March 26, 2007

Affliction And Hope - Emulating Jesus In A Dark, Dying, and Decaying World

This was my personal theological statement regarding "evangelism" for my Theology Of Evangelism class.

I want to start out this assignment by violating one of its regulations. I do so, for clarity’s sake, and I pray you’ll give mercy on doing so. The text I want to build my statement around is Colossians 1: 24 - 25

  • Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh, I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known (ESV)

The piece of that passage that I would like to focus on here at the outset is “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”. This passage, as best I can tell, is not a “cornerstone” evangelism passage per se. There really is no charge here to “go and share with a neighbor”. No charge to “go to the uttermost parts of the Earth”. No charge to “make disciples of all nations”. So imagine my surprise as I was pondering this assignment to see God open up “evangelism” to me in this passage.

On the surface, it appears here that Paul makes a truly devastating statement. To suggest that somehow what Christ did on the cross was deficient is at best heretical, and at worst, evil. I don’t like the fact that newer translations edit this wording out because I think it is critical to wrestle with the particular words of this passage. What could possibly be “lacking” in Christ’s afflictions. Was the atonement incomplete? Was the suffering not harsh enough? Were his wounds not “deep” enough so as to leave something left for us to do as the church? To be honest, I didn’t understand this at all. One day though, the connection was drawn for me as I was preparing to teach a Sunday School class. And when I saw the connection, it was amazing what the implications were and are for us today.

If you flip back to Philippians 2: 19-30, you’ll read the story of Epaphroditus and Paul uses almost the same “terminology” to describe how Epaphroditus “completed what was lacking in the Philippian church’s service to Paul. So what was it that was lacking?

It was the presentation of their gifts to Paul! (Philippians 4:18)

Here they were, a church hungry to serve Paul, loving in every way, hearts full of joy and sacrifice for this wonderful missionary. They prepare gifts for him to receive and they are lacking one thing. It wasn’t that the gift was somehow deficient. It wasn’t that the gift wasn’t a great gift. In fact, Paul calls it a “fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.” The only thing they needed was someone to give it to Paul. A gift prepared but not given is no gift at all. So Epaphroditus “finishes” the gift by delivering, through much suffering, to Paul in prison and the analogy here to Jesus is stunning.

Everything Jesus accomplished on the cross was perfect. His blood, holy and divine, washed away all sin for those that would believe on Him. He made peace for us with God. He removed all condemnation for those whom He would call. He threw open the doors of paradise and bid us to come in for we no longer stood as objects of wrath, but of love. He reconciled ALL things to himself. His work was perfect and complete. But now, it only lacked one thing. It needed to be presented to the world.

We are told of one man who stood facing the cross that day in Mark 15:39. He was a centurion and when he saw the crucifixion unfold before his very eyes. When he was witness to the most amazing event in all of eternity past and present. When that reconciliation had finally arrived, he stood facing the cross and his words echo throughout history and oh that we in churches would see millions of people say these very words: Truly this man was the Son of God”!

He saw it. He didn’t have to have someone tell him the story of it. He didn’t have to read about it on pieces of paper or through electronic sound waves on his IPOD. He saw it with his very own eyes and there was only one conclusion that he could come to. Jesus was God and it was an instantaneous conversion. And immediately after the event ended, the challenge of “evangelism” began. If the whole world could have looked on and seen this for themselves, evangelism would not be necessary. Our challenge today is that we can’t “re-create” that event. We can’t put Jesus back up on a tree. We can’t crucify him all over again for the world to see. We can’t put spikes through His hands. We can’t pierce him and let blood and water flow. We can’t see him be abandoned by His Father. As has been said so many times in history, “the moment has passed”. And now we are left with a task so great, that human words and expressions cannot even approach doing this “eternal earthquake” justice.

But yet this is our solemn charge and our solemn duty as believers in Christ. “We have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us, and the lives which we now live, we live by faith” (Galatians 2:20) We are to fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions by being the presentation of that cross to the world. Whether in our life, or in our death, may God be honored in us the same way he was honored and appeased at the cross.

