Monthly Archives: April 2015

The Good Friday War

Last week I wrote about our tendency to use Christian words and phrases without really getting inside them and understanding their meaning. I talked about the resurrection of Jesus and our difficulty of grasping its reality and living in its power. Today I want us to think about Jesus’ death and that basic Christian belief that “Jesus died for our sins.”

Jesus’ death on the cross stands at the center of the Christian gospel. Paul placed it first among those things of “first importance” in his list in 1 Corinthians 15:3. But why would I discuss the death and resurrection in reverse order to that in which they happened? Because the disciples did not understand the meaning of Jesus’ death until he was raised! And we too have to view his death from the perspective of the resurrection or it won’t make sense.

From Crushing Defeat to Glorious Victory

Apart from his resurrection, we would have to view Jesus’ death as a crushing defeat. His enemies won. To the chief priests, Jesus’ defeat proved he was a blasphemer. To the Romans, Jesus was shown to be powerless against the mighty Roman Empire. And the disciples found themselves disillusioned and confused. Was Jesus a deluded fanatic or just another prophet martyred for speaking  truth to power? In any case, he lost the battle. It’s over, hope is gone, the kingdom won’t come, and nothing is going to change. Apart from the resurrection, the meaning of Jesus’ death is simple: he was a martyr, a fanatic, or a blasphemer.

But Jesus was raised! Death has been defeated, and Jesus has been vindicated. Looking back from the resurrection, his disciples no longer saw his death as a tragic mistake or a foolish martyrdom. It had to be part of a divine plan, a divine act working somehow for our salvation. The meaning of the cross could no longer be explained by such human motivations as fear, jealously, hatred, feelings of self-importance, and wishful thinking. In view of the resurrection, the cross is revealed as a divine mystery as deep as God’s own being. But what does it mean? Why did God allow it? What did it accomplish? And how does it relate to our salvation?

The resurrection conquered death. That much is clear. But throughout the Bible, death is connected to sin. You can’t deal with one without dealing with the other. Paul makes this point concisely when he says in 1 Corinthians 15: 56, “The sting of death is sin” (1 Cor 15:56). Sin is like a poisonous animal whose sting brings certain death. And this connection makes perfect sense. Sin is our turning away from communion with God in an attempt to become the source of our own lives. But since God alone is the source of life, sin brings death. Sin and death are two sides of the same coin. So, the apostles drew the obvious conclusion: since death has been defeated by the resurrection, sin must have been defeated also. And that is what happened in the death of Jesus.

From the perspective of the resurrection—but only from that perspective—the death of Jesus is revealed as a deep mystery, inexhaustible in its meaning. The NT brings out its meaning in many ways. (1) It is a ritual sacrifice in which Jesus, as our representative or substitute, secures for us forgiveness, righteousness, cleansing, and reconciliation.  Or (2) it is a battle in which Jesus is the warrior who takes up our cause, defeats our enemies, and brings freedom and peace to us. Or (3) it is a revelation of the love of God. Of course, since it is a divine mystery, it can be all those things and more. All these meanings converge in the faith that God did something for us in the cross we could not do for ourselves: he saved us from sin and death.

For the rest of the essay, I want to focus on the second meaning, the battle Jesus waged and the victory he won.

Jesus the Warrior

Who were the enemies Jesus fought? How did he fight? And what victory did he win? In his ministry, Jesus faced spiritual powers that worked visibly through the falsehood, evil, and violence embodied in the religious and political authorities of his day. He fought not with sword and shield; these enemies cannot be defeated by physical force. He fought with his teaching, his prophetic activity, and his obedience. He proclaimed divine truth to the corrupt powers, and this led to his death because the powers will not be persuaded by prophetic speech. To defeat them Jesus had to let them kill him.

Perhaps an even greater battle was his inner, spiritual conflict. He struggled with the human desire to live and not suffer, especially not to suffer as a criminal, blasphemer, and a rebel. The choice that lay before him was between accepting his Father’s assignment and preserving his life at all costs. This is the test Adam faced and failed. But Jesus did what Adam did not. He won the battle. He did not sin. Jesus trusted God absolutely and gave everything into the Father’s hands. Adam’s assignment was to preserve and perfect what he had been given. And because Adam failed, Jesus had to correct what he did, regain what he lost, and defeat the powers he unleashed.

