April 23, 2011

Easter Sunday; The Story of Redemption

The Bible begins and ends with God.  The very first verse says, “In the beginning God” (Gen 1:1).  The very last verse says, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all” (Rev.22:21).  God dwells in eternity, without fault or sin, in perfect being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.  God is complete in and of Himself.  He does not need others to complete Him like people do.  Therefore, God did not create angels or humans because He needed their company or love.  He created them so they could know and enjoy His company and love.  This means He had to give them some semblance of the attributes He has in Himself, though on a much smaller scale, and all dependent upon His sustaining power.  He gave them existence, personality, creativity, and will, among other things.  He created Man, male and female, and placed them on earth to have dominion over it, and to use their creativity and intelligence to rule the world under God.  He gave them free will, and created them morally and spiritually good, so they were able to live in perfect harmony and fellowship with Him and with each other.  Man was able to live in perfect union with God, as long as they lived in perfect obedience to God’s perfect will (Gen. 2:15-25).  But at some point, Man turned away from God (Gen. 3:1-8).  Choosing to live by their own rules instead of by the will of God, Man fell from their fellowship with God, and became criminals against the righteous King of Creation.  The Fall of Man changed not only their relationship with God, but also their own nature and essence.  No longer were they free and good.  Their minds became darkened and their wills became warped so that they are inclined towards evil instead of good (Rom. 1:21-25).  The history of Man is the story of the Fall in action.  It is the story of greed, hate, oppression, and violence and ungodliness (Jas. 4:1-3).  In other words, it is the history of Sin.
            The study of Bible history is the study of the unfolding of God’s grace extended to fallen Man.  As we study the history of the Bible we see first the progressive self revelation of God, culminating in Jesus Christ.  Second, we see the unfolding of God’s purpose of grace, which we may call the Plan of RedemptionAll of the studies we have done in Old and New Testament history have been done to bring us to this point, the point of recognizing afresh that, in the Bible, we are witnessing the story of God’s self revelation and the story of God’s redeeming grace.  Today it is my hope to trace some of the more important events in this story, and to show that the flow of events is the unfolding of God’s plan.
            We have already looked at the Fall.  Soon we must look at the first promise of redemption, but first let us see that the Plan of Redemption actually precedes the Fall.  It even precedes creation.  Christ said His people will inherit a kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world (Mt. 25:34).  Ephesians 1:4 says we were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world.  I Peter 1:18-20 says we are redeemed not with corruptible things like silver and gold, but by the precious blood of Christ, a Lamb without blemish or spot, “Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you.”  Finally, Revelation 13:8 speaks of Christ as the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.
            How does this plan of Redemption unfold in history?  It begins even in the Garden.  There God had mercy on the guilty sinners.  To be sure, there were consequences to their sin, but there was also mercy, and a great promise that has been called the Protoevangelium. It is found in Genesis 3:15, “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.”  From the start this verse was understood to foretell the work of the Messiah.  Paul refers to it in Romans 16.  Justin Martyr (110-165) interpreted it as such also.  It could be said that the rest of the Bible is the explanation of how God works this verse out in history.  The cross of Christ is the most obvious example of this, but in reality, all of history can be summarized as the story of Redemption as Christ, the seed of the woman bruises the head of the serpent (Satan) to deliver His people, until the day He finally comes in the full revelation of His glory to restore creation and to fully establish His Kingdom of righteousness forever.
            From the Fall, Redemption moves forward in the birth of Seth.  Abel has been killed, and Cain, his murderer, has been driven out of the covenant people.  So the line through which God will bring the Saviour into the world continues in Seth (Gen 4:25).  From Seth, the Bible traces the line to Noah (Gen.5:1-32), and from Noah, through Shem, to Abraham (Gen. 11:10-32).  Throughout this time God was revealing His righteousness and holiness.  It was shown that the murder of Abel was a sin against God.  The wickedness of Man caused God to bring judgment in the Flood.  The arrogance of humanistic endeavor was judged at Babel.  Abraham was called to leave Ur, to separate from the cultures of the world and their wickedness.  Through him God was going to build a nation to be His own special and holy people.  All of this reveals the nature and purpose of God.
