Palm Sunday: Passover Plot or Providence Program?

Jesus arriving on a donkey - Palm Sunday
Jesus entering on a donkey – Palm Sunday

People around the globe today are commemorating Palm Sunday – the Sunday before Jesus was crucified when he rode into Jerusalem on the foal of a donkey as the long promised Coming King.  It is recorded in all of the Gospels as a watershed event which set in motion the crisis of that Passover Week.

I believe the Gospel for several reasons, but very high up on the list are the widespread, diverse and testable prophecies that, in spite of the vanishingly impossible odds, are fulfilled sometimes hundreds of years after the prophecies were first written down.  I had shown how Daniel (ca 550 BC) had predicted the interval of time to the coming of this awaited King.  This was fulfilled precisely on that Palm Sunday when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.  Because of the long time span involved – over 500 years – this meant that the chance that his birth would even just fall in the proper time frame for there to be a chance that he could be around to ride into Jerusalem would itself be startlingly improbable.   Jesus could not have humanly engineered the timing of such a scope.

But the gospel writers do not focus on this timing when they record the events of that Sunday.  Instead they direct our attention to the book of Zechariah (ca 520 BC) and explicitly tell us that when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey he was fulfilling the prophecy given in Zechariah that:

Look, your king is coming to you.
He is righteous and victorious,
yet he is humble, riding on a donkey—
riding on a donkey’s colt.  (Zechariah 9:9)

Now this fulfillment that the Gospel writers trumpet had never really impressed me for the simple reason that it seemed too easy to plot a ‘fulfillment’.  All that Jesus needed to do was to read Zechariah and recognize that to get a ‘fulfillment’ he would need to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey.  The timing of his entrance aside (which I think is impossible to explain naturally), it would be a simple matter for Jesus to plot his entrance into Jerusalem for the Passover festival and make sure he came in on the donkey as per Zechariah’s script.  And being a lowly peasant it would be easier for Jesus to hatch such a plot than for him to procure a war horse – the steed of choice when kings make their entrances.  So could that entry simply be explained as the plotting of a man using an ancient script to ride a Passover exuberance?

Zechariah’s Prophecy in context

So let’s take the trouble to read the original Zechariah prophecy in its full context and consider such a ‘Passover Plot’ conspiracy.  Here it is:

9 Rejoice, O people of Zion!
Shout in triumph, O people of Jerusalem!
Look, your king is coming to you.
He is righteous and victorious,
yet he is humble, riding on a donkey—
riding on a donkey’s colt.

10 I will remove the battle chariots from Israel
and the warhorses from Jerusalem.
I will destroy all the weapons used in battle,
and your king will bring peace to the nations.
His realm will stretch from sea to sea
and from the Euphrates River to the ends of the earth.
11 Because of the covenant I made with you,
sealed with blood,
I will free your prisoners
from death in a waterless dungeon.
12 Come back to the place of safety,
all you prisoners who still have hope!
I promise this very day
that I will repay two blessings for each of your troubles. (Zechariah 9:9-12)

What jumps out is the bizarre change of scope that spans these few sentences.  The king enters Jerusalem on a donkey (v9) and then his rule will extend to ‘the ends of the earth’ (v10).  And God will seal a covenant ‘with blood’ such that prisoners of death will be freed (v11).  Zechariah saw and predicted something of far greater scope than just an entry to a city on a donkey.  According to Zechariah, tied with this entry would be a new worldwide program as well as a new destiny for ‘prisoners of death’.

And who might that be?

Today, the news outlets across Canada are reporting on the sudden and unexpected death of the recent Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.  He was considered one of the most successful and influential finance ministers in Canadian history.  He retired three weeks ago in the media spotlight to transition his career.  Today he is dead and his sudden and abrupt death has shocked and saddened everyone.  I submit that he is a ‘prisoner of death’.  Though he had been chief of the finance department, his success and prominence there gave him no advantage in this department of death.   And we too are all following along right behind him – not knowing when or how we will die.  We all are ‘prisoners of death’!  Zechariah was writing this 2500 years ago for you and me.  He was telling us that someone was going to come who would free us from this prison.  But how?  Zechariah explained long before Jesus rode the donkey into Jerusalem that it would be done by God making a covenant ‘sealed with blood’ (v11) – echoing the sign of the Passover Blood and the release from death that Isaac experienced in Abraham’s sacrifice.  A few short days after Jesus rode into Jerusalem atop his donkey on Palm Sunday he did indeed inaugurate a new covenant and then literally sealed it with his blood.  And three days after that he rose from the dead.  The doors of that prison which holds us all busted open.  The fact that Zechariah could see it so long before it happened indicates that the entry of Jesus on the donkey was not the desperate plot of a pitiful man, but rather it was a key sign marking a Providential Program for the largest jailbreak imaginable – to spring all of humanity from the prison of death.  The entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on a donkey was prominent for the gospel writers precisely because they saw it as a key sign marking that larger Providential Program that Zechariah had sketched out 500 years earlier.

But what about this rule that Zechariah wrote would go to the ‘ends of the earth’?  Jesus never ruled – the prophecy is in error, critics will charge.  But to think of ‘ruling’ solely in political or military terms is to miss the most powerful rule of all – the personal allegiance of a one’s heart freely given in worship.  Though Jim Flaherty was a senior member of the party that ‘rules’ in Canada, he never had that kind of rule over one single person in the entire country.  But Jesus at his trial calmly claimed that he would one day get this rule – worship – from people around the world.  Here we are two thousand years later with Palm Sunday inaugurating Passion Week which will be celebrated in worship by people around the world, in all nations, in a multitude of languages.  From that point of view Zechariah’s prediction of a rule ‘to the ends of the earth’ was indeed fulfilled by that peasant carpenter who rode into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey so many Sundays ago.

