With this post I officially begin my blog’s companion podcast, The Nicene Nerdcast. I don’t have much in the way of introduction to give you, so here’s the first installment. This is the result of some of my ponderings on race and the Church in recent days.
[This is a post I wrote quite some time ago but which has not been published here.]
I just finished reading the behemoth that is The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul by Douglas Campbell. The book is quite interesting, even if some of its major ideas are rather unconvincing in the final analysis. In this case, it seems to me that the redemption is in the details, while the devil is in the big picture.
All of that is rather tangential to the point of this post, though. I mainly want to address something that came to mind for me while reading a section in TDOG about conversion. Campbell was pointing out the characteristics of conversion experiences as studied by sociologists. He explained that, contrary to ideal evangelical imagination, but rather like the actual experiences of evangelicals if we thought about it, conversions usually take place as the result of gradual shift from one community to another. The basic progression, according to research on people who convert between religions, seems to be something like this:
- Person introduced to (or has attention brought to) new religion by friends, family, or other persistent relationships.
- Person interacts more and more with new group, developing new relationships and connections.
- Gradually, the connections to this new group begin to outweigh connections to the old, and loyalties begin to shift.
- Person, according to the manner learned from the new group, makes a decisive change of association and identifies with the new group. Conversion is complete.
As far as I can tell, this appears to be about right. Certainly, I’ve watched it happen myself within Christianity, with denominations and individual churches. While of course there are exceptions, these do not seem to be particularly normative, and many (though by no means all!) of the people who make less progressive and more instantaneous “conversions” tend to be like the rocky soil, and they wither in no time. If we only count conversions that “stick,” this would seem to be an even more accurate account.
So reading this about conversion got me to thinking just how useful it really can be to invite people into our churches and welcome them with love and kindness. If someone is brought into a community of people worshipping Jesus Christ in faith, hope, and love, and those people actually do treat them in a radically gracious and genuinely invested way, this display of the Spirit through love really can do wonders, and can fill people’s natural social interactions with God’s power unto salvation. Nothing can make people want to follow Christ more than to see Christ’s life being truly embodied before their eyes by a community of His people proclaiming His Word.
Yet there is, it seems to me, a danger latent in this strategy. Welcoming the unbeliever into our association and love is certainly good, but appears to carry with it the danger of mere assimilation instead of conversion on its own. When we simply fellowship with and love and befriend the visiting unbeliever, we might run the risk of them eventually just thinking as though they are one of us, a true Christian and member of the Body, despite having never repented of their sins, responded to Christ in faith, or submitted to accountability within the Church as legitimate member. We might lose them one day to realize that we have lost a friend, but that this friend fell through the cracks of our love and acceptance without ever joining in the new and eternal life found in Christ.
So what can we do about this? How do we leverage the power of Spirit-filled community to draw people to Christ while simultaneously ensuring that people aren’t just silently absorbed without any defining encounter with Christ resulting in a conversion to faith and repentance? I think the proper answer to this potential difficulty lies in the proper use of the sacraments. I am a firm believer in weekly Communion, despite being immersed in a Baptist world where such practice is rare. One day I hope to remedy that. But that is rather beside the point.
Setting up baptism and Communion as strict distinguishing marks, I believe, provides the necessary protection against mere assimilation. Weekly Communion where only those who have been baptized may participate provides a constant and, depending on how Communion is performed, potentially quite conspicuous reminder of the difference between being in Christ, part of His Body, and outside Christ, still part of the world. Even when the unbeliever is loved and welcomed and finds himself deeply wanting to be one of these people and share in their (Spirit-filled) life, the dividing line of Eucharistic separation is bound to create a tension which will have to be resolved at some point, either by abandoning the community he has grown attached to or by converting and joining that community. Arms wide open and altars narrowly restricted, a powerful love and a burning awareness of distinction, should act as the opposite pressures driving the potential convert in one of two directions: join the Body and its Christ or flee from both.
