Who is Easter for? The Woeful Exchange

Cross of ChristDespite the cultural forces that persistently sideline the celebration Easter in favour of Christmas, for most Christians Easter has retained its significance in their lives and faith. However, in my admittedly limited experience and therefore tentative opinion, many churches work against the church’s historical, traditional and deeply biblical emphasis on Easter weekend. How is this done? In South Africa some hangovers of Christianity remain, in even the most secular societies. Because of this, with some certainty, churches can predict unusually large numbers in attendance over Easter weekend. Those making their annual pilgrimage are – rightly or wrongly – deemed non-Christians. So Easter is considered an “evangelistic highpoint” or “mission focal point” in the year—and is treated as such. This ungainly pragmatism masked as evangelistic mindedness is almost as trite as it is tragic. It is, as the title of this post suggests, ‘the woeful exchange’. 

Some readers will be familiar with the similar phrase, which I am playing on, ‘the wonderful exchange.’ Though that exact phrase is not found in the New Testament the truth of it is plain throughout. One of my favourite occurrences is in 1 Peter 2:24, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” You could spend an entire sermon unpacking the glorious truth wrapped up in that short verse, along with its context: Christ’s crucifixion is for our sins, in that he bears the punishment for rebellion against God even though he was only ever righteous. The purpose of his death was that we might become righteous, as we die to the self-destructive patterns of sin and live a life patterned after Christ’s. The effect of Christ’s death is healing, being made well or whole, restored to the image God originally created us in. Other verses are clearer that in the exchange we are credited with Christ’s righteousness (Romans 1-3). But this post is unfortunately about the woeful rather than the wonderful exchange.

It is Good Friday, the morning service at your church – kudos if you have any evening services over Easter – and the auditorium is packed, the stewards are frantically waving to each other in search of empty spaces or more chairs. The atmosphere is electric as the band does a final check on stage before your most energetic service (or worship) leader steps forward to start the show—I mean- church gathering. The vibe steadily grows as people speak over each other and compete against the carefully selected ‘outsider friendly’ playlist pouring from the speakers. It is almost time. This is it: ‘go big or go home’. Once the almost unrecognisably bare liturgy is out of the way we come to the Bible reading. But it is when the preacher stands up that the woeful exchange is at its ugliest. Instead of holding out the gloriously rich treasures millennia of Christians have celebrated at this point in the year the gathered church is told that Jesus died for our sins. In fact, the gathered church, probably making up the majority of those present, are forgotten entirely in order to present a lazily rehashed sermon about the cross. The woeful exchange leaves believers with almost nothing to reflect on because they were not even considered.

At this point some readers will be hastily offering a retort: ‘The same gospel saves non-Christians and transforms believers.’ True, if reductionistic. For example, if all that was needed to nourish Christian faith and mature believers was the cross why did God provide us with a gospel tapestry of 66 books? Why did he present his character and love in a range of genres, through a host of unique human voices and emphases? I mean, if it is the same gospel – i.e. the cross – why do we ever wander outside of the four passion narratives found in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? If we affirm that all of Scripture finds its centre in the person and work of Christ then why do we retreat to a simple passion text and sermon on Good Friday? I have become convinced that the answer to my last question – the only one that was not rhetorical – is that many churches are guilty of the woeful exchange. Perhaps if we spent more energy in presenting the splendid riches of Christ’s work at Easter rather than offering the same old tired and predictable gospel presentations those visitors would be gripped by God’s truth. Do not ignore the fact that those in your church desperately need Easter themselves. Hold out the wonders of the gospel. Do not pragmatically trade it in this Easter.

This post fits roughly with a short series on the work of Christ. The first challenged the overly narrow view of Christ’s death as a legal event, highlighting for Christians the love of God. The second explored other aspects of the atonement, reminding Christians that God’s work is much richer than Christ in our place (the wonderful exchange), for faith is deeply transformative. Both posts bemoaned presentations of Christ’s work as merely external; it is rather the unparalleled evidence of God’s love that is effective in making us those who love like him.

