The Story of God and Us Chapter Seven: From Darkness to Light
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Chapter Seven: From Darkness to Light (the Story of Jesus, Part II).
We left our story with a scared group of disciples hiding from the authorities. Jesus had just been crucified, and the Passover had occurred. But these people were not feasting; they were terrified. Yet, a group of women, in reverence for their dead Messiah, headed to the tomb where he was buried to anoint him with burial spices.
When they arrived, however, they found something they did not expect. Even though the Romans had placed guards, and even though the tomb had been sealed with a large stone, when the women arrived, they saw the guards in a dazed stupor, and the heavy stone tossed aside as though it were a feather. In shock they entered the tomb, and inside there was no sign of Jesus, but instead two dazzling looking men who said to them:
“Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here but has risen.” (Luke 24:5-6).
The women left, terrified of the vision, and ran back to the disciples to report what had happened. When the group heard the story, they didn’t believe, but Peter and John ran to the tomb and discovered it empty. While this was happening, Mary Magdalene (one of the women who went first to the tomb) wept outside the tomb, fearing that Jesus’ body had been stolen. While she was weeping, she heard a voice say “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Overcome with grief she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Then, the voice said “Mary,” and she turned in disbelief to see Jesus, risen from the dead, speaking with her (John 20:11-18).
After this, the disciples were still not convinced that Jesus was alive. They hid in a house, with the door locked, petrified of who might come to arrest them. Then, in a move which doubtlessly shocked them all, Jesus himself stood among them, showing them his wounds and saying these words: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). In this way Jesus appeared to many people, at one point to five hundred people (1 Corinthians 15:6), and he sent his disciples to Galilee, continuing his appearances for forty days.
Afterward, when they returned to Jerusalem, Jesus promised the coming of the Holy Spirit, and gave his followers a mission: to be a witness to who Jesus is and what he has done to all the world, starting in Jerusalem and spreading to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:4-8). The message of Jesus was to go, not just to one ethnic group, but to every part of the world. And with that, Jesus was lifted up into the sky, and he disappeared out of their sight (in an event we call the ascension). As the disciples looked around, two angels appeared and assured them, “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).
Many days later, on a day called Pentecost, the apostles experience something unusual: “suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:2-4). After this point, the Holy Spirit, who is himself God, dwelled amongst those who believe in Jesus. The mission that Jesus gave to his disciples would be completed, not by their work alone, but primarily by the Holy Spirit working in and through Jesus’ followers to spread the message of Jesus to the world (1 Cor. 12:1-11).
Later on, the apostle Paul would make this point very clearly: through the presence of the Holy Spirit, the believing community (which they called the Church, in Greek ekklesia, or “called-out ones”) was a new temple in which God dwelt (Eph. 2:18-22; 2 Cor. 6:16-18). This new temple was not made with hands but was rather made up of every individual who placed their trust in Jesus (Eph. 1:11-14).
As time went on, this new community grew and spread, at each point spreading the good news of who Jesus is and what he has done (which they called the gospel, or “good news”). The basic message which they proclaimed was that Jesus Christ, a real man from the town of Nazareth, was God’s appointed Messiah, the Son of God, the one whom God had promised from the beginning of the world. All of God’s promises, they argued, were fulfilled (or beginning to be fulfilled) by Jesus (2 Cor. 1:19-20). This meant that, because Jesus had come, the world had entered the “end of the ages,” a culminating point in which God was beginning the restorative work he had always planned. In other words, in Jesus Christ, God was beginning the last stage of his plan to bring shalom back to the world which he created (Acts 3:20-21). God had signaled this, without a doubt, by raising Jesus from the dead to new life (1 Cor. 15).
While the earliest followers of Jesus were tempted to think that this message of restoration was solely for the nation of Israel, the Holy Spirit led first Peter (Acts 10) and later the converted Saul of Tarsus (who began to go by Paul) to share the gospel with those outside of the national and ethnic borders of Israel. Paul later realized that this was always God’s plan, that he would bless all the nations through Abraham’s offspring (Romans 4). This promise, which came before Moses’ law, had always been the true center of God’s plan for Israel, and so, because of Jesus’ work, the promises of God were open to everyone, regardless of ethnicity (Gal. 3:15-29).
