Monday, January 3, 2011

The Meaning of Life, part 3

(Be sure to read part 1 and part 2.)

How Things Go Right

"But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" and "the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."
- Paul, Romans 5:8, 6:23

Part 2 ended on the dark note of God’s wrath against sin - but that's just one important part of a powerful story. And the story isn’t over...

Because we all sin, it may seem like there’d be no hope of regaining God’s original intention for us. How could we ever enter into God’s perfect presence again if sin has to be destroyed, we’re all saturated with sin, and we can never make ourselves perfect again?

Our God zealously longs to be with us and he made a way to remove every obstacle. Here’s how God loved the world: He sacrificed his only born Son in our place so that whoever believes in him would not die, but would have eternal life with God. By being viciously whipped and crucified, and even cut off from his Heavenly Father for a time, Jesus bore the wrath of God for us. And because he is totally sinless and undeserving of death, not only can he pay the debt that we owe, but death has no claim to him. He rose from the dead in victory over all the spiritual forces that curse this world (Col 2:13-15)! This is the good news – the gospel – and it’s the crux of the Christian faith.

The beauty, joy, hope and all-encompassing nature of Jesus’ loving sacrifice can’t be over-emphasized! With compassion and unsurpassed love, he has saved us from eternal separation from God and given us access into God’s presence again! He came to destroy – literally “undo” – the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). The devil comes to steal, kill and destroy; Jesus comes to restore, resurrect, and rebuild. To the same extent that we are filthy and defiled, Jesus makes us spiritually clean, spotless, and pure – white as snow! To the same extent that we were bound to slavery and fear, we are freed to serve God with joy and confidence! Instead of sin, God’s beauty and life saturate our being. We were utterly lost and he found us. Words can’t express the magnitude of this gift! 

How do we receive such a great salvation? God’s salvation is a free gift of God’s mercy to us, not earned by anything we can do! If we declare with our mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in our heart that God raised him from the dead, we will be saved (Rom 10:9). 

Declaring that Jesus is Lord is no little thing. In declaring that Jesus is Master over us, we agree that we are sinners in need of a savior, we confess our sins, and we repent; we surrender to God the foremost authority over everything we believe and do. When we declare that Jesus is Master, we give up everything we have and trust God to graciously give us everything that’s perfect in its place.

God describes his salvation to us in many ways to help us understand it in a rich and full way. Here are a few of them:

Jesus’ salvation is legal. Jesus has redeemed us from slavery. Redeem means to “buy-back.” Sin used to enslave us because we owed God’s law a debt of perfection that we couldn’t pay (Rom 6-8). Now that Jesus paid that debt, we’re no longer subject to sin’s rule and it no longer has the power to condemn us in God’s courtroom. Now, when God measures us with the standard of the law, he sees no fault in us because Jesus’ sinlessness has been credited to us. We have been justified – that is, declared “just” or righteous. Because of this, the sacrifice of Jesus has turned away the wrath of God! God still hates sin, it remains treacherously evil, and we should make every effort to avoid it out of a healthy reverence for God, but we can now follow God without fear of punishment if we make a mistake.

Jesus’ salvation is “political.” This means that it has to do with citizenship (from the Greek polites, “citizen”). Through faith in Jesus, non-Jews have been given citizenship in Israel – not the modern nation-state, but the people of God. There’s a lot to unpack in this concept, but to summarize it: Thousands of years ago, God promised to bless Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who became Israel – the Jewish people – and to bless the world through them. Through Jesus, the Messiah that God sent, God brings outsiders into Israel so that we can also receive the blessing and inheritance that God had promised to Abraham and his descendants (Eph 2:11-22, Eph 3:6, Gal 3:29, Isa 49:6-7, Luke 2:25-32).

Jesus’ salvation is relational. Although sin had previously separated us from God, he has reconciled us to himself. This means he’s done what it takes to mend the relationship so that we can be together. He gives us several great images to illustrate this. First, he adopts us individually as his own sons and daughters. He becomes our Father who gives us good gifts, is patient with us, and who loves and protects us. Secondly, in a different metaphor, he describes the church corporately as his bride. No individual is Jesus’ bride; individual disciples are friends of the bridegroom. However, Jesus pursues and cherishes his corporate bride with a powerful and sacrificial love with the goal of just enjoying her presence. God takes care of us intimately, both individually and as a community.

