The Atoning Sacrifice

1 John 2:2 “He (Jesus) is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”

It’s always nice to have someone else on your side when you have problems. My wife has her girlfriends. When something is wrong I can bet that she will be on the phone eventually getting a little sympathy, or giving a little sympathy when the shoe is on the other foot.

Jesus listens to us with a sympathetic ear. But he does so much more. The hymn does not sing, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our whines and gripes to share.” It goes, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear.” He carried, he bore our sins for us. In the words of John, “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Jesus has satisfied God’s anger by his sacrifice on the cross.

We had real reason for concern, because sin makes God furious. You remember the sinking, dreadful feeling you had as a child when you had done something dangerous or destructive, and now you were waiting to face the music? Did you ever pack a suitcase with thoughts of running away, maybe you even made it part way down the street, hoping that you might be able to avoid Judgment Day with your mom or dad?

The great and awesome Judgement Day of God would be terrifying for us to face if we had to do it based on our own sinful record. God’s wrath at sin isn’t merely a scary story told by old fashioned church people who want to control others with fear. It is a basic assumption of the whole message of Scripture. “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men…” (Romans 1:18).

But Jesus replaces our fear with confidence because he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins. He paid the price that ended God’s anger. It’s not just the price he paid. It is the price he himself IS! Luther’s Small Catechism, borrowing from the Apostle Peter, says Jesus paid it “not with gold or silver, but with his holy, precious blood, and with his innocent sufferings and death.”

There is nothing more precious or valuable, more powerful or effective, that could have been offered to pay the debt we owed. That single body and soul of God’s Son, that single life given in place of ours, has a value that far exceeds all the billions of bodies and souls that have ever lived, from one end of history to the other. We struggle to put a price on human life. Even more so, no one will ever be able to put a price on the life of God’s Son. That is why he can be the atoning sacrifice “for the sins of the whole world.”

God couldn’t love us anymore than to make this sacrifice. You can take the sum total of all the great acts of love through history– soldiers giving their lives to spare their friends; parents working themselves to the bone to give their children a better life; missionaries dying at the end of a spear to bring the gospel to those who never had it before; heroes of every kind who risked fire, drowning, bullets, teeth and claws to save people they didn’t even know. Add it all together, take the sum total of that love, and it still does not equal the love that led Jesus to offer himself as the atoning sacrifice for your sins.

Such a gift is proof that you are loved with a love we shall never be able to measure or exhaust.

Defending Sinners

1 John 2:1 “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense–Jesus Christ the Righteous One”

There it is. John didn’t want the people to whom he was writing to commit sin. Was that really any of his business? Is it any business of the pastors who serve you? You bet it is! “It’s my life, and I can live it the way I want,” may be a popular way of thinking. But it’s an attitude that needs to be checked at the door when we enter God’s house and become members of his family. It’s not that your pastor wants to become a snoop, and catch you in some questionable behavior. But Christian leaders are right to be concerned about the way people live their lives, just like the Apostle John was.

Why? Because sin hurts. When you visit your doctor or dentist, don’t they ask some personal questions about the way you are living your life? And don’t they have some straightforward, even firm things to say about what needs to change? They can make us feel uncomfortable, but we expect it. They are supposed to be looking out for our health. Whether or not you floss, what you eat, and how much you exercise can all have an effect on us for good or bad.

Sinful behavior works the same way, only the stakes are higher. Sometimes it literally destroys our bodies. Just ask the person who has been drinking too much, or who has had too many sexual partners, or even the person who has let worry create too much stress and anxiety. There is a reason God set his commandments up the way he did. He wasn’t trying to take the fun out of life. He was trying to keep us from destroying ourselves.

Worse yet, sin erodes faith. It is a cancer for our souls. In my home we have a cancer survivor, too. When my son was diagnosed, the doctor gave the chemotherapy about a 95 percent chance of success. That doesn’t mean we would have volunteered for the disease. It’s still a killer. So is sin. “The wages of sin is death.” It’s not reasonable to volunteer for this killer.

So your pastors preach, and they preach so that we stop committing sins–not just you, but the pastor, too. But you know how successful that has been. For thousands of years God’s people have kept committing them. That is why John follows up: “But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense–Jesus Christ the Righteous One.”