As another thought, I suspect the impact of this could be further enhanced by weekly fellowship meals, with Communion taking place immediately prior to the general eating. If you want to stay and eat with all of the people you are growing to love but must first watch only those committed to union with one Christ participate in a celebration of Him, I expect the decision-driving tension would only grow more powerful. In the end, the idea is to create a fellowship so attractive, virtuous, welcoming, and gracious that all want to become a part, but to make a public commitment to Christ in baptism the only path to truly do so. I suspect this will weed out many who are not truly concerned, but will provide opportunity for strengthening for those who might find themselves being drawn. May this be what happens, no matter what we actually do.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Communion in recent weeks, and there are three things which have stuck in my mind:
- Communion is first and foremost about Christ and His Body, not Christ and me. Now, I see people give lip service to this notion every once in a while. But I’ve rarely seen it put into practice. Most Communion services encourage people to reflect on Christ’s death for me, deal with my own sins, consider my personal walk with Jesus, and eat individually (or at widest, by family). None of this aligns with what Scripture teaches about Communion. Paul declared, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for all of us share that one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). He speaks as though coming together as a church is the same as coming together to take the Supper (1 Cor. 11:18-21). They cannot be divided. Communion is designed to unite us as one Body of one Lord, so why do we take it like we’re each only dealing with Christ personally? I would love to see churches take a hard look at how they do Communion. There are surely ways to drive home the corporate, fellowship side of the Christian table.
In Protestant circles, we should speak more freely about Christ’s presence in the Supper. I don’t think we need to accept the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, the Lutheran view (often called “consubstantiation,” which most Lutherans disavow, or “sacramental union,” which most accept), or anything along those lines. But we need to be able to call the bread and wine—without any qualifications—Christ’s body and blood. We don’t need 10 minutes (or even 10 seconds) before each Communion saying, “Remember, this is just a symbol.” After all, right after John died the early Christians would write stuff like this:
Consider how contrary to the mind of God are the heterodox in regard to the grace of God which has come to us…They abstain from the Eucharist…because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousness, raised from the dead.
Ignatius, “Letter to the Smyrnaeans”
Whatever we think about the details of how the Supper works, we should at least get this: Jesus is there, and we are nourished by His atoning sacrifice. And that should give us great joy.
The one loaf is far more appropriate than crackers. This ties in a lot with my first point, but it’s still different. Originally, it seems quite clear that Communion was observed with loaves of bread divided among the believers. This was definitely true when Jesus started the Supper during His last Passover meal. Now most of us use wafers, crackers, or stuff that is probably just edible styrofoam. Practically speaking, it makes sense that this would happen over time. But practicality isn’t the point of the sacraments. I think this development betrays the original purpose. If we break whole loaves together, it reinforces the united body element mentioned above (we all share the same loaves of bread) and the significance of Jesus’ body being broken for us. It picks up on the Biblical theme of meal-sharing in celebration before God. But again, I just have to go back to the point of the united body. The Didache, basically an introduction to Christianity for new converts written in the second century, makes the point in its Communion prayer. I’ll wrap up by quoting it:
We give thee thanks, our Father, for the life and knowledge which thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy Child. To thee be glory for ever. As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains, but was brought together and became one, so let thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into thy kingdom, for thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever.
Every Sunday (ideally) we who believe in Jesus Christ gather together to take His Supper. This meal we often call “Communion.” Yet it seems personally that too often we forget the significance of that name. There is a reason that we call Communion “Communion.” In this post I want to briefly explore that reason and offer some suggestions about how we can better honor it.
The word “Communion” reflects two aspects of the Lord’s Supper. On the one hand, it refers to the way that we commune with Christ by taking His body and blood. When we eat the bread and drink the wine through faith, the Holy Spirit ushers us into the presence of God in heaven through Jesus Christ, whose body and blood given for us gain us entrance into the divine glory. On the flip side of that, you could say that when we take the bread and wine the Holy Spirit brings Jesus Himself, His atoning body and blood, to us in a supernatural way. In Communion then we commune with Jesus, having sweet fellowship with God in Christ by the death which reconciles us to Him, represented in the real-symbol of bread and wine. On the Cross Jesus gave Himself for us, and we when recall that sacrifice in Communion He gives Himself to us.
