He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose. (Jim Elliot)
One of the most popular hymns ever written is Amazing Grace. When so many old hymns have lost their appeal because of changing musical taste, this song has retained its influence both in Roman Catholic and Protestant circles. Despite its clear gospel message, this hymn may also be the most accepted Christian song in the secular world. Its popularity may exist because every human heart can testify to its desperate need for grace, but I believe there is a deeper substance to it than this, for the simple melody of this song has an incredibly haunting quality that seems to penetrate one's very soul.
The song was written by a once hardened and cruel slave trader by the name of John Newton who penned the lyrics after becoming a Christian. One night while taking a boatload of slaves from Africa to America, he noticed that the moon was casting a shadow of the ship's mast on the deck in the shape of a cross. Seeing this cross and hearing the melody that was coming out of the ship's hold, broke him and he committed his life to Jesus Christ.
The music that was coming out of the hold was the sound of slaves humming from their anguish, and this was the melody to which Newton would match to the lyrics of "Amazing Grace". The music was born out of suffering and speaks to the slave in us all, for we have all been slaves to sin and we all have felt the anguish of transgressing the moral law written on our hearts (Romans 2:15).
Slaves to Sin
Paul expressed the burden sin places on the human soul when he wrote, "So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (Romans 7:21-24)
The question Paul poses here "Who will rescue me from this body of death?" is far more dramatic when you understand the historical background of his time. One of the punishments that could be rendered in these times by a Roman judge for a capital offence of murder was the permanent chaining of the body of the victim to the back of the convicted murderer. As the dead man's body started to decay, his rotting flesh would start to eat into the flesh of the convicted man, causing the slow and horrible execution of the murderer.
Slavery to sin causes this same slow and systematic death of our character, our aspirations, and our concern for others. The longer we live, the more difficult it is to preserve each of these facets of our being from decline. Like a rotting carcass, you can see sin cause decay and death in every part of a person's life. Not because they gave their lives completely to sin, but because they have only ever known this one master. As the infection of sin spreads, it poisons our compassion and care for others, speaking only of our own rights, our own feelings, our things, our goals, and our personal interests.
A Fresh Start
The secular humanistic community would vehemently disagree with this pessimistic forecast of the human condition. The hope of this ideology lies in a persons moral education, perhaps pointing the occasionally finger of agreement to the teachings of Christ as a source of moral inspiration, rather than any kind of absolute truth. So it's no surprise that when most people in our culture are asked who Jesus Christ was, by far the most common response is, "he was a good moral teacher". This response comes because Jesus' teaching had moral content, but it's a misguided perception. Moral reform was not Jesus' objective! His priority was not the moral regeneration of humanity, for the world of men has utterly failed by God’s standard and will be ultimately be destroyed by fire. Jesus goal was the establishment of a new Kingdom - God’s Kingdom, comprised of people made in His image and according to His likeness.
This message of becoming “Like Him” was given to a teacher of the law named Nicodemus who came secretly to Jesus under the cover of night. Jesus told him, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again" (John 3:3). The Greek word in this verse "anothen" is translated “again" here, but is more properly translated "from above". So the verse should read, "no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is “born from above".
The point Jesus made to Nicodemus has since been utterly clouded through the years with this “Born Again” term that has become just another cliché in our culture. The expression is now synonymous with the Evangelical Christian Movement, and certainly does carry a connotation of repentance. Yet, the term has been reduced in the minds of many in this movement to a few simple words one verbalizes, as if a few prayerful statements will magically re-start ones eternal destiny. What Jesus was really telling Nicodemus here, was that not only did he need to start life afresh, but that new life needed to reflect the principles and character of “The One Who Is From Above.”
Sin and the Substance of Death
It’s not simply with poetic licence that the Bible’s description of God’s original intention in creating humanity was to both make man “In His Image” and “According To His Likeness” (Genesis 1:26). Many popular commentaries treat these two phrases as if they were synonymous, but the Hebrew words are different and are both used in distinctive ways through scripture.