So the challenge of “evangelism” is for us to live and speak in such a way, that we are living, current, and real manifestations of the cross. We, although small in stature and iconic in comparison, are to be tangible expressions of the great transaction of eternity. In our teaching, in our living, in our dying, in our suffering, in our praying, in our being, we are to be Christ up on that cross for the world.

At the end of the day, the cross has one real and passionate message and it is this: He died for his enemies, those who were alien in mind and hostile to God. He died for those who didn’t love him back. He died to bring glory to the Father. He died for a people that when left to themselves, have turned their back on Him since the start of creation.

And we must let this Gospel capture us. We must let this Gospel capture the nations and the only way that it is going to do that is if the people of God, by the grace of God, declaring the truth of God, are willing to die for their enemies. That is what happened at the cross and it was not deficient. It simply needs to be presented today. And the thing that is thwarting the cause of Christ in the world is NOT that the work of Jesus at the cross wasn’t sufficient, but rather that those who are to be the “replays” of that moment are a poor re-run in comparison. We have failed in many respects, throughout history, because we have not presented suffering and dying for our enemies to the world, but rather hatred, bigotry, arrogance, elitism, snobbery, apathy, injustice, conquest, self-preservation, colonization, slavery, homicide et all. Throughout history, Christians have missed the message of the cross and the power of that moment. If we are to see the Gospel capture the world, we too must be ready and willing, by the grace of God, to be put upon a cross for our enemies. Even if we are wrongly accused, even if we are falsely tried, even if we are whipped, beaten, mocked, spurned, hated, and pierced, we are to present that day to the world as closely, and exactly as we can. Jesus did not reach down from the cross and smite those who stood in opposition to Him. He prayed for them, and sought their reconciliation with the Father. Oh Lord, how long, will you hide this truth from those who bear your name today?

But if the story ends there, we are left with a man who was simply a man. And we are left with a story that ends tragically not triumphantly. And thus, we need to talk about the second facet of what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. And that is hope:

who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross,…” (Hebrews 12:2)

Jesus didn’t go to the cross simply to die, but to rise. He knew through the cross that he would open up joy to the whole world because we would no be free to commune with the Father. We would be at peace with a God whom we had dishonored. We would free to enjoy him forever. We would be free to focus on eternity rather than now. We would be free to take risks because dying would be gain. We would be free to live as though our home were not of this world. We would be free to love radically because death from our enemies would dispatch us to paradise. We would be free to give up all things as trash, for the sake of knowing and enjoying Him. This was the reason that Jesus endured the cross. This was the reason that He died.

And so we come face to face with our other end of the stick in “evangelism” and that is to live in such a way, and to talk in such a way, and to die in such a way, and to suffer in such a way, and to eat in such a way, that we point to the joy that is set before us. We don’t endure our cross here and now just because we like pain. That is not it. We endure the cross with Jesus because of the joy that is set before us by Him, by His grace, through our faith in Him. We must, if we are to see the Gospel capture the world, live in such a way that it is truly said of us and we truly feel in our hearts “to live is Christ, but to die is gain.

We must not make this an intellectual battle. That’s not to say that we retreat from contending for the faith. But if people groups are to be reached, if nations are to be baptized, if converts are to be seen, then we must point our lives towards God and eternity. We must pray from God to break us of our dependence and security of this world. We must pray that God would make us real and authentic. We must pray that the blood of martyrs not be spilled in vein

In the end we must pray that as we die here on Earth, or live here on Earth, that someone would look on and in that moment say “Truly, this man, was a believer in Jesus” and thereby themselves say, “Truly he (Jesus), must be, the Son of God.” There is not other way and the world will not be won with words alone. Evangelism must be much more holistic than that. It must be richer than that. It must be more full than that. Jesus didn’t stop at words, he offered up his life. We as his followers, must be willing to do no less.

No comments: