Tag Archives: jesus

How Jesus Cherishes His Church

Why Jesus Is My Hero #25 of 52

One of the features of belonging to a large city centre church is that you tend to get invited to a lot of weddings. Every wedding has a Bible reading, and let’s face it, unless you start getting really creative there aren’t a whole lot of appropriate Bible passages to choose from, so you tend to hear fairly similar sermons again and again. One of the downsides of always hearing the same passage used in the wedding context is that its meaning can become somewhat distorted – being applied always just to marriage when it might also be about something else.

Nowhere is this more true than in the case of Ephesians 5:22-33: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord… Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church”. Paul uses the marriage relationship as a beautiful illustration of the love that Jesus Christ has for his bride, the church – v32 “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church”. And yet somehow, it still comes as a shock to me when I actually hear it applied that way – it seems to me to be a passage first and foremost about Jesus, and only secondarily about how husbands and wives should relate to one another; yet it’s sadly rare to hear it given that emphasis.

So what does Ephesians 5 have to teach us about Jesus? Well, you don’t have to hunt very far to find some absolutely mind-blowing thoughts: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish”. Wowsers!

Think of the most beautiful bride you have ever seen, how radiant she appeared as she walked down the aisle, all that care and attention poured into getting her ready for that one glorious moment. Well that’s merely a pale imitation of how Christ has poured himself into getting his bride ready – he went so far as to give himself up for her, to die for her. On the last day, the church – all Christians from across the globe and throughout history, united together – well the church is going to be absolutely spotless, without blemish, gloriously beautiful beyond words. And all the credit for that is going to go to Jesus. On our own we are anything but beautiful – wretched sinners, spiritual adulterers who have spent our whole lives cheating on God (even after being betrothed to him!) But Jesus’ death covers our sin and shame – a wedding dress that people will be talking about for all eternity, when Kate Middleton’s will be long forgotten.

But Paul doesn’t stop there. He continues: “No one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes it and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.” I find that so encouraging to think about. We are so intimately linked to Christ, united to him as we are by the Spirit, that for him to love and care for us is equivalent to him loving and caring for his own body. It’s in his own interests to look after us and make sure that we hold together and arrive safe and sound in the New Creation.

Just think for a minute about all the lengths you’re willing to go to for your own body. Perhaps you remember a time when you gave up chocolate or passed on the offer of a sticky toffee pudding for the sake of your body. Perhaps you’ve once got up early to go for a miserable jog in the pouring rain. Maybe you’ve missed out on all the fun in order to get to bed and have a good night’s sleep for the sake of your body. We spend our hard-earned cash to clothe our bodies. We buy endless beauty products, we wash regularly, we cut our fingernails – how many hours must all that add up to over the course of a lifetime?!

It’s amazing enough to think of a husband loving his wife to that extent – although it only makes sense, says Paul. She is, after all, like his own flesh. But as you watch a married couple who love and cherish one another, remember that that’s only a tiny glimpse of how Christ cares for us, the church.

Three Key Truths About Salvation

Why Jesus is My Hero #24 of 52

“For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people.” (Titus 3:3-8)

This is the gospel of Jesus Christ in five verses – and what encouraging verses they are! Here we see three key truths about salvation:

1. Saved FROM sin

When you say “Jesus saves”, the obvious follow-up question is “saves from what?” How you answer that question basically defines your gospel. Many Christians seem most excited about how he’s saved them from a life of purposelessness and insignificance – and it’s true that the gospel is a solution to them both; other people focus on salvation from poverty and sickness and all the trials of this life – and because of the gospel Christians can look forward to a glorious future where all that stuff is banished forever. But in these verses in Titus, primarily we see Jesus saving us from our sin and its effects in our lives – Jesus saves us from lives lived in opposition to God. Once we lived only for ourselves, enslaved by every whim of our human nature, and living under his condemnation. But now we have been set free and made heirs of the glorious hope of eternal life – not that we never sin, but that sin is no longer our master. Sin is now an anomaly in the life of a believer, rather than the norm.

2. Saved BY God’s grace and mercy

Given how we all once lived, it comes as no surprise that we could not possibly earn salvation by our own effort. Someone who is a slave of sin doesn’t just wake up one morning and decide they’re going to love God instead today. Our salvation is purely the result of God’s loving kindness and mercy, poured out on us utterly undeservedly, on people who have done nothing to merit it. This is such a wonderful encouragement – since when we stuff up and fail it means we can’t somehow “undeserve” God’s salvation. We didn’t earn it in the first place, and God already knew what we were like when he saved us. Phew!

3. Saved FOR good works

Finally, we see the purpose of God’s salvation – that we should begin living new lives devoted to godly living. This would be impossible on our own, but God has poured out his Holy Spirit on believers, we’ve experienced “the washing of regeneration and renewal” – we’re new creations in Christ! Christians a experience a fresh start at their conversion, and indeed every day as they repent again and again – God’s mercies are new every morning. Hoorah!

I don’t know about you, but I find that a real challenge – so often I find myself living for myself exactly as I would if I weren’t a Christian. I need to constantly remind myself that the whole reason I exist, the whole reason I’m still here on this earth, is to serve Jesus Christ. All things were made for him – he’s what it’s all about! It makes me want to start praying more for a right focus, a right sense of purpose each morning as I begin my day.

Paul wants us to know these key truths of the gospel, saying that “these things are excellent and profitable for people” – I think I’m beginning to see why!

Telling It Like It Is

Why Jesus is My Hero #21

It takes a certain amount of guts to face up to the truth sometimes, and especially to say it to people’s faces when you know it’s not what they want to hear. When I look at the person of Jesus, it’s often his straight talking honesty that attracts me to him – and it’s certainly one of the things that made the authorities hate him more than anything else.

