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Night at Noonday

March 29, 2013 Leave a comment

As I write this, I am sitting in a condo from where I can see sunlight reflecting off the calm ocean. This bright sunlight contributes to the happy atmosphere of a beach vacation, and I wonder how the relaxed mood here in the condo would change if the sky outside went suddenly black. Blacker than a cloudy, moonless night. Blacker than an approaching hurricane. Nearly two thousand years ago, the whole earth, not just the half covered in night, not just the seaboard threatened by a hurricane, was covered in this absolute blackness.

Why?

Nearly two thousand years ago, some Romans crucified a religious rebel in the capital city of a remote region of the empire. To the Roman soldiers executing this rebel with two other criminals, the rebel’s crucifixion was no different from his fellows’ crucifixions, which were no different from the countless crucifixions countless Romans had executed during their reign over the Mediterranean world.

But capital city that witnessed this religious rebel’s execution was a religious city. Jerusalem, the capital city of the subjugated Jews, was also the site that day of the Jews’ most important religious festival: Passover, specifically, the Day of Preparation. Hundreds of thousands of Jews converged for the annual sacrifice. Little did they know that the rebel on the cross–not the year-old male lambs–was to be that year’s unique sacrifice for all time.

The sun stopped shining because the crucified rebel was no rebel at all. In fact, he was the only Person to live who never disobeyed the highest law–God’s law. He was Jesus, the Christ, Son of God and Son of Man. The sun stopped shining because this “rebel to Rome” was dying in the place of rebels to God.

As the Gospel According to Matthew records,

Now from the sixth hour [noon] there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour [3 p.m.]. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. (27:45-50)

For the hottest part of the day, the brightest part of the day, “the sun’s light failed” (Luke 23:45). As Matthew related, the sun didn’t shine because Jesus, God the Son, was forsaken in that moment by God the Father. This aspect of Jesus’ death is a mystery, one that our Trinitarian minds find hard to make sense of logically. How can the one Triune God experience abandonment and forsakenness?

Paul begins to answer this question for us: “For our sake he [God] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). On the cross, God was forsaken of God, as Martin Luther put it, because God the Son “was made to be sin” although he “knew no sin.” When Habakkuk said that God is “of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong,” (Hab. 1:13), he was not denying God’s omniscience; rather, Habakkuk was pointing out that God cannot sweep sin under the rug. As a perfect Judge, God must judge and condemn sin. As Peter later wrote, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous” (1 Pet. 3:18). Jesus died not for his own sins–he had none–but for the sins of his people, of all who would ever trust him for salvation.

Jesus’ death on Passover is significant for this very reason. As John explains in his Gospel,

Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away. So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came outblood and water. He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe. For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken.” And again another Scripture says, “They will look on him whom they have pierced.”

Because it was the day of Preparation, because it was Passover, the Jews wanted the three crucified men to die before sundown, before Passover proper began. But one of the soldiers struck Jesus with a spear instead of breaking his legs because, practically, “Jesus was already dead” and, prophetically, “Not one of his bones will be broken.” The Scripture John there referenced was Exodus 12:46, in which God instructed the Israelites how to eat the Passover meal. Only by eating the flesh of the sacrificial lamb in their houses would God pass over the Israelites and spare them from the death he was to visit on all the households. Jesus, then, was the final and true Passover lamb, the one who would once for all satisfy God’s wrath on his people’s sins, to be received by faith (Rom. 3:21-26).

The sun stopped shining at noon nearly two thousand years ago because Jesus was dying his sacrificial death. God was forsaken of God. The Son of God, as the Son of Man, was taking the full punishment for his people’s sins in his body on the cross. And this is why Good Friday is good! The darkest day in history was, in fact, good because on that day Jesus accomplished his people’s redemption by dying in their place. So, everyone, have a good Good Friday. Praise God for the salvation he has given us by Jesus’ death for our sins on the cross!

Denying Christ in a Facebook Status: The New Testament’s Two Meanings of Denial

March 20, 2013 Leave a comment

 

facebook logoHey, everyone! How many friends of mine love Jesus? If you REALLY love Jesus, share this on your Facebook page! As Jesus said, “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 10:32-33).

We’ve all seen Facebook statuses like the above, and how many of us have felt a little awkward after reading a status like that? You know the status is illogical, but you also don’t want to risk denying Jesus because, after all, that statement really is in the Bible! If you’re like me, you usually ignore these things, and sometimes you actually hide the people who post such statuses from your News Feed because you don’t like feeling as if your salvation is being questioned. (Of course, we all know that people who post such statuses aren’t questioning others’ salvation and are just publicly professing their faith in Jesus, which in and of itself is a good thing to do.)

