AUTHOR’S NOTE: This series of articles reflects an “atonement theory” of Christianity that I now reject. I’ve kept this series to show where I come from.
The Law of Moses commands Jews to attach a tassel to the corners of their garments. You probably didn’t know or care about this, but the word for “corner” in Hebrew is kanaf. Bear with me.
About 400 B.C., a prophet named Malachi spoke about a coming savior: “The sun of righteousness will rise with healing in his wings.” The Hebrew word Malachi used that we translate “wings” is kanaf, and out of that quirky Hebrew wordplay, a Jewish tradition grew that God’s coming chosen one—the “Messiah”—would have healing power in his tassel.
Sounds silly, doesn’t it?
Fast forward more than four centuries. Jesus is walking through a smothering crowd, and among the people in the crowd is a woman who has been fighting an incurable bleeding illness for 12 years. This woman is unclean, and is breaking the law of Moses just by being where she was. Yet she pushed through the crowd until finally she touched the corner of his cloak.
She was healed that instant.
But when Jesus turned around to see who had touched him, she immediately fell to the ground and trembled in fear. She had acted in desperation, but was now in a big trouble, and she knew it. Here, in front of the whole crowd, is a great Jewish teacher, and she—an unclean woman—had actually just touched him. This woman who for 12 years had suffered under the care of doctors who couldn’t cure her and who had spent all her money trying to recover ironically was now in the most vulnerable state of her life. But Jesus looked at her and spoke these immortal words: “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”
Go in peace. That she did.
The Hebrew word for peace is shalom, a word that’s hard to do justice when we translate it into English. Peace as we think of it is merely an absence of conflict, a still, a calm. But Shalom is bigger and more comprehensive than that. Shalom is a complete holistic wholeness. Shalom is a wholeness of mind, body, and soul.
On another occasion, Jesus encountered a man who was paralyzed, and laying on a mat. These two were not alone. With several Jewish rabbis in the vicinity, Jesus—never one to avoid controversy—announced: “Your sins are forgiven.” Of course, under the Law of Moses, only God has the authority to forgive sins. The rabbis fumed.
Then there was Jesus and the tax collectors. For at least three reasons, Jews thoroughly despised tax collectors. First … taxes. Okay knocked that out. Second, they had earned a reputation of corruption, taking more than was owed and pocketing the difference. Third, they worked for the Roman Empire, which was holding Israel under occupation (I’ll get back to Rome in just a second). So what did Jesus do? In full view of the religious elite, he went to dinner parties with tax collectors and taught them. And, predictably, the religious leaders fumed again. Jesus was associating with people whom proper religious people are supposed to completely avoid.
Jesus was popular among the downtrodden, the sick, and the sinners, but he was challenging the limits of permissible conduct as a Jew—he described his authority in ways that dangerously appeared to encroach on the province of God. A recurring question Jesus would receive in his ministry was “who gave you this authority?”
It began when one night when an angel came and told Mary that, despite her being a virgin, God would cause her to conceive and have a son. Mary was engaged to a carpenter from a poor town named Nazareth, but, like a good Jewish couple, they had never had premarital sex. God made her pregnant anyway. God, who made the biological rules of human reproduction, apparently reserves in himself the right to break those rules.
Now, if you’ve just put on your skeptic hat, consider that about 7 centuries earlier a prophet named Isaiah made this modest prophecy:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
And the Bible says it happened. In a stable. Next to barn animals. To poor parents.
For a second, I want you to set aside my claim that this prophecy came true. Instead, take a second to be amazed that this prophecy was made in the first place. Because of Isaiah’s ludicrous prophecy, the validity of the entire Jewish religion depended on someone somewhere (actually, based on other prophecies, only in Bethlehem) being born to a virgin. You just don’t do that kind of thing. You foretell easy things. Reasonable things. Likely things. You know: Brown hair, laughs a lot, born in the springtime, can’t stand Justin Bieber.
Instead, Isaiah predicted something impossible. And I believe it happened.
Jesus’s name in Hebrew is Yeshua, which means “Savior.” In this identity as a savior, Jesus met our deepest need. All of us are in a broken state. Satan, as I explained yesterday, has in some way or another has fooled each and every human into a false sense of his or her own power. We act selfishly, as if there is no God. Each human needs a savior because the invisible war against evil is too much for us. Evil is on us, and eternal death is always the result of that. So we need a savior, because we need shalom.
The word Immanuel means “God with us.” For thousands of years, God was unapproachable. He was that terrifying invisible trumpet noise above the lightning, smoke, and thunder on Mount Sinai. You just didn’t have a relationship with this God. So when Isaiah prophesied that son of the virgin would be called Immanuel, he was saying that God himself was coming to Earth and would pitch his tent among humans.
One place in the Bible describes it like this:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
The word “Word” here is another big word (can you say “tongue twister”?). It comes from the Greek word logos, which means the comprehensive logic and order of everything. So by saying that God is the logos, the writer is making very big claims not only about both God, but also this man whom God would send to the Earth. Also, the text challenged the very notion of what God is. How could God be up above in the spiritual world and also be down below on Earth?
