Whenever I am asked to give a series of apologetic talks I try and make it clear to those who have invited me that I am not coming just to win an argument about the reliability of the Bible or merely to leave people with the impression that the reality of suffering need not rule out the philosophical possibility of there being a God.
The Rationale Behind 'Have You Got the Whole Story?'
I don't want people to walk away with the idea that theism is a plausible hypothesis; I want to confront people with the Christ who is Lord of the Universe. If people are going to feel the full force of His claim on their lives then they will need to see how he fits within the unfolding story of salvation from creation to new creation. It is as simple as that. They won't know how to make sense of the details of claims of Christ until we set those claims within the context of the unfolding story of the Bible. Because of this my habit has been to start any series of apologetic type talks with this overview of the Bible.
I do it with the following aims:
- I want the Lord's revelation of Himself to set the agenda for the discussion. We may well have move on to issues such as the reliability of the Bible, suffering and pluralism, but if you start with God's agenda I have found people ask their questions in the light of what the Bible actually says rather than in the light of some documentary that they once saw on channel 4.
I don't want people to walk away with the idea that theism is a plausible hypothesis; I want to confront people with the Christ who is Lord of the Universe.
- I want the first talk to set the context for the subsequent talks. So when we move on to, say, the problem of suffering or the uniqueness of Christ I want to be able to show people how to make sense of those things within the Bible's unfolding story. So, for example, when we talk about suffering, go from creation to new creation via the cross in a way that sets the problem of suffering firmly within the plan of salvation and underlines the coherence of the Christian world-view; when we talk about the uniqueness of Christ, show how it is the unfolding story of the Bible that painted the early church into a corner when it came to their convictions about who Jesus is.
- I want to show people that the worldview of the Bible is coherent and that it does in fact make sense of the world. It is easy to get sucked into the sort of apologetics that assumes we just have to win the intellectual battle and so spend all our time 'clearing away the intellectual barriers that prevent people from approaching the Gospel' without ever getting round to proclaiming the Gospel itself. It is the Gospel that is compelling and which melts hearts and transforms minds, so this talk is an attempt to usher people through the 'intellectual barriers' and show them the view from the other side – to show them what the world looks like when you look at it through the lens of the Gospel. It does, of course, give rise to questions and objections, but it means that when we revisit the 'intellectual barriers' people know what is at stake and, we pray, the power of the Gospel is at work in them because they have, at least seen the view.
- I want to show people that we are not talking about a bit of private spirituality that can be slotted into your existing worldview, but that when we are talking about the claims of Christ we are talking about the one by whom and for whom all things were made. Calling people to turn to Christ means calling people to turn from their old worldview and to embrace a whole new one that has Christ at its centre. Doing apologetics in a 'biblical theological' sort of a way, means we are constantly talking to people on the level of total world view and not giving them a handful of spiritual fragments to make of which what they will.
- Doing apologetics in a 'biblical theological' sort of way means we are underlying the fact that our God is the God of history who has stepped into history and is taking history to its climax. He is not the result of philosophical speculation – which is the impression that some apologetics can leave you with.
So, with this as the background, here's my talk:
Out of a plastic Sainsbury's bag I pour the one thousand pieces of a one thousand piece jig-saw puzzle onto your kitchen table. Then I challenge you to complete the puzzle before bedtime. If you are going to pull it off, what will you need? A good light to see by? A mug of coffee and a plate of chocolate digestive biscuits? Some background music? Yes, all those things. But most of all you will need the picture on the box. If I don't give you the picture on the box you are stuffed before you have even started because when you pick up a light blue piece how will you know whether it is sky or sea? But if I give you the box and on it there is a picture of a summer meadow, then its odds on that the piece is probably sky. So you stick it up somewhere near the top and press on. The big picture on the box is what makes it possible to fit together all the little pieces.
And it's like that with all the different pieces of our lives. If I am to arrange them into a pattern that makes some sort of sense, I need a big picture. Without a big picture I won't know where to put the piece that looks a bit like it might be my career because I won't see how it connects with the piece over there that looks a bit like it might be my relationships with friends and family. And I won't know what to do with the piece that looks like death, because I haven't really found a place for the piece that looks like life. Without a picture on the box to work from all I have in front of me is a pile of unconnected pieces. And the trouble with unconnected bits of jig-saw is that it's not easy to tell what they really are. Is it sea or is it sky?
