Why I am a Christian (by Rev. C.F. Heiberg)
I. Amazing Grace
We all love the hymn “Amazing Grace”, but who can also say: “How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me?” Do we know what John Newton was singing about here?
The only reason anyone has ever become a Christian is God’s unfathomable grace. Grace is God’s unmerited favor. As such it is nowhere more beautifully and powerfully illustrated than in Luke’s 15th chapter. We find there three well known parables. The first one deals with the search for a lost sheep, the second with the search for a lost coin and the last one with the return of a lost son. We will only look at the first one, the lost sheep.
In the introduction to these parables we are told, “Then all the tax-collectors and sinners drew near to Him. And the Pharisees and the scribes complained saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’”
So this is actually why Jesus told these stories!
Many in Israel had a warped view of salvation. Many who thought they were on the inside, were actually on the outside, because they did not recognize their need for God’s grace. And many who thought that they were condemned to the outside – for whatever reason – found out that they have been relentlessly sought by God’s grace… and so ended up on the inside, to their utter astonishment and to the pure elation of heaven’s angels! That’s why Jesus told these parables of Luke 15. Isn’t that something?
Jesus compared God’s saving grace to a shepherd leaving his ninety-nine other sheep behind in the desert, to seek the one which had wandered away and became lost. What does this tell you about Christ? About His compassion for the lost? About His love for the individual? We often have the exact opposite mentality. We say: “Why worry so much about one? Spend your time on the many others who walk the good path”. Right?
However, let us also be careful not to mistake the lost sheep in the parable for a perpetual complainer or a brazenly arrogant sinner. The very picture Jesus is painting for us here is one of someone being lured away by sin, caught in the trap of its deceitfulness, and therefore also being deeply humbled and broken by it. We have to stress this fact, because the metaphor of the ‘lost sheep’ can easily be abused by a willfully stubborn church-member, demanding an inordinate amount of the elders’ (shepherds!) precious time!
But let us come back to the first parable, focusing on verses 4 and 5. It speaks of an urgent search and of a joyful discovery. That is what God’s grace always does. It searches the sinner relentlessly and discovers him joyfully and then keeps him safe eternally. Someone has called God’s grace the ‘hound of heaven’. Have you ever seen a hound chasing a fox? What a relentless pursuit that is! Such is God’s grace when it aims for the salvation of a sinner. It pursues him relentlessly, no matter how much his soul may want to flee away from God. Just look at the life of the Apostle Paul (also known as Saul of Tarsus) in Acts 26 and you will agree…
Paul’s famous Damascus-road conversion was only the climax of a process. A process that started long ago. For look what he says in 26:14, “And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice speaking to me, saying in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads’”. The word translated ‘goad’, can also be translated ‘spur’ or ‘whip’. So how has he been goaded all the time? Saul’s life course is compared to a headstrong ram being goaded by a farmer, or to a rambunctious young colt being broken in by a horse trainer. What happened on the road to Damascus was simply that Saul finally surrendered! He finally yielded.
That will be come clear if you consider the following…
- In his mind this brilliant Jewish scholar and zealous Pharisee had to wrestle with Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah. This was anathema to Paul and yet, how could he argue against the Nazarene’s amazing teaching, irresistible persona, incredible works, and especially the tenacious rumor that death did not have the better of him?
- In His memory Paul could not forget the testimony of Stephen. He was there. Those who stoned Stephen to death laid their clothes at his feet. What he witnessed was the first martyr for Christ. Never had Paul seen such a face -like that of an angel – in the face of such a cruel death! Never had he witnessed such a heart-convicting defense until Stephen finally died with a prayer for his persecutors on his lips!
- In his conscience the righteous Pharisee Saul was also goaded day after day. Outwardly he seemed pretty good, i.e. in the eyes of others. But he tells us in Romans 7 how one commandment ripped from him every cover of pretense when it said, “Thou shalt not covet”. Paul had to admit he was morally bankrupt. To put it the words of CS Lewis, “For the first time I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion”.
