non-believers

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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Three Questions

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A couple of days ago I joined our local church Ladies Fellowship for a Q&A and I have selected the first three questions asked for this article.

These are just some of the life-related theological/biblical questions that many people wrestle with and so they may be of particular interest to you.

 

Question One: “My children are both divorced and living with other partners out of wedlock, and, in one instance, expecting a baby. Will the Church accept this baby and how would I deal with the situation?”

For Roman Catholics, there is only one church with one set of established doctrines and protocols, but for Protestants, there are many denominations and independent churches all with their own dogmas and practices. Some churches will bless any child irrespective of the parent’s church affiliations. Others will insist that both parents are Christians. Some will simply pray a blessing over the child while others will ask the church members present to agree to assist the parents in bringing up the child to be a disciple of the Lord Jesus. In this later  case, it makes sense that the parents must be committed to the local church otherwise how can the members help them to spiritually nurture the child?

My yardstick for all matters of doctrine and practice is Jesus Christ, so the question is ‘how did he deal with this sort of situation?

Matthew 19:13-15 records that ‘little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them, but the disciples rebuked those who brought them.  Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there’. So for me, that matter is clear and during the three decades that I was a local church pastor I always accepted any child brought to me at a Sunday service for blessing and prayer.

However, some church leaders will not allow baby blessing/christening/baptism unless the parents are members of their church. For some, this flows from a belief that babies born to Christian parents are automatically ‘saved’ and therefore part of the church but only by virtue of the parent’s spiritual standing. For others, it comes from a belief that there is sacramental spiritual power in ‘Christenings’ provided they are conducted in terms of the denomination’s ordinances and protocols. In these cases, grandparents would perhaps fret if they felt that the child was being deprived of Christian validation. I don’t think that this is the case at all because God is merciful to all irrespective of whether they have been religiously ‘processed’.

However,  a child growing up in a home where the parents are not born-again believers is disadvantaged whether or not they have been Christened.

 

Question Two: “If a friend is banned from the Church because he was divorcing his wife after years of misery, as a Church member, am I expected to ignore him? He has a girlfriend now and looks after his children magnificently in every way.”

Church leaders sometimes have to make tough decisions and the hardest of all is when there is a conflict between a relationship with an individual and the good of other church members or indeed the whole church. A divorce is always a traumatic event with long term consequences. When both parties are members of the same church then it is even more difficult for them and their church leaders.

Some scriptures that have relevance to this sort of situation are 1 Corinthians 5:11-12, Titus 3:9-11 and Matthew 18:15-17. In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul was dealing with a case where a church member was sleeping with his stepmother and this was being condoned by the local church. However, it does instruct us that in some extreme circumstances church leaders may need to ‘excommunicate’ an unrepentant member. In Titus 3:10-11 Paul put it this way: ‘Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.

Of course, the Lord Jesus established the basis for church practice in cases like this when he said:  “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:15-17). To treat someone like a ‘pagan’ is not to deal with them without compassion, respect and human dignity. However, it does mean that they cannot be regarded as spiritual ‘family’. In fact, from a personal relationship perspective, 1 Corinthians 5:9-10 and 12 would then apply.

My  opinion is that before taking offence on someone else’s behalf or deciding how to respond to them, go and discuss the matter with a church elder/pastor. Explain that you are affected by the apparent rejection of your friend and need help to understand so that you can have peace and act appropriately.

 

Question Three:Where does the Church’s view regarding abortion come from? Does the idea come from ‘Thou shalt not kill?’ If one has an abortion, is that person a sinner? How does the Church view it?”

This a complex and emotionally charged issue. The 6th commandment is ‘You shall not murder’ not ‘you shall not kill.’ Over the centuries theologians and judges have debated the validity of the taking of life that may not necessarily be understood as murder; such things as capital punishment, self-defense, and acts of war. In the USA politicians are currently using the abortion issue as a means of gaining election support. I was interested to watch a debate between two ladies on American TV, one a Democrat and the other a Republican. The Democrat was arguing passionately for a woman’s right over her own body while the Republican was presenting the pro-life case. The Republican lady made the point that she and her group were not opposed to ‘abortion’, but only to abortion on demand.   Both arguments are difficult to sustain consistently. On the one hand, woman’s rights assume that the developing baby is part of her body and not a separate life. On the other hand, the difficulty comes in determining when abortion is acceptable and when it is not.

Almost all theologians hold to one of two theories of the origin of the human soul.

  1. Those who believe that God individually creates the human soul upon conception normally argue that abortion is a form of murder and therefore ‘unbiblical’  and wrong.
  2. Those who believe that the human soul is passed down from generation to generation in the same way as other constituents of the human being would be more inclined to accept abortion as acceptable in certain specific circumstances.
My view is that abortion is sometimes justifiable in selective cases such as where there is evidence that the fetus is grossly compromised or where the mother’s life is at stake (there are other circumstances that I would also consider as valid). I am definitely opposed to abortion as a form of birth control or simply because the woman decides that she just does not want the baby.

Whatever the circumstances, I do not consider abortion as any less forgivable than other serious offences.  A woman who aborts a baby after agonising  consideration and as an inescapable last resort should not be made to experience the additional pain of our condemnation.

God freely forgives us all our transgressions but does not absolve us from the consequences of our decisions – should we do less?

As always Jesus sets the example for us. In dealing with another of the Ten Commandments, you shall not commit adultery, he ended his practical example with the words: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?“. “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin”  (John 8:3-11).

Principles

There are three great underlying principles we need to consider when dealing with these life issues; let me express them here in the form of questions:

  1. What did Jesus say or do concerning this or something similar?
  2. What light does the bible in all its parts shed on this?
  3. Do Jesus’ words, “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent” (Matthew 12:7) apply here?

The ladies of the Friday fellowship asked nineteen other questions and so I will perhaps pick up on some of these in future articles … so stay tuned.

If you have any questions you would like me to explore, please let me know by posting a comment here or on my Facebook page. and I will add them to the list.

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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.