Have you been impatiently waiting for the monthly poem from my mom? No, we have not forgotten. Here it is, just in time to help you remember the death and life of Christ.
God bless you as you read Mom’s poem and meditate on Christ.
I remember as a young girl, lying on the grass, gazing at the immense blue summer sky above me, and trying to grasp in the “grain of sand” that was my mind, the concept of eternity. As the clouds moved lazily overhead I pondered the puzzle of eternity past and eternity future, tried to envision the vast expanses of “time” implied, and wondered which would be more irrational, that God should have never begun—how could that be!—or that He should have a beginning—but then how and why could He have begun? I would try to stretch my mind across the eons of eternity from past to future until I felt my brain would explode.
G. K. Chesterton said that “poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea… the result is mental exhaustion. To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet desires… a world to stretch himself in… asks only to get his head into the heavens… the logician… seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head which splits.”
The Scriptures tell us it is “by faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God…not…of things which are visible” (Heb. 11:3, NKJV, italics added).
I was nearing fifty years of age when I wrote the following poem about Christ’s time on earth, and my brain felt no more adequate then of grasping the puzzle of Christ’s work of salvation than it was earlier with the concept of eternity.
The puzzle: Did Jesus come to live or to die for us? His death was only efficacious because of His Resurrection and because of His perfect life. His life alone could not have saved us. He needed a body for the very purpose of dying for us. Remission of sin demands blood shed, a death, a sacrifice.
Romans 5:1 says we are “justified by faith” in Him “who was delivered up [to death] because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification” (Rom. 4:25, NKJV, italics added).
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! (Rom. 11: 33, NASB)
In humble faith I celebrate and trust in the life and death and resurrection of my Risen Lord and Saviour as all-sufficient for my eternal salvation!
—Elaine Gingrich, March 1, 2016
THIRTY-THREE YEARS: A LIFE
He came to die, but first He came to live.
Not as some faceless, flat protagonist
Who dies in a pale story, never missed
By readers. No, our captured minds would give
The world to know this Man. The finest sieve
Can catch no fault in Him. Go down the list
From “healed a leper” to “by traitor kissed,”
Then watch Him die unjustly, yet forgive.
Here was a man to tower above men,
With strength to calm the stormy Galilee,
With touch more tender than a baby’s sigh.
Here was a man deserves to live again,
A man to love! We turn the page to see
The script. He lives! But first He came to die.
—Elaine Gingrich, May 2, 2000
While this was not her intent, Mom’s insight about the need to connect the life and the death of Christ has been the subject of some recent discussion in scholarly circles.
N.T. Wright, for example, wrote a book calledHow God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. Wright argues that evangelicals and other confessional Christians, influenced by the pattern of the ancient creeds, have tended to emphasize the virgin birth and the cross of atonement while skipping over the life of Christ with his radical kingdom teachings. Liberal theologians, however, influenced by post-Enlightenment critical scholarship and embarrassed by the miraculous elements of Jesus’ birth and death, have emphasized the exemplary power of his human life.
But true Christianity needs both—the kingdom teachings and life of Jesus on the one hand, and also his miraculous, saving death and resurrection. In Wright’s words, we need both kingdom and cross. (While I have not read this book, I have listened about three times to this lecture Wright gave on the same topic. Highly recommended.)
Wright is a scholar of the first rank, but his book above is written for a general audience. Pastors have also written on this subject, such as Tim Chester in his 2015 book Crown of Thorns: Connecting Kingdom and Cross. (I have not read this book, but am familiar enough with Chester to feel confident it will be a useful read.)
I am excited to see scholars and pastors grasp this insight. But understanding exactly how Jesus’ life and death relate together to save us and shape our lives is secondary to simply trusting and following him. So it’s okay if you identify with what Mom said after I shared some of the above with her:
You can develop the deep debates and I will stick to the simpler faith foundation. 🙂
I am deeply grateful to my mother for helping to keep my faith foundation firm, both in my youth and to this day.
For the rest of the poems in this monthly series, see here.
The coming of the light changes everything. Did you see the sunrise this morning? Even if you didn’t, it changed your life. The coming of the light transforms the whole world, including you and me. As the sun rises each day, we are infused (barring sickness or early alarm clocks) with new vision and energy, stirred to move with purpose and life.
The same is true of the spiritual dimensions of our beings. The coming of the Light changes everything.
The apostle and author John (assuming, with reason, that the two are the same person) liked to talk about light and darkness. He is the one, for instance, that noticed that Nicodemus visited Jesus in the dark while the Samaritan woman visited him in the light of the noonday sun. Guess who possessed spiritual sight?
