Learn What You Believe – Part IV

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Part IV – Suffered, Crucified, Risen

Dear friends:

I am spending this time on the Apostles’ Creed because Jesus-followers need to get a firm grip on what they believe.  So many church people are content to casually believe in Jesus, go to church when they’re in town, and maybe read the Bible occasionally.  It’s good for them and it doesn’t cost anything .  Well, it didn’t used to cost you anything to take luggage with you on the airplane either.  But we are heading towards a time when admitting that you believe in Jesus and go to church (or that you own a Bible) is going to cost something – maybe a lot.  Some readers may already be experiencing that in their work place or at school.  Even if out-in-the-open persecution of Christians in the Western world never happens, you will need your faith more than ever; life will be severely tested in so many ways that casual belief won’t get it done.  So, “get a grip” on your faith while there’s time!

…suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into hell.  On the third day he rose again;


Lots of big fancy theological words can get piled up on this one: atonement, propitiation, redemption, justification.  This little chain of historical events carries a lot of freight.  Put simply, Christians believe that every human’s rebellion against God (sin) brings with it the verdict of “guilty”, and the sentence of death.  But God the Almighty Father sent his Only Son our Lord to rescue people by standing in for us to receive the judgment and punishment from God that we deserved for our rebellion.

The fact that Jesus was condemned before Pilate is more than a historical detail – Jesus stood before Pilate accused as a guilty evil-doer.  To rescue us he allowed himself to be condemned by a mortal judge, and sentenced to death.  But the gospel accounts of Jesus display his “shining innocence”.  They show clearly that he had no guilt and evil of his own; he was punished for the evil lodged in our hearts, poisoning our own lives and the lives of others, in ways petty and monstrous.

Crucified, dead and buried seems to be a triple redundancy to state emphatically that Jesus was really, really dead.  But there is significance in the manner of his execution.  The cross was a sign of being cursed.  It carried, of course, a heavy stigma from a human point of view – what would be your first reaction to hear that someone you knew ended up in the electric chair?  Kinda casts some tarnish on your opinion of them (or however tarnish ends up on someone) doesn’t it?  But death on a cross also carried the curse of God’s law (see Galatians 3:13).  To believe that Jesus was crucified means you believe that the entire curse of God lay on you because of your rebellion against God (sin), and falling short of God’s design for you – But!  That curse was lifted off of you, and transferred to Jesus.

Even more, Jesus abandoned himself completely over to the power of death – the curse of sin – “he was dead and buried.”  Death is the power that puts the chains on the human experience, and holds us captive.  Jesus surrendered himself to death to deliver us from it.  “…because [Jesus] suffered death for us, he is now crowned with glory and honor.  Yes, by God’s grace, Jesus tasted death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9).


“He descended into Hell”.  I know what you’re thinking: “Okay, what does that mean exactly, where does the idea even come from, and do I really have to believe that or can I just mumble that part?

John Calvin said, “If it is left out, much of the benefit of Christ’s death will be lost.”  Yes, he really said that.  Admittedly, the Biblical data is slight and indirect, but it is found in Acts 2:31, Ephesians 4:9, and possibly I Peter 3:18-20.  The idea that Jesus descended into Hell pushes the envelope on the necessity of Jesus surrendering himself to the power of death.  What Christians believe that Jesus suffered the pain and torment of death to rescue us – body and soul.  Jesus not only died, but also suffered Hell in order to experience the terrible torments of God’s judgment after death.  When Jesus suffered in your place, he went the full distance.  He suffered the full extent of God’s judgment.  To believe this is to believe, as Calvin states, “…in death we may now not fear those things which our Prince has swallowed up.”  Or as Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15:54, “Death is swallowed up in victory.”[1]  If you believe Jesus suffered the full extent of death, you believe that both physical and eternal death have been consumed by your Lord.