The Hebrew word for image - (selem) comes from a root word meaning shade, and is often used through scripture in reference to statues or idolatry. Image then, could be said to refer to an impression, like shading a stick of charcoal over a stone to see the texture of the stone emerge.
The term for likeness - (demuth) is an abstract noun and typically describes how one thing has the effect of or makeup of another. Combined with the term “According to”, the word Likeness can then be said to hold the idea of containing the substance of an object, and therefore fulfilling the completed image. This is like a coin that’s double stamped, perfectly representing the engraved pattern of the original form.
Both these terms are used to describe how Adam’s son Seth was born to be like his father or in the image of a man(Gen 5:3), but are never used again in the Old Testament to associate God and man. The Greek form of the word image is reclaimed from its Old Testament association with idolatry, for in the words of the New Testament Jesus Christ come to us “In the Image of God” (2 Cor 4:4, Col 1:15). And as mentioned in the previous chapter, it is now the goal of a Christian’s faith to conform our lives into the image of the Son (1 Cor 15:49; 2 Cor 3:18; Phil 3:21)
The term “likeness” is also reclaimed in the New Testament as we now have the potential to re-acquire God’s likeness, and guidance on how one attains to this likeness is first stated in the book of Romans. The context of Romans 6 finds Paul explaining how a Christian needs to overcome the power of sin in their lives, and then in verse 5 we find the crucial key. “For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we will certainly also be united in the likeness of his resurrection.” (Rom 6:5)
So then, if image represents the process of starting to see the emergence of God’s reflection in our lives, and likeness expresses the fuller or completed substance of God being ingrained into our person, how much more like Him could we be than to die just as Jesus died? The full expression of both God’s love and Holiness are completely articulated in this act of marvelous service to humankind, as Jesus exhibits to us “God”, humiliated and loving us to Death. This absolute relinquished will that Christ demonstrated on the cross is the only substance or chemistry that’s capable of displacing the egocentric value system that’s the fundamental and root cause of our moral failure.
Through the cross, Christ would deal with the core reason the world needs moral reform; by breaking the bondage people have to sin and imparting the power to live a selfless life. Through the tree in the Garden of Eden, mankind inherited a selfish, prideful nature, but through Calvary's tree, people can be transformed and given the capacity to express the same humble, selfless nature of Christ
“Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but about the interests of others as well. You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had, who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross!” (Phil 2:4-8)
A Life of Death
The cross represents the Christian paradox - that there is new life through death to self. God made this instrument of death stand before the world, symbolizing the way to life. Every person that is able to crucify their rights, their feelings, their interests, and their ego on the cross, is transformed into the very likeness of Christ and receives the vigour to live this new life through the power of the Holy Spirit. God has granted people the ability to live a life of purpose and value, but it all starts with following the paradigm or model of His son. This is not a martyrdom complex that God has espoused, but a willingness one makes to die to his own selfishness and passions, and start living for his Creator and the Lover of his soul.
The cross has a vertical and a horizontal component to its makeup. The vertical stake represents our relationship with God and the day we choose to place ourselves on that cross, we are granted new life. "When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at the time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life" (Romans 6:20-22).
This new life starts the moment you decide that you have lived long enough doing things your own way, and you hand over the controls of your life to God. Gaining eternal life involves making Jesus Lord, or the boss of your decision-making process. The choice in life is simple, either one lives under the bondage of sin and reaps its rewards, or chooses to become a slave to righteousness, producing a reward.
On the surface, this might not seem to conform to the tendency we have to look out for our own best interests, but in reality, this is in our immediate and best interest. Eternal life is not only a quantity of life but also a quality of life. Jesus said, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." (John 10:10) We are all born with a "God-shaped" void in our lives and until we experience a personal relationship with our Heavenly Father, we will never know what living is.
- Life with God in control means a life of security - because we know His plan for our lives is good (Romans 12:2).