That said, the aspect of communion with Christ the Supper is not my main focus in this post. For the most part, we are quick to pick up on at least something along these lines, and the way that we tend to do Communion shows that. But most of the time it seems to me that this is the only dimension of Communion we adequately capture. There is another, often neglected side, too. In Communion, we don’t just commune with Christ. We also commune with each other as His body. As we eat of Christ’s body in the Supper, we as the Church are formed into His one body ourselves.
Biblically, the Lord’s Supper is a meal which we share with each other in Christ. This meaning is the whole point of Paul’s criticisms of the Corinthian church in 1 Cor. 11. He starts off by referring to their taking Communion as when they “come together” (something I also think supports weekly Communion). Then he immediately starts condemning their internal divisions. When he says that they aren’t truly eating the Lord’s Supper, he says it is because “each one eats his own supper ahead of others.” And when he tells them what to do about it, he says they must “wait for one another.” The running theme is that the way the Corinthians were celebrating Communion was divided and individualistic, but it was supposed to be a unified meal of a single body. Communion is meant to be something the members of the church do together as one people.
This dimension is also seen later in the same letter, when in chapter 10 Paul warns against participating in meals for worshipping idols. He draws this view idea of double communion—communing with the god in question and with the other people present—as applying in those cases. Here is what he says:
Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I am speaking as to wise people. Judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we give thanks for, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for all of us share that one bread. Look at the people of Israel. Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in what is offered on the altar?
1 Corinthians 10:14-18
Pay close attention to what Paul says here. On one hand, he tells us that eating a meal in the context of idol worship is a participation in that idol worship itself, just as Communion is a participation in the body and blood of Christ. This reflects the vertical aspect of the Supper, our Communion with God in Jesus Christ. Yet he also adds that “we who are many are one body, for all of us share that one bread.” This is the horizontal dimension I am highlighting. When we partake of a meal in worship of Jesus together, we are united as His one body. We are His one body because we share the one bread of His body.
This is something that the early Christians understood well. The Didache, one of the earliest Christian writings after the New Testament, contains this Communion prayer:
We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge which you made known to us through Jesus your servant. To you be the glory forever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. To you is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.
They got it. Communion is communion, both with Jesus and with each other. Our shared identity as those “in Christ” is bound up with our shared reception of His gift of Himself in His body and blood offered for us on the Cross and to us in Communion. We are people-who-receive-Jesus-together.
Now, this is all well and good to know, but I want to add something. It is not enough just to think of Communion as involving the unity of God’s people. We must also be sure to do Communion that way. So often in so many churches Communion is done otherwise. The focus in on individuals as they introspectively examine themselves and their personal relationship with Jesus before taking the bread and wine on their own. In some cases the focus is on families as they partake one group at a time. Yet this is a shared experience for all the Church, not just the local but the universal. We must be sure to remember that, and so when we do Communion, however the details, we should do it in a way that we can tell, feel, and know that we are in this together. One body receiving one body from one Lord. Amen.
In my last post, I addressed the direct Biblical evidence for weekly Communion as a proper practice of the Church. In this one I want to pick up where I left off and examine the actual theological rationale for having the Supper every week.
Reasons from Theology
So, if we take it that Scripture indicates weekly Communion, and indeed Communion as a central piece of church gathering, then why? What is the reason for coming together weekly to take the Lord’s Supper? What makes the Supper so important?
The Presence of Christ
There are essentially three major theological themes which give Communion its significance. The first is the most discussed in Christian history, and the most central. Basically, the first is that Jesus is there in the Supper in a way He is not always present. When we take the bread and the wine, we—in some way or another—experience Christ’s body and blood given for us. The Church has always believed this, that in the Supper Jesus is present. Now, there has been disagreement about what this means. The Orthodox Church holds a rather ambiguous and mystical belief that the bread and wine become Jesus’ actual body and blood. The Catholic Church teaches with transubstantiation that the bread and wine transform in reality, but not in appearance (to oversimplify), into Christ’s full body and blood, including His divine presence and power. The Lutheran Church simply teaches that they are the body and blood, and that Christ’s body and blood are “in, with, and under” the bread and wine, without detailing how this works. Reformed Churches vary in their beliefs, but John Calvin believed that in the Supper we ascend through the Spirit by faith to Christ’s heavenly presence and are spiritually nourished by His body and blood. Most Baptists believe that Jesus is simply present insomuch as we remember Him in the symbolic action.
