God loves the murderers of His Son

One of the most radical teachings of Christianity is that of God’s love. It does not merely teach that God is loving. Any human being is also loving! At the very least, any human being can be loving in the right circumstances and toward the right people: for example, parents can be loving toward their children, just as friends can be loving toward each other. But in the case God, Christianity teaches in a much more radical way that God Himself is love. Thus, the Apostle John writes: “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8).

The extent of God’s love is demonstrated in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the only-begotten Son of God (John 3:16). Although there is a sense in which all human beings are the sons and daughters of God, insofar as He has created them all and is continually sustaining them in life, Jesus is the Son of God in a special sense. Jesus and the Father relate to each other in a way that no human being can relate to God. Jesus is special in the eyes of the Father in a way that no mere human being can be special. For this reason, it is all the more impressive that God “did not withhold His own Son, but gave him up for all of us” (Rom. 8:32). God accepted that Jesus, His only Son, be crucified in order to offer Himself up for the sins of all humanity. This is how much God loves!

The Apostle Peter emphasizes precisely this point in his sermon to the crowd that gathered around him on the day of Pentecost. Pay close attention to the words he uses:

You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know — this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law.

Acts 2:22-23 New Revised Standard Version

His sermon begins with clear condemnations. “You have killed the Son of God!” This message cuts his audience right to the heart. They are filled with dread at the words being addressed to them. They realize the gravity of their crime, which was nothing less than the murder of God’s chosen. They ask Peter what they should do. Peter’s response is especially noteworthy:

Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.

Acts 2:38-39 New Revised Standard Version

Did you catch that? The persons whom Peter earlier condemned as guilty of the death of Jesus of Nazareth — these very same persons are now the ones to whom the promise of the Holy Spirit is destined! You have crucified and killed the very man attested to you by God with signs and wonders and miracles of all kinds. Therefore repent, because the promise of forgiveness and salvation and the gift of the Holy Spirit is for you!

This is the most marvelous quality of the love of God. God loves human beings so much that He even makes use of their evil and hatred against Him in order to do good to them. This gives a more impressive meaning to the statement of Paul that “while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). It is not just that we happened to be sinners, but God took pity upon us and did something good for us in order to save us. What God did in Jesus Christ was even more radical than that. He opened Himself up to our hatred and opposition to Him. Jesus Christ suffers tremendous opposition from sinners, even to the point of being crucified outside the city gates and exposed to the taunts of passersby, precisely so as to do something unspeakably good for the very persons crucifying Him! God makes Himself vulnerable to the full force of human sinfulness precisely so as to do good to the very murderers of His Son, Jesus Christ.

It is one thing to love a person who hates you. It is another thing to do good to a person who hates you. It is yet another thing to do an unimaginable good to a person who hates you in such a way that accomplishing this good means exposing yourself to the wrath and hatred of that person. But that is exactly what God does in Jesus Christ. Precisely through the death of His Son on the cross, God makes possible the salvation and redemption of His Son’s killers. God loves the murderers of His Son.

There is a final point worth making here. Peter does not say that God loves sinners. That is far too general. That kind of formulation is too imprecise. It might leave us wondering if God also loves us in particular. Plenty of people love animals, but they may not love some animal in particular. Peter does not talk like this. He says very clearly: The promise of the Holy Spirit is for you. That is how we should think about things. This “you” that Peter uses refers to all of us. Every single person, because of his or her sins, played a role in the death of Christ. But for that reason, it is also true that the death of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, and the promise of the Holy Spirit is for each one of us. Anyone who can be called “you” is included in what Peter says. This means that God loves you, as well.

Evangelism is about sharing our joy

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In the Christian circles in which I grew up, evangelism was considered something like a Christian duty. People are in danger of hell. If they are not given the opportunity to repent by being preached the Gospel, they will not stand a chance at the Judgment. Evangelization was the way in which a Christian fulfills his or her duty to obey the commandment of Christ: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20).

Still, for many people evangelization is an embarrassing and difficult task. Some people are afraid of the ways others will react. Others are afraid of the questions that they might encounter when the share the Gospel with their friends or family or coworkers or even strangers. “Why should I believe in God? What about all the evil in the world?” “How could a good God send people to Hell? I am a moral person even though I do not believe in God.” Some Christians might even feel that the challenge of evangelizing others is too great for them. They might worry that they do not themselves have any good reasons for being Christians, or at the very least they don’t know what they are supposed to say and how to support it so that others will listen.

I think that this is an unfortunate state of affairs. If we look at the example of the Apostles of Jesus themselves, they did not think about evangelism in this way. I would especially like to consider this passage from the First Epistle of the Apostle John:

We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

1 John 1:3-4 New Revised Standard Version

I think we can gain a new perspective on and passion for evangelization if we learn to think about it from the perspective of the Apostle John.

There are a few things worth noting in what John has written.

First, notice that John writes: “We declare to you what we have seen and heard.” This means that evangelism is about sharing something we have experienced with others.

Of course, John and the other apostles all lived with Jesus for around three years. They sat at the table with Him and enjoyed the privilege of learning from Him directly. They saw Him when He was taken in the Garden. John was there when He was crucified. They also saw Him after He was resurrected. They even sat down at the table and ate and drank with Him after His resurrection. They have experiences with Christ that none of us living in the present day can have.

But that doesn’t mean that we do not also have experiences to share! What Christian has not experienced joy at the Gospel announcement of the forgiveness of sins? What Christian has never experienced the presence of God in acts of worship or prayer? What Christian has never experienced the guidance of God offered through the words of Scripture? All these are experiences which a Christian can share with others in evangelization. They are not even profound, life-changing religious experiences — although some people have experiences like those, as well. They are ordinary experiences that can be a part of everyday Christian life.

But suppose you cannot think of any such experiences to share. That does not mean you cannot evangelize. In the first place, the most important experiences are precisely the ones that the Apostles share. Christianity is not a religion we made up. It is a religion that was received from Christ Himself and from His Apostles. They were the ones who learned from Him, who received His teaching and passed it down to others, who saw Him and spent time with Him after His resurrection. More than anything, when we evangelize, we are simply picking up where the Apostles left off, so to speak, and sharing their message with others. But beyond this, we can also all pursue such experiences in our spiritual life. We can do this very simply: by attending Church; by praying; by reading from Scripture and asking God to speak to us; and so on. If a person has no experience with God whatsoever to share with others, it may be better for him or her to seek God first before sharing the message with others.

The second noteworthy thing John mentions is this. He writes “so that you may also have fellowship with us.” In other words, evangelism is an invitation into a community. Sharing the Gospel with others is aimed at bringing those others into the fellowship of the Church, the people of Jesus. The point of evangelism is not merely to get people to say a prayer on a street corner or to share a message of doom and gloom with passersby. The goal is always that of expanding the community of believers, by inviting people into this group voluntarily. Evangelism is about spreading the friendship and communion of the Church throughout the whole world. Just as those in the Church are friends with one another and with God and His Son Jesus Christ, so also all people are called into this friendship which knows no boundaries or limits.

This means, of course, that we cannot evangelize properly if we are not ourselves in this same fellowship. Who is the “lone wolf” evangelist who belongs to no Church, is accountable to no person, who maintains no friendship with any other Christians? There is something wrong with this image. The Apostles did not try to create their own churches. They did not compete with one another. They had a single fellowship, the Church. They were all in friendship and communion with one another. Their evangelization was a matter of inviting others into this friendship and communion.

The third notable thing that John writes is this: “We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” How to understand this?

John has said that he and the other Apostles are in fellowship with one another and with God and His Son Jesus Christ. This is a source of joy for them. It is a joyful thing to be in friendship with other people. It is an even more joyful thing to be in friendship with God and Jesus Christ. But at the same time, what John says seems to imply that this joy of friendship is incomplete. It is not enough for John merely to be friends with the other Apostles, nor even with God and Jesus. No! The joy that these friendships bring wants to expand itself. It wants to grow more and more. And it grows precisely when other people are also included in it, as well.

Perhaps we can think of it like this. I know that when I find a good thing, I can’t wait to talk about it and share it with others. Whether it is a great movie, or a catchy song, or a pleasant restaurant, or a surprisingly good store, I don’t want to keep good things merely to myself. They seem even better when others can enjoy them alongside me. In the same way, John and the Apostles came to know a certain profound joy when they entered into fellowship with each other through their fellowship with God in Jesus Christ. God brought them together through His Son, and this was a source of joy for them. And this joy is so powerful, so wonderful, so impressive, that one cannot help but to want to share it with others as well. The joy of friendship with God in Jesus Christ wants to spread itself to others, as well.

This is the true meaning of evangelism, according to the Apostle John. Evangelism is about sharing the joy of a life lived in friendship with God through Jesus Christ. It is about inviting others into this joy which every Christian lives, indeed, which is the very substance of Christian life. Being a Christian means enjoying the friendship of God and His Son Jesus Christ in fellowship with others, and evangelization is about inviting others to participate in this same joy. If we learn to think about evangelism in this way, I think that it will stop seeming like a burden or an impossible task and rather become an expression of a joy that will not let itself be contained.

There is nothing to worry about!

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Everyone worries about things. Some people are more prone to worry than others, but more or less everyone can agree that it makes sense to worry about at least some things. Indeed, some people might look at you quite strange if you do not worry about things! For that reason, it is all the more surprising that Christ teaches us not to worry:

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Matthew 6:34 New Revised Standard Version

How is it that Christ can teach us not to worry? Why does He tell us this?

What I think is most fascinating about this teaching of Christ is the way of life to which it calls us. Worry has to do with two things: things in the future, and things we do not know. More specifically, worrying is a way of thinking about the future. Worrying means thinking that something in future either will be or could be bad for us. By telling us not to worry, Christ is effectively turning our minds away from the future and onto the present moment. As He says, “Today’s trouble is enough for today.” In other words, Christ teaches us not to project our expectations of harm and suffering onto the future, so that we only concern ourselves with what is “right there in front of us,” so to speak.

There is a deeper significance to all this, and if we grasp the deeper significance, then we will be able to understand the truly radical and profound nature of Christ’s teaching.

People have a natural desire to know things. That is what Aristotle famously said. One of things people desire to know is the future – what will happen to them and to the ones they love, for example. Now, we know things by making judgments about them. We judge that a thing is this way or that, and when we see that the thing is as we judged it to be, we gain knowledge. The problem is that the future is not visible in this way. We cannot simply look into the future to see what it will be like. And yet we want to know what it is! That is why we worry. Worrying means making judgments about what the future will be, – more specifically, making judgments that the future can or even will be bad for us, – even though we cannot see it.

But Christ teaches us that we have nothing to gain by worrying. He says: “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matt. 6:27). Obviously not! But notice the deeper significance of this. We have a natural desire to know things, so that we are benefited by knowing. If there is no benefit to worrying, then it follows that worrying does not secure knowledge! Even knowing would be a benefit. If there is no benefit in worrying, then there must not be any knowledge gained by it, either.

How can Christ teach us that we do not gain knowledge by worrying? Let’s return once more to the definition of worry. Worrying means forming the judgment that the future can or will be bad for us. If worrying does not produce knowledge, it must be that the future will not be bad for us. And that is in fact what Christ teaches:

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? … Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ … Indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.

Matthew 6:26, 31-32 New Revised Standard Version

We have now arrived at the reason why we should not worry, which is also the reason why worrying does not produce knowledge. It is because God loves and cares for us! That is why there is nothing to worry about: because God, who is control of all things, loves us and looks out for us. That is why there is nothing to worry about. As the Apostle Paul says elsewhere, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).

The teaching of Christ is truly radical. He teaches us not to worry. And He tells us the reason why we shouldn’t worry: Because God, who is greater than all and in control of everything, is Himself our Father who loves us and looks out for us in everything. So do not worry about anything!

Who is in the family of Jesus?

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One of my favorite passages from Scripture is found in the Gospel according to Mark, toward the end of the third chapter:

Then [Jesus’] mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Mark 3:31-35 New Revised Standard Version

I think this passage is so wonderful because of the encouraging and faith-giving openness and love which Christ so clearly demonstrates here.

One of the most pressing questions our conscience may put before us in this life is this: Do you belong to Christ? Are you in His will? This question can be a good one if it turns us back from a very sinful and dark life. But it can also be a burdensome question, since there will always be something in our lives that can give us reason to question ourselves. We deceive ourselves if we seriously think that we do not have sin (1 John 1:8-9). And as long as there is some sin in us, there will always be something about us that does not conform to the will of God in Jesus Christ. One might wonder, then, how can we have any kind of confidence that we belong to Christ!

This particular passage is so wonderful because of the magnanimity and generosity that Christ shows. He puts it plainly: Whoever does the will of God is the brother, sister, or mother of Christ. Now, this can sound quite intimidating. Didn’t we just finish saying that there is always something “off” about us? That we never perfectly embody the will of God? How, then, can we have any confidence that we belong to Christ? But look at what Christ says to those in the crowd: “Who are my mother and my brothers? … Here are my mother and my brothers!” (vv. 33-34). Those people who had crowded around Him, He calls His brothers, sisters, and mothers. So it must be possible for us to achieve this status, since others have achieved, it also.

But what did they do that was so wonderful? Should we understand Christ to be implying that these persons who had gathered around Him really did fulfill the entirety of the Law of God in every detail? That God could make no claim against them? Of course not. But then, what did they do that was so great as to merit being considered the brothers, sisters, and mothers of Christ?

In reality, all they did was this: to look toward Jesus, to sit and to listen to Him, and to seek everything from Him. This is all they did! They might not have been particularly good people. They might have been in conflict with each other; they might have had dark secrets in their own personal lives; they might have come from broken and dysfunctional families; they might have very many things of which to be ashamed. But they did one thing right, and Christ calls them His brothers, sisters, and mothers. What was this one thing? They gathered around Christ and looked to Him for everything. That is the “one thing that is necessary” (cf. Luke 10:38-42), and it is what made them to be the very family of Christ.

The will of God, in the most ultimate sense, is that each and every person turn toward Christ and seek everything good in Him. This is even what He said at the scene of the Transfiguration. When Jesus’ clothes had turned into a dazzling white, a great light shining about Him, and Moses and Elijah appeared on the mountain talking with him, “Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to Him!’” (Mark 9:7). What God wants from us is that we all turn toward Christ.

What does it mean to “turn toward Christ”? It means to look to Him for everything. Whatever it is that we may want or need, – whether teaching, or healing, or direction, or encouragement, or whatever, – we must get it from Christ. That is why Paul talks about “Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:2-3). And Christ Himself calls us to this: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). As long as we do this, we are in the family of God; we are the brothers, sisters, and mothers of Christ. And it can be as simple as “joining the crowd” and listening to what Christ has to say. After all, this is what those in that crowd then had done, and Christ says without any further ado that they are members of His family.

This means that you, too, so long as you have come to listen to the words of Christ, are in His family. You, too, so long as you are looking toward Him for something, are the brother or sister of Christ. And merely for looking for something from Him, He gives you the most wonderful gift of all: that of being in His family, as His brother or sister, as one who belongs to Him. You belong to Christ! You are His! You are His because you recognize, however dimly or clearly, that He alone is the source of your salvation. Indeed, He loves you and considers you His own. And just as you would love a brother or a sister and do anything for their good, so also does Christ love you, more than He loves Himself even, since He gives His life for your life.

Salvation is not (just) what Christ does. It’s what He is

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Christianity teaches that Christ is the Savior of the world (John 4:42). It teaches that Christ has died, offering Himself as a ransom for the sins of all people (1 Tim. 2:6). John has a particularly profound way of making the point:

If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

1 John 2:1-2 New Revised Standard Version

I think it is important to meditate very closely on what John says here.

For most people, there is a distinction between what they do and who they are. For most people, you can’t limit their entire identity to their day job, so to speak! The manager of your favorite restaurant is not merely a restaurant manager. She might also be a wife, a mother, a fan of baseball, an amateur painter, and so on. Your father was a father and a husband, but he also had various hobbies and interests, in addition to being a person with a private life of his own. And I am not merely the administrator of this website! I am also a husband, a college professor, a fan of jazz music, a brother, a brother-in-law, a son, a cousin, a friend for many, and so on. For most people, there is a distinction between who they are and what they do. Most people cannot be summarized by merely describing what they do.

But if that is the case, wouldn’t the same also hold true for Christ? Unfortunately, many people think this is true. They will admit that Jesus is the Savior of the world, the ransom of all people, the advocate for sinners. But they will also include other things here. They will describe Christ as also being any number of other things. These people will say: Yes, Christ is the Savior, but He is also…

The problem with this way of thinking about Christ is that it makes us lose trust in Him. So long as I say “Christ is Savior, but…”, I am leaving open the possibility that He is not Savior for me. After all, I am a husband and a professor, but I am not a husband or professor to everyone! No one who is not my wife can expect me to be a husband to them. No one who is not my student can expect me to be a professor to them. Thus, if we say that Christ is Savior, but He is also …, we are leaving open the possibility that Christ is not a Savior to us. And this makes us lose trust in Him.

Why would this make us lose trust in Him? Because if we are honest with ourselves, we can all find things in us that would make us unworthy of Christ. We all have sins, shortcomings, failings, mistakes, grave errors that we have committed. We haven’t forgotten about them. Once we committed them, they remained permanently imprinted in our memories. We know there is nothing we can do to make them go away, to make it as if it never happened. Those words spoken cannot be taken back; that thing we did cannot be undone. And when we look into ourselves and find all these things in us, we despair! We realize that we have messed up. And when we see that we have these things “on our record,” so to speak, we can only cower in fear of the Judgment of Christ.

The way out of this situation is to think differently about Christ. We must no longer think about salvation as merely one more thing that Christ does. Rather, we must think that salvation is what Christ is. It is His very definition as a person that He is the Savior. Look at the passage once more:

He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

1 John 2:2 New Revised Standard Version

Look at what John says! He does not say that Christ’s death was the atoning sacrifice for our sins. That would mean that atonement would be just one more thing that Christ does. It would leave open the possibility that Christ is more than just a Savior, and thus He may not be a Savior to us. Rather, John says that He, Christ Himself, the person, is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. It’s as if he said: there is nothing more to the person of Jesus than to make atonement for sinners and to bring them to God (1 Pet. 3:18). This is the whole of His identity and the substance of the definition of His person.

So there is no room for despair! Salvation is not (just) what Christ does. It’s what He is! Christ is Himself salvation. He is your Savior and mine. He has died for our sins and made atonement for us. And He will bring us to God. Like the theologian Samuel Rutherford said, Christ cares more about us than about His own life, since He gave His life in order to have us. So we do not need to fear anything from Him. He loves us, makes atonement for our sins, and teaches us how to live like children of God, shining like stars in the darkness of the world (Phil. 2:14-15).