One of the most searching tests to apply to any religion concerns its attitude to death. And measured by this test much so-called Christianity is found wanting in its black clothes, its mournful chants and its requiem masses. Of course dying can be very unpleasant, and bereavement can bring bitter sorrow. But death itself has been overthrown, and ‘blessed are the dead who die in the Lord’ (Rev. 14:13). The proper epitaph to write for a Christian believer is not a dismal and uncertain petition, ‘R.I.P.’ (requiescat in pace, ‘may he rest in peace’), but a joyful and certain affirmation ‘C.A.D.’ (‘Christ abolished death’).
—Dr. John R.W. Stott, The Message of 2 Timothy
In biblical thought death consists of the separation of the soul from the body. At death the body ceases to be the home of the human spirit, and so begins to decay or ‘return to the dust’. But the soul or spirit survives this crisis and lives on in a disembodied condition until the day of resurrection when Christ returns. For this reason the period between death and resurrection is called by theologians ‘the intermediate state’ — not because it is a third alternative, intermediate between heaven and hell, but because it is a temporary state, intermediate between death and the resurrection.
—Dr. John R.W. Stott, Beyond the Divide
They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.” Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.” When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
—Mark 10:32-45 (TNIV)
What a fascinating story that unfolds here. Mark tells us that Jesus’ followers are astonished and afraid as he heads toward Jerusalem and certain death. He even tells the twelve for the third time that this is what is going to happen. So what is James’ and John’s reaction? They wanna know if they can be Big Shots along with Jesus in his coming kingdom! Never mind, Jesus, that you are going to Jerusalem to die for us so that we might have a chance to live with God forever. Never mind the terrible cost you are about to pay. Never mind that we are totally not worthy of you doing any of this. No, we’re more interested in what you can do to satisfy our immediate petty desires. We wanna be Big Shots like you.
It is easy for us to criticize James and John as armchair quarterbacks because they really did act badly here. But how often are we guilty of doing the same? How often to we gloss over what God has done for us in the cross of Jesus Christ and focus instead on our own myopic and petty desires?
But as Jesus reminds us here, that is not how it is to be if we choose to follow him. We must learn to put our own needs aside and seek to follow him, in part, by serving others and proclaiming the Good News to them as opportunities arise. This is what denying self really means. It means giving up our place at the center of the universe and giving it to Jesus. It means realizing that we really aren’t worthy to be loved by him but that he loves us nevertheless because of his great compassion and mercy for us.
To understand this means you are getting nearer to the meaning of observing a holy Lent. How is that going for you?
God asks for the heart, but the heart is oppressed with uncertainty in its own twilight. God asks for faith, and the heart is not sure of its own faith. It is good that there is a dawn of decision for the sight of the heart; deeds to objectify faith, definite forms to verify belief.
—Abraham Heschel, God in Search of Man
Only very late do we learn the price of the risk of believing, because only very late do we face up to the idea of death. This is what is difficult: believing truly means dying. Dying to everything: to our reasoning, to our plans, to our past, to our childhood dreams, to our attachment to earth, and sometimes even to the sunlight, as at the moment of our physical death. That is why faith is so difficult. It is so difficult to hear from Jesus a cry of anguish for us and our difficulties in believing, “Oh, if only you could believe!” Because not even he can take our place in the leap of Faith; it is up to us. It is like dying! It is up to us, and no one is able to take our place. This mature act of faith is terribly, uniquely personal. Its risk involves us down to the core; the truest and greatest prototype of this act of faith that we, as the People of God, possess is the biblical account of the trial of Abraham. “God said, ‘Take your son Isaac, your only one whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him up as a holocaust on a height that I will point out to you”‘ (Gen. 22:2). That is a leap of pure faith proposed to Abraham! It is a personal act, and it is an act of death. Without love it is impossible to understand such a proposal; on the contrary, it is scandalous. But for anyone who loves? Seeing God wrapt round the colossal figure of this patriarch, alone in the desert beside his tent…no, that is no scandal, but quite the contrary. God wants to communicate with the depths of Abraham’s being and tear him from himself and his involvement with his own problems, which are like self-centered possessions; he wants to make this creature of his “more his,” this man who is destined not for the tents of earth, but for those of Heaven. So God asks of him an absurd trial, as love is absurd for anyone who does not live it, but as true and relentless as love for anyone who possesses it. “‘Take your son. . .”‘.