However we slice and dice it, the truth remains that Jesus is there in Communion in a way that He is not always there1. So to take the Lord’s Supper frequently, indeed weekly as the Church, is to accept an invitation into the presence of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. If we love Him, is this not what we wish to do?
Heaven Here and Now
The second major theological dimension to the Supper is its role in eschatology. The end times, the final climax, the coming kingdom—all of this from the future comes into the present through Communion today. There are multiple dimensions to even this. On the one hand, this tails off of Jesus’ presence. Right now Jesus is ascended and absent from the world in a real way. In Communion, He is present, anticipating the day when He actually will physically return to earth. This entails not only an anticipation of the return of Jesus Himself, but also the benefits which His return includes.
What benefits do I mean? There are many. There is the benefit of eternal joy and celebration. The use of wine for Christ’s redeeming blood points to this, for God has given wine to make men glad2. When we eat and drink, a basic act of celebration, we rejoice that Christ is coming back, and indeed His coming and kingdom is already present in the Church because of the sacrifice He made.
In fact, what is really happening here is the pre-enactment (rather than reenactment) of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb3, the time when all the redeemed will rejoice and celebrate the return of the Bridegroom for His bride. And if this is the meaning of eating and drinking together as the body of Christ, eagerly awaiting His coming, then we do well to do it often, that we may be sustained in hope and always reminded of our mission and purpose in light of His imminent return.
One Body, One Body
The final major aspect of Communion is the unity of the Church. As we all find ourselves nourished by the one body of Jesus Christ given for us, we are all bound together as His one body in the world. The simplest place to go for this theme is 1 Corinthians 10:14-21. In these verses Paul rebukes some of the Corinthians for participating in feasts to idols, and he does so in contrast with the Lord’s Supper. What he says is revealing:
Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I am speaking as to wise people. Judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we give thanks for, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for all of us share that one bread. Look at the people of Israel. Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in what is offered on the altar? What am I saying then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but I do say that what they sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to participate with demons! You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot share in the Lord’s table and the table of demons.
Here Paul teaches clearly that the one bread and one cup we share, sharing in the same body and blood of the same Lord Jesus Christ, bind us together as a single body. It is not called “Communion” for nothing. In Communion we both commune with God through Jesus Christ, and we commune with each other through Jesus Christ. We are made into one body through one Supper.
This is, in fact, is half of the sacramental unity of the Church. All of us who perform baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one Church, bound together by union with Christ. When we participate in these acts, all divisions crumble. Nothing makes one baptized man better than another, nor does anyone do anything more than simply receive God’s gift in Communion. They are greatly equalizers and unifiers. When we share a meal, the Lord’s meal, we become the community of Christ. Is it not usually the case that eating with someone draws you closer to them? Indeed it is, and even more so when what you eat and drink is provided by God to enjoy His Son through His Spirit.
Of course, is Communion is at all about unity, we must do it every time we meet together, for that unity is the basic foundation of meeting together at all. Can two walk together unless they be agreed? By no means! When we gather, then, we must gather in not only the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, and prayer, but also in the breaking of bread. Only in this way will we be fitted together as a whole body, of whom Christ is the head.
This has already gone on way longer than I intended. Hopefully I’ve made my point. I believe weekly Communion is Biblical and essential to healthy church life. I hope at least someone is persuaded of this as well. I’ll end with this early Christian prayer:
We thank you, our Father, for the holy vine of David your servant, which you made known to us through Jesus your servant. To you be the glory forever.
We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge which you made known to us through Jesus your servant. To you be the glory forever.
Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. To you is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.
Unlike most of my Baptist brethren, I believe in having Communion every week. Moreover, I do not merely think it is a good idea. I think it is an essential one. But most of my fellow Baptists have never done this, or seen any reason to, or really ever considered why it is only done rarely (quarterly in most Baptist churches I’ve seen). And all of this applies not only to Baptists, but to their wild Pentecostal cousins and the homeless non-denominationals. Weekly Communion is, I suggest, a vital part of what church should be. Without further ado, I’ll move into why.