One day, Jesus described himself to the religious leaders using the phrase “I AM”, the same phrase that God used to introduce himself to Moses and the Hebrews who were enslaved in Egypt. Needless to say, it didn’t go over well. As in, they would later make an oath not to eat or sleep until they had killed him.
Jesus is God.
And despite all the majesty of God, all the power of God, all the bigness of God—God came to Earth as a humble man. The God who sees all of time, who created all of space, who terrified the Jews for 2,000 years knows exactly what it’s like to be human.
However, not everyone liked Jesus. It was a popular belief that the Messiah would free Israel, a people very proud of their independent national heritage, from Roman occupation. The insecurity that Israel faces from its neighbors today has a long heritage in Jewish history. Today, its Iran. Yesterday, it was Babylon, Persia, Media, Greece, and Rome. The problem in the Jewish mindset has long been invading neighbors. The solution was the “Messiah”.
But instead of being for Israel a freedom fighter, Jesus told Jews to pay their taxes to the Roman government, to not rebel against the Roman government, to submit to the Roman government, and to do even more in service to the government than was even asked. Jesus was introducing new ideas about power, and this put a sour taste in the mouths of Jews who for years had been expecting revolution.
Others went beyond dislike. Others hated Jesus on a level of wanting to kill him. Under the law of Moses, many Jews acquired powerful positions as its teachers and administrators. They were wealthy, and they were respected. So when Jesus came around talking about the old law being replaced with a new covenant (because, remember, the ritual-based Law of Moses was always just a “tutor” for the eternal spiritual realities), it was the religious establishment who had everything to lose. It turns out, power did not just now begin corrupting people in the last 100 years.
The Jews conspired against Jesus to be treated as a criminal under Roman law. And, without answering any of his accusers, he was hung on a cross. Jesus was born, he lived, he died. He lived a great life. He healed people, he taught persuasively about the kingdom of God, and he shook some cages.
But, okay. So what? He lived, he did nice things, said nice things, died, and you claim he is God. Why is Jesus someone I need?
There’s this scene when Jesus was still alive in which he was passing through the temple grounds. While walking through the grounds, he observed what had effectively become a marketplace for animals that were to be used for the sacrifices under the Law of Moses. Have you ever observed Christian endeavors that have become commercial enterprises? Ever watched TV on a Sunday morning? Does it bother you? Well, it bothered Jesus. He went ballistic on them, overturning the tables that were used to exchange money and driving the animals out of the temple area (did I not say that Jesus was unafraid of controversy?).
When the Jews once again asked him to show his authority to do such a thing, Jesus responded: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” Of course, to anyone listening this was preposterous. The temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed before, when Babylon sacked Jerusalem in 586 B.C. However, once the Jews began reconstructing the temple, they didn’t finish for another 46 years.
And now this crazy lunatic comes and claims that he will rebuild it in 3 days.
In the center of the temple is the “Holy of Holies.” The Holy of Holies is where God lived in the temple. It was a room in which no human except the High Priest (and only once a year) could enter. Later, various contributors to the Bible (again, in the patter of using physical images under the law to explain spiritual realities) would say that your body is a temple. Under the new covenant that Jesus was proclaiming, God would begin living inside humans the way he was then living inside the temple of Jerusalem. This is what Christians mean when they refer to the “Holy Spirit.”
So when Jesus said, “destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days”, he was referring to his body (though not surprisingly, his accusers would later claim that Jesus was threatening to actually destroy the temple). Jesus was saying that he was going to be killed, and then come back to life in 3 days.
Jesus died on a cross, and came back to life in 3 days.
You read that correctly.
I proclaim that Jesus died and came back to life. I proclaim resurrection. I proclaim this despite the fact that I’ve never seen the spiritual world on which all of this depends. I proclaim this because of ants. I proclaim this because impossible things happen in this world. I proclaim this because resurrection is all around me and has validated itself in my life. Death had to be defeated, and Jesus defeated it. He defeated it because, unlike every other human who has ever lived, Jesus never sinned. Death then, as the Bible says “had no mastery over him.” Jesus defeated death, and today allows us to join in that victory just by believing in him and his power. As you have probably heard from the popular verse:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
This is the good news, and this is why you need Jesus. There is an evil world of evil and there is an invisible world of life. Your sins make you unapproachable to God—not because God wanted that, but because that is God’s nature. And yet he loves you even despite the truly treacherous things you’ve done in your life. He loves you despite all those things that shame you, that you hide out of embarrassment. God knows each one of them, and affirms you despite them all.
Yet, in the true nature of shalom, you are holistically transformed—mind, body, and soul. Death no longer has mastery over you, and you no longer live for your own selfish desires. You live your life with the mindset of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” You live your life as one dependent on the power of God. It’s a humble life on this temporary Earth, but a powerful one in the eternal world outside the universe.
Tomorrow morning is Christmas morning. Honestly, you might be shocked to know I’m not the biggest fan of Christmas. You will not find it in the Bible, and it has really become a commercial behemoth. But I choose to take time in the Christmas season to remember Jesus, and this year I want you to know Jesus and his resurrection.