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Behold Your King (Who Died): Putting on God’s Corrective Lenses

Behold Your King (Who Died): Putting on God’s Corrective Lenses

I awoke one morning unable to see because blocked tear ducts had glued my eyes shut. It was frightening. After a deep breath, I tried to make a calm assessment of the situation. I splashed water and carefully rinsed my eyes. Thankfully that was all it took to restore sight to the “blind” in this situation.

To the spiritually blind, however, it takes quite a bit more to restore right vision, as the apostle Paul’s conversion story illustrates so well in Acts 9:1-18. In many ways, true discipleship might be measured by how willing we are to acknowledge our spiritual short-sightedness and receive from Jesus a clearer vision of God, ourselves, and the world. Disciples of Jesus are not the only ones to see everything rightly, but rather those who know they need to receive sight from Another in order to see things as they truly are. Our rally cry as believers in Jesus is not “I’ll believe it when I see it,” but a practiced, humble posture, “I believe it, so only now do I see it.” 

In the last half of his gospel, John places a special focus on what Jesus’ disciples ought to believe, and so become empowered to see, about Jesus’ kingship. Is Jesus king? How so? What does his rule as king challenge regarding our human rulerships? How do we see Jesus reigning on earth when the sin-scarred world is so opposed to God that we sent his Anointed One, the Christ, to be crucified? 

The answer, beginning in John chapter 12 and reaching a climax in chapter 19, is that we see Jesus as king precisely when we see him on the cross. This king reigns over all by becoming a servant of all, even to the point of death (Mark 10:41-45, Philippians 2:5-11). This indeed has been the centerpiece of God’s kingdom-advancing plan all along, as we read in Ephesians 1:7-10: 

In him we have redemption through his blood (emphasis mine), the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 

John’s Gospel displays Jesus’ cross-bearing kingship in a visceral, experiential story, inviting readers to step into it and believe what John believes about Jesus, and see what he sees. This is a theme we can trace all the way from Jesus’ entry into the city of Jerusalem to his death on the cross. 

In John 12:12-15, Jesus is welcomed into Jerusalem as the long-awaited messianic king, complete with prophetic fulfillment and all manner of pomp and circumstance. John inserts an “as it is written” quotation, confirming the crowd’s appraisal of Jesus as king by citing Zechariah 9:9: “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming….” 

For the disciples, the experience of entering Jerusalem must have included quite a heavy dose of cognitive dissonance. Only the evening before, as written in John 12:1-7, Jesus and his disciples attended a dinner hosted by Martha, Mary, and their once-dead-but-now-alive brother Lazarus. While there, Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment and Jesus declared his imminent death: “she has kept it for the day of my burial.” (John 12:7, Christian Standard Bible). 

The King who is coming…comes to die? The disciples must have been puzzled. In fact, John tells us explicitly in 12:16 that the disciples decidedly did not understand what was going on. 

John 19:35 is a disciple’s pronouncement that the world will never be the same once you see the King of the Universe crucified. After reporting the mixture of blood and water that flowed from the dead Jesus’ pierced side, John says, “He who saw it has borne witness–his testimony is true, and he knows he is telling the truth–that you also may believe (emphasis mine).” (John 19:35).

John wrote his gospel to communicate that God came in the person of Jesus Christ, he came to die on the cross, and we can only see Jesus’ kingship rightly, over and above other rulers that might call for our allegiance, once we believe. There is a desperate urgency inherent to this faith claim–nothing less than everlasting life hangs on whether you trust it or not (John 3:16).

Life on planet earth is a clash of kingdoms. Who rules your world? When life is thrown off balance, and your best-laid plans crumble beneath your feet, when expectations of what should be are exploded by the detonation of what is, who steps in to become your savior? What becomes raised to messianic heights in your heart? Rather than seeing our King lifted up on the cross, victorious over every deathly sting from this world by succumbing to death itself, do we instead resort to near-sighted grasping for lesser rulers around us? 

As Psalm 115:8 warns, “Those who make [idols] become like them; so do all who trust in them.” They reign over us, subverting God’s rightful rule and overthrowing our own delegated authority on earth (Psalm 115:16). 

