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Tim Challies

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December 12, 2009

One of the things I enjoy about blogging is that a blog is, in a sense, a living media. It is a reflection of my life, of what I am thinking of at a certain time or in a certain place. Occasionally I go back and read something I wrote years ago and post it again, offering new reflections on it or even just leaving it as-is. Such is the case today as I began thinking about an amazing (and seasonal) word. This one was first posted about 18 months ago.

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For the past few weeks I’ve been transfixed by a word. That may sound a little bit strange but it is exactly what’s happened. It keeps coming to mind and I keep pondering it, trying to gain a sense of its meaning. Though the word appears just three times in Scripture, twice in Isaiah’s prophecy about the coming of Christ and once in Matthew in the fulfillment of that prophecy, it’s a word we have all used and a word whose meaning most of us know. Our children read about it every Christmas and our pastors mention it in their Christmas sermons. That word is Immanuel. God with us. God is with us.

I sense there is a lot to this word and to the truth behind it that I’ve never thought about before and I know that there must be great application to my own life. I hope to spend more time studying it and discerning how God wants me to live based on the awesome fact that “God is with us.” But even now as I’ve meditated upon this word I’ve been profoundly moved. How can we ever exhaust the wonder of God, the One who created the heavens and the earth, taking on human flesh? And even then, how can we but marvel that He did not come in the form of a great and mighty warrior, but in the form of a tiny, helpless baby. God in flesh; God in human flesh. Like every baby before and since He entered this world through pain and agony, sweat and blood. Though He was the power that had created the world, He depended upon His mother’s breast for physical sustenance. Though He upheld the creation by the Word of His power, He needed His parents to protect and nurture Him as a helpless infant.

What mind could conceive of a God who would walk this world and be so misunderstood? Why would God come to earth only to have almost everyone He encountered ignore His divinity? How could people see God and not understand?

Yesterday my pastor preached on John 8, one of two chapters dealing with Jesus’ time at the Feast of Booths. Here, as in so many passages of the gospels, we see people trying to figure out who this person is. They accuse Him of being a Samaritan and of being possessed by Satan: “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” They wonder how He could claim to know Abraham: “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” They ask if He is going to commit suicide: “Will he kill himself, since he says, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’?” They are utterly bewildered, blinded by their own ignorance and their own hatred of all that is good and true. Before them stood “God is with us” and all they saw was a wicked and perverse man who blasphemed their faith.

As Jesus’ ministry continued, people continued to seek but not find His identity. Even as He stood trial the questions continued. “Are you the King of the Jews?” asked Pilate, and then “So you are a king?” Pilate was incredulous, unable to understand who this man was. Even His beloved disciples wondered and wavered.

As I sat in church yesterday and pondered the mystery of so many who were unable to see that God was with them, standing before them, I was struck by the fact that this will not always be so. Jesus came to earth incognito, announced only to a group of shepherds as they tended their flocks in the night. Suddenly the dark night was disturbed and God’s glory shone all around. An angel announced the birth of Jesus and immediately a host of angels poured forth their praise at the wonder of it all. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” To so many others, though, Jesus appeared just as a man, walking the dusty roads of Israel. No angels foretold His coming; no trumpets blew as He approached. Even today, Jesus is present with us through the Word of God. He is quietly but powerfully present there, though just as when most people looked at Jesus and saw only man and not God, today most people look at the Bible and see words but not Word.

But this will not always be. God gives us today, He gives us now, to understand who Jesus is and to humble ourselves before Him. He tells us that today is the day we need to put our faith in this God who came as man. When Jesus returns to earth, He will not come incognito. He will come with all of the power and the glory and the honor that are rightly His. When He returns to earth, there will be no mistaking who He is. When He comes again, every knee will bow before Him and every tongue will confess that He is Lord. And God will be glorified in every one of us. There will be no mistaking who He is.

March 11, 2004

In the wake of The Passion of the Christ I have seen several discussions about why Pilate showed surprise that Jesus died so quickly. These discussions are based on the gospel of Mark where we read:

Now when evening had come, because it was the Preparation Day, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent council member, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, coming and taking courage, went in to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate marveled that He was already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him if He had been dead for some time. So when he found out from the centurion, he granted the body to Joseph. (Mark 15:42-45)

To understand Pilate’s surprise it is important to know that crucifixion was a method of execution designed to prolong suffering. Entirely different from the methods of execution practiced in most parts of the world today which are designed to be quick and painless, crucifixion prolonged the pain and the suffering as long as possible. It was not unusual for people to hang for two or even three days before they died. Indeed the thieves who hung on either side of him had to have their death hastened by the breaking of their legs in order to die before the start of the Sabbath. Jesus, though, spent only a few hours on the cross before He died.

Pilate, then, was surprised when after only a short time, Joseph of Arimathea came to him to request Jesus’ body. Pilate was sufficiently surprised that he summoned the centurion who had presided over the crucifixion to hear first-hand that Jesus was, indeed, dead. It was only then that he agreed to give the body to Joseph for burial.

So why, then, did Jesus die so quickly?

I believe there are two keys to understanding this. The first is found initially in Matthew and repeated in John. The gospels of Mark and Luke say that after crying out His final words, Jesus breathed His last. Matthew, though, says “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit.” John says Jesus “gave up His spirit.” The significance of this wording is that it shows that Jesus was in control of the timing of His death. He did not die because His body could take no more punishment or because of blood loss. He died because He decided it was time to die.