According to the Gospel of Mark, chapter 3, Jesus began his public ministry by facing Satan in the desert and casting out demons. Some accused him of casting out demons by the power of the devil. But Jesus said it makes no sense for Satan to fight against Satan. He compared himself to a robber breaking into Satan’s house to rob him. You need to tie him up before you can haul away his goods. (Mark 3:20-30). Jesus entered our world and assumed our flesh and blood. He even entered death itself to do battle with sin and death in all its forms. And he won!


Jesus Our Brother

We can see clearly that Jesus won the victory for himself. He conquered sin, and God raised him from the dead. But how does his victory help us?

We have a much more difficult time understanding how Jesus victory could help us than did people in Jesus day. Modern culture is very individualistic. It defines humanity as an aggregate of self-contained and self-defined individuals. Since Jesus is a separate individual and we are individuals, we wonder how his victory can remove our guilt and free us from sin’s power. In Jesus day people possessed much greater awareness of the interconnectedness of human beings. They understood better how the acts and suffering of one individual could affect others. But with thought we can recover some feeling for the deep connections we have to others.

When a nation finds itself under attack by an enemy and its soldiers defeat that enemy, the whole nation is saved. As Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the Moon for the first time and said, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” everyone rejoiced! When a scientist discovers a cure for a dreaded disease or unlocks one of nature’s secrets, everyone benefits!

Our humanity is a shared possession. We cannot become fully human alone, and we recognize our humanity in each other. We can think the same thoughts, feel the same feelings, experience the same sufferings and dream the same dreams. Humanity is one spiritual possibility that is partially manifested in each of many persons. I need you to awaken what is possible for me and you need me for the same reason.

And in Jesus Christ, God became one of us; he shares our humanity and we share his humanity. He achieved something in our humanity that no one else had or could achieve: One of us resisted sin, did not fall, and trusted God absolutely. One of us gave himself to God unreservedly and is united to God unbreakably. He passed through death to eternal glory. One of us! One of us sits at the right hand of God in heaven! In him the fullness of humanity has been saved! And he knows how to make this happen for us, for you and for me. What he accomplished he can share with us because he is one of us.

Jesus Our Commander-in-Chief

We don’t have to follow the plot of Adam’s fatal story. Our brother Jesus invites us to enjoy his victory. We already share a natural bond with him simply because he is one of us…but he invites us to form a personal and spiritual bond with him. We do this by getting to know him, trusting him, loving him, and following him. And he has something for us to do. Jesus won the decisive battle, so the enemy cannot win the war; but the war is not over. Jesus is our Commander-in-Chief, the Holy Spirit is our strength, and our faith is the victory that overcomes the world (1 John 5:4). And I am so glad we get to join the fight! There are no living veterans of this war, because our tour of duty lasts to and through our death. You can’t outlive your assignment. As long as you are alive you have work to do! Important work!

It is not accidental or arbitrary that in the NT baptism is the first response of faith to Jesus Christ. Baptism reenacts in a symbolic way the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. And it sets out a pattern for the Christian life. In submitting to baptism we publically declare that we need and accept the victory Jesus won for us. Symbolically we die and become new people, and we promise to follow the pattern of his life. In some Christian traditions, baptism is called a sacrament. The English word sacrament comes from a Latin word sacramentum. A sacramentum is the oath of loyalty Roman soldiers took when they entered the Roman army. Paul comes very close to this meaning when in Romans 6 he calls on the Christians in Rome to remember what they did in their baptism. You died and were raised with Christ. Baptism is a representation of the battle Jesus fought and the victory he won. It is our promise to fight that battle, and it anticipates our victory through the power of his death and resurrection.


