“It is by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ that death is trampled underfoot, [and] it is clear that it is Christ Himself and none other Who is the Archvictor over death and has robbed it of its power. Death used to be strong and terrible, but now, since the sojourn of the Saviour and the death and resurrection of His body, it is despised; and obviously it is by the very Christ Who mounted on the cross that it has been destroyed and vanquished finally. When the sun rises after the night and the whole world is lit up by it, nobody doubts that it is the sun which has thus shed its light everywhere and driven away the dark. Equally clear is it, since this utter scorning and trampling down of death has ensued upon the Saviour’s manifestation in the body and His death on the cross, that it is He Himself Who brought death to nought and daily raises monuments to His victory in His own disciples. How can you think otherwise, when you see men naturally weak hastening to death, unafraid at the prospect of corruption, fearless of the descent into Hades, even indeed with eager soul provoking it, not shrinking from tortures, but preferring thus to rush on death for Christ’s sake, rather than to remain in this present life? If you see with your own eyes men and women and children, even, thus welcoming death for the sake of Christ’s religion, how can you be so utterly silly and incredulous and maimed in your mind as not to realise that Christ to Whom these all bear witness, Himself gives the victory to each, making death completely powerless for those who hold His faith and bear the sign of the cross? No one in his senses doubts that a snake is dead when he sees it trampled underfoot, especially when he knows how savage it used to be; nor, if he sees boys making fun of a lion, does he doubt that the brute is either dead or completely bereft of strength. These things can be seen with our own eyes, and it is the same with the conquest of death. Doubt no longer, then, when you see death mocked and scorned by those who believe in Christ, that by Christ death was destroyed, and the corruption that goes with it resolved and brought to an end.”
Athanasius of Alexandria
Early 4th Century
“Plato has told you a truth; but Plato is dead. Shakespeare has startled you with an image; but Shakespeare will not startle you with any more. But imagine what it would be to live with such men still living, to know that Plato might break out with an original lecture tomorrow, or that at any moment Shakespeare might shatter everything with a single song. The man who lives in contact with what he believes to be a living Church is a man always expecting to meet Plato and Shakespeare tomorrow at breakfast. He is always expecting to see some truth that he has never seen before.”
G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
* * *
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son...” (Hebrews 1:1,2a)
* * *
I’ve been thinking about that Chesterton quote for the last couple of weeks. And thinking, in light of Hebrews 1, of how it might most clearly read for us:
“Jesus is the truth; and Jesus is alive. Jesus has startled us by being the image of the invisible God; and Jesus may startle us at any time and in manifold ways. Just imagine that we may live with such a Man living, and know that He is always speaking, always teaching, and that at any moment He can shatter everything with a single word. The man or woman who lives in contact with what we know to be a Living Christ is a man or woman expecting Him today and tomorrow at breakfast. He or she is always expecting to see Him, to hear Him, just as clearly as those disciples did at the beginning.”
There is more hid in Christ than we shall ever learn, here or there either; but they that begin first to inquire will soonest be gladdened with revelation; and with them he will be best pleased, for the slowness of his disciples troubled him of old. To say that we must wait for the other world, to know the mind of him who came to this world to give himself to us, seems to me the foolishness of a worldly and lazy spirit. The Son of God is the Teacher of men, giving to them of his Spirit—that Spirit which manifests the deep things of God, being to a man the mind of Christ. The great heresy of the Church of the present day is unbelief in this Spirit. The mass of the Church does not believe that the Spirit has a revelation for every man individually—a revelation as different from the revelation of the Bible, as the food in the moment of passing into living brain and nerve differs from the bread and meat.
George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons
* * *
Now Christ is the visible expression of the invisible God. He existed before creation began, for it was through him that every thing was made, whether spiritual or material, seen or unseen. Through him, and for him, also, were created power and dominion, ownership and authority. In fact, every single thing was created through, and for him. He is both the first principle and the upholding principle of the whole scheme of creation. And now he is the head of the body which is composed of all Christian people. Life from nothing began through him, and life from the dead began through him, and he is, therefore, justly called the Lord of all. It was in him that the full nature of God chose to live, and through him God planned to reconcile in his own person, as it were, everything on earth and everything in Heaven by virtue of the sacrifice of the cross.
And you yourselves, who were strangers to God, and, in fact, through the evil things you had done, his spiritual enemies, he has now reconciled through the death of his body on the cross, so that he might welcome you to his presence clean and pure, without blame or reproach. (Colossians 1:15-22, Phillips)
“The very center of the Christian faith is the Incarnation, in which the Divine Word becomes flesh – the Idea becomes Fact. All other faiths are the word become word, the idea projected as an idea. In Jesus the Idea walked. It spoke in human life and manifested Itself in human relationships. It transformed religion from idealism to realism. Where this faith is sincerely tried, it becomes incarnate as fact. It works in human relationships. And where it is tried, it produces something so exquisitely beautiful that we stand ‘lost in wonder, love, and praise.’”