            Israel was that special and holy people.  Descendants of Abraham, the Israelites dwelt in Canaan until a famine drove them to seek shelter in Egypt, where God had already established Joseph as the pharaoh’s chief official.  Miraculously, God delivered the Israelites after the Egyptians enslaved them.  He took them to Mount Sinai, where He gave them His Law, the fullest revelation of His will to date.  The moral law, as well as the ceremonial and civil law was given at Sinai, and the Hebrews were invited to assent personally to the Covenant God made with their forefathers. 
            The Covenant can be summarized as follows.  First, God will be their God.  He will bless them, give them his Law that they may know the ways of goodness and peace, and establish them in the land of Canaan.  He will also provide a way to forgive their sins, which will be symbolized in the Temple and the sacrificial system.  Second, they will be His people.  They will love Him with all their heart, keep His commandments joyfully, forsake all idols, and live for Him in righteousness in the land He would give them (see Deuteronomy 30 for a summary of the Covenant).  With the Covenant ratified by the people, God sent them toward Canaan.  After the forty years in the wilderness, the people entered the Promised Land.
            Things did not go well for the Israelites.  They turned from God to easier and more attractive religions.  They engaged in the sensuality and lust of the Canaanites.  But in grace the story of Redemption continued as God sent the judges and the prophets to them.  The prophets proclaimed that God wanted not just the outward forms and rituals of the ceremonial law, but also the inward holiness of the moral law.  They expounded more fully the holy nature of God, and the demand that His people be holy also.  Sometimes the Hebrews got the message and turned to God.  In those times God forgave their sin and blessed them.  The reign of David was one of those times, and can be understood as a foretaste of the Kingdom of the Messiah.  Often the Israelites rejected God’s message and killed the prophets.  In those times they paid the price for their sin, for God allowed them to be harassed and dominated by several foreign powers, beginning with the Canaanites and continuing to the Romans.  But during this time God revealed to them that a Deliverer was coming who would bring forgiveness and restoration, and would establish a Kingdom that would transcend political, ethnic, and cultural barriers.  The message of the prophet Isaiah was one of the clearest expressions of this in the Old Testament.  Through him it was revealed that the Saviour would suffer for the sins of His people, and that He would open the Kingdom of God to all believers.  The history of Israel is the history of God providentially working in the life of a nation that is often stubborn and rebellious.  But God is faithful, and even sin and rebellion in His own chosen people did not stay the progress of the plan of Redemption.  In grace He continued to work in His people and to bring the world to the point of the fullness of time, when He sent forth His Son, our Saviour, to redeem us (Gal 4:4-5).
            Before proceeding further into the New Testament, let us emphasize a few very important points of the Old Testament.  First, God requires righteousness.  We can define righteousness negatively as the absence of moral fault, and positively as the active possession of absolute moral perfection.  The whole point of the Law is the requirement of perfection.  God is perfect, and requires perfection of us.  There is no sliding scale, no allowance for circumstances, no excuse for failure to measure up.  We must embrace and do righteousness perfectly if we are going to live up to the demands of the Law.  This requires an inward attitude as well as outward performance.
            Second, nobody measures up.  The Law reveals God’s standards, but it also reveals God’s nature.  Righteousness is God and God is righteousness.  There is no fault or variation in Him.  But we fall short in every way.  We fail to achieve perfection in our works because we fail to achieve perfection in our beings.  In fact, as we saw in our look at the Fall, we are imperfect in our beings, and this inward imperfection inclines us to imperfect actions.  Actually, I have stated this too softly.  To get the real sense of the Bible’s teaching on this I have to say that we are evil in our inward beings.  There is in us a selfishness and pride that causes us to place our own comfort and pleasures above the good we know we should be doing.  This “fallenness” even leads us to exalt ourselves and wills above that of God Himself.  It is this fallenness in our being that causes the sinful actions, which the Prayer Book rightly reminds, are sins of omission as well as sins of commission (see the General Confession, page 6, 1928 edition).
