In October 2008, the USS Theodore Roosevelt visited Cape Town along with the USS Monterey with the latter to enter deployment fighting piracy off the African coast.
The Monterey moored in Cape Town and accepted visitors who received tours, and I was rather chuffed to have seen a Ticonderoga class vessel up close. There is no upper limit of cool when you see SH-60 Sea Hawks, CIWS and behold the sight of a network of doors on the deck which at any moment can be opened and missiles of fury launched and directed by a high-tech weapons system that can play chess, write a report and tie your shoelaces at the same time.
I was impressed, surrounded by sailors and Marines providing force security. My nerd instinct was to salute, but I knew that a salute would not have been the proper response as I wasn’t enlisted or in uniform and was in fact a civilian.
I have still never been anything other than a civilian. And after 11 years I finally remembered to look up what the proper response is to a sailor or Marine (or any member of the armed forces in uniform): to put one’s hand over one’s heart.
Protocol is very important in the military. It denotes respect and the recognition of authority. The junior rank will initiate the salute and the senior rank will return it, with both locking eyes as they do so.
For several weeks, I’ve been praying for those who need to get saved, and I think of their posture as those who have their backs turned to Him, perhaps not out of spite, but with their backs turned to Him all the same. I’ve been praying that they would turn their eyes towards Him and recognise His authority.
An image from the book of Genesis provides for me an illustration of the posture of those who are living apart from Him. After they sinned, Adam and Eve hid from God. They had to have known that they couldn’t really hide from him. They saw the world that He had created, the stars in the universe that He put in place, seen in the night sky. The biosphere, the robust yet intricate systems apparent to their powers of observation. They had to have known that hiding from Him who sees everything was futile.
Did they hide in a bush? In a tree? In a stream bed? I can make a guess about their hiding place, but I reckon I’m not far off when guessing their posture, looking to avoid eye contact, possibly with their backs turned to him. A tragic hide-and-seek with no mirth.
So many are like that today, seeking refuge in intellectualism, hedonism, religion. Eyes to the left or right, looking anywhere but in His. Understandably so, for to look in His eyes would be to confess shame, to acknowledge His authority.
It occurred to me that professional soldiers – in a throwback to archaic forms of respect – understand authority: possessing it, submitting to it and formulating a culture around it.
I thought immediately of the Centurion in the time of Jesus’ ministry who had a sick servant and sent a request for Jesus to heal his servant. Firstly, in that day and age, servants were commodities who were either useful or not. Why would a Gentile military man care for a servant who could be discarded? Secondly, I wondered how he came to adhere to the Spartan, martial culture of Rome, yet adopted a way of looking at the world that was culturally Jewish and in terms of faith very Biblical.
The article writer’s main point is that: “the Centurion recognized divine holiness in Jesus and sinfulness in himself and knew he was not worthy of Jesus’s presence.
He also recognized Jesus’s authority. While Jewish elders asked Jesus questions like, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21:23), this foreigner knew exactly who Jesus was. ”
In fact Jesus remarks that he had not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. An outsider, adopting new ways who obtains a measure of faith greater than men who had been steeped in faith and morals since birth.
The Centurion sent a delegation to demonstrate his faith, firstly to ask for healing, then subsequently to demonstrate that Jesus didn’t even have to be near the servant to heal him. The centurion knew that authority wasn’t line of sight or within the sound of Jesus’ voice, but a real power that Jesus had to utter the command and it would be done.
The centurion’s understanding of authority and the stuff of faith impressed Jesus and it sure impresses me.
Posture is everything, in facing your fellow soldiers with respect or even your enemy. But especially your superior.
I see people in this world looking away from Him, in either disinterest, or in distraction, or in rebellion.
For some, its a prostration en masse towards Mecca and away from Christ; after all, it is written in the mosque at Al Aqsa that God has no son.
For others, it’s an intellectual embarrassment for the idea of God which to them seem so fairytale-like and excessively sentimental.
For others still, its like the reaction of Adam and Eve, people who would rather not be confronted with their own bent towards selfishness and evil.
As for me, this Easter, its eyes front, looking to Him. Looking back at a cross and an empty tomb. Looking ahead to a triumphal return.
