Know What You Believe–A series based on The Apostles’ Creed–Part 12
1 Corinthians 15:51-53
Why did Jesus Christ come?
The historian Luke records the declaratory statement of the angel to the shepherds in Luke 2:10-11: “‘Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.'”
The word savior literally means “rescuer.” So why did Jesus come? Jesus came to give you salvation. He came to rescue you.
It is important to realize this salvation, this rescue, has individual and corporate implications. Let us look at this rescue, this salvation, in a three-step, time progressional perspective.
First, Jesus came to give you salvation (rescue) from an old style of life – an END.
Jesus came to help people with a past put that past behind them. Salvation is rescue from the past. You can’t do this on your own. You need a Savior. What is for certain about the past?
Jesus rescues you from your bondage to past sin.
The fact is that none of us is perfect. All of us have sinned. The Bible tells us that there is no way in which we can atone for our own sins. We need a Savior. God became a human being in the person of Jesus Christ to die for your and my sins. If we repent of sin, confess our need, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us of all iniquity. The Bible uses a most graphic description when it declares, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.”
Jesus also rescues you from a meaningless existence.
Meaningless is the human predicament, isn’t it? Is there anything more empty than trivial cocktail-hour chatter? Oh, it is nice at times, in a laid-back situation that has no pressure. Some people spend all their lives flitting around to such non-pressured situations, talking about shopping, golf scores, and the escalation of housing prices. All topics of some importance, but not of ultimate significance. How easy it is to anesthetize ourselves to the deeper significant issues of life, living trivial, surface existences that, at the end of the day, leave us empty.
And Jesus rescues you from successes of the past.
Many of us look back to days in which, on human terms, we would be perceived to be more successful than we are at this moment. Our athletic prowess fades. Our earning capacities are diminished. Our physical bodies age. Our minds are not as sharp as they used to be. And the list goes on.
Jesus came to rescue you from an old style of life. He wants to bring to an end your and my bondage to past sin. He wants to bring to an end our meaningless existence. He wants to bring to an end our preoccupation with a backward look to the successes of yesteryear.
Second, Jesus came to give you salvation (rescue) to a new life now – a NEW BEGINNING.
Salvation is rescue to be all you were created to be in the now.
You can’t do this on your own. You need a Savior.
This is where the Gospel of Jesus Christ becomes so exciting.
The Apostle Paul declared to fast-living, bogged-down sinners with meaningless first-century existences, struggling with success issues, that they could have a new beginning in life. He put it in these words: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). He wrote that to people living in that very materialistic coastal city named Corinth, with pressures on them so similar to those on us today.
He wrote to citizens in the northern Greek city of Philippi on the major East/West trade route, declaring how he had learned to “forget what lies behind,” based on what God had done for him in Jesus Christ. No longer was he weighed down by the sins of the past. He was a forgiven man. No longer was he trying to energetically please God, saving himself by zealous actions. No, he had learned God’s love, His amazing grace, and his life had been transformed by the person of Jesus Christ, who offered meaning and purpose for existence. He no longer had to define himself by past successes and failures. He was free to live in the now as he was created to live.
Some of us have a very distorted understanding of salvation.
Whether we have thought it through or not, we live as if becoming “born again” is the end instead of the beginning. We forget that to repent of sin and put our trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation is not only the end of an old life; it is the beginning of a new life. The day a baby is born is the day of beginning. It is not the end.
Or you can put it in the terms of graduation from college. What do we call graduation? It is “commencement.” What does commencement mean” The end? No! It means the beginning of a whole new life. When a person graduates from college it does not mean they now never need to open a book again, or study, or have creative thoughts. It means they now have been given, at great expense and effort on the part of many, including themselves, the tools to be an intellectually growing person. I have read the average male college graduate reads less than one book a year. I am not certain if that statistic is accurate. I am not certain I have ever met an “average” person. But I do know there are people who assume the life of the intellect is of formal, academic matriculation. A period of formal education brings us to a point, if we take advantage of it, that we see a larger world of ideas in the natural and social sciences. We have an appreciation for art, literature, history. If we nurture that, we are a growing person intellectually all through life. Graduation is truly a commencement, a beginning.
Or take your wedding day. It is meant to be the beginning of a life long commitment to a growing relationship. For some of us, it becomes a kind of de facto end to romance. We have accomplished what we have set out to accomplish. We are now married to that person of our dreams. And we begin to take each other for granted. We would never have done that during the engagement. Symbolically, as a couple kneels at the altar having their vows consecrated, they then stand up, receive the blessing of the pastor, priest or rabbi, and they turn and walk down the aisle into a brand-new life. It is not the end. It is the beginning. Oh, there will be sorrows. There will be joys. And most of life will be lived in an oscillation between those two extremes. That life will have its problems. But it is a new life in which one is able to see in the perspective of “’til death doth part.” That’s what marriage is meant to be.