Jesus’ salvation is transformational. We were dead inside, but he heals and regenerates us, giving us life. The person that we were before died with Jesus; our spirits are born again as new creations. Baptism in water demonstrates this; through it, we intimately identify with Jesus’ death and resurrection. Sin and death are no longer our identity! Even though we still battle with sin, truth and life define us now. We look forward to a day on which we’ll be resurrected with glorified physical bodies as well.

Who is Jesus?
All of this being said, it's clear that Jesus has done a lot for us, but who is he? Fittingly, his name literally means "Salvation" because he is God's salvation. (Yeshua, in Hebrew, is the word for "salvation." The Greek language renders Yeshua as Iesous, which English translators render as Jesus - just as other languages render it differently as well. In Italian, it's Gesù.)

The identity of Jesus is one of those things that makes perfect sense and is mind-blowing all at once. I'll show you what I mean: Jesus is both fully God and fully man. In order for a man's death to take the place of ours, that man would need to be sinless. (Otherwise, he'd be no different than you or me and he'd die for his own sins.) And since God alone is sinless, God had to become a man - Jesus. The fact that he rose from the dead bears witness to this identity because death has no claim on a person who hasn't sinned!

So - on the one hand, no mere man could save us; it had to be God. But on the other hand, Jesus has to be fully man in order for his punishment to be credited as ours. He was just like one of us, tempted as a man in every way, yet found perfect. Jesus can take our place because, as man he has shared our human weakness, and as God he overcame it!

Yet here's the mystery I mentioned: We know that there is only One God. So how can God the Father be on his throne in heaven and God the Son be on earth, and then both of them later send God the Holy Spirit (Matt 3:16-17; John 14:26, 15:26)? This is the mystery that Christian doctrine calls the Trinity - the three "persons" are one essence - One God who is distinct from anything he created. And this is what pierces me to the core: If all of this really is true, it means that the God of the universe left the purity of heaven, humbled himself to be born as baby, was restricted by human flesh, endured everything we do as humans, humbly washed our feet - and was rejected, viciously beaten, and killed - all to make a way for us to be with him... and all because he loves us and he knows we can't get to him on our own.

I'm not going to tell you we'll be able to understand God fully - just like we don't understand how everything that exists can spring out of nothing - but God has shown us who he is and that he's good to us.

Through everything that he accomplished - his atonement for sin - this man named Salvation has opened the way back into Eden. Today, he brings peace, joy, and hope in all circumstances. And to seal the deal, God placed the Holy Spirit that I mentioned inside of us as a promise that there are even better things to come (Eph 1:13-14, 4:30; 2 Cor 1:21-22; Acts 2:1-33).

In a personal way, this same Spirit of God helps us in many ways, revealing sin, giving us understanding, giving us peace, giving us power, and much more. And on a larger scale, both Jesus and the Holy Spirit bring something called the Kingdom of God to us. God’s kingdom is a concept with many aspects, but it boils down to this: Where God is present and has influence, the Bible calls this his kingdom. Therefore, the Bible tells us that God’s kingdom has come already, but its fullest revelation is also not yet here.

And all of that eventually leads us to this:

Ultimate Perfection
There are two sides to what Jesus has accomplished – what isn’t given to us, and what is. If we trust in him, we are spared from eternal hell. But more than that, we’re given an eternal reward. This is described as our inheritance, and it’s nothing less than eternal life in the bliss of God’s presence – light, life, safety, unconditional love, joy and peace!

In the current time, Jesus has brought our spirits to life, but our bodies still decay and die. Even Christians are promised that we will have to endure painful persecution and trials, but we look forward to an eternal glory that awaits us.

The end of God’s restoration will be to bring heaven, earth, and humanity – physical and spiritual - back to a harmonious Eden-like state. At that future time, Jesus will return to earth and God will restore all things to the way they’re supposed to be. There will be a new heavens and a new earth, and God will dwell with his people just as he’s wanted to all along. The wolf will lie down with the lamb and all war will end. There will be trees of life for the healing of the nations and a river of life, just like Eden. At the very end, there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain (Rev 21:3-5). There will be rest… the most serene, satisfying, and beautiful peace imaginable.

This rest is what we were made for and this is what God wants to give us, if we only trust and follow him.

Rest. Satisfaction. The end of evil. The end of pain. This the "happily ever after" that we look forward to with faith, hope, and confidence because of who God is. But we're not totally there yet; we're still in the middle of the story and we've got things to do here. In part 4, we'll look at how to respond now to everything that God has done for us and will do.

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