An act of pure faith is the death of what we love most so it may be offered to the loved one because only love is stronger than death…At the ultimate moment of trial, when we try to pierce the invisible, with the sharpened spear of every possibility we can find, we realize that the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity are really only one, and they have such a power of penetration that they could disrupt the entire universe. On Mount Moriah, in the trial of Abraham, humankind embraced God as never before. The experience of this embrace reverberates through the religious history of the world as an epic of a love greater than our endless frailty.
—Carlo Carretto, The God Who Comes
The Jews thought that Jesus wept on account of the death of Lazarus, but in fact he wept out of compassion for all humanity, not mourning Lazarus alone, but all of humanity which is subject to death, having justly fallen under so great a penalty.
—Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of St. John 7. 1
[Commenting on the raising of Lazarus.] You see how [Jesus] gives full scope to death. He grants free reign to the grave; he allows corruption to set normal course, he allows the realm of darkness to seize his friend, drag him down to the underworld and take possession of him. He acts like this so that human hope may perish entirely and human despair reach its lowest depths. The deed he is about to accomplish may then clearly be seen to be the work of God, not of man. He waited for Lazarus to die, staying in the same place until he could tell his disciples that he was dead. Then he announced his intention of going to him. “Lazarus is dead,” he said, “and I am glad.” Was this a sign of his love for his friend? Not so. Christ was glad because their sorrow over the death of Lazarus was soon to be changed into joy at his restoration to life. “I am glad for your sake,” he said. Why for their sake? Because the death and raising of Lazarus were a perfect prefiguration of the death and resurrection of the Lord himself.
—Peter Chrysologus, Sermon 63.2
Paul is not saying here that the Spirit is Christ but is showing rather that anyone who has the Spirit has Christ as well. For where the Spirit is, there Christ is also. Wherever one person of the Trinity is present, the whole Trinity is present too. For the Trinity is undivided and has a perfect unity in itself.
—Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans 13.
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With human beings this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
—Mark 10:17-27 (TNIV)
As we head toward Holy Week, this passage bears special attention because Jesus turns conventional Jewish wisdom on its head. He tells his disciples that it is impossible for the rich to enter the kingdom of God and they are astonished because in saying this, Jesus is refuting the mistaken notion that the rich are rich because they have led blameless lives and are now enjoying God’s blessing, of which wealth was a part.
Not so, says our Lord. It is impossible for humans to save themselves, despite what conventional wisdom says. Only God can save us and that is precisely the point of the cross.
Until you can fully grasp this, it will be virtually impossible for you to observe a holy Lent because you are still laboring under the delusion of self-help when it comes to the issue of salvation and eternal life. God became human and died for us to make it possible for us to live with him forever. None of us can save ourselves by our own personal merit or works, and none of our blessings is indicative of our goodness or favorable standing in God’s sight. Any blessings we have are due to God’s mercy and grace to us, not our own merit. Any hope we have of living forever with God is due to God’s sheer grace and mercy demonstrated to us on the cross, not our own merit.
Think on these things as Holy Week draws near, especially if any of this offends you. If it does, it is surely a sign that your pride has been wounded.
You can have a restored relationship with the living God—not through what you do, but through what he does on the cross.
—Dr. Darrell Bock
In 1727 I read Mr. Law’s “Christian Perfection,” and “Serious Call,” and more explicitly resolved to be all devoted to God, in body, soul, and spirit. In 1730 1 began to be homo unius libri [a man of one book]; (1) to study (comparatively) no book but the Bible. I then saw, in a stronger light than ever before, that only one thing is needful, even faith that worketh by the love of God and man, all inward and outward holiness; and I groaned to love God with all my heart, and to serve Him with all my strength.
Notice here the profound influence reading Scripture had on Wesley’s conception of Christian perfection.
Christian perfection, therefore, does not imply (as some men seem to have imagined) an exemption either from ignorance, or mistake, or infirmities, or temptations. Indeed, it is only another term for holiness. They are two names for the same thing. Thus, every one that is holy is, in the Scripture sense, perfect. Yet we may, Lastly, observe, that neither in this respect is there any absolute perfection on earth. There is no perfection of degrees, as it is termed; none which does not admit of a continual increase.
—Sermon 40, Christian Perfection