With these words John is putting Jesus in the role of a lawyer. He is our defense attorney, defending us in God’s court of law. It isn’t every day we cast a lawyer in the role of hero and source of comfort. We tend to be suspicious of them. People even accuse them of being interested only in our money, of having only their own welfare in mind.

So maybe it seems strange to us to have Jesus described as our lawyer. But when you are going to court, and you know that you are guilty (and so does the judge), you want the best lawyer money can buy.

That’s exactly what we have in God’s court of law, except we have him for free! The devil is prosecuting, and he has a solid case against us. His power and resources far exceed our own. But Jesus has committed himself to our case and speaks in our defense. He has taken our case because he has dedicated himself to defeating the other side. He will win for us at all costs. And in God’s court of law, he never, ever loses.

God’s Children

1 John 3:2 “Dear friends, now we are the children of God…

Now we are the children of God. That’s not so bad when you consider what we were. You know Paul’s words from Romans 5? “When we were God’s enemies we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son…” Really? Enemies? That seems a bit strong doesn’t it? Enemies? Yes! There is no other way to describe people who have taken their own Maker’s instructions, thrown them aside, and like a defiant little two-year-old looked him in the eye and said, “It’s my life. I’m going to do what I want. I don’t care what you say about sharing. I don’t care what you say about how I use my body. I don’t care if you don’t like my potty mouth.” Active little rebels–we were God’s enemies!

Or there is Paul’s other picture from Ephesians: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins…” Dead ! A spiritual corpse! From God’s point of view, in our sin, without real love for anyone but ourselves, we were lifeless, hopeless, useless–done!

And that is what we were. It is hard to say which is worse, being enemies or corpses, but we don’t have to make a choice, because the Bible calls us both.

But on Good Friday Jesus gave up his life to remove our guilt and to forgive all our sins. Again, look at the quote from Romans 5, “When we were God’s enemies we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son.” We are reconciled, not enemies.

By his resurrection from the dead on Easter morning Jesus conquered our death. As much as that means new life for our bodies, it also brings new life to our souls. “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ,” Paul wrote the Colossians. Now we have faith, we have hope, we have life.

It’s harder to say which is better, Good Friday or Easter, but Jesus gives us both. His salvation doesn’t leave us hard choices. It gives it all together as one beautiful gift.

That is why John can say, “Dear friends, now we are the children of God.” Now we are children! Do you know what that means? Children are not the same thing as employees–cheap labor for God because they are now “part of the family.” His main interest is not what we can do for him.

Nor are children the adult sons and daughters who stand independently and alongside God as his equals. One Christian writer compares our relationship to him to the relationship between a parent who has an I.Q. like Einstein, and a little child who is only two. To make a relationship possible, the father accommodates himself to the toddler he loves. The child will know her daddy, but she won’t completely comprehend him. What the father reveals to his daughter will be true, as far as it goes. But there will always be more.

You see, we are the children of God, and that means that we are dear, we are loved. God treasures us as his own.

As God’s children, we are simply enjoyed by him. He is pleased to laugh and play with his little ones. There is a beautiful picture in the last chapter of Isaiah of God enjoying his children like a parent bouncing a child on his knees. I can’t help but think of the Christian character in the movie “Chariots of Fire,” Scottish runner Eric Liddell, telling his sister that when he runs he “feels God’s pleasure.” God’s children are people in whom he takes delight.

“Now we are the children of God.” That’s not so bad now, is it, and Jesus’ death and resurrection have made it all possible.

Turn

Isaiah 55:7 “Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.”

Words like “wicked” and “evil” are strong words. We tend to reserve them for the world’s worst criminals and killers, men whose crimes against humanity bring death and suffering to thousands. Maybe it’s hard to see that they have any application to people like you or me.

But the Bible tells us: “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” There is no difference. Call it what you want. Sin, evil, wickedness infects us all. It may show itself in different ways. Some of them are more subtle. They can be more easily hidden. But there is no denying it, and the day of our death will prove it beyond any doubt. Sin is the reason we die–every one of us. “The wages of sin is death,” Paul wrote the Romans. That’s the ultimate proof that “wicked” and “evil” apply to us, too.