E. Stanley Jones, Growing Spiritually
I have continued writing "glimpses" -- little imagined moments before, during, or after each narrative from Jesus' ministry years -- and continue loving the experience and the feeling of encountering Him. Here's one that I really enjoyed from a couple weeks ago (with the scripture first) -
Jesus is resurrected
…There was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from Heaven, went forward and rolled back the stone and took his seat upon it. His appearance was dazzling like lightning and his clothes were white as snow. The guards shook with terror at the sight of him and collapsed like dead men…
* * * *
In the moment…
An old gray-haired shepherd is asleep at the mouth of a bramble-pen, built by his own hands, in which are sleeping his small herd of sheep. His body lies across the narrow opening. He sleeps on his side in the dirt. His heavier winter cloak is his pillow. The old man is firmly, fastly asleep. The sheep breathe quietly behind him. The flowers and trees drowse on this reverse slope of a garden hill. The dawn is considering breaking.
The earth begins to quake.
The shepherd is shaken awake; glances at his flock (who are just beginning to bleat wakingly); wincingly rises to his feet; holds himself steady amidst the shaking of the hillside. He reaches down to take up his staff. He pulls the bramble-pen closed at the mouth, whispering the name of the lead ewe to hand her authority; walks through the olive trees as the ground continues to shake.
Then, just as suddenly as starting, it stops.
He goes over the crest of the slope—in the direction of the city-view—and looks down to see how the city fares with the earthquake. Nothing appears to be happening down there, yet.
His eye is caught by a scene in the middle distance.
There are a group of Roman soldiers, dressed in the armor of the Governor’s Guard, lying—seemingly dead—on the ground at the mouth of a cave…
There is a giant--literally gigantic—figure perched atop the tombic sealing-rock, glowing with the pulsing warm glow of a sunset sun…
There is a man walking out of the tomb—his head stooped low with the inside ceiling’s height—and he enters the cool air of the garden; looks around…
The shepherd crouches low amidst some bushes. He is terrified; afraid of being seen above.
The man below, the one who exited the cave in the hillside, nods at the glowing giant and walks off into the trees.
The soldiers lie there, appearing dead.
From the city-side, women approach…
"For all those words which were written long ago are meant to teach us today; that when we read in the scriptures of the endurance of men and of all the help that God gave them in those days, we may be encouraged to go on hoping in our own time. May the God who inspires men to endure, and gives them a Father’s care, give you a mind united towards one another because of your common loyalty to Jesus Christ. And then, as one man, you will sing from the heart the praises of God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. So open your hearts to one another as Christ has opened his heart to you, and God will be glorified." (Romans 15:4-7)
Isn't it interesting that when the original readers of these words looked back to "words which were written long ago," they were thinking only of the Old Testament? These words weren't "scripture" to them, then—they were just words written on parchment from a contemporary believer. They thought of Paul as just another follower of Jesus, like themselves. Which, to me, is what makes the last two chapters of Romans just a little more poignant...
And when I think of "endurance," of the "Father's care," of "a mind united towards one another," of a "common loyalty to Jesus Christ," of singing "from the heart," of "opening their hearts to one another as Christ had opened his heart to" them—what period of time do you think I immediately think of?
Those wondrous early days of the Early Church.
In fact, as a Monday refresher for the path we're trying to walk together this week, here's a reminder of what those days were like:
Then those who welcomed [Peter’s Pentecost] message were baptised, and on that day alone about three thousand souls were added to the number of disciples. They continued steadily learning the teaching of the apostles, and joined in their fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayer. Everyone felt a deep sense of awe, while many miracles and signs took place through the apostles. All the believers shared everything in common; they sold their possessions and goods and divided the proceeds among the fellowship according to individual need. Day after day they met by common consent in the Temple; they broke bread together in their homes, sharing meals with simple joy. They praised God continually and all the people respected them. Every day the Lord added to their number those who were finding salvation. (Acts 2:41-47)
Among the large number who had become believers there was complete agreement of heart and soul. Not one of them claimed any of his possessions as his own but everything was common property. The apostles continued to give their witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus with great force, and a wonderful spirit of generosity pervaded the whole fellowship. Indeed, there was not a single person in need among them. For those who owned land or property would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and place them at the apostles’ feet. They would distribute to each one according to his need. (Acts 4:32-35)
By common consent they all used to meet now in Solomon’s Porch. But as far as the others were concerned no one dared to associate with them, even though their general popularity was very great. Yet more and more believers in the Lord joined them, both men and women in really large numbers. Many signs and wonders were now happening among the people through the apostles’ ministry. In consequence people would bring out their sick into the streets and lay them down on stretchers or bed, so that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall upon some of them. In addition a large crowd collected from the cities around Jerusalem, bringing with them their sick and those who were suffering from evil spirits. And they were all cured. (Acts 5:12-16)
So the Word of God gained more and more ground. The number of disciples in Jerusalem very greatly increased, while a considerable proportion of the priesthood accepted the faith. (Acts 6:7)
The whole Church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria now enjoyed a period of peace. It became established and as it went forward in reverence for the Lord and in the strengthening presence of the Holy Spirit, continued to grow in numbers. (Acts 9:31)
[And] the Word of the Lord continued to gain ground and increase its influence. (Acts 12:24)
When you read all that, what specifically sticks out to you for your day today?
