God’s Righteousness and Justice. VII: Christ our Merciful and Righteous King

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
He is just and endowed with salvation,
Humble, and mounted on a donkey,
Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9; all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible).

An Ash Wednesday cross on a worshiper’s forehead. Photo by Jennifer Balaska, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Many Christians began observing Lent this past week. In some churches, pastors marked congregation members’ foreheads with a cross-shaped mark using the ashes from burned palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. The pastor generally accompanies this marking by saying, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Lent reminds us of our mortality and our need for forgiveness. It reminds us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and “{T}he wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

In Lent, we are reminded of our unrighteousness and that Christ’s righteousness and mercy are our only hope. During the last Sunday of Lent, Palm Sunday, many churches will commemorate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which was prophesied in Zechariah 9:9 (Matthew 21:5 quotes this verse as he describes Jesus riding a borrowed donkey).

Jesus’ arrival must have been a dramatic sight. For three years, He had preached and performed miracles. People got excited, convinced that He was the Messiah, the coming Great King of Israel who would overthrow the Roman authorities. Jesus had even at times said enough to confirm that He thought He was the Messiah.

The Triumphal Entry, artist unknown, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

And now, just a few days before Passover, as Jewish pilgrims from all over the Roman Empire were flooding Jerusalem, Jesus rode into the ancient capital city of Judea. He sat astride a colt, as if He was a king, while His followers shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David” (Matthew 21:9).

There was no mistaking His intentions now. In the past, He might have hinted that He was the Messiah. Now, His actions shouted it. He consciously chose to ride on a donkey, thereby fulfilling Zechariah 9:9.

Stained glass window depicting the triumphal entry of Jesus, at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Albany, NY. Photo by Nheyob, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

However, His actions also shouted what kind of king He was. A conquering king would enter the city on a horse as if ready to do battle. When a king came in peace, he would ride a donkey. Jesus was contrasting Himself with many of the kings the Jews had seen in recent years. Greek rulers and Roman Caesars had come to steal, kill, and destroy. Jesus was now coming so that the people could have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).

God’s justice intertwines itself with His other attributes. He comes not only to exercise His justice but also to reveal His humility and mercy as He brings salvation. The Jews suffered persecution and domination for centuries. God’s Great King would come to deliver His people. Zechariah 9:1–8 tells us how God would judge the nations that afflicted His chosen people.

Yet, “He will speak peace to the nations” (Zechariah 9:10). Jesus’ goal is not to destroy, but to save and redeem. He comes to destroy the works of the devil, but He comes to deliver people from Satan’s rule. Jesus’ justice and mercy mingle. Are we willing to receive His offer of peace, or do we choose to remain at odds with Him? He comes in peace to establish His righteous and just kingdom. We decide whether we will accept His terms of peace or rebel against Him. No matter which we choose, He will reign triumphant.

What do you think about Jesus’ righteousness, justice, and mercy? Share your thoughts about this or anything else related to Cornelius’ story by clicking the “Leave a comment” link below.

Copyright © 2021 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons, God's Moral Attributes | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

God’s Righteousness and Justice. VI: Righteous Men—Cornelius the Centurion

“They said, ‘Cornelius, a centurion, a righteous and God-fearing man well spoken of by the entire nation of the Jews, was divinely directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and hear a message from you’” (Acts 10:22, New American Standard Bible).

St. Cornelius Window, Chapel of St. Cornelius, Governors Island, New York. From Wikipedia, under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Some recent posts on this blog have considered the righteousness and justice of God. Here, we meet a Gentile who is described by his servants as “a righteous and God-fearing man.” Acts 10 is devoted to his conversion.

The New Testament teaches that one can only be righteous by having faith in Jesus Christ and being clothed in His righteousness. So, the above verse raises a question: How could Cornelius be righteous if he was not yet a Christian?

Can a person be clothed in the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus before placing their faith in Him? Is it possible to be saved before one comes to know Jesus? Some preachers and theologians believe that God might count someone as having faith in Jesus even if they did not know who He was because their life and attitude suggest they would gladly receive Christ if they knew who He was. This concept of “inclusivism” is illustrated in C. S. Lewis’ book, The Last Battle, the finale of The Chronicles of Narnia. The Christ-like lion king Aslan welcomes Emeth, a soldier in the enemy army who recognizes Aslan as the rightful ruler, into his kingdom, stating that any righteous acts Emeth had done in the name of his false god would be accepted as having been done for Aslan.

