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By In Theology

The Unlikely Ascension of Jesus

Ascension Of Jesus Ascension Day

The Ascension of Jesus can be a confusing scene. It is to be counted among the high holy days of the church calendar. Events on the church calendar are limited to items of theological significance, which is why the nativity (Christmas), passion (Good Friday), and resurrection (Easter) of Christ are memorialized with such pomp. Yet the Ascension is easily the least understood of the great feast days. This is to the detriment of the modern church which desperately needs to recover the meaning of the Christ ascended on high.

A Textual Confusion

Part of the problem is that the Biblical authors have offered limited descriptions of what actually happened at the Ascension. Our Scriptural references to the event are limited to a few quotations. One such description comes from St. Matthew’s Gospel following the words of the Great Commission.a Where Christ gathers his disciples at the mountain where he will presumably ascend. The Ascension in this account can only be inferred by its correlation with the descriptions offered by St. Luke in his Gospel and in the Book of Acts. St. Luke’s Gospel gives us a description of Jesus taking his disciples to Bethany, blessing them, and then, “He was parted from them and carried up into heaven.” b Later in the first chapter of Acts, St. Luke describes the scene as Jesus boarding a cloud rising up through the sky. c

So that the general picture we get from the text is that the resurrected Christ gathers his disciples, gives them a sort of farewell speech, and then zephyrs his way into Heaven.

Why does it matter that Jesus ascended and why does the Church calendar mark this event as significant in the theological history of the Church?

Sorrow in Separation

Perhaps the Apostles were expected to understand the Ascension in the context of the Old Testament? How often is Christ compared to the Prophet Elijah, who himself was taken up into heaven by a chariot of fire? d But is this event similar the Ascension of Christ? Do the disciples of Christ rend their garments in grief and anguish as did Elisha? No.

Christ’s words seem to imply the reverse. Rather than separation, Christ teaches that his presence has penetrated the two planes of existence by the reality of the Incarnation and by the work of the Holy Spirit. Where Elijah was taken away from Earth, Jesus teaches that in the Ascension the Kingdom of Heaven is coming into contact with Earth in a way that is only comparable to how his own divinity took on human flesh. (more…)

  1. The Holy Gospel of St. Matthew Ch. XXVIII:16-20  (back)
  2. The Holy Gospel of St. Luke Ch. XXIV:51  (back)
  3. The Acts of the Holy Apostles Ch. I:9  (back)
  4. Fourth Book of Kings Ch. II  (back)

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By In Theology

Two Births of Jesus

One night in Nazareth, God became man in the virgin womb of Mary, a young lady betrothed to Joseph. Three trimesters later, Jesus was born on Christmas day. He was wrapped in swaddling clothes (Lk. 2:7). Gentile worshipers brought him gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Mt. 2:11). The infant’s life was threatened by an evil king, but he escaped death (Mt. 2:13-15).

Thirty-three years later, Jesus had his life threatened again by evil rulers (Mt. 26:65-68). Instead of escaping, he volunteered to die (Jn. 10:18). At his death in Jerusalem, Israelite worshipers prepared spices and oils for him (Lk. 23:55-56; Jn. 19:39-40). He was wrapped in fine linens and buried in a virgin tomb, a tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea (Mt. 27:57-60; Lk. 23:53). Three days later, he was reborn on Easter Sunday.

As we celebrate the nativity of our Lord, let us recall the glorious providence of God. Let us remember that not only does Christ’s first coming look forward to his second coming, but that his birth out of the womb foreshadows his birth out of the tomb. King Jesus conquered death and now sits on heaven’s throne. We join his mother in singing these words from the Magnificat: (more…)

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By In Theology, Worship

10 Questions Preachers Should Ask Before Sunday Morning

I have been a pastor for almost a decade. I spend between 12-15 hours each week thinking, researching, and writing before I deliver the first words in my Sunday sermon.a The process of writing my sermon goes through a lengthy journey each week. I contemplate several questions from Monday to Friday which force me to edit and re-edit my manuscript. There is no perfect sermon, but a sermon that goes through revisions and asks import questions has a much better chance of communicating with clarity than the self-assured preacher who engages the sermonic task with nothing more than academic lenses.

