Running from Death

Christ came for those chained to the “fear of death” (Heb 2:15). We all lie under this death sentence. Death produces fear and this fear becomes lifelong bondage (Heb 2:14-15). Richard Beck wrote a book on this very topic, he argues that our fear of death drives us to fierce avoidance of our mortality. He states,

“Every American is thus ingrained with the duty to look well, to seem fine, to exclude from the fabric of his or her normal life any evidence of decay and death and helplessness. The ethic I have outlined here is often called the ethic of success. I prefer to call it the ethic of avoidance. . . . Persons are considered a success not because they attain some remarkable goal, but because their lives do not betray marks of failure or depression, helplessness or sickness. When they are asked how they are, they really can say and really do say, “Fine . . . fine.”

In spite of this avoidance and believing that “our deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation” (Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death) we cannot escape it. Death is personified in Scripture as a ferocious monster that consumes everyone and everything in front of it (1 Cor 15:26, Rom 7:24, 8:1, Rev 6:7-8). 

Death must be looked in the face. Wisdom requires it (Ps 90:12). Without this, we run the risking of not taking our mortality to heart (Eccl 7:2). Just as sin drives us to the cross for forgiveness, death pushes to the empty tomb for hope and assurance. The gospel is the only good news in the face of death.

Jesus buried, this is one of the most critical yet overlooked facets of the gospel (1 Cor 15:1-4). The sting of death was full absorbed by Christ. He lay lifeless in a tomb for three days. Yet, as he lay there he was unraveling death itself. He came that “through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death” (Heb 2:14). Death was his instrument of undoing our sin, undoing the evil one and destroying death itself. The third day was the death knell of death itself.

Running from death will not help us. We must face it and run toward the gospel. The buried Lord and the resurrected King tell us that all will be okay, we do not need to be controlled by the fear of death.

Rethinking Weakness

self madeStrength is the American ideal. The statue on the right is called the “Self Made Man.” He is chiseling himself out of stone, making himself—with his own hands and strength. The self-made man embodies what our culture values. The ability of an individual to go from strength to strength, overcoming all adversity and chiseling out a successful life for themselves.

Hard work and strength—these are cornerstones of the American value system. Weakness has no place in this ideal. We despise it. We don’t have Weak Man Contests, we don’t celebrate the slowest or take pride in last place. The Rocky theme song “getting strong now” is our theme song. “Getting weak now…” just doesn’t have the same punch.

Weakness—we avoid it, shun it, hide it—no one will see us weak. That’s a strong commitment we all have. Weakness only has one purpose in our culture, it is an ingredient for becoming stronger, it definitely has no purpose or use outside of that.

We are rocks. Our physique has to reflect that, anything else and we feel ashamed and weak. Our emotions must reflect it, tears are weak—rocks don’t cry. Our mental wellness is no different—the mentally strong are not susceptible to mental illness— they don’t need help, that’s weak. It bleeds into our spirituality and faith—God doesn’t want tears, pain and frailty. I can only come with joy and gratitude.

Rocks are steady, not unstable. We are rocks at work—no room for failure or mistakes, no need for help. The rock is solid, unmovable, self-sufficient—I got this! I am strong. There is no room for weakness. The culture of ancient Corinth was very similar to ours. They also had a love affair with strength. Into this perspective of strength comes a divine wrecking ball. Check out 2 Corinthians 12:5-10.

On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

The language of weakness permeates this entire section. In fact, it permeates the entire letter of 2 Corinthians. Paul has rightly been deemed the “theologian of weakness.” Outside of Paul the term for weakness occurs 39 times in the entirety of the New Testament. Paul uses the term weakness 44 times in his letters. It is a crucial piece of his theology.

In the immediate context Paul is recalling a vision or experience of getting caught up into heaven and seeing things he could not speak. In the larger context, Paul is defending his apostleship. The Corinthians were questioning his legitimacy, because he appeared weak and insignificant, he did not have the charismatic qualities that the culture of the day held in high esteem—-he did not seem strong.

His point is striking: weakness does not disprove my apostleship, it proves it. Weakness does not challenge my authenticity, it demonstrates it! As one commentator said, “The only impressive thing about Paul, according to him, was his weakness.”

But how in the world does Paul get here? Weakness as an asset? What? Weakness as an occasion for God’s strength? Where does this come from? Paul is saying that weakness is something to be embraced not shunned, something to be content not discontent with, something to boast about?!

