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September 2017

Does the Gospel Make Sense?

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“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God . . . 22Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” – 1 Corinthians 1:18, 22-24

Everyone in the Roman Empire knew about crucifixion. It was how the government disposed of the worst criminals and greatest threats to its rule. No one who heard Christian preaching doubted that Jesus suffered this dismal execution. They disputed what it meant.

Many righteous souls have died a martyr’s death. The Jews recognized  that. Lots of innocent people have suffered irrational and unnecessary Roman cruelty. Gentiles would concede the point.

So people didn’t reject the report of Jesus’ crucifixion. That Jewish and Roman authorities would kill off a religious innovator who ran afoul of their standards sounded credible.

It was message of the cross, not the cross itself, that was foolish in their eyes. Jews and Gentiles weren’t denying history; they were dismissing the gospel.

Jews wanted signs that God had anointed Jesus as the Messiah, their long-awaited Savior. Jesus performed signs which won Him acclaim as a teacher.

“He came to Jesus at night and said, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.’” – John 3:2

The crowds hailed Him as God’s prophet.

“After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’” – John 6:14

But the Christ? Not so fast!

“Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in Him.” – John 12:37

They refused because they didn’t see what they wanted: the overthrow of the Roman empire coupled with the exaltation of Israel. And what they did witness, His death on the cross, discredited Jesus in their eyes. Yet that was the very sign He had promised them.

“Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, ‘Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.’ 39He answered, ‘A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” – Matthew 12:38-40

Greeks prided themselves on wisdom and erudition and in their opinion, the gospel failed to measure up.

“All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.” – Acts 17:21

“And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” – 1 Corinthians 2:1-2

To the Gentiles, the gospel was little more than a quirky religious controversy. As the Roman governor Festus reported about Paul,

“When his accusers got up to speak, they did not charge him with any of the crimes I had expected. 19Instead, they had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive. 20I was at a loss how to investigate such matters; so I asked if he would be willing to go to Jerusalem and stand trial there on these charges.” – Acts 25:18-20

What irked Jews and Greeks about the message of the cross? The crucified victim is now the resurrected Lord!

The Jews tried to cover up the story.

“When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13telling them, ‘You are to say, “His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.” 14If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ 15So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.” – Matthew 28:12-15

And fearful of judgment, the Greeks mocked the very notion of resurrection.

“‘In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent. 31For He has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the Man He has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising Him from the dead.’ 32When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’” – Acts 17:30-32

Does the message of the cross make sense? If you know your need, if you’re foolish or weak, it sure does!

Looking Down on Holy Ground

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If you want to communicate well, put a twist on a familiar topic.

At Fuller Theological Seminary, I had the privilege of taking an ethics class taught by Lewis Smedes. I was looking forward to his course because I’d read some of his books (like Forgive and Forget and How Can It Be All Right When Everything Is All Wrong?) and knew how well he combined intellectual content and emotional depth.

Having been in school for several years, I was accustomed to how most professors taught: focus on the material, handle questions as they pertain only to the course content, and remain a step or two distant from the students.

Not Dr. Smedes. He used lecture notes, but he’d wander off into reveries that captivated our imagination. We sensed his affection for us; this genius of a man didn’t fear our questions or challenges. I felt like I was taking a class with C. S. Lewis!

You can read several quotes by Lewis Smedes online, but one you won’t find is a comment he made one day in the class. I believe it was in a discussion on the subject of prayer when he remarked that he thought of God as below not above. Smedes perceived God as the ground upon which we live.

God below us? Strange way to speak of the Lord, even erroneous? After all, the Bible refers to God as the Most High 24 times.

God rules above us.

“Is not God in the heights of heaven? And see how lofty are the highest stars!” – Job 22:12

“The Lord is exalted over all the nations, His glory above the heavens.” – Psalm 113:4

But He also delights to come down to our level.

“For this is what the high and exalted One says–He who lives forever, whose name is holy: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.” – Isaiah 57:15

Smedes wasn’t denying the greatness of God; rather, he was emphasizing how drawn the Lord is to those who humble themselves before Him.

His words also evoke imagery of the land–substantial and consecrated. Scripture has a term for this: holy ground.

“There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3So Moses thought, ‘I will go over and see this strange sight–why the bush does not burn up.’ 4When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, ‘Moses! Moses!’ And Moses said, ‘Here I am.’ 5‘Do not come any closer,’ God said. ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.’” – Exodus 3:2-5

To talk to God, Moses didn’t have to look up; the Lord met him at right where he was and sanctified everything around him. Even the ground.

When you’re standing on holy ground, go barefoot. That’s what God  instructed Moses to do. Forty years later, He told Joshua the same thing.

“The commander of the Lord’s army replied, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.’ And Joshua did so.” – Joshua 5:15

When you meet God and He sets you apart for His service, permit no barrier to separate you from Him. You have no need for shoes to prevent your feet from touching sacred soil. Let your toes dig into the dirt. Stand before the burning bush. Speak and listen.

The burning bush represents Jesus Christ. Two natures: fire and wood, in one bush. Two natures: divine and human in one Person.

To seek God in prayer, look up and sing His praises. But also remember to look down. Christ is with you. And because of Him, you’re standing on holy ground.

with Bob Condly

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