“We are not dependent on a Christ who lived and died, we are dependent on a Christ who lived and died and who is alive for evermore. Since he is alive, he is here in such a way that we can draw upon him for power other than our own.
“The work of Christ, therefore, enables us to deal effectively through him with the situations in which sin had rendered us helpless. It enables us to deal with the situation which sin had created between a man and himself. A man remains a split personality, poised between goodness and badness, between right and wrong, between heroism and cowardice, between sainthood and sin, between the ape and the angel, until the power of the Risen Christ takes possession of him, and makes him a personality integrated by this new centre within it. ‘It is no longer I who live,’ said Paul, ‘but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Gal. 2.20). Through the work of Christ a man ceases to be a battle-ground of opposing forces and reaches mature manhood (Eph. 4.13).”
William Barclay, The Mind of Jesus
* * *
“For everyone who is with Jesus is stronger than death.”
Origen, Commentary on Matthew
In the last two weeks, the final version of my children's Bible, Moments with Jesus, went through its last revisions and is on its way to production for a fall release. Friends, I'm very excited about this! It's been such a joy to get to look at these files in final form.
I wanted to send you a two-page spread as my weekly "thought" this week--the moment when Mary Magdalene runs into the risen Jesus near the tomb. I pray these words and visuals are a sweet reminder of His Resurrection for your Monday!
This week, I was reminded of where C.S. Lewis took his book title, Surprised by Joy, from: a particularly mournful poem by William Wordsworth about the loss of his daughter; the way all present and future joys would be tempered by his sadness. In some ways, it is a perfect poem to describe the disciples' anguish on the Friday and Saturday of the Cross and waking to a dead-and-gone Jesus: give it a read:
Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom
But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind--
But how could I forget thee?—Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss!—That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.
But then came that Sunday--Jesus is alive! Then came the neverending realization that the human journey would never again be lived alone; that the life of God would always triumph over life, death, sin and the grave!
So, feeling a little poetical this week, I reimagined Wordsworth's words in the context of our new, never-to-be-forgotten Resurrection-Reality. Let's let this be our posture on this day:
Surprised by joy—inspirited by the Word
We turn again toward the the Living One—Oh! to Him,
To Thee, so briefly swaddled in the burial scrim,
Until your mortal ear heard Heaven's resurrection-word.
Love, faithful Love, recalls me to your heart--
You will never, ever forget me!—In your love,
Never for the least division of any part,
Have you been e'er distracted by your work above
To loose your eye from mine!—That knowledge's knowing
Is the greatest joy my heart forever wears,
My Lord, My God, forever, and ever, sowing,
And knowing my heart’s treasure I may always bear;
That in both present time, and those years unrolling,
Can my reborn sight to your heavenly face repair.
Most Christians, most "evangelicals," would think they're agreeing with Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, when they say that "the Gospel" reads as such:
Jesus rose again.
Actually, that's not quite correct.
The Gospel Paul was always talking about, the Gospel that actually changes hearts, the Gospel that irrupted with such force into the world of the First Century, is this:
Jesus rose again.
Our emphasis must ever be the Man, not the mechanics: we are following, in the line and Spirit of, Jesus. Let's go follow Him today, and this week.
"What happens now to human pride of achievement? There is no more room for it. Why, because failure to keep the Law has killed it? Not at all, but because the whole matter is now on a different plane—believing instead of achieving. We see now that a man is justified before God by the fact of his faith in God’s appointed Saviour and not by what he has managed to achieve under the Law. And God is God of both Jews and Gentiles, let us be quite clear about that! The same God is ready to justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised by faith also. Are we then undermining the Law by this insistence on faith? Not a bit of it! We put the Law in its proper place." (Romans 3:27-31)
And what is the "proper place" for the Old Covenant Law? By faith, where does it most properly, and permanently, live?
In the mind, body, and spirit of Jesus of Nazareth who, daily, perfectly, walked it out, and thus invalidated the power of sin by obeying that Law faultlessly.