Take Mark chapter 7, for instance. Jesus is in a dispute with the Pharisees, who are feeling all smug and morally superior because they’ve spotted that Jesus’ disciples were eating without properly washing their hands, according to their customs – they were defiled! Like he so often did, Jesus completely turns their complaint on its head and uses it to show the Pharisees how it’s actually they who are defiled, and not just superficially in the way they meant it, but deep down on the inside, rotten to the core. Their strict adherence to all of these customs and traditions, though in the guise of seeking to honour God, was actually a sign of how far they were from God:

“‘Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

“This people honours me with their lips,

but their heart is far from me;

in vain do they worship me,

teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”

You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.'”

(Mark 7:6-8)

By taking their human tradition (which is all the thing about hand washing ever was) and elevating it to the standard of a commandment of God, they were actually putting themselves in the place of God and showing just how little they knew of him. In fact, the situation was so bad that they would sometimes use their own traditions as an excuse for not obeying genuine commandments of God: take, for example, their tradition of “Corban” – the idea of dedicating their resources to God, even if that meant failing in their financial responsibilities towards their parents. It looks so very godly and holy on the outside (“I’m fulling devoted to God!”) and yet it simply wasn’t what God wanted from them (which was to get on and honour their parents).

No holds barred, Jesus then lets loose on the Pharisees with both barrels:

“Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled? (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

The food we eat and the things we touch can’t truly defile us – Jesus rather graphically explains how they ultimately pass straight through and, literally translated, into the latrine. Nice. We don’t need external influences to make us ungodly – it’s all right there in our hearts already. The filth that comes out shows that it’s our hearts themselves that are like latrines – all the gross, ugly stuff like our pride and our lying lips and our sexually impure thoughts, that’s what defiles us, and no quick wash of the hands before dinner is going to sort out a mess like that. We need a saviour.

Most people would prefer to suppress a truth like that. It’s far easier and nicer to pretend that we’re all lovely and fine and get on with washing our hands and pretending that that made us terribly godly and righteous before God. But Jesus is gutsy enough to tell the truth, even though it hardly makes him popular with the Pharisees.

A few verses later he does it again: he calls a seemingly fairly godly Syro-phoenician woman a dog – not a very pleasant derogatory term for a Gentile. But with the eyes of faith that woman agrees with Jesus and owns the label: she recognises that as a Gentile she is owed nothing by God – she’s not even worthy to gather up the crumbs from under God’s table. But she knows that it’s worth doing anything she can to get those little scraps of grace from off the floor, if Jesus is willing – and in so doing she discovers the wonders of God’s grace. We have no rights when it comes to expecting good things from God – what could we possibly offer him when our hearts are like latrines pumping out filth? Yet if we accept that fact – if we own up to being dogs, utterly on the outside and deserving nothing – then we are in the perfect place to find God’s grace.

Admitting the truth can be painful. Speaking the truth can make you unpopular. But it’s absolutely the only starting point if you want to discover the riches of relationship with God. That’s why Jesus is my hero.

Christ Who Is Your Life

Why Jesus is My Hero #19 of 52

Friday marked the end of two fantastic years studying on the Cornhill Training Course, meaning lots of fond farewells. Naturally, the “what has been your highlight?” question got asked more than a few times over the course of the evening. One of my friends reminded me of a great lecture by David Jackman directing us towards five little words in Colossians chapter 3:

“When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Colossians 3:4)

“Christ who is your life”. It’s a great truth. It reminds us that life is really nothing to do with us and everything to do with Jesus. He is our life. He’s the one who is great; he’s the one who is righteous in God’s sight; he’s the one whose performance really counts; he’s the one whose glory we’re seeking; he’s the one who it was all created through and for. It’s Christ who is our life.

It’s hugely liberating. It allows us to embrace the weakness of the flesh, as my friend put it. It allows us to own our imperfection, and admit to it, rather than trying to deny it and pretend we’re better than we really are. That’s really been the whole purpose behind this “Why Jesus is My Hero” series – to make much of Christ and less of myself.

So next time you feel the need to justify yourself when somebody accuses you of wrongdoing – next time you feel yourself agitated that somebody else in the room is getting all the attention and you’re not – next time you’re beginning to think and act as though it’s all about you, remember that it’s really not. It’s Christ who is your life – Jesus is the one it’s all for. And be set free from the tyranny of trying to make yourself seem important.

Christ is my life. That’s why he’s my hero.

The Search for the Serpent Crusher

Why Jesus is My Hero #15 of 52

Why is the Bible So Full of Boring Genealogies?

Have you ever wondered why there are so many genealogies in the Bible? They just seem to boring – why were the authors of the Bible so interested in who begat who? It’s these kinds of things that give rise to responses like this scene from the Monty Python film “The Meaning of Life”:

Why are these genealogies there? Well, I can’t answer that question in the general case – you have to read each one on its own terms. But I know that more often than not, there’s nothing boring about them once you begin to get into the mindset of the people writing them. One of the best talks I ever heard was on the genealogy in Genesis 5:

“When Adam had lived for 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth. The days of Adam after he fathered Seth were 800 years; and he had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days that Adam lived were 930 years, and he died.

When Seth had lived for 105 years, he fathered Enosh. Seth lived after he fathered Enosh for 807 years and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Seth were 912 years, and he died.

When Enosh had lived for 90 years, he fathered Kenan. Enosh lived after he fathered Kenan for 815 years and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Enosh were 905 years, and he died…”

…and so the list goes on. In all we’re given eleven generations of mankind in this same formulaic structure. BOR-ING! Except it’s really not. When you get into the story, it turns out it’s absolutely riveting stuff – it’s edge of your seat material.

