What's So Good About Good Friday?

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Good Friday is a paradoxical holiday, in that it labels something that is unquestionably horrific and evil as “good.”  After all, when we think of the events of Good Friday, we should think about spitting, beating, blood, torture, flesh being ripped and torn, hands and feet being nailed to wood, stabbing, and the most intense physical suffering that a human being can endure.  Indeed the Bible says of Jesus: “his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind…” (Isaiah 52.14)  In other words, Jesus was beaten so badly that you had seen him you’d have to do a double take just to know that he was, in fact, a human being.  To make matters even more undignified and horrible, some believe that when Jesus asked for a drink (John 19.28-30), the soaked sponge that was given to him to suck on was serving double duty from its regular job of being used as toilet paper.  

But when we move beyond the physical abuse that Jesus suffered and look toward the spiritual side of this day’s proceedings, things begin to seem even less “good.”  One of the thieves that was crucified with Jesus noted that he (the thief) was getting what he deserved: “…we are receiving the due rewards of our deeds.”  The shocking part is what he says next: “but this man has done nothing wrong.” (Luke 23.41)  Not only did Jesus suffer all of the horrible abuse noted above, but he did so as an innocent.  He never sinned.  He was perfect in thought, word, and deed.  He never did anything that would warrant any kind of punishment or discipline, let alone disfigurement and torture.  

Good Friday?  Really?

Well, maybe we’re misunderstanding the word “good.”  Maybe it’s supposed to mean something else in this context.  Wikipedia says that the use of the word “good” in regards to this holiday is meant to imply the sense of “pious” or “holy.”  It also reports that some Christian traditions use the terms “Holy Friday,” “Great Friday”, or “Black Friday” for their remembrance of this holiday.  But considering that “Black Friday” in our culture is a day devoted to materialism and excess, that’s probably not a good choice for us.  Similarly, “Great Friday” seems to have as many paradoxical problems as “Good Friday.”  But I’m going to stick with “Good Friday,” and I’m going to use a definition of “good” that implies “advantageous” or “beneficial” or even “morally right,” and I’ll tell you why.

If we look to the pages of scripture, the paradox is stripped away and we can begin to understand how something so bad could, in fact, be “good.”  In fact, the reality of Jesus’ suffering and death is an occasion for joy for Christians.  Not that we take pleasure in his suffering, or that we sadistically enjoy the thought of violence and torture of the innocent – by no means.  Instead, we exult in the result of what Jesus accomplished on behalf of those who would believe through his suffering and death.  2 Corinthians 5.21 says: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  Jesus took the sins of those who would believe upon himself.  That is, all of the times a believer has broken God’s law were transferred from himself to Jesus.  

The one who was sinless became sinful; the one who was perfect became corrupt; the one who was pure became vile.  Jesus went from never having told a lie, to having told all of the lies of all people who would ever trust in him; Jesus went from never having stolen a thing in his life, to having stolen all things that anyone who would trust in him, had stolen; Jesus went from never having had a lustful thought, to having all of the lustful thoughts of his people placed upon him; Jesus went from never having an angry thought toward anyone else to having the murderous intentions of his people placed upon him.  This is how he “became sin” – he took the sins of all those who would believe upon himself.  

And the logical result of “being sin” is obvious: punishment.  A good judge punishes criminals who have committed crimes, and a good God punishes sinners who have committed sins.  To not punish sin would be just as evil as a human judge not punishing a murderer.  But in the case of Jesus, he took all the sins of all the people who would ever trust in him, on himself.  Therefore it says in Isaiah 53.10 that it “pleased” the Lord to crush him.  How could God be pleased about punishing his perfect Son who had the sins of others thrust upon him?  Because, in God’s great mercy, this was his divine plan, and the Jesus submitted to it willingly out of love.  And since sin must be punished, and since Jesus bore the weight of sin, it was good and right that the punishment fell upon him.

But it doesn’t end there.  Jesus didn’t just take sin and die.  He also transferred his righteousness – his perfect sinlessness – to all those who would believe in him.  So that when a believer stands before God, he sees the righteousness of Christ.  And when God looked at Jesus on the cross, he sees the sins of his people.  And beyond that, he rose from the dead, demonstrating his power over death and sin.  This, my friends, is good news.  It is, in fact, the best news.

