#100Days: light at the end of the tunnel?

This week the UK marked 100 days of lockdown. Restrictions are being eased across the country, schools are partially open, shops and cafes are beginning to unlock, and it seems like things will ease significantly from this weekend. And yet we also marked this week the news that Leicester is facing the first ‘Local Lockdown’ after a recent spike in cases. The end is most definitely not in sight for them, and other towns and cities may soon follow suit.

Lockdown has been characterised by the single question: when will it end? We’ve gone through day after day, week after week, always asking, ‘are we nearly there yet?’ We’ve ticked each day off with a ‘one day closer to freedom!’ We’ve celebrated each new easing of restrictions as another glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel.

But when lockdown is over, what next? For some, there’s the grief of those who won’t emerge from lockdown with them. For others, there’s the pain of continuing to battle the virus and its aftereffects. For still others, the fear of infection lingers, normality won’t be back overnight.

Whatever our situation, surely we’re relieved. Lockdown is nearly over, we’ll be back to normal soon!

Back to WorshipNormal

Our country is longing to get back to normal, and it’s a longing we all share. We want to see friends and family again. My first niece was born on the eve of lockdown, and I can’t wait to hold her again. Parents, grandparents, and wider families all over the country can’t wait to be reunited.

Businesses are eager to get going again. There’s so much to do, and with so much time and money lost companies are raring to go, desperate to keep afloat in a time when the economy is in freefall.

A lot of those I follow on twitter or online have been excited about the reopening of places of worship. Christians, Muslims, Jews and many others are hopeful of being able to gather in corporate worship again soon. I can’t wait to be back in church, although it might take a little while yet.

But Churches, mosques and synagogues aren’t the only places of worship to reopen in our country. We’re all desperate for lockdown to end because we’re all longing for normal to resume. Whatever our normal is, our hearts are set on it. We long to be with family, to get back to the day job, to take that holiday or just to hit the shops! Our hearts are set on this lockdown ending, and our normal resuming. Our hearts are set on the things we love. We’re seemingly hard-wired to long for, adore, and worship these things.

In the ancient world, the world in which Jesus Christ lived, died and rose, and the world of the first Christians who followed him, worship was hard-wired in the minds of men and women. The Roman Empire has been described as ‘a world full of gods’. There were gods of money, sex, beauty, war, peace…the list was practically endless! Worship was everywhere. Temples on every street corner, rituals in every home and at every event. Worship flourished because the ancients made gods of the things they worshipped. A goddess of beauty because man idolises the appearance, a god of wealth because such riches were a societal goal.

Our own world has such gods too. Lockdown has confronted these gods, because so often it has been harder to worship them. Financial stability has been shaken, families have been divided, retail therapy on hold. None of these are inherently bad things, but as our nation rushes to get back to normality, when our lives are lived for these things, our nation is rushing back to worship.

The New NormalWorship

A month or so into lockdown, the historian Tom Holland wrote a damning article in the Telegraph (3rd May 2020). He wasn’t criticising the government, or the NHS (though he did point out that the NHS has become a real focus of our worship in recent times). He criticised, instead, the church.

Lockdown, argued Holland, was a great opportunity for the church. But instead, too many clergy were beginning to sound “like middle-managers,” simply repeating back government advice. Holland concluded:

Parroting the slogans of the Department of Health and Social Care may conceivably help save lives – but it seems unlikely to win many souls. If ever there were a time for the churches to wrestle with the questions that so tormented Job [suffering, health, hope], a time of global pandemic would surely seem to be it. If they are not to seem merely eccentric branch offices of the welfare state, they need to recapture their confidence, and take a risk: the risk of seeming odd.   

Tom Holland, Telegraph, 3rd May 2020

Holland was making a helpful point. This pandemic was an opportunity for the church to sound odd, to speak an alien message, to offer something different. So many churches did answer that call. So many pastors and ministers and church members shared the Gospel and the hope that they have in bold and wonderful ways. God has used His people even in this pandemic. But as lockdown eases, and our country begins to worship out in the open again, we must meet our friends and neighbours with our odd message.

Our world worships, it always has and it always will. As lockdown eases, it’s clear to see that the objects of our worship are gaining our affection once again. Normality is coming back, and our normality is a sinful one. A life of misdirected worship, living in and for created things, not for our Creator.

But the church isn’t made up of middle managers and office lackeys. We’re made up of people with a wonderful hope, a wonderful message. So as lockdown eases, and our nation worships again, let’s offer them a new object of worship. Let’s offer them a true object of worship. Let’s hold out the word of life, and offer a message of hope that kept us through the darkness of lockdown, and will keep us through the disappointment of finding out that ‘back to normal’ isn’t quite all it’s cracked up to be.

In the Good News of who Jesus is, Christians can offer a suffering world a true and certain light at the end of the tunnel. So as lockdown eases, be bold and take the risk of seeming odd, and share the God who is truly worth worshipping.

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

John 8:12

What have we got in Common? Hope?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Twitter is particularly good at distilling contemporary issues into a long stream of polarising and pointed (and often very emotional) soundbites. Scrolling down our feeds is, at the moment, a particularly negative past time. Whilst social media can show us at our best, it also shows us at our worst. And so in the midst of a global pandemic, as tensions about race and privilege erupt across the globe, and as one popular author is violently berated across the web for her views on biological sex, it’s easy to feel hopeless.