Therefore, to the earliest Christians, the response to what God had done in Jesus Christ was the same regardless of whether one was a Jew or a Gentile: faith (Gal. 5:6). Paul, as he read the Old Testament, realized that it was through believing in Jesus Christ that what Jesus did was applied to an individual (Romans 3:21-26). Paul described it this way: “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 Cor. 5:21). When one believed in Jesus, she participated in his death, burial, and resurrection, and was therefore “a new creation” (Romans 6:1-4; 2 Cor. 5:17). The internal heart change, which the law could never provide, had been provided in Christ, by whom those who believe receive the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:3-4). Because of what Jesus had done, the Church had peace with God (Rom. 5:1).
As time went on, the Church grew rapidly. In just a small amount of time, it went from a small group in Judea to a diverse, multi-ethnic compilation of communities throughout the eastern Roman empire. The Holy Spirit used Paul and others to spread the message of Jesus throughout the Roman world, and by the time Paul arrives in Rome, he finds a group of believers already there to greet him (Acts 28: 11-16). The gospel had confronted varieties of pagan religious beliefs and practices, as well as the Jewish authorities, and had come out victorious. In Thessalonica, the complaint about Paul and his companions was that “these men who have turned the world upside down have come here also…and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7). The gospel seemed unstoppable.
But the early Church was not without its problems. After a while Paul started hearing from different churches about various issues they were having.It became clear that the early Christians needed to know how to live the gospel life as they awaited Jesus’ return (Phil 1:27). The root of the problem, especially in Paul’s mind, was that people hadn’t grasped all the implications of what it meant to be “in Christ” (Gal. 2:20). In general, we can understand their responses by focusing on three major aspects of the Christian life: hope, faith, and love (1st Cor. 13:13).
- Gospel hope: “hope” to the writers of the New Testament meant a firm assurance of the future of things. To the apostles, the future of things was secured by Jesus’ resurrection and ascension (Phil. 2:9-11): God had exalted Jesus Christ to God’s right hand, as the King of kings and Lord of lords. This was the signal and irrevocable guarantee that, no matter what comes the Christian’s way, Jesus will return and finish the work that he started (Rom. 5:1-11; 8:12-39; 2nd Cor. 4:17-18). The Christian hope is therefore a hope that waits with patience: it understands that Jesus has inaugurated the fulfillment of God’s promises, but doesn’t assume that they are fully realized yet.
- Gospel faith: “faith” does not just mean mental assent in the New Testament. The Greek pisteo had wrapped in it connotations of faithfulness (cf. 2nd Timothy 2:13), endurance, and a veracious trust in God’s promises. To “believe” in Jesus is to cling to his promises, to receive his gift of forgiveness and to walk in light of his work (living a life of repentance, or turning from sin, 2nd Timothy 2:19). Therefore, the idea of faith is very closely tied to the word hypomeno, “to endure” (Hebrews 12:1-3). The Christian’s faith is really an orientation of our entire lives around Jesus Christ his story (Romans 10:9-10; 1 Cor. 2:2; Gal. 2:20; Phil. 1:21), a veracious clinging to Jesus despite all obstacles
- Gospel love: When the New Testament authors want to describe the basis of Christian action, they use the word “love.” They followed Jesus’ direction in their insistence that Christians do not forsake the Old Testament law, but rather they strive to follow the greatest commandments: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength;” “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:28-31; Romans 13:8-10). Christians therefore “fulfill” the law by following its essence: love for God and neighbor (Romans 7:6; 8:4; Gal. 5:14; 6:2; James 2:8-13). Christian love recognizes that there is a way that God has designed human beings to live in loving community, and therefore strive for that design in every relationship.