We can just imagine that Saul was also goaded in his heart, asking himself in the light of all this, day after day, “Am I ready to appear before my Creator? Am I truly ready? What if Jesus was truly risen from the dead and I would stand before Him?” God’s grace pursued him relentlessly – just like a heavenly hound – until he gave up with a mighty squeak! Now go and read the biographies of many others, of an Augustine or a Luther, a Bunyan or a John Newton, an Amy Carmichael or an Isobel Kuhn and you will find the same. They were hunted down by the Hound of Heaven. “What man of you having a hundred sheep, if he looses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and goes after the one which was lost until he finds it?”. Sovereign, sovereign grace pursues the sinner until it finds him or her, to unite him or her with Jesus!
But verse 4 goes on to tell us that when the shepherd had found the lost sheep he laid it on his shoulders, rejoicing, and called all his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost”. The result of being found by God’s grace is always joy. Boundless joy! Pure seraphic joy!
Do you know this joy my friend? Have you given in with a squeak to the Hound of Heaven, to God’s truth and grace revealed Jesus Christ? Or is the chase still on? For by grace we have been saved, through faith, and that is not of ourselves! (Eph. 2:8).
II. The Claims of Jesus
The Western world we live in has changed dramatically over the last half a century or so. Whereas the West has always been considered ‘Christian’ before, that is no longer the case. This was mainly the result of humanism and secularism. Another factor which has helped humanism and secularism along in its destructive course was pluralism. As peoples of other faiths and cultures have poured into our society, and as the world has become a global village, we have been exposed to other faiths and belief-systems in a truly unprecedented way. Hence our current so-called ‘pluralistic’ society. In such a climate we are constantly being told, “Your faith is a private matter. If it brings you meaning and comfort, good for you, but please keep it to yourself and out of the public square, lest it causes any trouble”.
So much for the negative impact of pluralism. Thank God, it also had a very positive effect, especially on the church. For the first time in centuries, yes even more than a millennium, Christians are asking themselves: What do we really believe? Is my faith really based on an unshakable foundation? Do I believe in absolute truth? It is comforting to know that the Early Christians were absolutely convinced about the answers to these kinds of questions, and they lived in times very much like our own! This is what made them such a tremendous force in a world of hedonism, relativism and materialism. They knew that what they believed was not just, “one among many faiths”, but the only divine truth revealed from heaven. Just read the opening paragraph of John’s Gospel, or the fifteenth chapter of I Corinthians, or the opening chapter of I Peter or I John for that matter, and you will see. So my question to you is this; “Are your foundations solid and unshakable? Do you know Who you believe in, and why?” That is why we will be looking at “The Claims of Jesus”. For see, confessing Christ in today’s pluralistic context, comes down to nothing less than proclaiming Him as Lord of all.
No person ever questioned the fact that Jesus of Nazareth must have been a truly remarkable person. He appeals even to 21st century man. He shamelessly associated Himself with the underdog; He fearlessly spoke against an hypocritical establishment; He constantly ignored his own needs in serving others; He radically taught a new ethic (that even shook his closest followers to their core); He constantly lived in devotion to God and moreover, He most graciously performed the most extraordinary miracles. And yet through it all He remained unbelievably humble and unassuming. It’s really easy to see why He is the only one in all the billions who ever lived, who’s birth should mark the start our calendars! But how many of us actually know what He claimed about Himself?
The four Gospel writers made sure that we would never be in the dark concerning this Jesus of Nazareth, and who He really claimed to be. In fact, He spoke much about Himself, without ever sounding egocentric! It seems that whenever He spoke about Himself that He did it for our sake and for His Father’s glory. Take for instance His great, “I am”-sayings. I am the bread of life… I am the light of the world… I am the Good Shepherd. Any ordinary believing Jew hearing these words would have heard the clear echo of the One who spoke to Moses from the burning bush in the desert, “I am who I am”. So please consider the claims of Jesus…
- He claimed to be the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures
Jesus was a Jew. The Jews knew their Bible (the Hebrew Scriptures) very well. Most of them attended the synagogue every Sabbath, where the Scriptures were read and expounded. Yet the very first words of Jesus public ministry were these, “The time has come…. [literally “it has been fulfilled”], the Kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the Gospel”. He is saying here that He is the fulfillment of all that the prophets have spoken before. To enter the Kingdom of heaven all Israel had to believe in Him and turn from their sinful ways at His command. After His resurrection Jesus rebuked His followers for not having believed everything that was written about Him in the Scriptures (Luke 24:27,44). Jesus also took two figures, Daniel’s triumphant Son of Man (see Dan. 7:13-14) and Isaiah’s Suffering Servant (Is. 42, 49, 50 and 52) and blended them into one, Himself! He repeatedly said that the Son of man had to suffer and die and be raised again on the third day. It is clear, He was not simply another great prophet, but the hope of Israel, the long-awaited Messiah of God.
- He claimed to be related to God in an absolutely unique way
Jesus spoke from, and lived in, very a unique relationship with God. He referred to Himself as “the Son” and to God as “his Father”. What existed between him and His Father was a unique reciprocal relationship (see Matt 11:25-30). When speaking to God in prayer, He used the Aramaic word Abba (= Father) which was unheard of among the Jews. Remember the Jews had so much respect for God’s name that they would not even pronounce His name, and yet here was One who spoke in the most affectionate and intimate way to God as a son to his father. This unique relationship was even evident from very early on, when He was only twelve (see Luke 2:41-52). Jesus continued uninterruptedly in this close and intimate relationship with God, until in his trial the high priest asked him, “Are you the Son of God then”? Jesus answered, “You say that I am” which simply means “Yes” (Luke 22:70). A short while before He died, hanging there in excruciating pain and God-forsaken dereliction on a cursed Roman cross, He revealed his deepest agony with a heart-wrenching cry, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
- He claimed to have authority over all men
Also very astonishingly were His assumptions that all men were lost and sinful, damned to eternal punishment, while He alone was able to save them! In fact that was the very reason why He “came to this world”. Everybody else was in darkness, but He was the light. Everybody was hungry, but He was the bread of life. Everybody was lost like sheep going astray, but He was the Good Shepherd who came to rescue them. Everybody is sinful – although we have such a hard time acknowledging it – but He has power on earth to forgive sins. And yes, at the end of the age, everybody will appear before His throne, to be judged on the basis of how they responded to His claims. This is quite extraordinary, isn’t it? That one human being should have such authority over all others!
The One who has made these claims must either have been totally crazy, or absolutely real! Now if you look at the testimony of those who ate and slept and walked and lived with Him, He was anything but crazy. They have never known any human being more genuine and loving and faithful and humble than He. And if you look at the impact of his words and His life on his own times and beyond, you must realize that you can’t evade giving your own honest and life-changing response to His claims. A Christian is someone who has taken a deep look at Christ’s claims, and who has fallen down before His feet like a once-doubting Thomas, crying out, “My Lord and My God!”
III. The Power of the Cross
Anybody who investigates Christianity for the first time will be struck by the extraordinary importance Christ’s followers place upon His death. In the case of all great leaders (spiritual and otherwise) their death is lamented. It terminated their lives and careers and is also of little importance in itself. With Jesus of Nazareth it is completely different. He laid all emphasis on his death. The Gospels writers spent a disproportionate amount of time describing events surrounding His death: Luke up to a quarter of his Gospel, Matthew and Mark a third and John as much as 50%. What is more, His was no soft and natural death. Mohammed died at age 62, Confucius at 72, Buddha at 80 and Moses at 120, but Jesus died a very horrible and most shameful death at the young age of 33. Most amazing though is that He used to speak about his death many times before it occurred. At least three times He announced to his disciples that, “the Son of Man must suffer many things…. and be killed” (Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:32-34). They did not exactly know what to do with these announcements, and tried to prevent them from being fulfilled. Jesus kept however referring to, “the hour”, for which He came into this world. When His arrest became imminent, He said, “the hour has come”. He then did the extraordinary thing to make provisions for His own memorial service! He introduced a symbolic meal of bread and wine, to be celebrated regularly until His return, proclaiming the purpose and efficacy of His death for all His followers throughout the world!
