Jesus

Only a famous death will do

The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor. Striking story! But now, the people want to know how the story ends. Only a famous death will do. And what could be more glorious than to challenge the Emperor himself in the great arena?

Commodus, talking to Maximus in Gladiator (2000)

Commodus talks to Maximus in the film Gladiator (2000)

I love gladiator. It’s an epic film telling an epic story full of epic quotes set to epic music (spotify link). And like so many good stories, it follows the plot of the greatest story ever told. The true story of the famous death.

It starts with a general. Someone with power. Someone who tells people what to do, and is obeyed. Someone who has a formidable army at his disposal. And the general becomes a slave. He gives up his rights, his authority, his power. He is humbled, even humiliated, and becomes a gladiator. He fights many enemies, but before too long matters come to a head. He defies the emperor.

It’s a striking story, but now we need to know how the story ends. Only a famous death will do. And what could be more glorious than to challenge the emperor in the great arena? The final showdown must take place somewhere public, where it will be seen. The emperor seems to take a quick advantage, just as Commodus stabs Maximus. The gladiator dies of the wound.

But the story is not over. We need to know what happens to the emperor. He is defeated, shown to be weaker than the gladiator slave. And the gladiator, killed in the battle, is honoured and we will see him again – but not yet.

The effect is much wider though. His people are liberated, no longer living under the rule of the tyrannical emperor. And that is why we remember his famous death. That is why we have good Friday.

Rejoice, believer

I recently rediscovered a fantastic hymn written by John Newton. Many a time I’ve sung a hymn which was particularly refreshing and looked up the author only to find it was Newton. I think what I love about many of his hymns are that they show God’s grace not on its own, but in the light of human failing. Amazing grace is obviously Newton’s most famous hymn, and the first verse illustrates the point well. In it, grace is not an abstract concept, but a gift to “a wretch like me” who was “lost” and “blind”. This is what makes the grace amazing – the extent to which we don’t deserve it!

The hymn below is similar, but instead of applying grace to wretches it speaks of how the gospel applies strength to the weak. I find it helpful to regularly remind myself of God’s strength in the context of my weakness, rather than as an independent concept. This way my expectations of a Christian life are accurate. I do have God’s strength, the incredible strength that makes anything possible, but I am also living in a weak body, and I should expect a daily tension between the two.

I won’t say anything else about the hymn, just enjoy Newton’s voice echoing down the centuries.

Rejoice, believer, in the Lord
who makes your cause His own;
the hope that’s built upon His work
shall ne’er be overthrown.

Though many foes beset your road
and feeble is your arm,
your life is hid with Christ in God
beyond the reach of harm.

Weak as you are, you shall not faint,
or fainting shall not die.
Jesus, the strength of ev’ry saint,
will aid you from on high.

Though unperceived by mortal sense,
faith sees Him always near.
A guide, a glory, a defence;
then what have you to fear?

As surely as He overcame
and triumphed once for you,
so surely you that love His name
shall in Him triumph too.

Relay 1 summary

The observation which struck me the most after Relay 2 was how different I though it was from Relay 1. At Relay 1 I wrote a summary of what I learned, which was largely theological.

Don’t compare yourself to others. You’ll either become proud or despairing. Instead, remember you are compete in Christ. Trust me, you don’t need anything else, even for a short confidence  boost. No, really, you don’t! You know He is gracious. You know He is faithful. Now live in that truth. Walk in Christ, and remind yourself of His grace. Don’t delay – remind yourself now, and be thankful. Knowing that the gospel of Christ’s grace really is powerful, be unashamed of it. Speak to people about it. Be joyful in it. But be faithful – it is a valuable treasure, and you must not change it, for it cannot be improved, only ruined. How could you even begin to try to improve upon Christ on the cross? Keep the cross central, for that is where the atoning blood of Jesus belongs. This deals with our biggest problem – not sin, but God’s settled, righteous fury at our sin. This atonement is explained in the Old Testament, and the New Testament shows the cross of Christ is where it is fulfilled. Our union with Christ means we bear the punishment for our sins not in ourselves, but in Christ. This is truly radical, and every thought and belief needs testing at the cross, to be discarded or cherished. The cross destroys our self-confidence, and replaces it with confidence in God. It is vital (in the truest sense of the word) that you open your Bible and study it, not for information but to gaze at the crucified Saviour. As you understand this gospel, and grace in Christ, ensure you pass it on faithfully. To do this you need to study it carefully and love those to whom you pass it. Christians will already know the gospel, but faithfully remind them of it. Always remember, rejoice in Christ as you grow in Him.

You are complete in Christ because of God’s grace on the cross.

[Edit] My summary of Relay 2 is now also online.

Christians love to eat

The Royal Variety Performance is an amazing collection of entertainment acts performed just before Christmas each year. This year Michael McIntyre was tasked with hosting it, and he inadvertently said something quite profound.

About 7 minutes in, he commented that Christmas is characterised in this country by overeating, then went on to compare the celebration of holidays in different religions.

Christians love to eat to excess on their holidays. Other religions starve themselves on holidays. Jewish people have a holiday – they starve themselves. Muslims have a holiday – they starve themselves. It’s almost like Christians have had somebody look through the Bible for opportunities to eat to excess.

Along with Christmas, Michael McIntyre points out that we celebrate Christian holidays by eating pancakes, hot cross buns and Easter eggs. Obviously he was using the term Christian in the loosest sense of the term, and it is to be hoped that Christians do not overeat, but the essential point is an interesting one. Why do Christians eat rather than fast to celebrate a holiday?

