Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Atonement Wasn't Plan B

Life of Christ 88

The Transfiguration, Gustave Dore, 1885
          I wrote, last time, of that signal event in the life of our Lord known as the Transfiguration. Peter, James, and John were taken by Jesus to the top of Mount Hermon and there, as He prayed, the veil of His flesh that covered His essential deity and majesty dimmed, and Who He really was shone forth in glory. Jesus had allowed them to see this so that they might remember it, and be strengthened by that memory in the dark days to come. Our story this time takes place as they walk back off of Mount Hermon, literally coming down from a mountain top experience (Mark 9.9-13).
          Jesus was accompanied in His Transfiguration by the Heaven sent pair of Moses and Elijah. The conversation amongst the three of them had been about Jesus' soon coming atoning death. This subject has now come up repeatedly on this week long trip into the mountains north of Galilee, and Peter, James, and John are discussing this whole idea as they walk back down the mountain. 'And they kept that saying with themselves, questioning one with another what the rising from the dead should mean' (Mark 9.10).
          To us, reading this story from the perspective of 2000 years of church history, the concept of Jesus' resurrection is both precious and patently obvious. It was necessary in order for Him to defeat sin and death. It was necessary in order for a Second Coming to make sense. A belief in it is absolutely essential for salvation. From our vantage point, we can even see hints of it in the Old Testament. 'For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption' (Psalm 16.10).
          Though obvious to us, the fact of the Messiah's resurrection was certainly not obvious to the Jews of Jesus' day. In fact, it hadn't even occurred to anybody then. The Jews of His day believed, for the most, in a resurrection, yes, but it was a general resurrection of all dead people at the Last Day. In other words, the concept of a messiah who died, and then was personally and physically resurrected from the dead was a completely new idea. It was also one they were having great trouble understanding, and this is what they were discussing amongst themselves as they walked down the mountain after the Transfiguration.
          One of the puzzling aspects to this, for these three Apostles, was that they knew the Old Testament prophecies which predicted the coming of Elijah prior to the Messiah being revealed in the glory of His kingdom (Malachi 3.1, 4.5). Elijah appears, and then the Messiah is King. We must keep in mind that Peter, James, and John had, literally, just seen Elijah up there on top of that mountain. And yet, just as emphatically as that literal appearance of Elijah, Jesus keeps pointing them, not to a rosy end with a coronation, but to a depressing disaster of an execution. 'And they asked him, saying, Why say the scribes that Elias must first come?' (Mark 9.11).
          Jesus' answer was to tell them that Elijah had indeed come first, in type, in the form of John the Baptist, whom Scripture tells us clearly was Jesus' forerunner sent to prepare the people of Israel for her coming messiah (Matthew 17.10-13). And even in His own answer He points them, not only to John the Baptist, but also yet again to His own death. Elijah, in the form of the Baptist, had come. They killed him. 'Likewise shall the Son of man suffer of them'.
          One of the things I pre-determined before starting this series on the life of Christ was that I was just going to let it take me wherever it would. Consequently, I've felt a few times like I'm repeating myself, and saying the same thing over and over again. The truth is that I have been, but the other truth is that I have been because Jesus did. I believe that when God repeats Himself in the Scripture He does so in order to emphasize something, and in that light there are certain things that Jesus must have meant to emphasize for they come up again and again. One of these is the necessity of His atoning death and the primacy of the resurrection.
Agnus Dei, Francisco de Zurbaran, 1650
        Those closest to Christ during His lifetime completely failed to grasp this. They insisted on looking for a coronation and a kingdom when He would have them transition to look instead at a cross and a resurrection. They failed to grasp that there was not just one coming or arrival of their Messiah, but actually two. Thus, they failed to grasp that the sacrificial atoning death of the Messiah as the necessary requirement for our redemption and salvation had been the plan of God from the very beginning (Psalm 22.15-16, Daniel 9.26, Isaiah 53.5-8, Zechariah 12.10). This idea was no new development. It wasn't some radical turn in the plan necessary because Israel wouldn't receive Christ. It had been the plan all along. Jesus was 'the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world' (Revelation 13.8).
          Would the Apostles ever come to realize this? To that I answer a resounding yes. Peter, preaching 50 days after Jesus' death, 47 days after His resurrection, and a week after His ascension, said it this way in his great sermon at Pentecost:

Acts 2.22  Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know:
23  Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain:
24  Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it.
25  For David speaketh concerning him, I foresaw the Lord always before my face, for he is on my right hand, that I should not be moved:
26  Therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover also my flesh shall rest in hope:
27  Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.

          The atoning death of Jesus Christ on the cross as our substitute was absolutely necessary. Furthermore, it was planned from the very beginning. Not only that, but the fact that He would then rise from the dead, ascend to Heaven, and return at some future date to claim the kingdom denied to Him in His first advent was likewise planned from the very beginning.

          Our salvation isn't the result of an accident. It isn't Plan B. It was the gracious design of a merciful and loving God from the very dawn of time.

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