Pastor's Blog

For Us and for Our Salvation: What Did Jesus Do on the Cross?

Ornaments and Flowers
A Christmas tree isn’t a Christmas tree without ornaments. Some ornaments are nostalgic; some are beautiful; some are quite modestly made by the hands of children; others are exquisite, expensive -- having been crafted with a maturity of skill. God chose to decorate the grass with wildflowers. Isn’t that wonderful for us? Have you ever written a love letter? I’m afraid it’s maybe been a while for many of us. We’re so used to writing contracts, emails, submitting another online form, or writing another manuscript. Do you remember what it’s like to write a real love letter?

I’ve heard a number of preachers and authors refer to the Bible as God’s love letter to his people. I first heard “Prof” (i.e., Dr. Howard Hendricks) say this in his famous video series and book entitled, Living by the Book. And you know what? Prof was right, at least from one angle. How do I know? The language. If you remember writing those love letters, you also remember searching and straining for just the right words to describe your significant other’s beauty (inside and out) and to describe the intensity of your love. When the Holy Spirit inspired the New Testament writers, he met them in the search and strain to explain and describe the work of Christ for us.

One such word grouping is the hilas vocabulary. There are two nouns and one verb. These words are used a total of six times in the New Testament. Their function attempts to describe and explain to us the meaning or the happening or the effect of the cross of Jesus Christ. As you can see already, it is hard to find just the right English word to describe this word family. Every believer confesses faith in the death of Christ on the cross; that is, they believe in the event, that he died. However, believers are in different places of understanding with regard to what his death means for their salvation. You see, there is the event, and there is the meaning of the event. The hilas words give us the Spirit-through-the-apostles description of the meaning of the cross. They answer, “What is it? What was accomplished?”

Two for One
Who doesn’t love a “Buy-One-Get-One” deal?! Nothing beats two for the price of one when it comes to the consumer side of retail. Sometimes this happens in language too. If you’ve had the privilege to learn a second language, you know that sometimes you encounter words in one language that cannot be translated by only one word in the other language. The transfer isn’t quite that simple. Such is the case with the hilas words. Each of the three contains (at least) a double meaning.

First, John used hilasmos in 1 John 2:2 and 4:10. The term means an act of appeasement or expiation necessitated by sin and an instrument for appeasing or expiating (viz., a sin-offering). In essence, an appeasement is a satisfaction of a requirement, and an expiation is the removal of the obstacle that has prevented making amends. In the first verse, John writes that “[Jesus] is hilasmos concerning our sins, not only concerning ours but also concerning the whole world’s.” So, Jesus is both the act and the instrument who both appeased God and expiated sin. In the second verse, we read, “In this is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son—a hilasmon—concerning our sins.” Here, we discover, as in Romans 5:8, that God sent Jesus, the act and instrument of God’s appeasement and our expiation, to demonstrate his love.

Second, Paul and the writer to the Hebrews used hilasterion in Romans 3:25 and Hebrews 9:5. This term carries with it all the trappings of the former term but gives more color to the word family. Hilasterion carries the concrete meaning of a means, gift, or a place to secure appeasement and/or expiation. In Romans 3:25, Paul wrote, “[Jesus] whom God set forth a hilasterion through faith in his blood as a demonstration of his righteousness because of his deliberate overlooking of previously committed sins.” That is to say, that God always purposed Jesus to be the means, gift, and/or place by, in, and/or where he planned to appease his requirement and expiate the impediment of sin for forgiveness. Hebrews 9:5 helps us narrow down what the Spirit is trying to tell about Jesus. His death is the place wherein we find God’s appeasement and our expiation, because this verse uses hilasterion to describe the mercy seat above the ark where the cherubim overshadowed. In other words, Jesus has become the new mercy seat.

Lastly, Luke and the writer of Hebrews use the verb hilaskomai, which means to cause a deity to be inclined toward grace, favor or to eliminate impediments that alienate a deity. Therefore, it is an action that causes an opportunity for appeasement, expiation, and therefore conciliation. In Luke 18:13, we find a lowly tax collector who knows his inability to appease God and his inability to remove impediments that have alienated him from God. He knows his unworthiness to receive grace, favor, and conciliation from God. On his own, he has no act, no instrument, no means, no gift, and no place for appeasement and expiation. So, he cries, “God, be merciful to me, sinner that I am!” He recognizes that God must act from within his own merciful character to provide an act, an instrument, a means, a gift, and a place of appeasement and expiation. This is the cry of the person who truly understands the love letter of Calvary.