Doodle: Joyce Meyer and Restaurant Dinners

Last week I posted an article that criticised the word of faith movement, following a critique of Andrew Wommack. Prior to posting them I was – and still remain – aware how these sorts of articles can be perceived: proud and presumptuous. I have also written on 1 and 2 Timothy, exploring the perils of being hypercritical, unhealthily fixated on controversy. But amidst those dangers, I am reminded of Paul’s description of an elder, in Titus 1:9, “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” Paul says elsewhere that with sound doctrine Timothy will save his hearers (1 Timothy 4:16). The implication being that unbiblical and false teaching results in the opposite. Therefore doctrine matters and correction is necessary. So I hope that this piece comes from the same place as Paul’s impassioned anathemas in Galatians 1.

GalatiansOver the course of this year I have interacted with a handful of people about Joyce Meyer. Despite having written on the unhelpful and harmful half-truths championed by many of the faces that frequent TBN, I felt this short post necessary for at least one very important reason: Joyce Meyer speaks much truth. I have noticed this and so too have the people asking about her teaching. She also regularly quotes the Bible. That being said, Meyer’s entire ministry – indeed how she handles the Bible – is couched in what some have labelled: ‘prosperity lite’. Meyer’s message is a toned down prosperity gospel when compared to others like Creflo Dollar and Benny Hinn. She does not promise wealth, or deploy the tired televangelist rhetoric, ‘sow into this ministry and you will reap far more’; she says things like this: “Who would want to get in on something where you’re miserable, poor, broke and ugly and you just have to muddle through until you get to heaven? I believe God wants to give us nice things.”

The fact that Joyce Meyer does speak biblical truth in her sermons should not fool us into thinking that the rest of what she teaches is harmless. Imagine there was a trendy restaurant in your town that made delicious food, but 1 in every 10 of those meals is laced with deadly poison. Would you send your friends to that restaurant because there is a good chance they will get a tasty meal? No, if you cared about your friends you would never let them go where there is even the slightest chance they will be poisoned. It is no different with Joyce Meyer. Sometimes she serves up truth, but most of the time her messages are closer to Oprah Winfrey’s than the Bible. Like the restaurant that occasionally serves a meal containing deadly poison, Meyer’s teaching is laced with unbiblical and therefore spiritually noxious ingredients.

Maybe you are not convinced by my analogy, so let us consider a verse familiar to many, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe” (James 2:19). In this section of his epistle (2:14-26), James corrects belief, or faith, that is fruitless. He concludes by saying that faith without works is dead (2:26), or as the Reformers put it positively: true faith is never without works. Back to the point at hand, James says that even demons know true things about God. More than knowing things about God they believe them, even speak them (see Mark 5:7). Being familiar with aspects of the Christian faith or able to quote Bible verses occasionally does not mean faithfulness to God.

I have heard and read Joyce Meyer explain the gospel. But that does not mean she is safe and it definitely does not mean I would ever encourage someone to sit under her ministry. Using the logic that her writing and sermons often contains biblical truth – something I remain unconvinced about – does not undo the fact that most of her teaching is far from this. You would not encourage your friends to eat at a restaurant where they might be poisoned. You would not send them to a church pastored by a demon that knows some truth and holds a Bible while preaching. Nor should you endorse the teaching of Joyce Meyer.

Galatians: The Lord’s Anointed may be Accursed

If you are a Christian then there is a good chance you have observed, or even received, the stern reproach: ‘Don’t speak against the Lord’s anointed.’ It is one of those declarations dripping with piety and a zealous concern to protect Spirit empowered leaders, apostles, and prophets. But more often than not, it is an excuse for theological ignorance and the undiscerning acceptance of influential, charismatic, and public Christian figures, regardless of what they preach or teach. It is, after all, much easier to meet criticism with a phrase that reveals your reverence for God’s mighty servants and the refusal to be dragged into an ungodly squabble.

Icon St PeterNow meet Peter. John may have been the disciple Jesus loved, but Peter is the disciple we love. He frequently overestimates his devotion to Christ and is subsequently humbled but also graciously accepted by Christ. In what N. T. Wright calls the ‘Peter cycle,’ we are offered a window into the Christian life, “Firm public declarations of undying loyalty followed by miserable failure, followed by astonishing, generous, forgiving love.” But we often think that that is the pre-Pentecost Peter. For at Pentecost Peter becomes a great hero of the early church. Wrong. Peter, like all Christians, was an object of God’s grace, throughout his life. He was far from perfect, despite his special appointment, Spirit anointing, and apostleship. Peter erred and was not above rebuke.