You see, God made a promise back in Genesis 3:15:

The Lord God said to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

We’re living after the fall. Adam & Eve have rebelled against God’s command and eaten of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They’ve suffered the consequences by being banished from the garden, and now we’re seeing God’s first promise coming to fulfilment: “in the day you eat of it you shall surely die.” You cannot read the genealogy on chapter 5 without noticing the tragic refrain coming over and over again: “and he died.” It’s miserable reading – just as God said would be the case, by disobeying God, Adam & Eve have brought death into the world, and it’s utterly unnatural.

But we also have the promise of 3:15 ringing in our ears – the hope of an offspring who will do battle with the serpent. It’s only a vague and ambiguous hope, but at this point in the story it’s the only hope we have! So when we read in chapter 5 that Adam and Eve have a son, Seth, it’s a very exciting moment! But then he dies. It’s not going to be him after all. Well maybe it will be his son, Enosh? But no, he dies too. Well what about Kenan? Dead. Mahalalel? Dead. Jared? Dead. Each time our hopes are raised, only to be dashed again. The pattern is only broken with Enoch who “walked with God, and he was not, for God took him” – somehow Enoch escapes death. But he doesn’t remain to bruise the serpent’s head, and our search for the saviour continues.

Things seem pretty hopeful when Noah shows up – he’s described as the most righteous man of his generation, and as a result is rescued from the flood when the rest of mankind perishes. Yet even he turns out to be a disappoint, when we find him drunk in his vineyard a few chapters later. The search for the serpent crusher carries on, and by the time we reach the end of the Old Testament it would be easy to think that God had forgotten that obscure promise he made all those years ago.

It makes for thrilling reading then we finally meet the person of Jesus Christ at the start of Matthew’s gospel, and he goes head to head with Satan in the wilderness. Where Adam & Eve failed to obey God’s word and ate the fruit, Jesus resists Satan’s temptation and clings to God’s promises, trusting in his word when every instinct must have been telling him to listen to the Devil’s lies and eat. Finally the serpent crusher is here – and on the cross we see that promise fulfilled: they each destroy the other, as Jesus is nailed to a cross and killed, and Satan’s mortal power is swallowed up as the penalty for sin is paid once and for all. Only, thankfully, that’s not the end of the story, as Jesus is raised to life on the third day, triumphing over evil forever. That’s why Jesus is my hero, and why I’m persuaded that there’s nothing boring about a Biblical genealogy.

Jesus the Pre-Eminent One

Why Jesus is My Hero #11 of 52

Podium

The aim of this “Why Jesus is My Hero” series has been to make a big deal about Jesus, to help me think more about him and less about myself. It’s hard to imagine a Bible passage which does that better than Colossians 1:15-20. According to the apostle Paul, Jesus is kind of a big deal:

“He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities- all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”

Basically, when it comes to life, the universe and everything, it’s all about Jesus! It was made by him, it was made for him, and everything that happens takes place to make him look good. It’s God’s intention that he should be pre-eminent – that is, that he should be seen to be front and centre, that nobody should be thought more significant than him. Everything that we have comes from him: he sustains the universe moment by moment and prevents it from flying apart, and it’s only because of him that we can have the least hope of a restored relationship with God. The hope of eternal life is ours only because he went before us and rose from the dead himself.

But above all, he was far, far more than just a mere man. In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell – that’s a LOT of fullness. Where we are flawed and weak and fail to honour God in the way that we should, he is perfect and flawless and mighty and, above all, holy. For sinful man to stand in the presence of God would mean instant death for us, yet all the fullness of God can dwell in Jesus because he is the righteous one.

This is reality. Jesus is the pre-eminent one, whether we recognise it or not. So it’s such a tragedy when we ignore him or think of him just as a means to an end. “Thanks for dying for me, Jesus! Now I’ll just get on with my life, see you later!” So often I live as a “functional unitarian” – I’m not sure you could tell that I believe in the Trinity just by observing my actions or even by hearing my prayers. Jesus is so small in my thinking compared to this vision of him here in Colossians. That’s why it’s my prayer that I would begin to make much of Jesus, just as the Bible does. He is absolutely the most important man in the universe. That’s why Jesus is my hero.

Who Do You Fear?

Why Jesus is My Hero #10 of 52

As I sat down to try and decide which Bible passage to blog about this week, I thought it was about time I did another Old Testament passage. What sprang to mind was Nehemiah 6:1-19, since I’ve recently had to preach on it, but I realised how similar it was to the previous Old Testament passage I used, in “The King Who Fears God“, since Nehemiah 6 is also about the importance of the fear of God. But if the fear of God is such a common theme in the Old Testament, then who am I to differ?

Fear is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, partly with the assistance of the excellent book “Running Scared” by Ed Welch. It’s so easy to be controlled by fear – indeed, we live in a scary world, and sometimes that fear is well justified. Fear of what people will think about us; fear of what people might do to us; fear of what the future will hold; fear of how we’ll have enough money to get by; fear of what will happen to our family; fear of what will happen if this thing I’m working on isn’t as good as I want it to be; fear of what I’ll do wrong next.

Nehemiah lived in a time when fear was well justified too. He’d just returned from exile in Babylon to oversee the other Jewish people who had returned to Jerusalem to help rebuild the city walls, destroyed decades earlier by King Nebuchadnezzar’s invading army. The people of Judah were a laughing stock amongst the surrounding nations – they were a tiny remnant of the people they’d once been, they were intensely vulnerable should anybody wish to attack them, and it must have been so hard for Nehemiah and his countrymen to persevere instead of being crippled by fear. The enemies of God are represented in the book of Nehemiah by Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem the Arab. They’ve tried to stop the rebuilding effort earlier in the book through intimidation tactics, but under Nehemiah’s able leadership the people of Jerusalem rose to the challenge and struggled on. As we reach Chapter 6, the miserable threesome try a different tactic: they’ve realised that in order to halt the building work, they’re going to have to take out Nehemiah. As long as he’s around to keep the people focussed, they’re always going to struggle. But if they can disable Nehemiah then the building effort is sure to fall to pieces. So they try to kidnap him and they try to discredit his name with a false rumour. Their goal is the same in each case: “They all wanted to frighten us, thinking, ‘Their hand will drop from the work, and it will not be done.'” (Nehemiah 6:9) But each time they are thwarted.

