Archives For The Gospel

JahillI’ll never forget the day that I met Jahill Richards. Joy just oozed out of him. God’s transforming work was abundantly evident. I was at a Desiring God conference representing Eternity Bible College. Jahill came to talk to us because he was looking for biblical education that met him where he was and focused on teaching the Bible. I asked him to tell me his story, and I was then blessed by one of the most incredible stories of God’s power to redeem. I remember standing there with tears streaming down my cheeks being blown away by the grace and love of God.

That was four years ago. Since then Jahill has been a distance education student at Eternity. We recently had him share his testimony at Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley and so you are now blessed to be able to hear it for yourself as well. If you need to be reminded and encouraged about the power of the Gospel and the far-reaching nature of God’s mercy and love, you need to watch this now.

Jahill’s story highlights two of our great passions at Eternity Bible College. First, we believe that biblical education should be life-transforming not just knowledge-giving. True knowledge results in a changed life. Second, we believe that a biblical education should be accessible to all who desire it. This means being affordable and also being geographically accessible. Jahill has been able to embark on a degree while staying in his context and continuing to minister and serve. That is the heart of Eternity.

For more information: Jubilee Urban Leadership Initiative, The Front Porch

PhilemonLet’s be honest. Philemon is an odd little book. I know it’s not okay to call sections of the Bible “odd” or “random,” but I remember reading Philemon for the first time and thinking, Why is this in here?

If you haven’t yet read it, go ahead! It will take you less than five minutes (it’s shorter than this blog post). Though much of the New Testament is composed of letters, this one feels far more personal and occasion-specific than the others. It’s literally reading someone else’s mail. But random though it may be, this little book carries some powerful truth.

Paul was under house arrest in Rome when a runaway slaved named Onesimus somehow crossed his path. Paul led him to the Lord, and saw him turn from “useless” to “useful” (Paul uses these terms, playing on the fact that “Onesimus” means “useful”). Paul is able to refer to this converted slave as “my child” and even “my heart.”

As Paul worked with Onesimus, they came to the conclusion that Onesimus should return to his master. As it turns out, this master was a wealthy landowner who hosted a church in his house and who faithfully used his means to further the gospel and strengthen the church. His name was Philemon.

So Paul wrote the letter of Philemon to facilitate Onesimus’ return to his master, who was likely to be angry.

Paul subtly crafts this little gem of a letter to persuade Philemon to react to Onesimus in light of the truth of the gospel. For one thing, he addresses the letter to Philemon, but also to Apphia, Archippus, and the church that meets in Philemon’s home. So while the business only directly relates to Philemon, the church is brought into the loop, thereby reminding Philemon that he is accountable to the whole body of Christ.

He then praises Philemon for his love and generosity, and for the way “the hearts of the saints” have been “refreshed” though him. Paul isn’t exactly buttering him up here—these are legitimate praises. But we can see Paul praising Philemon for the same displays of Christian grace that he will ask Philemon to extend to Onesimus.

Then comes the appeal. Paul says that he could lean on his authority as an apostle, but instead has decided to make an appeal “for love’s sake.” Onesimus, he explains, was once useless and had wronged Philemon. He may even owe money. But Paul explains that Onesimus is now useful, and that if he owes anything, Paul will gladly be held responsible for the damages.

Don’t miss how remarkable this is. Paul is putting his own neck on the line—making himself personally liable—for a runaway slave! This isn’t the kind of thing that happens in the real world. But it happens in the church. Paul says that Onesimus is not the same slave who ran away. He is now a “brother.” Everything has changed.

Put yourself in Philemon’s shoes. Here comes your thieving runway slave walking back to your house. Feel the emotion. Then you learn that he has been transformed by the gospel. Jesus paid for his sins. The Holy Spirit now dwells inside of him. Is he a thief? A slave? Useless? Or is he a brother? A useful fellow laborer for the sake of the gospel?

The odd little book of Philemon pushes us to wrestle with these important questions, to view the institutions in our society and the situations in our lives in light of the gospel. The gospel changes everything, and we see this clearly in the random letter we intercepted from Paul to Philemon.

