"New Creatures & Commission"
The Cross-Roads of Justice and Costly Mercy
Two key attributes of God keep popping up in association throughout the Bible: His lovingkindness and His justice. A quick word-search for "love" and "justice" in the same verse brings up 12 references. For example, Psalm 101:1: "I will sing of your love and justice; to you, O LORD, I will sing praise." Hosea 12:6: "But you must return to your God; maintain love and justice, and wait for your God always." And Jesus said in Luke 11(42), "Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practised the latter without leaving the former undone." Other references say love and justice are foundational to the throne of God and of human rulers (Ps 33:5; 89:14; Is 16:5; Hos 2:19). This makes a lot of sense: we want God to be loving and kind, but that shouldn't mean that evil-doers get off the hook. Justice and mercy are both essential qualities in a good ruler.
It is true that "love and faithfulness" are grouped even more often - 29X in the same verse - but the root word for faithfulness is truth or reliability. Surely there's a connection between truth and justice: if God is to be true to His holy character, He must also uphold justice and righteousness.
On the one hand, to illustrate the need for justice, consider the case of Paul Bernardo. Most people are glad he's behind bars, serving a life sentence, having been convicted of gruesome sex-related murders. After his conviction in 1995, he confessed to 14 additional sexual assaults between 1986 and 1991. This week it was reported that his lawyer says that last fall Bernardo confessed to at least 10 more sexual assaults. Bernardo has been declared a dangerous offender, meaning he can be kept in prison indefinitely. People want a justice system that protects the vulnerable from such predators.
On the other hand, we also long for mercy, and appreciate especially costly acts of kindness. On the 14th at the Olympics, Canada's Sara Renner was leading the pack in the women's sprint relay final when her ski pole broke. She recalls, "I don't even know what happened. I just know that all of a sudden I was kind of paddling with one arm...It was like being in a canoe with no paddle." Her team-mate, Beckie Scott, on seeing this had the thought flash through her mind, "'Oh no, not now, not here." But Renner was just passing Norwegian coach Bjørnar Håkensmoen's position at the side of the course. He immediately gave Renner his own slightly longer men's pole; that and some extra effort won the Canadians the silver medal. Such kindness came with more cost than just the pole: the Norwegian coach's own skiers, who were actually favoured in the race, ended up in fourth place with no medals at all. If he hadn't given the pole, they likely would have made it to the podium! Geoff Snow of Waterford ON commented in a letter to a Norwegian newspaper, "In the eyes of Canadians, we took a silver medal, but Norway has won gold for sportsmanship." They're to be commended for their forethought, as well: Håkensmoen deflects the applause, saying, "Our policy in Norway is that we should give poles or skis to everyone. We talked about it at our team meeting the night before. We are a country which believes in fair play. I like to be somebody of fair sportsmanship." In view of the circumstances, though, I think we'd agree what we did was beyond "fair": he showed costly mercy and genuine kindness.
Two different men: two different qualities - the evil of one shows the need for justice, the goodness of the other shows the value of mercy and love. Now, as we've seen, Scripture emphasizes that God is characterized by both justice and mercy. But this presents a divine dilemma. God loves His creatures and wants to enjoy fellowship with them. But how can He when His holiness and absolute goodness clash with fallen humans' sinfulness? For though we may figure we're not depraved to the same degree or in the same way as Paul Bernardo, yet we are utterly depraved, sinful to the core, and lost apart from God's mercy. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God..." "...You were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live...gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature...like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath." (Rom 3:23; Eph 2:1ff) How can such corrupt beings ever hope to spend eternity in the presence of a perfectly righteous God? It's "against the rules"!
But the wonderful thing is, God's costly mercy intervened, reached out, and handed us a new pole to replace the broken props we had been trusting in. The pole is the cross of Jesus. "But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions-- it is by grace you have been saved." (Eph 2:4f) Costly grace - God's own team (His Son) didn't even make it to the podium, but sacrificed His whole being in our stead.