Finally, they try one more thing: they try to intimidate Nehemiah to the point where he sins against God to protect himself. If they can’t discredit his name through a false rumour, maybe they can generate a rumour with some actual merit to it. So they hire an inside man to tell Nehemiah that his life is in danger, and to encourage him to seek safe-haven inside the temple. This is Nehemiah’s reponse:

“‘Should such a man as I run away? And what man such as I could go into the temple and live? I will not go in.’ And I understood and saw that God had not sent him, but he had pronounced the prophecy against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. For this purpose he was hired, that I should be afraid and act in this way and sin, and so they could give me a bad name in order to taunt me.” (Nehemiah 6:11-13)

It’s not exactly clear why, but Nehemiah sees that for him to hide inside the temple would be a grave sin against God. It’s possible he’s referring to the inner sanctum of the temple, the Holy of Holies, where only the priests were allowed to enter. It’s also conceivable that having worked as cup-bearer to the King of Babylon, Nehemiah may have been made a eunuch, making it a sin to enter anywhere into the temple grounds. But whatever the reason, Nehemiah recognises it as a sin, and rather than fearing Tobiah and Sanballat, he makes a choice to fear God instead. His fear of what man might do to him was driven out by a greater fear of what God might do to him.

The result is striking: a great reversal takes place, as the people persevere to complete the rebuilding of the city walls, and it becomes their enemy’s turn to fear: “And when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem, for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.” (Nehemiah 6:16)

It’s a great object lesson in the importance of fearing God instead of man. As Jesus told his disciples: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” But fear isn’t always entirely rational, and so often we find ourselves intensely afraid of those who could kill the body (or our reputation, or our job prospects, or whatever it might be). The great encouragement of Nehemiah 6 to me was the way that it points us to Jesus: God’s enemies knew that they couldn’t stop the people building the city walls until they took out their leader, and his resolute devotion to fearing God meant that ultimately they failed. Likewise for us, all kinds of enemies, both physical and spiritual, might wish to assail us, but as long as our leader, Jesus, stands firm on our behalf, ultimately they will not prevail. We need look no further than his forty days of temptation in the wilderness, remembered by many at this time of lent, to see in Jesus the perfect fear of God that we so desperately need. It doesn’t mean that bad things won’t happen – according to Jesus, our enemies do have the power to kill the body, and for some of our brothers and sisters around the world, refusing to sin against God may well cost them their very lives – but ultimately we can trust God to preserve our souls to eternal life, so long as Jesus stands to make intercession for me before the throne of heaven.

That’s why Jesus is my hero, and why I need not be afraid any longer.

Why We Can Know That God Exists

Why Jesus is my Hero #9 of 52

Life in a Closed World

Imagine that you’d lived your whole life inside a well-lit room without windows. There’s a door in one wall, but it has remained locked your entire life, and there appears to be no key to it. Your whole experience has been lived out inside this room. From time to time you speculate about what’s outside the room – is there even an outside? A storybook you used to enjoy talked about these things called ‘trees’ and the ‘sky’, and they sound great – but you have no idea if they really exist or if it’s just fantasy. And what on earth do they really look like? All you have is a kind of cartoon representation of them. Are there other people outside the room? How many? What are they like? These are important questions, but whatever answers you can come up with are mere speculation – you simply cannot see beyond the four walls of the room in which you live.

In many ways that’s a fair picture of our musings about the divine. We live within this physical world of what we can see and touch, and though we might speculate about a spiritual world beyond, our inability to see it means we can never really be certain. As long as that door remains locked, agnosticism about life ‘outside the room’ is the perfectly logical state of mind – any claims I might make about “knowing the truth” is sheer arrogance.

Why Agnosticism Is No Longer a Tenable Position

But now imagine somebody bursts through the door – a man who has seen the outside world and lived in it his whole life, and who knows exactly what’s out there. That totally transforms things, doesn’t it? You might still have plenty of questions about this man’s trustworthiness – is he telling you the truth? Is he a reliable witness to the world outside? But now the debate is centred on this man and his character – the possibility for knowledge now exists in a way that it never did before. If the man could prove that he came from outside – if he brought with him a bunch of flowers, say – then to refuse to believe him and to sit down on the floor in a huff and never discover the wonders of the outside world, well that would be a real tragedy, wouldn’t it?

The Apostle Paul claimed that we have had just such an eye-opening opportunity in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Previously it made perfect sense to be uncertain about the existence of God and exactly what he’s like – we could make guesses but we could never be certain. But Paul says that in Jesus, God has broken into his world, he’s become visible and taken on flesh and blood. He’s told us what’s “outside the room”, what God is like. And he invites us to come and know him for ourselves. He puts it like this:

“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31, emphasis mine)

Why Christianity Is Easy to Disprove

As far as I’m aware, Christianity is the only religion in the world that can be easily disproved: all you have to do – all the authorities at the time of Jesus would have had to have done – would be to find Jesus’ body, and we can all pack our bags and go home. Christianity is rooted in a falsifiable historical event – the resurrection of a man from the dead. That’s something that either did happen or did not happen. And if it did – well then that changes everything. It means we can know the truth for certain – we can know that God exist.

Some people would dismiss all this talk as complete nonsense – obviously people don’t rise from the dead, so to say it’s a “historical event” that really happened makes me a loon. But that’s a logical fallacy. Of course dead people usually stay dead. Of course it would be absolutely extraordinary if even one man in the entire history of the world failed to stay dead. But in the highly unlikely event that Jesus did rise from the dead, then we have to revise our understanding of the world: maybe there is life beyond death after all.