Reasons from the Bible
The first relevant text—not counting those when Jesus instituted the Supper before He died, since He said nothing about when, where, or how to observe it then—is Acts 2:42. This is basically the first description of the New Testament Church. After the initial conversion of 3000 people, they become a new community marked by four things. Here’s the verse:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers.
Three of these are obvious elements of true church. The teaching of the apostles, Christian fellowship, and prayers certain define and shape what meeting together as a church involves. But what of “the breaking of bread?” What is this about? While some people argue that it is merely a reference to eating together (and it may involve that), traditionally it has been understood as referring to, or at least including (cf. the NLT), the Lord’s Supper. Calvin, for example, comments this:
My reason why I would rather have breaking of bread to be understood of the Lord’s Supper in this place is this, because Luke doth reckon up those things wherein the public estate of the Church is contained. Yea, he expresseth in this place four marks whereby the true and natural face of the Church may be judged. Do we then seek the true Church of Christ? The image thereof is lively depainted and set forth unto us in this place.
In Calvin’s view, “breaking of bread” is a defining element of the true Church and probably what Luke was talking about here. Whenever the Church came together, they participated in all that defines the Church, which includes Communion.
In addition to 2:42, Acts 20:7 also refers to a church service in which Paul is preaching, but specifies that they “came together to break bread.” If breaking bread is indeed meant to be a Communion reference, as seems likely and was historically believed, then this again suggests Communion is a key part of why churches are to meet at all.
More Biblical reason comes from 1 Corinthians 11. In verses 17-34, Paul gives instructions about the Lord’s Supper. Interestingly, if you pay attention you’ll notice that he seems to assume they do this all the time, and in fact every time that they come together as a church. Pay close attention to 18-20:
For to begin with, I hear that when you come together as a church there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. There must, indeed, be factions among you, so that those who are approved may be recognized among you. Therefore, when you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper.
In this passage, Paul speaks of their meeting together as a church, and then rebukes them because they don’t really come to eat the Lord’s Supper! Surely this implies that, when a church comes together, in at least part it should actually be to eat the Supper. This reinforces the “came together to break bread” from Acts 20:7.
Until Next Time
I was originally going to make this all one post, but it turned out to be almost 2000 words, twice the suggested length for reader attention. So I’m splitting it here. The next post will look at the theological rationale for the Biblical practice of weekly Communion. Why should it be done? That’s the question I’ll seek to answer.
Another sermon manuscript, one that I preached this morning. This was actually meant to lead into Communion, which you will see that it does.
His Whole Life Matters
This morning, I want to start by asking a simple question. In fact, it’s a good little church question which a bunch of church people should have a pretty easy time answering. So here’s the question: what are some things that Jesus did for us?
One thing which I did not hear anyone say: that Jesus lived for us. And the fact that I didn’t hear this, and didn’t really expect to, is exactly why I want to preach about this topic. Jesus did not only die for us, but lived for us as well, and this is what I want to look at today.
See, I know two great short slogans which can summarize the Gospel. One of them is “Jesus in our place.” That is pretty great, isn’t it? The other is “God in Christ for us.” Both of these are, I think, very good ways to sum up the Gospel in only a couple words. But what’s something they both have in common? Neither one is only about Jesus’ death. The whole Jesus—life, death, and resurrection—is in our place, and God is and was in the whole Christ for us.
Now, the specific way that Jesus lived for us which I want to talk about today is a doctrine with a ridiculously technical sounding name, but it’s not as crazy as it sounds. It’s called the vicarious humanity of Christ. I realize it sounds a bit much, but it’s pretty straightforward. The Christ part is obviously just Jesus, the humanity is of course His being human, and we know as well what vicarious means. It’s one person or thing in place of someone else. In this case it is Jesus, as a human, being a human in our place.
How Jesus Lived for Us
But what exactly does that mean? And what impact should it have on our lives? I want to look at the whole thing in two parts, and so I don’t get carried away I’ll only mention them one at a time. The first part is, as I just mentioned, that Jesus lived for us. From the beginning to the end, from Christmas to Easter, every moment of Jesus’ life was something He did to save us. It didn’t just start counting when He got baptized and began His ministry. It didn’t wait to be meaningful for Him to ride on a donkey into Jerusalem. And it didn’t just start when He was led to the Cross. What Jesus was doing as a human being to save us started when the virgin conceived, and it’s still going.
