The Pharisees were desperate to trap Jesus in his speech so they’d have grounds for turning him over to Roman governor. So one day, feigning sincerity, they asked Jesus whether it was proper to pay the poll tax to Caesar or not (Matt. 22:17). A Yes would get him in trouble with the people and a No would make him a threat to the government. So Jesus requested a coin and, receiving it, asked whose image and name was on it. When they acknowledged it was Caesar’s, he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” It was a straightforward question, but it left them unable to respond.
So what did Jesus accomplish in this encounter? I believe he made his point by simplifying the issue. He could have gone into a long discussion about the relationship of religion and government, or addressed the ethical problem facing the Jewish people by virtue of the dilemma between their faith and their moral responsibility to Roman overlords. Instead, he said, Give Caesar what belongs to him and to God what belongs to him. In clarifying the issue he used a principle quite similar to what is known as KISS, “Keep it simple stupid” (Note: no comma, as Kelly Johnson, the aircraft engineer stated it originally). Jesus took what could have become an exceedingly complicated issue and made it simple. Advance in every intellectual discipline is the triumph of simplicity over complexity.
Simplicity has become the goal in many areas of life. Japanese art forms, such as painting, theater, and flower arrangement, all reflect the beauty of simplicity. Karl Barth, the famous German theologian, summarized a lifetime of scholarly research with the words, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so.” John Calvin praised “lucid clarity” as the goal for writing. Take almost any sentence you have written and remove every word that isn’t absolutely necessary and you will be surprised how much better it reads. Simplicity has a remarkable charm and strength.
So, as Jesus simplified the issue of where to give what, we would probably do well to remove from our lives the unnecessary clutter of stuff. Issues are complicated only when sufficient time hasn’t been given to thinking them through. Lives become complicated with too many unclassified responsibilities. Jesus became incarnate to solve the complexity of mankind’s moral history. He did it by dying and rising again. Simple, clear, and powerful! Our Savior’s life recommends that we adopt what might be called Christian minimalism. When you get right down to it, some things are so vitally important that other things must be set aside. KISS.
One interesting thing about a specific descriptive word is that the more you use it in differing settings the less its impact. “Wonderful” is a good example. A good breakfast is wonderful; if it doesn’t rain it will be a wonderful day; I had a wonderful idea about how to fix the lamp shade; etc. But when we trace the word back to its origin we find that “wonderful” means something like awesome, miraculous, astonishing, phenomenal, or astounding. So when I write that the gospel – the story of redemption – is “wonderful,” I want you to think of it more as it denoted in its original sense.
The birth of the Christ child was a wonderful event. When you reflect that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin she when she gave birth to the Son of God, yet never had sexual relations with her husband Joseph, you marvel how incredible that was. It was an event “full of wonder,” it was wonderful. As time went on, this unusual child grew and became an itinerant preacher of God’s kingdom. Wherever he went he healed the sick, restored sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. These supernatural acts left the crowds filled with wonder. Again and again they are said to be astonished at what they had seen. On one occasion a demoniac who lived among the tombs and went about at night screaming and slashing himself with sharp stones, encountered Jesus, who cast multiple demons out of man and sent them into a herd of pigs who in panic rush down the slope into the sea and were drowned (Luke 8:26-39). Now that was supernatural, absolutely amazing – it was “wonderful,” filled with wonder. On another occasion a crowd of about 5,000 were listening to Jesus when suddenly he realized it was late and they were without food. What did Jesus do? He took five small loaves of bread and two little fish, multiplied them miraculously into enough food to satisfy the hunger of everyone (Mark 6:32–44). Watch as the disciples keep handing out more and more bead and the supply never runs out. Phenomenal! Truly “wonderful,” it filled the crowd with wonder – how could that possibly be?
Jesus’ three years of public ministry were replete with acts of loving-kindness. Never has there been another man who in his few years has acted so wonderfully on our behalf. But the religious authorities were threatened by his awesome life and crucified him. On the cross he looked down on the Roman guards who had crowned him with a ring of thorns, driven nails through his hands, and hoisted the cross, jeering at him in the process. In the anguish of the moment Jesus looked at his tormenters and said, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). The incredible response of Jesus was beyond wonder. The gospel accounts are filled with “wonderful” things that Jesus did and said but nothing is more wonderful than what happened on a Sunday morning so long ago when the stone rolled away and Jesus who had been dead for three days walked out of the tomb.
Remember with me how absolutely mind-boggling was the life, ministry, resurrection of Jesus our Lord. It fills the believers’ heart with wonder as we read once again the wonderful story of redemption. Don’t let the fact that words lose heir impact over time rob us of how phenomenally wonderful is the Good News.
It is interesting that the word “victorious” occurs ten times in the New Testament and all ten of them are in the book of Revelation. When you find yourself reading Revelation be sure that you don’t get tied up in the myriad of details and somehow miss the major point, and that is the victory of God over the powers of Satan and sin.