What does this have to do with Galatians or those who claim to be the ‘Lord’s anointed’? In Galatians 2:11-14, the apostle Paul recounts a striking event in the life of the early church, when he publicly opposed the apostle Peter. And he does so for reasons similar to his refusal to circumcise Titus, in Galatians 2:3-5. Paul boldly challenged any practices that threatened or obscured the gospel of grace (1:6-9). Peter was undoubtedly a giant in the early church. Paul on the other hand was a relatively unknown itinerant preacher who spent an earlier part of his public career killing Christians (1:23-24). Yet when he sees Peter behaving hypocritically (2:13) and out of step with the gospel (2:14), Peter’s status, title, feats, and fan club mean nothing. Paul is uninhibited in speaking against a man who might rightly be called the Lord’s anointed, second only to Jesus.

Paul’s language is unapologetically severe, claiming that Peter’s behaviour meant that he stood condemned, grossly in the wrong (2:11). Peter’s inconsistent conduct was leading others, including Barnabas, astray (2:13). And the implication of his withdrawal from table fellowship with Gentiles subtly implied that they needed to keep the Old Testament law and live like Jews (2:14). Earlier in the letter, Paul wrote that anyone preaching a gospel other than the one true gospel is accursed, under the judgment of God (1:8-9). It does not seem that Peter’s hypocrisy placed him in that category, but his misunderstanding warranted a stinging reproach. Even the apostle Peter got things wrong and repented. There is a reassuring familiarity in the blundering apostle, but also a noticeable humility and willingness to be challenged, even repent. Your leader might call himself the ‘Lord’s anointed,’ but if that means he is beyond being challenged and corrected, perhaps he is not the great leader he claims to be.

Galatians: Did Paul Deny the Truth of the Gospel?

Acts 16Acts 16 starts thus: Paul came to Derbe and Lystra. A disciple named Timothy was there and the brothers spoke well of him. He was the son of a Jewish woman, a believer, but his father was Greek. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, so he had him circumcised because the Jews in that region knew his father was Greek. The account is short and seems fairly insignificant, except for Timothy. But when placed alongside Galatians 2 it raises some heckles, not just Timothy’s.

As we saw in my previous post, it was Paul’s contention in Galatians to present and defend the one true gospel. At one point in the autobiographical section spanning chapters 1-2 he recalls his visit to Jerusalem where he met with some of the “influential people,” most likely the church leaders there. But what Paul met was an illustration of the larger issues Galatians is written to settle. Titus was compelled to be circumcised (2:3). The Greek, and most translations, emphasises that Titus was a Greek, just like Timothy. Only, here, Paul flatly refuses the idea of circumcision, much to Titus’ relief. He explains in 2:5 (using very similar language in 2:14), We did not submit or yield to them, so that the gospel of truth would be preserved.

GalatiansSo what about Acts 16? Can we conclude that, at Derbe and Lystra, Paul compromised the gospel of truth, the only true gospel? Or is this another instance proving the Bible to be an inconsistent collection of theological opinions and loose ends? I think it is neither, and instead reveals the zeal with which Paul preached God’s grace and his commitment to as many hearing of that grace as humanly possible. “Paul had thought long and hard about these things. He was…a remarkably flexible man himself…he could happily circumcise Timothy so that this young man could have as ready access to synagogues as the apostle himself (Acts 16:3). By contrast, Paul refused absolutely to allow Titus to be circumcised…because the demand for his circumcision was being made in a context that jeopardized the gospel” (D. A. Carson, Love in Hard Places).

Carson goes on, “If someone argues that a Gentile must be circumcised in order to be a true Christian, Paul forbids it absolutely, because that would annihilate the exclusive sufficiency of Christ; if no one is making that sort of demand, Paul is happy to circumcise a believer if it will advance the interests of the gospel.” Therefore at Jerusalem (and Antioch, both recounted in Galatians) Paul boldly opposed those whose practices threatened the true gospel of grace, even the Apostle Peter. On the other hand, at Derbe and Lystra (in Acts 16) he was willing, and we imagine Timothy agreed, to do whatever it took to reach more people with that same gospel of grace. Such an observation puts what I am willing to suffer for Christ and his gospel into stark perspective.