- Life with God in control means living in peace - because God has taken our sin and our shame and cast them into the sea of forgetfulness (Isaiah 43:25).
- Life with God in control means a life with joy for we get to experience friendship with the living God (1Peter 1:8).
- Life with God in control brings fulfillment - because God brings richness of life. (2Corinthians 5:19,20)
A Life of Death for Others
The horizontal beam of the cross represents our relationship with others and as we place ourselves on the cross, we flesh out the life of Christ to the world around us.
Shortly before Jesus' death, he privately met with his disciples and taught them the parable of the sheep and the goats. In the parable, the goats were shocked by their plight of being cast away from God. They found even though some of them were religious, they did not express the true character of Christ in helping others.
The sheep heard a different message! "Then the King will say to those on his right, `Come, you who are blessed by my father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was in prison and you visited me. . . I tell you the truth, whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me'" (Matthew 25:34-36,40).
By daily forfeiting our comfort and our ego for other people's sake, we become the only Jesus people may see. In a sense, by following Jesus to the cross, we incarnate Christ to others and give them a living example of the new life to be found in him. Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds" (John 12:24). The saving grace of God is more than just a passive affection, but a desperate love that yearned to act on our behalf. So too, the saving faith of a believer is not passive but longs to reciprocate the gift he has received on the cross of Christ.
Contrasting How We Die
So how do we do it? How does a Christian get these frail bodies of flesh to submit to this principle of death, when everything in us strives for life and to live this life for ourselves? Is this surrender to death like the Buddhist goal of Nirvana (a blowing out or extinction of desire) or perhaps this is like the Muslim’s and Hindu’s self-flagellum in order to compel the body to yield to some sort of higher will? Certainly not!
The Christian’s pursuit of Christ’s likeness is significantly different than any religions in the following ways:
1) In the first case, all the various religions in the world are endeavouring to oppress their individual wills in order to strive toward some sort of salvation. A Christian, on the other hand, is saved by faith – by simply believing in Christ’s finished work on the cross. This is exclusively a gift we merely need to accept.
2) In the second case, the model we follow is not some sort of abstract legal requirement that only applies to us for some unknown or esoteric reason . . . Like a child asking a parent why they cannot play with a particular toy only to be told, “Because I Said So”. The paradigm a Christian pursues is the very nature and character of God. We should not lie, because God is truth; we should not steel, because God is our provider; and we can die, because God is life.
3) Finally, it’s not as though we come into a saving knowledge of Christ by faith, and having received new life, we now have to labour and sweat for God’s favour in our own strength. Having the ability or desire to die is not something we muster up ourselves; this too is the gift and work of God.
It’s seems surprising that the very first recorded miracle of Jesus was a simple act of turning water into wine (John 2:1-11). This was his advent into his public life, but no one was raised from the dead or even healed from some kind of horrible disease. Jesus simply provided a little wine for an insignificant wedding banquet in small town of Cana, Galilee. On a cursory level, this seems to be such an insignificant act. But was it really so insignificant?
The six stone water jars for that Jesus asked the servants to take in this story were analogous to “The Sea”, a giant bronze tub used by the priests in the temple to wash themselves and items used in the sacrificial process (1 Kings 7:23-26). Just as “The Sea” would typically hold 2000 baths (bath = 1/10 homer) of water when used, but could reach 3000 baths when filled to the brim, these stone water jars would hold 2 to 3 baths of water.
So these Jars would have been filled with the dust and dirt from every guest that entered that wedding banquet. We can only imagine how all this dirt from all the guests ceremonial washing of their hands and feet was stirred up and turned into a muddy cloud as the jars were filled up to the brim. So this was not pristine, clean water that was transformed into wine, it was filthy, dirty water and mud.
There’s an obvious but profound similarity here to how Jesus would soon cleanse any persons filthy rags (Isa 64:6), and transform a believer into Children of God and preparing them for His wedding banquet. The analogy runs even deeper than this at there were 6 stone jars selected, which is man’s number (Revelation 13:18), the number of failure and imperfection. The first time God had formed man in His image, He did it with dry earth or dust (Genesis 2:7). Here at the Cana wedding, we see the dust and dirt baptized into water, and then being transformed into the best wine.