In the offered-up life of Jesus, on the Cross, shedding His blood to forever free us from the curse of sin, which was all tangled up in the curses of the Law.
Behind the risen Jesus, left like His burial garments in the abandoned tomb, "finished" in favor of the New Covenant He now offered.
Under the feet of Jesus, as He sits upon the Throne of Heaven, King of Kings of a Kingdom that is founded within all remade hearts.
The Law has been fulfilled forever - in Jesus - and, by following Him, by His Spirit, we too may "put the Law in its proper place." Its proper place is in Him.
By His life, in His death, because of His resurrection, and now, forevermore, as He sits upon the Throne, we are free with the freedom He's earned for us. All life is lived upon "a different plane."
This letter comes to you from Paul, servant of Jesus Christ, called as a messenger and appointed for the service of that Gospel of God which was long ago promised by the prophets in the holy scriptures. The Gospel is centred in God’s Son, a descendant of David by human genealogy and patently marked out as the Son of God by the power of that Spirit of holiness which raised him to life again from the dead. He is our Lord, Jesus Christ, from whom we received grace and our commission in his name to forward obedience to the faith in all nations. And of this great number you at Rome are also called to belong to him. To you all then, loved of God and called to be Christ’s men and women, grace and peace from God the Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 1:1-7)
It strikes you, as you read the very first words of this wondrous epistle, what Paul is up to in this opening: he wants the fellowship at Rome—and all of us—so inextricably tied up and tied into the Name and Person of Jesus that there’s nowhere else for us to go. Consider his preamble in this way:
Jesus… whose servant Paul is… as an appointed messenger of the Gospel… which, for ages past, had been promised by the prophets, in the holy scriptures, who were all of them looking only to--
Jesus… who is God’s Son… and the very center of the Gospel’s good news. Really, the Gospel itself is--
Jesus… that descendant of King David… clearly marked as the Son of God--how? By the power of the Holy Spirit, who, seeing Him dead in our sins, raised Him up to life again--
Jesus… who is our Lord… and who personally brought us grace…and who commissioned us each, personally, to bear His name and His Way to all the nations.
Friends, our belongingness, our position as those beloved by God, our calling as men and women, the grace and peace of God the Father all come from--
Let’s go see what He would have us do this day!
"The Master Plan which exists beneath the superficial activities of human beings is now becoming intelligible to them. The reconciliation between the holiness and perfection of God and the selfishness and evil of men has been unforgettably demonstrated. Death, the old dark bogey, has been exposed and resoundingly defeated. And as if this were not enough Good News for human beings to accept, they know now, by the acted parable of the Ascension of Christ, that God and man are eternally inseparable. Humanity is assured of its entry into the timeless life of God. A new dignity has been conferred upon the whole human race for God himself has become a man. New exciting possibilities appear as men begin to understand that the purpose of God’s descent to the human level is to enable them to rise and live as sons of God. And what is more, he is prepared to enter human personalities by his own Spirit to make such dreams come true."
J.B. Phillips, God our Contemporary
“Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is anything too difficult for Me?” Jeremiah 32:27 (NASB)
Personally, I can’t recall another question spoken in the Scriptures that holds the same meaning and weight as the question with which this implied promise concludes: “is anything too difficult for Me?” Because if there’s any doubt in our minds as to His ability to encounter, overcome and, even, demolish any difficulty, then--what are we doing? Who do we think we’re going to follow, next, if this One, this God, can’t surmount any challenge, hardship, barrier or impasse?
My friends, I want us to truly know this God, this One: “the Lord, the God of all flesh” who is unstoppable in face of difficulty.. I want you so unshakably resolved upon His power and sheer dynamism that there’s never any more question for you in your day to day.
So, for that reason, I want to take you on a journey of His ability, over the aeons, to overcome every difficulty, every trial, every divide, every impossibility that might’ve seemed insurmountable. And, to do that, I want us to consider, in each era or day, His and our “state of existence”—Who He was and who we were—during that precise period of time (or, even, pre-time).
Before Creation – God was. We weren’t. He existed and we didn’t exist at all. And yet He manifested existence and time and space and being, and made the triune choice to make us “in His image.”
In the Garden of Eden – He was. We were now also. And He overcame any potential boundary lying between the Divine and those Made-in-the-Image-of-the-Divine, and He walked with us “in the garden in the cool of the day” (Gen. 3:8, ESV).
From the Fall until the Incarnation – He was God: perfect and holy. We were fallen: imperfect and broken. And yet, for the remainder of human history until His coming, He continued to manifest His grace and to reveal His voice across the divide. It was only by His grace that “history” didn’t end with the Fall: He might’ve scrapped the whole thing because humanity was no longer perfect.
The Incarnation – He was Himself and yet with us. We were still imperfect and yet with Him. He actually allowed humanity to see the very face of God.