Not so long ago there was a girl at an American High school who'd fallen pregnant. She had the baby. Then she killed the baby and threw the body onto a rubbish tip before setting off to the school prom. When she was arrested she didn't seem to understand what she'd done wrong. All the commentators were shocked and wondered how such a thing could possibly have happened. One lone voice put his finger on exactly how. "We have brought her up to believe that life is disposable", he said. The picture on the box that we have given her to work from is one in which we are products of time, chance and chemical inevitability, whose purpose in life is to er... go shopping. So it is no surprise that a young girl arranges an unwanted baby into the scheme of things by throwing it away. She has no reason to think that life is precious, no reason to see a baby as anything other than a disposable product.
The trouble is, although this is the picture we have been working from all our lives there are some pieces we just can't find a place for. It's as though the box I give you has an alpine scene on it and in amongst the pieces you've found one that has definitely got a picture of a palm tree on it. And you can't even begin to see where it fits. In your life there is a piece of the jig-saw that loves your wife; that feels that what you are doing together is not just propagating DNA. You've got pieces that laugh, that make you cry, that marvel at the stars, that blush, that write poems. You've got a whole hatful of pieces that make you feel you mean something. But in the light of the picture on the box that we have grown up with, of a universe that is coughed up by chance and ultimately meaningless, it is very hard to see how any of those pieces fit in.
So we have a go at redrawing the picture on the box, to try and account for some of these anomalies. But we don't do a very good job. We can't, because when it comes to looking at the big picture of life and the universe, I'm too small. I can't see the whole picture. I am looking at the universe through the keyhole of my life. And the narrow glimpse you get through the keyhole can be very misleading. You think she's about to kiss him and I think she's helping him with his contact lens. Which is it? Looking through the key-hole, it is hard to tell.
I can't see the whole picture. I am looking at the universe through the keyhole of my life.
So what are we to do? It turns out we live in the light of a framework, but the framework is one we have put together in the light of how we live. There is an awkward circularity about things.
The million dollar question is, "Is there anyone who could break the circle? Is there anyone who isn't looking at the universe through a keyhole, anyone who is big enough to see everything that is going on?"
The Christian claim is that God is the one person big enough to see everything that is going on, and that in the Bible he has given us the picture on the box that really does make sense of all the pieces of our lives.
God Made Us for Himself
For a start we are not left to conjure up meaning for ourselves. The Bible begins with God. He gives the whole universe its meaning. And what we discover is that we are no accident. God created us and he gives us a purpose in life. And that purpose is not to go shopping for ourselves, but to live for Him. He created us to enjoy his love for us and he calls us to grow in our relationship with him by living in line with what he says: loving the things he loves, hating the things he hates, so that in the way we treat one another we reflect his character.
Of course we hate this already. It sounds like this is all about giving up all the things that make being human such an adventure; it sounds like this is all about being tied up in God's 'thou shalt knots'. But when there's a creator on the box who has created human beings to live for him, those who are most fully human are those who live most flat out for him. Living for him is not shackles, it is freedom. And it is fun. Life with the one who made the stars and dragonflies is not long-faced and 'bible black'. The body is not a prison from which to escape. He made our bodies for us to enjoy. So he didn't give us fuel to stick in our sides, he gave us food to taste: he gave us pineapples, grilled sea bass, potato salad, chocolate fudge cake and raspberries.
The Bible says God looked at what he made and called it "very good".
"Hold on", you say, "if the picture on the box is so good, what about all the ugly pieces of the jigsaw that lie scattered across the face of the earth? What about the massacre, the war, the disease? What about the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the earthquake in Kashmir? What about what she said to me, what he did to me, that really hurt? Where do those pieces fit into paradise?"
We Walked Out on God
When it comes to arranging those pieces I need to do it in light of something else that is on the box. Life with God was good but we walked out on God. We said something like, "God, we don't want to live in the light of your stupid picture on your stupid box." And so, in the name of freedom, we have messed around with the pieces. We have broken them, scratched off the paint, and tried to put them together to make something they were never meant to make. Whereas what God made was very good, what we have made is not good. In fact this twisting of God's goodness is what we call evil. And the whole of creation has been caught up in it. Think of it like this. Scissors are great tools for making things with. You can have a lot of fun cutting out chains of paper men and snowflakes with them. But if you put sharp scissors in the hands of a small child, they will need adult supervision. Without it, things get dangerous. On a cosmic scale, let us loose in creation without a relationship with God, and things get dangerous for us.
