Saturday, November 27, 2021

WHY THE FORBIDDEN FRUIT?

Why did God create the forbidden fruit? It’s a question for deep thinkers only. Some accuse God of cruelty for putting a temptation like “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” in the Garden of Eden. Such talk shows they either doubt God’s goodness or don’t know how temptation works, or both. When God pronounced everything He made “very good” (Gen 1:31) that tree was included. And long ago we were instructed about the nature of temptation in James 1:13-14 [Scripture quotes from NIV, unless otherwise noted],

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.”
For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone;
but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire,
he is dragged away and enticed.

But the question remains, “Why the forbidden fruit?” If a tree’s fruit was dangerous enough to kill humans, then why did God create it and place it in Paradise [the literal meaning of Eden], right “in the middle of the garden”?

Nothing is directly stated about that tree’s purpose, but some clues in those first 3 chapters of Genesis point to its edibility and its function. We already know God deemed it “very good,” and Gen 2:9 tells us it was among trees that were “good for food.” God indicated its significance by centrally locating it next to the crucially important “tree of life.” But what was its function?
 
After “the serpent”—identified in Rev 12:9 as “Satan”—deceived Eve by saying, “You will not surely die” (Gen 3:4), both she and Adam ate that tree’s fruit, and they at once died, but not at first physically. Later, in the New Testament, we learn their immediate death was spiritual (Rom5:12-24). But Satan had told them a partial truth about the fruit’s power: “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” God Himself confirmed this in Gen 3:22a (NKJV), “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil.” While this divine statement greatly supports the doctrine of the Trinity, it also gives us a hint about spiritual death.

God warned Adam and Eve in Gen 2:17, “you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” But when they did, He prevented them from living forever physically in their fallen, spiritually dead state. He removed Adam’s race from Eden’s source of everlasting life: “He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever. So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden...” (Gen 3:22b-23a). Both alchemy’s old quest for the life-extending philosopher’s stone and the proverbial search for the fountain of youth express a human longing for regaining access to that “tree.” But Paradise and “the tree of life” have been relocated from our planet to Heaven (Rev 2:7; 22:2,14,19).

To see why fruit from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” brought spiritual death, we must first understand how the “Us” of the Trinity “know good and evil.” The Eternal Persons of the Triune Godhead have an absolute “knowledge of good and evil.” If Gen 3:22a is a divine Self-revelation, then They each “know” independently in Themselves—intrinsic to Their uncreated nature as God—the precise distinction between “good and evil.” No created being—angelic or human—intrinsically has that divinely accurate “knowledge.” While they can learn it (Heb 5:14), they are forever dependent on God for it. But in Eden, through this “tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” God made a way for something “like” it to become a part of humanity. Evidently, God wanted human creatures, who already imaged the Trinitarian “Us” of Gen 1:26 (NKJV, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness...”), to be able, at some future stage of progress, to “become like one of Us.” Since we were already bearing His representative “likeness,” this further “like”-status had to be of another sort, perhaps relational.

Human survival depends on the God of Truth, for “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deut8:3). The exact story of fallen angels is obscure, but our own story is clear. Our human ancestors took and ate that fruit when it was forbidden to them, and its transformative power worked. It gave them independence in their “knowledge of good and evil”—an internal means, independent from God, for knowing and determining distinctions between “good and evil.” In other words, we became morally independent of divine guidance and direction, able to decide our own personal and cultural moralities, and that’s how human history has played out from our earliest days up to modern times. The spiritual death in such moral independence from God has proved to be blatantly obvious.

But in contemplating the Trinity—a Union of Three eternally distinct Individuals as One God, and so much One that They name and speak of Themselves in the singular (“I AM that I AM”)—we must come to terms with the mutual and simultaneous Self-Denial, even Self-Death, intrinsic to Their absolute Unity as morally independent Persons. God never asks us to do what He has not done or is not doing Himself. In Mat 16:24-25 (NKJV) Jesus called us to a self-death similar to His own: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” Our self-denying self-death is a prerequisite for experiencing “life... in abundance” (John 10:10, CSB) by intimate union with Christ, and through Him, ultimate union with the Triune God.

Adam and Eve’s sin of not listening to and obeying God, contained its own lethal consequence. It was much like the death of children who, being told not to do it, disobediently run into a busy street after escaping balls or abandoned toys and are killed in the traffic. The balls or toys did not cause their death, but their desire for them, outweighing their fear of the warning, tragically led them to it. If they had listened and obeyed, their parents might later have seen the traffic disappear, grabbed their hands and walked them safely into the empty street to help them retrieve their desired items.

Although the above illustration is inadequate, I believe it points to the possibility of God’s original intention for “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” as hinted earlier: a relational purpose. Created beings can never become the Uncreated, but God can invite us to become as “like” Him as He has become “like” us in Christ’s Incarnation. In His Plan A, He might have brought us to maturity in a self-death “like” His own Trinitarian one. In that case, humanity’s future might have had this tree’s fruit—deadly to us without that self-death—served to us on the table of “the wedding supper of the Lamb” (an unsacrificed one), for Whom we, “his bride [had] made herself ready” (Rev 19:7-9) through a much less difficult self-denial. But, deceived into acting on our own, we ate that fruit without divine permission, and in Plan B, “the Lambdid have to die, to provide the way for us, the Church, to make ourselves ready as His Bride. Now—in a fallen world, surrounded by fallen people, and hampered with our own fallen sin natures, we must struggle daily to resist that internalized fruit of moral independence and to embrace a self-denying self-death that is much harder than it would have been, yet is still possible. Christ, living in us through the Holy Spirit, teaches us to practice His prayerful lifestyle of “not my will but Yours be done,” and the more we do, the more progress we make in our earthly sanctification.

While Scripture has “the tree of life” in Heaven for us to eat from freely, we do not see there the misused “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” We already carry its fruit inside of us as now part of us. Even becoming “new creations in Christ” (2 Cor 5:17, CSB) does not erase its intended effect, for Christ Himself had its result in Him through becoming genetically human through Mary.[1] By learning from Jesus how to use our individual moral independence in the way God originally intended, we will make ourselves ready for our coming wedding with Him, our Bridegroom. It will be a true marriage of equal partners, because He became one of us, partaking fully of our human nature, so that we could become “like” Him as fully as humanly possible by partaking of “the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4). Without that comprehensive sharing of natures, corporately redeemed humanity could not even have a friendship with Christ, let alone an equanimous marriage.