Have you ever listened to your own recorded voice? And then thought how you sound way different than you thought you did, possibly disappointed.
If I want to, I can turn on my charm or my sense of humour, but my voice is fixed. And sometimes I wish it were deeper, as I’m a dude. One guy who doesn’t have that problem is David Suchet.
I have never watched any of the episodes of a particular whodunnit featuring Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective created in literary fiction by the legendary Agatha Christie. I knew of the actor and thespian David Suchet (who portrays Poirot) from one of my favourite action movies in the DVD cabinet, ‘Executive Decision’.
In that particular movie, Suchet plays with alarming creepiness, a mesmerizing terrorist leading the hijack of an airplane. Easily his most formidable feature is his voice. And his excessively hairy arms.
As Suchet tells it in an interview, he was irreligious, but didn’t know what to do with the passing of his grandfather, with whom he had been close. Thinking about the question of life after death – which Suchet didn’t believe in at the time – he decided to read Scripture. This in a hotel room in Seattle in 1986.
Now the article does’t say, but the question occurs to me…where might an irreligious fellow in a hotel room acquire Scripture? Perhaps the Gideons? Suchet began to read Paul’s letter to the Romans and upon reading the eighth chapter that was when he found faith.
No fancy Christian movie, no contemporary Christian song, simply reading Scripture.
There have been times when I have been floored after reading a verse or a passage, but no recent time that I can think of. Recently, I started watching a Louie Giglio series called ‘Breath on a page’. He begins from the verse about all Scripture being inspired:
There are a lot of books out there in the world. Some are there for entertainment, some for instruction (like how to do something), but the author always wants to take us to a conclusion using words. Scripture is the only book God wrote, and it is alive.
Giglio’s first sermon out of the gate has the setting from Nehemiah chapter 8.
To set the scene, Nehemiah wanted to rebuild Jerusalem as the people had been carried away into captivity and the city was defenceless. Having asked permission from the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, where Nehemiah was also in exile, he set out to rebuild Jerusalem, first organizing some fellow exiles to rebuild the wall, and soon thereafter to gather in a city square to listen to Scripture being read by Ezra the priest from first light until noon.
They were a people of the Book, who needed to be reacquainted with what it said.
The people listening to the Bible being read had a notable reaction: they wept, because they realized they had not been living according to what Scripture said. That’s because Scripture is living and active. They had no option but to change the way they had been living.
Scripture plus a human heart plus the Holy Spirit is a reaction. Without Scripture or the Holy Spirit, my spiritual life is inert.
This week it rained and I was thinking about Giglio’s sermon and the plants back at home that were receiving the rain and I remembered this verse:
God’s word is alive and is like rain that causes sprouting and growing wherever it falls.
The Harry Potter series is not alive. The Qur’an is not alive. The Communist Manifesto is not alive. The latest John Grisham legal drama may be entertaining, but it is just words on a page. Not alive. Not breath. Not God’s breath.
God’s word is breath on a page leading to a change in the human heart.
And yet I’m preaching at myself here a little…there are levels to interacting with Scripture:
- first reading it, then
- second meditating on it, then
- lastly applying it.
Sitting down, knuckling under and reading Scripture is comparatively easy (you can do it on your Smart-phone). Skim reading is one thing, its quite another to meditate on Scripture, to mull over it and let it brew like a tea bag left in the cup and swished around by the spoon. Its even more difficult to take the next step and after having meditated on Scripture, to be diligent about applying it.
Honestly, I struggle often with simply booking some time to simply just read Scripture. I haven’t opened my big Bible since Sunday and its now Saturday. You might say – in a poor attempt at a joke – that I’ve been ‘phoning it in’, reading short verses on the Smart-phone.
Which is why church is so essential, you get to make time, open up your big Bible, and sit under its teaching. Kind of like what Ezra and Nehemiah did all those years ago. Good ideas always work, whether in Nehemiah’s time or now.
An incident just this past fortnight in London got me thinking.
