways that he either does not address or differs. The main substance and thrust of my argument, however, is closely connected to his.

The three categories of evil and suffering that I discussed in the previous manuscript are:

1. Moral evils: Evil and suffering that is the result of the sinful decisions of someone, e.g., terrorism, murder, rape, assault, slander, persecution, suicide, etc.

2. Natural evils: disturbances in nature, e.g., earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, lightning strikes, etc.
3. Physical suffering: illnesses, ailments and injuries to the human body, e.g., cancer, heart attack, stroke, arthritis, etc.

I previously made the case that all of these categories of evil have come into the world as a result of human sin. Because of human sin, beginning with the fall of Adam in the Garden of Eden, we live in a fallen world and inhabit corruptible bodies. In my earlier manuscript, I tried to make the case that even though God has the power to stop evil and suffering, He does not do it by raw power because to do so would be to violate His own Word, by which He promised these consequences would follow human rebellion. The categories of evil and suffering are not the root issue, but the fruit that comes into bloom from the root of human sin. So, in the case that I attempted to set forth, I argued that God did not act in raw power to remove the fruit of evil and suffering from this fallen world, but rather that God came into this fallen world and took upon Himself one of these corruptible bodies in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and that He dealt with sin at its root in an act of gracious redemption -- namely the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

This brings me to the reason for the revisitation of the subject today. I am writing this post on Good Friday, April 3, 2015. Moments ago, I was gathered with my church family for corporate worship and meditation on the cross of Jesus Christ. During a moment of silent reflection during the service, having heard afresh the Gospel accounts of the suffering and death of Jesus, the thought came to my mind that in the death of Christ and the events surrounding it, we see a dramatic breaking forth of all three categories of evil and suffering. 

We see moral evil being carried out in the betrayal and arrest, the trial and sentencing, the torturing and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. 

We see physical suffering taking place as Jesus suffered, bled, anguished, and died upon the cross.

We see natural evils occurring in the sudden darkness that enveloped the earth (Luke 23:44-45) and the earthquake that occurred (Matthew 27:51) as Jesus died.  

In the silence of worship and reflection on the atoning death of Jesus, I was overwhelmed to realize that He literally experienced the fullness of all of the divinely appointed consequences of human sin. The moral evil, physical suffering, and natural evils that came into the world because of the disobedience of Adam were being fully manifested in perhaps unprecedented and unsurpassed ways, but they were poured out on the Substitute for us and for our salvation. 

Truly when we behold the cross, we see the full measure of our sin and its destructiveness; the full measure of the consequences that it deserves and the wrath that it has earned; but moreover we see the full measure of God's love, mercy and grace. Jesus literally took all of the evils of this world and all of the sufferings of humanity that are rightly ours because of sin, so that we could be delivered from evil and its effects for all eternity. As Galatians 3:13 says, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, "CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE." Because Christ became that curse for us on Calvary's tree, we have eternal access to the tree of life, from which man could eat freely in the Garden of Eden before the fall, but from which man was forbidden to eat as he languishes under the curse of sin in this fallen world. This tree is available to us once more in heaven, where the Bible says that it yields its fruit every month, and its leaves are for the healing of the nations, for there is no more curse, no more sin, no more suffering, and no more evil (Rev 22:2-3; 21:4). 

When we pray as the Lord Jesus taught us to, "Deliver us from evil" (Matt 6:13), we can also utter a prayer of thanksgiving, because He has, and He will. And that is why this Friday is called "Good."  

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

The Gospel as the Answer to the Problem of Evil and Suffering

On Tuesday, March 31, I had the opportunity to address a student gathering on the subject of suffering. I was given a list of topics from which to choose, and I chose this one from the list because I feel like I actually have something worthwhile to say about the matter. I do not say that in arrogance but in humility. I have had good mentors in the field of apologetics, and I have a Bible that I consider to be the infallible, inerrant and authoritative Word of God. My personal conviction is that apologetics is not about having 10,000 answers to 10,000 questions, but having the wisdom to apply one answer -- the Gospel of Jesus Christ -- to 10,000 issues. And so, in my talk this is what I sought to do. For the benefit of those who could not be present to hear this presentation, I am posting my manuscript, slightly altered.

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Campus Outreach Presentation
3/31/15
Suffering and God’s Existence, Power and Goodness

I have a dear friend and sister in the Lord who was in the hospital for seven weeks of hospitalization, being treated for non-Hodgkins lymphoma and a host of related complications. During her several years of battling this cancer, she has been cared for by her loving and devoted husband. On the evening of March 18, I had to come to her bedside and notify her that her husband had suffered a massive heart attack and died. On Sunday night, she also died, and yesterday I had to go break that news to her aging mother.  