But first, let’s go back over the written account of Jesus’ life here on earth. Perhaps it is familiarity with the scriptural story that keeps us from picturing Jesus as victorious. His healing ministry is a continuing account of his victory over sin as expressed in physical maladies. Jesus healed “those suffering severe pain, those having seizures, and the paralyzed” (Mark 4:24), “the blind and the lame” (Matt 21:14), “the crippled, the mute” (Matt 15:30), and “many who had various diseases” (Mark 1:34). In a synagogue in Capernaum he cast a demon out of man who was possessed (Luke 4:35). A Syrophoenician woman came to Jesus pleading for her daughter and Jesus cast the demon out (Mark 7:26). Each one of these miraculous acts demonstrated Jesus’ victory over the forces of evil. His three years of public ministry was a remarkable display of triumph.
Yet the most compelling victory won by Jesus was his victory on the cross. He certainly didn’t look triumphant as he hung there between two thieves on a dark hill just outside Jerusalem. His followers mourned his loss and had all but given up hope, but Jesus had made that final commitment to his Father and in only a few days the stone would roll away and he would emerge triumphant. Death itself could not contain him. Evil had done its best to put him away for good but had lost the battle.
Jesus’ victory of Satan and sin has eternal consequences and should shape our mindset here on earth. Our God is an awesome God, as we used to sing. Let’s remove him from his incarnational limitations and see him on the throne. Around him are the countless millions of those who have turned to him in faith and received the transforming power to share personally in his eternal triumph. As history finishes its last chapter we will see the cross transformed into a throne and join the throng of believers from every spot in the world lifting our voices to sing the powerful hymn of redemption.
What we call the Good News is the wonderful story of God entering the human race in the person of his Son to live among us without sin, giving his life on the cross for our sins, and rising from the dead (that is the basic point) to return to heaven. No religion other than Christianity stands or falls on an historical event. Should that one event be discredited, then the entire religion that developed from it would be reduced to a piece of ethical philosophy. This Good News that Jesus brought to us and lived out in his own life is absolutely unique.
Not only is the Good News unique in origin, but it is also unique in its message. Other religions may share to some extent its ethics but none has its foundation. To be kind is a precept generally accepted around the world, but only in Christianity does kindness have its ultimate expression in historical reality. To be good is fine, but being good in Christianity is made possible by the character of one who is truly good. When you read the Bhagavad Gita you will be surprised to find verses sounding very much as if they were taught by Jesus. However, there is a dramatic difference in that the Buddhist scripture is philosophical in origin while the ethical principles of Christianity are an expression on the life of its founder. While a certain amount of positive thinking teaching may be helpful or even inspiring (“The positive thinker sees the invisible, feels the intangible and achieves the impossible”) only in the teaching of Christ is authenticated by a resurrection.
The Good News is also unique in its power to change life. Scripture teaches that when people accept by faith the gift of God they also receive the power to live a changed life. Whether or not they use that power doesn’t establish its availability. History is replete with examples of lives transformed by the power of God. By preaching the Good News the apostle Paul began the westward movement of the faith. Millions of lives have been changed. Society has been nurtured by education and health. Systems of government that work for the wellfare of all have come into being. The power of the Good News to change society is absolutely unique.
The question arises as to the value of uniqueness. Is it important that there be nothing else quite like it? The answer depends upon what exactly we are talking about. If the question has to do with God, the answer is, Yes. In the God of the Christian faith is one and the same as the gods of all other religions then there is no specific reason why I should be a Christian. Multiplicity undermines the supremacy of a God that calls for worship. There cannot be two ultimate Beings. If the claim that there are is true then neither in my world-view be supreme.
The uniqueness of God is the essential message of the Shema, the center-piece of Jewish ritual: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one God. The God of the Judeo-Christian religion is unique and the teaching of Jesus his Son is without parallel. “There is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12) and that transforming name is Jesus. Yes, the Good News is unique.
We normally think of Jesus in terms of his earthly ministry. He was thoughtful, relational, authentic, but very much a man who lived in first century Palestine. He did some remarkable things, even came back from the dead, but triumphant isn’t an adjective we would normally use in our description of his earthly life.
But the Jesus who was, is, and will be is triumphant beyond anyone who has ever lived! Only occasionally these days do you read about something miraculous that has just happened, and when we do we scratch our heads wondering whether or not it can be verified. Most have a sort of anti-miraculous mind-set as far as daily occupation goes. But in Jesus’ day it was something quite different. This Galilean carpenter went around the region healing people with all sorts of diseases. He restored the leprous, made the deaf hear, and made it possible for the blind to see. It seemed to be happening every day. One day near the town of Cana he brought a dead boy back to life. He was absolutely triumphant over the powers of disease and all the physical maladies of life. There is no record that he was unable to heal. The list could go on indefinitely. The people watched each miracle and continued to bring to him those in need. My point is that he was triumphant over all the maladies that sin had brought into the world.