So, far from being a temptation, or even a test, as some teach, I believe the Biblical clues behind my speculation show that this, at first, deadly “tree” was to be an awesome wedding gift from our Creator. It allowed us, as lowly human creatures, to stand in exaltation forever beside Jesus in a mutually self-denying, eternal marital union.

Some people hate to read poems, probably because much poetry is written as enigmatically as Old Testament prophets sometimes proclaimed their prophecies. But I’ve tried to capture in a sonnet many of the concepts I’ve shared above. I hope it forms both an adequate review and an apt conclusion to this article.

FORBIDDEN FRUIT

No, not a test, but gift put on reserve,
a present for unwrapping later on,
a prize to guard and carefully conserve
till youthful immaturity was gone.

But Satan knew the fruit upon that tree
could sow false independence in our race
and blind—through open eyes—ability
to fellowship with Maker face to face.

What would have served as food for marriage feast,
when Son of God would win His human Bride,
became a path of bondage to the Beast,
who laughed to think our destiny had died.

But Mary’s Son would crush that Serpent’s head
and rise to raise His Spouse back from the dead.

— David L. Hatton, 4/16/2018
(from Poems Between Fear and Faith © 2019)

— — — — — — —
[1] See my blog article, “THE FIRST ADVENT: THE INCARNATION,” which explains this in great detail.

Friday, October 8, 2021

POEMS BETWEEN THE BEGINNING AND THE END - Introduction

Signed copy available - click image
(Before becoming a preacher, a nurse, an amateur artist, or a massage therapist, I was a poet. I still am. Getting my poetry published in more than homemade binders had been a dream for years. Health challenges and the rise of modern book-publishing technology merged to motivate me to make the effort. This and my other books are published through Amazon's Kindle Direct in both paperback and Kindle editions.

I wanted to put the introductory essays for each poetry collection on my blog. If you want to know what makes me tick, my poems tell it better than a biography.

This "Introduction" and the concluding poem are from my 7th book of poems. To read the posts from my others, click on these links:
Poems Between Heaven and Hell;
Poems Between Darkness and Light;
Poems Between Death and Life;


“Introduction” to
Poems Between the Beginning and the End

In a philosophy class in high school, I became enthralled with Augustine’s idea of time. He tried to show that by their sequential nature, time past and time future have dimension, while present time does not. At the point where past and future meet, there is nothing. Any seeming dimension in the present can be further divided into past and future. But, from the perspective of this dimensionless present, the past no longer exists and the future is yet to be.

These philosophically convoluted thoughts led me to ask, “Does time exist?” and to write an essay on it for that class. My teacher coached me in framing that same question into a suitable form and submitting it to Mortimer J. Adler’s weekly newspaper column. If that renowned educator and philosopher chose to discuss it, I would win a 54-volume set of Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World. That happens to be how I came to own that set of books.

Despite how valid the above arguments seem in showing  time’s nonexistence, modern astronomers and cosmologists depend mathematically on time’s real existence for their knowledge of the cosmos. In fact, from a subjective, psychological viewpoint, all of us bring the past into our present experience by recollection, and we can dream or visualize the future now by anticipation and planning. At the speed of thought, we jump from one past memory to another or from one future prospect to another. God designed us with a subconscious repository from which the conscious mind accesses these preoccupations in a manageable way, usually one item at a time.

From this psychological perspective, the past that we have lived has dimension in our present thought, and even our earthly future has a tentative existence and duration. What seems without dimension is our beginning and our end. They are like the front and back covers of a book whose pages contain the history of our earthly lives. We consciously experience nothing before our beginning, and unless we are told by God what comes after death, we cannot tangibly anticipate what comes after the back cover that ends our personal story.

Of paramount earthly importance to our humanness are identity and memory. I’ve come to believe that both exist as a functional union of the physical body and the spiritual soul through a uniquely formulated and parallel integration of cellular and spiritual DNA. This interactive arrangement provides for both individuality and memory. The physical DNA produces a neuro-network for memory’s manifestation in the material world, while the spiritual DNA governs the repository God designed in a person’s soul for its storage.

Neurologists can show that memories are consciously elicited by brain stimulation. Materialistic scientists take this as proof that the physical brain stores personal memory. To date, however, the actual physiological mechanism of that storage—in brains cells whose molecular matter is fully replaced about every 7 years—escapes explanation.

The manner of cerebral memory storage can never be discovered, if personal memories are stored in the soul and merely accessed by the brain, as cloud or disk memory is accessed by computer operators. Many with NDEs (near-death experiences) tell of still having their memories and identities as they float from hospital rooms into afterlife territory. After they return to their resuscitated bodies, what they saw and experienced is stored not in their brains, which were nonfunctional during the episode, but in their souls, which actually had the experience.

From the beginning of our DNA marriage between soul and body until it ends in death, our identity is not static. Sin and the Fall have damaged our biological DNA so that the deterioration of aging is part of our earthly sojourn. Old age changes us physically. Conversely, the memories stored in our soul also change us, becoming part of what makes up our personalities. God graciously calls us and lovingly provides for us to expand our identities in the direction of who we really are in Him. But our free will can choose pathways that lead us away from the moral and servant-leadership purposes for which He made us body-spirit beings.

By the titles of all my poem books, I have attempted to convey the circumstantial tension in which human volition determines personal destiny. The context of life’s choices are both the pages between life’s book covers and the chapters that alternate between the way of self and the way of God—in other words, between heaven and hell; darkness and light; death and life; birth and resurrection; here and beyond; fear and faith; and now between the beginning and the end. It’s in this in-between space that we live and make choices, from the very outset to the final sunset.

At this period of my life, prostate cancer and heart problems have curtailed much of my bodily activity, yet each day only increases my soul’s desire to learn. While my thirst for theological knowledge is far from quenched, I have developed a voracious appetite for studying both molecular biology and cosmological astrophysics. The desire to grow in my experience with drawing and painting is still unmet. But, in the realm of poetry, part of that late-in-life ambition to learn and experience more is profusely reflected in the large number of explorations I’ve made in trying my hand at Japanese and Korean poetic styles. I’ll admit upfront that I’ve never made the proper distinction between haiku and senryu. I call all of my 3-line non-rhymes of 5-7-5 syllables haiku, when technically I know most of them fail to meet the exigencies of the form. On the other hand, I did try to follow the formal rules with my tanka and sijo.