What, then, do we need? Where can we get the right corrective prescription for our soul’s ocular malady? Our divine optometrist has bestowed on us the greatest corrective lens in the universe: his very own Word. This is what the Gospel of John, from beginning to end, bears witness to. 

“Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” (Psalm 119:18). This is the prayer we need. It is only by God’s power and initiative that our eyes will be opened to behold him and his world as it truly is. 

We need help to see the King clearly and follow him fully. This is the act of faith that every other act of faith, great or small, is built on. Let us trust God, humanized forever in the person of our crucified King Jesus, and behold him together as he’s revealed himself in the Gospel of John. 

Equipped: How Role Playing Games Prepared Me for the Reality of Spiritual Warfare

Equipped: How Role Playing Games Prepared Me for the Reality of Spiritual Warfare

I grew up in a normal home (albeit broken, like all of us), but was never equipped with anything beyond a naturalistic, or maybe vaguely dualistic, view of the world. I thought what I saw was all there was, until people died; then there was heaven. But who knew what that was about? It seemed no one knew. 

The primary formative experiences giving me any sense of transcendence, or spirituality then, as odd as it sounds, were playing fantasy games like Zelda, Warcraft, or Diablo with my friends. I forged weapons and armor, battled dark forces of evil, and rescued allies from fire and death.

We were children equipped with the imaginations to rule the world (or at least our front yard), enacting this RPG-instilled transcendence IRL (in real life). 

Eventually, I did what I thought I had to do: I gave up childish ways. I stopped playing “those games.” Not coincidentally, this is also when a more staunch naturalistic worldview began to settle upon my perception of the world.

 

The Living King

Then a sandal-wearing, unarmed, slain Jesus walks into my life who is also now and forever the victorious, living King (Revelation 5:5-6). He obliterated my mistaken sense of self and sense of the world, and spoke words into my heart which the Spirit wielded like a sword to divide up the mess inside me, clear away the debris, and gave me new life (Hebrews 4:12, John 3:3-6). Jesus came to live inside me to empower me from the inside out by his Spirit. He invaded the territory of my life and sent me out to proclaim the excellencies of his glorious reign (1 Peter 2:9). My naturalistic perception became spiritual: as I came to understand that reality is more than what is seen.

 

The King’s Victory Prize

The apostle of our King (1 Corinthians 15:8), Paul writes to us of King Jesus’ equipping of his “saints,” his people-made-holy (Ephesians 4:12). This equipping occurs as a result of Jesus’ ascension–what some scholars have called his “ascension gifting” to the church. His ascension declares Jesus’ utter, overpowering victory against the spiritual powers of evil: having taken them captive, he now leads the captive forces in procession before his people. Then he divides the spoils among them, among us (Ephesians 4:7-11). The gifts of victory that Jesus gives us are precisely those associated with the giving of his indwelling Spirit (see Ephesians 3:16). Pentecost was the King’s victory prize bestowed upon his people (Acts 2:33). 

The subject of Holy Spirit-equipped living can be traced all throughout the book of Ephesians and reaches its climax in chapter 6. We are caught up in a cosmic battle, “not…against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness…” And if you weren’t convinced that Paul is talking primarily about the influence of personal, spiritual, demonic evil rather than merely worldly, political power alone, he sums up our battle as “against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12). These are the same spiritual entities over which Christ reigns supreme and to which the gathered people of God make known God’s manifold wisdom (Ephesians 1:21, 3:10).

 

The Unholy Trinity

Paul clearly states in Ephesians 2:1-3 that a biblically-formed and fully-orbed gospel includes within it this cosmic conflict. The reality of humanity becoming free from our sinful flesh is not about improving poor choices, but about defending against the influence of personal, spiritual evil on our minds and on the world around us. This passage is a quintessential example of the ancient framework of the unholy trinity, “the world, the flesh, and the devil,” which wages war against the Triune God and his image-bearers.

