If it’s not God, you can’t be sure

John writes a letter to Christians—people who trust in Jesus as God’s Son. He wants them to know they have eternal life (5:13). He wants us, not just to believe, but to be sure.

He needs to do this because other mischievous ideas are being promoted that will not have the power to sustain their faith, hope and love. The gospel is a ‘word of life’—a message that creates what it says. It’s not just information or advice. We need to hear God’s Son speak, and live (John 5:25).

John gets straight to the point in this first section (1 John 1:1-4). He’s knows what he is talking about. He’s seen and heard it for himself. And he’s been appointed to tell us.

We need to hear this word because it’s impossible to work up a Christian confidence from where we are. John starts by giving us four basic certainties.

First, if something is true, it must always have been true. This message comes ‘from the beginning’. It’s always been this way and it’s eternal.

The similarity of this statement with the beginning of John’s Gospel shows he is referring to when the world is made. Jesus is God’s Word, bringing the world into existence. He is with God and is God. We are alive because we’ve been created. So now, if we are going to be sure of eternal life, it will have to be because God makes it happen.

Second, this ‘word of life’ has come among us. It’s actually Jesus—the person. John remembers the sound of his voice. He remembers seeing and touching him. He may be remembering the day when Jesus asks his disciples to touch him and give him some food. He has been raised from the dead and wants to assure them he is not a ghost. Our faith is based on physical evidence.

John has written a whole Gospel to make this point (John 20:21). Here, he is just saying that it is so. So, we can be sure God is speaking to us through Jesus—God the Son—as a human being. We don’t ‘hear’ like the apostles did. We were not present to see Jesus raised from the dead. But we are blessed by hearing what the apostles pass on to us (John 20:29).

Third, God is calling us to share life with him. He exists and lives as a fellowship of persons—Father and Son, and what happens between them is important for us. (Later, John will talk about the Spirit as well.). By speaking to us, he is bringing us into that relationship.

We actually know God the Father, and we know his Son (John 14:21-23). We know the love between them. We know we are included in this fellowship of the Father with the Son—if you like, in the same way that children know they are secure when their father and mother love each other.

We are created to be ready for this relationship. Any ideology or doctrine that doesn’t do this can’t be true. Eternal life is knowing the Father and the Son (John 17:3). We don’t just need reliable facts or ideas. We need to come home!

Fourth, sharing this word with others brings a lot of joy. And why not. God himself is our confidence. We’re not asking others to think the same as us but to share what we’re in. Our confidence is an overspill of this joy. And it brings joy to others. Uncertainty may have been the great spoiler of life, but now we’ve got something to offer.

In this way, we become part of God’s family where the relationships are real because we all hear the same Father speaking to us through his Son. We have discovered true community—something eternal and authentic.

We need this message deeply. The alternative is trying to suck life out of what has been made. And this is where confusions arise. God’s gifts in this world are good, but he hasn’t put everything we need there. We need him.

There’s much more John wants to share with us about being sure of God. The next section tells us how to be sure we are walking with God.

The crucified Lamb is in charge

Jesus Christ was never in any doubt that his death would change everything. He says that when he is lifted up, he will draw people from all nations to himself (John 12:32). And before he ascends into heaven, he says, ‘All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.’ (Matthew 28:18-20).

How we need a leader who knows what he is doing and can put things right! That’s exactly what Jesus Christ claims he will be. And this is what he’s doing.

We need to know how he does this. It’s not evident from looking around us that he is in charge. And getting killed on a cross is an unlikely way to gain authority over the nations. But it is God’s way of establishing his own rule—or kingdom. So, Paul is not ashamed to announce Jesus as the world’s Saviour (Romans 1:16).

Here’s three things that are really clear about Jesus Christ’s supervising all that happens in the world and among his people. They’re all scenes from the Book of Revelation. This book is a revelation of him exercising his authority and making everything new.

We won’t understand everything we read here but that doesn’t stop us from benefitting from what we can understand. It would be good to read the chapters I refer to below and let them speak to you directly. As on television, I should warn you that ‘some may find some scenes disturbing’.

First, there’s no doubt that ‘the Lamb’ is in control of everything (chapter five). He’s given a book or scroll that’s sealed up. Only when he breaks the seals can what is recorded happen. But he’s worthy to be in charge. Why him? Because he died to save whoever will come to him.

We need to be really clear about this. The one who is ruling our world hasn’t been changed by having authority. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. His love is still comprehensive and persuasive. But he can’t be ignored without consequences!

Here’s how it works out (chapter 6). A conqueror rides out to take over other countries. Peace dies. Poverty sets in—particularly for the disadvantaged. People die in huge numbers from numerous causes. All this sounds familiar!

Christians are caught up in all this. They die too and find themselves in heaven. Even there, they cry to God for justice but are told to wait until other Christians die.

The whole earth seems to be unravelling and people cry out. Notice—they cry out to be preserved from the wrath of the Lamb! They know they’ve rejected Christ. They know it’s him that’s angry!

As I said, these scenes may be disturbing. But the things they describe are happening anyway! What we know is that the Lamb is in charge. The events couldn’t happen unless they were absolutely necessary—for some reason that we don’t understand. Many believers have received great comfort from knowing that their circumstances, however painful, are under the sovereignty of this Lamb.

Second, Satan is thrown out of heaven (chapter 12). Something has changed in his ability to accuse Christians before God. Jesus notices the beginnings of this (Luke 10:18). Then, he pronounces that it will happen (John 12:31). And it is secured by him being the Lamb who takes away our sins.

Here’s how it is described. ‘Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accused them before our God day and night, has been hurled down’ (12:10).