The harmony between God and man, man and man and man and nature is destroyed. A world that has walked out on God will always end up as a war zone. This is because the picture on the box shows us that God was meant to be in the centre of our lives. The pieces were designed to fit together for God's good purposes for his whole world. Now what has happened is that each of us has put ourselves at the centre of the picture, and rather than living for God's good purposes for his world, each of us is trying to slide the pieces around in order to pull off our self-serving schemes.
I am trying to rearrange the pieces so that I get to the top. I am not particularly sensitive to the needs of the rain forests or the poor or the fact that one child dies every 6 seconds of a preventable disease. I am not particularly sensitive to your needs, because I am looking out for myself. But things get ugly because just as I am looking out for me, you are looking after you. In my version I get to the top, in your version you do. So what do we do? Whose version do we run with? So we fight for it. Not just with bombs over Baghdad, but with words over the washing up. Each of us trying to prop up our version how we think things should be.
The post-modern take on language as power play is just a fancy French way of talking about what humankind has been doing for centuries. It is what happens when we say to God, "God, we don't want to live in the light of your stupid picture."
The pain and brutality of our world doesn't catch the Bible unawares. If you're working from the picture on the box that the Enlightenment paints, and you're running with the idea that humankind is on the up and up, it leaves you struggling to know what to do with the pieces of unparalleled violence that have littered the 20th Century. But the picture that the Bible gives makes sense of the ugly pieces of jigsaw that we see strewn around. It shows us that we are not on the up and up. Something in our world has gone badly wrong. This doesn't mean that the picture on box paints a low view of humanity. Far from it. As human beings created by God we are noble creatures. But we use our nobility badly. We use it in a ways for which it was never intended.
A World Cut Off from the God of Life
So what does God do? His paradise is a place of peace, not for warmongers. So Adam and Eve are thrown out of the garden. They are thrown out of life with God and into what the Bible describes as death. Oh their arms and legs were still moving, but spiritually they're dead because they are cut off from the God of life.
The sobering picture on the box is that you and I are all born east of Eden. We are all born into a world in which our arms and legs are moving, but we are spiritually dead. So if you're reading the Bible, you are only in chapter three and you are faced with the most important question you could ever ask. How do we get back to the reason we are on this planet? How does humankind get back to life with God?
And all my attempts to try and smooth out my life by changing jobs or changing boyfriends or changing hairstyles, or joining a gym, or travelling round the world are like a man with AIDS trying to cure himself by putting sticking plasters on the sores. Those sores are just the symptoms of something far deeper that needs to be cured. And the sores in my life speak of a deep-rooted problem. One that needs a profound cure. I need to be restored to life with the God who made me.
God's Promise of Life
When God expels Adam and Eve from the Garden, He also makes a promise. He promises that someone descended from this woman will come to put things right and restore us to life with God again. And the story of the bible turns out to be the story of God keeping that promise.
So God takes a man called Abraham and promises that he is going to have more descendants than there are stars and that through his descendants he is going to bless the whole world by leading everyone back to life with God again. It has to be said that this all sounds a little unlikely. Abraham and his wife Sarah are childless pensioners. So when Sarah hears God's promise, she just laughs. This has got to be a joke. But the God of the Bible is the Creator. He spoke and the stars slotted into place. When he says something will happen, it will happen – however impossible it looks to us.
... the God of the Bible is the Creator.... When he says something will happen, it will happen – however impossible it looks to us.
So it's not long before Abraham and Sarah have Isaac; Isaac has Jacob; Jacob has Joseph and gives him his Technicolor dream coat. The story of Joseph is like one of those bad news / good news stories.
Joseph's brothers are jealous of him, so they sell him to a bunch of slave traders (bad news). It turns out alright though because Joseph ends up as chief slave in one of the most important households in Egypt (good news). But his master's wife frames him because he wouldn't sleep with her. So Joseph ends up in prison (bad news). But even this turns out alright because in prison Joseph meets Pharaoh's cup bearer. He mentions Joseph to Pharaoh; Joseph gets a hearing and ends up Prime Minister (good news).
