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These Few Things

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A few days ago, a friend for whom I have an enormous amount of respect dropped a pearl of wisdom into one of our conversations. He said, “The older I get, the more certain I become of fewer and fewer things.” I have been thinking about that remark ever since, and am ready to conclude that his experience has also been my own.

There are some convictions that I held 40 years ago that no longer seem quite as certain as they did then—the precise identification of all the images in the Book of Revelation, for example. There are other things that still seem just as “true” but have somehow become a little less “important” in my mind. They are no longer the “hill upon which I am willing to die.” My views on ecclesiology seem to fit that category. They haven’t changed; I just don’t want to fight about them anymore. And then, blessedly, there are those few things about which my convictions continue to strengthen both in regards to their veracity and importance. These “few things” are the subjects that dominate my mind, my heart and, inevitably, my preaching as well. These are the things for which I want both to live and to die!

I recently tried to articulate all of this to my congregation by telling them that it may be possible to boil down the essence of biblical and Christian living to just three very well-known New Testament expressions.

The first one consists of a few words uttered by Jesus on the cross: “It is finished!” In the Greek text it is actually just one word—but what a word! The rest of the New Testament is given over to the explanation of that one word. My favorite passage, found in the third chapter of the Book of Romans, explains it with three more terms, all pregnant and profound: “justification,” “redemption” and “atonement.” In the confluence of those amazing words (Rom. 3:21–26) the answer begins to emerge to the greatest theological question of all time: “What really happened on the cross?” Among other things, the Father declared me to be “not guilty” because Christ paid the debt for my sin, turning away forever the righteous wrath of God against me. When we finally “get” that, we will be rooted and established forever in the great mystery of redemption and life.

The second phrase is inextricably connected to the first and came from the lips of the angel who met the women at the Garden Tomb: “He has risen.” Without this second word, the first one from the lips of Jesus on the cross would have gone uninterpreted. It would be impossible to know whether it was a cry of victory or a last desperate comment on a life and a plan gone horribly wrong. It is the Resurrection that changes everything! (Rom. 1:4) It is the Resurrection that proclaims His victory over death and sin and opens the way for our hope of “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade away—kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4; author’s translation).

The final phrase is again compressed into one unbelievably potent first-century word: Maranatha—“The Lord is coming.” That was the word with which the first generation of believers chose to greet one another. It was the “secret handshake” of an underground church, the declaration of allegiance to an invisible Master and the proclamation to all who had “ears to hear” that Jesus is Lord! It was also the anchor that shaped the priorities and formed the ethic of the generation of Christians who “turned their world upside down” for the glory of the King of kings and Lord of lords.

I need a “theology”—a way to understand who God is, who I am and what I am to do in this world of finite and fallen humanity. Jesus’ word from the cross provides me with that. I also need an apologetic—a way to be sure that what I believe to be true and important really IS true. The angel’s words at the empty tomb give me that assurance. Finally I need an ethical imperative, a word to help me shape my values and priorities as I walk down the paths of my life that are strewn with a thousand distractions and siren songs. The greeting of the early Christians supplies that need.

For many years I kept in my desk a version of a prayer from the pen of that redoubtable Puritan, Richard Baxter of Kidderminster. It read: “Let me live as though Jesus died for me yesterday, rose for me this morning and is coming back for me tomorrow.”

I think it’s time to pray that prayer again!

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