The Cross – He was Himself and yet totally in our place, on our behalf. We were our broken selves, and yet our sin-existence hung suspended-in-time upon that Man on the Cross. And He personally overcame sin, that separating force that had destroyed mankind ever since the Fall in the Garden of Eden.
The Resurrection – He was alive again—God and Man—entirely by His own power. We were still imperfect, and yet now offered a new sinless, deathless, human existence. And He had permanently, once for all time, overcome death, “the last enemy” of mankind (1 Cor. 15:26, NIV).
The Ascension – He was Himself—Man and God—on the throne again. We were able, by His blood, to have direct access. And nothing can now separate our confident earth-to-Heaven approach: He has said “It is finished” to all human-to-God separation.
Pentecost until Today – He is with the Father--and with us: within our hearts. We are here on earth, as new Kingdom creations--and yet “raised up with Christ and seated with Him in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 2:6, NIV). His and our shared, bi-locational reality means there’s no difficulty unable to be overcome, no provision meant to be unmet, no spiritual deficit He won’t personally invade, overwhelm and conquer. He is there and here; we are here and there.
In every portion of history and pre-history, we have dealt with a God who is unable to be stopped, unable to encounter any natural or supernatural difficulty that has any ounce of power against Him. Let us say to our hearts today: Behold, I am following the Lord, the God of all flesh; nothing is too difficult for Him!
Lack of seeming substance? He created existence!
Lack of connection? He personally comes to encounter us!
Lack of holiness? He will never stop pursuing His people!
Lack of understanding of God? He has showed us His face!
Fear of the consequences of sin? He ended it!
Fear in the face of death? He has conquered it forever!
Desire to know God? He invites you into the throneroom of Heaven!
Desire for a new life? He invites Himself right into your heart!
Let me type it once again with confidence, from me to you: Behold, you and I are following the Lord, the God of all flesh; nothing in the heavens or the earth is too difficult for Him
"Certain people declared in my hearing, ‘Unless I can find a thing in our ancient records, I refuse to believe it in the Gospel’; and when I assured them that it is indeed in the ancient scriptures, they retorted, ‘That has got to be proved.’ But for my part, my records are Jesus Christ; for me, the sacrosanct records are His cross and death and resurrection, and the faith that comes through Him. And it is by these, and by the help of your prayers, that I am hoping to be justified.
"The priests of old, I admit, were estimable men; but our own High Priest is greater, for He has been entrusted with the Holy of Holies, and to Him alone are the secret things of God committed. He is the doorway to the Father, and it is by Him that Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and the prophets go in, no less than the Apostles and the whole Church; for all these have their part in God’s unity. Nevertheless, the Gospel has a distinction all its own, in the advent of our Savior Jesus Christ, and His Passion and Resurrection. We are fond of the prophets, and they did indeed point forward to Him in their preaching; yet it is the Gospel that sets the coping-stone on man’s immortality."
Ignatius of Antioch
from his letter to the Philadelphian fellowship
ca. Early 2nd Century
"The Church will outlive the universe; in it the individual person will outlive the universe. Everything that is joined to the immortal Head will share His immortality... If we do not believe it let us be honest and relegate the Christian faith to museums. If we do, let us give up the pretense that it makes no difference. For this is the real answer to every excessive claim made by the collective. It is mortal; we shall live for ever. There will come a time when every culture, every institution, every nation, the human race, all biological life, is extinct, and every one of us is still alive. Immortality is promised to us, not to these generalities. It was not for societies or states that Christ died, but for men. In that sense Christianity must seem to secular collectivists to involve an almost frantic assertion of individuality. But then it is not the individual as such who will share Christ’s victory over death. We shall share the victory by being in the Victor. A rejection, or in scripture’s strong language, a crucifixion of the natural self is the passport to everlasting life. Nothing that has not died will be resurrected. That is just how Christianity cuts across the antithesis between individualism and collectivism. There lies the maddening ambiguity of our faith as it must appear to outsiders. It sets its face relentlessly against our natural individualism; on the other hand, it gives back to those who abandon individualism an eternal possession of their own personal being, even of their bodies. As mere biological entities, each with its separate will to live and to expand, we are apparently of no account; we are cross-fodder. But as organs in the Body of Christ, as stones and pillars in the temple, we are assured of our eternal self-identity and shall live to remember the galaxies as an old tale."
C.S. Lewis, "Membership"
"Thanks be to God who leads us, wherever we are, on his own triumphant way and makes our knowledge of him spread throughout the world like a lovely perfume! We Christians have the unmistakeable 'scent' of Christ, discernible alike to those who are being saved and to those who are heading for death. To the latter it seems like the very smell of doom, to the former it has the fresh fragrance of life itself" (2 Corinthians 2:14-16a).
