What Do We Do With the Very Real Resurrection?

Does the biblical resurrection account leave us with as little evidence as some assume?

Today is Easter and we celebrate the good news that Christ is risen; he is risen indeed!

We rise—some of us much too early—to scenes of Easter baskets, jelly beans, and all things pastel. Our children climb out of bed with excitement ready to embark on a day filled with candy consumption; candy, many of them believe, that came from the Easter bunny.

This fictitious, fluffy creature has become Easter’s version of ‘Santa Claus,’ helping retailers everywhere to sell more candy, decorations, and chocolate bunnies.

Each Easter, many of us make the distinction in our own minds between the fake bunny story and the real Jesus story without much trouble. But for others, this conclusion is not as simple. Many often conflate the holiday ‘myths’ together, asserting that the likelihood of a man being crucified, buried, and resurrected is about as probable as a giant bunny rabbit bringing candy to all the world’s children.

But is this really the case? Does the biblical resurrection account leave us with as little evidence as some assume?

Scripture discusses in great detail the importance of walking by faith and not by sight; sometimes, God calls us to trust in intangible realities we can’t possibly come to see or understand this side of heaven. That being said, God has never once asked his followers to walk through life completely blind.

The evidence in support of the crucifixion, the empty tomb, and the resurrection is stronger than many think. That does not replace the need for faith, but instead shows those of us struggling with doubt that trusting in God’s saving work on the cross doesn’t first require checking our brains at the door.

We can ask tough, probing questions, knowing …

Continue reading…

Easter Fool’s Day

The real divine “prank” is not the Resurrection.

This Holy Week, hundreds of frazzled preachers around the world have undoubtedly heaved a sigh of relief. Instead of having to fret over what illustration to use on Easter Sunday morning to capture their listeners’ attention, they can simply seize the opportunity the calendar has handed them.

This year, Easter falls on April Fools’ Day, which means that countless sermons will be able to employ some version of the following introduction: “On Easter Sunday, we Christians celebrate the fact that a dead man came back to life. This might seem like the ultimate prank—dead people just don’t climb out of their graves, period—but this year, it turns out, God’s April Fools’ joke is actually true!” (More adventurous preachers might even try reviving the old “fish hook” theory of the atonement. According to that ancient model, in the ultimate April Fools’-style prank, God dupes Satan by enticing him to kill Jesus—only thereby to ensnare the devil and win a victory at his expense.)

Were I to occupy a pulpit this year, I too would happily take advantage of this fortuitous convergence of holidays. But I’m not sure the real divine April Fools’ prank is quite what many preachers will say it is.

The Scandal of the Cross

It’s true, of course, that Jesus’ resurrection came as a shock to his first followers. And one of them, famously, did, in fact, view it as a hoax. “Doubting Thomas,” as he’s usually called, was like me when I was a child. Every April 1, I determined that this would be the year I’d avoid being taken in by the jokes my family and friends were sure to be peddling. Thomas, likewise, having had his hopes shattered …

Continue reading…

The Incredible Hospitality of Good Friday

Jesus’ death demonstrates God’s love for outsiders, enemies, and strangers.

It can travel anywhere in time and space, and it looks much bigger on the inside (or smaller on the outside, depending on where you’re standing). In 1963, it blended in perfectly as a British police box. But now, the intergalactic space cruiser stands out like a sore thumb, whether it’s landed in contemporary London or in the ancient Egyptian Sahara. It is strange, a foreign object that turns up in random places. And despite it being so alien—literally—nobody seems to bat an eyelid at the presence of the TARDIS from the global hit television show Doctor Who.

The cross of Christ is a similar anomaly. Turning up in fashion era after fashion era, displayed in churches and schools and graveyards across the world, and gracing the lyrics of our worship songs and the walls of our art galleries—this ancient instrument of Roman execution has become one of the most recognizable symbols on the planet. And yet it often escapes people’s notice.

Like the TARDIS, the cross is a strange entry point to something much greater than its humble appearance would suggest. Something that seemed so small and insignificant—such as a relatively unknown Jewish man dying an unremarkable death at the hands of the Roman Empire—is, in fact, an invitation into a much larger reality. It opens up something of the cavernous depth of meaning of the love, grace, wrath, and compassion of God. It offers fresh faith for the doubter, new hope for the despondent, belonging for the lonely, and salvation for the lost. The cross is not just a commemoration of death, but an invitation to life.

At the heart of the atonement is divine hospitality, where God invites the undeserving and unexpected to come home with him.

The final …

Continue reading…

Is the Wrath of God Really Satisfying?

God’s anger against sin is real on Good Friday, but he doesn’t “turn his face away” from the Cross.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” These words come from the lips of Jesus as he hangs on the cross (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34). They are powerful and haunting, and they are surely very important. But what do they mean—how are we to understand them?