But how does that work? What does everything Jesus did besides the Cross do for us? To answer this question, I want to look into the concept of the covenant. The basic idea here is that God created a covenant relationship with mankind, where God promised to be our God and He called us to be His people. But from Adam onward, humans have consistently failed to keep up our end. But God is faithful, and He is not willing to let us go so easily. Since we couldn’t seem to manage a right response to God, God Himself became one of us in Jesus Christ, and as a human being fulfilled the human side of the covenant. He gave a saving call to us, and then He answered that call as one of us for all of us. By doing this He created an actual, reconciled relationship between God and man. And that is eternal life.
Now, I’ve said all of this without referencing too much straight from the Bible, so I want to dive in a bit deeper. First, we can see the pattern of God calling us into a relationship with Himself, especially a covenant relationship, throughout Scripture. Some people see this in the Garden of Eden, though not everyone agrees with that. But after that, it just keeps coming. God makes a covenant with Noah in Genesis 9 to never destroy the world with a flood and kill everything in it again, which hints at more grace in the future. Next God makes a covenant with Abraham, promising both to bless his descendants and to bless the entire world through them. Then from Exodus through Deuteronomy we see God making a covenant with Israel, a people which Deuteronomy 9:4-5 tell us were no better than anyone else, to be their God, give them a land, and save them from all their enemies. And of course, after this King David receives a covenant from God for an eternal dynasty.
But the problem is that there’s another theme running right alongside this. God keeps making covenants to bless us and bring us to Himself, but we’ve been resisting and breaking them since day one. In Genesis 3, there’s the Fall as the first instance of man just resisting God’s grace to do his own thing. Then in Genesis 9, right after God makes a covenant with Noah and blesses him, Noah gets drunk and passes out naked, leading to a curse on a whole body of his descendants. Then Abraham is given a promise for a son and for a land, but in both cases he takes serious missteps, relying on human help like maidservants and Egyptian surpluses when in need. And of course, once we get to Israel we are all too familiar with their repeated history of God showing mercy, and them falling right back into the same sins. And David, well, we all know how far he fell and how this ultimately led to his kingdom divided two generations later. This whole pattern gets worse and worse until eventually God’s people lost it all in exile.
But what’s great is that right at this point, when it is clear that Israel is a failure and God’s plan to bless the world looks doomed, Jesus shows us. He appears at the center of all these circles and covenants. And at this point we have to combine the idea of representation with substitution. Jesus, by being in the center of all this, represented as soon as He came on the scene all the world in Himself. How does this work?
Let’s go back and trace these lines. God created everything, and then He made man at the top, the pinnacle of creation. So man, by being steward over creation, also stands as the representative at the top of creation. Then comes Israel. They were, as I mentioned before, just one nation out of many. Deuteronomy 9:4-6 says:
When the Lord your God thrusts them out before you, do not say to yourself, “It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to occupy this land”; it is rather because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you. It is not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart that you are going in to occupy their land; but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is dispossessing them before you, in order to fulfill the promise that the Lord made on oath to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Know, then, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to occupy because of your righteousness; for you are a stubborn people.
They were just like everyone else, but were called to bless the world. So now there’s another layer of Israel standing before God as a microcosm of all humanity. But next come the priests and the kings. The priests minister before God constantly on Israel’s behalf, and once a year the High Priest himself represents all Israel when he goes to make atonement in the Holy of Holies. Same goes for the kings, who God treated as a representative of the whole nation, something you can see among other places in how God handled David’s sinful census at the end of Numbers.