Could I paint a little picture for you?
You are in Rome. The streets are full of shouting and celebration. It is the day when the conquering general – whether Pompey, or Caesar, or Octavian – is going to proceed through the streets in his triumph. Everyone is ready. The whole city now waits in a hush.
And now here he comes: through the Porta Triumphalis – the Triumph Gate: with the senators and senior officials at the head of the march; with the trumpeters blowing their horns in glorious unison; then the wagon-trains upon wagon-trains full of the spoils of war; then a white bull, silently being led, who will, at the end of all this, be slaughtered in sacrifice; then, in chains, the conquered princes and kings and generals who have been defeated, who have surrendered; then the bodyguards and priests who spread both the sense and the fragrance of death and life…
And then finally… the general. The victor. The conqueror. He is being pulled in his tall golden chariot by four massive horses. He is wearing a kingly robe and his face is painted with red to remind the crowds of the power of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. Over his head is held a laurel wreath by an auriga, a gladiator, whose job it is to whisper in his ear: “Respice post te. Hominem te esse memento. Memento mori!” – “Look behind you. Remember that you are but a man. Remember that you will die!” so that this conqueror won’t forget that he is still just a servant of Rome.
And then, behind his chariot, his officers, his staff, and then, behind them, the men of the ranks: the ones who have fought and bled and lost their friends to make this triumph a reality. They sing songs with their off-key soldier voices, in order to – in their own words: “ward off the jealousy of the gods…” And their favorite song is “Io Triumphe!” - O Triumph!
Why do I tell you all this?
Because Paul would have you there!
“Thanks be to God, the One always leading us in triumph in Christ...”
He would have you remember the angels and saints who came before the coming of Jesus; those prophets and kings who sounded the trumpet of the One to come. He would have you learn the overwhelming realities of the spoils of war – the infinitudes of bounty – that have been won by the victory of Jesus. He would have you look into the eyes of the once-for-all-time sacrifice who is the Lamb of God; Jesus’ perfect knowledge that His perfect life would end in death for us. And he would have you be a conquered one: a person whose personal surrender to Jesus only serves to spotlight His greatness, His glory.
And then comes this fragrance he mentions here: the “unmistakable scent of Christ,” which is both life and death.
And then Paul would have you turn the fullness of your gaze upon that One who rides in the golden chariot of Heaven. He is robed in kingly purple and His face is crimson with the blood He shed: He is the incarnate reality of the Godhead. And Paul would have you in the chariot, holding the crown above the head of Jesus with your life and worship; he would have you constantly whispering, in life and death, these words: “Jesus, I look unto you. I will never forget that you are man and God. I will never forget that you can never die!”
And Paul would have you there behind Him, a part of the General’s field staff – an officer always attached – and he would also have you in the ranks. And no matter the sound of your song, the timbre or cadence of your particular voice, he would have you never stop singing: “O Triumph! O Jesus!”
“Thanks be to God, the One always leading us in triumph in Christ..."
"For I passed on to you Corinthians first of all the message I had myself received—that Christ died for our sins, as the scriptures said he would; that he was buried and rose again on the third day, again as the scriptures foretold. He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve, and subsequently he was seen simultaneously by over five hundred Christians, of whom the majority are still alive, though some have since died." (1 Corinthians 15:3-6)
Now, even though we don't have a record in the Gospels or Acts of this 500-person encounter with the Resurrected Jesus, I want us to ponder on it just a little. FIVE HUNDRED PEOPLE! Presumably, with there being FIVE HUNDRED PEOPLE there, these must've been people who had tracked with Him over part, or all, of His three-year ministry.
So, perhaps they'd sat amongst the 5,000 and had a share of the bread and fish. Maybe they'd been there for the Sermon on the Mount. I wonder how many of them had been standing along the street at His triumphal entry, waving the palms, shouting the praises?
For these people, whether with Him for a day or for the whole three years, I can almost guarantee I know the thought that ran through their minds throughout: "What I'm seeing here is historic. This is once-in-a-lifetime stuff..."
BUT... then He died. Thereby moving from "historic" to "historical." What yesterday was unprecedented always get crushed under the weight of the Present...
EXCEPT... if death - and time - no longer rule. If a Man should walk back out of the tomb...
For these FIVE HUNDRED PEOPLE, imagine assembling, being together, and then - THERE HE IS - ALIVE - JUST LIKE BEFORE. For the entirety of the rest of their human lives, Jesus would never be "historical": He will always be contemporary.
Where is He, for you, on that timeline? Is He "back there" or "right here"? Is His life "historical" or contemporaneously "historic" - happening right now and all the time?
Here's a hint at your answer: The way you live your daily life. It will tell you. It knows.