The final reference to the verb in Hebrews 2:17 deserves its own paragraph. Here, Jesus acts to make appeasement and expiation. This verse focuses on his incarnation and temptation, which qualified him as a merciful and faithful high priest to hiloskomai. In 4:14–16, the writer returns to stack Jesus’ qualifying resume evermore. In 6:19–20, we read of the qualified Jesus entering behind the curtain. In 7:24–25, we discover that the intercession of Jesus’ priesthood behind the curtain is eternal and “without a successor.” Finally, 7:27 states the identity of the sacrifice—Jesus offered himself once for all. This is how the writer to the Hebrews understood Christ to hilaskomai. Chapters 8–9 detail the temple and covenant in which Jesus ministers: his temple is a heavenly one (the original, not made with human hands), and his covenant is new. In 9:11–28, the writer pulls it all together—the entirety of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ’s position, work, place, and sacrifice to cause appeasement and expiation.

Worship for Holy Week
Thus, what did Jesus do on the cross? He became and accomplished everything that was needed and required concerning sin both for the appeasement of God and for the expiation of sinners. He became and accomplished as the act, the instrument, the means, the gift, the place, the priest, and the sacrifice. As you worship God during Holy Week, I invite you to believe in the cross but also to believe about the cross. How does it feel to cry out like the lowly tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, sinner that I am” and to hear back, “It is finished”?!

As relationships move from dating to engagement to marriage to accumulating anniversaries, the love letters should continue, but the letters also must come alive in the forms of knowing, becoming, and acting. We are not Jesus. He is unique. Christ alone is the appeasement and the expiation. Yet, the Christian life is an imitation of Christ by the Spirit. I believe what you know and believe about the cross impacts your imitation. How may God be calling you to act instrumentally as a means, a gift, or a place that he purposes to use to draw someone to the cross where a person can find the appeasement and expiation of Jesus Christ? Is your home or church a place, like a “mini-mercy seat,” where sinners can come and find clear direction to Jesus, the Mercy Seat? Do you remove impediments or create impediments for sinners to find mercy from God in Jesus? Are the ministries in which you’re involved existing and functioning in ways that grab the attention of sinners with the kind of mercy that leads to the cross?

As you invite others to hear the gospel on Easter, decorate Jesus for them with what you know to be true about the cross. Sinners seeking mercy will find him and his cross “a wondrous beauty.”

Posted by Rex Howe with 2 Comments

A Lonely Urgency

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Teaching through the writings of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah has shaped my understanding of the Christian life and pastoral ministry in our day.  As I write this, I pray that you too may find fellowship with Jeremiah and encouragement in the lonely urgency you feel regarding the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Jeremiah Was Chosen.

In the opening chapter of the Old Testament book that bears his name, Jeremiah received a calling from God into an appointed prophetic ministry. He lived in difficult days during which his homeland of Judah would be invaded by the fierce Babylonian army and his people taken into a 70 year exile. He was young, inexperienced, and afraid when his calling came. I pray that if you are reading this and you are also “young, inexperienced, and afraid” to serve the Lord, listen to God’s words to Jeremiah and take courage, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the Lord” (1:8). If his calling wasn’t intimidating enough, his job description was even more so, “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (1:9–10). What I mean is this, Jeremiah’s ministry would see double the “tearing down” that it would the “building up.” As we read on in the book, we discover that Jeremiah was chosen as a prophet to clear the land and people of unrighteousness and injustice, only then would it be ready for planting and building.

Jeremiah Was Lonely.