John Mark Comer has done fine work reinvigorating our understanding of this ancient framework in his book Live No Lies. While admitting the reality of paranormal, overtly charismatic experiences such as power encounters and exorcisms, Comer speaks of the reality of spiritual warfare, especially in the non-majority world, primarily taking place in the realm of evil ideas (the flesh), implanted by the lies of a personal Enemy (the devil, see John 8:44), that then become normalized in a sinful society (the world).

 

No Small Sins

We are at war with evil, but that war is more often a battle for the human imagination, as a primary route to the heart, than it is for the outward actions that flow from the heart. Capture our minds, covertly and “behind Enemy lines” as it were, convincing us to rationalize “small sins” as long as we’re not obviously engaging in rampant wickedness, and the enemy gains a stronghold in our hearts that’s frankly much harder to resist than an overt, all-out frontal assault (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).

C.S. Lewis is in full accord in Screwtape Letters, his masterful imaginative account of an arch-demon’s advice to his underling tempter-apprentice:

You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy [God]. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.

This safe road to hell is paved, not with good intentions (as the saying goes), but rather with captured imaginations, minds that have been vacated of the reality of the spiritual weightiness of thinking itself, of every thought, however minute a thought it may seem.

 

Stand Against the Darkness

How are we, then, to actually engage in this battle against the evil seeking to ensnare our minds and hearts, and thus our lives? In the face of this cosmic conflict, Paul’s heraldic conclusion to the church in Ephesus is to stand, he repeats three times. Then, recalling an Hebraic, prophetic formula, to be equipped, taking up the God-ordained instruments for spiritual battle (Epesians. 6:13-14, c.f. Isaiah 59:17). Having donned the necessary accoutrements, each encapsulating a necessary quality for, one might say, “defense against the dark arts” (Ephesians 6:14-17), we are then sent forth to… what? To vanquish our opponents? No; rather, Paul’s climactic commission into the fray is simply this: pray (Ephesians 6:18). This is how we stand firm together against the darkness. 

It is indeed a collective commission. Paul, as throughout Ephesians, is calling the church, the Body and Bride of Christ, to be thus equipped (Ephesians 1:22-23, 5:26-27). She is to become a veritable fortress of her God, clothed and crowned with her King’s gracious splendor (Revelation 12:1, 19:7-8, 21:2). Praying together is thus mission-critical, and all the more as the final Day draws nearer (Hebrews 10:25). Our charge is not to obtain victory–that has already been accomplished through the cross and empty tomb–but to stand firm by defending that victory for one another until its fullness comes rushing in on the hoofbeats of the King’s return (Revelation 19:11-16).

Prayer is essential. If we stand alone, without God’s supernatural strengthening and the combined power of our allies, we’re dead where we stand. Paul begins the whole section on God’s armor by calling us to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of this might.” (Ephesians 6:10). The essential battle practice of prayer is confirmed by Graham Cole, former Dean of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and professor of Systematic Theology: “Prayer rounds out the [armor], and in a way it returns the reader to the beginning, that is, to God, in whom the believer is to be strong. The practice of prayer is to suffuse the whole…The armor of God is not enough without the God of the armor, and prayer is the link.” (Against the Darkness, 169).

 

Fantasy-informed Reality

Beloved, we are in a spiritual battle. Spiritual warfare is very real indeed, much more real and substantial, that is, having a bearing on the substance of our daily lives, than many of the things we think of as real and substantial such as various religio-political ideals, socio-cultural norms, or gender stereotypes. That there is personal evil out there, influencing our minds and cultural systems and attempting to deceive and destroy us, is a radically non-postmodern notion. 

And yet, isn’t this much of the appeal of Tolkien’s legacy of high fantasy? There is a personal evil that seeks to “steal, kill, and destroy”–call it a “Dark Lord” and his forces (John 10:10). And there is the persevering banner of “the Light” that all peoples of good will gather under in an alliance against evil (Ephesians 5:8).