But meanwhile, back in Canaan, there is famine. And this is very bad news. How were all the descendants of Abraham going to bless the whole world? It looks like they were going to get wiped off face of the earth. But there is grain in Egypt. So the brothers go cap in hand and who should be in charge of dishing out the grain? Joseph! (They don't know whether that's good news or bad.) When they recognise one another, there is a slightly awkward moment, but Joseph clears the air by saying: "What you intended for evil, God intended for good."
In others words we are being shown that through the mess of human dealings, God is working out his plan to keep his promise. All human history is in his hands. Your life is not spinning out of control. Even through the hard times, God is working out his plan.
So the descendants of Abraham are kept safe (good news) and they all pile down to Egypt.
After a while there are so many of them (good news) that the locals get jumpy and turn them into slaves (bad news). And so God's people are left wondering whatever happened to God's promise to restore all things? Making mud brick for the Egyptians was nobody's idea of paradise.
The God who Delivers
But God hasn't forgotten his promise. And so he calls Moses. And we wonder, is Moses, at last the one who'll lead the whole world back into paradise? God says that through Moses he is going to set his people free from slavery in Egypt. And here's how: He warns that he is going to come in judgement one night and strike down the first born in every household in Egypt. This was to be a graphic demonstration that to walk out on the God of life will always lead to death. "But", God said, "if you take a lamb, kill it and smear it's blood on the doorpost, then when I come in judgement I'll see the blood and pass over your house."
You can imagine the first born of the house just before bed-time:
"Dad, did you kill the lamb?"
"Yes. Now off you go up to bed."
"But dad, did you smear the blood on the door?"
"And it's CLEARLY visible?"
That night there was a death in every house. Those with no blood on the door suffered the death of the first born. Those who had taken God at his word, so who had smeared the blood on the door, God passed over. But there had been a death. The death of a lamb. In the morning the first born would have been acutely aware that he had been kept safe by the blood of the lamb.
The next day Pharaoh had had enough. He lets the Israelites go. The Lord leads them through the Red Sea and they're free. But not free just to wander round the desert and do what they like. They have been restored to the reason they were created, they have been set free to start a new life with God.
God declares to them, "I have carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself." In other words, he's telling them that he has saved them for a relationship with Him. Then he promises that he's going to take them to a new land, the one promised to Abraham, and that when they settle there it will be a kind of paradise.
This rescue from Egypt provides the backdrop to what God promises to do in the future. The Bibles sees God's people in Egypt as a picture of the state of all humankind. We like to think we're free, and we fear that God is going to come along and tie us up in chains. No, it is when we walk out on God that we end up in chains. We say things we wish we'd never said, do things we wish we could stop doing. But we can't. And that's because we are not free. Free means free to worship God as we were made to, to be his royal servants, and enjoy life with Him in all its fullness. As it is, we are like the Israelites in Egypt: slaves who face the prospect of death. So again the question we are forced to chew on is, "How can we be set free from slavery and be restored to the relationship with God that we were made for? How can we get back to life with God?"
In answer to that, the prophets go on to say that God is going to do a second Exodus. It will be bigger than the first. He won't just lead the Israelites out of Egypt; he will lead all people of all nations out of the slavery they find themselves in.
Meanwhile, God is leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, and on the way he gives them a whole bunch of laws. It is very important we get the order right here. Most people think that the deal with God is that he says, "Here are my laws and if you keep them, then that'll qualify you for life with me."
No. If that was the way round, they'd still be in Egypt making mud bricks. God doesn't rescue them as a reward for their good behaviour. He rescues them just because he is the sort of God who keeps his promises and will never walk out on his people. Then, once he has rescued them, he says, "Now, in the land we're going to I want you to live in a way that reflects my character. So don't lie, because I am a God of truth. Don't steal, because I am generous. Don't commit adultery, because I am faithful."
This means that very early in the story we see that the way that 'walking dead' people get back to life with God is not by pulling up their socks and gritting their teeth and resolving to turn over a new leaf and try harder to be better people. It is by God rescuing us...
Once that is firmly in place in the picture on the box it makes a big difference to how I arrange the pieces of my life. It means I am not collecting up all the good things I have done, hoping they will impress God at end of the day. It means I am not pointing a judgmental finger at you, thinking, "Well I am better than he is, that must put me in the top third. If God doesn't take me, who is he going to take?" I am not looking with smug satisfaction at my own achievements, it means I am humbly looking for God to come and rescue me.
And you ask, "But I wasn't in Egypt, where is the lifeline he has thrown me? Where is the lamb, whose blood means the Lord will pass-over me?" And it is to this Lamb that the rest of the story leads.
The Kingdom of God
Back in the Ancient Near East, the Israelites get to the land. And eventually get a king David. Is this the one? Is this the one who will finally destroy evil and set up paradise? For a while things look promising. David is a good King. But then the wheels of his reign fall off as he fools around with murder and adultery. But while everyone else is breaking all their promises, God goes on making them. He promises that a descendant of David, a king in David's line, will in fact be the one the world is waiting for.
Under David's son Solomon, we get a high point of the Old Testament. God's people are living with God and the writers says it is like Eden all over again. It's wonderful.
One day this extremely rich woman with a lot of camels and jewellery shows up and starts sniffing around the Kingdom. Solomon confronts her, "Who do you think you are, the Queen of Sheba?" Turns out she really was. She had heard about how wonderful life in God's kingdom was like, so she had come to look around. And she goes home saying, "I was never told the half of it." Life with God was way better than she had expected.
And so, we wonder, is this it? The nations of the wider world are being blessed by Abraham's descendants who are living in a kind of paradise. Have we got to the end of God's story?
No, because in the temple they are still sacrificing animals. Which sounds pretty primitive to us.
What's with the sacrifices? God is teaching his people that their sin is still a problem. They still need their guilt removed from them and their consciences cleansed. And the killing of a young bull (for example) is a picture of how he does that.
The priest looks at the people and says, "God says that your sin means you deserve death." Then he lays his hands on the bull and says to the people, "But in his kindness, God says, ‘let your sin be transferred onto this bull.'" And then the bull is killed and the priest declares that the people are forgiven. The bull has died to pay for their sin.
God gave his people a system of sacrifices that needed to be made again and again, to remind them that they don't have a cast iron right to enjoy life in his presence. God still has some cleaning up of their hearts to do.
And as if to demonstrate what they were like, what did they do? The same as you and I do. They walk out on God. It is like Adam and Eve all over again. They want to do their own thing. They don't want to live for God any more. They want to be like other nations. As Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden, the Israelites are expelled from the land and end up in Babylon. Once again they become slaves. It's all horribly familiar.
Again and again we see from the picture on the box that God will not smile at sin. God will hand them over to the consequences of their rebellion. People who want nothing to do with Him will get their own way. They will have nothing to do with him. They will be shut out of life with him.
At first we shrink from the fact that that is on the box. We don't want a God who judges. But when we think about it for a while we realise it is very good news for our universe because suddenly what I do is charged with meaning. Imagine a universe whose final verdict on our lives was, "Do what you want, see if I care." This is a God who cares. He says that in his universe evil will not have the last word. He says that in the end he will put right all that is wrong.
So when it comes to the way I treat my little brother, the damage I do with my sharp tongue or the way I use my girlfriend, I can't just shrug it off. The picture on the box tells me that I am accountable for what I do. Which means that what I do matters; which means that ultimately I matter.
God Promises his Servant
Meanwhile, by the rivers of Babylon, the Israelites are not happy. In fact they "sat down and wept when they remembered Zion." They couldn't understand how God could have let this happen to them. Perhaps he has been bluffing. Perhaps he's powerless against the Babylonian gods. Perhaps he's not the one true God.
But into their doubts and fears God says that this exile will not last forever. He says, "When I end it, then you'll see I am God."
He says he's going to send his servant. And this servant of his will do the sort of things that only God can do. He will once and for all rescue all people from their exile from the God of life. He will pull off the great Exodus and lead all people home, back to the God who made them.
What puzzled them was the way God says this servant was going to go about his task. The prophet Isaiah says he's going to suffer and be led like a lamb to the slaughter, and the "Lord will lay on him the punishment for all our sins."
Well, sure enough, after 70 years, the King of Persia conquers Babylon and says the Israelites can all go home. They trickle back to Jerusalem and they wonder, "Is this it? Is this God's final rescue?" But the old folks burst into tears. Of course this isn't it. This isn't the paradise restored that that was promised. This isn't even as good as it was before.