This teaching appeals to many Christians who think about the billions who have lived and died without hearing the Gospel. It is painful to imagine that billions of people could be in hell simply because they were born in an area where no Christians brought the Gospel. I would find it comforting to think that there could be nice people from pagan societies in heaven even though they never knew Jesus’ name. However, Christians must take our guidance from God’s Word:

“… ‘Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:13–14).

Paul began his letter to the Romans by arguing that nobody is righteous and that all people deserve God’s wrath (culminating in a litany of bold Old Testament statements in Romans 3:9–18). It might be comforting to believe people can be saved without hearing about Jesus, but let us not leap to that assumption. Jesus told us to be His witnesses and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18–20). It is our responsibility to preach His Word, and it is God’s responsibility to decide how He will exercise His mercy.

Can God call somebody “righteous” before they accept Christ? Perhaps Cornelius was one of the elect, predestined to become a Christian, and that is why he is called righteous. I am not aware of any passages of Scripture that would guarantee such a possibility. However, since we know that God predestined those whom He foreknew to be conformed to Christ’s image (Romans 8:29), we can safely say that Cornelius ended up being righteous by His standards.

Perhaps Cornelius’ messengers were misguided, thinking in merely human terms. It is human nature to think of some people as “good people” or “righteous individuals.” We all know people whom we think of as good people. They try to do the right thing and treat other people well, so despite the litany about human depravity in Romans 3:9–18, we think of them as “good people,” even if they do not have a relationship with Jesus Christ. When Paul says, “There is no righteous person, not even one” (Romans 3:10), we assume our unsaved-but-really-nice friend is an exception to that rule. Perhaps Cornelius’ messengers thought like that: He tried to treat people well; he used his influence as a centurion to help people instead of taking advantage of them; he gave to those in need. By human standards, he seemed righteous.

A “god-fearer” in the New Testament was a Gentile who had come to believe in One True God. Often, they saw a lot of truth in the Jewish religion and tried to follow many of its laws. They might try to live by Old Testament standards of justice, righteousness, and morality. However, they did not take the leap to fully convert to Judaism by being circumcised and may not have followed all of the ceremonial laws and traditions.

However, God had begun a work in Cornelius’ life before the angel appeared to him. Jesus taught His disciples that the Holy Spirit would convict the world regarding sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8–11). Cornelius had been convicted. He wanted to follow the one true God. God honored that desire by directing him to one who could help him find the right path by faith in Jesus Christ.

God was working in Cornelius’ life before he knew about Christ. Looking back at my own life, I can see how He was drawing me before I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. I had been raised in the Roman Catholic Church, but by the time I was a teenager I wandered from that faith. Nevertheless, I could never bring myself to thinking about “God” without associating Him with “Jesus.” So, in my late teens, when I entered a phase of spiritual searching (including dabbling in the occult and studying a few non-Christian ideologies), that foundation stayed with me. One night, I found myself reading the Sermon on the Mount and was impressed that Jesus’ teachings were very practical but also seemed humanly impossible. It occurred to me that Jesus did not come to form a new religion but to create a new kind of person. A few months later, some people shared the Gospel with me, and my heart and mind were ready to receive the truth.

Could I be called righteous before I ended my spiritual search by accepting Christ? I would not have used that phrase then, and I still do not think of my pre-Christian self as a righteous person. (I have enough trouble thinking of myself as righteous after 37 years of following Jesus!) Perhaps one cannot think of Cornelius as completely righteous before he met Peter. Nevertheless, the seeker and the God-fearer are both drawn and inspired by the righteousness of God. This is what draws us to Him, and it should be what inspires us to continue walking with Christ every day.

What do you think? How can one be “righteous” before salvation? Share your thoughts about this or anything else related to Cornelius’ story by clicking the “Leave a comment” link below.

Copyright © 2021 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, God's Moral Attributes | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Thomas Aquinas on Prayer

Stained glass window at St. Joseph Catholic Church (Somerset, OH) depicts Thomas Aquinas conversing with the crucified Christ. Photo by Nheyob, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

“It is clear that he does not pray, who, far from uplifting himself to God, requires that God shall lower Himself to him, and who resorts to prayer not stir the man in us to will what God wills, but only to persuade God to will what the man in us wills” (St. Thomas Aquinas).

quoted from Mark Water, The New Encyclopedia of Christian Quotations (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000).

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was a Catholic priest, scholar, theologian, and philosopher. His masterpiece, the Summa Theologia, is considered one of the most influential works in Western thought. Many churches commemorate him on January 28.