But what about the removal of all weapons of war from Israel (v10)?  That certainly has not happened. In fact today Israel is one of the most weaponized countries in the world!  True enough.  But that prediction is anticipating the conclusion in this Providential Program.  We are not there yet.  We are now at the stage exemplified in v12 where the plea and offer is going out to all us prisoners of death to come to his place of safety.  The news and offer of the ‘jailbreak’ is going around the world and many are choosing to take it.

In the context of this larger Program, Zechariah predicted that this King would make another entrance.  He wrote

“Then I will pour out a spirit of grace and prayer on the family of David and on the people of Jerusalem. They will look on me whom they have pierced and mourn for him as for an only son. They will grieve bitterly for him as for a firstborn son who has died.  (Zechariah 13:10)

The one that had been pierced and had died, and in so doing had sealed that covenant with his blood, will come back!  It is a hope I have, and some may charge me with naïvity for keeping it.  But given that Zechariah was bang on with both the details and the outworkings of that entrance on a donkey, it is simply a reasoned leap to trust that this Second Entrance in this greater Program of Providence will also one day come about.  And when it does, I want to be part of the jailbreak.

Potent Simplicity: What is the significance of Jesus’ sacrifice?

Jesus came to give himself as a sacrifice for all peoples – so that we could find God.  This message was announced at the beginning of human history, emblazoned with a Divine signature in the sacrifice of Abraham and in the Passover sacrifice, with further details predicted in various prophecies in the Old Testament.  The echo of this primal promise was even remembered in the ancient Chinese and South Asian histories.  Why was his death so important and emphasized?  How does it show anything about the goodness of God?  Or about the love of God? These are questions worth considering.

The Bible declares something akin to a Law when it states:

For the wages of sin is death… (Romans 6:23)

“Death” literally means ‘separation’.  When our soul separates from our body we die physically.  In a similar way we are separated from God spiritually.  This is true because God is Holy (sinless) while we have become corrupted from our original creation and so we sin.

We are separated from God by our sins like a chasm between two cliffs
We are separated from God by our sins like a chasm between two cliffs

This can be visualized in this illustration where we are on a cliff with God on another cliff separated from us by this bottomless chasm.  As a branch that has been severed from a tree is dead, so we have severed ourselves from God and become spiritually dead.

This separation causes guilt and fear.  So what we naturally try to do is build bridges to take us from our side (of death) to God’s side.  We do this in many different ways: going to church, temple or mosque, being religious, being good and helpful, meditation, trying to be more helpful, praying more, etc. This list of deeds to gain merit can be very long for some of us – and living them out can be very complicated.  This is illustrated in the next figure.

Good Efforts – useful as they may be - cannot bridge the separation between us and God
Good Efforts – useful as they may be – cannot bridge the separation between us and God

The problem is that our efforts, merits, sacrifices and ascetic practices etc., though in themselves not bad, are insufficient because the payment required (the ‘wages’) for our sins is ‘death’.  Our efforts are like a ‘bridge’ that tries to cross the divide separating ourselves from God – but in the end cannot span the chasm.  This is because though religious or moral efforts are not bad, they will not solve our root problem. It is like trying to heal cancer (which results in death) by eating vegetarian.  Eating vegetarian is not bad – but it will not cure cancer.  For that you need a totally different treatment.

So far this Law is all Bad News – it is so bad we often do not even want to hear it and we often fill our lives with activities and things hoping this Law will go away.  But just as cures for cancer become meaningful to us when the diagnosis that we really have cancer sinks in, so the Bible emphasizes this Law of sin and death to awaken our interest in a cure that is simple yet potent.

For the wages of sin is death but… (Romans 6:23)

The small word ‘but’ shows that the direction of the message is about to reverse, to the Good News of the Gospel – the cure.  It shows both the goodness and love of God.

For the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23)

The good news of the gospel is that the sacrifice of Jesus’ death is sufficient to bridge this separation between us and God.  We know this because three days after his death Jesus rose bodily, coming alive again in a physical resurrection.   Though some people today choose to disbelieve the resurrection of Jesus a very strong case can be made for it as shown in this public lecture I did at a university (video link here).  Jesus’ sacrifice was prophetically acted out in Abraham’s sacrifice and with the inauguration of the Passover sacrifice.  These signs pointing to Jesus were put there to help us find God.

Jesus was a human who lived a sinless life.  Therefore he can ‘touch’ both the human and the God sides and span the chasm separating God and people.  He is a Bridge to Life which can be illustrated as below

God is good by givving Jesus as the Bridge that spans the chasm between God and man.
Jesus is the Bridge that spans the chasm between God and man.

Notice how this sacrifice of Jesus is given to us.  It is offered as a … ‘gift’.  Think about gifts.  No matter what the gift is, if it is really a gift it is something that you do not work for and that you do not earn by merit.  If you earned it the gift would no longer be a gift!  In the same way you cannot merit or earn the sacrifice of Jesus.  It is given to you as a gift.  It is that simple.

And what is the gift?  It is ‘eternal life’.  That means that the sin which brought you and me death is now cancelled.  Jesus’ sacrifice is a bridge which you can cross to connect with God and receive life – that lasts forever.  This gift is given by Jesus who, by rising from the dead, shows himself to be ‘Lord’.  God is inviting us to Life like when Pinochio became a child of Geppetto.  God loves you and me that much.  It is that potent.

So how do you and I ‘cross’ this Bridge of Life that is offered to us?  Again, think of gifts.  If someone comes and gives you a gift it is something you do not work for.  But to get any benefit from the gift you must ‘receive’ it.  Anytime a gift is offered there are two alternatives.  Either the gift is refused (“No thank you”) or it is received (“Thank you for your gift.  I will take it”).  So also this gift offered must be received – simply that.  It cannot simply be mentally assented to, studied or understood.  This is illustrated in the next figure where we ‘walk’ on the Bridge by turning to God and receiving his gift he offers to us.