So the prophets start to explain. Yes, physically we're back in Jerusalem. But spiritually we're still a long way from home. And so, at the end of the Old Testament, the people of God are left still waiting for God to keep his promise to come and put things right. So they wait. And they wait.
The Coming of the King
For nearly 400 years nothing. Then a bloke called John in a camel hair jacket and an eccentric line in snacks, stands up in the desert and cries out, "You know how God was going to send his servant to end the exile? Well get ready! Get ready for the one we have been waiting for, for the one whose sandals I am not worthy to untie." At last, God is coming to our rescue. They are all agog. And then up steps this carpenter's son from Nazareth. And it has to be said, it was a big let down.
But this Jesus stands up in the synagogue and reads out a bit from the prophet Isaiah, where God is saying that one day he'll come and end the exile and set people free, and restore things to how they were meant to be.
And Jesus rolls up the scroll and calm as you like says, "Today that promise is fulfilled." And they are outraged. Who does he think he is? Restoring all things was something that God was going to come and do.
So Jesus heals the sick; with a word he calms a storm; feeds 5000 people with a small boy's packed lunch; raises a dead man to life. And his disciples are wondering, "Who is this guy?"
People often ask, "Why doesn't God come and make himself known?" The claim of the New Testament is that he has.
And all along Jesus is saying to them, "Does what I've been doing ring any bells? Who do you know who's got power over the sea, who famously fed people in the desert, who has got the sort of power to bring the dead to life?" Then one day he says it straight out. The disciples say, "Show us the Father." And Jesus replies, "Don't you get it. If you have seen me, you have seen the Father."
People often ask, "Why doesn't God come and make himself known?" The claim of the New Testament is that he has. If you had been there 2000 years ago you could have seen God, walking the streets of Palestine. You could have touched him. You could have kissed his face.
The King on the Cross
So, the Son of God heads off to Jerusalem and the disciples say, "Don't go! They'll kill you." And he says, "Yes, that's exactly why I have come. I have come to die." He explains that he has come to give his life as a ransom payment. That is how he is going to set us free from the slavery we are in.
The crucifixion of Jesus is a bit like the story of Joseph. From a distance it looks like events in the life of Jesus have spun out of control, and that a promising career is brutally cut down in its prime. But it turns out that when we are doing our very worst, God is achieving his very best. Even through the ugliest moments in human history he is working out his good purposes. And it doesn't get any uglier than the cross.
Do you remember what Jesus cries out from the cross? "My God, my God why have you forsaken me?"
The picture on the box has made it plain that God-forsakenness is for those who have walked out on God. Why is the one innocent person in the history of the universe being God-forsaken?
Look at the cross through the lens of our own culture and there is no way we'll ever get it. But look at it in the light of the unfolding story and you see how it is the climax of God's plan to rescue humanity.
Think of the Passover. The blood of the lamb saved them from God's judgement. Think of the sacrifices in the temple. The animal died in place of the people, so their sins could be forgiven. Think of the servant who was going to come and die like a lamb, bearing on his shoulders the guilt of the world. And then you begin to get the Cross.
By his death we have been saved from God's judgement and set free from slavery. It's by his death that Jesus has pulled off the great Exodus. It's by his death that God calls us home.
A lot of people I talk to think that there might be a God. But can't see why he is worth bothering with. As far as they can tell, if he is there at all he sits up there in the safety of his heaven, paring his finger nails, looking down on us with indifference. If he cared, you'd think he'd do something. If he wanted us to bother with him, you'd think he'd bother with us.
Look at the cross and there's where you see that the God of the Bible has bothered with us. He has rolled up his sleeves and got his hands dirty to pull off his plan to rescue us. It is a plan which meant, at its climax, sending the son he loved to take on his own shoulders the consequences of the mess we made when we walked out on him. And he did it all so that we could be set free from being walking dead men and women and enter into life with him, life in all its fullness.
The picture on the box is very different from that one that the people who make religious programmes on the TV think. They think religion is about humanity's search for God as though God is playing hard to get. But in the Bible there's no parable of the lost shepherd who is tracked down by the conscientious sheep. The Bible paints a picture of how we like sheep have got ourselves desperately lost. We've wound up a long way from him, a long way from home. And in his love he has come looking for us. And it cost him everything. He is the good shepherd who lays down his life for us sheep.