Notice, the authority of Christ is being exercised in us having no accuser. A person without guilt before God is free—free to live, to love, and even to die. In particular, a person whose sins are forgiven is free to trust.

If we only have what our eyes can see, Jesus Christ is nowhere to be found! But then, he has freed us from our sins. This is what enables us to believe he has everything else under control as well.

In fact, Christ’s authority is reflected in how these Christians deal with Satan. They overcome him. How? They trust in the blood of Christ for the forgiveness of their sins. They listen to and tell others the word of Christ they have received. And they think this is more important than merely staying alive!

Without this Lamb of God, we get caught up in our sins and selfishness and can’t manage our own future—let alone the future of the world. There’s only one way. The Lamb must be in charge. This is what Christians know and what makes them different from everyone else.

Third, God announces that he is making everything new (chapter 21). Everything evil will be destroyed and God will live with his people. We, the church, will be his Son’s Bride—married to the Lamb (v. 9)!

How do you prepare for a wedding like that? Imagine a future as wife to the one who’s loved us, freed us and brought us to himself. Imagine being deeply attractive to him (Eph. 5:25-27).

We are introduced to this Bride earlier (19:6-9). The finery she wears is her righteous deeds! It turns out we’re getting ready for the wedding right now.

It matters what we do while we are here. We are not just ‘being nice’ as Christians. We are preparing for a life shared as wife of the Lamb. All that will matter then is love—his love for us, and our love for him—pure, eager, delightful and forever. So, if that’s what matters then, that’s what matters now.

We tend to think of authority as power, and easily link it with injustice. But we are being taught to understand authority as love. Jesus Christ—the Lamb of God—has nothing less in mind. And it is nothing less than he is achieving right now.

We can’t see these things with our eyes, but he reveals them to us so that we actually know them. And the future is going to be an eye-opener!

Well may we boast of our Saviour who dies on a cross. And well may we entrust ourselves to him who loved us, and who does all things well!

In these articles on Christ’s cross, we’ve looked at the things he accomplished there. The world has been judged. God has got things right—us in particular. Peace with our Creator is now being announced. His love has been persuasively displayed. True human freedom has been established. And now, we see that Christ has decisively established the future of the world as a work of love.

Freedom—lost and won

Jesus tells us the purpose of his coming is to ‘proclaim freedom for the prisoners’ (Luke 4:18). He’s reading Isaiah 61 to his local synagogue, and he says this is what he is going to do.

Given our thirst for freedom, we need to know what Jesus has in mind.

Ideologies, and this world’s crusaders, say they know what will give us freedom but they all miss what is really needed. Jesus is clear: ‘whoever commits sin is a slave to it’ (John 8:31-36).

Here’s our problem. Freedom must be freedom to be what we really are. We’re made by God and if we’re fighting him, we’re already trapped—and can be seduced by many other so-called freedoms the world says will fix us.

Most of the social freedoms we enjoy have come from ordinary people fighting for them. But this freedom comes from above. It must be provided by God, and it comes with a cost. It’s called ‘redemption’ which means setting people free by paying a price.

Shortly before he dies, Jesus talks about what he is going to happen with Moses and Elijah. They discuss the ‘departure’ he will accomplish in Jerusalem (Luke 9:31). The word is actually ‘exodus’. Jesus, like Moses, is going to lead his people in a great victory and give freedom to his people (cf. Exodus 7:16). It will be freedom from sin. And it will be freedom to serve God.

This is what Jesus does when he dies on the cross. He describes what is going to happen as the hour belonging to his enemies, and when darkness reigns (Luke 22:53). He’s not fooled by how hard—or costly—freeing us from our sins is going to be.

Jesus overcomes our sin by becoming our sin (2 Corinthians 5:21). I don’t know how this happens, by I know it is an amazing work of love.

He personally engages what binds us. He bears sin’s futility, its pollution and shame. He owns our liability before God, and the judgement it deserves. And he dies.

But notice, Jesus has also said that Satan is coming. But Satan has nothing to hold him (John 14:30-31). Anything Satan throws at him can be overcome. If you like, Jesus dies as a free man. He’s there to do his Father’s will.

So, Jesus sets us free, by spilling his blood. He’s redeemed us. Here’s how the apostles talk about this.

First, we are forgiven (Eph. 1:7).

This becomes very practical when the gospel is first preached. The apostles announce forgiveness to Christ’s murderers (Acts 2:38). The relief of this is felt deeply and noticeably. These Jews are in big trouble with God, and in moment, they are entirely free of guilt. Their relief before God pours out in an overflowing of generosity to one another.

Guilt is awful! It binds us up in self-justification, self-promotion, self-excusing and busyness. But Christ loves us. Not just when he dies, but now. And he releases us from our sin by his blood (Rev. 1:5).

This means we are released from a life driven by the need to ‘be someone’, or to keep God off our back (Acts 13:39; Rom. 8:1-4; Gal. 4:3-5). A lot of what we do is not because it’s useful, or kind, but because it puts us in a good light, or simply, relieves our conscience. We’re still slaves—not free!

We really need to ask ourselves, often, ‘Is my life starting with guilt or forgiveness?’

Second, we are cleansed.

Think of Peter when Jesus starts to wash the feet of his disciples (John 13:2-10). One minute he doesn’t want his feet washed. Next he wants a complete bath! He’s trying to show he’s in charge, but he’s making a fool of himself.

And Jesus says, ‘You are clean!’ Later, he adds, ‘You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you’ (John 15:3).

Peter needs to find a new way of seeing himself. He is clean—because of Christ’s word. Later, Peter must also find a new way of seeing others (Acts 15:9).