There are still plenty of important questions to be asked, like did he rise from the dead? Even if he did, can we trust what he tells us about God – is this man Jesus a reliable witness? But the debate is now centered around the person of Jesus, it’s no longer mere speculation in the abstract. To refuse to engage with the question of Jesus’ identity now would be desperately tragic.

The Urgency of the Question

And it’s a particularly important and urgent question to investigate, because of what Paul tells us: God has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed. There’s a day of judgement coming, and how we’ve responded to Jesus is going to be top of the agenda. Don’t stick your head in the sand and pretend we can never know whether God exists. If Jesus is who he says he is then we absolutely can.

Jesus is the man who shows us that God exists, and that’s why he’s my hero.

Way More Than An Angel

Why Jesus is my Hero #8 of 52

Just how special is Jesus? Was he just a man – a good teacher, an all round nice guy, someone with some pretty smart things to say? Was he something more than that – a kind of heavenly being, some form of angel sent from God to show us the way? The model of the “ideal man”, but still something less than God himself? Was he content to be thought of as an ordinary human being before some of his early followers came along and hijacked the discussion and made him out to be God himself in human form?

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You come across those kinds of different ideas about Jesus all the time – whether from atheists or from Jehovah’s Witnesses or wherever it might be. I think my normal reaction would be to turn to the New Testament and show some of the ways in which Jesus himself spoke about his identity, or where Paul speaks of him in divine terms. But chewing over the first chapter of Hebrews recently I was struck by the slightly surprising approach the author takes: to turn to the Old Testament and see how God speaks about his Messiah. As he does so, he shows us that Jesus is far more than just a man, far more even than some kind of super-angel – he is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” – the creator of the Universe himself.

It’s another round of Bible Top-Trumps as the author of Hebrews takes us back to a number of Old Testament passages that clearly speak of the coming Messiah and plays him off against the angels – and he wins every time. He is addressed as God’s unique and only-begotten “Son” – something that is never applied to the angels. All the angels are told to worship him. So far so good – but I guess he could still be some kind of angel himself, just one who is vastly superior to all the others. But then it starts going really off the scales:

“But of the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, is for ever and ever, the sceptre of uprightness is the sceptre of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions'” (Hebrews 1:8, emphasis mine)

He is addressed by God as God. And then in the next one, we’re told he is the creator of the universe:

“You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain” (Hebrews 1:10-11)

As someone who grew up in a Christian home, I sometimes take it a bit for granted thinking of Jesus in divine terms. But I imagine that for a Jewish audience, some of this stuff would be mind-blowing and almost blasphemous when they first heard it. But there it all is, in the Old Testament scriptures, in black and white. God refers to his Messiah as though he is also somehow God himself. This is no last minute addition, a bolt-on that Jesus himself would have been horrified by, had he known. This is central to Jesus’ understanding of his own identity and mission.

The implications of all this for the author of Hebrews is clear:

“Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” (Hebrews 2:1)

Angels in the Bible are pretty scary creatures that strike fear into the hearts of all who meet them. How much more should we therefore stand in awe of the Lord Jesus – the exact imprint of God’s nature! Jewish tradition held that the Old Testament covenant was delivered to Moses on the top of mount Sinai by angels, and so the author of Hebrews uses his comparison of Jesus with the angels as a way of saying that the New Testament covenant must be even more glorious, and even more worthy of our attention and obedience. It’s no trifling matter to hear the gospel message and then ignore it.

Jesus is God in human form – the Creator of the Universe come down to earth. That’s why he is my hero, and why he really deserves my love, my devotion and my utmost attention and obedience.

Subduing The Forces of Chaos and Evil

Why Jesus is My Hero #7 of 52

The Perfect Storm

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Imagine the scene: you’re on a little fishing boat out on the middle of the sea. Only it’s not a tranquil afternoon pleasure cruise – you’re caught in the midst of a violent storm. The thick clouds in the sky above are pelting you with rain so heavy that you’re drenched to your very skin. The boat is lurching violently from side to side as the waves crash against it, and it’s quickly filling up as water pours over the sides. You hope against hope that it’s merely passing by and that the storm will subside before it utterly sinks you, but then you notice that the hardened fisher men who own the boat – men with plenty of experience of violent storms who know how to tell when they’re in danger – well they’re utterly terrified and yelling about how we’re all going to perish. Now you know you’re in trouble.

As you claw your way towards them to check if perhaps you misheard them against the raging winds, you notice an unusual scene. Despite the chaos all around you, there’s a man sleeping peacefully upon a cushion. When the fishermen wake him, he seems annoyed that they’ve disturbed his nap for no good reason – as though he’s completely oblivious to the danger he’s in. The fishermen are pointing him towards the water pouring over the sides, which he finally seems to acknowledge with disinterest. And then, with a little yawn, the man turns towards the raging sea and says to it, “Peace! Be still!”

At once, in an instant, the rocking of the boat stops, the clouds part, and the sea becomes flat like a mill pond. The man turns to the fisherman and says, “Why are you so afraid? Have you no faith?”

How would you expect the fishermen to respond? This man has just rescued them from the most fearsome storm they’ve ever experienced, merely with a word. He’s rebuked the raging wind like it was a naughty puppy, only for it to retreat with its tail between its legs.

Well, those events really happened, and one of those fishermen recounted their response for his friend Mark to write down for us:

“They were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?'” (Mark 4:35-41)

If they were afraid before, whilst in the middle of the storm, that’s nothing to how afraid they were now, to witness this man whose very words had the power to rebuke the utter chaos of the seas.