The King of the New Creation
Meanwhile, the disciples don't get it. The had dared to hope that Jesus was the Messiah sent by God to crush evil once and for all and restore things to how they were meant to be. But the Messiah was going to have power over life and death – not end up murdered. Messiah was going to be installed as the judge of the universe – not end up condemned in a kangaroo court. All that was left for them to do was to go back to their fishing.
On the Sunday some of them go to visit the tomb. And his body has gone.
Meanwhile a couple of the heart-broken disciples are making their way to Emmaus, and they meet a fellow-traveler on the road who challenges them. "If only you'd understood the Scriptures, then you wouldn't be so baffled by the Messiah's death." So beginning with Genesis he tells them the whole story of the Bible. And then they realize that the fellow-traveler is Jesus. He is alive. The empty tomb; the appearances of Jesus to his followers and the story that the Bible told of God's eternal plan all came together to convince the first Christians that Jesus had been raised from the dead. And that changes everything.
For a start it means that death is not the last word. The Jews were expecting a day of resurrection when all people would be raised up and justice would be done. On that day God would deal with all that is wrong and begin to make all things new. Jesus' resurrection is like the first fruits of the harvest. It shows that there is more to come. It shows that just as Jesus has been raised, so one day we will all be raised and God will indeed deal with all that is wrong and puts all things right. The resurrection shows that one day God will make the whole world new.
The Jews were not just looking forward to that day, but looking out for the one who would be at the centre of that day. The expectation was that at the heart of that day there would be someone to whom God would give all authority to execute justice, someone who would have the power to deal with all that is wrong and put all things right. Well, the very first sermon that the early Christians preached, just a few weeks after Jesus' death and resurrection was, "Jesus is Lord." In other words his resurrection shows that he is the one appointed by God to have all authority over God's new Creation.
If that's on the box, I have got to rearrange the pieces of my life fast. The piece that I thought showed he was just a good teacher made Jesus very easy to ignore. It turns out he's the one who holds my eternal destiny in his hands. The big picture shows me that I cannot afford to ignore him.
Way back in Genesis, God promised to bless the world through a descendant of Abraham. It turns out that Jesus is that descendant. It is through him that all people of all nations are called back into the blessing of life with God.
Paul reflects on it all by talking about how Adam was the head of the human race. But Adam messed up and led us all out of paradise into exile. Christ comes as the second Adam, a new start, a new head of the human race. And he leads us out of exile back into paradise.
Left to our own devices we find ourselves East of Eden, tied to Adam, following in his path away from God. A Christian is someone who recognizes that they were once tied to Adam. But now they are tied to Christ. Through him we have been restored to what it means to be human, because he has led us back to life with God. True to what was promised in the Old Testament, he gives us his Spirit to start to make us new on the inside so that we begin to love the things that he loves, hate the things that he hates and treat one another in a way that reflects his character.
This relationship with God is one that starts now, but looks forward to the day when we enjoy life with God in a world made new forever. And that world made new is not the 'after-life' like some after-thought. It is the main event. It is where God's rescue plan has been heading. And the new creation is not a fluffy world of clouds and angels in nightshirts. This present world is the flimsy world where things rot and rust and fade and die. The world to come is the world of solid joys and lasting pleasures. God says that when he makes all things new, we will be with him, and he will be with us and he will "wipe every tear from our eyes and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order will have passed away."
If the prospect of a new creation is on the picture on the box, you'll rearrange the pieces of your life in a totally different way. It sets you free from living for yourself. It sets you free to live for others. When all that the future holds is 80 years and then you rot, you are driven to see everything, try everything and have everything this world has to offer. And anyone who gets in your way is liable to get trampled on. But if you end up a bachelor in a bed-sit in Balham, and take your holidays in Bognor, if you are tied to Christ and have given your life to serving him and reflecting his ways in the way you treat others, then you haven't missed out. The best is yet to be.
In the end, the picture on the box that tells the story of the universe is a picture of a person – Jesus Christ. He says, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." He is not promising an easy life where all your troubles pack up and go and you pass all your exams and you never get ill. He is claiming to be the one makes sense of life and the one who is the source of life as it is meant to be, because he is the one who has come to restore us to the reason we are on this planet: he has come to give us life in a relationship with the God who made us, life that starts now and lasts forever.
© 2010 Beginning with Moses
This article is reproduced by the kind permission of the author and the website Beginning with Moses, where it first appeared.