Israel has been told to cleanse themselves from defilement—to ‘circumcise their hearts’ (Deut. 10:16). They won’t do this—not as a nation. So, God will do it for them (Deut. 30:6).

This is what happens when Christ dies (Col. 2:11-14). What is unclean in us is attributed to him, and, in his flesh, it’s cut off. Because we are joined to Christ by faith, we also are clean—and able to enjoy God.

Christ washes his whole church to make her pure—as a bride for himself (Eph. 5:26).

Third, we have a change of master.

When someone trusts in Christ, they are transferred to his kingdom. He’s in charge of the arena we now live in (Col. 1:13-14). This has some amazing consequences

What we used to be—our old humanity—is no longer in charge (Rom. 6:6-7). God has joined us to Christ’s death and resurrection, so our ‘body of sin’ is disabled. Being freed is actually being ‘justified’. Where the guilt of our sin is removed, its power is decisively broken. Notice, Paul at this point is not talking about how we are to behave but what we are to count on (Romans 6:11).

So, sin is no longer in charge (Rom. 6:15-23). We really want God’s good news, and part of this is that we want a new life—living for God. This is not our goal. It needs to be our starting point—all of the time.

If there is no cross where Jesus dies, freedom dies—in a restlessness of guilt, a quagmire of pollution, and a collision of rival powers. But freedom lives and thrives for God’s people because it has pleased him to unite us to his Son, in whom freedom is granted as a gift.

We are free to serve God, and to serve our neighbor. This is what we are created for. Everything is working properly.

Many people have died to preserve freedom for others—a freedom to live in their own chosen way. But Jesus has died to provide true human freedom. And it is free people who can move out into life creating freedom for others—in their families, communities and countries.

Love is God’s nature and project

When we study something, we try and understand it. But who can understand God loving the world? How can we talk about God giving his only Son to us? And who can understand a Saviour needing to die as he did to save us (John 3:15-16)?

But we need to know these things. God loves us. And his love is not mere posturing, or experimenting. He knows what is needed and sees that it’s done.

Here’s some pointers about the death of Jesus as a work of love—from Jesus and then the apostles. (I’ll use ‘the cross’ as shorthand for all that happens when Jesus is crucified.)

First, the cross shows that love is God’s project before it is ours.

It may sound cheap to talk about God’s ‘project’, but I do so because Jesus comes with a purpose, and before he dies, he announces, ‘It is finished’. He says he came that we may have a full life (John 10:10). This must mean he will teach us to love because it is where we love that we actually live.

But love is a ‘God thing’ (1 John 4:7). It begins with him. But it also is him. He doesn’t need our loveliness, or even our need, to attract him. He just loves.

If, on the other hand, we imagine that love is our nature and project, we begin to unravel—personally and socially.

Can we create a society that is good and loving? Indications are that we can’t. If we imagine it to be so, our insights shrink until we only see what pleases us. And our horizons shrink until they only include the people we agree with.

But what God does through the cross is a power that creates love. It’s an action we need to live in. Jesus’ death constrains us to love—that is, it encloses us on both sides and moves us from behind into all that life now can be (2 Cor. 5:14).

Second, the cross shows love is God’s priority

It’s easy to give first place to getting things done or accumulating whatever makes us feel secure. But Jesus is putting his life on the line for love. Everything else can come or go, but not love. Here’s some things he says just before he dies (all quoted from John’s Gospel).

He will love his people ‘to the end’ (13:1). He wants us to love him (14:24). He will go to the cross so the world will know he loves his Father God (14:31). This is his first love. He knows the Father’s love for him and that’s how he loves his disciples. This is where he wants us to live as well—in his love (15:9).

He prays that the love he receives from the Father will also be in his disciples (17:22, 26). He wants us to love one another like he does (13:34; 15:13). And he knows none of this will ever happen unless he dies.

Jesus has already told us that the greatest call on our humanity is to love God and to love one another (Mark 12:28-31). Now, he will do just that. If we’re not interested in love, we can let Jesus pass without a thought. But if love is the way to live, and if it’s what we want, we need to know what happens when Jesus dies.

Third, the cross shows love is not deserved.

Jesus is the ‘friend of sinners’ (Luke 7:34). So-called ‘righteous’ people don’t need his help (Mark 2:16-17).

Paul helps us think about this (Romans 5:6-10). We are weak. That’s about as low as you can get—someone without the power to be properly human. Then we are ungodly—we coast around as though the world doesn’t need a Creator, let alone a Saviour. And then, we are sinners—we just don’t ‘get it’ and constantly miss what we are supposed to do.

That’s where we are when Jesus dies for us. We are not lovely people. God is saying, ‘Look at me. What kind of God am I?’ He is asking us to think about whether his love is real or not.

Jesus gets closer to us than we can get to ourselves. The thought of us being wrong, polluted, unlovely and arrogant doesn’t fit easily into our thinking. Jesus sees all of that in us and still says, ‘I want to be with you. I’ll wear what you are. I’ll suffer what you deserve.’

And he also says, ‘I’ll give you all that I am so you can be pure before my Father, and before your Father.’

Fourth, the cross destroys love’s enemy—fear.

What kills love is not busyness or difficult people. It’s threat and shame. Jesus lovingly does something about this. He is sent to be an atoning sacrifice for our sin—a propitiation (1 John 4:10). He needs to turn the wrath of God away from us, and does so by bearing it himself.

We’ve noted that there’s something deeply built into us that wants to make love our project. But love is ‘of God’. He is where it comes from and why it works (1 John 4:7-12).

Because Jesus so comprehensively endures God’s wrath, there is no fear of it touching us. We no longer need to fear meeting God (1 John 4:17-18). Love and fear don’t belong together. But, if fear is gone, love can thrive!

John explains this by saying, ‘as Jesus is, so are we in this world.’ In other words, Jesus is in heaven. We are on the earth. But we are as he is.

Think about what this means. There was a time when Jesus was in torment—on his cross. He could not say ‘Father’ as he usually did. He said, ‘My God. Why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46). He is in torment.

But then, he announces that his work is finished (John 19:30), and entrusts his spirit to the Father (Luke 23:46). And God raises him from the dead. He raises him to sit by his side to administer the kingdom. His torment is over. This is how he is now. And we—in this world—are as he is.

Our torment is over. Love has begun. ‘God abides in us and we are made perfect in love’. This is not about us being perfect in love, but about God’s love being perfected or coming to its goal in us. He is confident that his work will bear fruit and cause us to love.

Lastly, the cross creates something entirely new.

To see the cross as God’s revelation and gift of love is to be a new person. Love is not strange to us now. One man dies for all. So, that is the end of all we have been. What happens from now on is all new—made by God (2 Corinthians 5:14-17). Life comes to us, and sometimes, at us, with many difficulties. But the cross is our assurance that nothing that ever happens around, or to us, will separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:38-39).

Blood enough! Now peace

The Bible doesn’t leave us guessing as to why Jesus dies on a cross. Even as he is dying, Jesus says several things that help us know what is going on. Here’s two of them.

Two criminals are being crucified with Jesus. They have lived violently and selfishly. But one of them has second thoughts about the life he has lived. His restless life has taken peace from many others. Probably spilled their blood. But now, he asks to be ‘remembered’ when Jesus receives his kingdom (Luke 23:38-43).

He sees that Jesus is in charge—even from his cross. He admits he deserves what he’s getting. And he asks for a place in the kingdom Jesus is making.

This man has come a long way in a short time. Does he recall that Jesus has given help to many others? Has he noticed his unusual composure? And especially, what does he think about Jesus’ asking his Father to forgive his torturers?  

Whatever has changed this man, he asks to be ‘remembered’, a word used by God’s covenant people when they look for mercy. And his request is granted, in the most luxurious of terms: ‘Today, you will be with me in Paradise’.

This man, who has spilled the blood of others, loses his arrogance and finds peace with God.

But there is no peace for Christ. Before long, he is asking God why he has been forsaken. He is making peace for us, but it is by the blood of his cross.

Here’s how Paul explains this—first in his letter to the Colossians (1:19-22).

First, we don’t like God and avoid the things he wants us to do. We do the opposite actually. Perhaps not in the brazen way of the repenting criminal, but decidedly, and dangerously.

And then, we tend to ‘spill blood’. We ‘do evil deeds’.

Here’s a suggestion about what might be going on. We think God doesn’t matter. Or we think he’s against us. So, the world is all we’ve got, and our demands on what it can give keep increasing. We get restless, demanding, agitated, intolerant, bitter, and, if nothing stops it, violent.

Not everyone gets to the end of this sequence—fortunately. But the seeds of discontent are deep. They make us complain, take sides, look for someone to blame—and punish. They make us ‘spill blood’. It can happen in friendships, communities, or nations.

God goes to the heart of the issue. He knows we can’t live with the guilt of leaving him out of our thinking. He knows we’ll never find true peace (Isa. 48:22).

And God sees the weariness, and the uselessness of it all and sends his Son to make peace—by his blood.

God nails his complaint about us to the cross where Jesus is dying (Col. 2:13). This is what we need to see and embrace. Will we stand aloof and insist we are OK? Or will we receive God’s gracious gift?

‘Blood’ is a reference to Israel’s worship. They were taught to put their hands on a lamb’s head, confess their sins, and then sacrifice the lamb. This didn’t pay for their sins, but it showed what God had in mind. His Son is on the cross as ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

If we receive this as God’s way of dealing with our rebellion, we are washed clean. He won’t count our sins against us (2 Cor. 5:19-21). We are ready to share in God’s company. This is peace!

Until now, we’ve been fighting. But, what about the crucified Lord telling us we can be with him in Paradise? Does this not melt our resistance? Does this not take the puff out of our fighting?

God now calls us righteous. And this means being at peace with God (Rom. 5:1). If God does this reconciling while we are still fighting him, we can be sure there’s no anger left in God towards us, now that we are reconciled to him. We now take pleasure in God. This is where we want to be (Rom. 5:9-11).

Let’s return to the story of Jesus. When he rises from the dead, his first words to the disciples are, ‘Peace be with you’ (John 20:19, 21, 26). He’d promised to give them his peace (John 14:27) and now he’s giving it.

He’s picked up the arguments these disciples have had with each other, worn their pride, borne their failures, and taken them to his cross. He’s made peace by the blood of his cross. So now, their need to call down fire from heaven and their need to take up a sword against the soldiers who arrest Jesus is gone. And their need to compete with each other is gone too.

God has not only made peace by the blood of the cross, he’s provided a peace we can live in with others. We all come to God in the same way so the dividing walls we erect between ourselves and others can come down (Eph. 2:13-18). This peace of Christ needs to rule everything we are (Col 3:15).

Our ‘peacemaking’ often leads to more spilling of blood. The peace God makes through Christ heals our inner wounds. It brings us to God. And it returns us to each other.

God gets it right

When something hideous happens these days, we are accustomed to reactions of outrage or pity. But neither of these reactions suit what happens to Jesus.