But like I said, the quote from Matthew 10:32-33 in such Facebook statuses really is from Matthew 10:32-33. So there is a serious question that this quote from Jesus raises: Does denying Jesus make a person lose his or her salvation? Complicating matters is Paul’s reference to this verse:

The saying is trustworthy, for:

     If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
     if we endure, we will also reign with him;
     if we deny him, he also will deny us;
     if we are faithless, he remains faithful–

for he cannot deny himself. (2 Tim. 2:11-13)

So if we, Christians, deny Jesus, he also will deny us, but if we are faithless, he remains faithful? Am I the only one who’s confused by this pairing? In order for Paul to make sense in these verses, there must be degrees of denial and faithlessness. As William D. Mounce explains, “Arneisthai, ‘to deny,’ has a range of meanings from a refussal to do something, to a temporary denial such as Peter’s, to full-blown apostasy” (517). Furthermore, “most see line 4 as a promise of assurance to believers who have failed to endure (line 2) but not to the point of apostasy (line 3)” (518).

As Mounce notes, Peter’s denial of Christ is illustrative of the failure to endure that is short of apostasy. After Jesus’ arrest,

Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he entered with Jesus into the court of the high priest, but Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the servant girl who kept watch at the door, and brought Peter in. The servant girl at the door said to Peter, “You also are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves. Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself. (John 18:15-18)

As Annas, the high priest’s father-in-law, was interrogating Jesus,

Peter was standing and warming himself. So they said to him, “You also are not one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” One of the servants of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” Peter again denied it, and at once a rooster crowed. (John 18:25-27)

As Ceslas Spicq notes, Peter’s denial of Jesus the night before the crucifixion “seems to fulfill perfectly the prediction recorded in Matt 10:32-33” (203). Why then does Jesus not deny Peter before God the Father? Why does Jesus instead reinstate Peter (John 21:15-19)? “Peter denied Jesus with his lips, but in his heart he remained constantly faithful to his Lord and Master” (ibid.). Thus, there are two kinds of denial. There is denial that can be forgiven, and there is denial that cannot be forgiven. Forgivable denial is a temporary, verbal denial that contradicts abiding inner faith; unforgivable denial, by contrast, “officially renounces Jesus” (ibid.)

The reference [in Matt. 10:32-33] is to a disciple who publicly professes that he knows Jesus as Savior and God, adheres to his teaching, and submits to his Master’s will. If this “Christian” later says no to this Amen, that is, if he officially renounces Jesus, declaring before other people that he is freeing himself from his dependence on the Lord, then the Lord in turn will abandon him and will not exercise his role as advocate and paraclete on his behalf (1 John 2:1). (ibid., 202-203)

So to return to the original question that Matthew 10:32-33 poses: Does denying Jesus make a person lose his or her salvation? No. A Christian who denies Jesus temporarily in word but not in heart has an experience not unlike that which Paul describes in Rom. 7:18, 22-23. “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. … For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” A person who denies Christ and goes to hell, however, does not lose his or her salvation because he or she never possessed salvation. As we read in Hebrews 10:35-39,

Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For,

     “Yet a little while,
          and the coming one will come and will not delay;
     but my righteous one shall live by faith,
          and if he shrinks back,
     my soul has no pleasure in him.”

But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.

According to the writer of Hebrews, then, true believers have faith and preserve their souls. Humanly speaking, a true believer may apostatize, may shrink back, but divinely speaking, God preserves true believers’ faith and enables them to endure to the end. As Thomas Schreiner explains,

The admonitions [such as in Heb. 10:35-39] are the means God uses to keep believers on the path of faith. Believers are even more assured of their salvation as they heed the warnings, because their response to the warnings demonstrates that they truly belong to God. And the argument of this book is that the elect and those in the new covenant always heed the warnings. God loses none of those who belong to them. (113)

Jesus’ parable of the sower demonstrates this well (Mark 4:14-20). There are three varieties of unbelievers: those who never believe, those who seem to believe but fall away quickly, and those who seem to believe but fall away eventually. There is but one course of action for the believer, however: all true believers believe and never finally fall away, even though they may, at times, like Peter, verbally deny Jesus.

But a vital caveat is needed. Who are you to know if your denial is temporary or final? Who are you to know if your denial is the kind that can be forgiven, or the kind that cannot be forgiven because it is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matt. 12:31-32)? Don’t risk denying Jesus with your mouth: you may, in fact, be denying him in your heart. Don’t presume upon the Lord’s mercies.

I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God … for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began. (2 Tim. 1:6-9)

If you trust Jesus for salvation, keep trusting him, and serve him boldly! Not posting a Facebook status about Jesus won’t make you lose your salvation (nothing will), but if you deny Jesus consistently in your words and actions, you probably were never saved to begin with, and you need to trust him now to be saved.

Works Cited

Mounce, William D. Pastoral Epistles. Word Biblical Commentary 46. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2000.

Schreiner, Thomas. Run to Win the Prize: Perseverance in the New Testament. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010.

Spicq, Ceslas. Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, vol. 1, trans. and ed. James D. Ernest. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC, 1994.

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