The quote above provides timeless guidance for all Christians as we examine our motives in prayer. Do I seek to draw closer to God by allowing Him to lift me higher spiritually, or do I try to bring Him down to my level? Do I ask to know God’s will? Do I seek wisdom and courage from Him to do what He desires? Or, do I decide what I want to do, without considering God’s will, and then ask Him to bless my self-centered choices?

“Lord, teach us to pray…” (Luke 11:1).

Share your thoughts about prayer by clicking the “Leave a comment” link below.

Copyright © 2021 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Spiritual disciplines | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

New Beginnings

“Do not call to mind the former things,
Or ponder things of the past.
Behold, I will do something new,
Now it will spring forth;
Will you not be aware of it?
I will even make a roadway in the wilderness,
Rivers in the desert.
The beasts of the field will glorify Me,
The jackals and the ostriches,
Because I have given waters in the wilderness
And rivers in the desert,
To give drink to My chosen people.
The people whom I formed for Myself
Will declare My praise” (Isaiah 43:18–21; all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible).

In a recent article, former Charisma magazine editor J. Lee Grady asked his readers, “Have You Set Your ‘GPS’ for 2021?” In this case, GPS stands for Goals, Prophetic word, and Special prayer.

I generally do not make New Year’s resolutions. I believe Christians should be ready to make changes any time that God directs them. Lent and Advent are good times to seek His will in a way that can change our plans and purposes. Yet this article—especially the part about the prophetic word—spoke to me:

“Sometimes God gives me a verse from the Bible. Other times I get a phrase or simply one word. As I was praying for 2021, for example, the Lord said, ‘This will be a year of reaping.’ He also spoke to me from Habakkuk 3:17–18 that I must rejoice even when I don’t see fruit.”

Grady is not urging us to just pick a word or phrase that we like and “claim” it for ourselves. Instead, I am sure that he means that we should listen to the Spirit of God to speak while we read the Bible and pray. If God has a word for us, He will speak to our hearts while we study Scripture and seek Him in prayer, praise, and worship.

The phrase the Lord spoke to my heart was “new beginnings.” Several passages of Scripture guided me to this even before reading Grady’s article. The article simply confirmed and reinforced that I should recognize this as a word from God to me for 2021. Perhaps God may be speaking a similar message to you as well.

Many of us saw our lives flipped upside-down in 2020. My church held all worship services online for several months, with drive-up curbside communion available. When we could finally meet again, with limited attendance, I found that some friends had experienced drastic life changes as a result of the state’s stay-at-home order: Some were forced into early retirement; others were unemployed; others had their hours and wages severely cut; some who were self-employed had to make significant adjustments in how they conducted their business; some, including myself, were able to continue working full-time jobs with full-time pay while working from home. With all of the changes in our lives, it was easy to feel like we were exiles in a foreign land while locked up in our own homes.

For me, there were other changes in 2020. All of my church activities were placed on hold when we ceased worshiping in person. Most of them have not resumed as we have limited attendance due to social distancing. As a former assistant pastor who has been very active in the church for his entire adult life, this has been a painful change.

Personal habits also changed for me in 2020. When my company initially closed the office and ordered everybody to work at home, we thought it could be for only two weeks. Like many others, I treated it like a semi-vacation: Continued working but slept later, relaxed, stopped working out, etc. Although we have been home for 10 months (and my company will not return to the office until July at the earliest), I have not resumed normal activity. I used to go to the gym at my company’s building two or three times per week, but exercise has fallen by the wayside. Social life has declined. In-person midweek church activities have ceased, as well as Saturday brunch with a few longtime friends I have known since high school or earlier.

I am sure each of you has similar stories about how life has changed. Maybe the details are different, but most people I know can list ways their work, social activities, church involvement, and other aspects of their lives were disrupted in 2020.

Life may return to some form of normal in 2021. Vaccines are available, and many experts are optimistic that the new coronavirus will cease to be a major public health threat soon. Perhaps social distancing restrictions will relax soon. Maybe restrictions on public gatherings will relax and churches can fill to capacity again. Maybe we will be allowed into stores without wearing masks.

Photo by form PxHere.

Some things will not return, though. Some people’s pre-coronavirus jobs are gone forever. Companies went out of business when they were forced to close “temporarily.” We may have adopted new habits, good and bad. Temporary changes in worship format or ministries may become permanent.

Instead of viewing such changes as a loss, we can see them as open doors for new beginnings.

The future remains uncertain, but it does not have to be gloomy. Old opportunities have ceased, but God is the Lord of new beginnings. I am currently in training to serve in a pastoral caregiving ministry. I will remain open to any other new doors God may open for me. This can include seeking new avenues as a writer.