His death on a cross hardly seems right. But everything that takes place here is what God wants to happen (Acts 2:23).

It’s by announcing the news of Christ’s death and resurrection that God is revealing his righteousness. It’s how he is exerting his power (Romans 1:16).

If you’re asking the question, ‘What is God doing about all the evil in the world?’ here’s the answer. He’s looked at it, summed it up and dealt with it. All of it. Including what you and I have done.

Let’s have a look at this. First, the clues Jesus gives us about what happens to him. And then, what the apostles tell us after the event.

When Jesus is born, an announcement is made that he will save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). This must mean more than him just teaching us better ways to live. There’s a weight we carry that needs to be lifted from us.

Jesus does teach many things, but everything leads up to his great work—what he has come to do. He talks about going to Jerusalem and being killed there. His life will be a ‘ransom for many’—that is, he will pay a price to save others (Mark 10:33-34, 45). He is claiming to do what a Psalmist said is impossible—redeem the soul of another person (Psa. 49:7-9).

In fact, Jesus says if we don’t let him pay what we owe, we’ll die (Mark 8:37-38). The stakes are high. If he doesn’t die for us, we will. Offending God is not a light weight offence. Who can stand if his anger is roused (Psa. 76:7; Nahum 1:6)?

What Jesus says is very much what God has already promised to do through his suffering Servant: ‘the Lord makes his life a guilt offering’ (Isa. 53:10). Jesus knows he is this Servant. He is bearing the griefs of others (Matt. 8:16-17). He will be numbered with transgressors (Luke 22:37).

The day comes for all this to happen. Jesus asks his Father to be spared drinking ‘this cup’ (Luke 22:42-44). This term describes judgements from God on sin (Psa. 75:8). Jesus knows this, and the terror of it makes him sweat blood. He asks if there is another way. He doesn’t flinch from his task but reveals the horror of what is going to happen.

Then, when Jesus is being led out to be crucified, he says, ‘Don’t weep for me. Weep for yourselves…’ (Luke 23:28-31). This is an astonishing statement in the circumstances. He has in mind how awful it is going to be for anyone who doesn’t believe in what he is doing for the world.

And then, from his cross, Jesus cries, ‘Why have you forsaken me?’ He is bearing our sin and what ought to happen to us. ‘The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all’, and he is ‘wounded for our transgressions’ (Isa. 53:4-6).

As he dies, Jesus says, ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30)! God has done to sin and sinners what sinners deserve. Jesus is no victim. He has done what he was given to do, what he wanted to do, and what we need. Through him, God has done what is right—for him, and for us.

Now, Paul shows us what is meant by God’s righteousness, or being right—particularly in his letter to the Romans.

For a start, God judges what is wrong (2:2). He wouldn’t be God if he didn’t! And he certainly wouldn’t be right. But this is just the beginning.

God’s made a world and still loves it. He has plans for it, and importantly, loves it. So, he’s made promises about what he will do. And he’s keeping them. He’s not a legalist who’s only interested in him being right.

So, he reveals his rightness by doing something for us. If we trust his Son, he judges us to be righteous (1:16-17; 4:1-25; 5:17; 8:4).

This is why the death of Jesus is so important. God can’t call black white, or bad good. But his Son has owned us as his own. Our wrong has become his. All of it.

And when God made him to be sin—someone who’d never thought of doing wrong—God poured out all the rightful distain and condemnation and rejection on him. All of it.

God hasn’t swept anything under the carpet but sent his Son to bear it in our place—and its penalty. That’s what we call propitiation. Christ averts wrath from us by bearing it himself.

If you’re wondering about all the things God lets us get away with, Paul says that, up until Jesus died, he had ‘passed over’ earlier sins. But not now. What sin deserves, it gets.

And God approves and accepts what Jesus does and raises him from the dead. He’s the beginning of something entirely new—a new creation. If we acknowledge we can’t justify ourselves, and trust in Christ’s offering for us, we are credited with the rightness Jesus showed in his life and in his death. All of it.

There’s nothing as exhilarating as this (Romans 5:1-5). It’s then we realise how unconvincing our self-justification has been.

And now, there’s another way God reveals his rightness. We who are grateful recipients of God’s gift in Christ, are eager to do what is right because we have been made right with God (6:16-18).

People who don’t have this gift of righteousness are hobbled and can’t live truly. They remain self-focused and self-justifying. They call right whatever the life-style is that they have chosen.

But God shows he can get things right by pointing us to what his Son does on the cross. Here’s something that’s true, and works. It comes straight from God. It takes us to God. And it sends us out into life with delight, and with an eye for what others need from us.

We are not very nice people

Why is the cross of Jesus so important to Christians? It appears to be tragic and useless but Paul says it is God’s way of working powerfully among us.

Here’s the first of five articles to talk about this.

Just before Jesus is arrested, he says the time has come for this world to be judged (John 12:30). In other words, God will set up his court, expose wrong doers, and pronounce judgement. Jesus is speaking about his death.

This is the exact opposite of what seems to be happening. Jewish leaders agree Jesus must die. Pilate sentences him to death. He is nailed on a cross. But Jesus says this is the judgement of the world.

This happens when Jesus is ‘lifted up’ (John 8:26-28). He is lifted up on a cross. But he is also going to be lifted up in victory. Satan will be ‘driven out’. And Jesus will be revealed as the world’s true leader—he will draw all people to himself (John 12:32).

The cross is not just something that happens to Jesus. It is something that affects us all. There’s some local content to how this is happening, but the implications involved in Jesus being killed are global, historic and final.

Effectively, the whole race is being assembled by it’s Maker—ahead of the final judgement day—and we are finding out where we stand. These local Jews and Romans represent us all.