Almost three years ago exactly, I sat anxiously in a cold, uncomfortable room in the emergency room of Moses Cone Hospital with my sister-in-law. A doctor came in to bring us the news that her 35 year old husband, one of my dearest friends, a father of two children who were at that time aged 5 and 1, had died from a sudden heart failure. I could go on and on with stories like these. As a pastor, I have abundant opportunities to come alongside of people whose lives have been turned upside-down by tragedy.

The reality is that our world is filled with suffering, tragedy, and evil. Some of you have experienced your share of suffering; others of you have walked through it with people you love; none of us are exempt from it. I am a trained Christian Apologist – I have a master’s degree in Christian Apologetics, the field of study devoted to defending the claims of the Christian faith. As such, in my experience and research, I do not think that there is a more difficult question brought to us than the one we call “The Problem of Evil and Suffering.” It goes something like this: “If there is an all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful, loving God, why is there so much evil and suffering in the world?” If you have never been asked that question by an unbelieving friend, or a believing friend who is struggling to hold on to the faith in the midst of a tragedy, you probably will be asked it as you go through life. In fact, as suffering comes your way – and it will – you may be tempted to ask it yourself. I want to challenge you tonight by saying that your ability to respond to that question will have a direct impact on your influence for Christ, and perhaps even your own Christian growth. But I also want to encourage you, because there is an answer to this question.

Throughout Christian history, there have been many attempts to answer this question. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that a good many of these so-called answers are powerless to provide help, comfort, or intellectual satisfaction to those who question God’s existence, goodness, or power in the face of human suffering. Pat-answers are not helpful. They may appease a small number of people, but they do not help us grapple with the unsettling reality of a world filled with suffering – suffering that is so prevalent, so intense, and so seemingly unevenly distributed. Must there be suffering in the world? And if there must, why is there so much of it? Why is it so often unbearably intense? Why do some people experience so much of it, and others seem to experience so little? Why does so much of it seem to be gratuitous (in other words, with no explanation or purpose)? Wouldn’t the world be a better place without suffering? Wouldn’t it be significantly better than it is even if God only removed or prohibited the worst of the worst forms of suffering and evil? Can He? If He can, why doesn’t He? As you consider how you would respond to the problem of evil and suffering, I want to share with you a few answers that simply do not work, and then work toward a more satisfying, biblical response to the evil and suffering in our world and in our lives.

One attempt to answer the question is to blame it all on the devil. Surely most of us have at some time or another heard, perhaps even said, “The devil made me do it.” Make no mistake about it, the devil and his demons are real and they are at work in a plethora of evils. But this does not answer the problem. After all, the problem is predicated upon the existence of an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing, loving God. The same Bible that tells us that the devil is at work to orchestrate evil and suffering in the world also tells us that his authority and power are limited by God. Therefore, not only does this line of thinking fail to answer the problem, it actually exacerbates it.

Another attempt to answer the question concerns human free will. This line of reasoning says that bad things happen because people make bad choices, which result in bad consequences. Again, there is some truth to this. Last week, a pilot intentionally crashed a plane into a mountain, killing 150 people on board. We can blame the loss of life on the choice that the pilot made. But, in a great many – perhaps the majority – of cases of intense suffering, there was no decision made to precipitate the suffering. Suppose lightning strikes a home in the middle of the night, sending the house into flames, killing the entire family and all their pets before they ever knew what happened. In March of 2013, a sinkhole opened up beneath a Florida home, and Jeffrey Bush was literally swallowed by the earth and his body was never recovered. Where does free will play into that scenario? But even where free will is the traceable cause, couldn’t (or wouldn’t) an all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing God do something to “override” the free will decisions that bring suffering upon the innocent (at least)? Wouldn’t He want to?

Then there is the approach that I call “the poor god” response. This attempt to deal with evil and suffering was popularized by Rabbi Harold Kushner in his 1978 best-seller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Kushner’s 14 year-old son had died from an incurable genetic disease, sending the Rabbi on a quest to answer the question of evil and suffering. His conclusion was that God is simply not able to prevent suffering. He is doing His best, and would like to be of more help to us, but bless His heart, He just can’t. Poor God! Kushner’s answer has been adopted by many people, but it does not answer the question we are asking. Our question involves an all-powerful God. Kushner removes the notion of God being all-powerful from the equation. That might help him deal with the problem of evil and suffering, but it creates a bigger problem: the problem of God. A being who is not omnipotent (all-powerful) does not meet the criteria of being called God. The real issue does not arise because God can’t stop evil and suffering. It arises because He can, and yet He does not.

The final failed attempt to answer the problem of evil and suffering is perhaps the most popular one among Christians today. In fact, for the last 1600 years or so, this has been the standard response Christians give to the question of suffering. It is called “the greater good” argument. It says that God only allows that evil and suffering in the world from which He can bring about a greater good or prevent a worse evil. This means that no evil or suffering is gratuitous; it all serves some bigger purpose. But, the actual evidence we see in cases of evil and suffering would not seem to support this, nor do we find any explicit statement in Scripture saying that this is true for every case of evil and suffering in the world. For example, what good has come from, or what worse evil was prevented by, the Holocaust? Can we point to anything that has happened or not happened in the world and say, “That was worth the wholesale slaughter of 6 million Jews”?

The greater good argument actually does much harm to the Christian view of God. In saying that God only allows such evil and suffering to exist from which He can bring about a greater good or prevent a worse evil, we are saying that God is somehow and somewhat dependent on the evil and suffering in order to bring about His greater purpose. Does God require the evil and suffering to occur in order to bring about the good? If God could bring about the good apart from the evil, why wouldn’t He? The greater good argument actually makes evil and suffering more sovereign than God in the world. If you are okay with that, then why should we even care about evil and suffering? Should we not just let suffering and evil abound so that God can bring about greater things and prevent worse things? Someone is asking themselves right now, “But what about Romans 8:28, which promises that God will work all things together for good?” We will say more about that promise soon, but for now suffice to say that this promise is true, and applies to some – perhaps even many – cases of suffering and evil. In those cases, God is bringing good from it, according to His promise. But Romans 8:28 does not say that God is doing this in every case of evil and suffering in the world, nor does it say that He allowed those things to happen in order to bring about the good. What God does with a situation is something altogether different from why God allowed the situation. 

Christians all too often say to someone who is suffering, “There, there now. Don’t worry. You know that God will bring good from this.” Let me ask you, what good could happen that would justify a wife losing her beloved husband or kids having their father taken away from them? When some good thing happens in their life, are they to look at that thing and say, “Well, we suffered a terrible tragedy, but at least this thing happened, so that makes it all worthwhile”? Good may come, but the sufferer may not recognize that it is the good that God is bringing through the suffering, and the good may actually not measure up to the bad thing that happened. So in pointing people to some nebulous “good” that may or may not ever occur, and which may in no way justify the bad, we are often filling them with false hopes or preparing them for disillusionment. Rather than pointing them to the “good”, we must point them to the God who is with them as they suffer, who loves them infinitely, and who has acted in time and space to eliminate suffering and evil through His redeeming grace. How do we do that? That’s what I want to help you do in the rest of our time.

The first thing we have to do is recognize that not all suffering is equal. There seem to be categories of evil and suffering (and I may use the words “evil” and “suffering” interchangeably here tonight).
1. Moral evils: Evil and suffering that is the result of the sinful decisions of someone, e.g., terrorism, murder, rape, assault, slander, persecution, suicide, etc.
2. Natural evils: disturbances in nature, e.g., earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, lightning strikes, etc.
3. Physical suffering: illnesses, ailments and injuries to the human body, e.g., cancer, heart attack, stroke, arthritis, etc.

Now, as you are probably aware, Christians are not immune to these categories of suffering. In particular, Christian suffering can be lumped into two categories:
1. Human life in a fallen world, i.e., the kinds of things I just described (moral, natural, and physical evil and suffering.
2. Righteous living in a wicked world: This is a special category for Christians. The Bible promises us often that we will suffer for the name of Jesus Christ. When we are faithful to Him, we may suffer innocently at the hands of those who oppose Him.

Now, when it comes to that kind of particular Christian suffering for the sake of righteousness, we do have promises in God’s Word to sustain us. This is where Romans 8:28 comes in, for the promise there is not that God will bring good from all suffering, but that He is at work in all things to bring good to those that love Him and are called according to His purpose. Later in Romans 8, we are told that none of these things can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord, and that we are more than conquerors through Him that loves us. We are promised comfort and help, even blessing. Some passages you may want to write down to look up later: Matthew 5:11; 2 Cor 1:3-7; James 1:2; 1 Peter 1:6-7; 3:14-18. I can repeat those if necessary. Because we have such specific promises about the suffering that comes to us as Christians living righteously in a wicked world, we don’t need to spend much time on this one. It is the other categories of evil and suffering that are harder to deal with.

The Bible tells us how evil and suffering entered into the world. In Romans 5:12, Paul says, “…through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.” This explains how evil and suffering came into the world – through the sin of Adam. It does not, however, explain why God allows it to continue to such an extent. For this, we have to go back to the beginning of the Bible and see how God intended man to live, and the consequences which came into the world when man rebelled against God’s will.