My tendency to insert comic-relief into my poetic stream of frequently serious subject matter had a prolific growth spurt in this volume. Perhaps a closer view of my mortality, while increasing the depth of my seriousness, has led to  interspersing these pages with much more creative humor. As you will see, I discovered some new outlets for that in limerick-making and other word-play experimentation. And I must admit that, along with those fun and sometimes satirical creations, I made some serious attempts at new forms or lyric patterns as a result of entering poetry contests on Allpoetry.com. In fact, it was from a contest requiring a crown of sonnets that I decided to go beyond the entry requirements and work on an heroic crown of sonnets—14 sonnets with the last line of each becoming the first line of the next sonnet, and concluding with a master sonnet composed of all those previous first lines. The result was what I now consider my magnum opus. I wrote it right at the outset of the Covid-19 lockdown, when everything slowed to a standstill, except the gift of time.

Time truly is a gift. Cosmologists now realize that it had a beginning ex nihilo. But no matter how long the universe lasts, our personal slice of cosmic time has an endpoint. Someday all of what was our life’s future will be in storage as past memories. How our identities have grown toward God or away from Him will be all that matters in the afterlife. Skip my attempts at humor, if you must, but pay close attention to my serious stuff. As always, it is my hope and prayer that my more prophetic and spiritual messages in verse might help my readers make decisions for Christ that will bless them now and for eternity.

— David L. Hatton


PERSONAL PETITION

Lord, lead me safe on the physical plane
past life-draining pits on the upward path
where frolic’s folly brings bodily pain
or sins I avoid feed the devil’s wrath.
As my strength subsides and my powers wane,
Lord, lead me safe on the physical plane.

God, govern my will, as my mind grows old,
while my life-clock ticks till its spring’s unwound.
When the final days of my stay unfold,
keep my feelings calm and my thoughts still sound,
discerning the dross from the goal of gold—
God, govern my will, as my mind grows old.

As my soul declines, let my spirit sing;
as my mission ends, let my worship last.
May I still be grateful for everything
with a forward look, letting go the past.
To Your glory’s praise, ever-present King,
as my soul declines, let my spirit sing!

— David L. Hatton, 11/20/2020
(Poems Between the Beginning and the End, © 2021)

For more single poems from this volume, visit my website's “Poetry Page.”

Monday, October 4, 2021

JESUS DREW A LINE

What line did Jesus draw? He drew the dividing line between God’s Kingdom of Light and Satan’s dominion of darkness. He didn’t draw this line philosophically—leaving it open to discussion or to the shifting definitions of human opinion and religious ideology. Because Jesus was the Messiah King, His arrival on the scene of human history created the real, spiritually tangible existence of that dividing line. His incarnational coming inaugurated the earthly debut of the Kingdom of God, and that Kingdom’s ongoing spiritual presence calls for human wills to respond. Putting off or making excuses to avoid a decisive response was then and is now to make a negative choice.

John the Baptist—sent by God as a prophetic voice to prepare people for receiving the coming King—preached, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Jesus preached exactly the same message with another intent. He was now calling people to participate in that Kingdom by putting their trust in Him. True repentance or metanoia [“change of mind”] is not an emotional sorrow over personal sins or an intellectual adaptation to a new concept. It’s the full human person—body, soul, and spirit—fully surrendering to Jesus Christ as the Savior King. The choice of repentant faith in response to the Good News of God’s Kingdom initiates in the believer’s heart the actual Reign of Almighty God, “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” (James 1:17). Forgiveness of sins and a renewed mind are the results of that surrender, for both are found only in the King.

Satan is at work 24/7 to prevent sinners from crossing over that dividing line by their surrender to Jesus. For all human history, he’s avidly studied our fallen nature, learning how to play every field in order to cater successfully to each human inclination. “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor 11:14), not pure and holy light, but creational forms of light and enlightenment tinted to individual human taste with various degrees of darkness. He offers as many shades of gray as there are human personalities to be duped by them. He still uses his old forbidden-fruit promise that “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5), and it still yields the deadly blindness of multiple moralities, all independent from God. Long before humans fell into it, the devil chose this path to moral independence from God. By leading us into it too, he became “the god of this world” who not only “blinded the minds of the unbelievers” in Eden, but continues to blind all the unbelieving, “to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2 Cor 4:4).

Scripture reveals that by God’s Son “all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” (Col 1:16). Jesus drew a line symbolically in the beginning when He “divided the light from the darkness,” (Gen 1:4). But in the human birthright of moral conscience, from the beginning until now, He has faithfully been “the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world.(John 1:9). All creation, including those made in His image to be servant-leaders and caretakers of creation, were described by God as “very good” (Gen 1:31). All creation, including us, would have remained “very good,” if human leadership had remained living in the truth, walking in the light of the Lord. But we listened instead to the liar Satan and were deceived into the spiritual death and damning darkness of his lies.

Jesus described the deceiver: “… He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies,” (John 8:44); and He contrasted the deceiver’s works to His own: “The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly,” (John 10:10). Satan extends his own rebellion against God through us by luring us to sin against the God of light, thereby capturing us as prisoners in his dominion of darkness. Jesus unmasked the devil’s goal in tempting us to sin—“Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin,” (John 8:34)—and the Apostle John told the end result: “He who does what is sinful is of the devil.” John continues by telling why no human can enter the territory of self-will and autonomy from God without falling under Satan’s influential power, and sometimes, his full control: “because the devil has been sinning from the beginning.” Because he got there first and is the mastermind of rebellion against God, he rules over the domain of sin. But these explanations from 1 John 3:8 conclude with the divine intervention that is humanity’s only hope: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.

Why does God’s work of salvation boil down to this one thing: destroying Satan’s work? It’s because sin means “missing the mark,” and the divine mark, God’s true target for humans, is to walk in truth by living and thriving in the God of truth. Through lies, Satan tempts people to use their God-given desires in God-forbidden ways. He uses creation itself, or his manipulations of created things, to lure those “good” human desires into “missing the mark.” And the result? “Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death,” (James 1:15). The incredible but inconceivably gracious response of our loving God to our sins and spiritual death was the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. By personally paying for our sins on the Cross, Jesus drew a line in human history between sin’s damnation and sin’s forgiveness. By His Resurrection, which completed His work on the Cross, Jesus drew a line between the spiritually dead and the divinely alive, between slavery in Satan’s dominion of darkness and the abundant life in God’s Kingdom of light.