That the cross is absolutely central to the Christian faith is further underscored by the fact that the church spontaneously chose it as its symbol. It could have chosen several others, but it chose the cross – a symbol of torture and death through Roman execution. The early Christians resisted boasting in anything of this world, whether in riches or glory or beauty or power or wisdom or lineage, but in the cross of Christ (Galatians 6:14-15)! Just listen to Paul, Peter and John extolling the central significance of the cross to their readers;
- Paul writing to the Corinthians, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you, except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2).
- Peter writing to Christians living in what is today central Turkey, “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (I Peter 3:18).
- John writing to his fellow believers, “This is love, not that we have loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (I John 4:10).
It is fair to say therefore that whatever Christian book or ministry or lifestyle or philosophy does not have the cross of Christ at its center, has ceased to be a Christian book or ministry or lifestyle or philosophy in the real sense of the word. For any sort of Christianity to be considered authentic, it would have to place the sufferings and death of Jesus (along with His victory over the grave and ascension to heaven) at the very core of its being and message. In addition, for any individual to be taken seriously as a New Testament believer, it will have to cherish Christ’s sufferings and death as the very power and wisdom of his or her life. Can this be said of you also? Have you ever learned to boast in nothing else but the cross of Christ?
When we speak of the cross, we do not of course mean a piece of wood, not even to a piece of wood stained with the Messiah’s blood. “The cross”, is simply apostolical shorthand for the vicarious sufferings and death of Jesus. We do not worship a piece of wood, but a Saviour, who died and rose again! But what makes Christ’s death so important to us? We will focus on three important implications of His death.
- Christ died to atone for our sins
Christians claim that God cannot simply forgive people their sins. He must have the legal grounds for doing so. Sin may not and cannot go unpunished. God’s eternal demands for justice had to be met before a single sinner could go free. Forgiveness may seem to us to be a plain duty, but to God it is a problem! How can He forgive without compromising His justice and holiness? By the same token, will we have any respect for a judge who acquits a murderer and lets him go free? This problem is solved by the cross of Jesus. He died, “for our sins”. The punishment we deserved came upon Him. The death and agony we had to suffer as punishment, He suffered for us. Yes He appeased God’s wrath for us (Rom. 3:25). That’s why we sing; “His blood is my atonement”, and why we confess, “He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities”, (Is. 53: 5). And of course, such a price for our salvation also reveals the true horror and gravity of our sin.
- Christ died to reveal to us the love of God
In Romans 5:8 we read these incredible words of Paul, “but God demonstrated His own love for us in this: while were still sinners, Christ died for us”. He goes on to say that it seems so completely irrational that one would die for a sinner. For a good man maybe, but not for a sinner! Yet God proved His love for us in sending Christ to die for us while we were yet sinners, yes His enemies. The cross therefore reveals the love the Father had for His own from before the foundation of the world. It reveals His free and unmerited mercy. Nothing that any sinner ever did moved God to send His Son. Nothing that any sinner ever desired moved God to give Him up for us all. It was simply His everlasting grace. The cross therefore sets the Christian faith apart from all religions. They all work on the basis of human effort and merit, but the Gospel alone tells us, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son…” (John 3:16).