Starting in v18 of 2Cor 5, Paul introduces a powerful word that is very rich in meaning and significance, using it 5 times over the next few verses. Let's see if you can guess which word I mean. He says God "reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ...And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation...We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God." (2Co 5:18-20) Not too hard to pick out, was it? So what's this "reconciliation" word mean?
Woven into these verses are a couple of explanations. Note first verse 19, "God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them." This is the language of accounting, keeping a tally: the BBE version says God was "not putting their sins to their account." But who's going to make up the shortfall, the deficit? It becomes plainer in v21, "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." There is a Great Exchange: what's happening at the cross is Jesus taking our place, suffering for our sins, paying the cost for our rejection of God and falling short of His glory. The root meaning of the Greek term is a mercantile one: to change or exchange, as in swapping coins for others of equivalent value. We in Canada are very familiar with the concept of exchange: often when looking at a price on the internet, you have to first figure out whether it's in US dollars or Canadian, otherwise you're in for an unwelcome surprise! (But finally I'm seeing it from the other way around - the Australian dollar is actually smaller than the Canadian!)
Jesus, God's only-begotten Son, perfectly sinless and holy in Himself (Jn 8:46; 1Pe 2:22; Heb 4:15; 1Jn 3:5), of infinite value in the Father's eyes, poured Himself out on the cross to give each one of us value when we were but a smattered speck on heaven's windshield - even less than that. He became Nothing so we might become Something. He voluntarily became the prefect, unique sacrifice by which our sins could be atoned for and we might be made acceptable to Almighty God.
What action did Jesus use to trigger the chain of events that led to His painful death? The gospels record that it was after Jesus cleared the temple that the chief priests and the teachers of the law "began looking for a way to kill Him" (Mk 11:15; Mt 21:12; Lk 19:45; cf Jn 2:14). This consisted largely of two aspects: driving out those who were buying and selling the sacrificial animals, and overturning the tables of - who? The money-changers. Jesus was about to Make Change in a big way. In place of the animals for sacrifice, He would offer Himself, the consummation of all sacrifice, entering the Most Holy Place once for all by His own blood (Heb 9:12). The bulls and goats and doves were just copies, pointers. Doing so, He "obtained eternal redemption", dying as a ransom to set us free from our sins. It was a wonderful and awful exchange, sacrificing Himself so we might be saved from eternity in Hell, cut off from God. To 'reconcile' your bank statement at the end of the month, things have to add up on both sides, debits and credits. God credited Jesus' own righteousness to our account as sinners. NLT puts it, "For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ."
It was all "for our sin", in a substitutionary sense. Viewing Jesus as a threat, high priest Caiaphas unwittingly prophesied to his cronies, "it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish." (Jn 11:50) One for the many. Paul points out to the Galatians (3:13) that "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.'" He stepped in and willingly took the curse, the hex or penalty, that divine justice demanded, else God could not be viewed as a fair or just God; evil would be eternally not dealt with. God's justice and the costly mercy of Jesus are inextricably intertwined. Romans 3(25f) says, "God presented [Jesus] as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished-- he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just AND the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus."
New Motive and Mission
The Norwegian coach jokingly complained after the race, "She didn't give me my ski pole back...[then added] Ah, I don't want it back.I want her to keep it.It would be a good souvenir...We have lots of ski poles. But tell her she owes me a great big hug."
For God to reconcile us to Himself, however, cost Him much more than just a ski pole. That was His dearly-loved Son that died for us. Jesus became sin - utterly intolerable to His Holy Father - causing a gulf that prompted Him to cry out on the cross that God had forsaken Him (Mk 15:34). How much more that just "a great big hug" we owe Him - our whole being!
In the remainder of our passage, Paul describes at least 3 aspects of our new motive and mission as believers who've been granted grace and faith to follow Christ. One area is, Who's in charge, and how. Vv14-15 talk about the consequences of Christ's giving in terms of the claim it makes on our lives. "We are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died." That is, if we opt to be "in Christ", our old self is crucified with Him. Paul continues, "And He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for Him who died for them and was raised again." The issue here is LORDSHIP - who's on the throne of your life, who's at the control centre, behind the wheel, calling the shots? If we were 'road kill' on the spiritual highway apart from Christ's substitutionary rescue, we owe everything to Him. He has proper claim as Lord to our lives - we were created through Him and redeemed through Him. This new way of life, this new walk involves submitting all our actions to Him. Paul explains in Romans 6(12ff), "do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master..." If Jesus is truly Lord, that means we need to let Him be in charge.
"Those who live should no longer live for themselves..." (5:15) There's no excuse for selfishness - we're under new ownership! Suppose you were a shrewd coach standing there when that competitor's pole broke: you know if you DON'T give her a pole, your own team is a shoo-in for a medal. Would you still give her the pole? Our self is completely averse to paying such cost. It's completely understandable. It's justifiable. It's even historical. Sara Renner says she "was told that 25 years ago a Swede broke a pole and a Norwegian coach wouldn't give him his pole and it became a moral issue after that." So Olympics, like life, can be a test of much more than must physical merit. We can call it "focussed" but our drivenness may be a mask for pride, needing Self to be in control.
Christ's death for us also affects HOW we live our life, besides letting Him be in charge. 5:11 says "we know what it is to fear the Lord" - referring to our ultimate accountability before the judgment seat of Christ. Good or bad deeds will receive their due (5:10). But what motivates us is much more than just fear of eternal judgment. Look at v14: "For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all..." It's His LOVE that compels us - love that is so great it lays down its life for one's friend (Jn 15:13). Costly, self-sacrificing, stop-at-nothing-to-help-you love.
Christ's love compels us: the verb means to press or hold fast. When we visited my son-in-law's parents in northern Alberta last year, I had the opportunity to help Harv give an injection to a beef cow that had a bad foot. This involved getting her into the "squeeze". That's like two wooden board fences running parallel to each other. When we got her up towards the end, two things had to happen quickly: one person slapped the metal neck collar closed, while the other (my job) shoved a wooden fencepost across between the boards behind her so she couldn't back up or move around too much. Once all this happened - collar in front, fences on two sides, post blocking her from behind - she was "compelled", squeezed, pressed upon. So Jesus' love 'squeezes' us to act in love as He loved us, even when that's uncomfortable sometimes; maybe we're having a hard time finding the other person "lovable". It's not a round fence-post, but a rugged wooden beam from a bloody cross, that encourages us forward to share the same grace we've received.
Next, Jesus' costly mercy affects How we view others. V16, "So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view." Stop judging people from our own biases; instead look at them through God's eyes of love, eyes that would choose to be beaten and bruised and dazed in death if only that would make all the difference for the one loved. Throw off the filters society would condition us with, filters that sort out the 'beautiful', 'famous', and 'noteworthy'. Take a second look at your prejudices - racial, gender, age-related preferences. Jesus had a knack for hanging out with the 'misfits' and making them feel important. Paul wrote, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Ga 3:28) We'll view others differently.
Also, knowing what Christ has done for us will affect How we reach out to others. Paul notes in vv18-20, "God...gave us the ministry of reconciliation...He has committed to us the message of reconciliation.We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us..." Just previously, in 5:11 he said, "Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men." Hear the note of urgency in his voice in the last part of v20 and beginning of chapter 6: "We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God...We urge you not to receive God's grace in vain...I tell you, now is the time of God's favour, [LOOK! Or BEHOLD! SEE!] Now is the day of salvation."