Jesus' sacrifice is a Gift that each of us must choose to receive. The gift is god's goodness to us
Jesus’ sacrifice is a Gift that each of us must choose to receive

So how do we receive this gift?  The Bible says that

Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Romans 10:12)

Notice that this promise is for ‘everyone’.  Since he rose from the dead Jesus is alive even now and he is ‘Lord’.  So if you call on him he will hear and extend his gift to you.  You need to call out to him and ask him – by having a conversation with him.  Perhaps you have never done this.  Here is a guide that can help you have this conversation and prayer with him.  It is not a magic incantation.  It is not the specific words that give power.  It is the trust like Abraham had that we have in his ability and willingness to give us this gift.  As we trust him He will hear us and respond – we will find God.  The Gospel is potent, and yet so simple at the same time.  So feel free to follow this guide as you either speak out loud or silently in your spirit to Jesus to receive his gift.

Dear Lord Jesus.  I understand that with the sins in my life I am separated from God.  Though I can try hard, no effort and sacrifice on my part will bridge this separation.  But I understand that your death was a sacrifice to wash away all sins – even my sins.  I believe that you rose from the dead after your sacrifice so I can know that your sacrifice was sufficient.  I ask you to please cleanse me from my sins and bridge me to God so I can have eternal life.  I do not want to live a life enslaved to sin so please free me from sin.  Thank you, Lord Jesus, for doing all this for me and would you even now continue to guide me in my life so I can follow you as my Lord.

Amen

9. Understanding & Receiving the Gospel

What is the Gospel all about?  What does it mean?  How do we ‘receive’ the Gospel so it changes our lives?  This session explores contains the Posts and links that explore these questions.

 

Blog Posts Related to this Session

  • 13/04/2014 - Palm Sunday: Passover Plot or Providence Program?

  • 15/02/2014 - Potent Simplicity: What is the significance of Jesus’ sacrifice?

  • 26/11/2013 - How does a Prostitute reveal the Good News of the Gospel?

  • 11/02/2013 - The Belief of Abraham – the Model Calling for us to Follow

  • 03/02/2013 - That Promise to Abraham … Overlooked but Everlasting

  • 16/01/2013 - The Hindu Kumbh Mela Festival: Showing Bad News of Sin & Good News of the Gospel

  • 13/12/2012 - What’s so Merry about Christmas?

  • 10/10/2012 - Pinocchio: Demystifying the Gospel End-Goal

  • 27/08/2012 - In the Image of God

  • 21/12/2011 - Christopher Hitchens and the efficacy of Pascal’s Wager

  • How does a Prostitute reveal the Good News of the Gospel?

    Here is the account of how a prostitute – a person with a background such that we would dismiss her – clearly illustrates the Gospel for us, and demonstrates why it is Good news.

    This is a video of a presentation where I explore the person of Rahab.  And then we use the Biblical image of grafting dead branches unto live ones to flesh out what Jesus in the Gospel is offering to us.

    The Belief of Abraham – the Model Calling for us to Follow

    In my last post we saw that Abraham obtained that indispensable status of being righteous simply by believing. This was declared in the little sentence:

    Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)

    Belief is not about the existence of God

    I now want to unpack what it means that Abraham ‘believed’. Many people I talk to think that ‘believing’ means believing in the existence of God. How many times have I heard “Oh I believe in God” – meaning “I believe that God exists”. Somehow we seem to think that God is impressed and delighted when we affirm His existence. But in fact the Bible is far more muted on that. It states that:

    You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. (James 2:19)

    According to the Bible, simply believing that God exists puts us in the same league as the Devil. I will leave it to you to judge for yourself how much assurance you want to take from that. Now it is true that Abraham believed in God’s existence, but that is not at all the point in this encounter. The reality facing Abraham was that he had no son and he was in his 80’s. In this exchange, God, as he had done several times before, had just finished promising Abraham that He would give him one. It was that promise which thrust Abraham unto a Crossroads of Decision. His choice was not about believing in the existence of God or not, but whether he would believe that particular promise that this God had given him – or not. And in that decision Abraham chose to believe. He trusted that God would fulfill that promise to him. Belief, in this account, is synonymous with trust. Abraham chose to trust God in this matter that was very important to him – which solely by looking on the surface of things did not look very hopeful.

    So Abraham chose to believe that promise of a son. In return God gave him something in addition to the promise. He gave him – the word used is ‘credited’ – righteousness. In the end Abraham got both the fulfilled promise (a son from whom a great nation would come) with righteousness almost seemingly thrown in as a side-thought.

    Righteousness – not from our merit or effort

    I have had the privilege to hear from people of many different religions and philosophies. What I find quite striking is that though their theologies can vary quite substantially, virtually everyone I talk to or read from operates on the assumption that righteousness is obtained through merit, or earned by some specific efforts, ascetic denials or ‘good’ behaviour. We reason that doing more good things than bad things, or doing a certain kind or amount of religious ‘goodness’ allows us to deserve, earn or merit righteousness. I have seen this logic expressed amongst Buddhist friends in Thailand, Hindus in India, Muslims across the Muslim world, in Catholics, Protestants, and even those who believe simply in ‘a Higher Power’ – all of us around the world naturally live by this credo. I remember once interviewing theology students leaving a seminary and being informed by them that it was the balance between our merits and sins that determined our righteousness.

    But Abraham did not ‘earn’ righteousness; it was ‘credited’ to him. So what is the difference? Well, if something is ‘earned’ you worked for it – you deserve it. It is like receiving wages for the work you do. But when something is credited to you, it is given to you. Like any gift freely given it is not earned or merited, but simply received.