Making a long story short, a street preacher named Olu, near Southgate tube station in London was reported to the police for being ‘Islamophobic’. Reportedly (according to @CConcern) a Muslim member of the public took exception to what this elderly Nigerian street preacher was saying, called his Bible the equivalent of something that can be found in the words where bears go, and became threatening. The police arrived to move the street preacher along, he refused to move and they arrested him under the charge of breaching the peace. Apparently, he was also too loud, but one cannot speak quietly on a street corner and be heard.
After one of the policeman whipped the Bible out of the street preacher’s hand, he asked the policeman not to take his Bible, to which the policeman replied that he should have thought of it before being racist.
Leaving aside the question of whether the police or the street preacher could have handled the situation better, I tried to remember what it was like living in London for the 14 months that I was there.
It was 1999 going into 2000, a different time: Tony Blair was Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street, Austin Powers was only just getting to wow audiences with his wacky brand of risqué humour, ‘9/11’ wasn’t yet part of our jaded lexicon.
I think I get the British outlook: the humour, the pride in a common language and thousands of years of history. I never had a single encounter with a bobby on the beat that I can think of but the impression I get is that policing has changed between back then and now.
I don’t remember bumping into too many street preachers, but I do remember being in attendance at a market at Walthamstow – if memory serves. Without any self-consciousness, people were flogging their fruit and vegetables at the top of their lungs.
Stand on a street corner in Bellville on any given week-day and you will hear ‘guardtjies’ emitting similarly loud decibels as the taxis try to get customers. In any sense of the word, that would be considered disturbing the peace, much like this nameless street preacher at Southgate. And yet in Walthamstow, in those circumstances, it was perfectly okay.
It’s very much an issue of interpretation. However for this to have unfolded on a London street in the way that it did seems like a step in the wrong direction.
If I understand Brits at all, they are generally polite, love sports and dogs, appreciate a dry humour, don’t shy away from a moderate level of raunch, have an unfailing sense of fair play and standing up for the underdog, think religion to be a little strange, but nevertheless tolerate it as long as they can launch humour at what they call God-squadders:
“evangelical Christians whose members are generally thought to be too forceful in trying to persuade other people to believe as they do”
For what I interpret to be a mild embarrassment at religious things, Brits are generally tolerant I think of bumbling vicars and kindly priests. And even God-squadders.
British Christianity has also produced some of the most influential people in my life: Matt Redman, Richard Bewes and Paul Blackham. The British and Foreign Bible Society has spread the Gospel tirelessly. Holy Trinity Brompton and the Alpha Course has had a huge impact. Like a rubber ball that has been flung to the far corners of the world with the message of salvation for the rest of the world, the rest of the world has come bouncing back, like a rubber ball, to preach the gospel in London.
It’s a very pleasing symmetry.
Meanwhile, Olu didn’t get fazed, he was de-arrested and found his way back to the same spot at Southgate. But of course.
I must confess to being a ‘word nerd’. When the preacher last Sunday at church referenced ‘philadelphios’ as a word describing brotherly love in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, the logical part of my brain immediately began a cross-search coming up with other cultural references.
The city of Philadelphia in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania is the first capital of what was then the new country of the United States of America. From the time of the First Continental Congress, there have in fact been nine capitals where Congress have met. Washington D.C. isn’t even sloppy seconds, but merely the final home of Congress.
Congress signing the Declaration of Independence is memorialised by Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell as depicted in the 2004 movie ‘National Treasure’.
Philadelphia’s less genteel side is depicted by one of her pugilist sons in the award-winning 1976 movie, ‘Rocky’.
Back to Thessalonica: Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians acknowledges that the Christian community there was taught by God how to love one another. Christ also specifically taught that Christians are recognized by their mutual love.
That’s supposed to be a mark of Christians in world full of darkness. That everyone will know that we are disciples by way of our love for one another.
I briefly squirmed when the preacher suggested that non-Christians are studying the lives of Christians to see whether they are any different.
Who might possibly be studying my life? What difference could it possibly make that I live the best I can for Him? At least as far as those who are not following God are concerned? I know they may shake their heads and tsk tsk when I stumble, but could the converse be true?