Life will continue to change for all of us in 2021, but we do not have to be caught unprepared. We can prepare ourselves for the new beginnings God has planned for us. Perhaps you can prepare yourself by spending time in prayer and asking God to search your heart and life with the following questions:

  • What have I stopped doing since the pandemic began? Did it cause changes in your home life, work, social activities, church involvement, etc.?
  • How many of these changes were voluntary and how many were forced upon me by others? I cannot choose to return to the office next week, but I can find a new way to exercise without the gym. I have a kettlebell and exercise video that can provide a suitable replacement for treadmills and weightlifting machines.
  • Which activities can I resume doing exactly as I did before the coronavirus lockdowns? Which can I resume with some simple adjustments? Some of my friends are not comfortable gathering at a diner on Saturday morning. Would they be open to scheduling a Zoom session so that we can have a few laughs and catch up with each other online while enjoying our coffee and bagels?
  • What new things is God calling me to do? Let us each remain open to hearing His voice and seeking new opportunities throughout the year.

The ancient Jews endured 70 years of exile in Babylon around 2500 years ago. Eventually, God returned them to their homeland, but life was never the same. Synagogue worship and the ministry of rabbis grew out of the aftermath of that exile. It created the religious environment into which Jesus was born and raised. His ministry would have been very different if His ancestors had not endured that exile. Likewise, our lives will be different after the current pandemic ends, but that does not mean we will be worse off. This can be an opportunity for new and better things. God is leading us into a season of new beginnings. Are we ready to follow Him?

How has life and your relationship with God changed in the last ten months? What new beginnings do you think God has in store for you? Does God has a prophetic word for your life in 2021? Share your thoughts by clicking the “Leave a comment” link below.

Copyright © 2021 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

The Baptism of Our Lord: To Fulfill All Righteousness

“Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him. But John tried to prevent Him, saying, ‘I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?’ But Jesus answering said to him, ‘Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he permitted Him. After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased’” (Matthew 3:13–17; all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible unless otherwise indicated).

The baptism of Jesus. Image by Ananth Subray, published under a Creative Commons 4.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons.

Today, the Church commemorates the Baptism of our Lord in the Jordan River. For some time, John the Baptist had been “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). People came and confessed their sins to him (Matthew 3:6). They did not merely admit that they were sinners: “Nobody’s perfect” is not a confession. The confessed specific sins, and John gave explicit instructions about changes they should make (Luke 3:10-14). In many cases, those sins were common activities: Roman soldiers normally used their power to coerce, manipulate, and rob people; tax collectors used their authority to demand more money from people than the government required. We still excuse our sins by saying “Everybody’s doing it,” but that pretense did not satisfy John the Baptist or God.

Amid John’s ministry, Jesus came for baptism. John immediately recognized Him as the Messiah and realized, “I have need to be baptized by You.” John admitted that he was not worthy to untie Jesus’ shoe (Matthew 3:11), but Jesus was here asking to be baptized. Why? “In this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” The Contemporary English Version phrases it this way: “we must do all that God wants us to do.”

Why would Jesus need baptism for repentance? He was without sin (Hebrews 4:15). Perhaps this verse points to an answer:

“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

The Jordan River. Photo by Jean Housen, published under a Creative Commons 3.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons.

Many think that Jesus fulfilled His entire ministry of atonement on the cross. However, His entire life was a sacrifice for our sins. As John the Baptist immersed people in the Jordan River, they could imagine their sins being washed, like dirt from their bodies, into the water. Now, here came Jesus: He did not have the dirt of sin on Him. As He went into the water, He began to symbolically take the sins upon Himself. I can imagine Him confessing the sins of all the people present, knowing that He would die for those sins three years later.

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin” (Romans 6:1–7).

He was baptized as one of us. He identified with us, accepted our human nature, and joined us in the waters or repentance in baptism. Now, we join Him in a baptism of repentance, forgiveness, and resurrection. His baptism in the water began a ministry that culminated in His baptism in death upon a cross. When we come to Him in faith, we receive baptism into His death and resurrection. We accept His death upon ourselves, receive His forgiveness and the life-giving power of His Holy Spirit, and live a new life in resurrection power as we continue to walk with Him.

2020 was a challenging year for all of us, and the insanity did not end with the beginning of a new year. We will continue to face challenges and tests. Are we willing to be fully immersed in the life of Christ as we face the uncertain times that lie ahead? While our world remains uncertain, Jesus’ life-giving power remains trustworthy and certain.

How are you experiencing baptism into the life of Christ on a daily basis? Share your thoughts by clicking the “Leave a comment” link below.

Copyright © 2021 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons, God's Moral Attributes | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

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