Genesis 1-3 tells us that God created a world and placed mankind as creatures with the power of moral choice and the function of rational judgment. And upon completion of creation, God declared all that He had made to be very good. Although God had given Adam the power to make moral choices, He also placed certain limitations on those choices. He established a certain moral and physical ordering to guide man in his choices. God also provided man with certain promises concerning what he could and could not do. There is a moral standard, first expressed in Genesis 2:15-17. He put the man into the garden that he might cultivate and keep it. And He told the man that he could eat from any and every tree in the garden, save one. We might call this “the One Commandment.” Quite simply, it is to obey what God has spoken. This moral standard was later expanded and codified in God’s Law, summarized in the Ten Commandments, and distilled even further by the Lord Jesus into the two Great Commandments to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The first man had the power to choose to obey, and therefore the power to choose to disobey. This power of moral choosing opens the possibility of wrong moral choices, and therefore the possibility (but not the necessity) of sin and evil.

God clearly told Adam what the consequences of disobedience were. He said, “In the day that eat from it (the forbidden tree), you will surely die” (Gen 2:17). This death included spiritual death, or separation from God, which occurred immediately, and physical death. Adam did not die physically on that day, but we may say that he began dying on that day. On that day of disobedience, his body, which would have otherwise lasted forever in that perfect society, became susceptible to corruption and decay.

With Adam’s sin, we have the first occurrence of moral evil. And with each passing generation, we see that moral evil compounding exponentially. Over the next few chapters of Genesis, we find murder, sexual sin, and a host of evils carried out by this dying race of men. Because the wages of sin is death, with the entrance of moral evil came the universal effect of physical suffering. Our bodies are born corrupted by sin, and therefore susceptible to all manners of physical decay. That does not mean that when someone suffers, we can point to a specific sin that caused the suffering. That is how Jesus’ disciples mistakenly assessed the situation with the man born blind in John 9. Some sin leads immediately to suffering, but other suffering is just the product of our general sinfulness and the compounded effect of sin on generations of humanity. And over the next several chapters of Genesis, we begin to see natural evils taking place, initially as God’s judgment on the sinfulness of the human race. In the days of Noah, the Bible says that the Lord “saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” He looked upon the earth and saw that it was corrupt and filled with violence, “For all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth” (Gen 6:5; 11-12). And so in a cataclysmic act of judgment, the Bible says that God sent a worldwide flood to erase all of humanity from the earth with the exception of one sovereignly and graciously chosen man and his family – Noah and his family. As the flood came upon the earth, the Bible says that two things happened: “the fountains of the great deep burst open, and the floodgates of the sky were opened.” Thus, with the flood, there was a geological and atmospheric upheaval in creation that remains to this day. All manner of natural evils (tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, etc.) have their origin in the geological and atmospheric upheaval that precipitated the flood.

So we see that every category of human suffering is rooted in human sin. The philosophical and existential questions about the existence of evil and suffering alongside of an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing, loving God shake a decaying, corrupted, human fist toward heaven as if God is to blame for the things we experience. But, if we take the Bible seriously, then we must recognize that this is not the way God intended human life to be lived. His created order was very good, until it was corrupted by human sin. But God is not detached and remote from us in our suffering in this fallen world and these corruptibly bodies. Rather, He has come into this fallen world, and taken upon Himself one of these corruptible bodies in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. The moral, physical, and natural evil and suffering that we experience in the world are not the root of the problem. They are the fruit of the problem, and the root is humanity’s sinfulness. And Jesus Christ came into the world to kill the problem at the root. In His perfectly righteous and sinless life, He lived out the life that Adam failed to live. And in His sacrificial death on the cross, He died the death that we all deserve because of our sin. He did this to free us from our bondage to sin, and to provide a way of deliverance from these broken down bodies and this corrupted world.

Listen to the phrases that the Prophet Isaiah used in Isaiah 53 as he foresaw what the Messiah, Jesus, would do: He was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. … Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried. … He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.”

So, what we find is a God who is loving and merciful, and faithful to His word, His will, and the creation order He established in the beginning. Sin was promised to have awful effects on us and our world, and God has allowed that promise to be fulfilled because He is not duplicitous and does not change His mind or alter His will. However, in the midst of all of this suffering that humanity has experienced since Adam’s sin, Christ has come to deliver us from sin, suffering, and death. He has come to restore us to a right relationship with our Creator within this fallen world, and opened the way to a perfect world where the Bible says that He will wipe away every tear, and there will no longer be any death, or mourning, or crying or pain. That is because in His glorious and eternal presence, there will be no sin, and therefore none of its horrible effects. God is still allowing the effects of sin to carry on in the world, in faithfulness to His purpose and Hiw Word. He did not act to eliminate sin temporarily in its fruits by a demonstration of raw power, but rather acted to eliminate it eternally at its root in a gracious act of redemption through the blood of Jesus Christ.

