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The Man in the Middle: The Real Focus of Easter

Easter weekend is upon us again. I don’t much like the term ‘Easter’, but so many people refer to Passover Weekend by that name that I will let it stand … for now.

Please note that I have included the podcast along with this post, so scroll down or look out for it on your pocast listening device

The Sunday Service

 

See the scene played out at countless Easter Sunday services throughout the world. The place is packed with three types of attendees. There are the:

  1. Committed followers of Jesus,
  2. Christmas-and Easter-attendance-only religious folks,
  3. Reluctant agnostic relatives.

Some services are preceded by a hushed time of religious respect, but most are abuzz with happy and vocal people. The place is full of, “He has risen” with the response “He has risen indeed” accompanied by a brotherly hug, or the simple “Happy Easter” and a brisk handshake. There are happy hymns or clapping-accompanied spiritual songs, and then the preacher takes centre stage. Likely as not, he (or she) speaks about how Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead so that we might have life … or variations on that theme. Now my question is, how do the three types of attendees respond to this sort of message?

Different Responses to the Easter Message

 

The, hopefully, largest, group will respond with nods, beaming faces, and silent or proclaimed “Amens”. The Christmas and Easter brigade will most likely respond with self-satisfied semi-smiles manifesting a comfortable and pious “I don’t really care because I am a good religious person” attitude. The third group, the reluctant relatives, either doesn’t care or silently disagrees with the ‘gospel’ message. Members of both of the last two groups do not believe that they are sinners (Can’t even define true sin), doubt or repudiate the reliability of scripture, and don’t care much anyway.

So, what should the preacher be telling them that will cause them to comprehend and be open to accepting? Closer to the bone, what can you be saying to them when you, a believer, sit at lunch with them afterwards?

A Funny Story with a Powerful Message.

 

A dear friend of mine sent me a dated video clip of a man telling the following story:

One of the two thieves crucified to the left and right of Jesus arrives at the Pearly Gates. The angel on duty asks him why he should let him into heaven. The man replies that he really doesn’t know why. He had not read the scriptures, nor had he mixed with ‘church’ folk in Jerusalem. He hadn’t been baptised and he wasn’t even Jewish, so he just stared blankly at the angel. This flummoxed the angel who called for his supervisor. An important-looking angel arrived and asked the man: “Are you not clear on the doctrine of justification by faith?”. The man gave him the same confused look and so the Boss-angel said, “So why should I let you in?” And the man responded “I don’t know, but the man on the middle cross said I should come!

Jesus – It’s All About Jesus

 

OK, so it’s a mildly funny story (especially in the way the man in the video clip told it) but it conveys a profound truth – It is all about Jesus. It is not about church attendance, observance of sacraments, family affiliation, or correct doctrine – its about Jesus!

The Easter message is, or at least should be, about Jesus. Not the horror of the cross, nor the wonder of the empty tomb, but about the man who hung on the cross and who walked out of the open tomb – Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

What Paul Has to Say

 

In 1 Corinthians 1:18 – 2:5 the Apostle Paul develops some of the things I have been pointing to so far in this article. Here are parts of three verses cobbled together for effect:

‘For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing … Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles … ’

In my example of the Easter Sunday service, Paul’s Jews would equate to the Christmas and Easter religious people and the Gentiles to the reluctant agnostic relatives. To religiously half-asleep people, nothing short of a palpable miracle will wake them up. To the agnostics the ‘Jesus died for our sins because the bible tells us so’ is foolish naivety bordering on delusion. They need persuasion that relies on more than what to them is an ancient set of stories. I understand both states of unbelief because before I was born again of the Spirit at the age of thirty I was an agnostic with a religious family background.

Well, here is the thing; both the wanted miracle and the persuasively compelling wisdom is found only in … Jesus.

Consider how Paul counters the two statements that I have quoted above. He writes in 1 Cor 1:18 ‘For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God’, andWhen I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1 Cor 2:1-2). And again, ‘My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power (1 Cor 2:4-5).

Jesus followers will understand the profound doctrines of Easter, but the religious and the agnostic need the simple truth of Jesus Christ accompanied by the miraculously transforming power of Holy Spirit.

Three Questions to Ask

 

Here are some questions to ask as part of either a sermon or a one-on-one discussion about the Easter message:

The first question is: “Do you believe that Jesus was a real historical figure who lived in Palestine who taught and performed wonderful deeds?” The initial response might be scepticism concerning both his existence and his miracles. However, there is quite a bit of non-biblical evidence to offer. For instance, here are just some of the things early historical figures said about Jesus:

Cornelius Tacitus (AD 109) makes the following reference to Christians and to Jesus: “Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius …”

Lucian of Samosta (second century satirist) wrote scornfully of Christians in the following terms: “The Christians, you know, worship a man who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account …”

Pliny the Younger wrote to Emperor Trajan in AD 112 that the Christians “… were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god …”

Celsus (AD 150) wrote, “First, however, I must deal with the matter of Jesus, the so-called saviour, who not long ago taught new doctrines and was thought to be a son of God …”

Mara Bar-Serapion, a Syrian philosopher, wrote to his son in AD 70 and referred to the ‘wise King’ of the Jews whom they put to death.