Now Jesus sits right in the middle of each of these circles and layers. He is our High Priest, as Hebrews tells us, and the King of Israel, as the Gospels tell us. He is the Son of Man, a man born of a woman. He is, as Colossians 1:15 says, the firstborn over all creation. Basically, as the King and Priest He represents and substitutes for all Israel. As Israel He represents and substitutes for all the rest of humanity, who are no different. And as humanity, He represents and substitutes for all creation. This one man, Jesus of Nazareth, lived as the center of all creation, as the representative and substitute of everyone everywhere. So He lived in our place and for us. He gave God the perfect response of human faith and obedience which He called us to give, and since He was doing that in our place, He won salvation for us all. Saint Irenaeus, who was actually a disciple of a disciple of John, said this:
He [Jesus] fought and conquered…He was the man who struggled for his fathers and through his obedience cancelled their disobedience.
And of course, this obedience had to lead to the Cross, too. If Jesus was going to identify Himself as this representative, He had to face our doomed fate and die with our weakness. But even then, He rose from the dead. So while being our representative and substitute, He came back from death. This was the how the whole thing was completed. He came out victorious, and He came out in our place. All this added up to giving us eternal life, which Jesus Himself defined as a fellowship between God and man when He said in John 17:3, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
Finally, before I move on to my next point, I just want to read Hebrews 5:7-10 and then quote Gregory of Nazianzus. Hebrews 5:7-10 says:
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
And here’s what Saint Gregory has to say about all this:
For that which he has not assumed [that is, taken on Himself as a human] he has not healed; but that which is united to his Godhead is also saved.
How We Live from Jesus
Wow. As far as I’m concerned, this stuff alone is awesome enough, and is probably worth at least a year’s worth of preaching. But, I want to go ahead and move on to my second part. As if it weren’t enough that Jesus lived for us in such an awesome way, I want to add a second, following point. Jesus lived for us, and now we live from Him. What’s that mean? It means that none of our human faith and obedience started in us. It all started in Him.
The key passage for this is Galatians 2:19b-20. Unlike what I usually do, I’m going to read this one in the KJV, and I’ll explain why in a minute.
I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.
What I especially want to point out is the phrase, “the faith of the Son of God.” If you don’t have a KJV, it probably says “faith in the Son of God.” This is because of the funny Greek behind it, which could in theory be translated in four major possible ways:
“faith of the Son of God”
“faithfulness of the Son of God”
“faith in the Son of God”
“faithfulness to the Son of God”
Now, obviously the biggest difference is that the first two are about something Jesus has, whereas the second two are about something we have towards Jesus. What is interesting to note is that while most translations since the KJV have picked “faith in the Son of God,” many modern scholars have been moving back to agree with the KJV on one of the first two options, the faith or faithfulness of the Son of God. This fits what the rest of the passage is saying. Yes, we believe. Yes, we obey. But even though it is us, it’s also not really us but Jesus living in us. It’s not just our faith, but faith rooted in Jesus’ careful trust of the Father during His earthly life. It’s not our faithfulness, but Jesus’ faithful obedience to His Father. We only share in these because we are, like Paul, in Christ. We died with Him to sin, and have been raised with Him to a new life, His own life.
Possibly, though, some of you may be wondering what I mean by Jesus’ faith, and how for that matter we can live from it. So I’ll go back a bit. Jesus, as I said before, lived the perfect human life in relation to God as our substitute and representative. He did everything for us that God wants us to do. He had faith in His Father, as Hebrews 12:2 says that He is the author and perfecter of our faith who pushed forward faithfully to obey God. And if “faith of Christ” is the correct reading from before, then in Scripture we have several good references to Jesus’ faith and its role in saving us, such as Romans 3:22, Galatians 3:22, and Philippians 3:9.
Jesus also repented for us. Now I realize that sounds weird. How can Jesus repent from sin if He didn’t have any sin? See, the basic point of “repent” is to turn away from something. So Jesus never sinned, but He was constantly turning away from sin when it reared its ugly head to tempt Him. We can see a great example of Jesus doing that in both Matthew and Luke 4, where He resisted all the temptations Satan put before Him and came out victorious. This vicarious repentance is exactly what makes it possible for us to repent, even when we’ve already sinned.
Another thing Jesus did for us was good works. I would give some Scripture to prove that, except for the fact that it is probably pretty obvious. Jesus healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, forgave poor sinners, fed the hungry, and throughout His whole ministry did act after act of compassion and mercy. These good works of Jesus are, again, the source of our good works. Whenever we do mercy or show love to people who need it, we’re participating in what Jesus Himself did, connected to Him by the Spirit.
