This is the scene outside my desk window this morning from Atlanta Georgia in December, and I cannot help but think of the majesty and beauty of God’s creation! How appropriately named is our Savior, the Firstborn over all Creation (Colossians 1:15). How can we not stop in awe?
The world seems quieter when it snows. Some of this may be because of less traffic and people out shopping, but there is a scientific reason as well. When snow accumulates on the ground and trees, it acts like a sound absorber and dampens the sound waves. I also believe God created it that way.
The firstborn of all creation refers to Jesus’ deity: his preeminence and highest ranking over all creation. He existed before creation and is exalted above all creation.
This Christmas season, may we worship the Creator who created all that we see, and saw that it was good.
From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over the whole land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out with a loud voice. “Elí, Elí, lemásabachtháni? My God, My God, why have You forsakenMe?” Jesus shouted again with a loud voice and gave up His spirit. Suddenly, the curtain of the sanctuary was split in two from top to bottom; the earth quaked and the rocks were split.
~ from Matthew 27:45-51
Forsaken. At this moment, Jesus was abandoned by God. Jesus had been with God from the very beginning, and now he was alone, abandoned, and in despair. Jesus became the sin-bearer for us, carrying all of our sins and those of the entire world, while God poured out his wrath and punishment on sin. It was far worse than any physical pain and torture he had received – it was the moment Jesus feared the most. God could not look at his son. He was forsaken, shamed, and separated from God. It was the ultimate sacrifice, and for no other reason than the love for his creation.
There is so much to think about from this event and Jesus’ final words before his death:
Jesus has already paid the price for our sins (past, past and future). For those who accept this sacrificial gift, we will not be punished again for any of our sins. God does not punish twice for the same crime. Here, Jesus represents the loving, compassionate, and merciful side of God.
But God also hates sin. It goes against His holy nature. For those who do not accept Jesus’ sacrifice, God’s wrath will still be on their sins. People often have difficulty imagining God sending people to hell, especially with the images of devils and fire and torture. But the reality is, hell is a place where there is complete abandonment of God. A place where you can no longer call out to God and have any hope of Him responding. It is a place where there are no good characteristics of God available anywhere – of love, compassion, mercy, sacrifice. Hell is permanent abandonment and separation from God. People sometimes doubt there is any evidence that God is even in our world today, but imagine if you took out all references to God and love and good in our world, what would be the effects then? Complete lawlessness and chaos and evil without any hope of goodness or love. And definitely no self-sacrifice.
But why is Jesus the only way? I would rather ask the question like this… Why would God promise a Savior and then punish and sacrifice his son so much, only to turn around and say, “Well, it doesn’t really matter, there are many ways.” No other way or religion offers a sacrifice for you. But just like when someone gives you a gift, you have to accept that gift. It cannot be forced on you or it is no longer a gift.
Finally, I always get asked this question… What about those before Jesus, or those who have not heard, or places where their culture prevents it? Jesus came for past, present and future. He is not time-bound. Let Jesus deal with those things. He is the gate-keeper, and His gift is for everyone and He gives everyone a chance to accept. We should be more concerned about those of us who know better, who have knowledge, and yet have openly rejected his gift. Once you have been offered a gift and refuse, you may not have another chance to accept. Others may not have been offered yet. We are to accept Jesus’ gift of eternal life and fellowship with God, and pass the good news on to others. This is what Jesus died for, so that we may never have to experience separation from God.
Jesus went into the temple complex and drove out all those buying and selling in the temple. He overturned the money changers’ tables and the chairs of those selling doves. And He said to them, “It is written, My house will be called a house of prayer. But you are making it a den of thieves!”
Until now in the gospel of Matthew, the disciple and author Matthew has shown us Jesus’ magnificent compassion for the people, his miracles and healing, and has given us his great Sermon on the Mount. But now we come to a more serious Jesus. He is angry at what is taking place in God’s temple. The gospel of John also records another similar event in which Jesus “makes a whip out of cords” and uses it to drive out the money changers. Can you imagine Jesus quietly but deliberately putting together a whip? This passage brings up many things to think about – the reverence of God’s temple (church), the authority that Jesus showed in carrying out these things, and the thought of God being angry, as demonstrated through His Son Jesus. I have chosen to discuss the latter one – God’s anger and what does it mean.
Though this was a small demonstration with Jesus, the idea of God’s anger or wrath is perplexing to many, and sometimes uncomfortable. But if you read the accounts of evil that took place in the Old Testament, you may ask why God has not done more. The enemies of God during that time were so evil that we can barely imagine it today. They cut off their captives hands and feet, gouged their eyes, filleted them and skinned them alive, sacrificed their own children to the gods, and even cut off the heads of children and made their parents wear their children’s heads on a rope around their necks. Unbelievable evil. The prophet Habakuk gives us a glimpse of this in his prayer in Habakuk chapter 1.
Why do You force me to look at injustice? Why do You tolerate wrongdoing? Oppression and violence are right in front of me. Strife is ongoing, and conflict escalates.