As I close, I want to share with you one passage – Luke 13:1-5.
 Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, "Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."

In this passage, we find an instance of moral evil in the massacre carried out under Pilate’s command, and a case of natural evil in the case of the tower that fell. Jesus tells us that these things did not happen because those victims were any more guilty of sin than anyone else. They happened because we live in a world that has been broken by human sin. And therefore, Jesus’ call to His audience on that day is the same as ours today: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Suffering is inescapable, unpredictable, and universal in this broken world. But Christ has made a way to escape it forever by turning from sin and trusting in His saving power. If we refuse that offer, then the sufferings of eternity will infinitely outweigh the sufferings of this present world. But if we turn to Him in repentance and faith, then we can say with the Apostle Paul that these light and momentary afflictions are producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison (2 Cor 4:17).

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Postscript 1: A few days before this talk was given, I was approached by someone with a keen interest in apologetics. When I mentioned that I was planning to give this talk, this person asked me, "Do you believe that evil is a 'thing' (in and of itself) or the privation of good? I am aware of the discussion about evil as an entity or a privation, but frankly I think that conversation only really matters to people locked away in rooms full of books. I don't have the luxury of those surroundings. I sit in rooms filled with suffering people, and they don't seem to care if evil is a thing or the privation of a thing. When I told my friend that her husband had died, she did not ask me if his death or her grief was a thing or a privation of a thing. So, I will let you answer that matter any way you want to. Because I do not believe that gratuitous evil and suffering is an indictment against God's character, I do not have to explain my way around that. Whichever answer you choose, it does not affect my position that evil and suffering are present in the world as a result of man's sin, nor my answer that God does not prohibit evil and suffering by raw power because, even though He is able to, He is also faithful to His Word and His promise that these consequences would flow into the world because of sin. Because of sin, we have corruptible bodies and a broken world. But God took upon Himself one of these corruptible bodies and inhabited this broken world to deliver us from evil and suffering eternally through an act of gracious redemption. He did not come into the world to liberate us from the symptoms of sin, but from the disease of sin.

Postscript 2: Following this talk, someone approached me to talk about how they had wrestled with the "greater good" perspective. This person said to me, “My mother died some years ago, and a short time later I came to faith in Christ. So I always considered that this was the good that came from my mother’s death.” Coming to faith in Christ is good. And, it may well be that the death of this person’s mother was a contributing factor to their coming to faith. For that, we can thank God that He brought some good out of a horrible situation. But, this is not the same thing as saying that “My mother died so I could be saved.” I told this person, “I am glad that in the wake of your mother’s death, you came to know Jesus. But I want to know something very assuredly: God did not kill your mother so that you could be saved. He killed His Son so that you could be saved.” There is a difference, you see, in what God does with suffering and why God allowed the suffering.

The Death Christ Died (1 Peter 3:18)


When my son was just a toddler, and first speaking recognizable words, we began to notice an unusual development in his vocabulary. As we would drive down the road, we would hear him say, “French Fries.” This happened all the time. Once, a friend was riding with us in the back seat beside of him, and he said, “French Fries.” A few moments later, he said, “French Fries.” Then a little while later, he said “French Fries” again. Our friend said, “Have you guys noticed that every time we pass a McDonalds, he says ‘French Fries’?” He had learned to identify the big golden M on the McDonalds sign and associate that symbol with his favorite food – French Fries!

Symbols have an interesting power to connect us with the realities they represent. Many of our traffic laws deal with the driver’s ability to recognize a symbol and what it represents. There are symbols all around us. Christianity also has a universally recognized symbol. All over the world, when people see our symbol, they know that something related to the Christian faith is present. While Christians have used many symbols through the centuries to identify themselves, one symbol has always been the primary mark of the Church. Interestingly, that symbol is an instrument of torture and death – the Cross. More than any other symbol, the Cross represents what Christianity is all about. It is about a death that occurred that changed everything for the world and humanity. The death of Jesus Christ on the Cross is the very core of the Christian faith. What happened on this cross was more than just a good man dying a brutal death. The person dying was not just a good man. He is fully human, but he is also fully divine. He is God-incarnate, God-in-the-flesh, the God-man. And as He died, He was not helplessly at the hands of evil men. He was carrying out a divine plan to deal with the primary problem of humanity and history, namely the problem of sin.

In Exodus 34:6-7, we find what I would call “the riddle of the ages.” There God reveals Himself, saying, “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” Here is a gracious, compassionate, patient and loving God, who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin; and yet He promises that He will “by no means leave the guilty unpunished.” How can He be one who forgives, but who at the same time punishes with certainty the guilty? Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, the answer to this perplexing riddle unfolds page by page in subtle whispers and shouts of clarity, until at last the answer is seen in vivid color. This God who forgives sinners, yet who punishes sin, acts in history to resolve man’s dilemma in the person of Jesus Christ on the Cross. What is happening here as He dies is captured in a single word: atonement. Sin has ruptured the relationship between a holy Creator and His wayward creatures, such that there is a great gulf of separation between them. We stand before this holy God knowing that we are guilty sinners. We cannot do any good deed to make ourselves clean before Him. Sin has so radically corrupted us that we are incapable of making ourselves right before Him. But what is impossible for us is possible for God. Nothing is impossible for Him. When the disciples asked Jesus, “Who can be saved?”, He said, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Mt 19:25-26).

God has provided salvation for humanity through the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Atonement is God’s action in the death of Christ to save humanity from sin. In this single verse, 1 Peter 3:18, we learn three very important truths about this atonement that has been accomplished through the death that Christ died.

I. The death Christ died accomplished a substitutionary atonement.

All of us understand the concept of earning a wage. Perhaps you have a job in which you get paid a certain amount for every hour you work. Or you may have a job that pays you an annual salary, which is based upon certain requirements being met. You get what you earn. That is a basic principle of economics and labor. In the beginning of creation, God established a wage for mankind concerning righteous living. There was one tree that was forbidden to eat from in the garden, and God said, “in the day that you eat from it, you will surely die.” That is the wage. If you do this, you earn that; if you eat from the forbidden tree, you will earn death. And this established a principle for mankind that Paul summarizes in Romans 6:23, where he says, “The wages of sin is death.”

Sin earns death. That is God’s law. Adam experienced it. In the day that he ate of the fruit, physical death began to occur in his body. He lived much longer than that day, but he lived out the rest of his days in a dying body. But spiritual death occurred instantaneously in Adam. Immediately, because of his disobedience to God, he was spiritually dead. Sin drove a wedge between God and Adam. Adam was ashamed of His sinfulness before God, so he hid from Him, and he tried to cover himself with fig leaves, the works of his own hands. But his own works could not “cover his sins” before God. In grace and mercy, God made another covering for the sinful man. The Bible tells us simply that “the Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.”

Now, where did this skin come from? The Bible does not tell us explicitly, and it doesn’t need to. We know where “garments of skin” have to come from. Something had to die for Adam’s sinful state to be covered. If God had made a garment of wool or a garment of feathers, death would not be necessary. But to make a garment of skin, there has to be a death. So, when the very first sin of humanity was committed, God instituted a program of reconciliation, whereby sin could be covered through the death of a substitute sacrifice. Something else, a lamb perhaps, had to be killed. Death was inflicted upon the substitute. It is obvious that Adam and Eve understood this, and taught this to their children. We see in the very next chapter of Genesis that Abel approached God with a sacrifice: the firstlings of his flock. He understood that his sinfulness required the shedding of blood, and that God accepted the sacrifice of a substitute in his place. This principle is unfolded throughout the Old Testament Law, with God prescribing for His people the various regulations for what kind of sacrifices they could offer, and for what sins, and in what manner. And all of these sacrifices were teaching humanity the principle that sin required death, and that an innocent substitute could be offered for an atoning sacrifice. God was preparing them to understand little by little what He would do for them eventually and ultimately in the death that Christ died.

Adam’s sin corrupted the entire human race. Every descendent of Adam is born in the state of spiritual death, born into bodies that are physically dying from the day we take our first breath. We inherited a condition of sinfulness, and demonstrated that sin nature in our own sinful actions and attitudes. So, we are sinners by nature and by choice. We inherited the death penalty from Adam, and we ratified the penalty by our own sins. And if our spiritual death goes untreated before our physical death occurs, then we bear that penalty for eternity. We enter eternity separated from God, bearing His holy wrath forever in that horrible place the Bible calls hell. But in the death Christ died, a remedy was provided, an atonement for sin, whereby we can be reconciled to God.

Peter says here that Christ died for sins. In a sense, we all die for sins. If it weren’t for sin, there would be no death. The universality of human death is proof of the universality of human sin. But when we come to the death Christ died, we find something unique. He died for sins, but He had no sins of His own. Because of His miraculous virgin birth, Jesus was not born with a sin nature as we are. He was undefiled when He entered into the world. And throughout His life, He committed no sin. Not only was He undefiled by sin, not only did He commit no sin, He also lived a life of perfect obedience to God. He was not merely sinless; He was also perfectly righteous. Both are important to understand. If all that was required of Jesus was to be sinless, then He could have been sacrificed as an infant. God could have allowed Him to be murdered in the holocaust of children instituted by Herod. But it was necessary that He also be perfectly righteous. He died for sins, but not for His own for He had none. He died for ours, “the just for the unjust.” The perfectly righteous Christ died for radically sinful people—people like you and me. He became for us, in His death, our substitute.

All of those animals that were sacrificed under the Old Testament Law were training the minds of God’s people to see the wickedness of sin in its bloody reality, and to anticipate a day when a final sacrifice would be offered. Those animals were imperfect substitutes; Jesus Christ was a perfect substitute. I liken it to paying for something on credit. When you purchase something on credit, you get to take it home and enjoy it, but the bill has not yet been paid in full. The cost has been covered, but it has not yet been paid. The animal sacrifices were like purchases made with credit. They covered sin, but they didn’t pay for the sin. They were unable to pay for sin. The charges were still accumulating, and the day would come when the accounts had to be settled fully and finally. As Jesus was dying on the cross, He uttered that single Greek word, Tetelestai, which is translated in our Bibles as “It is finished.” It is an interesting word in the original language. Archaeologists have uncovered ancient tablets which bore records of accounts, and when those accounts were paid in full, they were marked with this same word: Tetelestai. Jesus paid what sin had earned in the death He died, and He paid it for us. As the old saying goes, “We owed a debt we could not pay. He paid the debt He did now owe.” He did for us, and for our salvation.

As the just, suffering for the unjust, Jesus Christ bore our sin before His righteous Father, and bore all of the wrath that those sins deserve. The intensity of God’s wrath toward sin was such that the earth was darkened and shaken to its crust while Jesus died. But more than this, for the first time in all eternity, the perfect fellowship between God the Father and God the Son was severed by sin. Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” This was the most severe agony of the cross. Not the piercing of His hands and feet; not the scourging and shame He endured, but the wrath He bore for our sins is what makes our atonement possible. He died for sins, the just for the unjust. As the hymn-writer said so well, “In my place, condemned He stood.” He bore our sins and made atonement for them as our substitute, and in exchange He now allows us to bear His perfect righteousness before the Father so that we are reconciled to God through Him. His death is our substitutionary atonement.

II. The death Christ died provided a sufficient atonement.

When we prepare for overseas mission trips, we have to get a lot of shots to prevent us from getting sick while we are abroad. Some of the vaccinations, like polio for example, we had as children, but we have to get a booster, because the childhood dose is insufficient to protect us in that environment. Others, like typhoid or meningitis, we have to get now, and then if we go back in a few years, we’ll have to get another one, because they are only good for so long. And then there are others, that we might have received as children or sometime later, that are good for life. That initial dose is sufficient to last through all of life. When it comes to our sin, the atonement that Christ provided in His death is sufficient for all people, for all sins, and for all time. Peter says that Christ died for sins once for all, and that this death was sufficient “to bring us to God.”

Could anyone ever accurately estimate the number of lambs and bulls and goats that were slaughtered as sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple? On the day that the original temple was dedicated in the time of Solomon, in a demonstration of the unworthiness of sinful people to have a temple for the Holy God in their midst, a sacrifice of 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep was offered. That was on ONE DAY! And sacrifices were made there every day. If Solomon’s temple was dedicated sometime around 1000 BC, and Herod’s temple was destroyed in 70 AD, and subtracting around 70 years during the Babylonian captivity, we are talking close to 1000 years of daily sacrifices. That’s some 360,000 or so days of bloodshed at the temple of Jerusalem; and some on days, like the day of atonement, the sacrifices abounded. And, all of these sacrifices were not sufficient to bring us to God.

The writer of Hebrews compares what those Old Testament priests were doing with those sacrifices with what Jesus did in the death He died. Hebrews 10 says, “Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices which can never take away sins.” Their work is never done. It is daily, time after time, same sacrifices over and over again. They are always on their feet, standing, because there are always more sacrifices to be offered, and yet they can’t take away sin. They are covering sin, but not paying for sin. But then Hebrews 10:12 says, “But He (that is, Jesus), having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God.” Notice, one sacrifice – Himself – sufficient for all time. And then He sat down at the right hand of God. His work was finished. Atonement was finished. What millions of dead animals could not accomplish was fully and finally accomplished in the death of Jesus Christ. The temple that was the scene of all that bloodshed was completely destroyed by the Romans a short time after Jesus died, but it happened under the providence of God. He didn’t need that temple any longer. He didn’t need any more animals to die. In the death of Jesus, sin was atoned for once and for all.

