Pastor's Blog

For Us and for Our Salvation: What Did Jesus Do in the Resurrection?

Pastoring Exiles
Recently at the pastors’ conference hosted by the Rural Home Mission Association in Morton, IL, I heard Dr. Duane Litfin in a seminar set forth what he believes to be our new reality as Christians living in America. He said that we are vertical Christians living in a horizontal America. He made the case that America at its founding was a vertical nation, not a Christian nation, but definitely a vertical nation; that is, we used to be a people who assumed a transcendent reality and valued transcendent truth sourced from outside our material world. Today, Dr. Litfin explained, “official” America is a horizontal place. A vertical-ness is maintained for ceremony’s sake at times, but “official” America stopped looking to the transcendent for substance back in the 1950s. He exhorted the rural pastors in attendance to shepherd our flocks to be vertical Christians living in a horizontal society. He emphasized the idea that we were once truly vertical is not a myth; it was real, not imagined. However, he also cautioned that our goal as shepherds today must not be to return to the past. Rather, it is imperative that we learn how to live as the men of Issachar, “From Issachar there were 200 leaders and all their relatives at their command–they understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32 NET).

As Dr. Litfin made his case, I thought to myself, “We need to study 1 Peter. He wrote to exiles.” Interestingly, the remaining plenary speakers all preached from 1 Peter. In this letter that bears his name, the apostle Peter wrote to the Diaspora. He acquired this term from the Old Testament writers, who often used it to describe God’s casting Israel into exile, scattering them throughout the nations, or to describe his regathering of his people from exile (e.g., Neh. 1:9; Ps. 146:2; Jer. 15:7; 41:17). In the Greek version of the Old Testament, Daniel warned that the final judgment for some would result in “eternal exile and shame” (12:2). The point is that diaspora or exile or dispersion is decisively negative; it means you are far from home; you are a stranger, an alien. Peter wrote in verse 1, “To those who are elect exiles of the Diaspora.” He has taken the Old Testament term and figuratively applied it to Christians who live in dispersion throughout a godless world, far from their heavenly home.1  The persecution and trials these believers faced evidenced the reality that they were not home, “In this [future salvation] you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials” (1:6).

Born into a Hopeful Exile
While it is true that Christians are exiles sojourning in a godless world system, our exile is not swallowed up in doom and gloom. This has to do with how we became exiles in the first place. Peter wrote, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his great mercy caused us to be born again into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, into an imperishable, undefiled, unfading inheritance reserved in heaven for you” (1:3–4). Peter blessed God because he gave us new birth; essentially, God made us exiles by awakening us from the slumber of a godless world, so that now we see how far from home we truly are. We are born into a godless world system, but we are born again into hope, a hope that is foreign to the world system.

This hope is described as “living.” It’s active. It is active in life-giving or life-producing. The hope with which a Christian sojourner travels is a life-giving hope—a strange thing to see in a dying, godless world. This hope is “the looking forward to something with some reason for confidence respecting fulfillment” (BDAG). The “something” that it anticipates is resurrection into a new home. The “reason” for the confident expectation is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus is not only the reason for our living hope, but it is also the instrument or means by which God caused us to be born again. Through the resurrection of Jesus, God exercises power to give us new birth as exiles who carry life-giving hope into the godless territories, neighborhoods, farms, schools, hospitals, state houses, and relationships wherein we roam.

When God caused us to be born again through the resurrection of Jesus into a life-giving hope, he also made us inheritors. The first thing to understand about this inheritance is that it comes from God. God caused us to be born again into it. Therefore, to the degree that “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” himself is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading so is the inheritance that he gives. Imperishable means not subject to decay, corruption, or death (cf. Rom 1:23; 1 Cor 9:25; 15:52; 1 Tim 1:17; 1 Pet 1:23; 3:4). God is imperishable; our resurrection bodies will be imperishable; the new-birth-causing word of God is imperishable; and, the qualities affected by this new birth are imperishable. Undefiled means unstained or pure in a religious and moral sense (cf. Heb 7:26; 13:4; James 1:27). Unfading means “not losing its pristine quality or character” (BDAG), like a flower that never, ever wilts. Lastly, God has reserved this inheritance for those whom he has born into this hopeful exile; therefore, it will continue imperishable, undefiled, and unfading for his definite purpose and until the suitable time. He has reserved it in heaven—in that realm of his presence untouched by decay, corruption, stain, or death—for us.

What Did Jesus Do in the Resurrection?
The noun used for our English word “resurrection” occurs forty times in the New Testament. Here in this one reference to it in 1 Peter 1:3–4, we learn that Christ’s resurrection from the dead placed an instrument into God’s hand that provides him the power to awaken exiles who live in a world in rebellion against him. In other words, his resurrection provided the instrumental means for the new birth.

So then, how do we as vertically-gazed, hopeful exiles live in a horizontally-gazed, godless country? How do we understand the time and know what to do? Peter has given us many answers to these questions throughout his letters. I think that 1:3–4 offers us these five clear directions.

First, acknowledge the exilic reality of the Christian sojourner in America. We are not a “Christian nation,” nor have we ever been. There was a time when we were a more vertical, religious nation, but even that has faded. This exilic reality should change your approach to “life as usual.” You are not of this world; your citizenship belongs elsewhere; you are a stranger and an alien, even in America.

Second, be careful to bless God for his great mercy and not to curse God because of your proud finitude. Only God is infinite. Agree in humility about your limitations. Rejoice greatly that the infinite God has drawn near with plenty of mercy for sinners. We live in a culture that loves to rejoice in its own finite accomplishments; in fact, we are so impressed with ourselves that we feel less and less needy for anything transcendent. Increasingly, we feel that the material world is capable of fulfilling all our hopes and dreams. On such a worldview, many are building their lives; their fall will be great and tragic. Be an exile. Build a humble life on the merciful character of God.

Third, if this all sounds strange to you, have you been born again? You may have all the trimmings and trappings of a religiously decorated life, but have you been reborn in Christ by the Holy Spirit? Peter explained that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is God’s instrumental power for causing the new birth. Later he writes, “since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23 ESV). It is precisely the word of God about Jesus, the good news of his resurrection from the dead, that God’s Spirit uses to cause the new birth. The apostle John has told us the same, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30–31 ESV).

Fourth, carry life-giving hope with you on your sojourn. If you have been born again, preach the resurrection of Jesus. When asked to give a reason for the hope within you, to give a reason for your holy and distinct life, declare the resurrection of Jesus. When the waiter asks why you pray, when the cashier asks why you smile, when the other fan or teammate asks why you aren’t dressing down the referee for the blown call, when the down-trodden classmate asks why you care, when the lost one is confused by your tireless search, when the wounded person takes a risk for healing and friendship, when the debtor wonders at your lack of attachment to money, when your co-worker’s burdens begin to surface, and when the addict stands at the edge of the grave they just finished digging, do not miss your opportunity to unpack for them the life-giving hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Oh, brothers and sisters, this life-giving hope that we exiles carry with us is the most precious of all our cargo.

Lastly, live as possessors of a secure inheritance. The adversary and his world system love to leverage what they can offer you, but it is all “Mirkwood magic.” This reference is from J. R. R. Tolkien’s book The Hobbit. Before entering the forest, the sojourners were given sober advice to “STAY ON THE PATH.” The way became hard for them, and after staying the course for so long, they—one by one—saw something flickering in the distance. Leaving the path and hastening to what seemed to be sure, they arrived only for it to vanish, eventually leaving them swallowed up in silence and darkness. For the one born again into this hopeful exile, the chase is over. There is no other inheritance. God has reserved for us an imperishable, undefiled, unfading salvation. Live free from the leverage of the world. Live free from the deceit of magic. Live like possessors, adopted children and heirs, of a secure inheritance.

Fredrick William Danker (editor of BDAG), A Greek - English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000). Electronic text hypertexted and prepared by OakTree Software, Inc, version 2.7.

Posted by Rex Howe with 1 Comments

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