On Presenting Christ

Yesterday, Easter Sunday, Christian preachers around the world struggled to present to their congregations, and to their own hearts, the glory of Christ in his resurrection from the dead. Many no doubt walked away from that effort burdened with a sense of inadequacy. This is to be understood, for the topic we tackle is one which cannot be adequately treated. All efforts fall short. We who see that glory imperfectly will sense that our efforts to reveal it perfectly are doomed from the start.

In such a state, we share worthy company. The Puritan scholar John Owen wrote a treatise titled “Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ” which is rich with reflective wisdom on the subject. But even Owen confesses his inadequacy.

For who can declare this glory of Christ? who can speak of these things as he ought? I am so far from designing to set forth the whole of it, that I am deeply sensible how little a portion I can comprehend of the least part of it. Nor can I attain unto any satisfaction in these Meditations, but what issues in an humble admiration. [Chapter XI]

We are all inadequate. And yet we persevere to that which the resurrection so fundamentally promises: we will see him, and see him as he is. Owen grows warm to this, as should we:

How excellent, how glorious will it be, when with these eyes of ours, gloriously purified and strengthened beyond those of Stephen, we shall behold Christ himself immediately in the fulness of his glory! He alone perfectly understand the greatness and excellency hereof, who prayed his Father that those who “believe in him may be where he is, so to behold his glory.” [Chapter XII]

We give our best efforts to understand and to preach Christ’s glory but it meets in frustration. Such frustration must be tempered by the realization that by these weak efforts, men, women, and children are, by grace working through the word we preach, preserved and kept for that day in which we all shall see His glory face to face.

Sacrificium Intellectus

Even a non-Latin scholar can figure out the meaning of the title of this post. It reflects what is so hard for us to swallow, isn’t it? There are paths down which our rational intellect can’t lead but for which we need revelation and the admission of the supernatural. But it has always been hard to swallow.

[The virgin birth] is highlighting the essentially supernatural character of Jesus and the gospel. Alluding to Barth again, the virgin birth is posted on guard at the door of the mystery of Christmas; and none of us must think of hurrying past it. It stands on the threshold of the New Testament, blatantly supernatural, defying our rationalism, informing us that all that follows belongs to the same order as itself and that if we find it offensive there is no point in proceeding further.

If our faith staggers at the virgin birth what is it going to make of the feeding of the five thousand, the stilling of the tempest, the raising of Lazarus, the transfiguration, the resurrection and, above all, the astonishing self-consciousness of Jesus? The virgin birth is God’s gracious declaration, at the very outset of the gospel, that the act of faith is a legitimate sacrificium intellectus. (37)

That is from Donald Macleod’s marvelous book The Person of Christ, in a section in which he also says that

“The truth is, man will always find God’s procedure offensive.” (35)

My desire is that my heart and mind will find less offense and more faith and hope this Christmas. I pray that for you as well.

Reflecting on the Incarnation

I read this morning this thoughtful and reflective sermon by B. B. Warfield, Imitating the Incarnation. I rarely find it easy to read sermons. This one is different. Not only does it heighten our awe for the Christ who became man, but it challenges our thinking about the goal of Christian living. Very warm, pastoral, and moving, this.

Warfield is preaching on Philippians 2:5-8.

“The one subject of the whole passage is Christ’s marvelous self-sacrifice. Its one exhortation is, ‘Let it be this mind that is also in you.’ As we read through the passage we may, by contact with the full mind and heart of the apostle, learn much more than this. But let us not fail to grasp this, his chief message to us here,—that Christ Jesus, though He was God, yet cared less for His equality with God, cared less for Himself and His own things, than He did for us, and therefore gave Himself for us.”

From this, Warfield concludes

1) that we have a God who is capable of self-sacrifice for us.

2) a life of self-sacrificing unselfishness is the most divinely beautiful life that man can lead

3) that it is difficult to set a limit to the self-sacrifice which the example of Christ calls upon us to be ready to undergo for the good of our brethren.

This is worthy of multiple reads and deep reflection.