In the immediate setting. Jesus has spent three years attending sick and troubled people. He has shown that God is working in him powerfully. He’s made it clear that whatever people think of him is what they think of God.

Many have welcomed Jesus because of this, but Israel’s leaders are jealous. They can’t deny what he is doing, or the attitude of many people to him, but they decide to destroy him.

Jesus either attracts or repels us. We can’t be neutral. He’s claiming to be in charge. He’s revealing God. If you don’t want what God can do, you’ll end up hating his Son, even if you think he’s ‘nice’.

Jesus is aware of these different attitudes. He’s already said that if we believe he is God’s Son we won’t be condemned, and, that if we don’t, we are condemned already (John 3:18-21).

Here’s why. ‘Light has come into the world, but men love darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.’ If we don’t come to his Son, we’re hiding something.

And of course, we then have to get rid of the evidence that he is who he is. We have to ‘kill’ the Son of God all over again.

If you know you are a sinner, you come to God and to the Son he has sent because he’s promising to do something about your problem. You know you’re not nice! But if you say you don’t need that kind of help, you’re exposing something about yourself that’s very sinister and dark.

Our friends might think we are wonderful, but this won’t make much difference when we have to stand before God.

So, how is this working out now?

Jesus says the Holy Spirit will come and convict the world of sin, and righteousness and judgement (John 16:7-10). The judgement of the world that happened when Jesus was killed will be administered by the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the apostles.

And this is what happens when Peter preaches the first Christian sermon. He says to those who have gathered, ‘You killed him’ (Acts 2:23, 36). These accusations continue throughout the book of Acts (3:14; 4:10, 27; 5:30; 7:52; 10:39; 13:27).

Peter does not accuse others as though he is innocent. He had failed Jesus badly himself. And we are not told this so we can blame the Jews. Rather, the apostles are telling us what all humanity is like.

We all like to think we are ‘nice’—or good—and that no-one would think of condemning us. But God says we are sinners because we don’t believe in his Son (John 16:9).

But now, if Christ’s death is the judgement of this world—and we are the accused, we should notice how the ‘trial’ proceeds.

Jesus is dying—nailed to a cross. The first things he says is, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’ (Luke 23:34).

Can you believe this? We are watching ‘the judgement of the world’. We are found guilty. And the Son of God is asking his Father that we not be condemned for the crime!

When God shows us how wrong we have been, he’s not wanting to condemn us but to warn us. It’s a wake-up call! God is asking us to look up—at him. He is showing us how horrible, inexcusable, miserable and poor minded our attitude to him is. And he is saying there is time to change our minds.

This is what Peter does in his sermon: ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins’ (Acts 2:38).

This is what Jesus does in his letter to Laodicea (Revelation 3:17). Their problem is not that they are pitiful poor and naked but that they don’t know it. He says, ‘Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent.’

But look at what he offers! He is standing at their door and knocking. If we open up to him, we will have rich fellowship—immediately.

Through the cross of Jesus, God has us before him, exposed and guilty. If we think we don’t need his Son, we are in the dark. We have a deadly ailment and will die from it if it’s not exposed and treated. But if we hear his cry from the cross, and his letter from heaven, we will be forgiven.

It is to this that we must turn in the following articles.

God being with us is normal

I can understand people thinking the story of Jesus Christ is a myth. It’s phenomenal to believe that the world’s Creator takes a human body and lives among us. But that’s what Christians believe. One of the names Jesus is called is ‘Immanuel’ (Matthew 1:22-23). It simply means ‘God with us’.

The real question is not how such a thing can happen but whether it is something we should expect to happen. And a related question is whether we want it to happen.

In fact, God has always wanted to be among us. In our earliest human story, creation is described as God’s garden, and he comes seeking Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening (Genesis 3:8).

Then, God tells ancient Israel to build a tent for him and pitch it in the centre of their camp (Numbers 2:2, 17). He wants to go with them as they travel (Exodus 29:43-46), and to live among them when they settle. They know he is there and where they can find him (Psalm 122).

God has spent a long time teaching the world that he wants to be among us—to give us leadership, protection and certainty. And when his Son is born in Bethlehem, John tells us that the Word (who is God) takes on our flesh and ‘camps’ among us (John 1:14).

If your world doesn’t include God, this sounds foolish. But if you look at what God has been saying to us from early times, this is what you would expect to happen.

Among Christians, the coming of Jesus is great news. But the first Christmas is not all peace and joy. God coming among us raises questions, fears, and sometimes, hatred.

It’s the same now. The announcement that God has come to live among us is met with disbelief or distain. At best, it’s regarded as a nice myth to inspire or comfort us.

We need to look at what actually happens when God sends his Son among—us a baby. It helps us understand what’s going on in our own communities.

First, look what happens to Mary (Luke 1:26-38).

An angel arrives. He says God has come to show her great favour. But she is agitated—well beyond her comfort zone.

But she doesn’t need to be afraid. She will have a baby who will be Israel’s King, the world’s Saviour—nothing less than God’s Son.

She’s not married yet, but God says her baby will be a miracle. ‘… the power of the Most Hight will overshadow you’. No-one can work out how this happens. It’s not natural.

But this is what it’s like for God to be near. We’re not in charge! But then, we’re not being condemned either. And we’re not being set up to perform wonders of our own. God is not someone to compete with. But he is someone to co-operate with.

Mary’s reply gives us all something to say when God draws near. ‘May it be so to me as you have said’.

The world isn’t just nature—or things happening naturally. We have a Creator. He’s around! From the beginning, God has been revealing that him being near is normal. We should get used to it! It needs to be our new normal.