Winterim 2013Every winter at Eternity Bible College, we bring in a guest professor to teach a class within their expertise. This “Winterim,” as it’s been called, is close to my heart since I was Eternity’s first official Winterim teacher. When I was teaching at Cedarville University (Ohio), I flew out to Eternity to teach a course on “Pauline Theology” in December of 2007. A year and a half later, I was hired on at Eternity and the rest is history. Since then, I’ve overseen the Winterim program and have tried to bring in teachers who have an expertise in areas that we are wrestling with at our school. And so over the last three years, we’ve been blessed to have Drs. Charles Kraft, Tom Schreiner, and Todd Wilson visit Eternity and talk to us about various issues facing the church.

This January (21-26), I’m very please to have my good friend Dr. Joel Willitts from Northpark University (Chicago) come to teach a class titled “Jesus and the Kingdom.” I’m not sure if you’re aware of it, but there is a major issue brewing in the church today about the meaning of the gospel. Some people want to define the gospel narrowly in terms of Christ’s death for our sins. Others look to the teaching of Christ for a broader definition of “gospel” (or “good news”), finding in Jesus’ statements about the “kingdom of God” an extensive meaning of what good news means. I won’t spoil the fun here on our blog. But I will say: if you’re close to Simi Valley, you won’t want to miss this exciting class!

In the past, we’ve tried to make the Winterim relevant for both students and laypeople in the area. But it hasn’t always worked. To pull off the Winterim, we have to cram 5+ hours of teaching into a single night for 5 consecutive nights. While students can commit to this, most lay people can’t. So this year we’ve adjusted things a bit to meet the needs of both students and non-students. This year, Joel will lecture in-depth for 3 hours each afternoon, and then for 2 hours each evening. If you’re taking the class for credit, you’ll need to be here for all 5 hours. But if you’re not a student and want to simply sit in on the class (we call this “auditing”) to further your knowledge about Jesus and the Kingdom, then you can come and sit in on those 2-hour nightly sessions (Mon-Thurs). These nightly sessions are self-contained (i.e., you can follow the topic, even if you can’t make the afternoon sessions), so you’ll get a lot out of the class, even if you can’t take it for full credit.

I’m looking forward to what will be an invigorating discussion this January! Joel is an outstanding teacher with a pastoral heart. He’s got a Ph.D. from Cambridge University (England), and has been involved in church ministry for a number of years. He currently serves as a College pastor in Chicago along with his duties as a professor and writer. I am so excited to have him out to Eternity!

Learn more about the Winterim course here.

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Update: The audio for this course is now available for free download here: http://facultyblog.eternitybiblecollege.com/2013/01/the-kingdom-of-god/

 

 

 

 

 

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:4-7)

Sometimes we’re so familiar with the story, that we don’t see its scandal. Mary was found pregnant out of wedlock in a culture where such shameful deeds were intolerable, and her “Holy Ghost” story would only intensify the ridicule. Instead of stoning his fiancée, Joseph decided to divorce her, but God stopped him in his tracks and convinced him that Mary’s ghost story was true. So the two would have to endure the shame once Mary’s belly could no longer be hidden.

Luckily, Rome called for a census, which required the couple to head out of town to their village of origin: Bethlehem. The tiresome journey provided a soothing respite from public shame. But once they entered Bethlehem, judgmental eyebrows were quickly raised, and the scandal continued. Popular renditions of the Christmas story reflect little historical truth. Jesus was probably not born outside of a commercial “inn”—despite our English translations. The word kataluma can refer to an ancient motel, but its usual translation is “spare room,” not “inn.” It’s also unlikely that there were any commercial inns in a small village like Bethlehem, so the translation “spare room” is probably what Luke intended. So, when Mary and Joseph sought shelter in their hometown of Bethlehem, they probably went to the house of a relative and asked to stay in their “spare room.”

“Sorry,” the relative said, no doubt eying Mary’s expanded waistline. “There’s no space in our kataluma. You’ll have to sleep out with the animals.”