Finally, of course, Jesus died for us. This is another one that is too obvious to need any specific verses references. In our place, as our representative and substitute, Jesus faced the death due to us sinners. By doing this He killed our old man, the flesh, and then rose again and created for us the new man.
Now, all of this that Jesus did is the ground for our Christian life. When we, as Paul says, walk according to the Spirit, what is happening is that the Holy Spirit is pouring into us the very faith, repentance, good works, death, and resurrection of Jesus Himself from His human life. Because He was man, the sanctified, set-apart life that He lived has become the source of our sanctified lives, something that again ties into Hebrews 5:9.
So because of all this, everything that we do as a Christian, not our fleshly works but our spiritual ones, comes straight from Jesus. It is us, but not us, but Christ living in us. We live by the faith of the Son of God, and the end result of this transformation worked out by the Holy Spirit is fellowship with God the Father through Jesus Christ His Son. And that, in my humble opinion, is altogether wonderful.
Abiding in Christ
So what is the application here? How should this truth, the vicarious humanity of Christ, the fact that Jesus lived for us and we live from Him, impact us? I can think of two major things.
The first is that this doctrine should give us more assurance than ever. Our salvation in every last part is of Christ, not of ourselves. And if it is not of ourselves, our own weaknesses and failures can’t hurt it. There is nothing left to trust in ourselves for. If we believe, that’s from Jesus, who believed perfectly. Even if we don’t believe enough, Jesus did for us. If we do good works, that’s from Jesus, who did the most good of anyone ever. If we don’t do enough good works, Jesus did for us. Like Romans 8:1 says, there is no condemnation because we are in Christ Jesus. We are secure in His arms.
This ties into the second application, though. If every part of our new life comes from Jesus, then we have no choice but to abide in Him if we want to live. John 15:4-5 says it well:
Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.
These verses show that we have to rely on Jesus for everything. We have to stay connected with Him to live. So how do we do that? How can we abide in Christ and stay connected? I’ll finish with just a few examples.
Prayer is the first key. In prayer we communicate with God Himself, mediated by Christ our High Priest, with the help of the Spirit’s intercession. This keeps us connected to Christ and gives us His strength.
Scripture is also vital. When we read Scripture with the help of the Spirit, we see Jesus more and more clearly. He said Himself that all the Scriptures testify of Him, so when we read them we grow to know Him even more.
Another important part of abiding in Christ is being a part of His church. The church is His body, a called out community of people bound by His Spirit to each other for service and worship. We cannot abide in Christ without abiding in His body.
Then there’s what most call sacraments, but Baptists usually call ordinances. The first of course is baptism. Anyone not baptized ought to be, because in baptism the Holy Spirit grips us with the visible act and says, “Look! You have died and risen with Christ! You are a new creation!” We can think back on baptism and just remember what a perfect picture it is of what Jesus has done for and with us.
Finally, though, there’s also Communion, which we’ll be practicing today. Baptism is the one time sign of our union with Jesus, but Communion is the ongoing one. When we have Communion, we get to experience a spiritual reminder of how we depend on Christ for our life. Just as we need food and drink, the bread and the cup, to survive physically, so spiritually we rely completely on the life of Jesus which was given for us. Having Communion pushes our hearts towards that reality and remind us that our life comes only from Christ, because He chose to live for us. I’ll finish with a quote from T. F. Torrance and then turn it over:
As one summoned to the Holy Table [the Christian] is commanded by the Word of God to live only in such a way that he feeds upon Christ, not in such a way that he feeds upon his own activities or lives out of his own capital of alleged spirituality. He lives from week to week, by drawing his life and strength from the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, nourished by the body and blood of Christ, and in the strength of that communion he must live and work until Christ comes again. As often as he partakes of the Eucharist he partakes of the self-consecration of Jesus Christ who sanctified Himself for our sakes that we might be sanctified in reality and be presented to the Father as those whom He has redeemed and perfected (or consecrated) together with Himself in one. Here He is called to lift up his heart to the ascended Lord, and to look forward to the day when the full reality of his new being in Christ will be unveiled, making Scripture and Sacrament no longer necessary.