The vicarious Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross went beyond taking away sins. It also put the sinner to death. A crucial dimension of destroying “the devil’s work” was for Jesus vicariously to take into His own death the false humanity that Satan had fashioned with lies: “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin,” (Rom 6:6). But, while the forgiveness of sins is God’s instantaneous act, the emancipation from slavery to sin is chronological, progressing in earthly time as rapidly as believers in Christ let the truth of Christ set them free. In promising believers this liberation, Jesus inferred this progressive pattern: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” (John 8:31-32).

Many have knelt at the Cross of Christ for forgiveness without completely surrendering to the abundant life He brought to them by His Resurrection. Death to the “old self”—the false self created by Satan’s lies—is not a one time event. In Galatians 2:20, the Apostle Paul made an amazing claim based on Christ’s work on the Cross: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” In this statement, he was describing his victorious walk “by faith in the Son of God”—his experiential journey in daily manifesting his new life in Christ. In our union with Christ, we can live life “more abundantly,” but not automatically. Day by day, even moment by moment, we must choose to follow Him, choose to obey Him. In the same way, while we have been “crucified with Christ” we do not automatically die to the individual lies that shaped the false self. We must, by a choice of our new will in Christ, reject any lingering lies. This is why the Apostle Paul exhorts us, “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry,” (Col 3:5).

Placing our faith in Jesus brings us across the line from death to life, because “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new,” (2Cor 5:17). But Satan doesn’t easily give up on repentant sinners who were once his slaves. If he can’t keep us in his realm of darkness with the old lies he once used to enslave us, he invents a million others—appealing half-truths, innocent-looking gray areas—to lure us back across the line into his territory. This is why Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,” (Mat 10:34). He came to draw a line that meant spiritual warfare for the rest of this fallen world’s history. Believers are to be warriors commissioned to help others find their true selves in Christ. In order to do that, without themselves becoming spiritual casualties in the battle, they must keep their minds and hearts fed on the truth God has revealed in His Word. They must become skilled in resisting satanic lies with “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God,” (Eph 6:17).

This dividing line is absolutely precise. There is no middle ground, no room for a mixture of the brightest light of truth with the faintest tint of shading. Divine truth has no tolerance of a compromise between the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the most appealing precepts of ancient or modern wisdom. Therefore, it can never ever be Jesus plus something else, for the very person and presence of Christ the King defines the Kingdom of God. He alone is the King of Kings, Who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6). From that exclusive stance, Jesus drew a line, and everyone’s eternal destiny depends on what side of the line they choose to be on.

[If you found this helpful, you might also want to read, Finding and Becoming Our True Selves, “Question Autonomy!” and Identity Amnesia.]

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

DEATH IS REAL

The title is a no-brainer, but necessary. Almost universally, we avoid contemplating the obvious fact of universal mortality. But ignoring death’s inevitability can’t make it go away or help us face it. The following free verse poem (rare for me) is my attempt to emphasize the utter finality of eventually arriving at our individual earthly end point:

TERMINUS

Hourglass empty;
Measured cord cut;
Opportunities passed;
Possibilities exhausted;
Game over. . . .

End of discussion:
No more opinions;
All choices chosen;
Personal history frozen:
The last period
Forever terminating
The last sentence
In each autobiography
(Once partly private,
Hereafter an open book).

End of the trail,
Concluding all steps
Down all forks in the road
To finish the journey;
Point of no return;
The ticket’s last stop;
End of the line
At the final destination,
Where earthly life stops
And afterlife begins.

Whether delight,
In reward and rejoicing,
Or disaster,
In retribution and regret:
Gate shut. . . .

— David L. Hatton, 8/28/2015
(from Poems Between Here and Beyond © 2016)

As a Gospel preacher, my wish isn’t to create a morbid focus on death. I want to remind everyone to take their life-decisions seriously before death. But not all reminders about death do this equally well.
 
Inundation with news of death can be a blessing or a curse. Hearing of others dying warns us to prepare. We’re mortal, and sooner or later, we’ll leave this life for the afterlife. But a constant media stream—announcing the passing of faraway people unrelated to us—can numb our perception. Tragic stories of freak accidents, lethal illnesses, merciless homicides or desperate suicides may shock us, but to preserve mental hygiene, we dare not dwell on daily mortality reports too long. Yet dismissing them too quickly can dull us to what news of any death ought to instill: a resolve to be ready to face our own.

If media journalism fails, sometimes literary fine arts can succeed, especially when poets or novelists adeptly develop believable characters. Edgar Lee Masters showed this skill in his Spoon River Anthology—a free verse chronicle of an early 1900s Midwest community. Masters had the deceased of a fictitious village speak their own brief, autobiographical epitaphs from the grave. The voices of each terminated life stirs reflection, draws sympathy, or offers a cautionary reality-check. In the latter case, the message usually gives an alert or an advisory about life, as exemplified in the following excerpts from two of the poems, “Harold Arnett” (a suicide) and “Lucinda Matlock”:

I pulled the trigger… blackness… light…
Unspeakable regret… fumbling for the world again.
Too late! Thus I came here,
With lungs for breathing… one cannot breathe here with lungs,
Though one must breathe.…
Of what use is it
To rid one’s self of the world,
When no soul may ever escape the eternal destiny of life?
    *    *    *
At ninety-six I had lived enough, that is all,
And passed to a sweet repose.
What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you—
It takes life to love Life.

Recently, I finished the murder mystery Deadline, a page-turner by novelist and Bible teacher Randy Alcorn. His credible characters allowed him to weave much into the story to provoke serious thought about living right and dying well. Such novels can change a person’s perspective on how to live and how to die. Certain readers might evade Alcorn’s intent by claiming the obvious: “It’s only fiction.” But this novel’s moral imperatives are not make-believe, and its decisive fork in the road at Christ’s Cross leads either to the heavenly bliss of eternal life or to the ultimate death of everlasting separation from God.

Death in fiction and poetry can be powerful and moving, but when closer to home, it’s another matter. At the passing of neighbors, friends, relatives, a parent, our spouse, a son or daughter, we mourn more deeply and ponder our loss much longer. Over time, grief may subside, but reminding memorablia in our immediate environment frequently resuscitate and extend the pain of the parting. Achieving a complete goodbye may take years, or we may still be in the process when it’s our turn to depart. While some call belief in an afterlife superstitious, the goodbye intrinsic to grief may unconsciously express the hope contained in the contracted phrase from which it derives: “God be wi’ ye!” Almost as a cultural reflex—and perhaps even contrary to one’s personal doubts or unbelief—the human tendency is to add to “God be with you” the colloquially familiar phrase “till we meet again.”