Paul is not introducing something new here—God has always worked this way. In the next couple posts, we will explore the theme of weakness. My aim, that you and I would grow weaker as a result.

The Remedy for Fear

If there is one thing that should strike fear in a heart it is the certainty of divine judgment and the potential of eternal punishment. In a sane person every other fear bows to this great terror. Accountability in the face of omniscience and holiness is a sobering reality.

The gospel of God is tremendous news as it drives to the heart of this deep concern. Judgment day is ripped out of the future and brought into the present when Christ goes to the cross in our stead. The cross is the courtroom. The verdict is condemnation for Jesus and righteousness for us. This is the gospel. He was our substitute. Judgement has happened.

Love motivated this saving work. It is God’s love that dispels all fear and replaces it with joyful confidence. Hear what John says about the matter in his first letter.

“So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:16-19).

Fear is the prey of love. There is no peaceful co-existence between the two. Love attacks, fear runs. How mighty is the love of God! It assaults our fear and instills us with confidence for the day we fear most.

The love of God ensures that punishment is not in our future. His love is a static reality, it is fixed and unmoving. The cross stands as the objective reminder of God’s enduring love. Our grasp of that love, however, is often unstable and moving.

This is why John articulates the need to be “perfected” in our grasp of God’s love for us. The idea of perfection here is development, maturity or completion. As we grow into our grasp of God’s love in Christ our confidence also increases.

We must always distinguish between objective reality and our subjective experience. There is no condemnation present or future for those in Christ, judgement day has happened. That is a fixed reality, whether I feel like it or not.

I waiver in my faith. I doubt God’s promises. I question God’s love. My obedience is flawed. I do not always feel confident about judgement day. These are all part of my subjective experiences of faith. I waiver and how I feel about the gospel and judgement day moves. This does not change the settled reality, it simply speaks to my interaction with it.

The goal: move the subjective experience closer and closer to the objective reality. Confidence in coming day of judgement is an indicator that the objective and subjective are converging.

Justification and Equal Footing

It has been said that the ground is level at the foot of the cross. Calvary is the great equalizer. It is the demonstration of our sin. It is the demonstration of our righteousness. There we see our condemnation and our comfort, our judgment and our justification.

The landscape of the cross never changes. Obedience and sanctification do not lift us above others. Missionaries, pastors and full-time ministers do not stand on higher ground. The Christian of 50 years is not positioned to look down on the new believer.

Peter helps us understand the common ground of the cross. In his second letter he addresses his readers: “To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 1:1). If anyone were to have higher footing it would be the apostles. Peter dismisses the notion.

It is the righteousness of God applied to us through Christ that creates equal standing. It does not matter who we are, what we have done, what we do or who we become…all have merited condemnation and all who believe receive a righteousness outside of themselves.

Craig Blomberg understands this radical conception of grace to unravel any notion of varying rewards in the kingdom of God. He wrote an article in JETS titled, Degrees of Reward in the Kingdom of Heaven?

In the article he states, “the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ ought to liberate believers from all such performance-centered conceptions of the Christian life. An important step in that direction would be to jettison this misguided and discouraging doctrine of eternal rewards that distinguish one believer from another.”

Blomberg points to Martin Luther as a champion of such an understanding of justification. “Martin Luther often shied away from speaking of Christians even standing before God’s judgment seat, preferring instead to call it his mercy seat. It was a bar of judgment only for unbelievers.”

Blomberg points to Luther’s sermon, ‘The Sum of the Christian Life’ preached in Worlitz on November 24, 1532. As always, Luther is rich with gospel understanding and application.

“If we are ever to stand before God with a right and uncolored faith, we must come to the point where we learn clearly to distinguish between ourselves, our life, and Christ the mercy seat…. The man who can do this will be the justified man. All the others operate with a feigned faith. They talk a lot about faith but they mix things together, as a barkeeper mixes water and wine, by saying if you live in such and such a way God will be gracious to you, and they turn the mercy seat into a judgment seat and the judgment seat into a mercy seat…. Therefore, keep these two widely separated from each other, as widely as ever you can, so that neither can approach the other. See, if that is the way faith were preached, men would be justified and all the rest; a pure heart and good conscience through genuine, perfect love, would follow. For the man who through faith is sure in his heart that he has a gracious God, who is not angry with him, though he deserves wrath, that man goes out and does everything joyfully. Moreover, he can live this way before men also, loving and doing good to all, even though they are not worthy of love…. This is the highest security, the head and foundation of our salvation.”