Perhaps it’s not even about me as I tend to be reductionist and bring things down to a personal level. Perhaps its about the Christian community as a whole; the relationships that we have with each other, that work, that are practical and sacrificial.
Who wouldn’t want to be part of a community like that? Perhaps, without trying to look like it, the non-Christians are studying us. Twirling their moustaches, squinting to see and studying us.
We are all part of intersecting communities. My particular ‘spider-web’ map includes my nuclear family, my extended family, my team back at corporate, Sharks supporters, Durbanites, my ministry family at Ambassadors, my home group on Monday nights.
And of supreme importance: part of a family of Believers, amongst whom we all are to function in brotherly love.
We should know how to love one another. I must confess that my nature is to be solitary, or at the least very limited and discriminating in the lengths that I go to in being part of gatherings of people. In being hesitant I may miss out on both giving and receiving encouragement. Check out this list that John Piper put together showing in what ways we are to love each other:
(A mere sampling)
We are to
- Love one another with brotherly affection
- Outdo one another in showing honor
- Instruct one another
- Bear one another’s burdens (this is a meaty one)
- Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ
- Encourage one another
Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians acknowledges that they know how to love one another, but just to add that little bit extra in. Almost to make sure.
Brotherly love amongst Believers is like heat. You can measure an absolute zero (minus 273 Kelvin) but there is no such thing as a maximum amount of heat (that I’m aware of). It can always get a little bit hotter.
We can always go that extra degree in loving one another.
I’ve come to a realization that as Christians we can ‘phone it in’. In other words we can be remote and say all the right things and ‘do community’ without really engaging.
An example: in the 1986 movie Highlander, Sean Connery was asked to record the voiceover to the beginning of the movie and apparently recorded it in a bathroom. It sounded fine to the producers over the phone and they signed off on it. Connery only even spent seven days on set and the movie doesn’t suffer for it, I suppose because some classic Bond charm and a Scots accent can cover a multitude of production sins.
The church is a far more lasting and important endeavour than mere entertainment, so it’s good to take it seriously. What stands out to me is the idea of us bearing one another’s burdens, the type of things that only families are – or supposed – to do.
Monday was a day of battle.
Artillery shells were getting lobbed my way. Fired at different intervals but all causing shock waves converging on Monday morning:
CRACK! The reverberation from a member at church who died in her prime…
…WHAM! The four learners killed tragically at Hoerskool Driehoek, out of the blue…
…BOOM! I sat through a viewing of the newly released drama about what Kermit Gosnell did to babies born alive, part court-case drama, part documentary, all horror…
In quick succession…report after report of bad news and evil going unpunished…State Capture…Eskom playing silly games with the public.
It’s a litany of HE (High Explosive) shells, very much like Billy Joel evoked in his song protesting that we (the human race) didn’t start the fire, that it was always burning since the world’s been turning. For the record, Billy was wrong; we sure did start the fire.
It’s been a long time since I’ve so much as thought of the term ‘spiritual warfare’, but I sure felt like I was in the midst of warfare on Monday morning. But, you may ask, why are disparate events, especially random accidents, evidence of spiritual warfare instead of simple chance?
I look at some of the things getting to me, and yes, they are things which the enemy didn’t necessarily cause. Tragedy happens all the time and there may be no spiritual component to it.
- A walkway collapses in Vanderbijlpark.
- A movie chronicles the banality of evil disguised as reproductive choice.
- A government entity is playing chicken with the public after the money has by all accounts been squandered on a stunning level.
- A corrupt family of businessmen buy off a country and wield their influence for all to see, for years without consequence.
But I know the enemy is able to weaponize these things and lob them at Believers. If the imperative behind bad things happening is the intent to steal, kill or destroy, I also know where it comes from.
Scripture clearly teaches that the Christian is on the front lines. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians references the reality of the battle we are in.
‘Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes’ (6:11, NIV). In other words, there is something we can do about it.
Our struggle is against ‘the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’ (6:12, NIV). In other words, the way to perceive the battle, or do something about it, is spiritually.
Our enemy flings ‘flaming arrows’ at us (6:16, NIV). Like something out of The Guns of Navorone.
