Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Union Carpenter

Jesus, son of God and son of man, was a carpenter by trade (Mark 6:3). I guess that makes sense, because the Logos was the builder of the universe (John 1:3) so maybe it made sense for him to be a builder when he was a human (John 1:14) also. But did you know he was a union carpenter?

Okay, not like a labor union. But he was the perfect union of God and humanity, and that's very important. It surprises me to realize that it took four centuries for the church to decide this question. But there are a lot of crucial issues hanging on the answer.

Here's the background: Jesus was obviously a man. But he claimed the title "Son of Man" from Daniel 7:13, which everyone of his day recognized as a claim of divinity. Matthew 1:22-23 says that he was Immanuel, God with us, fulfilling Isa. 7:14 and 8:8-10. Scripture gives the Messiah divine (meaning Godly) titles in Isa. 9:6. The early church recognized him as divine/authoritative/Lord/Savior, for instance in 1 Cor 8:6.

The argument arose over whether the Son of God was only divine, so that the human form he assumed was only an illusion; or whether he was only human, which kept God away from being polluted by flesh. There were good-sounding arguments for both sides, yet both sides also had scriptures contradicting them. But what became more and more clear was that Jesus had to be fully God and fully human, even though that sounds impossible to us.

Gregory of Nanzianzus wrote it this way: "What has not been assumed has not been restored; it is what is united with God that is saved." That is, if flesh had not been completely 'assumed,' or taken on, by Jesus, then flesh -- that's all of us -- could not have been saved. In 451 AD, the Council of Chalcedon decided that "Only God can save; only that which God has become is saved." So if Jesus the Messiah had not been fully God and fully human, salvation wouldn't have worked. Jesus had to be a 'union carpenter' as it were.

So by fully 'assuming' flesh, Jesus became our perfect representative before the Father; and the Father's perfect representative to humanity. Isn't that amazing? Because of Christ, our broken flesh is fully reconciled to the Father. Though we still have human weakness and sin, those don't exclude us from the Father's presence, because Immanuel (God with us) is our eternal advocate before the Father (Heb. 7:25), and his perfect death paid for all our sins. (And he's still Immanuel, God with us, by the way -- see Matthew 28:20.)

Can we fully understand that? Not really. But we can look with awe on the God who figured out how to do it, and thank him that he did it for us. And keep thanking God for a certain 'union carpenter', forever.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Start to Finish

Most of us like to have an example to follow, someone who has already gone before and knows the way. That is, unless you're one of those pioneer types that explored the North Pole on foot.

Hebrews 12:2 tells us that we have an example who was the pioneer. Speaking of enduring in the Christian life, the writer says "We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith." So as we look at the difficulties we face in life, we have an example to look to, of someone who had a much more difficult journey and has already gone ahead of us.

Much more than that, our pioneer completed the journey perfectly on our behalf. It's one thing to have an example to look to. But it doesn't help me to look to Kobe Bryant and imagine that I can slam-dunk the way he does! Nor, in that sense, does it help to look to Jesus' perfection and imagine that if I try extra hard, I will manage to measure up to his example of perfection!

The point being made here is that the perfect life-journey of Jesus himself wasn't just an example for us to follow. It's the story of the One who knew ahead of time that he would have to sacrifice ("Author, Pioneer, Captain, Founder" as this word is translated in different versions). Not only did he conceive that his infleshment would have to happen to bring humanity into oneness with God, he is the one who walked that journey himself, did it perfectly, and did it to full completion ("Finisher, Perfecter", in different versions). This might be similar to saying "the Alpha and Omega" as Jesus is described three times in Revelation.

The Greek here says "perfecter of the faith", not just "our faith." What does that mean? It means that faith itself is made perfect in Jesus Christ. Our measly human-effort faith only serves to identify us with his own perfect faith, which alone -- because it's perfect -- is acceptable before the Father. It means that his perfect journey --which alone is acceptable before the Father -- has already been made on our behalf. Our on-again, off-again human attempts at following Jesus identify us with his successful journey, and it's his perfect journey that we have faith in (surely not our own!).

How did he endure? Because he was fully human, and because he didn't ever use his divine powers for his own personal comfort, he had to use something powerful: "Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame." He knew that he would come out of the grave (Psalm 16:8-10) and rise to glory.

So he held on. And because we know he held on, we can hold on in the face of far less pain, persecution and shame than he endured. Because we know he was successful, we know that our salvation, in the end, is completely assured. So instead of looking to someone in the past, or trusting in our own measly efforts, we can keep our eyes on him -- who is our example, our captain, our guide and our guarantee of salvation.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Center of the universe

In the little town of Wallace, Idaho, there is a manhole cover with the label "The Center of the Universe." (When you make your pilgrimage to Wallace, be sure to have your picture taken by it!) Scientists say that the 'Big Bang' had no actual center, and all the galaxies are moving away from each other, which I don't understand but then I don't know a lot about physics.

One thing I have discovered from studying the Bible is that Jesus Christ, who was (and remains) the Son of God perfectly united with humanity, is the center of God's entire plan for humanity. His job of uniting us with the Father was planned from before the beginning of time, and his life, death, resurrection and ascension accomplished God's central purpose. So in that sense you could say Jesus, himself, is the center of the universe.

Consider John's opening comments in his gospel, John 1:1-3: "In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him." John says his whole purpose in writing was to point people to Jesus so that they would believe and have life, in chapter 20:31 .