Here is one line of thinking that has recently become very popular in some circles. According to C. J. Mahaney, this cry from the lips of Jesus is the “scream of the damned.” He takes this line from R. C. Sproul who exclaims that when Jesus is crucified it is “as if a voice from heaven said, ‘Damn you, Jesus.’” This is because Jesus becomes the “virtual incarnation of evil” and even “the very embodiment of all that sin is.” Thus God abandons Jesus, turns his back on him, “curses him to the pit of hell” and “damns” him.

For many who hold this view, the Trinity is somehow “broken” as the communion between the Father and the Son is ruptured in the darkness of that Friday afternoon. And this is said to be good news and the heart of the gospel because Jesus absorbs the wrath of God in taking the exact punishment we deserve. God is changed from wrath to mercy and can no longer justly punish those for whom Christ died.

Such preaching is very powerful. But is it right? We should, of course, want to proclaim all that the Bible says about the work of Christ (at least as much as we are able), and we should be committed to affirming all that this teaching implies (what older theologians called “good and necessary” consequences). But we should also be very cautious about going beyond what is explicitly taught or implied— especially where the Christian tradition …

Continue reading…

Taste and See That the Lord’s Supper Is Good

A biblical understanding of food whets our appetite for the fullness of the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday.

Evangelicals need to thicken our theology of the Lord’s Supper, first by drawing more of the Bible into the discussion of the Supper, and second by drawing more of the Supper into discussion of the Supper.

Even a fine recent treatment of Reformed sacramental theology, Todd Billings’s Remembrance, Communion, and Hope, is still too thin on both counts. Billings does discuss the key New Testament passages—the institution narratives, Jesus’ resurrection meals, 1 Corinthians 10-11—and makes passing references to Passover and other Old Testament passages, meals, and festivals. But the richness of Old Testament theology still feels lacking. Billings observes that Paul sees manna as a type of the church’s covenant meal, but he doesn’t follow up the clue. If manna is a type, might there be others?

Many examine the Supper through a “zoom lens,” focusing narrowly on the most disputed point in historic debates—the metaphysics of the bread and wine. Much to his credit, Billings pulls back the camera to give us a wider view. In several “congregational snapshots,” he reminds us that the Supper involves people gathered to say and do, eat and drink. He rightly shows that a theology of the Supper must be integrated with the theology of the church.

But we need an even wider angle. Communion bread doesn’t fall from heaven. Wine doesn’t come tricklin’ down the rock. As one Eucharistic prayer puts it, the bread and wine are “fruit of the earth and the work of human hands.” Bread and wine represent nature transformed into culture by human action. A thick theology of the Supper needs to broaden beyond the theology of the church into a theology of …

Continue reading…

Our Blood Exposes Our Physical—and Spiritual—Health

When we are sick and need to know what can make us whole again, there is no other fount we know.

In the time it takes to read this sentence, your body will produce 17 million blood cells deep in its marrow. To put that in context, that’s as many cells as twice the population of New York City. Once created, those red blood cells move into the bloodstream—red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets, all bobbing along in plasma through 60,000 miles of vessels in the human body.

And in the time it took you to read the first paragraph, all of the blood in your body has completed its regular journey—it has traveled from your heart to your extremities and returned, there and back again. Your blood knows your body better than your brain does, as your blood has seen all but the cornea, from the brain to the toes and everything in between. It has sailed on the quick current of the great arterial rivers and through the smallest cholesterol-clogged creeks. It has seen it all.

Because of this Hobbitesque journey, remnants of all of the battles waged by the white blood cells against the enemies of your body, foreign and domestic, persist in your blood. Evidence of aberrations developed over the course of your life lurks behind, indicating future problems on your health’s horizon.

Your blood is a biomarker. Biomarkers, according to epidemiologist Barbara Hulka, are “cellular, biochemical, or molecular alterations that are measurable in biological media such as human tissues, cells, or fluids.”

While your body has many types of biomarkers, blood is in many ways the most promising. Several drops of blood increasingly give doctors a multitude of physiological data about your health. It is thought that blood records all the biological events of your life.

For example, doctors can now analyze a drop …

Continue reading…

What Dostoyevsky’s Prostitute Can Teach Us About the Cross

Crime, punishment, and Christ’s easy yoke.

The cross of Christ has sometimes been compared to the electric chair or other forms of execution, meaning we are wise to remember that it was an instrument of death in the ancient world. The cross is also often used to prompt us to give ourselves sacrificially for him and others. But comparisons to other forms of execution can miss the deeper biblical teaching about the cross. And the cross is much more than an object lesson in how we should live. It’s very shape, it turns out, is not incidental to its deeper biblical meaning nor to the very nature of God who hung there.

To get at the deeper meaning, we can turn to the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, especially one scene in the middle of Crime and Punishment. The lead character Rodion Raskolnikov had brutally murdered an elderly pawnbroker and moneylender, Alyona Ivanovna. When Ivanovna’s half-sister, Lizaveta, stumbled upon the scene, he murdered her as well.