“But Sir,” Joseph pleaded, “my wife is about to have a baby, and…”

“Fiancee! Joseph. She’s your fiancée, not your wife,” his relative interjected with obvious disapproval. “You can sleep out with the animals, if you want. But you cannot come under my roof.”

Extending hospitality to the unwed couple would also extend approval to their actions, and the whole village would soon find out. Joseph’s relative could not risk the shame. So Mary and Joseph remained outside in the courtyard where the animals were kept at night. And then came the pain. Contractions began to knife their way through Mary’s abdomen, while nervous excitement shivered up Joseph’s spine. The piercing pain pacified the stench of the excrement wafting through the air. And the shame of scandal, ridicule, and rejection was drowned out by the jubilant hope of a newborn child.

No doctor, no instruments, no sanitation, and certainly no painkillers. Childbirth in the first century was a risky event. But God endured the shame, the scandal, the risk in order to bring us back to Eden. As Mary grunted and pushed, heaven came crashing down to earth, and Joseph was there to receive him. First some hair and then the head. Shoulders and arms, legs and feet. The One who made the stars would pass from the uterus, down through the vaginal canal, and into Joseph’s nervous hands. His umbilical cord was cut, the blood wiped from his eyes, and remaining amniotic fluid extracted from his lungs. Up and down, the breath of life expanded his lungs, and an urgent wail filled the courtyard and spooked the sheep. After nursing the child to sooth his fear, Mary wrapped her son in cloth and with no crib nearby, she laid him in a feeding trough.

A feeding trough. The One who spoke the universe into existence, who reigns over the nations, who commands history, who created you and me in His own image—chose to be laid in a stone box where animals eat grain. In doing so, God’s relationship with humanity was brought to an uncanny level. The One who made the stars would suckle the breast of a 13-year-old unwed Jewish girl in a small village of a backwater province of the Roman empire. No pomp or prestige, parades or accolades, God stormed creation through a whisper—the illegitimate womb of a young Jewish girl. Shame, scandal, rejection, pain, fear, and humility clothed the birth of Christ, and this is exactly the way He planned it.

Why?

Because you cannot care for those who are suffering without entering into their pain. God cares for you. And he knows your pain. Turn to Him. He’s been there.

The familiarity of the cross is unfortunate. Celebrities would never wear an electric chair around their neck, but that’s what the cross was—a gruesome punishment for capital crimes. In fact, crucifixion was the result of many years of ingenuity. Barbaric cultures teamed together to invent the most painful, shameful, and unspeakable way to torture a criminal, which at the same time detoured future criminals from making the same mistake. It was first invented by the Persians, who used to impale victims of a conquered city on long, sharp poles shoved in the ground outside the city’s walls. Impalement was

Archaeologists found this spike in the heel of a man crucified in the first century

sometimes replaced with nailing a victim to a near by tree and left for dead. Thus the foundation for crucifixion was laid. In time, the two methods were combined and soldiers would pin their victims to long, wooden posts in the place of trees.

Other nations joined in the fun. Parthinians, Greeks, and Phoenicians found crucifixion to be an effective way to brutalize their enemies. But it was Rome who took what the Persians invented and perfected it. First, they added scourging to the mix. Prior to crucifixion, Roman soldiers would lash the victim with leather whips embedded with metal balls or sharp pieces of sheep bone. The lacerations would flay the victim’s back, until his muscles were pulverized and his ribs were exposed. Sometimes the pain and blood loss were too great, and the criminal would die before making it to the cross.

Second, Rome improved upon Persia’s single pole crucifixion by adding the cross-shaped post that we know of today—the same one used on Jesus. Rome had set up many permanent posts around major cities, especially those that were prone to revolt, like Jerusalem. When a criminal was crucified, they would first be forced to carry the horizontal crossbeam on his shoulders (about 100 pounds) through the streets of the city to the place where the vertical post stood. His wrists were then pinned to the crossbeam with a six-inch spike and then the criminal and the crossbeam were hoisted up to the permanent post, secured either by rope or a mortise and tendon joint. Then, the victim’s feet were nailed to the base of the cross, either through the foot or through the ankle, as one archaeological discovery has revealed.