But Isaiah also promises us something better. “Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.” God has turned us to faith in him as the source of mercy and pardon. Mercy is a “heart” word. It tells us that the Lord doesn’t merely follow some unbending rules or principles in the way he treats us. He isn’t merely following a formula in the way he runs our lives. When he sees our pain or our difficulties, it moves him. He feels for us and he intends to bring us relief.

That mercy starts with his forgiveness. “He will freely pardon.” We can create a lot of sin in our lives. The sum total of the world’s sin is immeasurably bigger. But God’s pardon, his forgiveness, dwarfs it all. There is no end or limit to it. It never runs out. How could it when we consider the price God paid to make it possible?

Your God knows what it is like to have a close member of the family die. He gave up his one and only Son. He sacrificed Jesus to pay for every sin you or I or any of the billions of people who have ever lived on this planet ever committed. If he loves us that much, if he has made that sacrifice to pay for our sins, he is not going to become stingy in actually applying his forgiveness to his people. If he loves us that much, he will not be stingy with any of his gifts.

Do you remember these words from Romans 8? “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also, along with him, gracious give us all things.” God freely pardons. He freely gave up his Son to make it possible. This mercy and forgiveness that costs us not a penny is what we commonly call his grace. Would he love us so much, give us so much, and do so much for us, just to destroy us all in the end? No! He will freely give us every good thing that we need for this life and the one to come as well.

Regifting

Matthew 10:8 “As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.”

Do you believe in “regifting”? Before anyone had even coined the term I had had some interesting experiences with it. When my wife and I got married, we received a number of small kitchen appliances, including five woks. Now, we like stir fries and Chinese food, just not quite that much. A few of them we took back to stores. We traded them in for other things we needed, like a toaster. But in addition to the one we used, for some reason we saved one more. We kept it in its original packaging, maybe to serve as a backup or a spare if the one we used stopped working.

About a year later a friend of ours was getting married. We didn’t have so much money then, but we had this extra wok. So we wrapped it up and gave it away as a wedding present. Only afterwards did it occur to us that we had probably left the original wedding card to us from the original giver in the box. We always wondered if our newly wed friends found it, and what they thought.

If we Christians understand the true source of our spiritual gifts and resources, then we know that any giving we do involves “regifting.” Paul asks the Corinthians in his first letter to them, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (4:7). Martin Luther’s last words were, “We are beggars, that is true.” All that we have and all that we are is a gift to us from God.

That means that all that we give is a matter of “regifting” what we have been given. There is no way around that fact for those who know their Creator and Redeemer.

Jesus connected this to the mission on which he sent his disciples. After a year or more of teaching, he was sending them on their first preaching tour. They went with gifts freely received from Jesus. First was the message they were to preach. This was a message that had gripped their own hearts first, had its way with them, and changed them. They hadn’t been looking for it. Jesus came looking for them, found them, and chose them to listen, believe, and spread the news. It all came freely. It was a gift.

Second, Jesus gave them power and authority to support their preaching tour. Disease, death, even demons would submit to them and to their words. This was not the work of magic spells they had discovered and practiced. They received power from on high. It was a gift they had freely received.

“Freely you have received.” Our faith, our gifts, aren’t so different. In one way or another the gift of the gospel freely found its way into your life. For some, our parents were sharing this gift when reading Bible stories to us or saying bedtime prayers with us almost before we could talk. Some stumbled on it quite by accident when they were looking for a place to be married, perhaps, and randomly chose a church. There are some who unsuspectingly answered a knock on the door one evening, and before the night was over forgiveness and life came flooding into their lives, and Jesus had found a permanent home in their hearts. It is a gift, pure and simple. Freely you have received.

On top of that, don’t overlook the way in which Jesus has freely blessed us with all that we need for body and life. By and large we have been gifted with more money and more stuff than any people in the history of the world. Not a single one of us created our own set of skills, or invented the nation or the economy that makes such wealth possible. Like our faith and the gospel that supports it, it is all a gift. Freely you have received.