As I studied through Jeremiah’s writings, I remember coming to the realization that no one listened to him. Jeremiah 37:1 is one instance where the reader sees this, "But neither he nor his servants nor the people of the land listened to the words of the LORD that he spoke through Jeremiah the prophet”; however, this theme is threaded throughout Jeremiah’s life. You can feel his loneliness in the ministry of the word when he writes, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words become to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O LORD, God of hosts. I did not sit in the company of revelers, nor did I rejoice; I sat alone, because your hand was upon me for you had filled me with indignation. Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Will you be to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail?” I should add that the Lord does comfort Jeremiah in the next verse. However, don’t miss the very clear reason for his loneliness—God’s word was in him, and God’s hand was with him. Jeremiah’s delight in God was the reason for his human-to-human loneliness. He did not live in a time when the surrounding culture delighted in God and his word. He lived in a time when people would rather believe lies of their own making and cast prophetic utterances into the fire to keep themselves warm (e.g., ch. 36). He was appointed by God for loneliness among men in order to make a record of God’s testimony against Judah’s sins, the divine righteousness in decreeing the exile, and keep the hope that one day God would restore his people. At a later time, the prophet Daniel while in exile would read Jeremiah’s words, repent on behalf of the people, and cling to the Lord’s promise. The prophet endured loneliness in his day in order to give truth and hope to a day that would come later.

Jeremiah Was Urgent.

Even in his loneliness, Jeremiah maintained urgency regarding his ministry in the word of God. He wrote, “I have not run away from being your shepherd, nor have I desired the day of sickness” (17:16). He stayed the course, true to his calling, and maintained a spirit within him that while indignant about the sins of his people, still remained filled with compassion for the Lord’s people. His constant preaching and visions about the depth of Judah’s depravity and the pain of the exile weighed heavily on him, yet he could not stop preaching the word given to him by God, “For whenever I speak, I cry out, I shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’ For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (20:8–9). The ministry of the word was a matter of uncontainable urgency for Jeremiah. He had to speak.

Calling Lonely Christians to Urgency Today

If you are a Christian, feeling the urgency of the gospel message and its eternal implications and value, I wonder if you can identify with Jeremiah. I hope he serves as an example who encourages you in your faith today; I know that he certainly has encouraged me in ministry. Let me offer three applications from what we’ve learned here about Jeremiah: 

  1. Take courage in the truth of God’s providence in giving you life and existence in such days as these. I believe that your lifetime on this earth is not accidental or random. While I doubt many of us have had such a specific and clear call as Jeremiah, I think that a general observation and truth from Scripture is that God is intentional in history and among the people of the earth to accomplish purposes. So, like Jeremiah, you are alive at the right time—regardless of what the local, national, or international circumstances may be—or better yet, because of the local, national, and international circumstances, you are alive for such a time as this. Don’t be afraid; don’t cower behind lack of experience or youth; take courage in God’s providence.

  2. Loneliness due to loyalty to God is not wrong or bad. If you have maintained pure sexual standards in a culture that continually competes for how deep it can dive into the pool of sensuality and have experienced rejection, ridicule, and loneliness because of it, you are depositing temporary suffering for later glory both in the pure heritage you build here and in eternity in the hereafter. If you are a pastor, seminary professor, or Christian worker who has maintained loyalty to the word of God and to the miraculous activity of the divine presence in history as recorded in Scripture and are experiencing criticism, made a laughingstock, and feeling alone in your service to God as it seems no one listens to you in these days, you are depositing the truth of God’s word for another generation who will come along and believe, like Daniel did with Jeremiah’s words. In due time, God will foil the accusers and false prophets. Consider what Jeremiah wrote in Lamentations, “‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’ The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth in the dust—there may yet be hope; let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults. For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love” (Lam. 3:24–32). Choose loyalty, even when it costs human-to-human loneliness, for remember that the Trinity’s fellowship can strengthen and sustain you in such a state.

  3. Lastly, remain urgent in the ministry of the word of God. A few themes in Scripture are helpful here. Sometimes belief, revival, or reform skips a generation, but it strikes red hot in the next one (e.g., King Josiah). Many of the faithful (e.g., Heb. 11) carried the promises their whole lives and died still looking on with hope toward the time of their fulfillment. The Bible repetitively teaches that in every generation—even the most agnostic, atheistic, or idolatrous of them—a remnant continues to flourish, no matter how small. Consider that the general impression we get from Jeremiah’s ministry is that no one listens to him; however, we know later that somehow the faith made its way into the heart and soul of a young and promising Daniel, to Nehemiah, to Ezra, to Mordecai, and to Esther, all of whom would remain faithful throughout the exilic period. Even if it seems like your city, town, or village is empty of anyone who cares about the gospel and the Scriptures, learn by way of example what Jesus said to the Apostle Paul, “And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.’ And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them” (Acts 18:9–11). His persevering urgency in the ministry of the word for a year and a half established the church in Corinth.