Our nation is divided, our world is a mess. It can feel like we’re a world at loggerheads. It’s hopeless. What have we got in common any more?

Well for some people, the answer is hope.

Nearly 1900 years ago, in the 140s AD, the writer Ignatius spoke of “the common hope” of all Christians (To the Ephesians 21). In 197 AD the apologist Tertullian mirrored this cry (Apology, 39). “We [Christians] are a body knit together as such by a common religious belief, by unity of discipline, and by the bond of a common hope.”

The first Christians lived in a divided world, where society was split into rich and poor, slave and free, Roman and foreigners. It was a messy world where selfish pleasure and power were pursued above noble ideas of the greater good or the care of the needy. And it was a world where Christians were derided, attacked, scorned and even killed for their beliefs. In a hopeless situation, in a divided world, how could they speak of common hope? What could this common hope possibly be?

This hope was, and is, Jesus. The Early Church clung to this hope, the common hope of all Christians, because they saw that they needed it. In a broken world, where division and suffering was rife, they recognised that their lives were hopeless. Far from escaping such issues, they realised that they themselves were a part of the problem! The Bible calls this sin. That all have sinned, and fall short of the standards of goodness that we so desire in our noblest moments. That we all live selfishly, full of anger, tribalism, malice and vanity. Perhaps we’re reminded of our own times.

But the first Christians could hope in Jesus Christ for a better future. Because “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Christ came to Earth to bring us to God. He was the Son of God, and he died that we might live.

John summarised this hope in a single verse.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16

The common hope of these earliest Christians was not that the trouble of this world would pass them by, but that they knew, with certainty and a deep, deep joy, that they were heading for a wonderful eternity. Their sins had been dealt with, they future was no longer a hopelessness but instead a glorious hope. No longer death but life. No longer their own weak efforts, but Christ.

Our own world is painfully divided, and I have no answers to the enormous problems that we face. Few, if any, do. But I know I have a hope that will carry me through these crises. I know I have a hope that will carry me through every up and down, great or small. It is a hope shared by billions throughout history, from Ignatius, to Tertullian, to Martin Luther King Jr., to me and countless others across the globe today. I have a hope named Jesus, and he will never disappoint me.

In a world where hope seems lost, why not explore the hope that Christians share? Look for Hope is a great place to start doing just that, a website full of articles and content pointing to the hope Christians hold in the midst of the very real and present struggles we all face.

The Good News of Easter: is it true?

Over the Easter Weekend we ran a short series exploring the message at the heart of Easter. That Jesus Christ died, was buried and rose again. We looked at the Cross, the Tomb and the Risen God. Below our links to all three blogs, in case it would be helpful to revisit them.

Good Friday: The Shame of the Cross

Easter Saturday: The Dark of the Tomb

Easter Sunday: A God Rises to Life

If this is all true: it really matters. A while ago I reviewed Brian Edwards’ short tract on this question. It’s well worth a read, as is this short online article by Patrick Zukeran.

If it’s true: it could change your life. If you already know this wonderful news to be true, then don’t keep it quiet.

Easter Sunday: a God rises to life.

Empty Tomb Of Jesus Pictures | Jesus tomb, Empty tomb

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

Matthew 28:1-7

He is not here, said the angel. He has risen. Just as He said.

The first Easter Sunday started in the most incredible way. This man, Jesus, had claimed that after three days He would rise again. And as these two faithful friends went to the tomb early on Sunday morning, they were met with the shock of the empty tomb. But this was no trick or deception, like the Pharisees had feared on the Sabbath. This was supernatural. The earth shook, and a godly figure descended, rolling away the stone – far too heavy a stone for any one man to move – and sitting upon it. The guards, this crack team of Roman soldiers, ‘shook and became like dead men.’

In fear, Jesus’ friends approach this shining man, and he utters some of the most miraculous words in the Bible. “He is not here; He has risen.” This Christ, who promised that the grave could not hold Him, who promised that death would be defeated, had done exactly that.

The incredible events of this first Easter morning changed the Roman world more than anything else. As the story of this God who died and rose again spread around the Mediterranean, thousands, millions, came to trust in Him. It all started on this morning with the empty tomb.

‘god’ is Dead.

The notion that a god could die was a painful reality in the ancient world. Indeed, new gods rose up frequently, and almost all inevitably died quickly. Emperors from Augustus onwards (the Emperor when Jesus was born) encouraged an ‘Emperor-cult’ – a revering of the Roman Emperor as a divine figure. These emperors, these gods, died. People accepted that these men became gods, but they also saw them die.

This notion of divine death was common place in the ancient world. Plutarch, the Greek writer who died less than a century after Christ rose from the dead, told of a discussion of divine mortality. In it the story of the Greek god Pan is recounted. Plutarch tells of a traveller named Epitherses who witnessed a stunning scene. As Epitherses and his companions sailed on their way, a voice was heard calling from the shore.

When you are arrived at Palodes, take care to make it known that the great God Pan is dead.

Plutarch, De defec. Orac., 17.

The passengers on this ship witnessed the announcement: the god had died.