Christians believe something that stands the “real world” on its head: Jesus was physically raised from the dead.  Long time church people hardly think about it.  Easter is just the high point on the church’s spring calendar.  We forget how foundational the resurrection is to Christianity and how profoundly it blows “the-way-things-are-supposed-to-work” right out the window.  Paul was very emphatic with the Corinthian Christians that without Jesus’ resurrection Christianity is a joke:

 But tell me this—since we preach that Christ rose from the dead, why are some of you saying there will be no resurrection of the dead? For if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless.  And we apostles would all be lying about God—for we have said that God raised Christ from the grave. But that can’t be true if there is no resurrection of the dead. And if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world.[2]

Spend time thinking through who put Jesus in the position of being condemned to death, and how they put him there.  The phrases “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried” carry with them the overtones of our world’s hard reality, where lies, corruption, manipulation, misuse of political power and a host of other manifestations of evil are the way it works.  If Jesus rotted in the grave, then all of that evil would have won; Psalm 2 would end at verse three – the powers of earth succeed in their plot to break their chains and free themselves “from slavery to God.”  But God changed the rules, upset the apple cart, turned the tables, re-wrote the book; evil appeared to have gained the upper hand, only to have its scheme transformed into fatal defeat on Easter morning.  Give that careful consideration.

Not only did God’s goodness triumph once for all over evil, but in Jesus’ resurrection love triumphed over hatred.

…the attitude of those who procured [Jesus’] crucifixion was an almost virulent hatred, so bitter that in the end it was capable of ascribing the loveliness and graciousness of his life to the power of the devil.  If there had been no resurrection, it would have meant that the hatred of man in the end conquered the love of God.  The Resurrection is the triumph of love over all that hatred could do … The Resurrection is the final proof that love is stronger than hate.[3]

Suffered, crucified, risen – three words that form the core of God’s loving hope for this world.  Look for how they intersect with your life today.

Next: Ascended, Return and Judgment

[1] Isaiah 25:8

[2] I Corinthians 15:12-19, Tyndale House Publishers: Holy Bible : New Living Translation. 2nd ed. Wheaton, Ill. : Tyndale House Publishers, 2004.

[3] William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, The Daily Study Bible Series, Revised Edition, Westminster John Knox Press,1975, p. 147, 148.

Learn What You Believe – part III

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Part III – Christ, Son, Born, Lord

A friend of my wife’s is vegetarian.  She told us the story once of when she invited friends over to grill, carnivores and vegetores alike.  As he was leaving, one of her carnivorous friends thanked her for providing some real beef on the grill – it was one of the best hamburgers he’d ever had.  The thing was, all she had was the usual vegetarian mushroom/soy/whatever meat “substitute”.  Rather than accepting her point that “you can’t tell the difference”, I preferred to assume that her carnivore guests had very low standards for hamburgers.  After living almost twenty years in cow country, I can claim confidently that the key ingredient to a great burger is not what you pile on top; the essential ingredient is a nice juicy, grilled to perfection patty of ground cow.  Without that, what you have might taste alright, but what you have is not a hamburger, because you don’t have the primary ingredient.

The meat of the Apostles’ Creed – the essential ingredient that makes the Creed the hefty spiritual sandwich that it is – begins with these words “I believe in Jesus Christ…”  Believing in Jesus is the core, the heart of the Christian faith.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary …


Christians believe that Jesus is the Christ, not that he was born to Joseph and Mary Christ.  It is a title that comes from a Greek word, christos, which reflects a Hebrew word translated as messiah.  Messiah and Christ are interchangeable because they both mean “anointed”;  Put another way, this title is The Anointed One – God’s Anointed One.

In the Old Testament, God would occasionally tell his prophets to anoint a particular person with olive oil to serve as king.  This signified that person as set apart, or ordained, by God for leadership of God’s people.  To believe Jesus to be God’s Anointed One is to believe that Jesus was ordained, set apart, by God to be the leader of God’s kingdom.  Jesus, if you remember the gospel stories (Matthew 3, Mark 1;1-11, Luke 3:21-22, John 1:29-34), was baptized not with olive oil, but the Holy Spirit, right there in the Jordan river by John the Baptist.