- Christ died to conquer all powers of Evil
It is not possible to read the New Testament without being struck by its optimistic tone and its joyful confidence. In spite of being completely outnumbered, misrepresented by their kinsmen, and often persecuted by the state, the Christians remained unbelievably positive and joyful. What was the secret of this indomitable joy? It lay in their understanding of the significance of the cross. The death of Jesus was far from a defeat, it was Jesus’ victory over the powers of evil. In refusing to retaliate, to be provoked by His torturers, or to hate His enemies, He conquered evil. By His obedience, love and meekness, Christ won a decisive moral victory over the forces of darkness. His resurrection merely endorsed this victory, and His ascension further established and proclaimed it. Satan had no power over Him any more. In what seemed to them their ultimate victory, the forces of darkness were in fact conquered, disarmed and publicly humiliated by Christ (cf. Col.1:15, 19-20, 2:15). Have you also been swept along in the victory of Christ?
IV. The Fact of the Resurrection
Nothing can explain the miraculous origin and expansion of Christianity except the fact that all these people, male and female, Jews and Gentiles, believed one and the same thing with all their heart: Jesus of Nazareth, crucified by the Romans under the instigation of the Jews, was raised from the dead! Remember, this was an idea never heard of by the ancient world. It was not even expected to happen. In fact not even Jesus’ own disciples expected it to happen. It came as a complete but also very shocking surprise to them. It is this fact – of Christ’s resurrection – which puts the Christian faith in an entirely different category from all religious myths or philosophies devised by men.
What is more, the Gospel for these early Christians was not so much a message of forgiveness, or of the cross, neither was it first and foremost about God sending His only begotten Son into the world. No, when they used the wordGospel (= Good News) these early Christians meant one thing above all: He is risen! The Christian faith was a resurrection-faith. What proved Jesus to be the Messiah was not His cross. Many people were crucified, and many would-be Messiahs appeared on the scene and disappeared again. The crucifixion by itself only served to confirm to the average Jew that Jesus was no Messiah and that His whole mission was a failure. The cross was such a repulsive concept to all decent men, that when Jesus suggested He was going to die on it, He ended up receiving a firm rebuke from his closest friend and leading disciple, Simon Peter. When He did eventually die, his disciples hopes were crushed forever! The cross did not fit into their idea of the Messiah. When two of them – on the evening of that first Sunday after his death – were asked by a “stranger” why they looked so sad, they responded by saying how Jesus had been crucified in Jerusalem and continued, “we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel. Indeed besides all this, today is the third day since these things have happened” (Luke 24:21). We were hoping… but now this!
Indeed, Jesus’ disciples might have experienced many sorts of emotions during and after His trial and execution. One thought never entered their minds however: the hope to see Him again in this world. In fact they were so sure that He was gone for good, that their women prepared all things necessary to prepare His corpse against sudden decay – something they used to do with the dead bodies of their loved-ones in those days in ancient Palestine.
Where then did the story come from that Jesus was risen? Liberal scholars and skeptics believe that it was made up by the early church. That these early Christians simply could not accept the sad fate of their enigmatic leader’s death and began to have all kinds of ecstatic experiences of seeing Him alive. It is for that reason that we must be sure that our faith is indeed deeply grounded on the rock of the historic fact of Christ’s resurrection in the New Testament.
Nowhere does the New Testament ever present Jesus’ resurrection as anything but a bodily, literal, historical event. What is more, had the resurrection-belief been made up by the early church, two things at least could have been expected: One, an account relating the overwhelming joyful surprise of those who first discovered the empty tomb. Two, a Jesus looking like an angelic figure, luminous and shining, more a heavenly being than a real man. For remember, up until this point, no resurrection of any human being anywhere has ever been experienced. It was as foreign to the human experience as to see tables talking or trees walking. But what do we see happening in the Gospels? (1) The women were completely shocked! Not the kind of reaction you would have expected of people who fabricated such a story. (2) The risen Jesus looked like an ordinary man – even though He evidently possessed extraordinary powers and abilities.