Take even the supposed king of the gods, Zeus, the Roman Jupiter. Clement of Alexandria, a second century Christian apologist, quotes the Greek poet Callimachus as he says:

Search for your Zeus. Scour no heaven, but earth. Callimachus the Cretan, in whose land he lies buried, will tell you in his hymns:

for a tomb, O prince, did the Cretans fashion for you.

Yes, Zeus is dead.

Clement of Alexandria, Protr., 2 (quoting Call. Hymn to Zeus 8-9)

Even Zeus, the great king of the gods, could die. So the death of the divine was no alien notion to the Roman audience as Christian believers began sharing the news of their Saviour. If a bunch of provincial Jews has one more god to throw into the mix, that would have been of little consequence in a world of many gods, living and dead.

God is not Dead.

But that wasn’t quite what these new Christ followers began to say. Because they believed in a God who was different for two reasons. The first was a scandal, the second was a miracle.

Their God, this Jesus Christ, was not another ‘god’ to toss into the ring. He doesn’t ask to be worshipped alongside Apollo, Zeus or Mithras. He made a sole claim to divinity, one repeated by His followers for millenia. “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus was not an extra god in a crowded pantheon, He was God. End of story.

But alongside this bold claim, came the news at the heart of this new religious movement. The followers of this Christ claimed that their God had died. And that He had risen again.

Pan had died and stayed dead. Augustus, founder of the mighty empire, was buried in Rome. Zeus, a myth slowly rotting on Crete. But Jesus? Death could not hold this true Son of God. There was no lonely voice calling out His death across the sea. No funerary hymn for Christ. He was dead, and now He is alive.

This is the stunning truth at the heart of the Christian faith. That 2000 years ago, God walked on Earth. He came down, lived and walked among men and women for 33 years. He was killed as He hung on a Roman cross. He was buried in a rock tomb. And He rose to life on that first Easter Sunday, gloriously defeating death, shouldering the punishment our sins deserved, and displaying to the world that surely, truly, this man was the Son of God.

The message of the Early Church as they spread around the Roman world was not that they had a new god on offer. It was that they worshipped the True God, who had defeated death, conquered the grave, and now offered the chance of a relationship with the Creator of the Universe. God is not dead, the grave could not hold Him.

A Different kind of Life.

Jesus told His followers that “I have come so that you may have life and have it to the full.” His resurrection shows that this was no mere self-help claim. This wasn’t a feel good statement, or a few reassuring words. Christ has come, so that we might have life, to the full. Real life. True life. Eternal life.

The Early Christians believed that with a fervent joy. As they took the news of the miraculously empty tomb to the nations, they preached a good news of joy and of life. As we reflect on this Easter story, millenia later, locked down in the grips of a global pandemic, these words still ring true.

He came that we might have life to the full. He died, and rose again, so that we too may have life to the full.

This Easter, if you know and love Jesus for yourself, rejoice and praise God that this life is yours.

But if you don’t know Jesus yet, if you’re not sure who He really is, then this lockdown Easter, why not explore His story? Open up (or Google) a Bible and start at John Chapter 1. Read the story of Jesus for yourself. Explore for yourself this God who died and is risen. Consider His offer of life to the full. Because as the tomb is empty, as the risen Lord Jesus reigns on high, Easter truly does mean hope for you.

Easter Saturday: The Dark of the Tomb

Mark: An Illustrated Commentary: Mark 16:1-8-- The Unsatisfying End

Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid.

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.

Mark 15:43-16:1

After the events and horror of Good Friday, Saturday brings silence. Joseph, the fearful but faithful follower of Jesus asks Pilate for his body late on Friday. Surprised to learn that He is already dead, Pilate grants this request. Joseph generously but quickly prepares the body, and seals it in the tomb.

This man who claimed to be the King of the World, the Son of God Himself, now lies, stiff and cold, in a dark rock tomb.

Mark skips straight over the Sabbath in his account of this first Easter weekend. The tomb is sealed late on Friday, and the next line takes us straight to Sunday morning. John likewise omits the Sabbath day from his record of events. Luke’s eyewitness account tells us only that “the women who had come with Jesus…went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rest on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.” It is only Matthew’s Gospel which gives us a hint of the action, or lack thereof, on this Easter Sabbath day.

The Dark of the Tomb

Each one of the four Gospel accounts is at pains to tell its readers that Jesus was buried, sealed in a rock hewn tomb. Their accounts match up perfectly, and are clear in the chain of events. Jesus dies on that dark Friday afternoon. The diligence of the Roman executioners is evident across the Gospel accounts, even piercing the body with a spear when they are called to check on their work. Again, Mark stresses that Pilate sent soldiers to confirm the death before the body is released to Joseph. As mentioned yesterday, the Roman historian Tacitus likewise confirms that “Christus… was put to death by Pontius Pilate.” He is buried quickly and simply, the tomb is sealed, and the disciples scatter. The German scholar Rudolf Bultmann called the burial of Jesus “a historical account which creates no impression of being a legend.” This man died and was buried, we can be confident of that.

And so we are left with a tomb. A dead body in a cold rock tomb. As Christ’s head dropped to His chest on that cross, hope seemed lost. The Messiah was dead, defeated, gone. The darkness of Friday lingered into the Sabbath. The disciples sheltered in their dark upper room, other followers of Jesus scattered. It was over. The hints that Jesus Himself had offered: that He had to die, but that after three days He would rise, had been long forgotten. What hope did such words really hold now?