As God’s Anointed One, Jesus leads his people as Prophet (teacher), High Priest, and Eternal King[1]:

  • He is our Prophet because Jesus reveals completely everything about God’s will and purpose for fixing the Garden of Eden disaster (in other words, salvation) that had not been made clear before.
  • Jesus is our only High Priest because not only did he sacrifice his own body as the sin sacrifice for all time, but he now performs the priestly task of standing before God on behalf of his people.
  • Finally, Jesus was anointed as our Eternal King because he rules – governs – leads – God’s people as they read and hear the Scriptures, and through his Spirit that lives inside every believer (the Holy Spirit); he protects us against everything that is at war with God’s kingdom, and he provides everything we need to flourish in this freedom-from-sin life he has won for us.

Only Son, born of Virgin Mary

God’s only Son and born of the Virgin Mary are related ideas.

First, aren’t we all supposed to be God’s children, so how can Jesus be God’s only kid?  Well, this is the flip side of saying that God Almighty is Father of Jesus the Messiah.  It recognizes that Jesus’ relationship with God is unique – that uniqueness is spelled out in Philippians 2:6-9 (also see John 1:1-18):

Though he was God,

He did not think of equality with God

As something to cling to.

Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;

He took the humble position of a slave

And was born as a human being

When he appeared in human form,

He humbled himself in obedience to God

And died a criminal’s death on a cross.

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of

Highest honor

And gave him the name above all other names …

Jesus the Christ is uniquely God’s Son because he is fully God, fully human; he was the Divine Agent of Creation (John 1:3); his sacrificial obedience led to the highest honor, his name above any other thing in the created order –  Jesus is to be worshiped.  His relationship with God is unique, essential to his person, a relationship that is integral to God’s triune nature.

For a lot of Protestant Christians, the Virgin Birth is not as important as it was to the early Church.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t significant any more, however.  As you remember from the Christmas story (Matthew 1:18, Luke 1:35), the Holy Spirit was Jesus’, “birth” Dad (well, It wouldn’t be strictly accurate to call the Spirit his “biological” father).  “Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary” is a shorthand summary of this part of the Christmas story which forms the basis for the verses in Philippians 2.  This is the great mystery of the Incarnation: that Jesus, God’s Only Son, The Anointed, was completely God, and also completely human.  It also means that Jesus was God’s Only Anointed from the very beginning; he wasn’t a supremely exceptional human being who caught God’s attention and “Only Son, The Anointed” bestowed on him by God like some award for excellence.  Believing Jesus was fully God and fully human has been a stumbling point for people down through the ages, because it is difficult to keep in balance.  Yet, if Jesus was not really one or the other then the entire message of Good News gets thrown off track, one direction or another.  Take some time to think on that for yourself to discover what it might mean if Jesus were only God, or only human.

“Only Son”, and “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary” affirm the Incarnation of Jesus from two different directions, the eternal Divine direction, and the helpless human direction.


The words “Jesus is Lord” are so familiar and time worn that most Christians have lost the significance of the words.  In fact, the concept of Lordship is completely foreign to North American culture.  We have no experience with it, or any valid parallel.  Let’s face it – lordship was a basic cultural structure of the human race until we Americans consciously chose to invent a completely different way to build culture.

In the New Testament the title “Lord” is part of Jesus’ elevation by God to “the place of highest honor “.  Let’s go back to Philippians 2 for a moment where Paul says

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of

highest honor

and gave him the name above all other names,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.[2]

In Philippians Jesus is Lord because his name is above every name; his lordship will be confessed by everyone.  So in the New Testament, the title “Lord” is applied to Jesus in the highest sense possible, that he is God, the God of Israel.  To quote a theologian, the writers of the New Testament used the title “Lord” for Jesus because

…it was the most adequate term for expressing what … believers had come to understand and appreciate of Jesus’ person and achievement and his present decisive role in the outworking of God’s purpose and blessing for the universe.[3]

Most importantly however, how does one respond to such a Lord?  The only possible response to this kind of Lordship is submission (as Philippians 2:10-11 states).  This is another concept North Americans have trouble understanding.  Try it like this: to believe that Jesus is your Lord means that you are no longer “self-employed”.  The responsibility for failure or success, making all the right decisions at the right time, doesn’t rest solely on your shoulders anymore.  Rather, you are now “Jesus-employed”.  He has bought you out, he now owns the whole enchilada, and he is now the one responsible for making sure everything runs well.  To paraphrase Calvin, to claim Jesus as Lord means:

We are [the Lord’s]: let us therefore live for him and die for him.  We are [the Lord’s]: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions.   We are [the Lord’s]: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only [permissible] goal.[4]

That is the goal – not merely to say “I believe in Jesus as my Lord” – but in the mess of every day’s living to strive toward Jesus, the Anointed-Fully-God-Fully-Human, to live for him more, to let his wisdom and will rule your actions more.  Yes, you believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Only Son, our Lord, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary; so how is that “making you” today?

Up next: Crucified, Descent, Resurrection.

[1] The Heidelberg Catechism, question 31.

[2] Philippians 2:9-11, NLT.  These words are arranged in the form of verse because most modern scholars believe that Paul was quoting a contemporary hymn.

[3] F.F. Bruce, Paul:Apostle of the Heart Set Free; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977, p. 117.

[4] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, The Westminster Press, 1960, p. 690.

Learn What You Believe – part II

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Part II – Father Almighty, Creator

I introduced Part I – Believe in God by saying:

it is essential for followers of Jesus to begin now to know what they believe.  If someone sneeringly insults you because of your Christian beliefs, will you know what it is you are insulted for?  Or if one day it is necessary to draw a line in the sand between what you believe and what you are being told to ignore, will you know where the line is to be drawn?  Tens of thousands of Christians are at least familiar with one of the oldest and best summaries of the essential Christian beliefs – the Apostles’ Creed. 

Part I went on to examine the words, “We believe in God” from the Creed’s first statement.  I would encourage you to read Part I if you haven’t yet. Now we will look at the next part of that statement, “the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”


Next, the Creed describes God the One and Only with a startling word – Father.  Please! Don’t get bogged down with modern indignations about inclusive versus patristic language, because that would miss the marvelous point here.  The point is, God is personal – loving, relational, knowable!  This capital G God is not remote, disinterested, or coldly unaware of you.

The description of God as the Father makes two claims: first, that God is the Father of Jesus Christ, and second, that God is our Father.  The claim that God is the Father of Jesus doesn’t imply that Christians believe Him to be male.  Rather, it expresses the idea that Jesus and God had an intimate, organic, and essential relationship.  Likewise, if you believe God to be your Father, you believe that you have a deep, growing, foundational relationship with God as well.  That is an idea worth spending some time thinking about!


Not only is God loving and relational, God is also all powerful.  To believe that God is almighty means more than God has the power to do whatever God wants.  What we really believe is that God rules over everything; Christian and not-Christians, every country, all creatures in the ocean, on land, and in the air, this entire planet, solar system, and anything there is beyond. God rules it all in macrocosm as well as microcosm.  One of the earliest manuals for Christian education during the Reformation states that it is by God’s almighty power that God “rules in such a way that leaves and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and unfruitful years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, and everything else, comes to us not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.”[1]

If God were only some benevolent, grandfatherly figure in Heaven, wishing you well, but of limited power, God might desire to answer your prayer, but be unable.  If God were almighty, but not fatherly, God might have the ability to answer your prayer, but be unwilling.  But you believe that God the Father is almighty!  Not only does he will to answer you, God is able to “accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.”[2]  This counterpoint formed by God’s Fatherly love and almighty essence means you are able to be patient during tough times, grateful is good times, trusting “[your] God and Father for the future, assured that no creature shall separate [you] from his love, since all creatures are so completely in his hand that without his will they cannot even move.”[3]  What more do you need to sleep well tonight?


Christians believe that God is maker of Heaven and earth.  This doesn’t mean that Jesus people ignorantly cling to a hopelessly outmoded view of the cosmos from the ancient world.  It means we believe that everything was created by God.  We use a very simple rule of thumb – if it ain’t God, then God created it.  That should about cover it, but just in case, the Nicene Creed clarifies that everything visible and invisible was created by God.  Which brings us full circle – if God alone is creator, and if everything else is creation, then God the Father almighty alone is to be worshiped.

But, we have also just affirmed that God is almighty Creator, and loving, relational God the Father.  Therefore, this simple statement implies that God’s act of creation is an intentional act of love.  Creation was not an accident when God sneezed and divine matter flew into the chaos and spontaneously brought order.  Nor was it the act of a dispassionate divine being who set things in motion then sat back to observe what might happen.  To claim God the Father almighty is Creator affirms that not only is creation good, because God intentionally created it, but also that God wants to be fundamentally involved in every minor detail of what goes on.

What you believe about God determines how you interpret and respond to the circumstances which every day contains.  According to the Heidelberg Catechism, when you believe in God the Father almighty, maker of Heaven and earth, it means, “I trust I him so completely that I have no doubt that he will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul.  Moreover, whatever evil [comes my way] in this troubled life he will turn to my good, for he is able to do it, being almighty God, and is determined to do it, being a faithful father.”[4]

Who knew so much could be packed into this one little sentence, I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of Heaven and earth?  If you haven’t memorized the Apostles’ Creed yet, start with this first line.  Spend time mulling it over, thinking it through, holding it up once in awhile to moments in life; Come to know God as your almighty Father, your Creator.

Coming up, Jesus Christ, God’s only Son.

[1] The Heidelberg Catechism, question 27.

[2] Ephesians 3:20; NLT.

[3] The Heidelberg Catechism, question 28.

[4] The Heidelberg Confession, question 26.

Water in the Valley of Life


I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth!  You say, “I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!”  And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.  Revelation 3:15-17

Cold Mountain Creek Water

Water.  Water in the Valley of Daily Living.
Cold water.
Mountain creek water clear as glass.
Rushing, refreshing water.
Water that makes you want to plunge in, to drink in with every pore; filling, cleansing, quenching, poring through your entire being, filling you with purity and light.
Living water of Jesus.

Water.  Water in the Valley of Daily Living.
Hot water.
Mineral hot spring water.
Bubbling clearer-than-crystal, steaming water.
Soothing, healing, restorative, cleansing pure water.
Put-me-in-a-bucket and pore me into bed because now all my pain and tension has dissipated water.
Living water of Jesus.

Mineral Hot Spring Water

Water.  Water in the Valley of Daily Living.
Luke warm, Laodicean water.
Nasty, mineral-bitter water.
The abhorrent result from the syncretism of mountain creek and mineral hot spring water.
Can’t drink it, can’t bathe in it, can’t clean with it, can’t irrigate with it water.
Laodicean Church water.
North American Christian water.

Jesus didn’t want the Laodicean Christians to make a choice for him (hot), or against him (cold).  He wanted them to stop being a waste.  He wanted their lives be life giving: refreshing, healing, and restorative to those around them; pure, clear, and cleansing – like cold mountain creek water, like hot mineral spring water.

Syncretism \Syn”cre*tism\,
1. Attempted union of principles or parties irreconcilably at
variance with each other.