Paul’s instruction to the Christian references our weapons, worn on our bodies as Roman armour.
The sword as the word of God. Praying in the spirit. Precisely the model of spiritual warfare that Jesus used to resist the enemy. He was always quoting Scripture, always in prayer. And the enemy could not overcome Him. I think of Jesus teaching his disciples to pray and among many other things to pray about, we are to pray daily that He would ‘deliver us from evil’. I’m certain we have heavenly back-up we often know nothing about, hampering the ability of our enemy to harm us.
Practically speaking, we’re constantly thinking under pressure. Instead of acting, we’re reacting. The enemy attacks using hellish artillery with little warning, taking the initiative and forcing the Christian to scramble for a response. In theory, the longer we’re engaged in battle, the better at it we become. Veterans.
I must confess I get confused and bewildered with the campaign. God is in control of – and the originator of – the overall plan. I’m responsible for my particular area of operations and must simply execute the tactics (the means to obtain the objective) and leave the planning up to Him.
Typically I don’t get it right.
I get overwhelmed with the emotional investment that is inherent in the idea that we are in a campaign with eternal consequences. I cannot feel what He feels, but He must feel deeper about it than me. I cannot understand His battle plan, especially in a larger context, but without question He understands His plans, better than I ever could.
I just have to follow my orders.
The strategy is to save the lost and preserve Christians for heaven.
The tactics are spreading the message and resisting evil.
The strategy, the state of this eternal, spiritual war, is up to Him.
If I were to give myself a pep-talk shaped like a boomerang I would say the following:
You utilise what you know (which is little) to buttress against the unknown to present the imperfect (yourself) for battle whose victory and end is perfection.
I frequently ask whether my concern for the lost – those who need to believe the message – is conceit on my part. Or is it half-hearted obedience? Or posturing? A kind of virtue signalling where I text my reputation of caring for everyone to see?
I don’t really want an answer as to how selfish I really am, or in other words – how far my heart goes in buying into this battle, this grand strategy of salvation that involves saving lives. That question is like the mythical monster in the closet that creeps out in the dark to scare the child.
He has seen the answer to the question. He has laid His hand upon me anyway. God has night-vision.
On the most recent anniversary of the 1973 Roe V. Wade Supreme Court decision, the State of New York passed a bill essentially allowing abortion up until birth.
The Babylon Bee, a satirical Christian website, imagined a demon applauding with the legislators as this bill was signed.
This bill greenlights what is evil. From a Christian point of view, there is no equivocation. The most shocking part of the whole thing was the applause. Articles online use the modifier of ‘thunderous’ when referring to the applause.
To my mind that applause is a direct mockery of God and His work of creation. And one should not mock God. It doesn’t end well.
What is His heart like? I look at Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep.
What does heaven erupt in applause over? A sinner who repents. A soul who turns to God. And I imagine this presupposes the soul being born in a body. I imagine this applause would be ‘thunderous’ and sustained. God saves. Sinful man destroys.
I know which action I’m going to applaud.
This past month at church, as they do every now and then, someone was asked to give their testimony.
Its systematic and of more interest, it’s personal because everyone’s journey to faith is different and individual. A testimony is a compelling account of how a person came to be a Christian.
This latest testimony at church got me wondering what I would say if I were to be asked to deliver it to the congregation. It’s vaguely entertaining to me because it is my story told from my point of view and if nothing else, I do find myself entertaining sometimes.
One of my earliest memories is attending what I think was some kind of youth service at Montclair Methodist church. I looked it up and to my pleasant surprise, the church is still in ministry. There was an altar call (to come forward to accept Christ), and we were siphoned into the kitchen, off the hall, where I remember my sister was there too and I sat on a kitchen counter. There we did business with God. It was long ago and I only remember snippets but I remember it all the same.
Time passed and I found myself in high school, not having carried that initial commitment into being deliberate and consistent in living as a Christian.
I got an invite to watch the ‘Power Team’ at The Lord’s Place in Brickhill road (now Sylvester Ntuli Road) in Durban central. It was 11 October 1991.
Yes, I’m one of those guys who remember dates. Those annoying date nerds.