Taming The Hulk

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It doesn’t get much better when they land. They moor their boat near a graveyard, and are immediately greeted by a man who has his home amongst the tombs. The locals were terrified of him – all night long they could hear him howling like a zombie as he cut himself with stones. They’d tried subduing him and binding him in chains, but he seemed to possess super-human strength, and broke his bonds in pieces as if they were made of string.

The man seems to recognise Jesus, and at once he runs towards him and bows his head low before him, begging for mercy. He claims to be possessed by an army of demons – they call themselves Legion – and everything the disciples’ eyes and ears tell them support the veracity of his unusual claim.

Having witnessed Jesus calming the storm, the disciples no doubt wondered what fireworks they were about to see. Jesus speaks directly to the demons and commands them to come out of the man, giving them permission to enter a herd of pigs nearby. Everybody watches in amazement as two thousand pigs suddenly rush down the steep bank and over the cliffs into the sea below, demonstrating the incredible destructive potential of this legion of demons.

Once more, how do you suppose the locals responded? When they see the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, they are afraid. They recognise in Jesus a power greater than two thousand demons, and they shoo him away, desperately seeking to get as much distance between him and them as they can. This man Jesus has a power over the forces of evil that is truly terrifying if you’re not sure he’s on your side.

A Power Not To Be Trifled With

The wonderful news of the rest of Mark’s gospel is that this fearsome man, Jesus, is willing to be on the side of all those who will trust in him. He came to earth to defeat the forces of chaos and evil, to usher in the Kingdom of God in which Satan’s power is bound up and brought to an end, and all this through the ransom he paid by his death on the cross. That’s why Jesus is my hero – he has a power unlike no other man, and yet he wields it for the good of those who love him.

Humility in the Search for God

N.B.: This is a follow-up post to Why Programmers find it hard to be Christians.

Last week’s post on Programmers and Christianity generated quite a lot of debate, both here on the blog and over on Hacker News. Obviously when you write a post like that and post it to a secular programming forum, you expect a good deal of disagreement and healthy discussion. But even so, I still found myself surprised at how dismissive many of the commenters were. The most common response to the post is exemplified by this comment:

Why do programmers find it hard to be Christians? “Simple answer: it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore reason and logic when you spend most of your time using it”

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In other words, you have to dispense with logic and reason to be a Christian, and that’s not in a programmer’s nature. Many people resorted to a kind of ad hominem retort: the very fact that I’m a Christian seemed to disqualify me from being worthy of their attention, because it inherently demonstrated a poor grasp of how logic works (in fairness to Hacker News, the quality of the debate over there was much higher than on my blog itself, but some of the same attitude was still evident).

Ultimately, I think that kind of attitude is arrogant – it assumes that we know it all already and that there might not be another side to the argument that we hadn’t considered. But had I stopped and thought for a moment, I shouldn’t have been surprised at that response at all. And I don’t just mean because this is the internet! Jesus himself taught that this is exactly how the world works:

“Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.'” (Luke 10:21)

According to Jesus, to have too high an opinion of ourselves – to think of ourselves as being “wise and understanding” – is a serious barrier to seeing clearly. If God does exist, then he isn’t there as some kind of logical equation that we can just figure out if only we put enough thought into it. Jesus says that it requires revelation for people to come to know God – the fact that he isn’t visible to the naked eye means that he is impervious to even the greatest systems thinker on the planet. We can only know as much about him as he has chosen to reveal to us.

I imagine that many programmers reading this right now will be utterly riled by such a claim. It seems so convenient! But take a deep breath and think for a moment. Be humble enough to admit that you might not have all the answers. It has to be this way, doesn’t it? Jesus rejoices in the fact that it takes revelation to know God. It’s a great leveller that means we’re all on equal footing before God – nobody can claim to have figured it out by their superior intellect. And it means that we’re not reduced to mere guesswork – hoping that we’ve not made any errors in our deductive reasoning and ended up with a completely false view of who God is.

None of this is to say that Christianity is irrational or based on mere superstitious belief. As far as I’m aware, it’s the one religion in the world rooted in falsifiable, historical events – the life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Present the dead body of Jesus and we can all pack our bags and go home. But reason alone can only take us so far, and unless we acknowledge that fact and seek God with an attitude of humility like a helpless child, then Jesus says we will never be able to know God for ourselves.

The Man Who Made Me Rich

Why Jesus Is My Hero #6 of 52

Seeing Wealth With Spiritual Eyes

Money, money, money. Money makes the world go round. We measure people by their wealth- by their car or by their phone. If we have money we fear losing it; if we don’t have it we dream of how life would be different if only we could get our hands on some. We live as though our happiness depends upon having money, and preferably lots of it.

So I’ve been challenged recently by some surprising words of the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians. The life of an apostle was hardly a shortcut to wealth – Paul suffered constant opposition, he was shipwrecked, he was beaten and stoned and on several occasions came within an inch of his life. And yet he writes this:

“We are treated as…having nothing, yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:10)

To look at him, Paul had absolutely nothing – not a penny to his name. Yet with the eyes of faith, Paul recognised that he possessed everything that mattered – spiritually speaking, he was rich beyond his wildest dreams. He had a relationship with God through Jesus Christ – a treasure far more tangible and lasting than any iPad.

Through the book of 2 Corinthians, Paul invites us to look at the world through spiritual eyes. To live by faith and not by sight – seeing things as they really are. We often think of the “spiritual” as being somehow less tangible, more airy fairy. But Paul tells us what nonsense that is – this world is a fleeting fancy in comparison with the eternal realities that Paul invites us to consider.