Respect & Gentleness: Two Critical Evangelistic Postures

Gospel witness is privilege and imperative. Called to proclaim the excellencies of him who called us from darkness to light we are ambassadors for Christ. Peter reminds us that the medium of the message is very important. He puts in front of us two critical evangelistic postures that need emphasis.

“But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15).

Gentleness should mark the sharing of our faith with others. To grasp this important posture and character trait we need to look at the original language and the New Testament examples of it.

The Complete Word Study Dictionary of the New Testament says this about the Greek word translated as gentleness (πραΰτης).

“Praǘtēs, according to Aristotle, is the middle standing between two extremes, getting angry without reason, and not getting angry at all. Therefore, praǘtēs is getting angry at the right time, in the right measure, and for the right reason. Praǘtēs is not readily expressed in English (since the term “meekness” suggests weakness), but it is a condition of mind and heart which demonstrates gentleness, not in weakness, but in power. It is a balance born in strength of character.”

The Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament defines gentleness as “a quality of gentle friendliness, as strength that accommodates to another’s weakness, consideration.”

Gentleness is not a lack of power, it is not weakness. It is strength under control. It is power employed for the sake of others. It is discernible in balance. It is a close cousin to humility. It is welcoming and hospitable. It is intimate with kindness and well acquainted with self-control.

The New Testament utilizes the language of gentleness around 30 times. Gentleness is a quality of God (2 Sam 22:36, Ps 18:35, Is 40:11) manifest most clearly in the person of Christ (Matt 11:29, 2 Cor 10:1). It is also characteristic of the Holy Spirit who works that same quality out in us (Gal 5:23).

It is a posture necessary to walk worthy of our calling (Eph 4:2, Tit 3:2, 1 Pet 3:4). It needs to be present when correcting a brother/sister who is straying into sin (Gal 6:1). It is the indicator of true wisdom (James 3:17). It is the mark of good ministry (1 Thess 2:7) and good pastors (1 Tim 3:3).

Respect is clear and more directly carries over into English. The word for respect (φόβος) is often translated as fear, reverence or honor. It speaks to holding another in high regard, to treating with dignity, and valuing highly. In the context it may refer to our reverence for God in our sharing or to the dignity we grant everyone with whom we share. Both are true and may be contained within the text.

Respect and gentleness are a compelling duo in evangelism. When emphasizing how we share and defend our faith Peter pulls these two characteristics center stage. Together they create parameters that ensure that the gospel alone is the only stumbling block for those hearing the message (1 Cor 1:23).

Gospel Strength

“You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”

In one sentence Paul pulls back the curtain on the link between strength and the gospel (2 Tim 2:1). What can we learn from Paul’s words to Timothy?

  • The source of strength in this text is grace. Paul affirms here that the journey of the Christian is by “grace alone.” In other places, Paul asserts that we are “saved by grace” (Eph 2-8-10). Here he shows us that we are “strengthened by grace.” The journey begins and continues by grace.
  • The grace that Paul speaks of is that which is located in Christ Jesus. Here he pushes us toward a gospel-centered understanding of strength. The grace of God is found in the message of the incarnate, crucified, risen and exalted Lord. As we press into the gospel of our salvation, meditate on it, study it, internalize it, speak it to one another, trust it and allow it to permeate our hearts and minds we are strengthened.
  • The word translated “be strengthened” is the present passive imperative form of a verb that is concerned with being strong (ἐνδυναμοῦ). Paul commands Timothy toward strength and yet, Timothy’s role is passive. Strength is required of us, it is a command. Strength comes to us, it is a gift. Timothy is called upon here to unfurl the sails of faith and position himself to catch gospel wind. The call here is to strategically position ourselves to be reminded of the gospel of God. We are to put ourselves in situations where reading, hearing, speaking and believing the gospel is sure to happen.
  • Strength comes from the gospel. Weakness must also be gauged by the gospel. Proximity to the gospel determines both strength and weakness. Full battery on a cell phone indicates recent close proximity to its power source, just as low battery indicates distance from its power source. Paul is helping us grasp that weakness is no mystery in the Christian journey. When we are far from the gospel we will certainly be weak. When we are near the gospel we will certainly be strengthened.

The Gospel and the Beauty of God

Having focused on the themes of God, God’s place, and God’s people in the Old Testament we have laid a foundation for the remainder of this exploration. We will now bring these three themes into dialogue with the gospel. By threading these themes through the gospel we will seek to shed more light on the topic of beauty.