I have compiled a list of ten questions I ask myself each week at some point or another.

Question #1: Is this language clear? When you write a manuscript ( as I do) you have an opportunity to carefully consider the language you use. I make a habit of reading my sermon out loud which leads me to realize that certain phrases do not convey the idea clearly. A well-written sermon does not necessarily mean a well-delivered sermon. Reading my sermons out loud causes me to re-write and look for other ways to explain a concept or application more clearly.

Question #2: Is there a need to use high theological language in this sermon? Seminary graduates are often tempted to use the best of their training in the wrong environment. People are not listening to you to hear your theological acumen. I am well aware that some in the congregation would be entirely comfortable with words like perichoresis and Arianism. I am not opposed to using high theological discourse. Words like atonement, justification, sanctification are biblical and need to be defined. But extra-biblical terms and ideologies should be employed sparingly. Much of this can be dealt in a Sunday School class or other environments. High theological language needs to be used with great care, and I think it needs to be avoided as much as possible in the Sunday sermon.

Question #3: Can I make this sermon even shorter? As I read my sermons each week, I find that I can cut a paragraph or two easily, or depending on how long you preach, perhaps an entire page. This is an important lesson for new preachers: not everything needs to be said. Shorter sermons–which I strongly advocateb–force you to say what’s important and keep some of your research in the footnotes where it belongs. Preachers need to learn what to prioritize in a sermon so as not to unload unnecessary information on their parishioners. (more…)

  1. Thankful for great interactions before this article was published. It helped sharpen my points  (back)
  2. By this I mean sermons no longer than 30 minutes  (back)

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By In Politics, Theology

The End of the Evangelical Christian? A Response to Russell Moore

The rise of Donald Trump has caused Christians of all varieties to question their conservative bona fides. There are many reasons conservatives have chosen Donald Trump. Some have chosen the real estate mogul as the most suited to destroy the Washington machine. Some support the former Apprentice host as the voice of anger for those silenced by the mainstream media and the establishment GOP. Others find his open hostility to illegal immigration his most redeeming value. But while conservatives may have a few reason for voting for the Donald, conservative Christians, in particular, are having a more difficult time. After all, these conservative evangelicals are contemplating voting for someone who believes in God but has not sought God’s forgiveness. In Trump’s world, that is not a contradiction, and for some evangelicals, the contradiction is an acceptable compromise.a

The result has been unnerving for many evangelicals who are generally on the side of Ted Cruz; a conservative Southern Baptist from Texas, who speaks the evangelical language with extreme ease. They cannot fathom why conservative Christians have endorsed someone who does not understand the most fundamental of evangelical commitments.

Some evangelical leaders have embraced Donald Trump enthusiastically. Consider the very conservative Southern Baptist, Robert Jeffress, who endorsed Trump and referred to the Republican front-runner as a “great Christian.” Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. praised Donald as “a successful executive and entrepreneur, a wonderful father and a man who I believe can lead our country to greatness again.” (more…)

  1. While the passion for a Trump candidacy seems to be on the rise, a vast majority of Conservative voices on the right and liberal voices on the left have found  a surprising common ground: #nevertrump.  (back)

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By In Politics, Theology

Andy Stanley’s Big Frustration with Little Churches

Post by Uri Brito and Dustin Messer

In a recent sermon, Andy Stanley made the staggering observation:

When I hear adults say, ‘Well I don’t like a big church, I like about 200, I want to be able to know everybody,’ I say, ‘You are so stinking selfish. You care nothing about the next generation. All you care about is you and your five friends. You don’t care about your kids…anybody else’s kids.’ You’re like, ‘What’s up?’ I’m saying if you don’t go to a church large enough where you can have enough Middle Schoolers and High Schoolers to separate them so they can have small groups and grow up the local church, you are a selfish adult. Get over it. Find yourself a big old church where your kids can connect with a bunch of people and grow up and love the local church.

Stanley has since apologized in the way modern preachers apologize: via twitter. 

While we take him at his word (or tweet, as the case may be), this was not simply a slip of the tongue. While he may be sorry for the way in which he communicated the message—even sorry for a specific sentiment in the message—one can’t fake the sort of passion exhibited by Stanley as he described his antipathy for small churches. Again, we believe he’s genuinely sorry we’re offended, but Stanley clearly has heartfelt feelings about non-megachurches (microchurches?) that didn’t begin or end with the sermon in question. Below are three reasons we feel such a sentiment is harmful: (more…)

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By In Scribblings

I Clement on All Creation Figuring the Reality of Resurrection

“Let us consider, beloved, how the Lord continually proves to us that there shall be a future resurrection, of which He has rendered the Lord Jesus Christ the first-fruits by raising Him from the dead. Let us contemplate, beloved, the resurrection which is at all times taking place. Day and night declare to us a resurrection. The night sinks to sleep, and the day arises; the day [again] departs, and the night comes on. Let us behold the fruits [of the earth], how the sowing of grain takes place. The sower goes forth, and casts it into the ground; and the seed being thus scattered, though dry and naked when it fell upon the earth, is gradually dissolved. Then out of its dissolution the mighty power of the providence of the Lord raises it up again, and from one seed many arise and bring forth fruit.”

1 Clement, Ch 24

 

N.B. I Clement is a letter of Clement of Rome, and likely one of the earliest of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers.  It is one of the few writings that was considered for inclusion in the Canon of Scripture, but ultimately not received by the Church.  However, like many of the writings of the Fathers, it has always held a place of special honor.  It’s exclusion was not because of any error of doctrine but because the Church recognized that though it was written by a disciple of the Apostle Peter it was not written in his name as, for instance, Luke and Acts which were written by Luke (not an apostle) but in the name or under the supervision of Peter, were.  Thus the Church received it as an important and pious text, but not an inspired one.

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By In Politics

Easter: The ABC of our Faith

We always need a good dose of reminders of the type of people we have been called to be, lest we exalt ourselves, rather than God exalting us. God is the exalter of men, not men themselves. And this is a good principle to keep in mind. We need to constantly return to the root of our faith; to the events of human history that propel us to move forward as a people. This is one purpose of the liturgical calendar: to never outgrow the life of our Lord from his birth to his ascension.

The Resurrection is the foundational piece to our lives as Christians. In evangelicalism, we have tended to view the Resurrection of Jesus merely as a validation or proof that the crucifixion accomplished what it was supposed to. In other words, the Resurrection is wonderful because now the death of Jesus means something and we get to spend eternity in heaven. But how does the Bible navigate us through Jesus’ life? The Four Gospels navigate us through the life of Jesus and gives us a little glimpse into the Resurrection. But if we simply build our thinking around the Four Gospels we will have an incomplete view of who we are and who Jesus is. The Four Gospels are not enough. We need the entirety of God’s Revelation. In other words, “If our gospel begins and ends on Good Friday, it is impoverished.”a  Though we glory in the cross, though we preach the cross, though we love the old rugged cross, the cross is not enough! And I make that statement very carefully. As one scholar stated, “If the story of the prodigal son was only based on cross-theology, there would have been only forgiveness, but no joy and feast.” The message of the cross is incomplete without the resurrection. The cross and the resurrection can never be separated. The resurrection not only validates the cross, but it is a sure sign that we are shadows of our future selves. We are now partly what we shall be. This is very clear as we enter into Acts of the Apostles: the early Church began to live out their resurrection among the nations. In fact, “the preaching of Jesus’ resurrection is arguably more pervasive than the cross in the book of Acts (Acts 2:31; 3:26; 4:2; 33; 10:41). The Psalms most quoted in the New Covenant are Psalms 2 and 110, which speak directly of Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation. Cyprian once wrote: “I confess the Cross, because I know of the Resurrection…since the Resurrection has followed the Cross, I am not ashamed to declare it.” This is back to basics! We are a cruciform people, but if we overemphasize the cross, we will lose an enormous part of our identity.

So, let us consider a few implications of the resurrection, keeping in mind that the Resurrection is more than a confirmation of the cross, but it is the foundation of our faith. Paul makes this point when he says that without the resurrection we are of all people most to be pitied. He does not say this about any other event in the life of Jesus.