Josephus, the Jewish historian for the Romans, referred to Jesus in his Jewish Antiquities (AD 93): ‘Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day.’

So, as you can see, there is quite a bit of non-biblical confirmation that Jesus existed and was extraordinary in many ways and these historical facts can be helpful for you to draw on when speaking to folk who dont accept the authority of the bible.

The second and follow-up question to ask is: “Do you believe that the bible is a trustworthy record of what Jesus said and did?” Again, there may be push-back and comments about the bible’s mythical nature. However, once again, there are simple rejoinders to this. For instance:

Four different people wrote four Gospels, each corroborating, amplifying each other and giving differing perspectives. In a court of law, the testimony of four witnesses would be overwhelmingly compelling especially if there are minor discrepancies and perceived contradictions which are a mark of authentic personal witness. In addition, there is the recorded witness of Paul, Peter, and James. There is also compelling evidence that secular history records many martyrdoms of people who believed in the biblical Jesus and put their very lives on the line for this belief.

Third question: “What then does the bible record Jesus as saying about himself?”

Well, he said:

  • “I and the Father are one.” Again the Jews picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?”. “We are not stoning you for any of these,” replied the Jews, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” (John 10:30-33)
  • ‘Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:8-9)
  • I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.’ (John 8:58-59) Lest some miss the point of the last quote above, the ascription “I AM’ was an ancient Jewish divine ascription.

The most personally relatable of the above quotes is Jesus’ response to Philip and this would be a good example to tell in full to a congregation or in a one-on-one conversation –  John 14:8-11

So, despite what critics claim, Jesus did declare himself to be God incarnate.

Logical Conclusions

 

So, there is compelling evidence that Jesus Christ lived, ministered, taught and died as reliably recorded in the bible, and that he declared himself to be God himself on Earth. To back up his claims Jesus healed the sick, cast out demons, created substance from nothing (wine, bread, and new eyes), and even raised the dead. This is why he said, “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves.” (John 14:11)

The logical observation to make is: “So, surely then we must believe what Jesus, God incarnate, said about things like salvation, eternity, commitment, love, faith, hope, and so on.” Well here are just some of the things he said about salvation:

  • I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.” (John 10:9)
  • My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27-28)
  • ‘Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)
  • ‘Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”.  (John 14:6-7)

Once again, the most personally applicable account in that of John 3:1-21 where Jesus explains to Nicodemus that he must be Born Again if he is to be saved.

Conclusion

 

I realise that I have not explained terms like Salvation, Rebirth and so on, but I have written extensively on this HERE. The main point of this article is not to teach doctrine, but to point out that:

  • The focus of Easter is the ‘man on the middle cross’ and his invitation to all who will listen, and
  • The most effective and compellingly simple way of applying the Easter message to both religious people and agnostics is to explain who Jesus really is, that the bible is reliable, and that what it records of what Jesus said and did is of the uttermost significance and importance.

However, there is one more thing I must point out before I end this article: The anointing of the Holy Spirit in the whole process of explaining and interacting is VITAL! It is the Holy Spirit who breathes life into our words and backs them up with convicting clarity and power.

This is why Paul wrote, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.”

Remember, the man in the middle is the real focus of Easter.

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Feature image core values

The importance of staying true to Core Values

Core values top image

We all have core values, even if we cannot express them easily.

Core values are the guiding principles that determine our behaviours and priorities. As individuals, we absorb these as our parents embed them into us from an early age.
In the case of organisations, the founders entrench them in the constitution and corporate mission statement. The observable evidence of core values is the way we live, what we say and do, and how we prioritise our time and resources. Whether consciously adopted or unconsciously inherited, core values flow out of an appreciation of who we are. If you define yourself primarily as a parent then your core values will reflect this in a focus on such things as nurture, education, protection, and so on. If you see yourself primarily as a Christian, in the true sense of that word, then your core values will flow from that source of identity, e.g. “I am a child of God, a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ, and a Christian brother/sister in God’s household, the church.”

Core Values ImageHere is a diagram that should help to clarify the relationships between identity, core values, and behaviours. Identity yields core values, which in turn yield behaviours and priorities. At an organisational or community level, the relationships between these three are usually intentionally formulated and set out in documents such as mission statements. Once again, the sense of identity is the primary determinant of core values and the subsequent behaviours that flow out of these key principles. I understand the identity of a local church as ‘an extended family of God in a specific location, centred on Jesus, prescribed by the Word of God, and dependent on the Holy Spirit.’