Then comes the regifting. ‘Freely you have received. Freely give.” Don’t be content that you have received the gospel. Give it away! Here is a little boy or girl who needs to know Jesus as much as you or I ever did. Chances are they will be growing up in a world where open attacks on their faith are going to be more and more acceptable than they were when you were that age. Give them a chance! Be the parent or grandparent and teach them that word yourself. Support Christian schools and Sunday schools which can be their gospel oasis in a dry and dusty desert.

Give it away! Sacrifice your time, and set aside your treasure so that the church can have the resources it needs to do mission work in your community and around the world. I know it isn’t cheap. I know it consumes a lot of man hours. But the cost of failing to pass the gospel on is far costlier. That cost is measured in souls, not dollars. For the love of Christ and for the love of his children, put your God-given resources to work in this mission, and don’t let the gospel light die out with us.

He Is Ruling, Not Retired

1 Peter 3:21-22“It (baptism) saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand–with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.”

Sometimes people have a caricature of heaven as an extended vacation–a really, really long vacation in which we do little more than lounge around in a tropical paradise, as though we were living in an otherworldly spa and resort complete with hammocks and white sand beaches. Even for us that is a gross cartoon picture of our heavenly rest which will have as much to do with activity and service as it does with lazy naps.

For Jesus, heaven is not so much a place or escape or retirement as it is the place where he rules, even now. He “has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand.” God’s right hand is heaven’s highest place of honor for him, but it is even more than that. It comes “with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.” These are the most powerful spiritual beings in the universe. All of them live in complete submission to Jesus, because in heaven Jesus rules. And if all of these submit to him, then everyone and everything else in the universe must submit to him as well.

Do you note that Peter is not saying, “Jesus will rule,” but that “Jesus rules already”? That may not always be obvious to his waiting people, who suffer so much while they wait. I don’t always understand his plan. I look at the way he lets the world go, and I don’t get it.

But let’s not separate “Jesus rules” from “Jesus suffered,” “Jesus conquered and rose,” and “Jesus saves.” All of that has certainly turned out in our favor. As we have trusted his plan to save us, he invites us to trust the way he rules our world still today.

Scripture Simply Says: Baptism Saves

1 Peter 3:20-21 “In it (Noah’s ark) only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also–not the removal of dirt from the body, but the pledge of a good conscience toward God.”

Baptism saves you, just like the great flood saved Noah and his family in the ark. Peter’s words may sound strange to many Christians in a couple of ways.

First of all, the flood probably seems more like an act of judgment than an act of salvation. Almost everything that breathes died in the flood. Just two of some kinds of animals made it, just eight people. But those eight people were saved from something far worse by the flood. They were saved from the unbelief of their godless neighbors. They were saved from becoming spirits locked in an eternal prison, like the rest of the souls among whom they lived. They were saved from a world that was trying to murder their faith.

Think of the flood as a great antibiotic for the world of that time. An antibiotic like penicillin is a killer. It works by killing what’s killing you. The bacteria must die if you are going to continue to live. The antibiotic deals death and judgment to the cells that have invaded your body, just like the flood dealt death and judgment to the unbelief that had invaded the ancient world. Then it is possible for the good cells, like God’s people, to live. Both of them save by killing.

That’s why “this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also…” Here is the second surprise for many Christians: Baptism saves you, too. It saves by killing. It deals death to the sin that was destroying our souls. But some might object, “I thought that Jesus saved me. I thought that he saved me when he died on the cross and rose again from the dead.”

And so he did. Baptism is not an alternative. Baptism is one way that God makes Jesus’ saving gifts, like forgiveness and grace, your very own. It’s power and promise pours these things into your heart and soul where they become yours by faith. Peter is making that connection when he says that baptism is “not the removal of dirt from the body, but the pledge (God’s pledge! God’s promise!) of a good conscience toward God.” God’s forgiveness promises you a good conscience–freedom from your guilt and sin! Disconnected from Jesus? No, “it saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

You see, it’s not the way we usually think of it, but this grace, this forgiveness God pours out in baptism, is a killer, just like the flood, just like the antibiotics. Forgiveness deals death to the power of sin to condemn us. It wipes that sin out–takes it all away. Forgiveness deals death to the sinful nature inside of us. Our desire for sin dies and loses control the more the promise of forgiveness fills us with faith in God’s love. It gives new life to a new heart within.