The hairstyles were big, the Soviet Union was dismantling. The Power Team were pumping iron, punishing telephone books, wooden beams and handcuffs, and preaching.
I remember that the place was a former cinema with a floor sloping down to where the screen used to be. They had taken out the cinema seats and packed it with rows of regular plastic and metal chairs. Actually, all these years later I don’t remember the feats of strength but I remember the syllogism that the speaker used from C.S. Lewis; that Christ could not have been a moral teacher but that he made deeper claims (namely being God) and that given that He could only have been one of three things: liar, Lord or lunatic.
I chose Lord and the rest is history. Actually, I rather like movies. Movies have a language that I understand: a beginning, middle and end; plot devices like MacGuffins that move the story forward; Flashbacks that pause the action and give context to broaden the viewer’s emotional connection to the protagonist (the main character). It strikes me as neatly ironic that my faith story starts in a cinema.
Actually, I’m not the protagonist in this movie, God is. I’m merely a supporting character (if small) in this ensemble in which God is the director of this Meta-narrative.
Other MacGuffins have moved my story along at vital points.
In 1997, I joined a year-of-your-life program called Ambassadors that selected young adults to attend Theology classes and journey around Sothern Africa as missionary trainees, doing ministry. I remember thinking that this would provoke my spiritual maturity into the stratosphere, but it didn’t quite turn out like that as I had a fellow Ambassador on my mind, and she and I were complicated.
In spite of this distraction, we did some good and made memories. It was actually a dry season for me but it taught me that we should just focus on the task, the mission and keep going. Looking back on it, it looks better than going through it at the time.
I remember being in London on a working holiday in 1999 and seeing everyone else paired up and me still single, but receiving a verse which I believed was meant for me, from Joshua 24:15, … “as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD”. I had to wait almost a Biblical 7 year period like Jacob before I met my wife. We married in 2007. This time taught me to wait, although I was not happy in my patience, I had to learn to wait.
A major point in my life was 11 June 2011 when my sister died. I had been a presumptuous Christian, believing that God knew how important my family was to me, that He would save them all and we would be raptured simultaneously. This is obviously not what happened.
Since that day at Montclair Methodist where we did business with God, my sister had backslidden somewhat but I remember when our congregation was still in the school hall in D’Urbanvale and Bishop Frank Retief had preached and she had gone up afterward to collect a ‘Meet Your New Manager’ booklet.
This was after she had already gotten ill in 2009. In one of the long spells in hospital, she told us how he had a dream, more a phrase in a dream, Onward Christian Soldiers. Which is the testament to her that me and my brother now work on: a blog called Onward Christian Soldier.
I was very simplistic in my faith when I was younger. Flashback to early 1990s when my Dad was not saved and I had Scripture verses stuck up all over my room and one morning he delivered my morning coffee and read out loud one of the notes on my wall, ‘Jesus is Lord’ and immediately I thought of the verse in Romans 10 where it says that those who confess Jesus with their mouths (and believe in their hearts) will be saved. Around that same time, I remember praying for my unsaved family and once I got so burdened I wept like a crazy chick during a Rom-com, and I realized that God had given me a glimpse of his passion for the lost and his burden for them.
Following my sister’s passing, my brother got more serious with God and my parents got saved and went Baptist.
I learned that the rapture was not an escape hatch from the troubles of this life. Jesus promised trouble. I confess I developed a nasty habit of f-bombs in the stress of that time, the coming to terms with it and the grieving. I learned that He is still there, that the mission is still on and that holy living is hard.
I have flashbacks that remind me of His long-term presence, I suppose you could say His abiding presence in my life. Memories of times when I was not a happy camper and weighed down and then something unexpected and pleasant would happen in the midst of an uncomfortable situation.
I remember once I went back to Durban on holiday and wanted to visit with some old school friends. Me mate Angus and I went to find our mate, Lee, this crazy Welshman with a glass eye, but he wasn’t home. We then went to find our mate Clinton and drove out to his house only to find he wasn’t home and had gotten married and didn’t tell us. But Clinton’s brother Wade was there. We were all unemployed and Wade had cabin fever and a guitar and we just hung out and sang worship songs. It taught me that we are family and we need each other deeply.