So should we call Good Friday “good?”  Yes, by all means.  But with a serious, somber, and sober recognition that it was my sin that brought this holiday about.  But we should also celebrate this holiday and rejoice that there is a God who is loving and merciful so as to sacrifice his only Son in my place, and who would give me his righteousness so that I might have eternal life.  So call it “Good Friday,” or “Wonderful Friday,” or “Fantastic Friday,” or whatever you want to call it, as long as you know why it’s “good.”

Not the Kind of King We Want

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This past Sunday marked Palm Sunday, the day when the church remembers Jesus' triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem.  At Riverview, we marked this special day by singing triumphant hymns and watching as cute preschoolers marched down the center aisle, waiving palm branches and shouting "Hosanna!"  Additionally, Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week - the final week of Jesus' life - when we remember his crucifixion, death, and subsequent resurrection. 

But the celebration of Palm Sunday has often confused me, and still does.  Aside from the fact that Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem fulfilled scripture (Zechariah 9.9, Psalm 118.25-26), and the fact that Israel's rightful king was entering into her capital city, I don't see much to celebrate.  If anything, the "celebration" that took place on the original Palm Sunday only served to show that Jesus is the kind of king the people don't really want. 

There has been some scholarly debate recently over whether or not the crowd who cried "Hosanna!" on the day of Jesus' entry was the same crowd that cried "Crucify him!" just a week later.  John Ensor says that the two crowds were distinct, and that those who welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday were not the same as those who called for his execution later in the week, whereas Dave Miller thinks the two groups were one in the same. 

My opinion?  It doesn't really matter.  Regardless of which crowd you find yourself in - either the "Hosanna!" crowd, or the "Crucify!" crowd - when it all boils down, Jesus isn't the kind of king you want. 

Obviously those in the "Crucify!" crowd didn't want Jesus to be their king.  If they did, they certainly wouldn't be calling for his execution.  But I would also argue that those who declared "Blessed is he who comes in name of the Lord!" also didn't really want Jesus to be their king.  The reason for this is that Jesus wasn't the kind of king they wanted. 

The people wanted a national king - a king who would re-establish Israel as a world-power; a king who would release them from he tyrannical grip of Rome; a king who would bring them peace and prosperity; a king who would assert their dominance as an international force to be reckoned with, like in the days of king David; a king that would rule over the nations, with Israel as its head.  Israel wanted a king that would align himself with a predetermined political agenda.  That is who they thought he was, and that is what they thought he would do, and that is why they shouted, "Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"

Even Jesus' closest friends and followers - his disciples - were very confused on this issue.  They thought that Jesus' kingdom would be an earthly one - one over which they would help him rule.  This is why they asked to sit at his right and left hand when he came into his kingdom (Mark 10.37).  Presumably, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, his disciples probably thought that all they had imagined about his (supposedly earthly) kingdom was about to come true.  And even when Jesus was about to ascend into heaven after his resurrection, his disciples thought that he was still going to establish an earthly kingdom (Acts 1.6).  Put simply, the crowds who shouted "Hosanna!" - and even the disciples - didn't know what kind of king Jesus was. 

But they would learn, and quickly.  Right after Jesus went into Jerusalem, he "cleansed" the temple by driving out all of the merchants and their wares, essentially condemning the corruption that had become a regular part of Jewish religious life.  To drive the point home, he declared Jerusalem spiritually bankrupt and publicly condemned its religious leaders and teachers. 

"Wait a minute," the people say, "maybe this guy isn't who we thought he was..."

Jesus didn't enter Jerusalem to establish a new or continuing earthly kingdom in Israel.  He didn't come to defeat their enemies and set Israel up as a leader on the world stage.  He wasn't the kind of king they wanted.

We want a king who will do what we tell him to do, not the other way around.  Or, as my mentor Dave Wick used to say, "Most people want to serve God in an advisory capacity."  That is, we're happy to shout "Hosanna!" as long as the king does what we want him to do.  What we want is a king who thinks and does exactly like we do.  We want to be our own king.  I am the kind of king I want.

But this is not the kind of king Jesus is.  Jesus will not be forced into a political agenda; Jesus will not be subservient to your desire to obtain a prosperous life.  Instead, Jesus is the kind of king who is "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities - all things were created through him and for him.  And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church.  He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.  For in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross" (Colossians 1. 15-20). 