"Jesus got [His] divine life by depending absolutely upon the Father all His life long, depending upon Him even down into death. Jesus got that life in the full glory of the Spirit to be poured out, by giving Himself up in obedience and surrender to God alone, and leaving God even in the grave to work out His mighty power; and that very Christ will live out His life in you and me. Oh, the mystery! Oh, the glory! And oh, the Divine certainty! Jesus Christ means to live out that life in you and me."
Andrew Murray, The Believer’s Secret of the Master’s Indwelling
* * *
"The writers of the New Testament Epistles never regarded the Christian religion as an ‘ethic,’ still less a performance. To them it was an invasion of their own lives by the living Spirit of God; their response in repentance and faith provided the means by which the divine could penetrate the merely human. They lived lives of super-human quality because they believed quite simply that Christ Himself was alive within them."
J.B. Phillips, Making Men Whole
As we prepare for a national holiday centered around thankfulness, it might be good for us to remember that NO ONE has more grounds for gratitude than ALL followers of Jesus of Nazareth. For, after all, we personally know the One who created and upholds all creation... which is something! And we have had a glimpse of the glories of the Incarnation: His arrival, His life, His words, His sparkling personality. We have been set free - been set free: past tense - by the finished work of the Cross. And we now know that life and death hold nothing daunting for us: we have seen Him walk from the tomb - totally unscathed...
And so, where are we now; who are we now?
The actual, living, flesh-and-blood, personal representatives of the Kingdom of Heaven to this generation of humanity...
...who've been imbued with the selfsame Holy Spirit of God that carried that Man through the 33 years of His human existence...
...and who may always - ALWAYS! - stop on a dime, reorient our attentions, and commune with the Living King who sits upon the throne of Heaven.
I'd say we have some reason to be thankful this week! I hope it's a wonderful one for you!
Some of you know that I did a long fiction-nonfiction writing project, a few years back, to try to bring the Book of Acts into a more first-hand focus. Below is a little bit of it. First, you'll see the passage where some of the disciples from Cyprus and Cyrene decided to go ahead and start preaching to the Gentiles in Antioch, not just the Jews. Then, from there, you'll see my imaginative write-up of, perhaps, what it was like when one of those men suddenly decided that it was time to do so. I tried to bring into focus the potential presence of Simon of Cyrene (who carried the Cross with/for Jesus) among them. Hope it stirs your heart for this Monday!
Now those who had been dispersed by the persecution which arose over Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, giving the message as they went to Jews only. However, among their number were natives of Cyprus and Cyrene, and these men, on their arrival at Antioch, proclaimed their message to the Greeks as well, telling them the good news of the Lord Jesus… (Acts 11:19,20)
A Man of Cyrene on the Road to Antioch
My blood is quickened within and I walk this road and I think on the ways of the Holy Spirit, and, my brothers, I am tempted to throw all constraint on the winds which blow up from the Sea, and past us. Feel them blowing by us, west to east. Smell that scent of adventure that first carried us from the coasts of Africa to there, on Shavuot, and think of all that has happened unto us since! What is man to stand before the whims of our Jesus! Who were we to think this thing could be contained within the Hebrew race! My brothers, as we approach upon Antioch, I’m of a mind to say goodbye to the past; to walk right into the courtyards and marketplaces and, yes, synagogues; to proclaim the name Jesus to any man, woman or child who’s made of flesh and blood like me; to say that it is only in the name of Jesus that anyone finds rest for their souls and a place of heavenly peace for their minds…
Peter has broken the mold – let’s shatter it now, brothers! Let us enter the town with the roving gaze of Jesus and see all mankind as the quarry, the prey, of the whispering will of the Holy Spirit! Let us conquer the hearts of man and woman, Jew or Gentile; have no fear that wrongdoing comes on the voice of the Spirit that gave Jesus life from the dead!
I see the fear in your eyes, Simon, my brother of Cyrene. What for? Did not you yourself once fall under the gaze of the darkhearted Gentiles and are you not the very man whose shoulders quaked under the cross with our Savior, our Jesus? Brother! Have we not come too far to ever turn back now? Sometimes I place myself within your flesh and mind, using of my imagination to imagine that day, and here’s what I come to – tell me if any of this reprises anything like any of your memories…
I am standing, that day, along the road watching him pass. The smell of the crowd is thick and pungent with sweat and rage. Suddenly, all eyes turn from him to me – to you, I mean! – and I’m thrust from within my hiding into the hot sun of the Jerusalem day. I feel naked under the gaze of the people, the soldier who calls, and, most of all, him – Jesus, the sufferer under the weight of the cross. I slip under the right side of the horizontal crossbeam – Jesus slides over – his fleshless shoulders shearing against the grain – and he turns his eyes to meet my eyes.
That moment, Simon, what was it like? What came upon your mind? Did you not know that this was the Christ, our Savior, our God?