I remember being in a banana plantation in White River while on Ambassadors, alone and feeling down. The missionary aviators were taking off in their silver bird with the other Ambassadors inside it except me and Craig. They couldn’t find me and I missed out on a flight, but I was actually meeting with God in that plantation and more importantly He met with me, as real as anything. I had the better deal. I learned that God is close to His children.
I remember being in London on a Saturday morning, alone in the apartment, watching Little House on the Prairie and seeing God’s grace manifest in a simple story about adoption. I learned something of how God sees His adopted children, namely us.
God is better than a writer, a filmmaker, and an artist all rolled into one creative mind and I couldn’t make up a story like this.
If you had to take a flight to visit Jerusalem and journeyed to the Temple Mount, you would not actually find the Temple. You would find the Mount, a foundation that would indicate something substantial was once there.
In Jesus’ day, it would have been quite the sight for those who set eyes upon it. According to historians, the white stone and gold overlays of the Temple were just about enough for the people of that time to wish they had Ray Bans.
After entering Jerusalem in the week leading up to Passover, Jesus spent the working part of the day teaching in the Temple, retiring to the Garden of Gethsemane to camp out in the evenings.
The Temple must have seemed like it would last forever, solid, permanent. It seems from inferences in Scripture that the Temple had almost become an idol. If you think about it: if a household idol a few inches high tucked into an indoor nook, why not a building itself? Jesus remarked in Matthew 23:16 that the religious leaders swore by the gold in the temple. Speaking against it as they erroneously thought Stephen (the first martyr) did was tantamount to blasphemy.
Some of the disciples called Jesus’ attention to the awesomeness of the Temple and it probably took their breath away when He prophesied that the building would be violently disassembled.
This is the setting for what is called the Olivet discourse. As I would have done, they asked him for more details. The prophecy sets the scene for the near term as well as far into the future. In less than 40 years, the Romans would besiege Jerusalem. During the fighting, the Temple caught fire, melting the gold. In order to retrieve the gold, the Romans had to break apart the building and separate the rocks. Nobody just leaves gold lying around, unrecovered. The Romans may have been cruel but they weren’t stupid.
Just as Jesus prophesied.
This discourse is apocalyptic stuff and evokes Hollywood’s biggest disaster movies with comets and giant tidal waves. Interestingly, when Jerusalem was in fact surrounded in 70 A.D. the Christian population of the city fled with the result that very few Christians were caught unawares. They would have clearly known about this prophecy. Unfortunately, many Jews were not aware of this prophecy and some 1.1 million Jews were killed and around 97 thousand taken captive by Rome. In God’s timing, that is prophetically, the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. is connected with the end of the age.
Apocalyptic literature sometimes brings out the loony in people. I’ve read of a group called the Millerites who did precisely the opposite of what Christ instructed. They are symptomatic of many groups in history who have obsessed with date-setting. In the case of the Millerites they were certain that October 22 of 1844 was the date for the return of Christ. History has called it the ‘Great Disappointment’. When I originally read about this group some years earlier, the authors painted the picture of a bunch of people who went all-in, donned white robes and ascended the apex of the hill in the town, expecting a trumpet blast.
In one of the choicest trolls, the town drunk, Crazy Amos, blew a loud blast of a trumpet sending the Millerites into an apoplexy. Old Amos laughed thoroughly at his own joke, so we’re told.
Jesus instituted a new covenant while observing Passover. Passover literally signified the Angel of Death that passed over the houses of the Children of Israel while they were slaves in Goshen in Egypt. Observant Jews would sample bitter herbs to remind them of their status as slaves, and salt water as a reminder of their tears. At the Passover feast, Jesus and his disciples gathered around what has come to be called the ‘last supper’.
To keep them safe the Children of Israel were commanded to kill a lamb and apply the blood to the doors of their homes. The Angel of Death would see this and spare the home.
Jesus would have known he was about to go to death and his blood be shed to keep people from destruction, to provide rescue, a deliverance. A new dimension and deeper meaning to an already deep meal, laden with significance.