The book of Hebrews has more to say: "Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. God promised everything to the Son as an inheritance, and through the Son he created the universe. The Son radiates God's own glory and expresses the very character of God, and he sustains everything by the mighty power of his command." The remainder of the book of Hebrews goes on to show that Jesus was greater than the prophets (1:1) the angels (1:4 - 2:9) Moses (3:1-6) the high priests of Israel (4:14 - 5:10) Abraham (by the figure of speech of Melchizedek, 7:1-10) and the whole priesthood and sacrificial system (7:11 - 8:6). He brought the new covenant (8:6-13) and superseded the entire old covenant system (chapters 9 and 10), which means he is greater than that system. The 'rest' described in chapter 4 is resting, in Christ, from our own works-oriented mentality. The faith described in chapter 11 is faith in what God would do through his Son, because "none of them received all that God had promised. For God had something better in mind for us, so that they would not reach perfection without us"(11:39-40). Chapter 12 continues the focus on Jesus: "We do this [live an enduring Christian life] by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith"(verse 3). We have not come to anything in the past, it says, but to "Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people" (verse 24) and "speaks from heaven" (verse 25, compare 1:3). And in 12:8-21, some of those themes are brought back as a conclusion to show that our lives and faith are all wrapped up in Jesus.

In Ephesians 1:4, Paul declares that "Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes."

If that weren't enough, we could look at Colossians 1:15-20, which may have been an early hymn of the church:
"15 Christ is the visible image of the invisible God.
He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation,
16 for through him God created everything
in the heavenly realms and on earth.
He made the things we can see
and the things we can’t see—
such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world.
Everything was created through him and for him.
17 He existed before anything else,
and he holds all creation together.
18 Christ is also the head of the church,
which is his body.
He is the beginning,
supreme over all who rise from the dead.
So he is first in everything.
19 For God in all his fullness
was pleased to live in Christ,
20 and through him God reconciled
everything to himself.
He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth
by means of Christ’s blood on the cross."

There is so much in the Bible, both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament, referring to the plan of God as carried out by the Son of God, that it seems inescapable. Without Jesus, there is no 'plan of God'. But in Jesus, we are loved and fully accepted by God. He is certainly and without hesitation, the center of my own universe. Is he the center of yours? If not, isn't this a good time to re-think that?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


The Lovely Joanne and I have been working on the house again. This time it's the bathroom floor. There was a growing smell in the room, coming from moisture under the linoleum along the edge of the tub where things had become a bit grotty (that's English slang for "dirty, moldy, generally yucky"). I pulled out the linoleum, hoping just to replace it, but the more we looked, the more we found that needed fixing -- a classic "mushroom" project.

Remodeling usually goes like that. You may think it's a minor project, but you still have to explore what's rotten or weakened or broken, figure out what needs replacing and decide on new materials. That's all before you can even begin making the room a different shape or choosing new fixtures. And sometimes, you have to tear out everything and start all over.

Have you ever considered that this is what God is doing with us? In technical terms, we are 'reborn' or 'regenerated' when we come to see Jesus as our Savior, and surrender our lives to him. We are, in spiritual terms, a new creature, as 2 Cor 5:17 says: "This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!" But this isn't a fresh coat of paint -- there's a lot more work involved.

The ongoing process of remodeling continues for the rest of our lives. We will have times of testing. Romans 5:3 says "We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance." We will have times that we're concerned we may not come out alive, as Paul describes in 2 Cor. 1:8: "We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it." (He gives more detail of his personal trials on behalf of the gospel in 2 Cor 6:3-10.) But during that process, we also have solid building materials put into us -- for instance, the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). And we are 'built on Christ' as Col 2:7 says: Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness."

That's the process of living in Christ. As God's Spirit continues to remodel our thinking, our emotions and our habits, the old smell goes away and the 'fragrance of the knowledge of Christ' grows (2 Cor 2:14). In the end, when we meet God, all the old, fleshly stuff will be swept away for good, and 'our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies' as 1 Cor 15:53 says. Then the physical remodel will be complete, but the rest of eternity will be spent learning to know and love Father, Son and Holy Spirit more and more deeply.

Thanks to God, for his incalculable wisdom and grace in renewing us in the image of Christ!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


One of today's news items is something like "Stock Markets Soar on Recovery Hopes." People invest money in those markets hoping to make more money. Their hopes rise and fall along with the fortunes of the companies or funds they invest in. Some have made good money, while others have lost it all. Some have spent their whole lives trying to make more and more money, to the point of obsession.

The Bible has several messages about money. The first is to invest, first and most intensively, with God; to give to him in response to his generous gifts to you. The second is to treat money as something that is not given to you, but invested with you by God; so that you are the "steward" or the fund manager, and it's your job to use it wisely. The third is to be generous with it; not to hoard it for yourself, but to give to others as you can, and as you find them in need. All of these are based on one other principle: that God loves us and will take care of us, if only we will let him.

Jesus covered several of these principles in "The Sermon on the Mount" as some call his teachings in Matthew 5-7 (and some parallels in Luke). Especially in chapter 6, he brings out generosity (verses 1-4) by teaching that we shouldn't have our gifts limited to what will make us look good; dependence on God (verse 11) by reminding us to ask him for our daily needs; focusing on God, not our own financial security (verses 19-21), which would include giving generous offerings instead of just building up a bank account; and again, dependence on God (verses 24-31) by showing us how much God cares for us and looks after our welfare.

None of those teachings includes our being careless with what God has given us, or goofing off and making others carry us. So we shouldn't mistake his teachings about relying on God in faith with encouraging laziness or slacking.

The whole investment thing is a mystery to me. But I do know a couple of things about money. One is that God has taken care of me, umpteen times, using resources I didn't know existed. The other is that no matter how careful I am to save up money, at the end of my life I won't take any of it with me. I hope that the legacy I leave behind will be one of loving generosity to others, and a wise management of the resources God has given me. And complete reliance on God for all the things I can't control anyway -- because he is the one who does control it.

How about you?