Because these nearer and dearer incidents of death are not quickly forgotten, the personal message they offer is not as easily brushed aside. Our thoughts linger on missing faces. We reminisce about lost embraces. I believe there’s a built-in human longing—an afterlife hope, stated or unstated—for a heavenly reunion, where we regain the presence of our departed loves ones and again feel their warm hugs.

The sterile worldview of modern philosophical materialism—a belief that time, space and matter are all that exist—cancels any hope for an afterlife. It evaluates personal individuality after death as “dust in the wind.” Religions envisioning God as a moral scorekeeper, who tallies our successes against our failures in life, provide no assurance that we’ll make it to such a reunion. But the Gospel call to follow Jesus Christ is relational. His personal promise is certain, inspiring confident faith. In John 14:2b-3 (NKJV), Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.

Many years ago I wrote a poem to contrast what philosophies and religions offer with what the Gospel of Christ proclaims. I think it presents a perfect appeal on which to conclude these thoughts about the inevitability of death and what we need to decide before we meet it:

THE ANSWERING

Is there any meaning, a purpose why we’re here,
A reason for our living and dying day by day?
Could there be a message that comes from the beginning,
Outside our world of striving? Is someone there to say?

If it is all illusion, if we are just machines,
How can we measure value? Are we worth more or less?
If we are merely atoms that clumped by time and chance,
Why deem ourselves so precious upon vague hope and guess!

If only Someone’s out there to speak His love by word,
To tell us who we are; if only Someone came,
Then we’d have an answer. (Religion gave too many—
Science forgot our souls), but He’d have to leave His name.

Science said, “Keep searching.” Religion said, “Try harder.”
Some said, “Do your own thing.” And others said, “Be brave!”
But tell me how to listen. The voice of pain is loud!
The wounded scream around us. We face an open grave. . . .

But One came speaking purpose  and wept at pain and death
And healed the brokenhearted. “A lunatic,” said some.
But He said Someone sent Him named Father God and Love.
He claimed to seek the lost ones; that One who came said,
“Come.”

— David L. Hatton, 8/23/1978
(from Poems Between Heaven and Hell ©1991, 2014)

Saturday, October 17, 2020

IDENTITY AMNESIA

When we, as sinners, get concerned about our standing before God, we usually think first about our sins. We’ve broken laws, transgressed commandments, trespassed forbidden boundaries, omitted obligations and in many ways “missed the mark” (the literal meaning of sin in the Bible, from how poorly aimed arrows miss targets). This initial concern is natural for humans, and God may use it to get our attention. In John 8:24, Jesus told those who doubted that He was God’s Son, “if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.” But earlier, in the same chapter, His words to a woman caught in adultery clearly expressed His Father’s attitude: “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.

Because God is gracious to repentant sinners, He forgave sins and transgressions in the Old Testament, long before Jesus became the sacrificial Lamb of God. But, while guilt for sins was one problem the Cross addressed, God’s major target was the sin nature: our disposition to sin. Because God created us with an intrinsically united body-spirit nature—the human body created to be spiritual and the human spirit created to be incarnate—Adam and Eve could not help but genetically pass on to all their descendants this bent toward sinning. We all inherit it, and receiving pardon for sins doesn’t eliminate it. Genesis 3:1-7 tells how Satan strategically worked to get this functional source of sins inside of us as a race. But 1 John 3:8 proclaims that the Son of God showed up on earth to destroy “the works of the devil.” This was His pragmatic purpose, but not His motivating goal.

The motive of His heart was revealed when Jesus said in Luke 19:10, “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” We lost much in the Fall of our first parents, but the most crucial loss was in the memory of our created identity. Personal sins, whether in thought, word or deed, do not cause this spiritual amnesia. Sinning is a developed habit, bred and fed by deeming ourselves independent from our Creator. Yet this way of thinking seems to come naturally to us. We are born with no memory of our absolute and total dependence on God. Complaining that this ignorant situation isn’t our fault will change nothing. The effects of this missed mark on the human condition are universally persistent. The personal multiplication of sins, in acts or attitudes, continues to confirm this race-wide matrix of sin, which functions in this absence of an authentic, dependent relationship with our Maker.

Mark 1:4 states that “John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins (plural).” But when John the Baptist saw Jesus coming to him, he said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin (singular) of the world!” (John 1:29). Oswald Chambers explained this theological difference between sins and sin extremely well:

The Bible does not say that God punished the human race for one man’s sin; but that the disposition of sin . . . entered into the human race by one man, and that another Man took on Him the sin of the human race and put it away (Hebrews 9.26)—an infinitely profounder revelation. The disposition of sin is not immorality and wrong-doing, but the disposition of self-realization—I am my own god. This disposition may work out in decorous morality or in indecorous immorality, but it has the one basis, my claim to my right to myself. (My Utmost of His Highest, October 5th)

By a preoccupation with sins instead of a focus on sin, many have misconstrued what happened in the beginning. We know from Genesis 1:31 that after completing creation, “God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good.” This divine evaluation included “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:9), even though its early misuse derailed its “good” purpose from being revealed. God merely told Adam to take care of it, to guard it, but not to eat from it, warning that, if he did, it would kill him. When Adam and Eve ignored this warning and ate that tree’s forbidden fruit, they immediately died spiritually, and afterwards, physically. What they took into themselves had the deadly effect of making them morally independent from God. Once ingested, it gave them their very own “knowledge of good and evil”—an ability to determine right and wrong for themselves. This laid the groundwork for humans to develop a myriad of conflicting personal and cultural moralities down through history, each relying on a knowledge not directly received from God.

When a father warns his child, “Don’t play with the gun . . . it can kill you,” and the child disobeys and dies, the disobedience may have led to the death, but a bullet killed the child. Similarly, when Satan duped Adam and Eve into ignoring God the Father’s warning, they disobediently consumed something that had the power to separate them spiritually from Him and from the divine life He wanted for them. The ultimate effect of imbibing moral independence from God was to kill themselves and us, their descendants. Incorporating this spiritually lethal fruit into their lives and into the human race was the precise point where “sin entered the world, and death through sin,” as described by Romans 5:12-19. But in that same passage, God’s gracious solution to the sin problem is also explained.