We are undoubtedly not formed to think in this way about our world today, excepting, I think, in the widespread popularity of RPGs. Role-playing fantasy games, when staying true to their Tolkien-formed, biblically-saturated roots, provide categories, affirmed in Scripture, with which to see the reality that, if we follow Christ as King, we have been drafted into the Son’s kingdom of light to ever resist Satan’s kingdom of darkness (Colossians 1:13, 1 Peter 5:8-9).

Let us therefore be unwavering to “take up the shield of faith…and the sword of Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Ephesians 6:16-17) and to “keep alert with all perseverance” in prayerful fellowship with our Spirit-wrought allies, not hesitating to embrace the radical idea of a real, personal, yet immaterial battle of Light vs. Darkness (Ephesians 6:18). Let us skillfully handle the Word of Truth, embodied in Christ and revealed in Scripture, declaring it boldly as if our lives and the lives of others depended on it (2 Timothy 2:15, Ephesians 6:20). Because, in reality, they do (John 1:1-14).

 

 

The Gospel According to Twenty One Pilots

The Gospel According to Twenty One Pilots

At the end of each concert, the two frontmen of the musical group Twenty One Pilots stand together on the stage, put their arms around each other, and smile at their fans as the cheers rise. Throughout the crowd, people lift signs with “Thank You” written on them. After a while the lead singer lifts the mic and gives them his parting words: “We’re Twenty One Pilots, and so are you.” As the duo walks off, the crowd continues shouting out their thanks for their music, performance, and, for many, their witness.

Yes, witness. Witness to what? What are the crowds gathering at these shows so grateful for

I believe the reason the fans of Twenty One Pilots are so profoundly impacted by their music is because through it, whether we realize it or not, we are getting a glimpse of, even becoming participants in, the good news of Jesus Christ. 

 

The Art of Our Everyday Work

I need only one song to show you an example of how this duo embeds the gospel into their artwork. They become a witness and a guide for us as we embed the gospel into our “artwork,” that is, the art of our everyday work.

“Trees” is the song Twenty One Pilots always performs to end their shows. Its basic flow traces the dialogue between God and a man who is hiding in the trees, silent and afraid in the face of his impending death. And yet God comes after him, initiating a conversation and showing his heart’s desire to be with him. 

Clearly, this recalls the aftermath of human rebellion against God in the Garden of Eden, giving voice to the interchange of Genesis 3:8-9. Adam and Eve stood naked and afraid, hiding from God amidst the trees, and yet he came after them. He called them out of hiding and invited them to be known, even in their sin. 

What the song does next is repeat this scenario by repeating the same set of three verses, but building to a much bigger finish. This gives the sense that the same dialogue between God and a man happens again, but with a different outcome. 

And indeed, this is what the good news proclaims! Jesus takes on our shame and faces his impending death, fearful and exposed before his Father as he sweats blood amidst the trees in the garden of Gethsemane, pleading for the cup of the cross to pass from him (Luke 22:42). But this man, the last Adam, remains obedient to the end (1 Corinthians 15:45, Philippians 2:8). He gives himself up to make our death his own, crying out while he stands nailed upright on one tree amidst others, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). This is echoed in the lyrics from “Trees”: “Why won’t you speak, where I happen to be?… Silent in the trees, standing cowardly.” 

 

God’s Heart Cry

Then, the climactic refrain at the end of the song invites a response: “I want to know you, I want to see, I want to say, Hello.” This is God’s heart cry. God came in the flesh to be with us, which is what he has been after since the beginning. He’s always initiating, starting a conversation with us. Not from afar, but here, where we are, in the midst of our sin and shame and death, even taking it all upon himself. Then he rose from the grave to new life and Mary saw him standing amidst the trees, mistaking him for the gardener, and he called out to her (John 20:15-16). The cross and the resurrection are God’s song of invitation to know a love stronger than death. 