Bread…’this is my body,
Wine…’this cup is the new covenant in my blood’.
A new covenant, a Brit Chadashah, which his disciples (us, Christians) are to commemorate. We are not instructed to commemorate his birth or life, but his death.
That evening finds him in the Garden of Gethsemane. It would have been easy for Judas to find Jesus as he had been there a few nights in a row. Perhaps they were not the only ones, as Jerusalem would have been full of pilgrims. However, that’s just speculation.
I find Peter to be one of the most frustratingly human of the disciples. At the table Jesus reveals to Peter that the devil had apparently put in a request to target Peter, but that Jesus had also prayed for Peter, that his faith would not fail. Jesus seems to have known that Peter would blow it, but that he would ‘turn back’.
Peter was all over the map in these hours surrounding the crucifixion. First he tells Jesus that he is willing to go to jail for him and even die. When the soldiers come for Jesus, Peter is not content to take it, then dishes out a bit of hurt on Malchus’ ear. Then follows Jesus to observe what happens next, denies Him three times, and then – his faith a little battered but still there – encounters Jesus once again after his resurrection (John’s account) turns back just as Jesus prayed it would happen and strengthens his brothers.
Jesus knew Peter would stumble, but he also knew that Peter’s faith would not fail and that Peter would be back.
The trial and the charges were a set-up, a travesty full of illegality, lying witnesses, shifting charges and multiple jurisdictions. Jesus actually stood trial four times: under Annas, under Caiaphas, Pilate and he was also examined under Herod’s authority.
In a twist of irony, and to secure a death penalty under Roman law, the priests accused Jesus of rebellion against Rome. When offered the choice of whether to free Barabbas or Jesus, the crowd chose Barabbas, who was in fact under arrest for rebellion against Rome and incidentally murder.
One aspect of Jesus’ trial before Pilate is familiar in 2019: the power of the mob. Pilate overlooked procedure and legal principles because the mob threatened to get out of control if he didn’t follow through with a crucifixion. Pilate wasn’t scared of the mob per se, Roman soldiers could brutally and efficiently do some killing. Sentencing Jesus to death was simply the easiest way to satisfy the mob, immediate mass bloodshed avoided.
I could provide innumerable examples of people in authority or business making irrational decisions to satisfy a mob, or avoid being called names and accused of bias. This it seems has not changed much in the intervening years.
Scourging was apparently a legal preliminary to every Roman execution except in the case of women, Roman senators or Roman soldiers (except if they were deserters).
The details are uncomfortable when reading the text. The depiction of it in Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’ are beyond words.
Jesus would have suffered through a betrayal, the scattering of his disciples, a sleepless night, the anguish of what he knew awaited him, scourging (which often killed people outright), and a strenuous walk to the site of the cross, carrying the cross-beam part of the way.
One of the criminals with whom Jesus was crucified appears to have been the first soul to believe and enjoy the intercession of Jesus in the new covenant that Jesus commemorated at the last supper, as Jesus promised him that that very day he would be in paradise.
The repentant thief also records a deathbed conversion, illustrating that people can, even at the last second, turn and be saved.
Luke’s gospel doesn’t record the words, but John’s gospel does:
Everyone amongst Jesus’ disciples and followers thought it was over. It wasn’t over but it was finished. Complete, accomplished.
Certain similarities are evoked at the resurrection of Jesus: Angels announced it, and they told people who were some of the least influential in society; in the case of his birth, shepherds, in the case of his resurrection, women.
The stone wasn’t rolled away to let Jesus out but the show that he was no longer there. By accompanying some disciples on the way to Emmaus after his resurrection and suddenly appearing in their midst back in Jerusalem, it shows that Jesus in his resurrected body was not inhibited by normal physics.
At his ascension with the disciples looking on, Jesus in his resurrected body shows that he was not inhibited by gravity either. Interestingly, Luke in his follow-up book, Acts, has the following additional information:
He’s coming back to the same spot on the Mount of Olives. The text tells us Christians what we ought to be busy doing. A lesson the Millerites could have benefited from: get busy with being an influential Christian and the return of Christ will happen when it’s supposed to.