When we think about it, we realize that Jesus was also triumphant in the affairs of mankind throughout history. Primarily, he has brought millions of people from every tribe on earth out of darkness into light. Now that is miraculous! . Countless numbers of people have been touched by his powerful tenderness and had their lives changed for good, not only the elegantly dressed socialite or the roughneck farmer, but the member of a forgotten tribe somewhere on planet earth. Jesus is triumphant in history as it rolls along. Not the kind of triumph that makes its way to the front page of your daily newspaper, but triumphant in those areas that change the future for good.
Finally there will be a triumphant exaltation of God before the eyes of the entire universe. Paul spoke of it in his letter to the Philippian church. Following the humble ministry of Jesus incarnate, he wrote, “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the sun, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11). When Christ returns in triumph, he will be recognized for who he really is, “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Rev 22:13). We know him as he walked among us, but the day will come when the entire earth will drop to their knees in adoration and worship. The lowly Nazarene will be hailed as King of king and Lord of Lords. Maranatha! Come Lord!
Paul and Silas had been beaten and thrown into jail, but instead of lamenting their situation they had a little prayer meeting and broke out in song. Then a violent earthquake opened the cell doors and the guard, fearing reprisal, was about to take his life. Paul called out telling him they were all safe and the guard responded asked the crucial question, “What must I do to be saved? Paul’s answer has become the hallmark line on salvation:, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).
When we speak of a person being saved it usually means being saved from hell. The answers to “̇When were you saved?” are generally, “When I was 12,” or “During college.” True, we were saved back then, but the time of our salvation needs to go to another question, “What were you saved from?” And while “from hell” is true there is something else we were saved from and it’s important to see this clearly. We were saved from ourselves. In a very real sense our old nature liked to act as a prison so we won’t be free to mature in our Christian experience. We find ourselves shaking our heads in agreement with Paul, who confessed that he didn’t do the good he wanted to but instead did the evil he didn’t want to do (Rom 7:19). I recognize that we are getting into Pauline theology, and this is a dictionary on the Good News, but the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus was one and the same with the Salvation by Faith proclamation announced by Paul. Entrapped by our own fallen human nature but saved from it is another way to describe the salvivic work of Christ.
It is crucial to understand who our enemy is. Satan, Yes, but perhaps equally helpful to understand that he works through the person we used to be. Scripture teaches three stages of salvation. When we put our faith in Christ we were saved from the penalty of sin; during our life, as we gain control over sinful habits, we are being saved from the power of sin; and when its all over and we enter God’s throne room we will be saved from the presence of sin. Like many of you believers, I can look back to the day when I opened my heart to Christ and my name was written in the Book of Life. That is when I was saved from the penalty of sin. Currently I am turning from things displeasing to God as his Spirit brings them to my attention – and that’s salvation from evil’s power. Some day, undoubtedly soon, my salvation will be complete and I will be saved from sin’s presence.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow!
For most people, the word righteous describes a person of extremely high moral quality. It is a sort of an otherworld quality, very religious and respectable, but descriptive of very few people here on earth. People may be good, but only the saints are righteous. Understanding righteousness in this sense makes it easier for me not to pursue it because it is so other-worldly and rarely achieved.
But righteousness is, as Tyndale insisted back in the 16th century, doing the right thing (he used the term “rightways” to translate the Hebrew tzedek which occurs more than 500 times in the Old Testament). So when we talk about a person doing the right thing we are saying that they are righteous. And that is the ethical quality I would like to expand on.
All day long we make decisions. In every moral decision there is one course of action that is right and another that is wrong. We speed up to the traffic signal just after it has gone from amber to red and we have to make a decision. We would probably agree that going through the red light would be wrong and coming to a screeching stop would be right. If we consistently do the “right” thing we are in that decision, righteous.
When we say that God is righteous we are not talking about some abstract moral quality that he posses because of who is, but we are describing him as one who always does the right thing. I know that Christians are declared righteous by faith in Christ but that is because of the “right” thing he did on the cross and is transferred to all who believe. But I’d like to stay on the less theological level of just choosing to do what we know we should and in so doing please God. When the Christian life is for the moment taken out of the cathedral and placed on the street corner, we find that we can be righteous, not in an incommunicable sense, but in the plain sense of consistently deciding to do the right thing. I have found that a life pleasing to God doesn’t have to have the smoke of incense but it does have to describe the ongoing practice of doing the right thing. I believe this is what scripture teaches and puts it on a level where we can understand and achieve it.
Yes, we can actually be righteous today. We can’t earn it but we can do it. You can be a “saint” today simply by making the right choices all day long