The first type or shadow of this very process is seen when Moses came down from Mt Sinai with the two stone tablets of testimony (Exodus 32:1-20). Moses broke the tablets into pieces at the bottom of the mountain when he saw the golden idol and the people worshiping it. He then took the idol and:
1) Burned it (Hebrew – saraph)
2) Ground it (Hebrew – tachan)
3) Pounded it to powder (Hebrew – daqaq)
After Moses had turned the golden idol into dust, he spread the particles of gold over the surface of the river water that flowed down Mt Sinai, and made the people drink the water. It’s interesting that when gold is reduced into a powder fine enough and mixed together with water, the metal actually goes into suspension, turning the water rose red as if it were blood or wine.
The correlation of this early type supplied by Moses is seen fulfilled on the cross of Christ. After crucifying Jesus, his antagonisors first offered up wine mixed with gall (Matthew 27:34), and then wine vinegar mixed with water (Matthew 27:48). This bitter/sourer mixture of gall & vinegar we gave him was prophesied 1000 years earlier in Psalms 61:21, and the materials speak of man’s obsession with idolatry (Deuteronomy 29:17,18), and our propensity to wickedness (Deuteronomy 32:32,33). The wine that Jesus gave us back was his own blood, and this wine would be the best saved until last for, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us in all wisdom and insight (Ephesians 1 7,8).
The fundamental principle we see here through these verses is this . . . If we come to Jesus, he will redeem us through his blood, and as we bring him our dirt, our idolatry, and our wickedness, he will wash them through the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit (represented throughout scripture as water and baptism – Acts 1:5) and turn them all, turn all these wretched things into wine. This miraculous transformation work is God’s job! If we attempt to do this work in our own strength, our dirt will only multiply into more dirt. This is an absolutely essential principle for any Christian to understand, so let me ground this point in God’s Word.
The book of Romans is the Christian’s Manifesto. As eloquently as any poet or philosopher throughout human history, the apostle Paul effectively ties the theme and message of the Old Testament together with the Gospel, and skilfully delineates the nature and destiny of the human condition. Chapters 1& 2 describe the fallen nature of both the Non-Jew and the Jew, apart from the work of Christ. Out from this dark and despondent backdrop, Paul unveils the power, wisdom and riches that flow to man from the Gospel in Chapters 3 to 5, all through simply placing ones faith in the person and work of Christ.
However, in Chapter 6, it’s as though Paul takes a few steps backwards and once again wrestles with the issue of sin in the human condition. Here he asserts that those who claim to have been saved by grace, through faith, cannot abuse that grace as a certificate to sin. “What shall we say then? Are we to remain in sin so that grace may increase? Absolutely not! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 1:1,2) Dietrich Bonhoeffer coined a term for this mind-set, calling it ”Cheep Grace”, and writer of the book of Hebrews defines the attitude as: 1) having contempt for the Son of God, 2) profaning the blood of the covenant that makes one holy, and 3) insulting the Spirit of grace. (Hebrews 10:29)
In Chapter 7, Paul even concedes his own personal impotence to successfully overcoming this power of sin and the inevitable onslaught of guilt as he writes: “For I don’t understand what I am doing. For I do not do what I want—instead, I do what I hate” (Romans 7: 15). But finally, Paul resolution to this torrential brawl that is going on in every one of our lives is then unambiguously illustrated in Chapter 8. Paul writes: “the righteous requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4).
If a Christian is ever to have any hope of acquiring His likeness, we need to stop pretending we can actually do this work ourselves. That which the flesh is utterly incapable of doing, namely “Dieing”, God is able to work in our hearts as we’re baptised (John 1:33), walk in (Galatians 5:25) and are filled by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18).
But I say, live by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh. (Galations 5:16)
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