What’s more, Jesus chose as the first witnesses of His resurrection a few women. Had the resurrection stories been contrived by men, this would certainly not have been the case, for women were not considered to be trustworthy witnesses in court. Who can believe a gullible woman! This fact is proven by the disciple’s reaction on that first Easter Sunday. So ludicrous did the womenfolk’s resurrection tales sound to them, that they thought the ladies have gone completely nuts! But we know from the Gospel how all the disciples, even a skeptical Thomas, eventually succumbed in faith before a risen Jesus.
What in fact happened is this. God – the One Jesus always refereed to as His Father in heaven – had overturned the verdict of the Sanhedrin and of Pilate by raising His holy Child from the dead! All the early believers instinctively knew that! Jesus was right, the world was wrong. His resurrection proved it; He was indeed the Son of God! (Rom. 1:4). That (plus the outpouring of the Spirit on them) is the only explanation of how 120 of His followers could have walked out into the open, conquering a hostile world through their message, courage and love.
Just see how central the resurrection features in the apostles’ preaching in Acts 2 and 3. And listen also to Paul, once the arch-skeptic and destroyer of the church, writing to the Corinthians (I Cor. 15:1-8). Notice how the entire Gospel stands or falls with the resurrection. No resurrection = no Gospel = no salvation from sin. Notice also how much Paul is stressing the historical character of the resurrection. Remember, Paul wrote this letter not later than 55 AD. By then it could still have been the easiest thing in the world for Roman or Jewish authorities to cross-examine anyone of these living witnesses, or for that matter, to present the remains of the crucified Nazarene to the world, making a mockery of the church. Why did they not do it? Because Jesus was truly risen!
Neither was Paul speaking of visionary experiences (which Christians may well have had throughout church history). No Paul states very clearly, “last of all He was seen by me also…” This can only mean one thing; The appearances of the risen Jesus ceased with His last appearance to Paul – his last apostle. From now on we will see Him only through faith, until the day that we will see Him face to face, coming on the clouds of heaven with power and glory.
So what are some of the most important implications to all this?
- Not Caesar, but Jesus is Kurios (Lord) of all the world (Phil 2:9-11).
- Those, and only those, who believe that Jesus is Kurios and who are not ashamed to confess that God has raised Him from the dead, will be saved (Rom. 10:9)
- A risen Jesus guarantees to raise the human bodies of all who believed in Him and bowed to His Lordship in glory on the Last Day (I Cor. 15:20—22).
- Whoever denies the Gospel, refusing to bow the knee to Christ and confess His name, must be prepared to face Him as his/her Righteous Judge in that Day!
V. The Quest for Freedom and Beauty
The last reason why I am a Christian is because of the longing of the human heart for freedom and beauty. An aspiration that remains unfulfilled no matter what you taste or experience or enjoy in this world. There is a hunger in the human heart that none but Christ can fill. There is a thirst in the human soul that none but He can quench. There is an inner emptiness that only the Creator of the cosmos can satisfy. This is why Augustine once wrote, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
Critics are of course skeptical of all this. “The belief that Jesus meets the deepest human needs”, they say, “gives the game away”. “He is the figment of your imagination. You long to be loved, and create for yourself a ‘Heavenly Father’. You feel spiritually hungry and imagine someone whom you call ‘the Bread of Life’.”
Our answer to them is this, “Does the fact that food satisfies our physical hunger make us suspicious of food? Does the fact that love offers us a sense of well-being arouse our suspicions about love? Then why should the fact that Christ fulfills our deepest human longings arouse suspicions about Him?”
In other words there is a correspondence between human aspirations and their fulfillment, as there is between the deer and the streams of water it is panting for in the desert (Psalm 42). In fact, the Psalmist likens this panting of the deer in the desert to his soul’s longing for the living God. CS Lewis used to put it this way: “Our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, our desire to be on the inside of the door which we have always seen from the outside, this is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation”.