So when a slight, dark-haired man stands in front of a stadium full of thousands at the end of a show, he sings out the refrain of that invitation: “Hello.” He repeats it throughout the song, bending over his microphone while his friend sits behind him hammering away at his drum set. Then the hellos stop, and after another chorus and some intervening “la la las,” the beat stops. A synth interlude rolls over the crowd. They’re anticipating. Waiting. They know what’s coming. As the two men make their way down from the stage, the security workers in the front lift two large tom drums on either side of the audience from the orchestra pit. A small platform comes next, one beside each of them. Then the spectators become participants. Drumsticks in hand, the two men climb onto the platforms, held up by the people who have spent the last 2 hours singing their guts out along with them. And then it comes.

Confetti drops like a snowstorm from the ceiling as the two men pound their drums in unison. In between beats (buh buh – pause – buda buh buh buh – pause) they point their sticks out to their “Skeleton Clique” (their fan club). And the clique responds, as if coming to life. The crowd shouts a resounding “Hey!” each time, responding to the invitation sung from the stage just moments before. When the music stops, the duo gets back on the stage and says goodbye.

An Invitation to Participate

This is how Twenty One Pilots ends their show, every time. If you’re curious, you can WATCH a recording. They have designed their music and performances with an invitation for fan participation. If my interpretation is right, they have written their music to be sung out so that the singers become participants in the gospel narrative hidden in its folds. This is what Twenty One Pilots has made with their artwork. They’ve not written “Christian music,” but music that nonetheless points to Christ in story-form. 

What about the artwork of our own lives? Have we received the message that we have to make “Christian art” or do “Christian work” to be impactful in God’s Kingdom? With the apostle Paul I say, “By no means!” (Romans 7:13). 

In your home or at work, with your spreadsheets, with your meetings, with your budgets, with your coworkers, with your friendships, with your relationships, with your sexuality, with your (dare I say it) politics, with your grief, with your depression, with your trauma, with every particularity that makes up your particular story…what would it look like to embed the gospel story into your own story? Every single facet of our story can become a witness and invitation for others to participate in God’s Story. 

But we have to know our story to do this. And the best way, indeed the only way to fully know ourselves is to know the God who knows us. We have to let God in, and respond to his invitation. We need to yell “Hey” when he sings “Hello.” The deep desire of his heart is for us to know him even as we have been fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12). 

 

Reflect on Your Own Story

So reflect on your own story. Write it, draw it, yell it, sing it, dance it, however the Spirit leads. Then invite others to listen to your story. Allow yourself to be known before God as two or three gather around to bear witness to the work of God in your life (Matthew 18:20). In doing so you offer up your story as a prayer, giving voice to the silent dialogues between your heart and God’s, thus training the ears of your heart to recognize your Shepherd’s voice (John 10:3).  

If you’re convinced, come with me and follow the path that Twenty One Pilots have laid, to imitate their artwork as they seem to be imitating Christ’s (1 Corinthians 11:1). Jesus himself told stories and lived a life that perplexed most, but for those who have ears to hear, he has spoken and lived the very words of life (Mark 4:9-13, Luke 8:8-10, John 6:60-69). Let’s participate in his life, and through our lives invite others to do the same. 

New Creation Now

New Creation Now

Desiring New Creation

We all long for things to be complete, to be whole (James 1:4). We long for our marriages to be whole. We ache for our family relationships to be safe, close, and deep and we want the same for our friendships. We feel the groaning of churches full of broken, still-in-process people, and the difficulty of life within a broken, still-in-process world. We long for wholeness in our communities, cities, and nations. Ultimately, all this longing points to a desire for new creation.

God desires the same thing. In fact, He desires it more deeply, more excruciatingly than we ever could, with a vision for newness that far exceeds anything we could dream up or hope to imagine. His heart’s desire is for the integral restoration–reconciliation–of the whole creation (Colossians 1:20). We, all people and creatures, exist in an interdependent community, which author Wendell Berry likes to call a “membership.” We are members one of another. We belong to one another and to the land.

Genesis 1-2 sets the stage for this membership of God’s creatures. In Genesis 1:24-31, humans and land animals are created on the same day. Humans are unique in bearing God’s image, but not so unique as to warrant our own creation day. We belong to the same land, knit together in mutual dependence on God and all that He had created thus far—sunlight, soil, water, vegetation. God takes up the role of a gardener, calling us into life from the earth like a seed sprouting into a fruiting tree: “Let the earth bring forth living creatures…” (Genesis 1:24). We are earthlings bonded to the earth and to one another—for good or for ill.