He Took Damnation Lovingly

There are few books of theology that I have ever read that handle their subject matter as well as Donald Macleod’s work of Christology The Person of Christ. Thoroughly walking his readers through the controversies and exegesis critical to the study, he takes them to where a ‘study of Christ’ most certainly must go if it is paying attention to its subject: worship and adoration and wonder.

In developing for us the reality of ‘the Word’ becoming flesh, he notes that possessing a ‘reasonable soul’, that is, a completely human personality, he faced, as any true human would, fear. And the fear he faced was the darkness of the abandonment of God.

(If you are not a Christian, understand that here is the absolute passionate heart of Christianity.)

“When Moses saw the glory of God on Mount Sinai so terrifying was the sight that he trembled with fear (Heb. 12:21). But that was God in covenant: God in grace. What Christ saw in Gethsemane was God with the sword raised. (Zc. 13:7; Mt. 26:31). The sight was unbearable. In a few short hours, he, the Last Adam, would stand before that God answering for the sin of the world: indeed, identified with the sin of the world (2 Cor. 5:21). He became, as Luther said, ‘the greatest sinner that ever was’ (cf. Gal. 3:13). Consequently, to quote Luther again, ‘No one ever feared death so much as this man.’ He feared it because for him it was no sleep (1 Thess. 4:13), but the wages of sin: death with the sting; death unmodified and unmitigated; death as involving all that sin deserved. He, alone, would face it without a hilasmos, or ‘covering’, providing by his very dying the only covering for the world, but doing so as a holocaust, totally exposed to God’s abhorrence of sin. And he would face death without God, … deprived of the one solace and the one resource which had always been there.

“The wonder of the love of Christ for his people is not that for their sake he faced death without fear, but that for their sake he faced it, terrified. Terrified by what he knew, and terrified by what he did not know, he took damnation lovingly.” [Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ, pages 174-175]

Read it. Weep. And then sigh the relief of one loved beyond what one can imagine.

A Portrait of Jesus

The other book I mentioned in Sunday’s sermon is one which I picked up in college, but did not read until 2001. My copy has the provocative title I Came to Set the Earth on Fire: A Portrait of Jesus. I love that title.

When the first disciples made the choice to follow Jesus, it was a choice to follow JESUS. It was not a choice to adopt some theological propositions arranged in an orderly philosophical viewpoint, though Christianity does provide all that. They made the decision to follow Jesus because they saw Jesus as someone worth following.

I love the title of this book because it strikes at the placid lilly white image many have of Jesus. The book fulfills the promise of the title. It is engaging but not polemic. It respects the questions and doubts of the unbeliever, but presents Jesus in a way that if he did not exist, we would wish he had. It is a gospel for the modern era.

If I could, I’d put this book in the hands of every seeker and every Christian puzzling over his relationship with Christ. But I won’t give you mine. It’s too valuable to me.

I believe the content of the book is still available in this edition: Jesus the Radical: A Portrait of the Man they Crucified. This retains the content, but not at a price that makes it affordable for general passing around. But I can commend it to you.

* * * * *

After reading this book nearly ten years ago, I looked far and wide for copies of it to give away. The original publisher suggested I write to the author, Dr. R. T. France who, I think, was in Australia or England at the time. I wrote, never really expecting to hear back.

Apparently, though, Dr. France is cut from the cloth of a gentleman scholar. He takes seriously correspondence from an anonymous American pastor of no renown. A number of weeks after writing him, I received a handwritten letter from him.

“It is nice to hear of someone still appreciating my little Jesus book after so long,” he told me, and explained the publishing history of it. He wanted to call it Jesus the Radical, which is the title under which it has since been republished.

He then signed it “Dick France” as if we’d known each other all our lives. His personal attention to my request made me appreciate his work all the more. If I were a younger man I’d be on the next plane to study under him.

* * * * *

Perhaps there are better sources out there these days to introduce people to the Jesus of the Bible. I’ve not seen anything as well written and as concise as this to present us with a living portrait of this Man worth following.