We are saved to be in mission. God's still at His massive project of drawing lost sinners to Himself, "reconciling the world to Himself in Christ" - and He immediately commissions us as His 'ambassadors' or official representatives, His agents and mouthpieces. 6:1 uses the term "God's fellow-workers". Now there's a title to meditate on! What an honour! Jesus was about the Father's business, and we must be, too (Lk 2:49; Jn 5:17; 6:38). Once we start to see others through the Father's eyes, we will WANT to share with them how Christ can help them.
Ambassador's Tools that Work
Anyone in Christ "is a new creation", Paul declares; "the old has gone, the new has come!" Kenneth Chafin comments, "Paul was not discussing a newness that was merely cosmetic, like a new hairdo or new clothes. Rather, he was talking about an inner change that only God could make...Christ's coming into our lives creates a new unity, a new direction, new goals, and a new commitment."
Part of that "new direction" involves being Jesus' ambassadors or official agents. We will want to find ways to speak to people about how they can be reconciled or "put right" with God because of the cross. Each one of us needs to find our own style, our own manner of expression, our own technique that suits US. Be creative, so the good news doesn't come across sounding like pre-packaged hype or a sales pitch.
Zig Ziglar is a Christian salesman and motivational speaker. Early in his life he asked God for some way that would make people want to ask Zig about his Christian faith. Almost immediately he came across a little lapel pin that has a fish symbol superimposed by a number 7. People ask him what that's for, and he explains the fish is a symbol that he's a Christian, and 7 means Jesus is Lord of all 7 days of the week, not just Sunday. A very simple thing, but it provides an opportunity to witness to the fact Zig's under new management.
The ALPHA program has proven very effective in providing people with an opportunity to explore what Christianity's all about in a relaxed, friendly, non-threatening environment. Being an ambassador in this sense can involve such a simple action as inviting a friend to come with you to the sessions.
In closing, I'd just like to share a testimony from a 36-year-old director in marketing whose life was changed as a result of meeting Jesus through ALPHA. The course was held at Runnymede United in western Toronto, and this was one of half a dozen experiences you can find on that church's website.
"I first heard of Alpha during a regular Sunday morning service at Runnymede. A woman was giving her testimonial about how Alpha had changed her life. Her story moved me. For months, I had been attending services at Runnymede, enjoying Linda's sermons but, something was still missing and I wasn't quite sure what to do...lo and behold, an Alpha brochure arrived in the mail. I took it as a sign. For the past few years I had found myself searching for the answers to many questions. My spiritual quest had taken me to many places from visiting neighbourhood churches, to the Zen Centre and even to a Buddhist temple on a mountaintop in Japan. I was reading, exploring and wondering. Now, Alpha seemed to be calling my name. I was a little nervous and apprehensive on the first night of Alpha and was so grateful to have quickly met someone who had many of the same questions and fears as I did. The weeks would later reveal that almost everyone in our Alpha group had similar questions, hopes and fears. It was a great comfort to know that I was not alone. Alpha was a great learning experience for me. I admit for the first couple of weeks, I sat with my arms crossed with a "prove it to me" kind of attitude but slowly I noticed my arms beginning to unfold and my heart opening. Alpha helped me find the answers to many of my questions. Things began to make sense for me. I felt like things were "clicking" in my head. Lightbulbs flashed on. Questions were brought forth and answers came to me. I felt an incredible sense of belonging and love. During the 3 month course, I decided that I was indeed a Christian. My search ended here. I discovered God's power and love. I now have a personal relationship with my Lord, Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit is living in me and guiding my life. My life has changed. I have learned that I am not in control which is a hard thing to realize for a control freak like me. I am filled with a peace, love and belonging that I have never experienced before in my life. I also have a great new group of friends who are caring and supportive (and fun!). The Alpha course awakened me to our living God. My life has changed and for that I am forever grateful."
Isn't that a wonderful example of how God can work in a person's life, changing their point of view, reconciling them and making them a new creature? By ALPHA and other means, let's keep on trying to persuade others to receive God's costly mercy and so discover Christ's new motivation for their life. Let's pray.