Is that the kind of king you want?  Because that's the kind of king Jesus is, and that is what he came to do. 

If we will know Jesus for who he truly is, then we will not set him up on some man-made pedestal that he was never meant to be on (as many of even his own followers did in the first century), and then become angry when he doesn't live up to our selfish expectations of him.  Jesus came to fulfill his purposes, not mine.

Holy Week is a time for us to know who Jesus is, in truth.  It is a time for us to submit ourselves to Jesus' kingship, rule, and reign.  It is a time to remember the kind of King he is, and to worship him in spirit and in truth.  It is a time to remember that my own rulership of the world only leads to sin and sadness, and that his way leads to life.  It is a time to submit my own will and desires to his sovereign rule.  It is a time to repent of trying to force the will of God into my own agenda.  It is a time to trust and rejoice in our good King.

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Several weeks ago we received a question on our Ask Anything page about marijuana use and the Christian. More and more states are legalizing the use of cannabis for various purposes, and Minnesota is currently considering the question as well, and it will only be a matter of time before legal recreational marijuana use becomes a reality. Therefore, it seems wise for Christians to think biblically about this question. But to do so, I think we need to break it down into two categories.

Medicinal Use
When it comes to using marijuana for medicinal purposes, Christians should whole-heartedly support its use. God has given us a multitude of substances and chemicals that treat diseases and alleviate pain. To the extent that marijuana can be used to these ends, by all means. We should invest time, energy, and money into studying how marijuana can be used to serve humanity in these ways. There are already a myriad of studies and testimonials of people who have used marijuana effectively as a medicinal agent.

As with all substances, however, we should give careful time and attention to how it is dispensed and utilized for medicinal purposes. Numerous medications are controlled substances that must only be used under supervision and dispensed in a controlled manner. As long as medical marijuana can be supervised and controlled, Christians should rejoice that elements of God’s creation are being used to alleviate human suffering.

Recreational Use
All of creation is God’s good gift to us (Genesis 1.29-30). There is nothing that he has created that is inherently sinful or wrong. It is only when we use God’s creation for purposes outside of his intention that our use of them becomes sinful (see Romans 1.22-23). Such is the case with marijuana. Like anything else, God created it good, and it can serve a good and beneficial function when used rightly. But when used wrongly it leads to intoxication and sin.

There is only one purpose for recreational marijuana use: intoxication. Whereas the Bible instructs us to keep our minds focused and ready for action (1 Peter 4.1), marijuana slows our minds down and clouds our thinking.. Paul says that one of the effects of living in the Spirit of God is that he gives us a “sound mind” (2 Timothy 1.7), whereas marijuana use diminishes our capacity for clarity of thought and righteous decision-making. Why would we knowingly resist the Spirit’s work of giving us a sound mind by clouding it up with marijuana smoke? Marijuana is an intoxicating drug, and there is no way to use it recreationally without becoming intoxicated (in fact, that is its only purpose when used recreationally). When we become intoxicated (by any substance) we are less prepared to fight sin, ward off temptation, make God-honoring decisions, etc. When our minds are clouded over by drugs, we are more inclined to give into temptation, to make decisions we might otherwise regret, and so on. It seems to me that the Bible would have us preserve the soundness of our minds and not willfully cloud them over with something like recreational marijuana use. It’s hard to fight the fight of faith in a haze. Everyday we face new temptations and the devil throws challenges are way. We would be wise to address those head on, with a clear mind.

To be sure, alcohol can have these same affects on the mind when used and abused. To this extent, a Christian should regard marijuana and alcohol similarly. Any substance that clouds our thinking and inhibits our decision-making should be avoided. There is a significant difference between alcohol and marijuana, however, in that alcohol can be used without feeling its intoxicating effects. We see this pattern in scripture as well, as many in the Bible (including Jesus) imbibed during celebrations and festivities. But God forbids drunkenness. Marijuana, however, can’t be used apart from its intoxicating effects.

