God-Bearers and Christ-Bearers

Ignatius of AntiochI’ve been revisiting the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, particularly the letters of Ignatius. Ignatius was the bishop of Antioch at the turn of the second century who wrote seven letters to various churches only a matter of weeks before his martyrdom in Rome.

In those letters, Ignatius comes across as a humble and pious man who is deeply committed to Jesus Christ and the church. A constant theme is his concern not only for sound doctrine, but also for Christian unity in love (cf. Eph. 4:1-6, 14-16). The letters are fascinating in many respects, but one thing in particular has struck me. In the salutation at the beginning of each letter Ignatius refers to himself as ὁ Θεοφόρος—literally, “the God-bearer.” Michael W. Holmes notes:

In Greek inscriptions the term is commonly used as a title, describing those who carry divine images or shrines in religious processions (imagery and terminology that Ignatius applies to the Christian community in [his letter to the Ephesians] 9.2.)

Here’s the text to which Holmes refers:

So you are all participants together in a shared worship, God-bearers and temple-bearers, Christ-bearers, bearers of holy things, adorned in every respect with the commandments of Jesus Christ.

That’s quite a sobering thought. Every Christian believer is both a ‘God-bearer’ (one made in the image of God, created to worship God) and a ‘Christ-bearer’ (one united with Christ, being conformed to the likeness of Christ). Whether we recognize it or not, in all that we say and do—whether good or bad—we bear the name of God and the name of Christ. That has profound implications for how we conduct ourselves and how we treat other people.

I rarely write letters these days, but I probably write a dozen or so emails every day, and I occasionally post on social media. Sometimes, I regret to say, I do so with a tone or attitude that isn’t befitting of a Christian. No doubt it would look rather bizarre and pretentious to sign off my emails and blog posts as “James the God-bearer,” but surely it wouldn’t hurt to have that appellation in my own mind as I draft my missives. Even more effective perhaps would be to start by writing “James the God-bearer,” as if I were going to sign off in the manner of Ignatius, only to delete it before finally clicking ‘Send’!

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The Sting of Death

Death is the theme of the most recent issue of Philosophy Now. Two of the main articles debate whether it would be a good thing for scientists to overcome death. Nick Bostrom’s “The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant” argues with vigor that death isn’t something we should “gracefully accommodate”. Technology to retard the aging process, and perhaps even to halt and reverse it, may well be within the grasp of this generation, and scientists should make it a priority to pursue such technology. We have “compelling moral reasons to get rid of human senescence.” On the other side, Mary Midgley argues that the promise of endless life is a poisoned chalice: the cost of prolonging our lives would outweigh the benefits.

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The Preacher as Second-Level Teacher

A good preacher must be a first-level teacher. That is, he must faithfully interpret the biblical text and teach his people, first, what it meant to its original audience, and second, how it applies to them today as God’s inspired and ever-relevant Word.

But that is not enough. A good preacher, I believe, must also be a second-level teacher. That is, he must also show his people, over the long haul, how to do for themselves what he regularly does for them. He must teach them how to rightly handle the word of truth; how to rightly wield the sword of the Spirit. Scripture study is not a spectator sport, after all. This second-level teaching can be accomplished directly or indirectly; the latter is more common and often more appropriate. But it must be done — and done intentionally.

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Delivered From and Unto Death

Our God is a God of salvation, and to God, the Lord, belong deliverances from death. (Psalms 68:20, ESV)

For we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:10, KJV)

The Christian life is a series of deliverances: a succession of temporary, partial deliverances preparing us for a permanent, decisive deliverance.

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Meditation on a Good Friday

Luke 23:32-42

Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Three crosses on a hill. Three men condemned to die.

If we’re to understand what was so good about ‘Good’ Friday, we need to be able to see something of ourselves represented in all three of those crosses.

On the first cross was a criminal, a sinner, a rebel in God’s world, rightfully condemned for his crimes, but who scorned and spurned the one man who could save him.

Many of us can remember well the years when we scorned Jesus and spurned his salvation — if not in our words, then in our thoughts and our behaviour. We were condemned criminals in God’s universe and we showed no remorse.

Others of us were fortunate to have come to Christ at a young age — before we could do too much damage. But we know the stain of sin that remains in our hearts and we can imagine what we would be today if God had not taken hold of us.

We have different stories to tell, but all of us have this in common: like the man on this first cross, we were born sinners, with hearts bent toward evil and rebellion against God. We deserved the sentence of death. So we must see something of ourselves on that first cross.

On the second cross was another criminal, another sinner, another rebel in God’s world, rightfully condemned for his crimes, but who was saved by grace as he acknowledged his sins and put his faith in the one man who could save him.

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” That’s the faith of the sinner.

“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” That’s the promise of the Saviour.

And the very same promise is extended to every penitent sinner. As the old hymn put it, “The vilest offender who truly believes that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”

None is so good that the cross isn’t necessary to save him; but equally, none is so bad that the cross isn’t sufficient to save him.

So we must identify with the criminal on the first cross; but praise God that we can also identify with the criminal on the second cross. We are sinners, yes; but sinners saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus alone.

Two sinners on two crosses. And hanging between those two sinners on the third cross was the sinless Saviour who suffered in our place: the man who suffered not merely the physical agony of the cross, but the spiritual agonies of the wrath of God poured out in judgement on human sin.

John’s Gospel tells us that the chief priests objected to what was written on that notice above Jesus’ head. They were half right, for there’s a sense in which the notice was mistaken. It should have had my name on it. It should have had your name on it.

But that’s the wonder of the cross of Jesus. There was indeed something of us hanging on that third cross; not our bodies, but our guilt and our shame and our condemnation.

Three crosses on a hill. In very different ways, we need to see ourselves represented on each one of them.

We are the sinners rightly condemned to death.

We are the sinners saved by grace through faith in Jesus; promised a Paradise we don’t deserve.

We are the sinners in whose place the sinless Saviour bore the guilt and the punishment and the undiluted wrath of God.

Behold the man upon a cross, my sin upon his shoulders.
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice call out among the scoffers.
It was my sin that held him there until it was accomplished.
His dying breath has brought me life — I know that it is finished.

(Stuart Townend, ‘How Deep the Father’s Love For Us’)

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