The Fear of the Pharisees

One Gospel account tells us that these words were not totally forgotten. Matthew gives us a small detail of the events of that Sabbath. As the day began, the chief priests and Pharisees went to Pilate…

The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”

“Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.

Matthew 27:62-65

The Pharisees, the very group that had condemned Jesus to death, remembered His words. His promises had not been totally forgotten, and so, in order to counter any hoax or trick that the disciples could somehow pull off, the tomb is made even more secure. A crack team of Roman soldiers is stationed there. The greatest army in the world in the first century, and part of it guarded the tomb of this so-called Messiah. No one was getting in or out, especially a disheartened band of fishermen and tax collectors from Galilee. Matthew includes this detail for two reasons. It shows the situation for what it was. Humanly speaking, all hope was gone. The tomb was made as secure as the soldiers of the Roman Empire knew how. There was no human hope of a trick or deception here. But secondly, Matthew reminds us, the reader, of these words of Jesus. Christ Himself made it abundantly clear that He came to die, and that He would rise again.

John’s Gospel tells us some words of Jesus to one Jewish leader. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son. That whoever believes in Him, shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Jesus taught that mankind was headed for death, and we all know that to be true. But Jesus taught that mankind embrace sin – the evil that we do, that we love and enjoy – and so God’s punishment for sin was on us all: eternal separation from God and His goodness. Separation from the very God that gives goodness and life. Eternal death and punishment. But Jesus taught that He, the perfect Son of Man, would give His life as a ransom for us all. He would die, and rise, defeating death, and offering His life once and for all for ours. All you must do, is believe in this wonderful Son of God.

Jesus had taught this message for all His earthly ministry. He had repeated the claim that He would die and rise again over and over. Yet still the disciples missed the point. Only the Pharisees remembered those words, and not out of faith, but rather fear that the body would become a political tool.

But other than Matthew’s Gospel – which reminds us of these words of Jesus – Easter Saturday is quickly passed over. As seen with Mark above, the account moves from Friday to Sunday. Because this isn’t a story about Jesus being dead. This is the story about how He conquered death. How He died and rose again, taking the guilt and punishment that mankind deserve. So the Gospel accounts move quickly to the first day of the week. The dark of the tomb isn’t the end of the story.

Early in the Morning...

Because as each Gospel account tells us, the story continues on Sunday morning.

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week…

Matthew 28:1

Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise…

Mark 16:2

On the first day of the week, very early in the morning…

Luke 24:1

On the first day of the week, while it was still dark…

John 20:1

As that first Easter Sunday dawns, the dark of the tomb is forgotten, as something of earth-shattering proportions was about to unfold…

Because Easter Means Hope.

Good Friday: The Shame of the Cross

So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). There they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle.

John 19:16b-18.

In agony, the body hangs off the cross. Blood pours out of a series of brutally inflicted wounds. From a back that has been torn by the vicious lashes of a three lined whip, one woven through with pieces of lead or bone (designed to rip open the skin, and tear off chunks of the body). From hands and feet that have been pierced through by rough and jagged nails. From a brow crowned with thorns only a short while before, sweat mixing with blood as it pours down a face that cannot be wiped.

Breathing is quickly sharp and jagged. A body wracked with pain, agony in every breath. Hung from a wooden cross, the weight of the body pulls down on the lungs. Slowly, suffocation closes in. The heart becomes weaker as blood pours out of the wounds. Only pain remains, from a body damaged beyond belief. Humanity is stripped away as the naked body hangs, skin in tatters, life fading fast.

This was the horror of the Roman crucifixion. Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, called it “the most wretched of deaths.” Cicero, the Republican orator and polymath, labelled it the “most cruel and terrible punishment.” As Christ hung upon that wooden cross, on the darkest day we know as Good Friday, He hung as a broken, humiliated criminal.

Tacitus, the Roman historian who was born just a few decades after the death of Jesus, gave a simple and methodical account of Jesus’ death.

Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.

Tacitus, Annals, 15.44.

Lacking the details of the Gospel accounts, Tacitus nonetheless confirms the horrifying truth at the heart of the Christian faith. Their founder and Messiah had died upon a cross like a common criminal. The same fate handed out to runaway slaves was inflicted upon the one they thought would be their Saviour. The Cross was a horrifying way to die. And in the Roman world, it was a shame without equal.

The Horror of the Death

Crucifixion is a horrific form of execution, and the suffering inflicted upon the victim is immense. A reading of any one of the four Gospel accounts illustrates this quickly. We can so easily gloss over the details when we read these narratives, but it is human brutality at its worst. The body is wracked with unimaginable pain. Crucifixion was the ultimate statement of the state’s authority.

Runaway slaves were caught and hung to illustrate how their freedom was an illusion before the might of Rome. Criminals were hung to show their crimes had no impact on the power of the Empire. Jesus was hung on the cross as a political prisoner. The sign above His head declared Him to be the King of the Jews. Here, says the might of Rome, is what has become of your king. Your great king, your hope, your so-called Messiah, see how He hangs upon our cross. It was the ultimate defeat at the hands of the state, and the sign above Jesus’ head was an open ridicule of any hopes of deliverance through this now beaten Messiah.

As Jesus hung His head and died, the horror of His death had one final, brutal reality. As He hangs on the cross, Christ’s words are recorded in the Gospel accounts. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” In His final moments, this Son of God felt His Father turn His back. Abandoned by friends, disciples and followers, now His God had turned away.

The Shame of Those Left Behind

Just a few days before, Jesus has ridden into the city on a colt, with crowds surrounding Him, cheering “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” Truly, this Messiah was at His earthly peak. Adoring crowds surrounded Him, welcoming the Son of God come to save a broken humanity. The disciples marched proudly behind Him, basking in His glory. Yet by the end of the week, His battered and torn body hung limply on a cross. The disciples retreated to an upper room. Not for a supper such as the one they had shared just a few hours before, but instead, in fear and trembling, to assess their options.

Only a week earlier they seemed headed for certain success. Now, their leader hung lifeless on a wooden cross, and the faithful lieutenants hid fearfully. Victory had turned to shame. Their king hung like a criminal. Rome had won. The High Priest and the Pharisees had won. This lowly band of fishermen and tax collectors had seen their hopes crushed in the most public of ways.

The disciples offer a painful absence in the Gospel account of the death and burial of Jesus. The Gospel writers tell us that several of the women who followed Jesus stood by watching, but as Joseph comes to request and collect the body, before burying it in his family tomb, there is only silence from the disciples.

Their wonderful leader was seemingly crushed, and in their shame and sorrow, their response was hopelessness.

The Faintest Hope?

Amazingly, in the face of this most horrific of executions, there was a glimmer of hope. The disciples shivered alone in their locked upper room, because they had fled in panic as their leader was defeated. Except He wasn’t defeated. Though all seemed lost, though Rome and the Jewish leaders seemed to have crushed this Jesus Christ, the story was by no means over.

Because this death was not the end.

Jesus Himself had made that clear. He was the first man for whom death was not the end, because He had come to defeat it. He was in charge of the dark events of this first Good Friday. And He had made that clear to all those who would listen just a short while ago.

“I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.

John 10:17b-18a.

Jesus knew exactly what was coming when He rode into Jerusalem in triumph. It wasn’t a triumph at a past victory, but one He was about to win. As Christ breathed His last on that humble wooden cross, the story was far from over. He had laid down His life for the very people who had surrounded Him at that triumphal entry, for the same people who had called for Him to hang upon that cross. But He had the authority to take it back up again.

Good Friday is only the start of the weekend.

Because Easter Means Hope.

James and the ‘Crown of Life’: the crown in the Ancient World.

Image result for ancient victor's crown

James wrote his New Testament epistle to scattered and persecuted Christians struggling to stand firm in the ancient world. He wrote to encourage and challenge them, offering practical wisdom on the outworking of their faith in their lives, the need to endure, and the reality that God changes the believer.

His short letter opens with a section dedicated to facing trials and temptations in God’s strength. He exhorts his readers to cling to spiritual provision (vs16-18) during times of great spiritual challenge and danger (vs13-15). In verse 12, James encourages his readers by looking forward together.

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.

James 1:12 (NIV)

Blessed are those, writes James, who stand firm under pressure, who keep on in the trials and temptations of life, because at the end of all that is the crown of life. The prize, the goal, the crown of life. James’ words echo Paul in 2 Timothy 4:8, where the Apostle speaks of what lies in store for him, and those who are faithful to Christ.

there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing

2 Timothy 4:8

Both writers use the same Greek word to describe this crown – στέφανος – meaning crown, or wreath. And it was a word with majestic implications. Not as the crown of a king or queen as we might imagine today, but far more accessible, though just as noble.

The στέφανος in the Ancient World

The use of στέφανος in the ancient world is widespread, and by the time the New Testament was written, in the first century AD, the word had been used in the context of this crown/wreath for nearly a millennium. Homer (Il. 18.597) spoke of the crowns worn by girls in group dances and in the sixth century BC the Athenian playwright Euripides spoke of men garlanding their heads with wreaths of roses (Hipp. 73f). In the more immediate Roman context, Pliny (Hist. Nat. 18.2.6) records how certain priests, known as the Arvals, wear crowns at festivals, a tradition he suggests was instituted by Romulus himself.

The word then was well established. Indeed, it had far reaching popular connotations. I’ve long been taught that New Testament uses of this word were connected to the crowns given to victors in ancient sporting contests. Such an idea is often suggested alongside citation of 2 Cor 9:25 or 2 Tim 2:5. There is certainly truth in this, and this was a common use of the στέφανος, but the connotations of this word reach far further than just that. James uses the word because it is one with real weight and meaning behind it.

As suggested by some of the citations above, the ancient world attributed such crowns to religious settings. Wreaths or crowns often played roles in cultic celebrations, they were holy dress, worn by priests and linked in many cases directly to the gods.* Crowns extended beyond the priesthood in many cults of the ancient world through processions and feast celebrations. Again the ancient record is littered with references to specific people wearing wreaths and crowns on certain feast days or at certain festivals, in recognition of the god or goddess they worshipped. Such crowns seemed to carry connotations of salvation and protection in the ancient world as well. the Athenian playwright Aristophanes, in one comedy, describes a slave saved from a beating because he was wearing a crown (Pl. 21f), whilst the emperor Tiberius was known to wear laurel wreaths during thunderstorms because of their association with averting lightning (Plin., Hist. Nat. 15.134f).