Some of us view salvation this way. We see it as the end, not the beginning. We forget that salvation is not only with our past, but it is transformational of our present.
Brian D. McLaren, pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in suburban Washington, D.C., quite insightfully addresses this dynamic in his book, Adventures in Missing the Point. In his chapter titled “Missing the Point: Salvation,” he writes that the modern Christian way of missing the point is thinking that salvation is only about escaping hell after you die. There’s another approach: that salvation means being rescued from fruitless ways of life here and now, to share in God’s saving love for all creation, in an adventure called the kingdom of God, the point of which you definitely don’t want to miss.”
He goes on to acknowledge that salvation does involve the wonderful gift of assurance that you and I will not perish after this life, but will forever be with the Lord. Then he illustrates the importance of how distorted we can be in our understanding of salvation as an end in itself for this life, instead of a beginning with what he calls the “Parable of the Race.”
Once upon a time, in a land of boredom and drudgery, exciting news spread. “There is going to be a race! And all who run this race will grow strong and they’ll never be bored again!” Exciting news like this had not been heard for many a year, for people experienced little adventure in this ho-hum land, beyond attending committee meetings, waiting in lines, sorting socks, and watching sitcom reruns.
Excitement grew as the day of the race drew near. Thousands gathered in the appointed town, at the appointed place. Most came to observe, skeptical about the news. “It’s too good to be true,” they said. “It’s just a silly rumor started by some teenaged troublemakers. But let’s stick around and see what happens anyway.”
Others could not resist the invitation, arriving in their running shorts and shoes. As they waited for the appointed time, they stretched and jogged in place and chattered among themselves with nervous excitement. At the appointed time they gathered at the starting line, heard the gun go off, and knew that it was time to run.
Then something very curious happened. The runners took a step or two or three across the starting line, and then abruptly stopped. One man fell to his knees, crying, “I have crossed the starting line! This is the happiest day of my life!” He repeated this again and again, and even began singing a song about how happy this day was for him.
Another woman started jumping for joy. “Yes!” she shouted, raising her fist in the air. “I am a race-runner! I am finally a race-runner!” She ran around jumping and dancing, getting and giving high fives to others who shared her joy at being in the race.
Several people formed a circle and prayed, quietly thanking God for the privilege of crossing the starting line, and thanking God that they were not like the skeptics who didn’t come dressed for the race.
An hour passed, and two. Spectators began muttering; some laughed. “So what do they think this race is?” they said. “Two or three strides, then a celebration? And why do they feel superior to us? They’re treating the starting line as if it were a finish line. They’ve completely missed the point.”
A few more minutes of this silliness passed. “You know,” a spectator said to the person next to her, “if they’re not going to run the race, maybe we should.”
“Why not? It’s getting boring watching them hang around just beyond the starting line. I’ve had enough boredom for one life.”
Other’s heard them, and soon many were kicking off their dress shoes, slipping out of their jackets, throwing all this unneeded clothing on the grass. And they ran – past the praying huddles and past the crying individuals and past the jumping high-fivers. And they found hope and joy in every step, and they grew stronger with every mile and hill. To their surprise, the path never ended – because in this race, there was no finish line. So they were never bored again.
McLaren concludes with these observations:
Is salvation for you a one-time experience? Or is it a lifelong journey? It is about rescue from your uncomfortable circumstances (as it was for the ancient Jews), or rescue from this world after death (as it is for many modern Christians) – or is it about being rescued from a life that is disconnected from God and God’s adventure, both in this life and the next? Is salvation about stepping across a line – or is it about crossing a starting line to begin an unending adventure in this life and beyond?
What is for certain about the present?
Jesus came to give you the privilege of a mystical experience with God.
John writes, “. . . 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” (1 John 1:3). You and I are set free in this life for that mystical dimension of daily relationship with God, the fellowship that comes from reading the Scriptures, prayer, spiritual meditation, and from being a part of the community of faith called the church. You are privileged to engage with God in ways that go beyond the commonplace, boring, day-in, day-out, prosaic existence.
Jesus came to give you the privilege of being a healthy materialist.
You didn’t expect that, did you? Those of us who emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus Christ so often elevate the spiritual to the neglect of the physical. We become content with the mystical part of our faith, tending to see that which is spiritual as at a higher level than that which is physical and material. The fact is that God created all that is. He looked at it, saw it, and declared it “good.” He put Adam and Eve, the highest of His creation, in the garden to preserve, to watch over all His creation. When they disobeyed, sin entered the world. God’s redemption in Jesus Christ is to set right that which is broken. He has redeemed His creation. He wants you and me as His people to be part of His enterprise here on earth, to be caretakers of His kingdom, which exists in a world as fallen as it is. We are His ambassadors to do and say what He tells us to do and say.
We do not earn our salvation by the works we do. But we do flesh out the work of the Holy Spirit of God in the world by taking seriously our responsibilities for this world.
You know how, during His public ministry, Jesus entered the synagogue on the Sabbath at Nazareth. Luke tells us:
He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:17-21).
He calls you and me to be engaged in this kind of enterprise with Him, in which we have a healthy materialism. We understand that people have physical needs as well as spiritual needs. The two are interlinked. You cannot separate one from the other. We are called to join Him in His enterprises here on earth.
It has been exciting to see some of you tutoring over at Shalimar and to see these precious Hispanic young people move forward educationally because of your servant ministry in the name of Jesus Christ.
It is exciting to see some of you engaged with Habitat for Humanity, building houses for the poor right here in Southern California, or going down across the border into Mexico to build houses, churches, orphanages, and to run daily vacation Bible schools, all in the name of Jesus Christ.
How exciting it is to see some of you who are trained Stephen ministers or serve as Deacons here at St. Andrew’s. Many of you have gone through the Lay Ministry Discovery Class so you can know your spiritual gifts, your passion, and your natural style for ministry.
Thank God for the commitment many of you have toward peacemaking. War is not the only way of solving problems in a marriage, in a home, in a community, between nations. Jesus calls us to be peacemakers.
How special it is to see how many of you are doing something for the poor of this world. Bill Flanagan and I figured up the other day that over $350,000 is given each year from those of us at St. Andrew’s to World Vision for special projects and disaster situations, and through the close to 800 child sponsorships to which St. Andrew’s members are committed. Recently we have focused on the matter of AIDS. Some 380 of these children are in an area development program in Malawi, and teams from St. Andrew’s have gone and will go to provide linkage in Christ.
Jesus came to give you and me the privilege of reorienting ourselves to joyful living.
Years ago, when I pastored in Pittsburgh, I got to know a Roman Catholic priest, Father Rick Jones. It has been over 25 years since we have seen each other, but we have carried on correspondence. I received his Christmas letter this week. In it, he writes about the number of times in the biblical accounts of the coming of Jesus that we read words such as joy, joyful, joyfully, rejoice, glad, exalt, gladness, glad tidings. He writes:
There is much written today about addiction to drugs, alcohol, sex, work, and even cleanliness. Enjoying “good things” can be overdone. Ill health, low self-esteem, shame, guilt, sarcasm “veiled anger,” cynicism and alienation from God are all results of compulsive or addictive behavior. These behaviors keep one from freedom that God’s grace will bestow. For the gods of this world bring only emptiness, isolation, and loneliness. Unless we keep our heart secure with a lock and a chain, we will become attached to something of this world that is not for our ultimate good.
Being right with God is the source of our order within. But, since we are all limited human beings, we only have so much “spiritual” energy. If we waste our energy on lust, nursing past hurts, anger, pride, frustrations, being right, being popular, “looking good,” or any of “countless” hosts of replacements for God – there is no room left for God. We must put all things in proper place and abandon those things that disorder, disease, and lead us down a path to spiritual death. Unless we “die” daily to ourselves, Christ is not the center of our life. For only then can we truly heal the disorder in our souls and experience the tranquility of order and true joy. Our self-centeredness keeps our lives “off-key” from God’s plan and will for our well-being, happiness, and joyfulness.
Jesus came to give you and me salvation, rescue, to a new life now, a new beginning!
Third, Jesus came to give you salvation (rescue) for the life beyond this life – a GREAT FUTURE.
He came to help people live with an expectant, positive hope for the future.
Salvation is rescue for the future. You can’t do this on your own. You need a Savior.
I have observed some people who have tried to figure out the future life on their own. We read more and more about “near-death” experiences.
Several weeks ago, someone described to me how a friend of theirs was literally proclaimed dead by the doctors, but he had come back to life. He told a graphic story about hovering above his own deathbed, watching as the doctors applied the heart paddles, doing their best to revive him. He saw the light of the future and was convinced that he was on his way to heaven – only to suddenly be brought back into his body as he was revived.
A few days later, a woman came in for counseling, quite concerned. She herself had recently had a cardiac situation in which she could not be revived. The doctors had used the paddles, they had flat-lined her, declaring her dead – and then, amazingly, she was revived. She came to me with great concern as to why she had not seen the light and had the near-death experience of which others had spoken so graphically. What was wrong? After all, here she was, a believer in Jesus Christ. Did this mean that there was something wrong spiritually with her?
I was privileged to share with her the fact that we claim the promises of God’s Word in the Scripture, not the stories of experience of others who, although medically declared dead, weren’t really dead because they are still alive here. We are not dependent on stories of near-death to know what the future holds.
What can we for certain know about the future?
For some weeks now we have been studying The Apostles’ Creed. The Creed declares, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” That phrase was not put there by accident. It was put there to emphasize biblical promises of a life beyond this life.
I hope that you are familiar with 1 Corinthians 15. The Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, declares the wonderful teaching about the life beyond this life. He writes: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being, for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:19-22).
Then he goes on to state this: “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:51-53).
We must be very careful not to make the Bible say more than it says about the life beyond this life. At the same time, we dare not minimize what it does say that is very specific.
Jesus came to set you free from the specter of hell to life in heaven.
The Bible speaks of hell. Some of its language is quite graphic. Some of our conceptions of hell are shaped by medieval literature, not by the Bible itself. What we dare not do is eliminate the fact of hell because we don’t like the notion. In its most basic definition, hell is eternity absent from the presence of God. We must remember that the same Bible that talks about heaven also talks about hell. To claim what we want without acknowledging the reality of what we find abhorrent is to play a game of self-deception, isn’t it?
The Bible says that when a believer in Jesus Christ dies, he or she steps into the presence of Jesus Christ.
We are told that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” Jesus turned to the repentant thief on the cross and declared, “‘This day shall thou be with me in paradise.'” Our next conscious thought is to be with the Lord.
We are told we will have a new/perfect identifiable body.
I have heard some biblical teachers wax on eloquently as to the precise nature of that body. I don’t really know. All I know is that we are told that life does not end with death, that we are not just a spirit floating out in space. We are told there is the resurrection of the body. What that means in technical, physiological reality I don’t know. But we are assured that we will be recognizable to each other, and that our bodies will be without blemish. That which is corruptible will be exchanged for that which is incorruptible. I don’t know what will be the physical appearance of a baby who dies in the early hours of life, or an elderly person who lives to be 100. I do know that the Bible says that we will recognize each other in a reunion with our loved ones, and we will recognize the saints of history who have gone before and those who will come after.
The Bible says that you and I will have a life beyond anything we have experienced here.
Jesus told His disciples that He was going to prepare a place for us. The Bible speaks in graphic terms about mansions and streets paved with gold. This week I have been reading the Book of Revelation. It is mind-boggling to try to comprehend the meaning of all of that graphic description. My human mind can only just begin to sense a bit of the grandeur of heaven and the life beyond this life.
Jesus came to give you and me salvation (rescue) for the life beyond this life and a great future that goes beyond anything that we can fully comprehend.
Several years ago, as a young man, I was privileged to work with Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. For four summers, I traveled with him internationally. For two years, I worked for him at New York’s Marble Collegiate Church.
I will never forget the story he would often tell about a little unborn child in his mother’s womb during the eighth month of her pregnancy. How eloquently he would describe the conversation of the mother telling the unborn son that soon he would be born. He would argue back, “I don’t want to be born.” She would say, “But there is laughter and music and dancing, family and friends.” His response would be, “I don’t understand any of that. I like it in here where it is moist, dark, warm, and all my needs are met.” She would argue back, “Little one, for another month and a few days that’s alright, but you can’t stay in there too long, or things will turn ghastly.” But the little one, incapable of understanding the life she described outside the womb, would fight with everything he had to maintain the status quo.
Then Dr. Peale, in his own way with words, would shift venues, declaring that now it is 90 years later. That unborn child is now a man close to death. This time, his argument is no longer with his earthly mother. This time, it is with the Father. The Father is telling him of the provision He has made for the life beyond this life. The man argues back, “But I like it here. I don’t want to die!” The Father says, “Life with me in heaven is so much greater than anything you have experienced on earth. Just trust me. You will no longer be subject to sin, sickness, broken relationships, war, the aging process, betrayal of friends – all the brokenness of the world in which you live. Yet the argument goes on. We never learn, do we, to really trust the Father?
Thursday morning, I went to the bedside of Frances Boice, 101 years old, in the last days of her life. I stroked her head, talking to her about some of the times we have had together here at St. Andrew’s. The morphine drip was doing its job. Occasionally her eyes would open. I am not certain how much she comprehended. Then, I put my hand on her and said, “Frances, soon you will be in the presence of Jesus Christ.” Then, with family members joined hand in hand in a circle of prayer, we prayed a prayer of committal of Frances into the mercy of Almighty God.
Yesterday morning, as I was completing final preparations for this message, my office phone rang, and I received word that Frances had just died and I paused to celebrate. She is now in the presence of Jesus Christ and those who have gone before.
Why did Jesus Christ come? He came to give you and me salvation (rescue) from the past, new life for the present, and a great future beyond this life!
This is one of a series of sermons based on the Apostles Creed. Additional sermons from that series will appear in Preaching On-Line in March, April and May.
John A. Huffman, Jr. is the Senior Minister at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA. He is a Senior Contributing Editor to Preaching.