Together, as yokefellows walking, we trudge up the hill with crowds a-lining both sides of the twisting path and I talk to him of my sin, of their sin, of the whole world’s sin – past, present and for all the futures to come. He listens, walking, and I know he hears. When we finally arrive at the top of Skull Hill, I am shoved aside by that same soldier who first called me, and I disappear from the center of the moment I’d shared with Jesus. I look back down the hill and relive each and every step with him. Coming up and up the path we just trod together, Jesus and I, I see the thick drag-mark of the upright of the cross which has furrowed the dirty of the trail so deeply. His side, the right side of that furrow, is a way marked thick with blood. My side, the left side of that furrow, is clean and spotless…
Brother Simon, look ahead! Look at the town of Antioch! This town is filled with men, women and children who know nothing of the Kingdom of Heaven; who are lost as we once ourselves were; and who hunger and thirst for the taste of life – the taste of that blood – the taste of Jesus of Nazareth! Shall we not go and set them free with the Way you once trod with Him? What have we to fear when you’ve seen him dead and then risen again!
All you, fellow Wayfarers, listen unto me! Where’er and from whence you hail, I renounce all ties to the age-old past! I will descend to this city and preach to Jew and Greek alike!
Who follows? Who walks the way I walk?
I know the One who leads it!
"Christ wants us to show Him to the world. Our argument is not our logic and theology, but our Lord Himself: ‘you will be my witnesses’ (Acts 1:8). This is all He needs, that we shall tell about Him and make Him real to men. This also is the solution of all the sinner’s difficulties. You cannot save him by preaching theology to him, but show him Christ, his crucified, living, welcoming Savior, and all his doubts will flee. This is the solution to all questions about sanctification. We may seek for blessings and experiences, for states and conditions and find that we have to go over it all again and again; but let us only see Jesus ‘who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption’ (1 Cor. 1:30) and we are satisfied, and go forth with the joyful cry, ‘I no longer live, but Christ lives in me’ (Gal. 2:20). ‘I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength’ (Phil. 4:13). This is the solution to all questions about healing. It is not enough to know the theory and doctrine; we must behold the life and receive it from Him."
A.B. Simpson, The Christ of the Forty Days
“...we must not get the impression that the Christian life is one continuous conflict, one unbroken irritating struggle against the world, the flesh and the devil. A thousand times no. The heart that learns to die with Christ soon knows the blessed experience of rising with Him, and all the world’s persecutions cannot still the high note of holy joy that springs up in the soul that has become the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.”
A.W. Tozer, Of God and Men
"How changed are my ambitions! Now I long to know Christ and the power shown by his resurrection: now I long to share his sufferings, even to die as he died, so that I may perhaps attain as he did, the resurrection from the dead. Yet, my brothers, I do not consider myself to have 'arrived' spiritually, nor do I consider myself already perfect. But I keep going on, grasping ever more firmly that purpose for which Christ grasped me. My brothers, I do not consider myself to have fully grasped it even now. But I do concentrate on this: I leave the past behind and with hands outstretched to whatever lies ahead I go straight for the goal — my reward the honor of being called by God in Christ." (Philippians 3:9b-14)
As Paul evaluates his life, this translator, J.B. Phillips, frames what has happened within him by choosing to phrase his initial words as “How changed are my ambitions!” Which begs the question of us: What are our ambitions? In which direction are your own efforts in life aimed? After wealth? Success? Power? Title?
Because, to be truthful - and quite blunt - most of the “ambitions” that are held up highest by this world run clean contrary to the Way of Jesus. He didn’t send out His disciples and say, “Get into positions of prominence and, from the top, effect great cultural change in a downward direction with your accrued wealth and prestige.” So, for that reason, as Paul traces the shift in his own personal priorities, he gives us his “do’s and don’ts” in personally drawing ever nearer to Jesus:
1) “I do not consider myself to have ‘arrived’ spiritually”
2) “I do not consider myself to have fully grasped [the purpose for which Christ called me] even now”
1) “I long to know Christ and the power shown by his Resurrection”
2) “I long to share his sufferings, even to die as he died”
3) “I keep going on, grasping ever more firmly that purpose for which Christ grasped me”
4) “I leave the past behind and with hands outstretched to whatever lies ahead I go straight for the goal” – “the honor of being called by Christ in God.”
Paul’s “changed ambition” was to glory in the “honor of being called”; in essence, to never get past the fact that Jesus, the Savior of the world, the King of Kings, actually chose to choose a man like him. As he “grew up” in his Belief, Paul made it a point to never grow past his ability to be surprised by the glorious salvation of Jesus.
"On the third day the friends of Christ coming at daybreak to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realized the new wonder; but even they hardly realized that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but the dawn."
G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man