First, the Resurrection is the objective grounds of salvation. We tend to look merely at the cross as the grounds of our salvation, but we are saved by, in, and through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul makes this explicit when he says in Romans 4:25: “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” In I Corinthians 15:17, Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, you are still in your sins.” But aren’t we justified and forgiven on account of Jesus’ death? Of course! Romans makes that clear! But what Paul is saying elsewhere is that the unique event of the Resurrection is the vindication of Jesus as the Faithful Son and as the righteous sin-bearer. “So God’s raising of Jesus from the dead was the act in which the justification of all God’s people was contained in a nutshell. “Resurrection is the creative power of God that imparts life to soul and body.” This is who we are. We are nothing more, nothing less than saints united to the Resurrected Christ. This is the objective ground of our salvation.

Secondly, the resurrection is not only the source of our justification, our right-standing before God, but the resurrection is also the power that drives our sanctification; that is our growth in King Jesus. Some theologians have referred to this as anastasity, from the Greek anastasio, meaning resurrection. Anastasity is the way the resurrection flows into our lives. Now listen carefully to what I am about to say. This is in many ways is revolutionary to Christians who have never considered the Resurrection in this light, and I dare say this might change the way you look at everything. What the cross of Jesus does for us is to bankrupt our pride, it sobers our minds when we become full of ourselves, and it pulls the plug on any naïve triumphalism. When we are tempted to be proud of any accomplishment, we need look no further than the cross of Jesus to give us an enlightened view of what Jesus had to suffer to take our sins.

But, the resurrection is the other necessary and prominent part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus and part of God’s people. We cannot only have a theology of the cross. Why? Because a spirituality that meditates only on the cross could potentially reduce us to self-loathing, spiritual insecurity, and an unhealthy fixation on our own pathetic wormliness—as if we remain pathetic lowly sinners, miserable wretches, unable to do one good thing for God.

But is this the whole story? Or is this simply a pietistic simplification of the Christian life? Or should I ask “Is this simply the Christian life without the Resurrection? Is this what we are? Is this our basic status before God?” Anglican scholar Michael Bird summarizes best our status:

Because of the resurrection, we are “saints,” the “elect,” the “church of God,” and the “bride of Christ”—and this is a big deal. In what can only be described as the greatest reversal of fortunes since Cinderella, believers have gone from condemnation-death-poverty-grief-shame to righteousness-life-riches-joy-glory.” Some Christians might feel humble when they tell everyone how pathetic they are; a form of self-deprecation. Rightly so, we should be the first ones to share our struggles with others, but let us not think less of ourselves that how God thinks of us. “If God thinks well of his Son, He thinks well of you. If God loves His Son, He loves you, for you are partakes not just of his sufferings, but also of his glory, and you are—as we shall see next week on Ascension Sunday—raised to the heights of his throne with Him.b

Finally, the resurrection calls us to a new way of living. Paul says in Colossians: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, not on earthly things.” Some have interpreted this to mean that we are to be so heavenly minded, that we ought to abandon our earthly concerns. After all, this world is simply passing by. But I think this interpretation lacks a fundamental understanding of the role of the Resurrection and the Ascension in the mind of Paul. Who are we? We are resurrected saints. This is the most basic foundation of our humanity as Christians. And if we are resurrected saints, where does the resurrected Christ now abide? He abides at the right hand of the Father in heaven. Where Christ is we are. What Paul is saying is that we are to act and live as if we are seated with Christ in the heavenly places. We are to have a heavenly perspective on our earthly life. This is then to have an impact on our present. Our status is Jesus Christ is to be our motivation to press on toward the goal for which Christ has called us.

Easter is the most basic fact of our humanity. It is who we are. It is because of the bodily resurrection that we live, breathe, and have our being in a Christ who shows mercy, rather than a Christ who condemns us. Why? Because at the Resurrection Jesus was vindicated as the sin-bearer; the One who looks at us and sees nothing but beauty. We can never take that for granted. And this position before the Father then should cause us to love one another more fully, to serve one another more sincerely, to embrace a more robust view of hope, to feast more abundantly, and to worship the Risen Christ with greater passion. This is the abc of our faith; this is resurrection basics. If it is anything less we are most to be pitied, but thanks be to God, Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!

  1. Michael Bird, Evangelical Theology, 436.  (back)
  2. Michael Bird, Evangelical Theology, pg. 445  (back)

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