It’s into this context, then, that Paul speaks this beautiful gospel summary:

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9)

Our Poverty

The first thing I noticed when reading this verse the other day was the implicit assumption that without Jesus we are poor. So what does Paul mean by that? Compared to him (and a lot of people in the world today) I’m incredibly wealthy, if he’s just thinking about my bank balance and the quality of my life. Well, with our gospel spectacles on, he’s clearly talking about our spiritual state. Earlier on he talks about those without Christ as being “blind” and “perishing”: the god of this world has blinded our minds, to keep us from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. Naturally we’re cut off from God by our sin – we want nothing to do with him, preferring to invent our own version of God or rejecting him entirely. We’re unable to recognise the good in him, we have no spiritual sight. Without Christ, we are spiritually bankrupt.

His Wealth

By contrast, Paul says that Jesus was rich. Jesus lived in perfect relationship with his Father since all eternity, standing in his presence, unblemished by any hint of sin. Spiritually speaking he had it all.

He Became Poor

The glory of Jesus Christ in this verse is that completely of his free grace he chose not to stand on his rights, but for our sake he gave it all up and became poor. He took on flesh, and lived in poverty – being born in a mangy stable. He didn’t come to a wealthy family, being born the son of an earthly king. Instead, his earthly father was a humble carpenter. But more than that, he became spiritually poor. On the cross he was cut off from God, suffering his wrath in our place. Paul puts it like this:

“For our sake, he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

On the cross, Jesus was spiritually bankrupt in our place. The full extent of God’s wrath was poured out upon him, just as we deserved.

We Can Become Rich

The wonderful truth is that as a result of Jesus’ willingness to go to the cross for us, we can be restored to a right relationship with God. We can “become the righteousness of God” – treated as though we were perfect like Jesus. He became poor so that we through his poverty might become rich. I can enjoy an eternity with God, without deserving it in the least.

Having nothing I possess everything. I am rich beyond my wildest dreams. That’s why Jesus is my hero.

The Man in Whom Heaven and Earth Meet

Why Jesus is My Hero #5 of 52

HEAVEN

When life throws you yet another curve ball and everything seems to be going wrong, even the strongest faith can be tested, wondering if God can really be out there and in control. Something within us longs to know for certain – if only we were able to reach out and touch him, to have a tangible experience of his presence, like Adam & Eve as they walked with God in the garden of Eden and spoke with him.

But, of course, things aren’t as they were back then. Adam & Eve may have spoken with God but they certainly didn’t listen, and their act of rebellion – the very pattern of sin that we repeat for ourselves in our own lives day after day – caused a rift between God and man that could not easily be repaired. Sin introduced a seemingly impenetrable barrier between heaven and earth – humanity was kicked out of the garden and the Cherubim was placed by the entrance with his flaming sword to make sure they could never get back in.

It’s a moment of earth-shattering significance, then, when that great chasm between heaven and earth is bridged at a particular point in space-time in the holy of holies at the heart of the temple in Jerusalem. God is present in the midst of his people – tangibly present, though it proves to be highly dangerous for such sinful people. The Cherubim still symbolically guards the way, his image embroidered into the curtain to warn people against entering uninvited. But then once again humanity’s endemic rebellion proves to be their undoing, and God’s glory departs as the temple is destroyed and the people of Judah are carted off into exile. The bridge between heaven and earth is broken down.

Enter the stage, then, Jesus of Nazareth. Early on in John’s gospel he delivers this cryptic statement:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:51)

It’s a reference back to Jacob’s ladder – the patriarch’s dream about the gates of heaven, where angels ascend and descend on Bethel: “the house of God”. Jesus is making a startling claim which he repeats numerous times throughout his life: he himself is the true temple – heaven and earth meet once again in his body. His disciples could literally reach out and touch God – experience God in a tangible way.

So when we’re doubting if God is really there, when we’re wondering what he’s really like, we can turn to the eye witness accounts of the life of Jesus and encounter the one in whom heaven and earth meet – the answer to all our doubts. That’s why Jesus is my hero.

The King Who Fears God – Why Jesus is My Hero #3 of 52

Human beings love to be lead. We may treat our politicians with contempt, but it’s only because we desperately want someone with backbone to take charge and say “I’m here now, it’s all going to be ok”. Yet human leadership always seems to fall short. I only need to say the word “Obama” and you’ll know what I mean.

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The Old Testament is full of ‘shadows’ that hint at the shape that the coming Messiah will take, and few are as crucial as that of The King. Like a game of Top Trumps, the Bible encourages us to examine these human figures and compare them to God’s heavenly king, Jesus, and see how they stack up. As we do so, we see more and more clearly just how awesome Jesus is. So in today’s round of “Bible Top Trumps” we’re going to be pitting Jesus against Israel’s first king: Saul. Our chosen stat is going to be the fear of God.

I have a bit of a soft spot for Saul because he’s sort of the anti-hero of my Old Testament adventure game, Ebenezer. When he was appointed king, everybody was so full of high hopes, including us as readers. The people were under threat from all kinds of external enemies and feeling desperately vulnerable. Saul’s name literally means “asked for”: they urgently wanted God to provide a king for them, and it seems clear that Saul is God’s provision. Before the prophet Samuel first lays eyes on him, he is told by God that “Tomorrow about this time I will send to you a man from the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him to be prince over my people Israel. He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines” (1 Samuel 9:16). And initially things seem to go well: anointed by the Spirit of God, Saul leads the Israelites to victory against the Ammonites and against the Philistines.

But in no time at all things take a nosedive. However physically impressive and strong in battle he may be, Saul turns out to be weak in the fear of God. When God has commanded him to go one way, his fear of man kicks in and overrides. Take the incident in 1 Samuel 15. God has commanded him to devote to destruction the Amalekites and all their livestock, in judgement for their opposition to God and his people several hundred years earlier during their wanderings in the wilderness. When Samuel shows up after the battle, Saul bounds up to him and proudly announces: “I have performed the commandment of the Lord.” In a moment of black humour comes Samuel’s unforgettable reply: “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears and the lowing of the oxen that I hear?”