            Third,  the Law, though it shows the way of life and peace, is actually our enemy, because by it we see our lack of righteousness.  We see that the Law does not justify us in the eyes of God, it condemns us.  This is one of the major points of the Bible.  This is why Paul, in Romans 3:20, speaking about the Jewish people who had the law, says,
“Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his [God’s] sight; for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” 
            Fourth, the Law, then, becomes our schoolmaster to lead us to Christ (Gal. 3:24).  Seeing that we are actually condemned by our failure to meet God’s standards, we are forced to despair of escaping His holy wrath upon us for our sins, unless, God has mercy on us, and somehow makes a way for us to be forgiven. 
            Now we can return to the Old Testament and see again the many promises of God to make a way of salvation for us.  We will not attempt to show every reference to Christ, but will look at some of the more obvious.  In Genesis 3:15 He is the seed of woman that bruises the serpent’s head. He is also the one whose heel is bruised by the serpent.  In Exodus He is the Passover Lamb who saves His people by His blood.  In the Day of Atonement He is the Scapegoat that bears the sins of His people.  In the Temple He is the High Priest who offers the sacrifices for sin.  His also the Sacrifice, just as the altar is the cross on which He is offered.  In Isaiah He 7:14 He is Immanuel, God with us.  In Isaiah 53 He is the Man of Sorrows who heals our souls by His stripes (crucifixion).  In Micah 2:5 He is the Ruler who comes out of Bethlehem.  In Micah 4:1-3 He is the One who brings in the Kingdom of Peace and Righteousness in which people can at last beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  The Old Testament is about Him from beginning to end.  He said if we believe Moses we would believe in Him, for Moses wrote of Him (Jn. 5:46).
            In the New Testament the promises of God to fallen Man are fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  The promise to make Abraham a great nation is fulfilled in Christ.  The promise through Micah that many peoples will come into the house of the God of Israel is fulfilled in Christ.  The old Israel, which was confined to one nation, is, in Christ, fulfilled into a world-wide fellowship that transcends all national ethnic, and cultural barriers.  This New Israel is called the Church.  The salvation of those who are condemned by the Law is accomplished by God Himself, who became flesh and went to the cross and bore in Himself the price of our redemption. He suffered the wrath of God in our place.  He was punished for our sins.  The full revelation of God is accomplished in Christ, who said if we have seen Him we have seen the Father (Jn. 14:9-11).
            Church history, as recorded in the New Testament, is the continuing story of Redemption as the message of the Gospel goes into the world.  The Gospels record the life and ministry of Christ, by whom the work of Redemption is accomplished.  The Book of Acts records the spread of the Gospel into the Mediterranean world.  By the end of Acts there are Christians in Africa, Asia, and Europe.  The Epistles explain the faith.  They explain the Gospel.  In them we find the meaning and purpose of the ministry of Christ  explained so that it can always be understood through the successive generations around the world. 
            We have seen that Jesus is the full revelation of God, yet that revelation is veiled in the sense that it is not fully recognized.  He came to earth within the limitations of time and space.  He came in humility to be rejected and crucified.  But He will come again in power.  In that day every eye will see Him.  In that day He will bring the story of Redemption to its close. In that day His enemies will be forever crushed under His heel.  Satan, sin, the ungodly, death and hell will be cast out of His presence forever.  He will gather His people to be with Him in a place where all suffering and sin will be ended forever.  In that Land we will see Him with our own eyes as Adam and Eve saw Him walking with them in the Garden.  In that day all our questions will be answered and our joy will be complete.  Even the physical creation will be renewed and restored (see Rev. 21).  All things will be brought together under Christ, who will rule in grace and peace forever.
            Thus ends the story of Redemption.  The purpose of God in His creation has been accomplished.  Fallen people have been called into fellowship with God and redeemed by the blood of Christ.  Evil has been conquered forever, and the people of God live in peace and righteousness.  This is what the history of the Bible is all about.