“Jesus died for our sins.” What does it mean? It means at least this: Like a courageous soldier Jesus faced, fought, and defeated our most powerful and deadly enemies, which are sin, death, and the devil. To win this battle he had to allow himself to be killed, because no life can be declared faithful until it’s completed in death. But by killing him, our enemies made him the victor and ensured their own defeat. Because it was through Jesus’ complete faithfulness to his Father unto death that he won the battle. And it was all “for us.” Jesus fought the most difficult battle ever fought and gained the greatest victory ever won. It is no small honor to be invited by this Commander to join this army to fight this war.

The Resurrection Revolution: An Early Easter Sermon


When Christians get together they sometimes speak a language no one else can understand…a kind of Christianese. Sometimes I wonder whether even we understand it. When we sing, “Praise God” or “I love you Lord” or “you are worthy” or “I give myself to you,” do we know what the words mean? Or when we say, “Jesus died for our sins” or “Jesus is my Lord and Savior” could we explain what we mean?

But in this post I want to consider an expression we may hear on Easter Sunday. The leader will say, “He has risen.” And the church will say, “He has risen indeed.” Do we know what we are saying? Do we know that we are speaking about the most revolutionary event since the creation of the world? Do we feel its power and truth? And do we live lives that correspond to this assertion? Or is “He has risen. He has risen indeed” just another expression in Christianese. Just something we say on Easter Sunday?

I want to give you 6 points about the resurrection of Jesus to help us break free of Christianese into the reality about which it speaks.

Apart from the resurrection of Jesus Christianity would not exist. We read the story of the two sad disciples on the Emmaus Road in Luke 24. Jesus appeared to them, but they did not recognize him. As they talked they expressed their disappointment: “but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). They “had hoped,” but their hope was gone.

Paul is also clear that Jesus’ resurrection is the “make it or break it” fact of Christianity. He says, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:17-19).

If Jesus had not risen, the world would be very different! There would have been no apostles, no church, and no world mission. We would never have heard of Jesus or Paul or John. Rome would have remained pagan. The French, Germans, English, Russians, Greeks, and hundreds of other nations would have continued to worship their gods. There would be no Chinese, Indian, African or Korean Christians. Every moral principle, religious belief or rational idea that Christianity gave to the world would be missing. There would be no Harvard, Princeton or Pepperdine. And you and I would not be standing here this evening. Indeed, most likely we would never have been born.

The Resurrection of Jesus is a real event that happened in our space and time. Christianity is not based on a philosophy derived from observing the repeating patterns of nature. It is not based on the secret revelations to a self-proclaimed prophet. It is not derived from speculations about the divine world that appeal to your pride or fancies. Christianity is based on a historical event. It either happened or it didn’t. It could have been refuted. To believe in the resurrection is to believe those witnesses who tell us that Jesus appeared to them alive after his death and burial.

The Resurrection of Jesus reveals the goal of creation and all history. The meaning of any historical event is determined by its context and what flows from it. There are three contexts that are especially important for determining the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus: the life, teaching, actions, and death of Jesus; those religious and theological speculations about the end of the world that were held in Jesus’ day; and the experience and reactions of the disciples of Jesus to his resurrection appearances.

Had it been someone other than Jesus, the meaning of the resurrection would have been different. Perhaps it would be simply an amazing event testifying to the power of God but without further implications. But it was Jesus! Jesus came preaching the coming kingdom of God, he cast out demons, healed the sick, raised the dead, forgave sins, taught with authority, spoke about God as his Father, called himself the Son of Man; he predicted his death, and instituted a new covenant at the Last Supper. And he was crucified as a blasphemer of Israel’s God and a rebel against Imperial Rome. For God to raise this man from the dead would be to confirm God’s approval of all he said and did. It would be to reverse completely the charge of blasphemy and unlawful rebellion.

As for the religious and theological context, most Jews in Jesus’ day hoped that when God defeated evil and established his everlasting kingdom, he would raise the dead so that they could participate in the kingdom. The resurrection of the dead to eternal life was supposed to happen only with the end of the age and the coming of the kingdom of God. So, when Jesus was definitively saved from death and his human body was glorified and made immortal, the disciples concluded that the kingdom has come. It is the beginning of the end. And Jesus is the first of many!