Second, see what some shepherds experience (Luke 2:8-14).

There’s no mistaking that an angel makes a night visit to some shepherds, and that his message is from God. He’s literally shining. The shepherds are terrified.

The way to deal with God being near is not to domesticate him but to listen to what he has to say. There’ll always be something unmanageable about this.

Here’s the message. The King that Israel has been taught to expect—their Messiah—has been born in their own town. This is good news for everyone. They get the details of where to find the baby.

Then there’s lots of noise. Many angels worship God and announce the peace God is bringing to those who share with Mary in receiving his favour.

This is what it means for God to be near. We can’t understand the logistics but we need the message. He’s announcing peace with himself, and the resources to be at peace with others.

It will never be us that makes this peace. It needs to be him—present and in charge.

Third, notice how agitated it makes King Herod. From his point of view, Jesus’ birth is a political event. He’s a rival (Matthew 2:1-18).

 ‘Wise men’ from East of Israel find out—somehow—that a Jewish King has been born. They call, understandably, at the palace, asking to see the new King.

Jesus can’t be hidden. He is world news. He attracts attention, and antagonism. Pilate does some research, gives directions to the visitors, and, deceptively, asks them to let him know what they find. He’s not interested in worship. He’s interested in cancelling Jesus.

Herod illustrates that taking authority to ourselves—as though God were not around—is dangerous.

Herod murders all Bethlehem’s children under two years of age. He needs to protect his tenuous kingdom—the peace he is trying to create by having people under his authority. This is the price the world pays for rejecting God coming to be among us.

So, here’s the new normal.

God has come among us—as a human being. He’s announced his way of peace with us. His way of going about this is not natural, or what we would do.

It’s not even what we like. We want God to leave us alone. And when we finally get an opportunity to do what we want with God, we kill him.

But then, Jesus reveals God—fully. While he is dying, he asks his Father to forgive those who are killing him (Luke 23:34).

The God who has come among us as a baby is still a human being—God, with human flesh. Except, now, raised from the dead, he’s been seated next to his Father, to superintend the peace he established.

This is certainly not natural. But it is God’s normal. And he is asking us to join him in the peace he makes. So, happy Christmas to you all. Just don’t expect it to be natural.

Saved from futility

‘What’s the use?’ We’ve probably heard that said, or said it ourselves. Nothing’s working and our time’s being wasted.

An old Greek myth tells the story of Sisyphus who is punished by being made to push a stone up a hill, only to have it roll down again when he nearly gets to the top. And he must do this forever! We now call a job that’s laborious and useless ‘sisyphean’.

That’s what life in this world is like—without God. Useless. And Christians have been saved from the futile ways we learn in this world (Ephesians 4:17-20).

In times past young believers were worshipping idols. And, of course, calling something a god when it can’t hear, think or act is futile. Nothing is going to happen by talking to it or offering it a bribe.

And the kind of life that grows from worshipping idols is also futile. There is nothing above us to lift us up. There is only a recycling of the mess we are already in.

Our own world dismisses giving reverence to God—any god. But we haven’t stopped worshipping something. We’ve been designed to look up and to be in awe of something. And people still say, ‘I just had to do that.’ It’s part of our being human to be compelled by something greater than ourselves.

If we don’t know the true God through his Son, Jesus Christ, we’ll install something in his place.

One writer (I’ve put a link to his article below) thinks self-worship is now the world’s fastest growing religion. This ‘religion’ or ideology teaches that each person’s own thinking, their emotions and choices, goals, values and creativity must determine everything else.

But then, he says, ‘When we try to be our own sources of truth, we slowly drive ourselves crazy. When we try to be our own sources of satisfaction, we become miserable wrecks. When we become our own standard of goodness and justice, we become obnoxiously self-righteous. When we seek self-glorification, we become more inglorious.’

Paul would say the same now as he did a long time ago. Without the true God, our understanding is darkened, not enlightened. It’s ignorant, not informed. It’s hard hearted, not sensitive.

It’s into this situation that God sends Jesus to live, and die, and rise again. He has come to lift us out of all this. That’s why Peter talks about being rescued from futility (1 Peter 1:8-19). Without him, we are slaves.

If you believe that the only things that are real are physical, it may seem strange to hear your way of life called futile. That’s why it’s important to look at the light God has sent into the world.

The story is told of a rebellious sailor who is lowered down into the empty hold of his ship as punishment. He has no light, no company. Only bread a water let down on a rope each day. Several days go by and the sailor defies the call to change his ways and return to the deck. So, the captain lowers a lamp down instead of the food.

Now, the sailor can see his surroundings—the filth and the vermin, and himself as part of it all. Quickly he asks to be pulled up out of his prison.

The way we are brought up, the way of life around us, seem normal. We can become accustomed to shallowness, to lies, and lust, and hollow laughter. Until, that is, we see Jesus Christ.

The only way to be freed from the futility of this world is for someone to pay for us—to be bought like a slave. And then be set free. That’s what ‘redeemed’ means in what Peter says.

God knows we are in the dark. He also knows we like being in the dark. We think it’s the only way to stay in control of our lives.

But then, God lets us see how bitter we have become—by letting us human beings kill his Son. He lets us see the meaning of love by his Son asking for us to be forgiven. He shows us there is a new way by raising his Son from death. We can begin to hope.

This is what it means to be ‘redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors…with the precious blood of Christ’.

All that the world has when it doesn’t want God is cravings.