Any possibility of having restored human bodies, souls and spirits with clear memories of our original role in servant-leadership required a new humanity. This hope materialized when God’s Son became a body-spirit human being. Christ’s unique conception (Matthew 1:20) from one of Mary’s ova and from the Holy Spirit’s overshadowing (Luke 1:35) combined both the necessary genes of the sin nature, which Mary inherited from Adam, and the essential “seed” of a new human race, which the Holy Spirit’s breath freshly created from earthly matter (as God had first done in Genesis 2:7).

God’s Son becoming a human being is the greatest of all cosmic and celestial miracles. This marvelous Incarnation initiated a new human genome, one with an intrinsically divine nature. But the genetic presence of the sin nature in Jesus, and its utter defeat throughout His earthly life, allowed Him to take this disposition for sinning to the Cross. Paul describes this incredible fact in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” It’s the theological ground for his insistence that “our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be rendered powerless so that we may no longer be enslaved to sin,” (Romans 6:6). This amazing facet of the Incarnation enables both Paul and us to say, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me,” (Galatians 2:20).

Because it’s our self-life of sin that produces sins, God’s goal in salvation was not just forgiveness but renewal. The DNA of the old Adam was nullified by Christ’s bodily death. But the new human genome, the immortal DNA in His resurrected body, made Jesus “the firstborn from among the dead” (Colossians 1:18), with many others to follow. Resurrection introduced a new order of human life, a new humanity destined to reign forever over “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1), led by Christ the Savior and King.

Our upbringing in a world alienated from God’s will and ways confirms and nurtures our sin-bent false self in sinning. God’s plan for us is that we stop being sinners and remember our true selves. Christ’s saving gift of new birth begins a new creation in us that reinstates our lost memory. By indwelling us through the Holy Spirit, He facilitates our growth in remembering and living out our true identity as servant-leaders, created “in the image of God,” the Supreme Servant-Leader (Genesis 1:26-27).

If you’re not a Christian, you’re still suffering from spiritual amnesia. God wants to remedy that, but He will not override your personal will in order to do so. You must freely choose to surrender yourself to Him, the Lord of heaven and earth Who came to restore your spiritual memory loss. Heed Christ’s warning in Mark 8:36, “For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” Nothing is more eternally precious than the true self God intended you to manifest in creation. He calls you to forget your false identity of a self-directed self-sufficiency, so you can discover your forgotten identity as a uniquely designed servant who depends on divine guidance. Your success in that holy remembering is enabled by the special grace that accompanies your choice to obey Christ’s familiar invitation, “Follow Me.

If you’re already a Christian, but have been so preoccupied by worldly concerns or distractions that you have forgotten “your first love” (Revelation 2:4), then you also must surrender. Choose to remember who you really are. Don’t let the world define your identity. Only your Maker and Lord can tell you who you are. If you wake up each day with your Christian memory foggy or fading, then realize your need for forming new habits. Start spending more time talking to God in prayer, more time reading His Word, more time focusing your mind on Christ and listening for His voice in your daily activities. Memorizing Scripture is one of the best habits to develop, and modern technology has brought modern help in that area (Google “the Verse-Locker app”). There’s really no such thing as a once-for-all surrender. The NKJV of Luke 9:23 records Jesus instructing each disciple to “take up his cross daily, and follow Me.

The following verses offer a concluding summary and poetic reinforcement of these finals exhortations.

SURRENDER

Never wait until disaster
wraps your body in a ball,
or your limbs get set in plaster
after feeble flight and fall:
cease today to flee the Master,
slowing down to heed His call.

Boast no sinful self-reliance
to disparage Heaven’s Throne;
wave no scepter of defiance,
proudly claiming, “I’m my own!”
or you’ll drown in dark compliance
to a demon’s rule alone.

Inner conscience is observant,
when away from God we swim:
our Creator is a Servant,
calling us to image Him
with devotion full and fervent,
waylaid not by wish or whim.

God won’t confiscate decision . . .
we must relegate our will
to His radical excision
of the sin that made us ill.
Dream no shallow, quick revision:
we’ve a void He longs to fill

When a sinner’s heart is willing
to become a saintly soul,
Christ indwells by Spirit filling,
making broken places whole.
Even angels find it thrilling,
watching Jesus meet His goal.

— David L. Hatton, 10/17/2020

Saturday, July 25, 2020

THE PANDEMIC’S PANIC-DEMIC

For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power
and of love and of a sound mind. 2 Timothy 1:7 (NKJV)

Many Christians, including myself, began the year 2020 hoping it would be one of 20/20 vision, a year for gaining a clearer perspective on God’s will and purposes for us as His people. The verse prefacing this article encourages us not to despair of that hope. What the Apostle Paul proclaimed to Timothy predates all the fearful crises of history that followed its writing and still tells us what thwarts the “spirit of fear” that typically accompanies all such critical times.

When frightful dangers do take control of the mind, panic is the result. But God gave us “a sound mind,” one equipped with the spiritual fruit of self-control. This divine inheritance should distinguish our response to dangers from that of a worldly reaction, as Paul makes clear in Romans 8:15 (NKJV), For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” Pressing down on one side of the contemporary scales is the authentically bad news of a global plague. On the other side of the scales is the infinitely weightier Good News of who we are in Christ. But, before examining how our identity as God’s children tips the balances, I want to discuss another balancing act between bad news and some better news that is currently in effect for everyone.

Despite heated disputes about the political and medical nature of this present pandemic, the bad news is very harsh: many more will die from Covid-19. Neither the growing fears broadcast by mainline media nor the reassuring rebuttals proclaimed in social media will prevent Corona-virus-related deaths from mounting. Yes, traditionally wise hygienic practices may slow the spread. But none of the public’s confidently debated opinions—about the need for masks or their risks, social distancing or its ineffectiveness, lock-downs or their socio-economic dangers, vaccine development’s possibility or impossibility—will eliminate these tragic deaths. That’s the bad news.

In the midst of this crisis, however, there is some better news that is more hopeful: most who get infected with the virus will survive. That statistical reality decreases with age, especially with those of us who are approaching or have surpassed the average human life expectancy. These same morbidity-rate statistics have characterized other epidemics, as well as life in general: the elderly always die at a higher rate than those younger. But the news media’s focus has been on the deadliness of the virus and not on the survival rate. That one-sided emphasis is a contributing factor in this pandemic becoming a panic-demic. Our stressed-out society needs some encouraging news right now. Hearing that only a low percentage of those contracting Covid-19 will die from it is a much needed encouragement.