Syncretism doesn’t end well because it robs the principles of their distinguishing characteristics.  The Laodiceans were like lukewarm water because they had lost what was essential.  They marked the “Christian” box under religious affiliation, but based their daily living on the benefits gained as citizens of a great city state.  They didn’t see their terrible need for Jesus, even if they aligned themselves with him. In the syncretism of Laodicean citizenship and Kingdom of God citizenship, they had lost the distinguishing characteristic of absolute dependence on God, resulting in absolute service to God.

Western Christianity is closer to the time of the Laodiceans now than any time since Emperor Constantine made it the official religion of the Roman Empire.  Painful times are ahead, and the thirst for the living water of Jesus is multiplying.  Yet the North American church is like the lukewarm mineral water of Laodicea.  It’s the mainline denominational churches – and the charismatic, the Pentecostal, the independent, and the four-square fundamental churches.  We mark the “Christian” box under religious affiliation, but base our daily living on the benefits gained as citizens of great world powers.  We don’t see our terrible need for Jesus, even if we align ourselves with him.  In the syncretism of North American citizenship and Kingdom of God citizenship, we have lost the distinguishing characteristic of absolute dependence on God, resulting in absolute service to God.

If your church is lukewarm mineral water it’s because it’s full of lukewarm Christians.  If it’s full of mountain creek and mineral hot spring Christians, the church will no longer be lukewarm mineral water. A Hot and cold water Christian doesn’t “brag, ‘I’m rich, I’ve got it made, I need nothing from anyone”, but to the depth of their soul recognizes “that in fact you’re a pitiful, blind beggar, threadbare and homeless.”   Then that kind of Christian dedicates everyday living to loving God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, and to loving other people as well as they love themselves.  They invest their time and resources to help make disciples, bring others become citizens in God’s Kingdom, and teach them to follow Jesus.  When the churches in our communities are filled with these kinds of Christians, then they will no longer make Jesus want to vomit.

If your church is like lukewarm Laodicean water, don’t waste time pointing your finger.  The only lukewarm mineral water you are responsible for is your own. Owning that is the first step toward being the living water of Jesus in the Valley of Daily Living.

God Can Make the Badlands Green

Wyoming’s Big Horn basin is desert country.  Actually, it’s probably classified semi-arid, so it’s not so parched as many other places on the planet.  But trees are rare, and serve as markers for intermittent run-off channels, or the north side of a higher ridge.  Even then, the term “tree” is a generous description for the junipers that look likeextremely over-sized shrubs, or the scraggly cottonwoods.  Sage brush, spiny horse brush, and prickly pear are the primary vegetation, along with short grasses and a smattering of wild flowers.  For most people traveling through it, the basin desert is brutally devoid of all signs of civilization, just boring stretches of absolute nothing, an excuse to drive peddle to the metal, in the mistaken belief that even law enforcement would not bother with it.

Yet there is a desert within this desert, aptly referred to as the badlands.  The badlands aren’t just empty stretches of nothing, they are a blasted wasteland; heavily eroded ridges and mounds of yellowish grey bentonite clay, shot through with just enough iron oxide to provide occasional pink and inky-dark  striations.  Nothing much grows there.  The stunted sage is lightly scattered,  and even the short grasses hardly have a foothold.  The badlands form square miles of sterility, filled with the rubble of rotting hoo doos, broken cap rock, and jagged channels that may carry water once every fifty years.

The drive from Worland, Wyoming  to Cody, takes you on a highway that forms the southern boundary to a stretch of badlands.  In places the road seems to be the barrier that keeps the badlands from infecting the relatively lush drainage of Gooseberry creek. On the left, thin pastures and occasional ranches, to the right the silent mad howl of the badlands.

I drove through there on a rare wet spring day recently, feeling the emotional weight of my A.L.S.  I was having a bitterly painful time of prayer with God about dying youg and leaving my family behind.  And as I drove by the edge of the badlands I had a sudden impulse to look over at the bad-lands – impulse, urge, command, I’m not sure how to describe it – but they were green.  “I can even make the bad-lands green” was God’s comment to me.