    This account of Abraham overturns the common understanding that we have about righteousness either by thinking that it is a belief in God’s existence, or it is obtained by doing enough sufficiently good or religious activities. This is not the way Abraham took. He simply chose to believe the promise extended to him.

    Abraham’s Belief: He bet his life on it

    Choosing to believe in this promise of a son was perhaps simple but it definitely was not easy.  Abraham could easily have disregarded the promise by objecting that if God really had the desire as well as the power to grant him a son then He should have already done so. Because at this point in his life, Abraham and Sarah (his wife) were old – well past the age of getting children. Remember when he was first promised a ‘Great Nation’ that he was already 75 years old. In response to that he left his home country and went to Canaan.  Many years  passed since then so Abraham and Sarah  grew very old and they still did not even have one child – let alone a nation! “Why has  God not already given us a son if he could have done so”? he would have wondered. In other words, he believed the promise of a coming son even though he probably had unanswered questions about the promise. He believed the promise because he trusted God who gave the promise – even though he did not understand everything about the promise, nor had he figured out all that God had in mind with it.

    Believing the promise demanded active waiting. His whole life was, in a sense, interrupted while he was living in tents in the Promised Land of Canaan waiting (still many years) for the coming of the promised son. It would have been much easier to rationalize away the promise and return home to civilization in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) that he had left many years earlier, and where his brother and family still lived. Abraham had to live with the difficulties of continuing to believe the promise – each and every day – for the many years while he waited for the promise to be realized. His trust in the promise was so great that it took priority over normal goals in life – security, comfort and well-being. In a real sense, living in anticipation of the promise meant dying to the normal goals of life. Believing the promise showed both his trust in, and love for, God. He could have chosen not to believe and returned back to the land he came from (modern-day Iraq). He could have disregarded the promise while still believing in the existence of God and still continuing in his prayers and helping other people. But then he would have only maintained his religion but not been credited ‘righteousness’.

    Thus believing the promise went far beyond just mental assent to it. Abraham had to stake his life, reputation, safety, actions in the present and hopes for the future on this promise because he believed he was actively and obediently waiting. This was the Way of Abraham.

    Abraham: The Pattern for us – to also believe Promises

    The rest of the Bible treats this encounter as a Sign for us.  Abraham’s belief in the promise from God, and the ensuing credit of righteousness, is a pattern for us to follow. The whole of the Gospel is founded on promises that God gives to each and every one of us. These promises are not the same as the specific promise to Abraham of a son. But they are promises nonetheless, and like the promise to Abraham these promises bring us to the crossroads of a decision. Do we believe (i.e. trust) these promises, or not?

    What promises are we talking about? Here are a few

    Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. (John 1:12-13)

     

    “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. (John 5:24-25)

     

    I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:9-10)

     

    “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

     

    For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)

    I could go on and list some more. But the point is that these are promises and they are given either by Jesus or in his name – to you and to me. Like Abraham we can choose to believe these promises – or not. Like Abraham, believing these promises will engage and require your entire life. You will have to make your normal life goals and aspirations subservient to these promises. Mental assent to these promises is not the offer that the Gospel is putting on your table. Neither is belief in the existence of God, or valiant and well-intentioned efforts to earn merit. If you believe these promises such that you trust your life with them you also will be credited righteousness. And they will start you on the same journey of faith that Abraham embarked on.  This journey has God paying the price, while you and I are credited life.  This was all foreseen in the subsequent Sacrifice of Abraham.

    Though Abraham lived in a different era, with different customs and different rituals, he is a model to us. The promise to Abraham that was literally, historically and verifiably fulfilled stands as a beacon heralding that the same kind of offer is made to us in Jesus.

    That Promise to Abraham … Overlooked but Everlasting

    Tonight as I write this post the world sits on the eve of the largest one-day sporting event ever. Everyone’s attention is being drawn to the Super Bowl on Sunday and the drama that will be ours given that the Super Bowl features two brothers who are coaching the opposing teams. This Super Bowl will be a family feud! And then there is the anticipation of the Beyonce half-time show.  So much excitement abuzz in the air.

    It is amazing to think that with all the attention focused on it now, the Super Bowl will be largely forgotten in just six months. What the world is taking great note of now will quickly be forgotten as we move on to other amusements, entertainment or political events. The rage one day quickly becomes ancient history the next.  Chances are, when you read this you won’t even know which Super Bowl or which teams are the rage just now.

    We saw in our last post that this same pattern was true in the really ancient history of Abraham’s day. The important and spectacular contests, achievements and drama that captured the imagination of people living 4000 years ago are now totally forgotten, but a solemn promise spoken quietly to an individual, though totally overlooked by the world back then, is growing and unfolding before our eyes. I pointed out the obvious, but usually overlooked fact, that the promise given to Abraham about 4000 years ago has literally, historically and verifiably come true. This should give us reason to recognize that at the very least this Promise to Abraham provides an opening case for the existence of the God of the Bible. The story of Abraham continues with a few further encounters with this Promise-Making God of the Bible.  Abraham (and we who follow his journey) learn much more – even to the point of seeing this promise move from the realm of history to that of The Everlasting.  The story of Abraham is not a trendy but quickly forgotten event like the upcoming Super Bowl, it is one of an overlooked man setting a foundation to understand the gaining of eternity, so we’d better take note.

    Abraham’s Complaint

    Several years have passed in Abraham’s life since the Promise recorded in Genesis 12 was spoken. Abraham had moved to Canaan (the Promised Land) in what is today Israel in obedience to that promise. Other memorable events then occurred in his life except the one that he anticipated – the birth of the son through whom this promise would be fulfilled. So we pick up the account with Abraham’s complaint:

    After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:

    “Do not be afraid, Abram.

    I am your shield,

    your very great reward.”