I had the privilege of establishing a local church nearly three decades ago and in its formative years we set out our core values under the acronym ROADS – Relationship, Outreach, Anointing, Doctrine, and Structure. Under each of these headings, we developed a compact statement of the core beliefs. For instance, under the heading of Relationship we wrote; ‘We are a church family in relationship with God and each other within an environment of order, participation and accountability. We value and seek to practice love and acceptance and see our church as a ‘city of refuge’. We are principle, value and relationship based rather than rules or results based. Ministries are motivated from within rather than imposed from without; leadership’s primary roles are serving, equipping and facilitating rather than initiating programmes.’ From this statement flowed the following clear core values:

  1. Principle, value, and relationship, rather than rules or results.
  2. Church family rather than family church.
  3. Order, participation, and accountability.
  4. Love and acceptance in Truth.
  5. Ministries motivated from within rather than imposed from on top.
  6. Leadership as serving, equipping, and facilitating, rather than initiating programmes.
  7. Discipleship.

It is easy to see the role these core values play in decision-making, priority setting, and behaviour regulation. The maxim when evaluating options is:

‘Does this strengthen and promote these values or does it undermine them?’
The two main challenges to this simple yet effective model are (i) Keeping the values pyramid the right way up, and (ii) Resolving perceived tension between different values.

(i) Keeping the value pyramid the right way up.

If the organisation or community, in this case the local church, loses sight of its core values, then its behaviours and priorities will erode or even change over time. New members and leaders come into the church bringing with them often divergent or contradictory values. These folk will evidence their values through their behaviour. If there are enough ‘new’ people in a church who have not been properly inducted into the value system, then the church as a community will start to adopt these different behaviour patterns. If this is left unchecked then some of the existing core values will be effectively replaced even though the official statements of the church still enshrine them. When this happens, tension increases in the church and can result in a church split or a church community that says one thing but lives a lie.

The solution to this potential polar shift in church life is to ensure that new members are inducted into the value system of the church as early as possible. Well-established leaders need to disciple new leaders, and preachers need to regularly teach the core values. Ultimately, actions speak louder than words, so they say, and the way the church operates and prioritises will be the best ‘teacher’ of values.

(ii) Resolving perceived tension between different values.

What sometimes happens is that two values appear to be in tension with each other. For instance, one Core Value might be Church as Family while another value is Numeric Growth. How can a church family grow bigger without compromising its values of family participation and accountability? A church family must grow in maturity but, if it is to endure, it must also grow numerically. But, are these two principles in conflict?
If they are both regarded as equally ‘core’ then the leaders need to find a way of expressing both without compromising either. Building a much bigger auditorium in order to allow for numeric growth could seriously compromise the ‘family’ value and ultimately destroy it. I believe that the resolution of this perceived problem is to consider how the church community can reproduce itself. It could plant another congregation; it could establish a network of independent but co-dependant churches in the area; it could meet regularly in small groups and occasionally in large congregations, and so on. Church leaders all over the world, and in every generation, have tried these, and more, with varying degrees of success or failure. Some others have settled for numeric growth limited to the natural attrition in their church family. But others have abandoned the family value and established mega churches with top-down organisational-type leadership and programmes.

The big issue for me is intentionality. As an individual, family, or organisation, we will behave and prioritise according to our core values. If we are not intentional about establishing and preserving these values then we, our families and our churches, will default to something that may no longer express who we believe we are. Identity yields values and values yield behaviours and priorities, but it also works in reverse I am afraid.
If you feel adrift in this life and find decision making painfully confusing then perhaps you need to re-examine your core values. When your children grow into their teenage years I strongly suggest that you as parents spend time and effort in inculcating core values into them, primarily through example and discussion. If there are new leaders in your church, and you are the leader-among-leaders, then I recommend that you ensure that all on the leadership team understand and buy into the core values of the church. If there appears to be tension between different values then I suggest that you schedule a workshop to carefully evaluate the core values and find ways of resolving the tension.

Jesus knew His identity and thus was committed to the core values that expressed this identity. The wonderful foot-washing scene recorded in John’s Gospel starts with the words; ‘Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him’ (John 13:3-5). Jesus knew that He was the Son of God, and so a core value of His was self-giving service. Just so with we who are His disciples, for Jesus concluded His demonstration of love in action with the words;

‘Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you’ (John 13:14-15).
Identity yielding core values, yielding behaviour and priorities.

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About Me

My name is Christopher Peppler and I was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1947. While working in the financial sector I achieved a number of business qualifications from the Institute of Bankers, Damelin Management School, and The University of the Witwatersrand Business School. After over 20 years as a banker, I followed God’s calling and joined the ministry full time. After becoming a pastor of what is now a quite considerable church, I  earned an undergraduate theological qualification from the Baptist Theological College of Southern Africa and post-graduate degrees from two United States institutions. I was also awarded the Doctor of Theology in Systematic Theology from the University of Zululand in 2000.

Four years before that I established the South African Theological Seminary (SATS), which today is represented in over 70 countries and has more than 2 500 active students enrolled with it. I presently play an role supervising Masters and Doctoral students.

I am a passionate champion of the Christocentric or Christ-centred Principle, an approach to biblical interpretation and theological construction that emphasises the centrality of Jesus

I have been happily married to Patricia since the age of 20, have two children, Lance and Karen, a daughter-in-law Tracey, and granddaughters Jessica and Kirsten. I have now retired from both church and seminary leadership and devote my time to writing, discipling, and the classical guitar.

If you would like to read my testimony to Jesus then click HERE.