I remembered a verse from Isaiah that had inspired me a couple of years ago, Isaiah 55:13:

Where once there were thorns, cypress trees will grow.

Where nettles grew, myrtles will sprout up.

These events will bring great honor to the Lord ’s name;

they will be an everlasting sign of his power and love.

Or to paraphrase, God will make the badlands green.  But was that a promise of healing from the thorns and nettles of my A.L.S.?  A promise to bring bountifully care of my family after my death?  Or simply a promise for just that day and my bitter state at that moment?   Somehow, I believe the promise that “God can make the badlands green” was mostly for that moment, a promise for that day.  “look over here,” God seemed to say.  “that’s how you are looking at life this morning -seared, with nothing but the rubble of your broken dreams.  But I can make the badlands green, and I will do that in your life today.

And so I caught up with my daughter and her class at the Buffalo Bill  Cody museum and had a good time.  God took the dismal nature of my mental and emotional states that day, and transformed them into something resembling life, unexpectedly, without even a plea.

Total Access

Hebrews 4:14-16: Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.  The Holy Bible : New International Version. electronic ed. Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 1996, c1984, S. Heb 4:14

“Does God exist?” may be an important question, but the follow up question might be more crucial – “what kind of God is he any way?”

I read a lot of fantasy fiction.  Most of the contemporary stuff contains a divine element in the story-line, usually in the form of “the gods”.  Modern fantasy writers tend to have a cynical view of divinity.  For the most part their gods are either uninterested in human affairs, or too busy with important things to care about mortal affairs, or most cynically, the source of human misery.   Likewise, most Americans believe that God exists.  But that doesn’t answer the question of what kind of God they believe in.  Is God uninterested in their life, too busy, or even malicious, or …  (insert your favorite paranoia about God).  Basically, all the fuss is simple: if God exists, does He care, and can I approach Him or not?

The challenge is that life sucks, and each of us, no matter how good, manage to contribute our share of misery.  Deep down in the human psyche is the fear that each one of us has screwed up so badly that there is no reason to expect mercy from other people, let alone God.  The Bible would agree with that assessment, but it describes God in a surprising way.

A Little History

In the Old Testament of the Bible, it tells the story of how people turned their back on God – not how God turned his back on people.  The Adam and Eve account relates our human tendency to not trust God to have our best interests at heart, and our determination to believe we don’t need God.  Now, what God should have done was blast everything to Adams, er, atoms, and start all over.  But that isn’t God’s character.  Instead, God wanted to give us a chance, and set about trying to repair the relationship between God and us.  That, incidentally, is the story line of the Bible, and the “back-story” to our verses in Hebrews.

In order to understand these verses, it necessary to understand the role of the Old Testament High Priest (HP) in atonement, God’s initial method of making things right between God and us.  In the Tabernacle, later the Temple, the Ark was in the Holy of Holies – a little room completely curtained off from everything else.  The cover on the Ark was called the ‘mercy seat’, because God would come and be present above the Ark.

Once every year, the HP, and only the HP, would enter the Holy Place of all Holy Places, into the very presence of God to make things right with God and the entire people of Israel for their sins of the past year.  This was the Day of Atonement, and it was very dangerous.  Before going in the HP had to go through a thorough process of self purification; as he entered the Most Holy Place, he had to have a cloud of incense between himself and the Ark, obscuring the presence of God.  First, the HP would offer a sacrifice for himself, and then he would offer the sacrifice on behalf of people.

I’ve read somewhere that by the time of Jesus, the HP had a rope tied to his ankle and wore a bell; as long as his fellow priests on the outside could hear the bell they knew that everything was going well.  But if they stopped hearing the bell, they would know that the HP had screwed up somehow, and that God had struck him dead.  In that case, at least they could haul his carcass out with the rope, and not have to wait a year to recover his body.  Like I said, getting right with God entailed a little danger.