Humans are then called to be fruitful and rule, reproducing the goodness God had made (Genesis 1:27-31, 2:15). We were made to work for the flourishing of this community. But, tragically, we were-—we are—broken.

The curse earned by human rebellion against God’s goodness produces estrangement precisely in the interconnections we were created for. The labor of childbearing and the labor of cultivation are intermixed with pain and toil (Genesis 3:16-19). We and creation have never known a day without groaning since that rebellion (Romans 8:22-23). Infertility. miscarriages, droughts, hurricanes, war, and injustice; all of this brings us back to desire. Our groanings point to a deep desire for something more. We know, our very bodies—and we who are Christ’s Body—know, with every ache and disease and division, that we need to be changed, or perish.

Beholding New Creation

Graciously, this is exactly what God desires: to shape us into something new, to restore us to the wholeness we were made for. The prophet Isaiah looks forward, as through a fog, and voices God’s desire, “Behold, I am doing a new thing.” (Isaiah 43:19). In the last book of the Bible, John records the same desire as he hears Jesus proclaim in that vision of the new creation, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:5).

Then, the angel shows John the vision: a city called the New Jerusalem, with twelve foundations and twelve open gates symbolizing God’s story of redemption revealed through Israel and the apostles. (Revelation 21:9-21).

Jesus, the Lamb, illuminates the city from its center, and all the peoples of the earth bring their glory into it—the beauty of each and every redeemed human culture (Revelation 21:22-26). Other creatures live there, too, worshiping God with His restored people (Revelation 5:13, 7:9-12). This is the new creation reality: every culture and every creature living together in the light of the Lamb. This is the integral wholeness for which we were created. Even in the present darkness, we behold the light of new creation shining back at us.

But can we be new now? Is this vision for us who groan in the midst of “this present evil age” (Galatians 1:4)? In our time, now, can our desires come to fruition, can they bear fruit and birth a new kind of life? Or are our desires to be cursed with toil and pain, barren and dormant until Jesus comes again?

Embodying New Creation

God would not have revealed our eternal tomorrow if He did not mean for it to change our today. To change us. Today.

When we see God, we’re changed (2 Corinthians 3:18, 1 John 3:2-3). Paul’s only use of the phrase “new creation” is when he is talking about the present people of God. Paul declares that the thing that matters most as a result of Christ’s work on the cross is this: new creation-that is, the newly created people of God from all possible strata of society (Galatians 3:28, 6:15). Then, in the context of describing the reconciled community, Paul says that anyone who is in Christ is “a new creation; the old has passed away; behold the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

There is a sense, then, in which the great change of new creation has already come. Not fully—Paul begins 2 Corinthians 5 describing his longing to put off the earthly body and dwell in the heavenly one—but somehow, truly and substantially, the new creation reality is already embodied by God’s people. This is the hope we live in, today, even as we wait for its consummation (Romans 8:24). This is the at-hand Kingdom of which we are ambassadors (Mark 1:15, 2 Corinthians 5:20). This is the truth to which we are called to bear witness (John 15:26-27).

The new creation reality exists in Christ Himself, and in any and all who have been reconciled to Him, to one another, and to the earth (Ephesians 1:10, 2:16).

He taught us to pray for His kingdom to come… later? Somewhere else? No. Here. Now. “On earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10).

If He wants us to pray for it, He wants us to labor for it.

Like a master sculptor bringing stone to life, He is already making us new (Ephesians 2:10). If you follow Jesus, you are His apprentice. Join with Him in the work of new creation. Let us labor for all the earth’s peoples to belong, by the blood of His cross, as we worship the Lamb together in one voice with all the earth’s creatures (Colossians 1:20, Revelation 5:13, 7:10).

Jesus has called us into the world, into all its groanings, so that we, the membership of all God’s creatures, might experience a foretaste of the fulfillment of our deepest desires to become something beautifully new.