Back flayed, wrists pierced, muscle and bone exposed, blood steadily gushing out. Not the sort of thing one wants to hang as an ornament around the neck. Still, we do.

But this is only the beginning.

Thanks to adrenal glands, the human body can endure more pain than you think. Most often, death would come slowly, though each minute on the cross felt like eternity. Since the crucified was hanging from spikes, breathing was tremendously difficult. To gather a breath, he would have to push down on his pierced feet, but this can only last so long. So in order to prolong the torture, Rome had added a new feature to the cross: a small seat half-way up the cross to give the victim a source of rest and to make breathing easier. Their intention wasn’t to dull the pain, but to prolong it. Just when the victim couldn’t endure one more painful attempt to suck in another breath, human reflex and the will to survive would force him to sit—to hang on to the thread of life as long as he could. And remember, his hamburgered back inched up and down the splintery wood with each agonizing breath. Thirty times a minute, 1,800 times an hour—in the case of Jesus, for six hours.

Crucifixion was so horrific that Roman authors rarely talked about it. Cicero, the Roman statesmen, called it “the most cruel and disgusting penalty.” Josephus said it was “the most wretched of deaths.” So monstrous was crucifixion that Roman citizens were exempt. Instead, the cross was reserved for those on the lowest rung of the social ladder: slaves, insurrectionists, and soldiers that committed treason. And when some authorities raised the question whether Roman citizens should not be exempt, the rest were appalled. Such barbarism should only be reserved for the dregs of society.

Death came from various causes. Sometimes it was loss of blood. Other times it was suffocation, as the victim lost all strength to take one more breath. In some cases, the victim left on the cross was slowly eating by wild animals in the night. Jesus was spared this most unfortunate form of death. Instead, he probably drowned in the pool of blood that filled his lungs.

Since we live in a culture that is allergic to pain, we often focus on the bodily torment Jesus endured. But the Mediterranean culture was an “honor-shame” culture, where public shame was the greater horror (Heb 12; 1 Pet 2). And this was the primary design of the cross. It was intended to shame the victim, his family, his friends, and anyone who followed him. This is why criminals were crucified on the highways outside the city gates where all could see. This is why the victim was stripped naked for all to see. This is why a multi-lingual sign was secured above the cross, inscribed with the victim’s crimes. And this is why most crucified victims, contrary to popular depictions, stood only a few feet above the ground. This way, the populace could nearly come face to face to the criminal—a perfect spot to hurl insults and phlegm.

Such is the narrative of love.

Jesus could have been beheaded like his cousin John, or he could have been stoned to death. As long as He died as the perfect sacrifice, God’s wrath would have been satisfied and forgiveness would have flowed freely. But God wanted to do more than just satisfy his wrath and forgive our sin. He wanted to make the depth of our sin and the depth of His love undeniable. He wanted it to be crystal clear that he will go to unfathomable lengths to hunt us down and reconcile us to Himself. He wanted to enjoy, once again, that Edenic relationship He so craves. And for this, He chose the cross.

Hebrews tells us that it was “for the joy that was set before him” that Jesus “endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2). The joy of being reconciled and reunited with his image-bearing-masterpieces-turned-enemies, who deserve wrath, not forgiveness; justice, not grace, is what kept Jesus going. Through every slash of the whip, every pound of the nail, every agonizing breath, every shameful insult hurled from the mouths of his beloved enemies—it was “for Jesus’ stubborn delight set before him” that he “endured the cross.” Of all the ways in which God could have demonstrated his love for you, he chose the cross. The ingenuity of the Persians, barbaric improvements of the Romans, the wood, spikes, hammers, splinters, and crown of thorns picked from Eden, are all woven into the tapestry of grace as the only fitting way to capture God’s love for his image bearers.

This is why you can’t make God love you.

God loves you because of God. And there’s nothing you can do to earn it. There’s nothing you can do to sustain it. God acted in Jesus out of his own freedom to descend into a feeding trough and spread his arms across a splintery beam of wood. It was Jesus’ declaration, “it is finished!” that made God love you.

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