Jesus The HP

Whoever wrote the book of Hebrews didn’t have to explain all this because readers had grown up with it.  Therefore, the contrast between the Old Testament and Jesus as the great HP would have jumped off the scroll at them.

First, as THE HP, Jesus is in God’s very presence, present tense – not just in a place God comes to once a year – no,  Jesus stands right next to God full time, providing complete, instant access!

And in God’s presence is not a Mercy Seat, but the Throne of Grace.  The Mercy Seat is where God came to dispense mercy.  Mercy is God saying “you deserve to die for what you’ve done, but I will let you off.”  Now a throne is where the king sat to administer justice – to apply the law (like king Solomon and the two women claiming same baby).  But it isn’t the Throne of justice or mercy, it is the Throne of Grace; Justice is God giving us the sentence we deserve, Mercy is God not giving us what we deserve.  But Grace is God giving us what we don’t deserve.

That leads to the third thing – something completely amazing!  Think about this comment on the Old Testament Mercy Seat of the Ark: Grace does not veil itself from the people. Grace does not hide itself in a tent.  Remember, the Old Testament people couldn’t enter the holy part of the Tabernacle, only the priests; the priests couldn’t go into the Ark (God’s presence), only the HP, and then only one day out of year.  But now, because Jesus the great HP is in God’s very presence, all of God’s people have access to God.  Everyone.  Full time.  And there’s no more reason for caution and fear of instant death.  No bells or ropes!  Hebrews says “approach the Throne of Grace confidently – boldly!”

So why is it the called the Throne of Grace?  What do we find there, that we don’t deserve?  Help in our time of need.

Think on this – In Old Testament days, if someone was tempted to disobey God, where could they turn for help?  The HP was the only person who had direct access to God – but only once a year.  But if you did go to the HP, there wasn’t anything he could do to “fix it”.  He was a susceptible to temptation as anyone else.   All he could do was listen, commiserate, and offer some powerless words about faith.  Believe me.  I’ve been a pastor, been there, done that.  It’s crushing to be powerless to fix someone’s inner struggles.

But.   Jesus, as your great HP, is right next to God.  Someone has written, “as believers in Jesus Christ, we can run to our High Priest at any time, in any circumstance, and find the help that we need.”  That’s grace.  And as Hebrews points out, a HP with direct access to God wouldn’t be much comfort if he didn’t sympathize with his people.  What a horrible thing to have a HP with the ability to step in for his people, who rarely saw the need to.  No, Jesus sympathizes when we struggle with disobedience to God.  Here’s how The Message phrases Hebrews 4:15, “we don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality.  He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all – all but the sin.”  Jesus is compassionate – he demonstrated that so many times while walking in our shoes.

In the gospels, Jesus showed sympathy to the:

Weary and burdened: Matthew 11:28-30. Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

Weak in faith: Isaiah 40:11; 42:3; Matthew 12:20.  He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle.

Grieving:  Luke 7:13; When the Lord saw her, his heart overflowed with compassion. “Don’t cry!” he said.

Diseased: Matthew 14:14; Jesus saw the huge crowd as he stepped from the boat, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

Hungry: Mark 8:2. “I feel sorry for these people. They have been here with me for three days, and they have nothing left to eat.”

Confused and aimless: Matthew 9:36; When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

That is the kind of HP Jesus is, because that’s how God is – mercy, grace, compassion.

Good news

Therefore, God is totally accessible!  There will never be a reason to prevent you from approaching God.  You never have to feel that something you’ve done, contemplated, or said has cut you off from God, that somehow you are unworthy.  Of course you’re unworthy, but that’s the whole point!  God wants to be accessible to you anyway!  You are invited to boldly, confidently, march right in to the throne of grace, because that is where Jesus is.   That’s where to find help – eagerly given – because he’s sympathetic … he’s walked in your shoes.

What kind of God is God?  That kind of God.