But, while the bad news is outweighed by this better news, there’s actually worse news than what we’re facing from this current pandemic. In fact, it’s what most people feel is the very worst news. Yet, there is also some much better news than surviving Covid-19, for those who are willing to believe it. In fact, it’s the best news on the planet! The worst news is already well known but usually ignored: sooner or later, all of us will die. The best news is divinely true but often doubted: because of what Jesus Christ did for us, we do not have to be afraid of dying.

Death is a universal reality. It isn’t increased by lethal diseases, by acts of violence, or by unforeseen accidents. Such fatalities do shorten our personal lifespans, but regardless of what form death takes, it is always 100% effective in removing each person from this planet. This is much worse news than the bad news of the Covid-19 death-count. The fact that it’s really just the same old news we’ve always known about doesn’t trivialize everyone’s suffering from this pandemic, but it does offer us a realistic perspective on the limits of earthly life.

We will each die from something, and the odds are that it won’t be from the CV-19 bug. This virus should not be identified with the Grim Reaper. It is merely a new tool of his for maintaining human mortality. But the broadcast focus on his recent use of it has made some people stop watching TV’s bad news reports altogether. This popular media-boycotting may not be so much a way of ignoring the contagion as an attempt to find some peace of mind. Such a motive would be a tacit statement that humans do not thrive on morbid fear but on hopeful faith.

This is where the best news comes in, at least for those willing to believe in what was accomplished by the Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because of Romans 3:23 and 6:23, Christians know that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and that Jesus countered sin’s universal sentence of capital punishment on the human race: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” These basic Bible teachings confront the inevitability of earthly death with the divine provision of heavenly life.

Putting trust in Christ provides not just forgiveness for sins but a life where death need no longer cause fear or panic. Hebrews 2:14-15 (NIV) explains why this is so: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” Until Resurrection Day, bodily death will continue, even if a CV-19 infection is survived. But for Christian believers, death is no longer a frightening terminus. Departing from this life escorts us into the presence of our Savior and Lord.

Having healthy fear is a necessity, especially when it alerts us to moral and mortal dangers that God wants us to avoid. Jesus was highlighting healthy, godly fear, when He said, “My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him!” (Luke 12:4-5, NKJV). But, because anxious human fear is unhealthy, Jesus also told us in Matthew 6:34 (ESV), “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

Despite these troubled and trying times, those following Jesus should not cave in to this pandemic’s panic-demic. We are not called to imitate those who, by rejecting faith in Christ, are still “held in slavery by their fear of death.” This global crisis is indeed extremely troublesome and tragic. But it’s only one episode of trouble in a world that has been full of tragedy ever since our first parents were banished from Eden. Whether or not the gatekeepers of modern media continue to inspire fear with bad news reports, believers must heed and hold on to what our death-conquering King told us in a special verse that we should all memorize: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world,” (John 16:33, NIV)

In a poem I wrote some time ago (“Be of Good Cheer”—the KJV’s rendering of the NIV’s “take heart”), I expand and expound these personal words that Jesus spoke for our encouragement. It pictures Jesus telling us how we need to respond to critical challenges like those imposed by this viral plague. Its rhyming lines also offer an apt conclusion for my intent in this article. My goal is not only to keep my Christian brothers and sisters from letting this pandemic fill their lives with panic and pandemonium, but to encourage them to be living and dying witnesses to unbelievers who do not yet share our faith and marvelous hope in Christ.

BE OF GOOD CHEER
(John 16:33)

Trials and tragedies, trouble and pain,
Hopes that are dashed amid dreams that are slain:
All of these pepper the world where you dwell,
Making your life just a little like hell.

Satan may threaten, and demons may swarm,
Yet I am with you in tempest and storm.
This I will promise: your heart will have peace,
As you let go in My Spirit’s release.

Yes, there is darkness, disease and despair
Marring My beautiful world everywhere.
That’s why I came, to connect with each loss
By the embrace of My sin-laden Cross.

Be of good cheer in the Message you’ve heard.
Others have suffered who knew not My Word.
Others are hurting who still know Me not—
Yours is the cross that can light up their lot.

Take tribulations and trials you face . . .
Plunge them in love by the strength of My grace.
Follow My path, when the suffering grows.
Cherish the Cross! It will conquer your foes!

— David L. Hatton, 7/12/2000 (revised, 1/17/2014)
(from Poems Between Here and Beyond © 2016)

Friday, June 5, 2020

DEATH & LIFE AT THE TABLE

(Online Holy Communion link here and at bottom of this article)

Holy Communion, or the Eucharist [from the Greek word for “thanksgiving”], is a powerful means of grace. I touched on this briefly in my blog article of 3/9/2018, “Two ‘Means of Grace’ for Healing,” which you might want to read before this one. God has never stopped using means of grace, although most Christians today have stopped thinking clearly about them. But we must be very clear on the Table. For too many years Holy Communion has been treated as merely an act of ritual obedience. The Eucharist must be retrieved for what it is: a means of grace for personal spiritual growth, inner healing and, at times, spiritual warfare.

A Mystery Beyond Human Speculation

The Lord’s Supper is a mystery. Making what’s on the Table fit our theological explanations may comfort human minds, but it often robs Holy Communion of its centrality to Christian life and witness. Disputes about the virtues of one position over another have divided the Body of Christ. It might be best to approach the Table always repenting that we ever tolerated such division. Roman Catholics insist on transubstantiation, the more ancient Orthodox on objective transformation; for Lutherans it’s a sacramental union, for the Reformed a spiritual union, or for many other Protestants, a holy memorial; unfortunately, for some denominations, it was a temporary rite no longer needed. Please, for the sake of our King, put all these rationally-defended theories and viewpoints on hold and bask in the mystery. Heaven will eventually vindicate or obliterate your chosen view. But right now, and for the rest of your earthly life, be a servant subject to our Sovereign Lord, and take Him at His word. With the trust of childlike faith, regardless of your viewpoint, accept at face value what is written in the Book:
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:53-57, NASB)
And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood,” (Luke 22:19-20, NASB).

And to solidify your meditation on the Eucharistic mystery, plunge your heart deep into what Paul says about the ongoing celebration of this Holy Meal: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16, ESV, emphasis mine). Both Paul’s understanding and Christ’s clear instruction should convince us that approaching this sacred Table is physically the closest we can get to what Jesus accomplished on Calvary. In a mysterious way, to “eat this bread and drink this cup” is to both participate in and “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26, NIV).