I believe that Jeremiah is in eternal fellowship with the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus too knew (1) that he was appointed for such a time of earthly ministry in God’s providential plan, (2) that loneliness due to loyalty to God is a reality of ministry, and (3) sustained urgency in the ministry of the word reaches the remnant and extends beyond one’s lifetime. Drink often from the fellowship of the Trinity. He will sustain you in your lonely urgency for his gospel.

Posted by Rex Howe

Waiting and Moving with God in 2019

Advent represents a time of both waiting and moving. In the first Advent of Christ, a long period of waiting and anticipation was drawing to a close. Another period of waiting, extending from the Ascension to the second Advent of Christ, was just beginning. However, the events surrounding the Incarnation bustled with activity and movement. Only believers moved by the Spirit of God saw what was happening in those days. Many others unfortunately did not have eyes to see and kept waiting during a time when they should have been moving.

In the nativity narrative of the Gospels, we see micro-stories about waiting and moving. Zechariah was a perfect example, and thankfully, a man to whom the Lord was gracious in the waiting and moving of his day. He had waited a long time—both as a leader for the hope of Israel and as a husband to a barren wife. When God called him into a time of movement, it was extraordinary, bewildering, and mixed with doses of hope and doubt. Zechariah was not at first ready to move with God, for which God’s angel temporarily chastised him. Later, Zechariah believed, saw, and moved with God’s program of blessing.

Then, there are Mary and Joseph. Unlike Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, this young couple was only betrothed, had barely entered adulthood, and knew nothing of the kind of waiting of their relatives. They hadn’t lived and suffered long enough for the full yearning of Messiah to probably bloom into the maturity that older saints knew. They were young. Nonetheless, they were thrust into a sudden, extraordinary time of movement in the program and providence of God.

However, should we be taking our cues about the spiritual life or the life of the church from such an extraordinary moment in God’s program? Surely, it was a time clustered with miracles, authenticating this major movement in God’s program, establishing Christ as Lord and Savior. It was an unprecedented time. But what did Jesus say to his disciples before ascending? Do you remember?

“And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, ‘you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now’” (Acts 1:4–5 ESV).

And again, he said to them,

“It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7–8 ESV).

When we read the Lord’s words here and then follow the acts of the Spirit through the apostles, we see a church on the move. Waiting is the exception; moving is the rule. We see them waiting and praying for Peter’s release from prison, but the large proportion of the narrative records the movement of the missionary apostles going from place to place, evangelizing, teaching, establishing leaders, planting churches, gathering with others for briefings, and then heading back out into the work, strengthening established churches, planting new ones in new places.

It’s not that the church stopped waiting. Indeed, they kept waiting for the Lord’s second Advent, as we do still today. But as they waited for that extraordinary, unprecedented time of the second Advent of Christ, they moved. The Spirit’s vision through the movement of the apostles was not a church that settled and borough-ed in like the centralized temple and worship of Jerusalem. Rather, the Spirit’s aim is a decentralized people, equipped for ministry, moving locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. Just like our physical bodies, the spiritual Body, the church, is only healthy when it’s mobile.

Everything that moves needs a strong core or a strong frame. A car has frame; physician’s and physical trainers talk about “core health.” What’s the core or the frame of a local church? At West Lisbon, we say the core is “Christ in us.” What we mean by that is the Spirit’s vision as recorded in Scripture for his people and his church to be conformed to the image of Christ. We want our heads, hearts, hands, feet, loving, learning, and laboring to be filled up with the fulness of Christ. We are praying for the Spirit to form in us a permanent, enlarging habitat for Christ to dwell by faith. With God’s help, West Lisbon is on the move in 2019.

Posted by Rex Howe