Your eyes are too pure to look on evil, and You cannot tolerate wrongdoing.
The prophet Nahum also sums it up nicely: “The Lord is slow to anger and great in power.” (Nahum 1:3)
First, we must recognize there is a higher power that created us and we are not of our own to do just anything we please in this world. Ironically, as much as we might like to think we have control of our own destiny, there is so much more out of our control in this world – sickness, death, injustice.
Secondly, God hates evil and the effect it has had on his beloved creation. Evil (or sin) cannot dwell with God. It is not who He is. Otherwise God would be less holy and less trustworthy.
Third, God’s Old Testament wrath or anger is meant as a warning to keep us from falling into a deceitful trap which God knows is not the best for us.
Finally, through these warnings, God is drawing us to Jesus so that we may recognize our need for repentance and a Savior, and not have to experience God’s future judgment on sin and evil. This is why the birth of Jesus was such a celebrated celestial event! God’s promise to the world had finally come. Jesus changed the world. We no longer live in Old Testament times. God’s wrath and anger on evil was directed to the cross, where Jesus took our punishment. God wants to redeem us, to forgive us, and to bring us close to Him. But we cannot do that on our own. It is not a system of tallying up our rights and wrongs, or making sure we never make a mistake. That really would be a terrifying and unfair way to live. But instead God has given us a Savior who can fight the evil for us and fight our battles. With Jesus by our side, we never have to be afraid of anything in this world or the next. We are sealed with God forever. We are forgiven no matter what – past, present and future.
While it may seem scary or uncomfortable to think about hell and therefore how we can avoid it, it is much scarier to not think about it at all and leave our lives up to chance.
No one else has ever claimed they can forgive sins except Jesus. The concept was incomprehensible at the time. Why did Jesus say this? Not once or twice, but all the time. Jesus’ response to this question was just as unconventional. He asks those that questioned him, Why are you thinking evil in your hearts? Then even more puzzling, Jesus picks out a tax collector in the crowd and goes to his house to eat with him and other sinners. Tax collectors were so hated at the time that they were called out separately from all the other sinners. They were a special class of sinners. Can you imagine how Matthew the Tax Collector must have felt when Jesus picked him? Elated! He was the kid nobody liked, never got picked for the team, or the bully everyone hated.
The sinners associated with Jesus were probably some of the worst people of that time – thieves, con artists, prostitutes, rapists, the undesirables of society. People could not believe Jesus would associate with them, let alone eat with them! Today this would be equivalent to drug addicts, alcoholics, sex abusers, AIDS patients, the homeless. So while we are trying to be good and do all the right things, or busy taking stands against this sin or that one, hiding our own sin (if we are truly honest), Jesus is over there eating dinner with some of these same people!
~ Matthew 9:2-13 Dining with Sinners and Tax Collectors ~
Just then some men brought to Him a paralytic lying on a mat. Seeing their faith, Jesus told the paralytic, “Have courage, son, your sins are forgiven.” At this, some of the scribes said among themselves, “He’s blaspheming!” But perceiving their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why are you thinking evil things in your hearts? For which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?But so you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—then He told the paralytic,“Get up, pick up your mat, and go home.”And he got up and went home.
As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office, and He said to him, “Follow Me!” So he got up and followed Him. While He was reclining at the table in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came as guests to eat with Jesus and His disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when He heard this, He said, “Those who are well don’t need a doctor, but the sick do.Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice.For I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Mercy not sacrifice says it all. This is how we should live our lives. When Jesus says that he did not come to call the righteous, he is referring to those who pretend to be righteous and therefore are not willing to repent. We must first admit we are sinners before we can repent and accept a Savior. Repentance is not considered a negative thing but a very positive thing!
Muslims say you cannot know God. He is unknowable and unreachable. Unlike the Christian God, Allah is a distant supreme being that cannot be known. At best, all one can do is hope to gain Allah’s mercy when they die. But it is not a guarantee. Even then, their paradise is not considered to be a fellowship with God.
But as I was reading in the book of Psalms today, I came across this beautiful poetry from Psalm 139 that describes a very different God. We can know Him! Listen to these words…
O Lord, You have searched me and known me.
You know my sitting down and my rising up;
You understand my thought afar off.
You comprehend my path and my lying down,
And are acquainted with all my ways.
You have hedged me behind and before.
And laid Your hand upon me.
Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall on me,”
Even the night shall be light about me;
Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You,
But the night shines as the day;
The darkness and the light are both alike to You.
There is so much reassurance in these verses. God knows the light and the dark. There are no secrets, nowhere we can go without God, and never out of His sight or thoughts. And yet, God loves us even more. I like that.
Today, let’s focus on this one wonderful thing that sets God apart from all other religions. Christianity is the only way of life that speaks of Grace, Forgiveness, and Love, and of a Savior willing to die for our sins. My prayer as always, is that you will get to know this God.