Wreaths and crowns then, appeared in a myriad of contexts in the ancient world. But of course we must note their link to sporting contests. Victors were crowned with wreaths of olive, at the Olympic Games in Greece, such wreaths were cut from sacred olive trees with a golden sickle. The victor was crowned, and Xenophon (Mem. III.7.1) tells how after the Delphic Games, the victor was lauded in a procession which ended at his house, which was then also crowned in a wreath as an extra show of honour and victory! These crowns were immense honours, a sign of supreme earthly fortune, and often accompanied by rich prizes of gold or olive oil to represent that. To win such a crown was the greatest prize, a sign of quasi-immortality before all mankind.

There is more we could say on the στέφανος. These crowns played roles in the marriage ceremonies of the ancient Roman world, in the honouring of the dead, and in the oracles and Mystic Cults that abounded. But what is clear to see in all of these settings, the στέφανος was a very special prize. It was reserved for special individuals, on certain days or occasions, and carried with it connotations of salvation, glory, victory and completion.

The Στέφανος for James’ Audience

So what then, would this word have meant to the original readers of this letter? What would James’ readers, scattered former Jewish Christians facing intense persecution for their new faith, have made of this particular sentence?

James was telling battered and bruised believers, that no matter what they faced now, when they crossed that finish line, when they ran or stumbled or crawled over the line into the arms of their Saviour, that this crown awaited them.

The στέφανος was holy. It was set apart for specific people and specific contexts. And it was glorious. It embodied hope, victory, status, salvation. James didn’t use the word lightly when describing the prize his readers had in store for them. He knew their earthly experience was tough. Like the athlete sweating it out in the ancient games, or the worker toiling in the sun, longing for the day of rest that came with the next festival. Their στέφανος was a wonderful prize, one that signalled an end to their present suffering, and the awarding of all the good gifts that come with such a prize. But whilst an earthly crown of laurel or olive may fade away, James spoke of the στέφανος of life. Here was a crown that would never perish, spoil or fade. Here was a victory, a celebration, a religious moment that would never end. Here was the ultimate prize. James meant it when he said the one who carries on to that prize is truly blessed!

To a readership struggling under widespread persecution, social ostracism and the everyday sufferings of the ancient world, this crown of life must have leapt off of the page. An unimaginable prize described in an accessible, engaging and thoroughly exhilarating way.

What about Us?

James wrote to encourage suffering believers to keep on, to lean on their Father, to live out their faith practically and well in the ancient world. He wrote to encourage them to press on in the trials of life towards a treasure that will never perish, spoil or fade. He wrote to encourage them towards their reward: the crown of life. His message rings true for us today. In a world where life can bear down on us, sufferings closing in from all around, and persecution for our faith can take many forms, James holds out the crown of life.

This στέφανος was a picture of the ultimate prize. A picture of rest from toil and struggle. A picture of a great and glorious reward after a bitter and long contest. A picture of victory. The wonderful news of the Gospel is that that same crown is held out to us today. The Gospel promises eternal life, eternal rest, eternal victory. Christ makes us heirs and coheirs of eternity. In Him, the Christian who endures is given a great and glorious rest, with Him for all eternity. And wonderfully, the Gospel promises (Romans 8:39) that God will keep his saints keeping on. The ultimate prize is there for the believer who perseveres. So lean on your Father, hide yourself in Him, and keep on until we claim the prize: an eternity with the God we love.

*Take for example Dionysus. Ivy was a sign of this god, and Euripides describes how the followers of Dionysus wear crowns of woven ivy in worship of him, signifying a fellowship of life and death (Bacc. 177)

The Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

In Revelation 1:5, the writer, John, gives Jesus Christ three unusual titles. It is the last of these I want to pick up on: the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

A grand sounding title, and on the face of it an elevated position, but the resonance of this mighty name to the early readers of this final book of the New Testament shouldn’t be overlooked.

John wrote his Revelation to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia. Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea are cities in what is modern day Turkey. In the first century, however, they were cities on the prosperous Ionian coast, a region that had belonged to the mighty Roman Empire for several hundred years.

These cities thrived on major trade routes, enjoyed prosperous regional government, and faced up to powerful local demagogues, all under the rule of an increasingly powerful Imperial throne. John likely wrote Revelation during the reign of Domitian (81-96 AD). Traditionally seen as a reign characterised by religious persecution (Eusebius, the 4th century historian, strongly advanced this view) it seems more likely that such persecution was more localised, but regardless of its spread, there were clearly tough times for the faithful church.

John’s Revelation is written to seven struggling churches. Facing persecution, struggles, false teachers and assaults both internal and external, John writes to challenge and encourage. So when he writes ‘ruler of the kings of the earth’, what would that have meant to these young, struggling churches?

Local Assurance

In 112 AD, the then governor of Bithynia and Pontus, a man named Pliny the Younger, wrote to the Emperor Trajan. Though several decades after the time of Revelation, and in a province to the North of modern day Turkey, rather than the West, the letters of Pliny provide a small window into the contemporary situation faced by the seven churches John addresses. Pliny writes to his Emperor, detailing how he rounded up Christians and tried them. The charges seem to have been nothing more than simply being a Christian.