The issue is not so much the substance, but rather the purpose of its use. It’s possible to use alcohol without becoming intoxicated. It’s not possible to use marijuana without becoming intoxicated. Because of the intoxicating nature of substances like cannabis and alcohol, my advice to Christians would be to use alcohol only after a good deal of thought and introspection, and for Christians to not use marijuana for any recreational reason.

Also, no matter what Christians do, whether enjoying a beer after a long day or smoking a joint to relax, we should ask ourselves why we are doing the things we do, and what impact they have on our Christian testimony. What messages is sent (if any) to the world about my faith if I need a beer in order to relax? What does it say about my faith if I need to get high in order to have a good time? We should learn to temper our actions through introspection.

Paul says that all things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial (1 Corinthians 10.23). Marijuana use for medicinal purposes is clearly good and right, but for recreational purposes it is far from beneficial.

Visual Theology

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I read a lot of books. Some of the books are for pleasure, and most are for study, in conjunction with my work as a pastor. For the past three years I have published a “Top 10” list of the books I read each year. You can check out those lists here, here, and here. Although we’re still relatively early in 2019, I think I’ve already read the book that will be number one on my list for this year.

A couple of months ago I pre-ordered a copy of A Visual Theology Guide to the Bible by Tim Challies and Josh Byers. I was excited to get the book for two reasons: 1) I read Tim Challies’ blog regularly and really like his writing, and 2) I love infographics! I received the book last week and have already read it through, which is not something I usually do.

Let me be to the point: you need to get a copy of this book. If you only purchase one book this year, it should be this book (unless you need a new Bible, then definitely go with the new Bible).

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This book is unique in a variety of ways. I guarantee that you have never read another book like this one. It’s almost something you need to see to believe. Each page of the book contains written information, but there is also at least one graphic design that accompanies the block of text, visually communicating what was written in the text. And on many pages, the text is the graphic. Don’t confuse it for a picture book. The graphics in this book speak in ways that text by itself simply can’t. It’s a fascinating and first of its kind (as far as I know) approach to writing and communicating in book form.

The book is broken down into three parts: 1. Trusting the Bible, 2. Studying the Bible, and 3. Seeing the Bible. The first part is a defense of how and why the Bible exists. It covers issues such as textual criticism, numbers of biblical manuscripts, languages of the Bible, dates of writings, how the canon was formed, the accuracy and reliability of scripture, and so much more.

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The second part covers things like how to read the Bible, looking at different genres, memorizing scripture, methods for studying the Bible, and so on. But remember: it doesn’t just communicate these things by the use of text, but also (and primarily) graphically. You will spend as much, if not more, time looking as you do reading.

The third section of the book tells the overarching story of the Bible, and shows how the whole thing is pointing to Christ and his work in and through the gospel. But I guarantee that it does so in a way that you’ve never seen before. You’ll see infographics on Asbraham’s travels, the conquest of Canaan, the cycle of the Judges, a layout of the Tabernacle, the prophecies of Christ’s coming, Jesus’ miracles, a defense of the factual nature of Jesus’ resurrection, and so much more. My personal favorite graphic from this section is the one on the book of Psalms.

Not only is this book well written and beautifully designed, but perhaps the best feature about it is its utility. That is, this book is incredibly useful. Christians would do well to read this book in tandem with their regular Bible reading. It will compliment your study of scripture incredibly, and it will do so in a unique, engaging and, dare I say, entertaining way. You will benefit from your Bible reading by reading this book. And you will enjoy reading the Bible more if you read this book. That may sound like an overstatement, but that’s how wonderfully done this book is.

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There are few other books that I would recommend for non-believers more than this book. Although it is primarily about the Bible, this book has a distinct apologetic flavor to it. Not only does it teach the Bible, but it also defends the Bible, and it does so in a way that will not be off-putting to unbelievers. Sometimes I feel like Christian publications come with a certain “cheese ball” factor that a reader or consumer has to “get over” in order to actually receive the message. Not so with this book. The medium is the message, and the medium of this book presents the message in an absolutely engaging way that pretty much anybody - believer or unbeliever - will be pulled into. If you have an unbelieving friend, or a family member who has ever asked questions about the Bible, its reliability, or its message, this is the book that you should give to them.

Seriously: if you can, get yourself a copy of this book. Or check it out from Riverview’s library.

The Normal Christian Life

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This past Sunday I preached a message on the story of David and Goliath from 1 Samuel 17 titled “The Normal Christian Life.” One of my goals for the message was to communicate that David didn’t really do anything spectacular in defeating Goliath. He didn’t have any special weaponry, armor, or fighting skills. Instead, he simply did four things that are central and common to the life of anyone seeking to walk by faith:

  1. David viewed his circumstances through a spiritual filter. In other words, David saw the spiritual reality behind the physical circumstances of his life. The rest of Israel looked at Goliath and saw a more than nine and a half foot tall invincible enemy. David looked at Goliath and saw a man who was not stronger than God. Like David, Christians live their lives by interpreting their circumstances through a spiritual lens.

  2. David made decisions according to God’s faithfulness to his promises. Since David was looking at his life through spiritual eyes, he made decisions based on his knowledge of God’s faithfulness to his promises. This led him to tell King Saul, “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine. Your servant will go and fight him.” The only reason David made this decision was because of his spiritual knowledge and his trust that God would keep his word. This practice should be a normal part of how Christians live their lives. We make decisions based upon our knowledge of God’s faithfulness to his promises.

  3. David believed in his own weakness and in God’s strength. In order to fight Goliath, David first had to realize that he was utterly incapable of defeating the giant. No weapons, armor, or skill that he had in and of himself could ever hope to bring Goliath down. In order to defeat the giant, David had to not only realize this but embrace the truth that he was utterly weak. But it turns out that this is a fine place to be, because God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. Part of the normal Christian life is embracing our inadequacies and thereby experiencing God’s limitless strength.

  4. The motivation for David’s obedience was a commitment to God’s glory. The fuel for David’s battle against Goliath was his desire for the glory of God to be known by all who would see the giant fall. David knew that Goliath would only fall if God did something. In other words, in Goliath’s defeat, everyone who saw the battle would know that God had acted mightily - not David. Part of living the Christian life is a desire to live in such a way that people are able to see God’s glory through you (1 Samuel 17.46).

As I have written about before, there’s no such thing as “Bible heroes.” There are only weak men who reckoned upon God’s being with them, David included. David didn’t wake up that morning expecting to slay a giant. But he did wake up that day intending to something very normal: trust God and walk by faith.

We balk at the notion that David didn’t do anything spectacular or extraordinary in his battle against Goliath. Surely there must be something special about him in order for him to defeat Goliath! Doesn’t David deserve some credit for slaying the giant? I don’t think so. Instead, David simply did what any follower of God wants to do: trust in God and make decisions accordingly. It’s certainly true that God did something remarkable with David’s faith and obedience, but there was nothing David did that you and I can’t duplicate in our own lives.

By saying this I am meaning to differentiate between what David did, and what God did. For David’s part, he essentially did the four things listed above: see the spiritual reality of his physical circumstances, act according to God’s promises, embrace his own weakness and God’s strength, and obey for the glory of God. These are all very human and very attainable things for any follower of God. For God’s part, on the other hand, he used David’s faith and obedience to do something remarkable: take down the invincible giant.

I don’t mean to over-simplify the Christian life, but perhaps we too often over-complicate it. It’s easy to get caught up in the ifs, hows, whens, and whys that we never even take a step of faith. David’s experience is “normal” to the extent that he simply trusted and followed where God led. This is the same opportunity available to you and I. We can likewise share in this normal Christian life that David lived. And we serve the same God as David did. In David’s case, his “normal Christian life” found him on a battlefield with a dead giant at his feet. It may be that God will use your “normal Christian life” to slay giants as well. Or not. That’s not up to you and I. Our job is to trust and obey, and to leave the results up to God, knowing that whatever we do - and whatever God does - it will be for our good and ultimately for his glory.

Sometimes the story of David and Goliath is taught as an encouragement that, if you just believe enough, anyone can topple the giants in their life. Don’t believe that for a minute. The giants in your life will kill you; they will chew you up and spit you out. You are utterly unprepared to face them on the field of battle. But the giants of your life can’t kill your God. In fact, they are nothing compared to him, and he reigns over them as Lord. And he calls you to face your giants. But not under your own power. Instead, walk by faith, act according to God’s promises, and commit yourself to displaying his glory with your life, and leave the results up to him. This is what it means to live the “normal Christian life.”