Our world is filled with examples of how young and old are trying to fill this inner void, this longing to be completely satisfied, with pitiable substitutes; mind-expanding drugs, yoga and other forms of mysticism, extreme sports, rock concerts, mythical speculation, erotic fantasy, etc. Most of those who seek fulfillment in these surrogates become thoroughly disillusioned and cynically abandon all hope on true fulfillment. Many however get completely hooked on one or more of these surrogate gods, and end up destroying their own lives and those of them around them. The Gospel alone points us to the true solution; to Jesus Christ who in His person and work is, “the fullness of the deity in bodily form” (Col. 2:9), “the exact image of God’s person and the brightness of His glory” (Heb. 1:3). In Him alone will man be fully satisfied and happy!
Reading the apostles’ writings leaves absolutely no doubt that they considered themselves – both by knowing Jesus personally and by virtue of the work of His Spirit in their hearts – to have found the only secret of ultimate fulfillment. What else does John mean by saying that those who believe in Jesus will have “life” in Him, yes abundant life (John 10:10)? What else does Paul mean by saying that those who pour their hearts out to God in Christ will experience “a peace that transcends all understanding” (Phil. 4:7)? What else does Peter mean when he refers to a faith-relationship with Christ through the Spirit as an experience of “joy unspeakable” (I Peter 1:8)? These words and many more point to the fact that the inspired writers believed that they have discovered the ultimate fulfillment, the answer to man’s deepest longing.
And yet none of them indicates that we will be able to reach the ultimate level of this fulfillment already now, or that this fulfillment cannot be disrupted by unbelief and sin. Not so much by suffering though, for according to them, suffering can only heighten the believer’s experience of this fulfillment, if it is borne in a believing manner (Rom. 5 and James 1). Our experience of fulfillment is therefore still incomplete and awaits that which God has prepared for those whom He loved and called, which their eyes have never seen, their ears have never heard and their minds have never even imagined. The Christian is also fully convinced that nothing earthly can ever satisfy the human heart’s desire in this world. He is therefore best equipped spiritually speaking to avoid the common pitfalls of earthly substitutes. In this manner the true believer is kept from many a snare. He has an inbuilt ‘radar system’ steering him away from the destructive idols causing so much heartbreaking devastation among men; the Holy Spirit testifying through the Scriptures about the futility of serving worthless idols.
But what is this inward longing really? What are we in essence longing for? I want to summarize it under two words; beauty and freedom. Who is not struck by a beautiful sunset in the wild, or a magnificent piece of music performed in an auditorium, or by the sensitive drama of a love-story unfolding between a man and a woman? And yet as soon as we think we can grasp the aesthetic beauty of the moment, it evades our grasp. The picture can’t capture the moment, the recording can never fully represent the concert; the book leaves us longing for more. We long for beauty, because we long for God, who is its only Author. We also long for freedom, to be free from all the pain of injustice and suffering, and also from the disturbing reality of our own sin and hypocrisy.
The Bible testifies of a living God who promises to rescue those who are lost and in bondage. He is a God who guarantees that He will never forsake the work of His hands, but who will come to repair completely whatever sin has marred. Several chapters in Scripture hint to this future glory, of a new creation where the glory of the Lord will cover the earth as the sea-waters cover the bottom of the sea. The 11th of Isaiah is one of them. It paints a picture of a world put to rights, of freedom and beauty uninterrupted and unlimited, symbolized so strikingly by a wolf and a lamb lying side by side in perfect peace. The lamb has no fear, the wolf no evil intentions. God’s shalom finally rules!
Jesus first words as a preacher were, “The Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the Gospel”. In Him God’s new creation broke through into our sorry world. And yet, before the Kingdom can be fully consummated, the citizens thereof have to be identified and prepared for it, through sincere faith in Christ and heartfelt repentance from all sin. That is what is happening now; the Holy Spirit through the Gospel seals those whom God has called to inherit the new earth. And for them, the crowning joy of that new creation will be to see Jesus face to face, never ever to be separated from Him again, to the praise and glory of God the Father for all eternity.