The birth of Jesus signaled an entirely new and distinct phase of God’s self-revelation in history. All the fullness of God dwelt bodily in the human man Jesus Christ. Jesus the true man reveals to us the human being. Jesus the true God reveals to us Yahweh. In Jesus, we see God and man with utmost clarity. To see Jesus is to see God. Jesus is the embodiment of the very nature of God and therefore manifests to us the very beauty of God. A few texts of Scripture illustrate this point.

John’s gospel tells us about the Word that was in the beginning with God and yet distinct from God (Jn 1:1-3). This Word became flesh and made his dwelling with humanity “and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14). He affirms that this revelation is unique and definitive. “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (Jn 1:18). Jesus has explained the Father. He has led the Father out into the light for all to see. Jesus is the living exposition of God. In Jesus we see the beauty of God.

Paul agrees with John that the glory of God is seen particularly in Jesus. He speaks of the “knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). The author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb 1:3). The glory and beauty of God is firmly located in the person of Jesus Christ.

This beauty is made manifest in the person of Christ as he works our salvation. Paul can speak of the “gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor 4:4) and the “gospel of the glory of the blessed God” (1 Tim 1:11). It is in the gospel that we see the beauty of God most vividly. This is a shocking fact, one that we will spend ample time unpacking.

In the person and work of Jesus the beauty of God is not redefined. It is clarified, explained and illustrated. All the perfections of God discussed earlier find their greatest expression in the person and work of Jesus. From the virgin birth to the second coming we see in this man the very beauty of God. The fact that Jesus is the revelation of God to us has massive ramifications for our thinking on beauty.

Implications   

  • Since Jesus is the fullest revelation of God it follows that our thinking on beauty must ultimately be tied to him. In Jesus the beauty of God finds its greatest expression. A biblical view on beauty will therefore be a Christ-centered perspective. If we would think aright about beauty we must think deeply about the Lord Jesus Christ.
  • Since the gospel is the place where the beauty and glory of God are concentrated it follows that our thinking on beauty must also be tied to the cross and resurrection. As one man put it so well, “beauty happened once and for all in a garden outside Jerusalem’s walls.”[1] A biblical view on beauty will therefore be cross-centered. If we would think aright about beauty we must not think merely of Christ, but of Christ crucified.[2]
  • Since the incarnation and the gospel are central to all thinking on beauty it is impossible to have a full or accurate understanding of beauty without bringing all of our thinking into this orbit. Any discussion on the beauty of God that fails to make it to Christ is tremendously flawed. Any discussion about the definition and standard of beauty that does not ultimately have Christ and his work at its center will inevitably miss the mark.
  • If Christ defines beauty then beauty must be understood primarily as self-sacrificial service and generosity for the sake of another.[3] The life of Jesus, which manifested the very nature of God, was one continual act of service to God and to sinful man (Mk 10:45, Rom 15:2-3, Phil 2:5-11).[4] The cross, the greatest manifestation of this service, is superb beauty. In it we behold a cruciform majesty. The pierced feet of Christ are beautiful because they are the feet of a servant who would tread the globe to serve and save the world. The pierced hands of Christ are beautiful because they are hands of healing and welcome. Christ crucified is magnificent because it is here we see God give his all for the least deserving. It is the cross that teaches us that beauty is a giving of the self away for the sake of another. It is a posture, an act, a movement—all rooted in love and service.[5]
  • The beauty of God is at heart a paradox. The gruesome cross is the canvas upon which God paints his greatest masterpiece. The place of ugliness is the place where beauty is truly found. The hideous cross is the context for the greatest splendor. The man beaten to a pulp, nailed to a tree, suffering, gasping, dying—this is where beauty is found. The bright darkness of the cross is where beauty shines most brilliantly.[6] How can this be? It is here that God is demonstrating the glory of his character to us. It is here that we see his love, grace, holiness, justice, wrath, wisdom, power, and faithfulness. It is here that we see his beauty and glory. The sum total of God’s perfection is his beauty and it is at the cross that we see the fullness of these perfections. If the cross stands at the center of the beauty of God it must also be at the center of our understanding of beauty. This paradox instructs us that beauty is always found in the most unlikely places.
  • God’s definition of beauty is an attack against the world’s definition of beauty. One intention of the cross is to destroy the wisdom of the world (1 Cor 1:19-20). The cross has a way of obliterating the values, philosophies, standards, and definitions of human beings. This is one reason why it is so offensive. I think the cross is an assault on man-made definitions and standards of beauty. The embodiment of beauty comes as an unattractive man from some backwoods town, who lives the life of homeless vagabond, dresses in common clothes, hangs out with the lowest of people, and is hung on a cursed tree. This is beauty. Beauty is the hand that blesses children, touches lepers, heals blind men, and washes undeserving feet. Beauty is a mouth that speaks forgiveness and grace to the prostitute, the tax collector, and the murderer. It is the mouth that eats with the sinner and sings praise to God in the face of death. Beauty is dusty and tired feet that refuse to stop until the good news is proclaimed to all. Beauty is a pierced side, nailed hands, impaled feet, bleeding brow, and gasping lungs. Jesus is beautiful. Look as he gives himself away—this is beauty! How different is this from the world’s thinking on beauty. The cross annihilates our skewed thinking on beauty and reestablishes its true definition.
  • The beauty of God seen in Christ is focused primarily on character not physical appearance. There is one comment in all of Scripture pertaining to the physical appearance of Jesus. Isaiah tells us that he had “no form or majesty that we should look at him and no beauty that we should desire him” (Is 53:2). It is my opinion that the choice of this physical appearance was not random but intentional. God clearly prepared the body that Christ would take to himself in the incarnation (Heb 10:5). He could have taken on a physical appearance that was “beautiful” in the eyes of the world but he did not. He could have come as the most attractive, well-dressed, well-groomed, and most physically fit guy on the planet. The fact is, he did not. What is he showing us through this? It appears he would show us where genuine glory and beauty are located; not primarily in physical appearance but in the character and movement of self-giving.