That is the promise of my baptism: Christ has saved me by dealing death to my sins and the sinful nature that produced them.

When Hell Involves Comfort

1 Peter 3:18-20 “He (Jesus) was put to death in the body, but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.”

“Spirits in prison” can’t mean anything other than “spirits in hell” in the context in which Peter is writing. In his next letter Peter writes about God putting the angels who sinned “into gloomy dungeons to be held for the judgment.” But these aren’t angels here in 1 Peter. They are the spirits of people like those “who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.”

Those aren’t the only spirits involved on this trip to hell that Jesus took. Peter mentions them specifically because they were so much like the persecutors of the Christians to whom he was writing. Just like Noah, the Christians who received Peter’s letter were surrounded by unbelievers. They ridiculed and attacked their faith at a time when God’s promised judgment was getting closer. It is just a matter of time before people like that wind up in the prison cells of hell.

A trip to hell sounds like even more suffering for Jesus, but Jesus didn’t descend to hell to suffer. He came to preach. In this case he wasn’t fishing for converts. He was announcing his victory. Preaching, you may know, is not the same thing as teaching. Teaching aims primarily at increasing your knowledge. Preaching is more like announcing the news. It aims primarily at certainty. The only thing Jesus expected these spirits in prison to “believe” is that the rebellion against God’s kingdom had failed, and God and his people had won. That wouldn’t be anything like saving faith. It would be like the faith of the demons James writes about in his letter. They believe that there is one God and shudder at the thought.

So where is the good thing in all of this for Christians patiently enduring persecution? Are God’s people bloodthirsty, and does this satisfy their desire for revenge? No, those who know what it is like to receive unmerited and unlimited forgiveness, who have come to share God’s great heart of love for the world, prefer the conversion and salvation of their enemies. They prefer it infinitely where possible. Hell brings no happiness to anyone, whether you are on the inside or on the outside.

But where people will not convert, we cannot wish for the success of God’s enemies. We don’t want evil to win. Christ’s descent into hell is further proof that he has conquered hell and everyone on its side. It is further comfort for those who wait for the day when Christ’s victory will be visibly and unquestionably demonstrated to those who live, as well as to those who have died.

Jesus Suffered, Too

1 Peter 3:18 “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.”

If you think it is hard for us to wait for relief, think of the poor people to whom Peter was writing. They were suffering for their faith. From Peter’s letter we glean that they were mocked and ridiculed for their morals and values. This was more than a disagreement about ideas. Many of their unbelieving neighbors considered their godly behavior evil. Physical persecution was waiting just around the corner for them. Such is life in the waiting period between Christ’s first and second coming.

But they weren’t the only ones who suffered. The temptation when we suffer is to blame God for treating us unfairly. We think that our better than average behavior should be rewarded with some extra protections, or some additional successes, or a little bit more of life’s good things. At the very least we should be on the same plane as everyone else. Why should I hurt for doing good?

For starters, it is far better than hurting for doing evil, Peter reminds us in the previous verse. And then he points to Christ. He suffered, too. Jesus died for sins, literally Peter says he “suffered” for them in the original, but not sins he had committed. Christ suffered as “the righteous for the unrighteous.” He was the good man taking the heat for the wicked. He was the fall guy for everyone else’s crimes, as though he had been framed, except that both he and our heavenly Father fully knew what was going on as Jesus’ trials, beatings, and crucifixion unfolded. They had planned it all themselves.

Right away, then, we can count at least two good things that have come to those who suffer while they wait because Christ has suffered, too. Christ’s suffering means our forgiveness. We may blame God (unjustly) for our suffering, which ultimately is not his fault. But he does not turn around and blame us for sins which really ARE our fault. Christ died, he suffered, for sins once for all. All our guilt is paid for.

Secondly, we have a Savior who can sympathize with us in our suffering. He’s been there. He understands. He is like the best possible member of your support group. People don’t go to support groups because the other members necessarily have all the answers. Often, they don’t. But as people who share the same problem, they understand what it is like in a way that many others can’t.

Jesus actually does have all the answers we need. Even more, as a fellow sufferer, he assures us we have a God who understands us at the level of heart and experience. He gets the whole picture. We can trust him for a whole solution.