It turns out that Saul has not performed the commandment of the Lord at all. Despite being clearly told not to spare any of the livestock, Saul is persuaded by the people to save the best of the sheep and the oxen. It’s okay though, he’s got a really godly excuse: “the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen to sacrifice to the Lord”. How he expected to get away with it is mind boggling – it’s not like it’s that easy to hide flocks and flocks of sheep! The explanation for his behaviour comes a few verses later in v24:

“I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice.” (1 Samuel 15:24)

Samuel has to remind him who he is: “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel?” (v17) He’s the king! He’s supposed to be leading the people in godliness and in the fear of the Lord, and yet here is is, desperately afraid of their opinion, desperately craving their recognition and approval. Instead of leading them, the people are leading him. The result is catastrophic.

What a joy then, when one thousand years later Jesus shows up and demonstrates his perfect fear of God. Time after time he refuses to bow to pressure from those around him who want to shut him up and rid Jerusalem of his teaching. The night before his crucifixion, at a moment when he had every reason to fear what man could do to him, he chose instead to perform the commandment of the Lord and walk willingly to his death. “Father, not my will, but yours.” In a game of Bible Top Trumps he absolutely wipes the floor with Saul in the fear of God. For fearful people like me, having a King like that is something that makes me very happy indeed.

Overflowing Fullness – Why Jesus is My Hero #2 of 52

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So how are those new year’s resolutions coming along then? It’s now the end of January, and if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably long since forgotten that you even made any. We’re often so full of good intentions, and sometimes we even manage to put a few of them into practice, but eventually we always run into our own limitations – resolutions fizzle out, our energy ebbs away, we discover the limits of our own abilities. We’re finite creatures and ultimately, however much we might try and deny it, we’re fundamentally needy: we’re unable to be all that we want to be and we’re dependent upon grace from outside ourselves.

That’s why I love one of the big themes of John’s gospel: Jesus’ fullness. We are empty and needy, but Jesus is the one who is full within himself, and he longs to share that fullness with us. John 1:16 puts it like this: “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”

This fullness of Jesus is beautifully illustrated in John chapter 2 at the wedding in Cana. The bridegroom is at risk of being seriously embarrassed: his need and his finiteness is brought to the fore when he runs out of wine, a serious faux pas at a Jewish wedding at that time. Jesus’ mum throws him in the deep end and gets him to help out, and so reluctantly he tells the servants to fill six stone water jars with water, which he promptly transforms into wine of outstanding quality – so good that the master of the feast can’t help but comment on it. This is no Chateaux Le Plonk. And how much does Jesus make of the stuff? Well, we’re told that each of these jars holds between 20 and 30 gallons, and there are six of them. Let’s call that 25 gallons each, or about 680 litres. That’s 900 bottles of wine!!! And people think of Jesus as a party pooper!

It’s an absurd volume of wine, and I think the picture is abundantly clear, isn’t it? Life with Jesus is one of overflowing grace. Ludicrous fullness that can hardly be contained. It’s a little picture of what heaven will be like – a glorious banquet, a place of abundance where sin and death and sadness and emptiness is no more. Listen to these words from the prophet Isaiah:

“On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
of rich food full or marrow, of aged wine well refined.
And he will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death for ever” (Isaiah 25:6-8)

Jesus gives out of his fullness: “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” And so my emptiness and my neediness and my finite limitations are irrelevant. In fact, recognising them is a positive thing, since they serve to make me all the more ready to receive what Jesus has to offer. It’s wonderful news for needy people like me, and that’s why Jesus is my hero.

I’m no hero – Why Jesus is My Hero #1 of 52

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I admit it: I want to be a hero. I love the sense of smug self-satisfaction I get after successfully leaping out of bed before 7am. I love anything that marks me apart from the rest of humanity and helps me feel like I might be special after all.

The trouble is, in lots of ways, I’m pretty mediocre. I’m downright average. In fact, in some departments I’m full on sub-standard – just ask my physiotherapist about my weak knees! One of the things that going to university in Cambridge does to you is that it quickly shatters any illusions you may have had about being exceptionally clever or talented – every day you’re bumping into people a hundred times smarter than you, and they almost certainly play the piano like a pro too. God makes each one of us differently with a unique set of gifts, and the simple fact is that some of us get a fuller measure than others. We may be equal in dignity, but that doesn’t mean we all stand the same chance of being hired by NASA to help send a rocket ship to Mars.

One of my common responses to my own limitations is to seek to live vicariously through other exceptional individuals. I think that’s what lies behind my choice of blog subscriptions: many belong to obscure software developers toiling away in unglamorous roles, but boy do they get stuff done. These guys know how to code! And maybe they’re hot on the accordion too just for kicks. I’m almost certain that’s why I follow Apple’s every move with such baited breath: it’s pure and simple hero worship, basking in the glory of geniuses who consistently manage to design things people want to own.

Thing is, my desire to be a hero brings me into conflict with the God who made me. I want his job, wanting people to worship me and recognise how special I am. There’s only room enough in this universe for one Supreme Being, and that makes me God’s enemy. That’s why this week I’m loving Romans 5:8-10:

“But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us… while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son”

It turns out I’m not a hero, I’m a sinner. But it also turns out that I don’t need to be a hero to find value and worth – Jesus is a hero in my place. Without doing anything to deserve it or earn it, whilst I was still God’s enemy, Jesus died to rescue me. I don’t need to stress about not being a hero, or try desperately to prove to myself that I am – he’s already accepted me by dying for me. No striving necessary, only simple, humble trust.

That’s why I’m starting to write this new series of blog posts, 52 reasons why Jesus is my hero: to help myself recognise just how much of a hero Jesus really is, and to try to turn my gaze away from myself.