Galatians: No Other Gospel

GalatiansFor the next two quarters my church will be working through Galatians in our small groups. I have decided to attempt a translation of Paul’s letter, with the hope that it will aid insights into the details of the text and illumine the overarching purpose of the book. It must be noted: I am not promising this will result in regular posts on Galatians. In this short post I want to reflect on a point that you certainly do not need Greek to uncover: there is only one gospel. But while Galatians 1:6-9 is fairly straightforward to understand, a closer reading lends striking colour to Paul’s assertion.

The churches of Galatia were deserting – not Paul but – God, the one who called them in grace, for a different gospel (1:6). We might even conclude that they were deflecting to another god. But how and why did this happen quickly? I think the answer partly comes in 1:7-9. The troubler makers had not entirely reinvented the apostolic message but subtly distorted it (1:7). I imagine they still used words like “grace,” phrases like “the gospel of Christ,” and called people to faith in Jesus. However, they had introduced irreconcilable elements that destabilized the gospel, without altering it beyond surface level recognition. As we read through the letter we learn that the Galatian issue was the confusion between our works and Christ’s sufficient work. The success of the false teachers in Galatia, like many today, was due to them being barely distinguishable from Paul. They did not appear to change much; perhaps they claimed to simply emphasise different aspects of the gospel message. But the results are always the same: a different gospel leads us away from the true God.

GalatiansI promised myself that these posts would be short, and therefore not too onerous on you the reader, or my time, so let me make one more point. In 1:8-9, Paul twice uses the verb ‘proclaim good news.’ The false teachers came to the Galatian Christians with an appealing message, something happily received as good tidings. The verb is the same one used throughout the New Testament to speak of God’s salvation. And so as we saw above, the greatest danger of other gospels is when they are difficult to discern from the true gospel of grace. Politicians, advertisements, and preachers proclaim good news. However, the major distinction between the gospel of Christ (see 1:10-12) and the many gospels championed around the world is that only the former tells us what we desperately need to hear, while the others are shaped by what we want to hear.

I have also previously written on Galatians 3, discussing what it means for the Christian to be free from law.

Why the Rainbow Nation is Good for the Gospel

The Rainbow Nation BridgeThere are plenty of things that can be said in favour of our Rainbow Nation here in South Africa and I don’t think what you are about to read is even most poignant. What I would like to focus on does, however, cut to the heart of the sacred/secular divide that Western culture seems bent on inflicting on our societies.

Why The Rainbow?

Let’s consider, for a moment, the intent behind calling ourselves a “Rainbow Nation”. Desmond Tutu is credited with the term which “intended to encapsulate the unity of multi-culturalism and the coming-together of people of many different nations, in a country once identified with the strict division of white and black” (thanks wikipedia).

The significance is partly in what it does not mean: we are not a group of people that come together and lose our diversity and multi-culturalism. When I had the misfortune of attempting to mix paints, irrespective of my objective, I somehow always managed to produce an unusable colour I affectionately remember as “vomit brown”. This kind of mix into a homogenous mass is not what it means to be a rainbow nation. We retain our colours, cultures and creeds and we find a way to live with all those in harmony.

Vomit Brown PaintIn America, diversity becomes vomit brown – everyone wants in on the American dream and so the diversity that once existed is slowly eroded as everyone succumbs to the demands of the dream or is crushed under its weight. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that America wants a secular public sphere – what better way to harmonise our differences than deny them and pretend none of us have any convictions at all?

In an article I read recently Richard Neuhaus is remembered as “almost single-handedly” challenging that idea – the idea to reduce “religious belief to private worship”. In essence he argued,

Separation of church and state could never mean the separation of religion from public life. The most deeply held beliefs and values of American citizens could not and should not be quarantined from the life of the contemporary polis.

That sounds great but in America it has been far from successful. The lack of success is because diversity in America means anyone can come but you have to conform. In South Africa, however, when secularism raises its vomit-brown head, we can cry “rainbow nation” – a term that means my Christianity is an essential part of my identity and not something I will cover up when in public like some embarassing tattoo.

Colourful FaceThe “Rainbow Nation” means we have to learn to live with each other – a potentially perilous task – but it also means that my convictions don’t have to be swallowed up into the amorphous mass of cultural uncertainty; they are colour in the rainbow. More importantly, rather than being a mere band of colour passively reflecting the light thrown onto us, Christians wearing their Christianity in public are themselves light in a dark world. This Rainbow Nation opens the door to light, hopefully as Christians we will not forego the opportunity to shine.