 


[1] Bruno Forte, The Portal of Beauty: Toward a Theology of Aesthetics, vii.

[2] John Navone, Toward a Theology of Beauty 20. Navone says, “His cross, no form of beauty for worldly eyes, reveals what God’s beauty and glory are really about…the crucified and risen Christ is the form and splendor of the Beautiful.”

[3] Bruno Forte, The Portal of Beauty: Toward a Theology of Aesthetics, viii, 27-28. Forte says that beauty is the “self-emptying of the eternal Word.” He states that beauty in its “highest form” takes place at the “hour of the abandonment of the cross.” He later describes beauty as “crucified love.” Jeremy Begbie argues that we find God’s beauty in the economy of salvation.

[4] Stephen M. Garrett, “The Dazzling Darkness of God’s Triune Love: Introducing Evangelicals to the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar,” Themelios 35:3 (2010), 421-22. Balthasar discerned a “dialectic between the deep and threatening darkness of the cloud and the blinding and consuming light of the fire.” This dialectic discernible in the Exodus event climaxes in the cross of Christ according to Balthasar. “The Christ-form integrates the darkness of the cross and descent into hell with the Trinitarian love of God such that ‘the form which gives expression to the meaning of a radically sinful existence which yet stands under the sign of the hope for redemption…takes the modalities of fallen existence upon itself so as to transvalue them by redemptive suffering.’” Balthasar rightly discerned that “Jesus Christ radiates the splendor of God’s glory because he is perfectly in tune with the Father’s will, obeying the Father even unto death and thereby fulfilling his mission to the world. This is the beauty of Christ’s holiness. There is, thus, a dazzling within the darkness of the glory of Christ, something that is alluring within the tragic, when the Father through the Spirit glorifies the Son in his death and decent into hell that reveals the triune love of God for us in Christ’s glorious resurrection.” Balthasar argues that the self-emptying (kenosis) of Christ is the definitive revelation of an eternal glory—the uncreated glory of the Triune God. In other words, the service of Christ at the cross reveals that the eternal nature of God is that of a humble, self-sacrificial servant. From his perspective the cross was a public display of what has been going on for eternity within the Godhead. In the relationship of the divine community there has always been movements of service, love, and humility. The cross points to something that always existed within the very heart of God.

[5] Bruno Forte, The Portal of Beauty: Toward a Theology of Aesthetics, 43. Dostoevsky in his book The Idiot posed the question through the young nihilist Ippolit, “Is it true prince, that you said once that ‘beauty’ would save the world?…What sort of beauty will save the world?” The beauty of the crucified God is the answer to this question. Beauty is not merely static but it moves, indeed it saves. John Navone states, “the self-giving power of beauty itself saves the world.” Toward a Theology of Beauty, 82. Jeremy Begbie touches on this idea of movement when he states that in the “story of Jesus…Trinitarian beauty has, so to speak, been performed for us.” The Beauty of God: Theology and Arts, 22.

[6] Ibid, 53.