One place where light makes all the difference is 1 John 2:7-11:
7 Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard.8 At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.9 Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness.10 Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling.11 But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.
This passage is full of short, simple words. Even the Greek is among the simplest in the NT. But, as is typical with John, easy words bear weighty thoughts.
I see at least three basic themes in these verses:
A commandment to love one’s brother
A contrast between light and darkness
An apparent contradiction between “old” and “new”
Let’s start with the apparent contradiction first.
How can the command to love our brother be both old and new?
Some try to solve this dilemma in part by noting that the Greek word for “new” in verse 8 is καινὴν, not νέος. The latter often means new in time (i.e., recent), while the former can sometimes mean new in quality (i.e., unusual or superior). Thus we could perhaps theoretically translate verse 8 like this: “At the same time, it is a fresh commandment that I am writing to you.” This would remove the tension between “old” and “new,” for an “old” commandment could still be a “fresh,” or perhaps even “better” one. One commentator suggests it is like a familiar symphony being performed anew by skilled musicians, or a familiar dish of food prepared by a culinary wizard.1
But, however true such images are, this solution doesn’t work on a linguistic basis. Why? Because the same word καινὴν is also found, negatively, in verse 7: “I am writing you no new commandment.” Unless John changes the meaning of καινὴν from one verse to the next (which is entirely possible but which then overturns the distinction between καινὴν and νέος), he is still apparently contradicting himself.
The simple English word “new” is a good translation. And the word clearly includes a chronological dimension, for “old” is amplified by the phrase “from the beginning.” So we must not try to hide the appearance of contradiction: John is saying that the commandment to love is both old (known from the beginning) and, in some other and more recent sense, new.
(John, with his black-and-white language, is full of such apparent contradictions, prompting us to puzzle profitably over his words as over cunning proverbs.)
So, how is the love commandment old?
One possible answer is to note that the command to love our brother has existed since the oldest parts of Scripture. Jesus summarized the OT law with two great commandments:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.This is the great and first commandment.And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 22:37-39)
In doing so, Jesus cited two OT texts:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deut. 6:5)
You shall not hate your brother in your heart, …but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Lev. 19:17-18)
So the love commandment is as old because it is older than the Bible itself.
But John likely had something else in mind when he called the love commandment “old.” The commandment was old to John’s readers because they “had [it] from the beginning” (2:7). “From the beginning” is a phrase that John uses in multiple ways, but here it seems to refer to time when his readers first heard the gospel message:
Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. (1 John 2:24)
For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. (1 John 3:11)
And now I ask you, dear lady—not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning—that we love one another. (2 John 1:5)
Isn’t this true with us, too? I can’t recall a time when I didn’t know I was supposed to love my brother. Can you? “Love one another” is very old command—so old, in fact that we sometimes forget that it is also new.
So, how is the love commandment new?
Here we are reminded of the words of Jesus—as recorded by John:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. (John 13:34)
What did Jesus mean when he called this commandment “new”? I think the answer lies in the phrase “just as I have loved you.” Jesus provided us a new example of love, an example that renews the old commandment by giving us a picture of what our love should look like.
John says much the same thing in his first letter:
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. (1 John 3:16)
Jesus’ example demonstrates a new magnitude of love:
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:12-13)
In fact, Jesus’ love extended not only to his friends, but to his enemies—an almost unheard of thing, as Paul notes:
For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:7-8)
Jesus’ coming also provides a new power for us to love. John is the apostle of new birth. He is the one who records Jesus’ words, “You must be born again” (John 3:7). He said that all who received Jesus were given the right to become children of God, born of God (John 1:12-13). And in his first letter he says that being born of God gives us power to keep God’s commandments, including the command to love one another:
By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments... And his commandments are not burdensome.For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world… (1 John 5:2-4)
Being born of God gives us power to love. So does abiding in Christ, another theme emphasized by John. At the end of the famous passage about bearing fruit by abiding in the Vine, John records these words from Jesus:
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends... You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.These things I command you, so that you will love one another. (from John 15:12-17)
Abiding in Christ, therefore, empowers us to bear the fruit of mutual love.
I have suggested three ways (there are surely more) in which the love commandment can properly be called new:
Jesus provided a new example of love.
Jesus’ example demonstrated a new magnitude of love.
Jesus’ coming gives us new power to love.
John pictures all this newness by talking about light.
Listen again to the verse where John first calls the love commandment “new”:
At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. (1 John 2:8)
There are grammatical challenges in interpreting this verse. (In the Greek, “which” is a neuter pronoun while “commandment” is female, so the relationship between clauses is debated.)