Interestingly, one of the world’s religions—Buddhism—is focused on shutting down desire because it is the source of all our unhappiness. But desire is part of being alive! We want things. That’s what gets us up in the morning. It’s what makes us work hard and take risks.

What makes desire a problem is that we do not have God as our Father. Nothing we get is ever enough. It wasn’t meant to be enough. Only God can be ‘enough’. Under him, our desires are governed. Without him, they become insatiable.

We try to have a full life by letting rip with whatever we want. But without God, we generate endless unrest. We find ourselves yearning for what isn’t ours, or boasting about what we’ve done (1 John 2:15-17). But it’s all a temporary ‘fix’. If it doesn’t come from the Father, it won’t last. It’s futile.

But then, what if we come to know God as our Father? Our passions are under his care. We listen to what he says. We copy the way of life lived by his Son. We have something that will last forever. It begins to feel solid—even in this world. It’s not futile. We’ve be rescued.

It doesn’t take much experience, and honesty, to recognise that something isn’t solid just because we can see it. Why not, every time to find yourself getting fond of this world, taking another look at Jesus, and what he has done. Ask why he took so much trouble to show us what’s real. Ask if you can afford to give your life for what is passing away.

You can hear my talk on this topic at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6kb4sbuJsus

Article: Self Worship is the world’s fastest growing religion; Thaddeus Williams

Friendship is all about other people

The story goes of a man coming home from a party saying, ‘I was surrounded by friends, but none of them were mine.’ Many people experience loneliness—including some who appear to be ‘the life of the party’.

These experiences demonstrate that loneliness isn’t mended with company. In the real world, having friends involves thinking—thinking about others.

Perhaps this is why many have experienced amazing community spirit when a catastrophe strikes—a flood or fire or accident. Everyone focusses on what needs to be done and forgets about themselves. They begin to ‘discover’ each other.

So, here’s the real issue. If we are only thinking of ourselves, there’s no real relationship going on. The other person is only ‘present’ to the extent that they are meeting a need of mine. They may be thinking the same. Neither of us are being real. We are like ghosts trying to hug each other.

A relationship with someone else is not just a matter of chemistry, or sex, or common interest. It involves love, and this means seeing who someone is and what they need—thinking about them and how we may be a part of their lives.

Paul tells his friends at Philippi to think of others and not just themselves, and consider others better than themselves.

That’s good advice but it’s easier said than done. Selfishness runs deep and takes us back to thinking about ourselves. That’s why Paul points to how Christ has lived among us (Philippians 2:1-11).

It would be worthwhile reading some Gospel stories about Jesus. People called him a friend of sinners (Luke 7:34). That’s what we need—not someone who expects high standards, conformity, or agreement but a friend who knows who we are, what we can become and what help we need.

And the first need we have is to be forgiven. We don’t merely need people we can follow, or who like us. We need a Saviour. We need Christ’s encouragement, comfort, tenderness and compassion.

We need to belong to a whole group of people participating in a love that’s bigger than all the funny things that go on between us people. We need to be God’s children—together.

Believe me, what we read here fixes the problem. We have a quality of life that doesn’t depend on our friends being friendly or us being perfect! There’s something different that happens among people who receive forgiveness from God, and receive the gift of his Holy Spirit.

Paul also says we need to put away selfish ambition or conceit (v. 3). In business circles, people talk about ‘networking’—finding relationships that may further their interests. But that’s not friendship. Friends aren’t concerned with their own interests but the interest of their friend.

In fact, we are called to consider others better than ourselves (v. 4). This is nothing to do with us being better or worse than others. We are talking about considering others better than ourselves.

So, is all of this just a game? Do we just act in a certain way because that will make other people feel happier with us? Hardly. That’s hypocrisy, and eventually, hypocrisy shows!

Here’s why it’s so important to know how Jesus thinks. He has been thinking about us—not himself. And because he is thinking about us, we can be freed from always focusing on ourselves. We can have the same thought in our minds as Jesus Christ.

How can this be? Stay with this! It might seem like I’m trying to crack a problem with a heavy thump of Bible, but thinking about ourselves doesn’t yield easily!

The way Jesus thinks starts with him being equal with God. He is God. But he doesn’t think this fact needs to be defended. He doesn’t need to protect his rights or have his identity acknowledged. Simply—he’s God. He knows it. And he acts accordingly.

Here’s what he does. He ‘made himself nothing’. That is, he pours out all that he is—for us.

The Son of God becomes one of us—a human being. As God, he is in charge. But, as a human being, he is told what to do. He’s become a servant.

Then, the job he is given is to show us who God is. So, he shows us the ‘comfort of his love’, his ‘tenderness and compassion’.  

It’s because we don’t know this that we have to protect ourselves. This is why we have to be surrounded with approving people. We’re not persuaded that God is friendly.

So, Jesus makes himself an offering for our sins. He’s already a servant, but he becomes a humble one and does the most despicable job you could ever take on. He’s nailed to a Roman cross. In our place.

This is the mind of Christ. He has come closer to us that we can come to ourselves. By being what he is—God, doing a human job—he’s shown us what it means to be human. He’s also shown us what it means to be God.

And then, Jesus is given the name above every name—that’s the name ‘Lord’, or God. There’s never been any risk of him losing his identity!

And there’s no risk of us losing our identity either when we think fondly about people around us—in just the same way we think about ourselves. If we’ve been united with Christ through faith, we have his encouragement, his tenderness and compassion.

So now, we are free to live, to love, to give and to share. It will seem risky. Sometimes, we may lose a friend rather than gain one. But we will always have Christ’s friendship.

Surely and certainly, we will discover the riches of relationships that flow from a reliable source—from no less than the God who made us to be like him.