    But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” (Genesis 15:1-3)

     

    God’s Promise

    Abraham had been camping out in the Land awaiting the start of the ‘Great Nation’ that had been promised him. But nothing had happened and by this time he was around 80 years old. He complains that God was not keeping that Promise given to him. Their conversation continues with:

    Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (Genesis 15:4-5)

    So in their exchange God basically reiterates His initial Promise by declaring that he would get a son that would become a people as uncountable as the stars in the sky – many for sure, but hard to number.

    Abraham’s Response: Everlasting Effect

    The ball was now back in Abraham’s court. How would he respond to this reiterated Promise? What follows is a sentence that the Bible itself treats as one of the most important sentences in the Bible (since this sentence is quoted several times later on). It lays the foundation to understand the Gospel and reveals the way to The Everlasting. It says:

    Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)

    It is probably easier to unpack this sentence if we replace the pronouns with names, thus it would read:

    Abram believed the LORD, and the LORD credited it to Abram as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)

    It is such a small and inconspicuous sentence. It comes and goes with no Super Bowl fanfare and so we are apt to miss it. But it is truly significant – and it contains the seeds of The Everlasting. Why? Because in this little sentence Abraham obtains ‘righteousness’. This is the one – and the only one – quality that we need to get right standing before God.

    Reviewing our Problem: Corruption

    From God’s point-of-view, though we were made in the image of God something happened that corrupted that image. So that now the Biblical charge is that

    The LORD looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. (Psalm 14:2-3)

    The visual images that have helped me better understand this were the corruption of elves to orcs in the Lord of the Rings saga as well as the ‘missing’ the mark analogy used in the Bible. How this corruption occurred is explained in the account of Adam which I looked at here. The bottom line of all this is that we find ourselves separated from a Righteous God because we have no righteousness. Our corruption has taken and launched us into a Brave New World of autonomy from God and a propensity to not do good – reaping futility and death in its wake. If you doubt that just scan some news headlines and see what people have been up to that last 24 hours.

    In fact our corruption has made us rather repulsive to God in the same way that the decaying body of a dead rat would be repulsive to us. We would not want to go near such a thing. The sight and stench would impel us to keep our distance. We are separated from the Maker of Life and so the words of Isaiah come true

    All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. (Isaiah 64:6)

    Abraham and Righteousness

    But here in the conversation between Abraham and God we find, slipped in so unobtrusively that we can almost miss it, the declaration that Abraham had gained ‘righteousness’ – the kind that God accepts. So what did Abraham ‘do’ to get this righteousness? Once again, so unassumingly that we are in danger of missing the point, it simply says of Abraham that he ‘believed’. That’s it?! We have this insurmountable obstacle of being corrupt ‘orcs’ and so the natural, and dare I say universal, tendency of mankind down the ages is to look for sophisticated and difficult religions, efforts, ethics, teachings etc., – illustrated before our very eyes with the efforts of the devotees of the Mela Kumbh festival – to gain righteousness. But this man, Abraham, gained that prized righteousness simply by ‘believing’.

    But what does that mean?  And what does this have to do with your righteousness and mine?  Everything!  We take it up in our next post.

    The Hindu Kumbh Mela Festival: Showing Bad News of Sin & Good News of the Gospel

    The largest gathering ever in human history officially started this week – the Hindu Kumbh Mela festival which is celebrated only once every 12 years. Organizers expect a staggering 100 million people to descend on the city of Allahabad by the shores of the Ganges River in India through the 55 day festival season, with 10 million having bathed in the Ganges just on the opening day alone. Organizers expect 20 million bathers on the peak bathing day of February 15, according to NDTV. I have been to Allahabad and I can tell you it is a dusty place, with a small-ish town feel because of limited infrastructure. I cannot imagine how these many millions can be there at once without all functions seizing up.  The BBC reports huge efforts being made to bring things like toilets and doctors to meet the day-to-day needs of these people. These Khumb Mela numbers dwarf that of the annual Hajj pilgrimages to Mecca that Muslims make – a ‘mere’ 3.1 million in 2012.

    Millions of devotees at Ganges for Kumbh Mela
    Millions of devotees at Ganges for Kumbh Mela

    So why will 100 million people spend 120 billion rupees ($2.2 billion dollars) to bathe in the Ganges river, one that has high levels of pollution (When I was there it certainly did not look appealing to jump into)?  One devotee from Nepal reported to the BBC that

    “I have washed off my sins”.

    Reuters reports that

    “I wash away all my sins, from this life and before,” said wandering ascetic Swami Shankranand Saraswati, 77, shivering naked in the cold.

    NDTV tells us that

    Worshippers, who believe a dip in the holy waters cleanses them of their sins,

    In the previous 2001 festival I noticed on the then-BBC interview that pilgrim Mohan Sharma reported that “the sins we have created are washed away here”.

    The universal human sense of ‘sin’

    In other words, these multiple millions of Hindus will spend money, travel on crowded trains, endure congested situations and bathe in a river that, from a purely ecological rather than spiritual perspective, is very dirty – in order to have their sins ‘washed away’. Many westerners will miss the significance of this in their quick dismissal of such a ‘superstitious’ idea. Because it is not their solution that should draw our attention, but the fact of the problem that these devotees are trying to solve – their sins.

    … does not originate with the Bible

    Many people I talk to do not like the Gospel because they think that it is the Gospel that is their foremost accuser of sin.  No one likes being told they are a ‘sinner’ – it is something that makes us uncomfortable and guilty.  Many think that it is the Gospel (and Bible) that is the source for this and they think that if they dismiss the Bible then they can get rid of the idea of ‘sin’.  It is true that the Bible declares that we are sinners, which can be seen as missing the mark in a marksmanship metaphor, or as a corruption of our nature as in an orcs of middle-earth metaphor. But the Bible itself clearly says that it is not the source of this accusation. It says

    Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them. (Romans 2:14-15)

    The Bible is saying that it is not the source of the awareness of sin. It is also not a function of a certain faith or religion, but rather it is a function of simply being human – of Adam. It is our human moral compass – our conscience – that is the source of the moral allegations against us. It is we that condemn ourselves.