The original disciples and Paul experienced appearances of the resurrected and glorified Jesus. And they were completely transformed. Paul was changed from Rabbi and Persecutor to Apostle, Missionary and Martyr. They feared neither death nor the devil. They desired neither money nor fame. Paul summarizes well the resurrection lifestyle: “For me, to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). Or “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20).

The Resurrection of Jesus Really Happened. How do we know this? We know in the same way we know any event in the past: either we remember our own experience of it or we believe the word of someone who did experience it. In the case of the resurrection of Jesus, the decisive issue is whether or not we believe the testimony of those first generation Christians who tell us they saw and heard the resurrected Jesus. We have the witness of gospel accounts, Acts, 1 Peter and the letters of John. But the testimony of Paul, from a historian’s point of view, is the strongest and most direct testimony. We can listen to his own words from his letters, and no one doubts that 1 Corinthians and Galatians were written by Paul within about 20 years of the resurrection and about 17 or 18 years of Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road.

1 Cor 15:3-8

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

And according to Galatians 1:18-20, Paul met Peter and stayed with him 15 days and he also met James the Lord’s brother. So, what Paul’s says in 1 Corinthians about Jesus appearing to Peter and James is not hearsay. He heard their stories from their own mouths.

We can believe them or not, but there is no doubt about what they claim.

Accepting the apostles’ testimony to the Resurrection of Jesus establishes their authority for us. The Lord Jesus chose to reveal himself to the apostles. They are special. When we come to faith in Jesus through their words, we simultaneously acknowledge our dependence on them. We naturally want to know everything they can tell us about Jesus and about how to become his disciples and live as Christians. This is why the church accepts the authority of the NT. We don’t believe the resurrection because of the authority of the NT, we accept the authority of the NT (and the whole Bible) because we believe the apostles’ testimony to the resurrection. Keeping this order in mind will answer many of the questions and solve many of the problems nonbelievers and believers alike have about the Bible.

Believing—really believing—the apostles’ testimony to the Resurrection of Jesus will revolutionize your life. Think about how their experience of seeing and hearing the resurrected Christ changed Peter and Paul’s lives. In fear, Peter denied Jesus three times. But after the Jesus’ resurrection he stood before the same Sanhedrin Council that condemned Jesus, headed by the same high priest, Caiaphas. But this time he boldly proclaimed to the Council the name of Jesus “whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 4:10).

Meeting the resurrected Jesus changed Paul from persecutor to preacher and missionary to the world. As soon as you have the chance, turn to Acts 26 and read Paul’s speech to King Agrippa. There he tells the story of his conversion. These people no longer feared death or kings or emperors or the devil. They no longer desired riches or fame. They no longer sought pleasure or comfort. This revolution happened not only to Peter and Paul but also to Stephen and Phillip, James and John and many others. And it can happen to you as well.

But we have not experienced the risen Jesus in the same way they did. So we have to experience it in faith. How do we do this? It might help us to remember that as far as we know they did not continually experience appearances of Jesus their whole lives. Even they had to remember what they saw and heard. We don’t have those memories as our own. So we can’t imagine it or remember it for ourselves. But we have their memories! So, we need to listen to their testimony, enter into their words and let their words enter into us; and through their words we enter into their experiences.

One of the main reasons for the existence of the church and for gathering together as a church is to enter into these memories. Symbols and sacraments and teaching and singing brings these memories to life again. As we read their words, we realize that they had no doubts about the reality of the resurrection. The resurrected Jesus was as real to them as you are to me, and their memories of his appearances were as real as our memories of yesterday. And as we continually let their words dwell in us, we will begin to experience their confidence in the reality of the resurrection; and you may find yourself acting with their boldness in living.


So on Sunday when the worship leader says to you “He has risen” and you say in return, “He has risen indeed,” understand that these words are not originally your memories, not your feelings. You can’t assert them on your own authority. And they are not empty Christianese code words. These are the words the angel spoke to the women at the empty tomb. But if you are clear about who said these words first and why, you can experience something of the joy, confidence and boldness of those who first heard them.

Note: This talk was delivered to a student gathering at Pepperdine University on Thursday, April 2, 2015.