That means that all the sins that had been covered by the Old Testament sacrifices were finally atoned for. All the sins that were yet to be committed had been atoned for sufficiently. That means that the most minor and the most major sins had been sufficiently atoned. That means that the most respectable and the most vile sinner had the atonement he or she needed provided for then and there in the death Christ died. Because of sin, we are separated from God. We need to be brought to God. What are you trusting to bring you to God? There is only one atoning sacrifice which is sufficient: the death Christ died. You can’t add to it or take away from it. It is Jesus, and Jesus only, plus nothing and minus nothing, that brings us to God. The death He died is a sufficient atonement. Nothing else will bring you to God.  

III. The death Christ died is a secure atonement.

Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol is one of my all-time favorite pieces of English literature. And in the opening paragraphs, we read one of my most favorite passages. Dickens says of Ebenezer Scrooge’s business partner, Jacob Marley, “Marley was dead… There is no doubt whatever about that. … Old Marley was dead as a doornail. … There is no doubt that Marley was dead.” Dickens said, “This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” Now, if you are going to understand anything about this atonement that we have in Christ, you need to understand that Jesus was as dead as Jacob Marley: dead as a doornail, no doubt whatsoever about that. The sin of humanity required death as a penalty, and Jesus paid it. He bore the wrath of God against all of the wickedness of humanity’s sin, the agony of the cross, and was punctured through the heart to prove that He was dead. He was wrapped in burial cloths and laid in a tomb, and that tomb was sealed over and guarded. He was dead. There was a price to pay, and He paid it in full. At the end of the day it looked as if sin and death had won. Sin had destroyed humanity and humanity’s God. Peter says he was “put to death in the flesh.” It was not a pretend or imaginary kind of death. Jesus was dead as a doornail. That must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.

It doesn’t seem wonderful at this point. Jesus, the King of Glory, died. But the story doesn’t end there. Praise God, there is no period after the words “put to death in the flesh.” There is a comma and a glorious three letter word, “BUT.” He was put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit. It appeared for a moment of time that sin had conquered, and death was victorious, but that was Friday. On Sunday, the rest of the wonderful story was told. Death was not victorious, but defeated. Christ is risen from the dead! He has conquered sin and death forever. He died to bring us to God, but He is not a corpse we must crawl over to get there. He is risen and He Himself leads us into the presence of God, where we will live with Him in resurrected glory forever. Our atonement, our saving rescue is completed and is secure. Death is no longer to be feared. Sin has been dealt with completely, and conquered through His death and resurrection. If we belong to Jesus, our future is secure in His eternally glorious hands.

Hebrews 7:24-25 says that the former priests were prevented from continuing in their ministry by death. They could offer a sacrifice for someone’s sins, but then they had their own to sin to deal with and their own death to die. But Jesus, on the other hand, “because He continues forever, holds His priesthood permanently. Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.” Because Christ is risen from the dead, never to die again, and because He is seated now at the right hand of the Father, you and I have a high priest who will always plead His very own blood and righteousness on our behalf. We need not fear that we who have trusted in Him will be forgotten or forsaken when we stand before the Righteous Judge on the last day. He still bears the scars that He bore for our sins when He defeated them fully and finally in the death He died. We bear the righteousness of the life He lived. And we reap the benefits of the victory He accomplished in His resurrection. Nothing or no one can ever separate us from Him. Because of this wondrous atonement, we are securely reconciled to God through Him.

When we look at the death Christ died, we are confronted with two overwhelming realities. First, as we see the death He died, knowing that it was for us and for our sins, we see that we are more flawed, more corrupted, more wickedly sinful than we ever imagined. The death Christ died is the death we deserve. But second, we see in the death He died that we are more loved than we ever dreamed. We are so sinful that Christ had to die, but so loved that He was glad to die to reconcile us to God. The riddle of the ages is that God is a compassionate, patient, gracious and loving forgiver of sin, but is also determined to by no means leave the guilty unpunished. How can it be? The riddle is solved in the person of Jesus. In the death He died, our guilt is punished by a righteous substitute, and we are forgiven, made righteous, and brought to God. Therefore Paul could say in Romans 3:26 that God is just, and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. He is just because He has punished sin with the full measure of His wrath. He is the justifier because He punished that sin in the death that Christ died, and has covered us in the righteousness of the life He lived.

Because we have been the recipients of so great a salvation, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:20-21 that we are now ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us. And that appeal is this, he says: “We beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” We who have come to know this Christ through the substitutionary, sufficient, and secure atonement that He has provided, would echo that appeal today and say to those who are near and those who are far off: “We beg you on behalf of this Christ who died for sins, once for all, the just for the unjust, that you might become righteous in Him and be brought to God, be reconciled to God.”