But the basic ideas seem clear: The love commandment is “true”—realized or actualized—in both Jesus and in those who belong to him. And it is realized because “the darkness is dissipating and the true light already shines.”2The coming of the light actualizes the commandment, thus making it new.
This language of light links back to the foundational theological thesis statement for whole letter:
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5)
How did John know that God is light? Because Jesus, God in the flesh, had come into the world. John is a first-person witness to the word/Word of life (1 John 1:1). The incarnation of the Word is the theme of the opening verses of John’s letter (1 John 1:1-4), and also of the prologue of his Gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.He was in the beginning with God.All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.In him was life, and the life was the light of men.The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1:1-9)
As John’s poetic prologue continues, the identity of the “true light” becomes clear: It is Jesus.
“The true light.” This is the same phrase that John uses in our original passage: “The darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining” (1 John 2:8). Jesus, God in the flesh, is “already shining”!
Putting it all together, here is what John is saying: The coming of Jesus, the light of the world (cf. John 8:12), makes the commandment true and thus new.
There is much more to see about the nature of light and darkness in John’s writings. Light suggests divine revelation, human exposure, honesty, spiritual sight, and holiness. Light exposes our hearts (John 3:19-21; John 9:39-41) and will transform us into “sons of light” if we believe in it (John 12:35-36).
We have enough light to ask ourselves some questions:
Am I loving my brother in a way that demonstrates that the Light has come into the world? Or am I still living as if the world is abandoned in darkness?
Can others see, by the way I love, that I have been transformed by the Light?
Am I imitating Jesus’ new example of love? Does my love mirror his new magnitude of love, or is it no bigger than the love of non-Christians around me? Am I experiencing new power to love? (Or is there little evidence that I am abiding in Christ or even born again?)
In sum, is the command to love my brother a new commandment for me? Or is it just an old, powerless, forgettable and forgotten one?
I’ve tried in this post to express the love command in something of its end-of-the-age freshness. I have also tried to demonstrate some techniques of good exegesis:
Identifying and focusing on key words and themes.
Tracing these key words and themes beyond the immediate text, giving priority to (a) the rest of the same book of the Bible and then (b) to other books by the same author, without importing meanings from more distant contexts.
Teasing out apparent contradictions, without denying anything Scripture affirms.
Looking for how Christ, the ultimate subject of Scripture, is key to the meaning of the text.
Yeah, this next Sunday we get to study Melchizedek! (Said almost no one ever.) Yes, it’s true: If you use the Christian Light Publications curriculum for Sunday School, this Sunday’s lesson will be from Hebrews 7, about the mysterious OT king-priest named Melchizedek (or “Melchisedec” in the KJV). And yes, some of us actually do get excited about Melchizedek.
Everyone seems to agree that Melchizedek is a confusing character. Beyond that, there often isn’t a lot of agreement! Some have suggested that the fact that he “is without father or mother or genealogy” means that he was not descended from Adam, and that he therefore did not have a sinful nature. Christ, too, was born without a sinful nature, right? Some seem to think he was a manifestation in the flesh of the pre-incarnate Christ, a rather self-contradictory idea. (If he was “in the flesh” this means he was incarnate, not pre-incarnate. And last time I checked Scripture suggests that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” only once–“when the fullness of time had come”–not twice, and that he did have a mother. See John 1:14; Galatians 4:4.)
I think these ideas are bunny trails into the briar patch. But it is pretty understandable if folks get hung up in the briars with Mr. Mel. Like Brer Rabbit, he was “bred and born in the briar patch,” and he’s about as sticky as Brer Fox’s Tar Baby.
How can we disentangle ourselves? Thankfully, there is help. I suggest we let the Reformed super-hero NT scholar1 Don Carson do “some fast thinking” for us.
Last night my wife reminded me of a superb presentation from Carson, one we have watched together. (Yes, ladies, this is for you, too.) This talk by Carson traces Melchizedek through Old and New Testaments, ending in Hebrews. It makes more sense out of Mr. Mel than anything else I’ve seen. And beyond that, it is an excellent example of how to read Scripture, paying attention to textual and historical details in order to reap a rich theological harvest.
So here it is. Carve out some time before next Sunday’s class to watch (or read) this. This is your chance to not only “get” but also “get excited about” Melchizedek.
PS: I’m actually excited enough about this presentation from Carson that this is now the second time I’ve shared it here.
PPS: The fact that I began writing this post at 3:30 a.m., while monitoring a passing thunderstorm, might help explain how Tar Baby got into the mix.
If you aren’t into super-heroes, or if you tend to prefer non-Reformed or non-scholarly types, please don’t let the handle scare you. Can anything good come out of Samaria Reformed scholarship? Yes, it can. See for yourself. ↩