“I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed.”

Pliny the Younger, Ep.96.

Judging by the replies Pliny records, Trajan was not particularly interested in this matter of provincial justice, but it highlights just how powerful local rulers could be. Pliny executed Christians for confessing their faith, and refusing to recant. No other ‘crime’ is recorded. The seven churches of Revelation faced similarly powerful local govenment. Imperial officials carried behind them the weight of Rome, and their decisions could very quickly become life and death. For John to label Jesus Christ the Ruler of such figures would have been a mighty comfort. Even in the backwaters of Asia Minor, Christ was sovereign over the kings, emperors, governors and officials. No government can stand up to Christ, so take heart, wrote John, because the faithful are in Christ.

The True Emperor

The greatest source of power in the ancient world was of course the Emperor himself. A supreme ruler with a quasi-divine statues, the Roman Emperor was sovereign over almost all of the known Western World. Domitian, the Emperor at the likely time of writing for Revelation, was particularly powerful. Previous struggles for the imperial throne were forgotten, the Flavian Dynasty had now ruled for around fifteen years, and strengthened the power of the throne. Domitian was an authoritarian figure, regularly overruling the Senate, and reinstituting the idea of the Imperial cult – that the Emperor and his household were divine.

With such a powerful Emperor, one who even declared himself to be a god, how could such a small group of churches in Asia Minor stand any chance? Because on their side was the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

The Emperor looked all powerful. Christ was.

The Emperor claimed to be divine. Christ was.

The Emperor claimed to be sovereign over the Earth. Christ is.

John could give Jesus such a powerful name because it was true. He was the exalted Lord of all creation. All powers and authorities stem from Him. The seven suffering churches of Asia Minor could cling on to this King because He was the True King. They knew that. They may have to suffer for it, but they knew it.

As Paul wrote only a few decades before John’s letter:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:9-11.

God’s True King truly reigns, and one day even the most powerful Emperor will come to see that to be true.

What About Us?

We still live in a world of kings and powers. They might no longer be Emperors, but through politicians, celebrities, business billionaires and tech giants, our lives can very often feel ruled over. Christians across the world face very real persecution to this day. For some this means life and death, for others it means losing their job, their families or their homes.

We make kingdoms of our own too. We try to push ourselves ahead of others, we try to rule those we consider beneath us. Whether in business, family or some other sphere, we humans love to envisage ourselves as our own rulers. Kings and Queens of tiny nations carved out of our own successes.

Against the thrones and powers of this world what hope does the small and suffering church of Christ cling to?

They cling to the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

There is no higher throne than that of Christ. His kingdom will not endure for a while, but for an eternity. So don’t forget our heavenly nation. As we begin a New Year, as we face the challenges and struggles of living for Christ in a difficult world, let’s seek His kingdom. As we labour for our nations, as we try even to build our own mini kingdoms, let’s remember that we do so as citizens of Heaven. Let’s live for our True King, the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth, Jesus Christ.

Rockin’ around the Saturnalia tree? Christmas in the Early Church.

Image result for christmas"

Wednesday is Christmas day. If you’re anything like me, you’ve been buying presents, going along to carol services, and decorating your tree. The prospect of a week off of work looms large and joyful, and time spent with family and friends fills you with joy/despair (delete as appropriate).

The Early Church celebrated many things together. They ate meals as church families regularly (far more than we do today), they celebrated the resurrection as the sure foundation of their faith. But for the first three hundred years of Church History, it doesn’t seem that they celebrated Christmas.

Indeed, it’s only in 356 that we find the words “25th Dec, natus Christus in Betleem Judae.” Quite literally, 25th December, Christ is born in Bethlehem, Judea. So for three hundred years, we have no record of the Church or any other Christian group celebrating Christmas. The death of Christ and of notable saints or historic Christian figures received much more attention than their birth, and at Epiphany celebrations on the 6th January the Church was more concerned with reflecting on Christ’s baptism than His birth. It seems that Christ’s birth was not something reflected with a special day of celebration.

Why December 25th?

Quite why we celebrate Christ’s birth on the 25th of December then remains a mystery. Some have posited that it super-ceded the Roman festival of the Saturnalia, others suggest that as the Catholic Church began to celebrate Christ’s conception on March 25th, his birth naturally falls nine months later.

The former seems more likely, and the 25th of December reflects not only the Roman festival in honour of Saturn but also the Persian festival to Mithra. These major festivals may naturally have become usurped by a growing Christian population in the Roman world, keen to encourage pagans to comfortably assimilate to the new religion.

Either way, it seems unlikely that Christ was born on the 25th December, and the Bible certainly gives no date or time. Regardless of quite why the 25th was picked as the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the most important thing to not was that it was. And for hundreds of years, Christians have taken time to celebrate this birth, of a baby boy to a humble carpenter in Bethlehem, some two thousand years ago.

Why Celebrate at all?

Christians celebrate because this baby is special. When Mary became pregnant, the Lord said to her husband Joseph:

“She will give birth to a Son, and you shall give Him the name Jesus, because He has come to save His people from their sins.”

Matthew 1:21 (NIV).

Jesus came to save. Jesus, this baby in a Manger, was born to save men and women across the world and throughout history, from themselves.