Essentially it is because the holidays have a completely opposite purpose from other religions’ holidays, so it is wholly unsurprising that the method of observance is opposite. A Jew might fast to observe Yom Kippur in order to receive forgiveness, or a Muslim might fast to observe Ramadan in order to to please Allah more, but the Christian has a totally different intention when celebrating Christmas or Easter.

Christians eat because they are celebrating the past, not earning the future.

A Christian’s forgiveness is not earned by the Christian, but by Jesus. They are pleasing to God not because of their own actions, but because of Jesus’. It is Jesus’ life and death at the centre of Christianity, and it is Jesus’ life and death which give a Christian salvation despite their sin. It is Jesus who won our salvation by taking our punishment, leaving us guiltless in God’s sight. All the great blessings a Christian has from God are appropriated by Jesus. No wonder Christians look back and celebrate! In his classic book The Cross of Christ, John Stott rightly refers to Christians as ‘The community of celebration’. Christianity stands apart from other religions in that it is good news worthy of celebration. Most Christians, including myself, suffer from the problem of not celebrating it enough!

Anarchy and massacre

One of the BBC reports on the October massacre in a Iraqi Catholic church set me thinking on two counts. I’ve already given a few thoughts on the dilemma Christians face of staying or leaving Iraq, so now I want to pick up a completely separate quote from the same article. Ignatius Metti Metok, who believes Christians should stay in Iraq, commented:

Before the change of regime seven years ago, we didn’t have massacres like this.

I recently heard a Mark Dever sermon entitled Jesus paid taxes, and he made the point that any government is better than anarchy, because it reflects God’s authority and justice, even if only poorly. There are many reasons why Saddam Hussein’s government was not ideal, but it was government. Maybe not good government, but government nonetheless. It was raised up by God for the good of the Iraqi people. Now Iraq is in the unenviable position of having recently set the world record for the longest period of time to form a government, and it was during this period that the infamous attack occurred.

I wonder how often Christians are thankful for the governing authorities there are over us, especially when they do things we disagree with? They may not support the spread of the gospel, they may even try to curb it, but they are a sign of God’s mercy in giving us some degree of order.

An interesting point that Dever raised in his sermon was that the government both Jesus and Paul commanded civil obedience to was the same Roman empire that killed both the Messiah and the majority of the apostles, then persecuted Christians for centuries. If this authority is to be obeyed as stewards of God’s authority, what government isn’t?

Justice and grace

Last week a trailer was released for the upcoming film ‘The Grace Card’. It seems to be a ‘Christian’ film, but many things about it leave me far from convinced that it will accurately portray the Christian gospel. The worst of all was a line in the trailer which sounded like a pivotal moment in the film.

It’s not justice we need. It’s grace!It's not justice we need. It's grace!

What a horrible false dichotomy is introduced here! Are justice and grace mutually exclusive? This seems to be the suggestion of the film. I don’t want to be too harsh, given I’ve merely seen a trailer rather than the full film, but it strikes me that this quote undermines all that is good about the God of the Bible.

God doesn’t abandon justice in favour of grace. This would be a cheap form of grace, which would reveal an arbitrary and unjust god. This is not the God of the Bible. This is not the Christian God. Quite the opposite.

God does extend grace through Jesus’ death, but not at the expense of justice. If there was no need for justice, why would Jesus have died? Why not simply forgive everyone all their sins? That would show grace; but what a terrible, grotesque, unjust grace it would be! This is not the grace referred to in Ephesians 2:8, quoted in the NIV at the end of the film trailer.

For it is by grace you have been saved.

The grace by which Christians have been saved is a grace which includes justice. Romans 3:26 speaks of God not only as the justifier (by grace) of the one with faith in Jesus, but also the one who is just. The reason for Jesus’ death was to provide a means of grace which did not contravene God’s perfect justice.

It is indeed grace we need, but we also receive justice from God. Praise the Lord!

Religious superstition

How easy it is to fall into religious superstition! I mean thinking that God will bless us because of our religious activities. I’ve prayed, so everything will be fine now, because I’ve prayed. Not because of God’s intervention, but because of my prayers. I’ve had a bad day so far, but I’ll read my Bible now then the day will improve, not because I’ll be living life with a greater focus on God, but because I read my Bible. Having gone to church twice this Sunday, I think an easy week at work is pretty much guaranteed now. I can’t be bothered doing any work, but reading a book about theology is bound to solve that problem. I don’t suppose any Christians consciously and deliberately think like that, but I’m sure I can’t be the only one who catches myself sometimes. It’s tempting to put our faith not in God, but in our religious works.

We see this problem in the Bible too. This isn’t the only example, but the one which sprung to my mind occurs after a battle between Israel and Philistia recorded in 1 Samuel 4. It’s a disaster for the Israelites, and with 4,000 dead soldiers it’s time for a rethink. What solution do they come up with? They recognise God is in control of the battle, by asking “Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines?” and they’re sure they know how to obtain His favour – “Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the LORD from Shiloh to us, that when it comes among us it may save us from the hand of our enemies.” Does it work? The Philistines are scared stiff, and decide the best defence is a good offence. “So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and every man fled to his tent. There was a very great slaughter, and there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. Also the ark of God was captured”. Hardly the desired effect.

Can we combat this malaise, or are we simply helpless in the hands of our sinful motives? We can do many things. We can examine our motives, repent when we find ourselves lacking, and rely more fully on God’s grace in Christ. It is all we can ever do to fight sin – flee to Christ.