The second key is found in the gospel of John. John 10:17-18 reads “Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father.” Ultimately nobody took Jesus’ life from Him. He freely gave it up in order to save those whom He loved. When His work on the cross was complete he, as God, as the one in control, allowed His spirit to leave His body. His work was complete and there was no reason for the physical suffering to continue. So the very moment He had completed the purpose for which He came - His work of atonement on our behalf - He yielded up His spirit.

Though Jesus’ suffering may have lasted for less time than that of the men hanging on either side of Him and far less than many who were crucified before and after Him, it was not the duration of His suffering that achieved our salvation but rather the intensity of His suffering. During the time He was on the cross Jesus perfectly satisfied God’s demand for justice for our sin. The suffering He endured was far beyond human comprehension. At any time He could have caused it to end, but He waited until “it [was] finished” and until He had accomplished the work He had covenanted with His Father to perform on our behalf. Through it all, though, He retained control.

Jesus did not lose His life; He gave it.

March 10, 2004

Every believer carries a measure of the guilt for Jesus’ death. If it were not for our willful disobedience to God’s perfect Law, we would have no need of a Savior. We acknowledge in song that it was our hands that drove the spikes into His’ and sometimes speak about driving the nails into Jesus’ hands every time we sin. We speak figuratively, of course, knowing that although we were not present at the time of His death, we bear the guilt of providing the need for His death.

In the Bible we are given a brief glimpse of a man who was present while Jesus was nailed to the tree. This man was a Roman centurion, a commander over 100 soldiers of the Roman army. We know little about the man except that he was probably a hardened solider and commanded a detachment of what were most likely Syrian-born soldiers. He had, in all likelihood, presided over the crucifixion of hundreds or even thousands of men and must have become hardened to the agony these men endured.

It is likely that this man was present from the time Jesus was brought before Pilate right until the Lord’s body was lowered from the cross and given to Joseph of Arimathea. He may even have been present with the detachment of soldiers that aided in Jesus’ arrest the night before His crucifixion. This man would have accompanied Jesus from the time the Jewish leaders brought him to the Praetorium. He would have ordered his men to beat Him, caring little for who He was, knowing Him only to be another in a long line of people he was commanded to execute. He would have been nearby when his men dressed Jesus in a robe, pressed a crown of thorns onto His head and walked Him to Golgotha. He would have given the order to proceed with the crucifixion.

The centurion is mentioned in three of the four gospel accounts. He is mentioned not for his cruelty, ruthlessness or ability as a soldier. He is mentioned for something far more important, for a marvelous transformation that occurred immediately after the death of one of his prisoners.

Having seen so many crucifixions, the centurion knew what to expect from prisoners. Most people who were sentenced to be crucified were criminals, brigands, thieves and murderers. He had heard countless men scream in agony while being whipped and plead for their lives before Pilate. From their crosses he had heard them shout curses to men below and blasphemies to God above. The behavior of the thieves on either side of Jesus was all too common, as they mocked and ridiculed Jesus as he hung between them.

Perhaps it was during this time that the centurion began to notice that there was something different about Jesus. Where most men cursed and swore, Jesus, as His hands were nailed to the wood, cried out for God to forgive those who were causing His suffering. Or maybe He noticed the tender mercy in Jesus’ voice when He spoke to the penitent thief beside Him, promising that the same day he would be with Jesus in paradise. Perhaps he was amazed that during such suffering Jesus could look down at His mother and ensure that her future was secure by telling John to take care of her. Certainly three three hours of darkness that accompanied Jesus’ suffering would have marked this as an execution unlike any other.

We can only guess when the centurion began to realize that perhaps, just perhaps, Jesus was exactly who He claimed to be. What we do know is exactly when He knew with full certainty.

Just before He died, Jesus cried out “It is finished.” Immediately after that He said “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” At that very moment Jesus died. At that same moment a violent earthquake shook the land with such ferocity that rocks were split. Matthew tells us “when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, “Truly this was the Son of God!” Luke expands on this saying “when the centurion saw what had happened, he glorified God, saying, “Certainly this was a righteous Man!”

And just like that, the man who presided over Jesus’ execution, the man who ordered the nails to be driven into His hands and feet, became the first person to become a believer after Jesus’ death.

What an awesome, exciting testament this is to God’s divine grace! God was willing and eager to save one of those primarily responsible for the murder of His Son. A man who watched Jesus be scourged, who watched his soldiers mock and abuse Him and who probably enjoyed every minute of it, suddenly cries out in terror, realizing that He has killed an innocent man. His cry of terror is also an expression of faith as he confesses his new-found knowledge that Jesus was the Son of God.

I am certain that this story served as a great encouragement to many people in the early church. Though many of them carried the guilt for having killed the Lord, the realization that God could save even those who held the nails, would have proven that He is a God of love and forgiveness. It would have reassured them that, like this centurion, they could gain God’s favor through Jesus’ sacrifice.

This centurion’s miraculous conversion continues to serve as an encouragement today. Just as we share the centurion’s guilt for driving the nails into Jesus, so we can share the victory He won that day. As with this soldier who lived and died almost 2000 years ago, we need only have faith to believe that “truly this was the Son of God” and we, too, can be forgiven for the part we played in this terrible, unjust execution.