Because we all need it. Look at the world around us, look at our own hearts. So often the biggest problem we deal with is ourselves. We cause trouble for ourselves, we make foolish and unkind decisions. Our actions, words and thoughts can be dirty, cruel and selfish. And the Bible says that’s wrong. And we know in our hearts that it is.

The Bible also says that this wrongdoing, what the Bible calls sin, is punishable by death. That’s why death is the certainty we all face. But on Christmas day two thousand years ago, a baby was born to challenge that. A baby was born to die. When the wise men visited, they brought gifts fit for a king (gold) a god (frankincense) and a corpse (myrrh). Myrrh, an embalming oil for bodies in the tomb. Christ was born to face death. Not in the way we are, as an inevitable end to our lives, but to face it head on.

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, by taking upon His perfect and divine shoulders, the punishment of death our sins deserve. And in its place, He gives us His goodness, His right standing with God, and we walk free. Not just in this life, but for all eternity. The baby in the manger came to bring hope to a world that seems so hopeless.

That’s why we celebrate Him. A baby born to die. A King born to save.

Maybe this Christmas you could meet this King for the first time? The links below are just to help you explore who He is, and think about why it is we celebrate Christmas quite so enthusiastically, every year.

https://www.ligonier.org/blog/real-meaning-christmas/

http://speaklife.org.uk/HeCameDown/

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+1&version=NIV

Hoping for better? Elections, Christmas and Augustine.

Image result for christmas election

In the UK we’ve just had a General Election. It’s been our third in five years, and possibly one of the most bitterly fought and divisive campaigns of recent decades.

The result has been clear, and many are not happy with it. Many were hoping for something else, many were hoping for a change of government, or at least a change of leadership.

One of our politicians, the Lib Dem Leader Jo Swinson, had this to say as she gave a speech shortly after losing her own seat (and just before resigning as party leader.) “For millions of people in this country, these results will bring dread and dismay, and people are looking for hope.”

People are looking for hope.

Maybe people put their hope in our politicians this election campaign, and maybe millions were left disappointed. But Jo was certainly right about one thing. People are looking for hope.

Now the election is over, as a country our attention turns to Christmas. The somewhat incongruous placement of Santa outfits at polling stations or Christmas trees in TV studios throughout election day was a reminder that this election comes before the biggest holiday celebration of the year.

Christmas is a huge deal, and it has been for centuries. Today, for many, Christmas means gathering the family, getting a week off work, and eating and drinking too much. And Christmas is a season of hope. People wish one another good tidings, they speak of festive cheer, and they hope for so much. They hope they’ll find time to get the Christmas shopping done, they hope they’ll manage to survive the ordeal of the office Christmas party. And perhaps they hope for bigger things. They hope all the family will get on this year. They hope that that elderly or sick relative will be well enough to come. We put a lot of hope into Christmas.

We put a lot of hope in our politicians. We put a lot of hope into our Christmas plans. But it never quite seems to work out.

Politically, millions lost out on their preferred result, and as for Christmas? You never quite get the gift you want, the family always manage to mess something up, and there’s so often that inevitable reminder of someone absent who was celebrating along with you last year.

Hope can be awfully disappointing. Because we so often hope in the wrong things.

Politicians can promise hope for a better Britain, Christmas can spark hope for a happy holiday, but there’s only one hope that never lets us down.

Hope Has a Name.

True hope has a name. That name is Jesus.

Augustine wrote a short work entitled: The Handbook on Faith, Hope and Love. In it, he alluded to the hope that Christians have, and he argued why that hope was true hope. Augustine spoke of “the hope of future good”, a hope that “leads to eternal life.” But why was this true hope and how could one hope in it?

Augustine goes on.

For when there is a question as to whether a man is good, one does not ask what he believes, or what he hopes, but what he loves. For the man who loves aright no doubt believes and hopes aright; whereas the man who has not love believes in vain, even though his beliefs are true; and hopes in vain, even though the objects of his hope are a real part of true happiness; unless, indeed, he believes and hopes for this, that he may obtain by prayer the blessing of love.

Augustine, Handbook, 117.

Here, Augustine links hope with love. But not just any love. Loving right. Loving good. And Augustine knows where true love is found: in God.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 

1 John 4:7-8 (NIV)

We can love and we can be loved, because God is love. Love comes from God, it pours out of His very nature. And love, says Augustine, leads to hope. And the great hope of Christians, in the Early Church and today, is Christ.

Because Christ came to Earth out of love. The love of the Father for a broken and lost people. The love of the Father to bring His children home. The love of the Father to save hopeless people, and to fill them with a lasting hope in Himself.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him would not perish, but have eternal life.

John 3:16 (NIV)

God SO loved. That He sent Jesus Christ. He sent His only Son, to live and die in our place. To bear the punishment our sinful lives deserved, and to offer us real and lasting hope. Hope of an eternal life with Him, hope of an eternal love with God’s family. Hope of a Father winning back His children for all eternity.

This Christmas, hope is not found in the family we gather round us, or the social faux pas we avoid. Hope is found in a baby, born 2000 years ago. Hope is found in the God of Augustine. Hope is found in Jesus Christ. Sent because God loved so much, that He couldn’t bear to leave us hopeless.

Put your hope in that. Put your hope in Him.