    And it is festivals like the Kumbh Mela where multiple tens of millions of Hindus, who have never read the Bible, but are trying to grapple and make peace with their ‘sin’ that should alert us to the truth of this Biblical statement.  The ‘bad news’ of the reality of our sin is shown in the Kumbh Mela Festival. You cannot wish your sins away by ignoring the Gospel, because it is not the Gospel that is first accusing you – it is yourself.

    Hindu understanding of ‘Right’ and ‘Wrong’

    You may think that perhaps these Hindus have a very different idea of what ‘sin’ is compared to what non-Hindu westerners have. Here are some moral teachings from a Hindu guru, Sai Baba, whose books I have read. Ask yourself as you read them “Is what he says is ‘good’ and ‘right’ really ‘good’ and ‘right’ according to my moral compass”?

    “And what is dharma (Our moral duty)? Practicing what you preach, doing as you say it has to be done, keeping precept and practice in line. Earn virtuously, yearn piously; live in fear of God, live for reaching God: that is dharma”  Sathya Sai Speaks 4, p. 339

     

    “What exactly is your duty?…

    • First tend your parents with love and reverence and gratitude.
    • Second, speak the truth and act virtuously.
    • Third, whenever you have a few moments to spare, repeat the name of the Lord with the form in your mind.
    • Fourth, never indulge in talking ill of others or try to discover faults in others.
    • And finally, do not cause pain to others in any form”

    Sathya Sai Speaks 4, pp.348-349

    “Whoever subdues his egoism, conquers his selfish desires, destroys his bestial feelings and impulses, and gives up the natural tendency to regard the body as self, he is surely on the path of dharma” Dharma Vahini, p.4

    As I read these I find that I cannot argue with Sai Baba. I agree with him that these are good precepts to live by. But when I turn from judging these precepts to having them judge me I recognize that I am not measuring up. And thus, like these millions of Hindus who have never read the Bible, I am conscious of falling short of this standard.  It is just like the Bible says

    all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)

    Christopher Hitchens agrees

    When you become aware of ubiquity of our moral compass (what I called the Tao in previous posts) you can find it in more and more seemingly unlikely places. For example, Christopher Hitchens, in attacking the Ten Commandments, in a back-handed way agrees with both the universality of our moral conscience as well as our inability to live it (i.e. our sin). After discussing the first of the Ten Commandments he writes:

    “…Only then comes the four famous ‘shalt nots’ which flatly prohibit killing, adultery, theft, and false witness. Finally there is a ban on covetousness, forbidding the desire for ‘thy neighbours’… chattel. … No society ever discovered has failed to protect itself from self-evident crimes like those supposedly stipulated at Mount Sinai. Finally, instead of the condemnation of evil actions, there is an oddly phrased condemnation of impure thoughts…. More important, it demands the impossible: a recurrent problem with all religious edicts. One may be forcibly restrained from wicked actions…, but to forbid people from contemplating them is too much…. If god really wanted people to be free of such thoughts, he should have taken more care to invent a different species”   Christopher Hitchens.  2007.  God is not great: How religion poisons everything.  P.99-100

    Here he tells us two important things. First he agrees that every society ‘ever discovered’ had similar moral teachings as the Ten Commandments. They are universal and ‘self-evident’ as he says, thus showing that they do not get their authority because of the Bible.  Hitchens mistakenly thinks that the Bible is making the claim to a distinct moral authority that is unique from other morals, and is simply grounded in itself.  When he finds similar moral laws everywhere else he then thinks he has dismissed or disproved the Biblical claim.  That Categorically Imperative moral authority comes from something deeper than the Bible – it comes from within ourselves – and it will not go away simply by evading Biblical authority.

    Second, Hitchens takes particular issue with the Tenth Commandment against coveting, but the principle applies as he notes to ‘all religious edicts’ – we simply cannot actually live them. He falls short – just like the Bible says. These are two fundamental observations that we can make about our Morals and our behaviour.

    When it comes to our sin the Bible is simply a Messenger, trying to make us see the reality of our situation. And as such, its message can fall like ‘bad news’ on our ears. Hitchens responded to this by choosing to shoot the Messenger. The devotees at the Kumbh Mela festival are choosing to respond to the Bad News of their sin through bathing and ascetic sacrifice – without ever knowing if their efforts will be sufficient. But the irony is that the Good News of the Gospel is exactly what Hitchens mockingly cried for. The Good News of the Gospel is precisely God taking the initiative – to use Hitchens words – ‘to invent a different species’, by – to use Kumbh Mela devotee words – ‘washing our sins away’.  The effect of that washing is to transform sin-infested ‘Pinochios’ into real children of Goda different species.  Followers of the Gospel can then rest in the sufficiency of God’s work of ‘washing our sins away’.  The words of Hitchens and the efforts of the devotees show this message of the Gospel is Good News indeed, in the wider backdrop of the bad news of our sin.

    What’s so Merry about Christmas?

    Recently I had the chance to crash a Christmas dinner dressed as Santa Claus, and after being exposed by the kids, embark on a short but thought-provoking discussion about Christmas entitled What’s so Merry about Christmas?  A friend videoed it all and since it fits with this series of Christmas posts I thought I would share it in this one. (15 min)

     

    For more in-depth treatment of historical and prophetic aspects of the Christmas story see the following posts

    Where does ‘Christ’ in Jesus Christ come from?