Raskolnikov later meets a young woman, Sonia, who has been compelled by poverty to become a prostitute to support her family. He is immediately drawn to her, and after he learns that Sonia had been friends with Lizaveta, he feels compelled to confess his murders to her. He finally musters up the courage to do so, but only indirectly, leaving her to work out for herself that Lizaveta’s murderer is the man speaking with her. When it dawns on her what he has just confessed,

She jumped up, seeming not to know what she was doing, and, wringing her hands, walked into the middle of the room; but quickly went back and sat down again beside him, her shoulder almost touching his. All of a sudden she started as though she had been stabbed, uttered a cry and fell on her knees before him, she did not …

Continue reading…

The Palms, the Temple, and the Nations

What made Jesus explode in the Temple on Monday is actually related to his Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday.

The black Baptists of the South are not known for their adherence to a liturgical calendar, but we do know Palm Sunday and Easter. Palm Sunday is the tremor before the earthquake of our resurrection celebration, the birth pangs. Palm Sunday, then, is not the time for the best songs, suits, or dresses. The palms and shouts of hosanna are a preparation for something greater, the acclamation that Christ is risen.

But as the Palm Sundays have stacked one upon the other, more questions linger. What did Jesus want to teach us when he entered Jerusalem astride a donkey to the shouts of hosanna? Did he do it so that we would have a nice liturgical action of palm-waving to entertain the kids on the verge of Eastertide?

Immediately following Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem amid waving palm branches, Matthew, Mark, and Luke record that his next stop is to clear out the Temple. What does the clearing of the Temple have to do with palms and the parade from earlier? Last and most importantly, what do these two events have to say to us as we prepare to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus in churches divided by race and class?

The Temple and palms do speak with a common voice. They reveal God’s vision for peace between the ethnicities and our reconciliation under the universal kingship of Jesus. To hear that common voice, we must pay close attention to the Scriptures that Jesus uses to interpret his actions on that fateful on the first two days of Holy Week.

Beyond Humility

Palm Sunday begins with Jesus on the outskirts of Jerusalem instructing his disciples to bring him a donkey to ride into the city. The gospel writers make it clear that this royal gesture is a dramatic enactment of Zechariah 9:9. The section quoted in the Gospels …

Continue reading…

20 Truths from Small Church Essentials

Just because a church is small, doesn’t mean it’s broken.

Karl Vaters’ new book Small Church Essentials: Field-Tested Principles for Leading a Healthy Congregation of Under 250 has just released and it’s a great read for pastors and leaders of smaller churches. Karl has been a small church pastor for 30 years, is the author of The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches, and the Small Thinking that Divides Us (2013), and travels extensively to churches and conferences to speak about leading a small church well. Below is what I found especially helpful.

1.Church leaders often wring their hands over the “problem” of small churches, and how to turn them into big churches. Like most prejudices, however, our problems with small churches aren’t what they seem. Just because a church is small, doesn’t mean it’s broken (pg. 10).

2.Just because we don’t have a kickin’ worship band does not mean we’ll settle for passionless worship (pg. 43).

3.On average, about one-third of the big church principles can be applied in a church of 200 and about one-fourth in a church of 100 or fewer. To know which third to keep, I have to understand how big churches and small churches are different (pg. 50).

4.In bigger churches, the individual people and their personalities have a smaller impact on the whole. The challenges are more about crowd dynamics than personality quirks. That outspoken, sometimes embarrassing church member who might shift the entire mood of the room in a small church causes no more concern in a big church than how to answer that awkward email the pastor gets every week. The impact is much smaller (pg. 59).

5.Small churches need to prioritize relationships, culture, and history (pg. 62).

6.In bigger or newer churches, the culture …

Continue reading…

What Will You Do Each Day to Make Our World—and Those Around You–Better?

What if we challenged ourselves to shift our focus from self-improvement to fostering community?

As what all too quickly happens, the New Year pizazz motivates us to make some positive changes or accomplishments with our lives and year ahead, and then quickly dims into tiredness, excuses, or disappointments as only about 8% of us actually keep our resolutions. But what if we were to have a different focus this year which might last the whole year through?

What if we challenged ourselves to shift our focus from self-improvement to fostering community? What if each day this year, we woke up with this challenge running in our veins, motivating us to make a positive impact right in our own homes, neighborhoods, and communities?

And what if this challenge was fueled by a deep love for Jesus and a desire to show and share his love with others?

This is something the Billy Graham Center is all about—showing and sharing the love of Jesus in this broken and hurting world. It’s a place I’m grateful for as both a world hub of evangelism training and a team to be serving on. This team of outstanding professionals love Jesus and desire to make him known as we train and inspire others to carry out the Great Commission, reaching our world with the love of Jesus in winsome and creative ways.

As I was chatting with a close friend recently, I was inspired by one way her family had found to share the love of Jesus in a very creative, yet simple way to those around them. It is through a daily challenge to focus on giving instead of receiving. So often in the busyness of life, we are just trying to get from one activity to the next.

Instead of hoping for all the lights to be green, the closest parking spot to be ours, or the fastest checkout lane to open up as we head to the counter, what if we looked for opportunities to give instead? …

Continue reading…