    Jewish Rabbinical Testimony: The Son of a Virgin from the line of David

    Hold the Eggnog Christmas is in trouble!  Considering Dawkins’ claims against the Gospel accounts of the Christmas Story

    The Subsequent Life Lived: Signature of the Virgin Birth

     

     

    Pinocchio: Demystifying the Gospel End-Goal

    I have been thinking of the creation and fall of both man and angel. A question that has always puzzled me is: Why would God go through with it? In other words, the fall of man,  in the Biblical-view, would have been foreseen by God. If I could foresee the fall of man that would be comparable to that of elves degrading to orcs, with all that unfolding misery and death, I would have probably not created them. But God went through with it, knowing what would happen.  He thought it would be worthwhile for some reason. What was that reason? What did He see that I do not see?

    Pinochio parallels

    It was actually the story of Pinocchio that gave me a glimpse into what God was doing in the creation of mankind, still foreseeing the Fall. I am not sure if it was intended that way or not, but the story of Pinocchio has remarkable parallels with the Gospel.

    Pinocchio was made as a sentient being, one who was alive and who could freely choose. But his nature was not like Jepetto’s (the carpenter who made him); Pinocchio was of ‘wood’ and Jepetto was human flesh and blood.  Jepetto’s longing from the beginning was to have a boy – a son – after his own human nature. Pinocchio, the alive but wooden puppet, was an interim stop-gap remedy. The goal all along was to have a ‘son’. Somehow that longing portrayed in the story (I saw it in the Disney classic animation) is so natural, so ‘normal’ that we hardly question it.

    Pinocchio did not become a flesh-and-blood son. He failed in temptation and rebelled and went his own way. The innocent, but untested Creator-creature relationship that Jepetto and Pinocchio had was destroyed. Pinocchio was corrupted and was transforming into an ‘ass’ (of the donkey kind). Here is another picture of the Fall.

    However, Pinocchio was redeemed and he was won back. The Fall to ‘ass-hood’ was stopped. But his salvation did not revert him back to being a wooden puppet. His redemption resulted in him becoming a real flesh-and-blood son of Jepetto – precisely what Jepetto had wanted all along.

    God made Lucifer intelligent, beautiful and powerful, and he could have doubled these qualities into Lucifer’s essence.  But no matter how many of these qualities God endowed him with, the chasm between the omni-Creator and that of his creature would remain infinite. A Super-Lucifer enhanced ten-fold would still have nothing that would compare him with God. God would still have no ‘son’, with the very ‘genes’ of God in him. Their natures would always be entirely different, the ‘wooden’ creature nature would always be infinitely removed from the Divine Nature.

    With the redemption in the gospel it is different. It is not mere creation of enhanced but ‘wooden’ features  – fundamentally remaining of different essence from the Creator. Read this invitation of the gospel:

    “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:12)

    The Gospel is not simply an account of a reversal of the Fall or a way of ‘getting into heaven’. If you think of it primarily as a deliverance from Hell you have missed the main point. It is all these – but they are the minor incidentals in the much bigger plan of God. His intent is to get ‘children’ – not creatures. If we think of the gospel as primarily ‘going to heaven’ it would be like thinking that having a dog in your house is the same as having a son or daughter in your house. It is not being in the same house that is the main objective, it is the nature of the person that is sharing the house with you that is the most important goal. A dog is fundamentally different than a human. You may share your house with it, but the dog cannot be your son.  Children have the very genes – that is the nature – of their parents. This is a bond that reaches well beyond sharing a house (sharing a house is my analogy of God sharing heaven with his creatures).

    In the Gospel, God is taking his fallen wooden (and becoming ass-like) Pinocchios and transforming them into his very own children.  Then he will share his House with them. How does he do it?

    “…We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.” (Romans 6:3-5)

    So God, in eternity past, planned and orchestrated the creation of man and angel. The Fall did not surprise Him – He foresaw its coming, but He also foresaw past the Fall, through the death, misery and sin – to the day when he would have Children – when his wooden puppets would return to Him as his own Kin. This was something of an entirely new order than created creature – even powerful, intelligent and majestic created creatures.  The metamorphosis was going to happen through a union with created mankind and His Son. Paul caught a glimpse of what God foresaw in eternity past and wrote

    I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. (Romans 8:18-19)

    Glory will be revealed ‘in’ the children of God. And even now creation itself is waiting impatiently for that day!

    People may reject the Gospel because they think it is not true. They may reject it because they prefer to remain autonomous and independent from God. Or they may reject it because they prefer their petty sins. But it is a real shame when we reject it for the mistaken notion that it is a very small and narrow vision.  One Day the Children of God will be displayed in all their glory to the universe, the wooden puppets of old transformed by a union with Christ. God foresaw it all before Time began. He thought it was worth the tremendous price of redemption that He would have to pay. It is a shame many of us do not think it worth it as well.

    In the Image of God

    In the last few posts I looked at ‘signs’ in some landmark passages from the Old Testament that allude to Jesus.  I did so primarily because they are clues that point to a Divine Mind revealing Himself through these remarkable allusions. But they are also clues to help us understand ourselves.  And to continue with that I want to consider implications of what the Bible says about the origins of mankind.  Using the Bible to understand our beginnings is considered the height of folly in many modern circles.  However, at the very least, an open-minded recognition of the bankruptcy of ‘scientific’ evolutionary theories shown here, and the recently confirmed genetic fact of interbreeding between homo sapiens and neanderthals – predicted from the Biblical narrative – should allow anyone, believer and unbeliever alike, to have the freedom to consider what the Bible says about our beginnings, and to think about what it means.

    So, in this spirit of considering, I want to chart an understanding of what the Bible teaches about us by looking at a passage from the creation account.

    Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27)

    “In the Image of God”

    Now what does it mean that mankind was created ‘in the image of God’?  It does not mean that God is a physical being with two arms, a head, etc.  Rather at a deeper level it is saying that basic characteristics of people are derived from similar characteristics of God.  So for example, both God (in the Bible) and people (from observation) have intellect, emotions and will.  In the Bible God is sometimes portrayed as sad, hurt, angry or joyful – the same range of emotions that we humans experience.   We make choices and decisions on a daily basis.  God similarly in the Bible is described as making choices and coming to decisions.  Our ability to reason and think abstractly comes from God.  We have the capacities of intellect, emotion and will because God has them and we are made in his image.

    At a more fundamental level when we consider these aspects of ourselves we see that we are sentient beings, self-aware and conscious of ‘I’ and ‘you’.  We are not impersonal ‘its’.  We are like this because God is this way.  In this fundamental perspective, the God of the Bible is not portrayed as a pantheistic impersonality as understood in Eastern religions, or like the ‘Force’ in Star Wars.  And because we are made in His image, neither are we.

    Why we are Aesthetic

    We also appreciate art and drama.  Consider how we so naturally appreciate and even need beauty.  This goes beyond just visual beauty to include music and literature.  Think about how important music is to us – even how natural it is for us to dance.  Music so enriches our lives.  We love good stories, whether in novels or plays, or more commonly today, in movies.  Stories have heroes, villains, drama, and the great stories sear these heroes, villains and drama into our imaginations.  It is so natural for us to use and appreciate art in its many forms to entertain, reinvigorate and rejuvenate ourselves because God is an Artist and we are in his image.  It is a question worth asking.  Why are we so innately aesthetic, whether in art, drama, music, dance, or literature?  Daniel Dennett, an outspoken atheist and an authority on understanding cognitive processes, answers from a materialistic perspective:

    “But most of this research still takes music for granted.  It seldom asks:  Why does music exist?  There is a short answer, and it is true, so far as it goes: it exists because we love it and hence we keep bringing more of it into existence.  But why do we love it?  Because we find that it is beautiful.  But why is it beautiful to us?  This is a perfectly good biological question, but it does not yet have a good answer.”[1]

    Why indeed if everything about us as humans must be explained based solely on survival fitness and differential reproductive rates is art, in all its forms, so important to us?  Dennett, probably the world’s leading thinker on this question from the materialistic evolutionary perspective, tells us that we just do not know.  From the Biblical perspective it is because God is artistic and aesthetic.  He made things beautiful and enjoys beauty.  We, made in His image, are the same.

    Why we are Moral

    In addition, being ‘made in God’s image’ explains the innate moral grammar or Tao we looked at in Session Two.  Because we are made in God’s image and morality is intrinsic to His nature, like a compass aligned to magnetic North, our alignment to ‘fair’, ‘good’, ‘right’ is because this is the way He is.  It is not just religious people who are made in this way – everyone is.  Not recognizing this can give rise to misunderstandings.  Take for example this challenge from Sam Harris.

    “If you are right to believe that religious faith offers the only real basis for morality, then atheists should be less moral than believers.”[2]

    Harris is dead wrong here.  Biblically speaking, our sense of morality comes from being made in God’s image, not from being religious.  And that is why atheists, like all the rest of us, have this moral sense and can act morally.  The difficulty with atheism is to account for this objective basis of our morality –  but all of us have it hard-wired into us (as Dawkins says) because we are in His image.  Dawkins’ speculations about the cause of our innate morality from a materialistic perspective are less than compelling.  Being made in God’s moral image is a far simpler and straightforward explanation.

    Why are we so Relational

    Thus Biblically, the starting point to understanding ourselves is to recognize that we are made in God’s image.  Because of this, as we gain insight into either God (through what is revealed about him in the Bible) or people (through observation and reflection) we can also gain insight into the other.  So, for example, it is not hard to notice the prominence  we place on relationships.  It is OK to see a good movie, but it is a much better experience to see it with a friend.  We naturally seek out friends to share experiences with.  Meaningful friendships and family relationships are key to our sense of well-being.  Conversely, loneliness and/or fractured family relationships and breakdowns in friendships stress us.  We are not neutral and unmoved by the state of relationships we have with others.  Now, if we are in God’s image, then we would expect to find this same relational tilt with God, and in fact we do.  The Bible says that “God is Love…” (1 John 4:8).  Much is written in the Bible about the importance that God places on our love for him and for others – they are in fact called by Jesus the two most important commands in the Bible.  When you think about it, Love must be relational since to function it requires a person who loves (the lover) and a person who is the object of this love – the beloved.

    Thus we should think of God as a lover.  If we only think of Him as the ‘Prime Mover’, the ‘First Cause’, the ‘Omniscient Deity’ or perhaps as the ‘Benevolent Being’ we are not thinking of the Biblical God – rather we have made up a god in our minds.  Though He is these, He is also portrayed as almost recklessly passionate in relationship.  He does not ‘have’ love.  He ‘is’ love.  The two most prominent Biblical metaphors of God’s relationship with people are that of a father to his children and a husband to his wife.  Those are not dispassionately philosophical ‘first cause’ analogies but those of the deepest and most intimate of human relationships.

    So here is the foundation we have laid so far.  People are made in God’s image comprised of mind, emotions and will.  We are sentient and self-aware.  We are moral beings with our ‘Moral grammar’ giving us an innate orientation of ‘right’ and ‘fair’, and what is not.  We have instinctive capacity to develop and appreciate beauty, drama, art and story in all its forms.  And we will innately and naturally seek out and develop relationships and friendships with others.  We are all this because God is all this and we are made in God’s image.  All these deductions are at least consistent with what we observe about ourselves as we laid this foundation.  We continue in the next post to look at some difficulties.


    [1] Daniel Dennett.  Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.  p. 43

    [2] Sam Harris. 2005. Letter to a Christian Nation p.38-39