A Table of Death

Christ’s crucifixion was a terminus, an end point for many things; His Resurrection, the beginning for many others. The Cross and empty tomb divided time into BC and AD—now renamed BCE and CE, which hasn’t altered that division. They closed the Old Testament with a New Covenant, turning a Jewish story into a global one. For every believer, they end the old life with new birth, as sacramentally portrayed in baptism.

Baptism—a one-time rite for initiation into the Christian community—is a burial of the old life (as in a watery tomb) and an emergence into a newborn life (as from a watery womb). Paul describes this in very plain language: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:3-4, ESV). This break with the old life and entrance into the new life is demonstrated once in baptism, but our ongoing need for replacing old ways of living with Christlike living is repeatedly demonstrated at the Table. There we participate again and again in the fruits of Christ’s sacrifice and empty tomb for the rest of our earthly sojourn.

It’s highly significant that Jesus introduced foot-washing in the context of His Table. He told Peter its purpose in John 13:10 (ESV): “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” Whether or not foot-washing accompanies Holy Communion, the need for cleansing is ongoing. We bring to the Table an array of worldly attitudes and behaviors that we must part with and leave behind. They need to die, and Paul says their death is the work of Christ’s Cross: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world,” (Galatians 6:14, NIV).

God is not into magic. Physically taking the Eucharist does not automatically free us from worldliness. This is why Jesus said, “you are clean, but not every one of you.” Judas missed out, despite having his feet washed by Jesus and eating the new Passover meal. An authentic participation in the body and blood of Christ at the Table is a relational act dependent on personal faith. Just as baptism is a physical confession of faith in Christ’s work on Calvary, so is partaking of the fruits of the Cross presented to us again on the Table. This makes Holy Communion a means of grace—a focal point where God’s power can put to death those vestiges of worldly ways clinging to our lives—as long as we faithfully bring them to Him, remembering that the purpose for His death was to eliminate them from our lives.

Practically, this means spending time in prayer before coming to the Eucharistic Meal, asking the Holy  Spirit to convict us in whatever areas we have participated in those dispositions and deeds that belong to the realm of darkness. It may be helpful to ask Him to show us if we have:
  • any attitude we need to confess and forsake
  • any behavior we need to bring to an end
  • any habit or addiction from which we need to be set free
  • any laziness or laxity needing banishment from our lives
  • any ties we have inherited or formed that need to be severed
  • any obsessions or compulsions that need to be broken
  • anything else in us that needs to die
But the most profound question to be asked and answered is the one Jesus asked of the lame man, “Do you want to be healed?” (John 5:6, ESV). This is the primary question. Do we really want to change? Are we ready to bring to His Table whatever needs to die, whatever needs to end, to cease, to stop? If we do, we will agree with whatever the Holy Spirit points out to us and make it our intention to bring them to the crucifying work of Christ represented on the Table and leave them there.

A Table of Life

If we have made our prayerful preparation and are bringing our worldly trash and baggage to leave at the Table, we will likely approach Holy Communion with tears of grief. It is right to be sorrowful that such things have been held back from our Lord, in spite of having received new birth from Him. But when what the Holy Spirit has shown us is left on the Table, we can then take His life from the Table with tears of joy and celebration. Holiness and wholeness and freedom must fill up those areas where unrighteousness and darkness and bondage have been banished.

This participation in His resurrection life is a relational act of faith in its initiation and its continuation. When you accepted Christ as your Savior, you entered salvation by new birth. But you have been exhorted to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose,” (Philippians 2:12-13, NIV). Jesus stipulated baptism as a physical faith-affirmation of new birth, and He gave us His Table as an ongoing physical faith-reminder of our need to let His resurrection life fill every area of our personal lives.

With the same heart-searching prayer and personal intention, we must come to the Table of Christ’s resurrected life, taking from Him what we need in the area of:
  • attitudes and desires aligned with the mind of Him Who indwells us
  • choices and behaviors that reflect “not my will but Yours be done”
  • habits of devotion to prayer, Bible study and spiritual growth
  • a serious concern for others and commitment to serve them
  • gathering with other Christians for spiritual fellowship
  • waging spiritual warfare against the realm of darkness
  • whatever else God reveals that needs to come alive in us
Christian growth is based not on accumulating knowledge about God and the Scriptures, but on obeying God’s will and making Jesus Lord of our lives. We can’t do that on our own. We’re totally dependent on Christ’s resurrected life in us to empower us to live and grow as Christians. But God has given us physical means of grace to highlight our dependence on Him, and Holy Communion is one of them.

Conclusion

We may not be used to thinking of physical rituals, like baptism and Holy Communion, as truly spiritual activities. We may have a Gnostic view that sees no relationship between the physical and the spiritual, no intrinsic union between the body and the spirit. If so, have ignored God’s many uses of physical means of grace throughout Scripture, but worse, we have fail to uphold the central significance of Christ’s incarnation, bodily death and resurrection. Our faith is incarnational, or it is not the Christian faith found in the New Testament. The fruits of the Cross and of the Resurrection are on the Table, and Christ’s “in remembrance of Me,” includes His words, “my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” Embrace the mystery and participate in it.

I hope that all reading this article will discover a new way of coming to the Communion Table. I hope all will start seeing it as a return to the Cross, where Christ’s death brings us life, by putting our old life to death so that we can freely participate in His resurrected life. The following poem makes an apt conclusion, describing the approach both to the Cross and to the Table.

THE DARK SIDE OF THE CROSS

Brokenly we stumble down the twisted trails of life,
Struggling to discover peace in self-made worlds of strife,
Fighting to escape our fears of losing what we gain,
Craving for a feast of pleasures free from any pain.
Yet, upon these broad and damning roads beneath our feet,
There’s a solemn shadow that our steps may often meet.
In the setting sun of earthly dreams there stands a Cross,
Casting hope upon those paths of everlasting loss.

From its slender shade, which seems at first so cramped and tight,
Comes a whispered offer for a journey into Light.
Once, there was no exit; now a doorway stands in view,
Open for the weary passerby to walk on through.

Oh but how it looks constricted, narrow as the grave,
Waiting to convert the seeker’s soul into its slave
By its strong death-dealing nails for fixing limbs to wood:
No more wandering the world we thought we understood;
No more squandering of precious gifts that God bestows;
No more pity for ourselves for self-engendered woes;
No more place for stubbornness within our willful heart—
Selfish thrones must topple, proud dominions fall apart;
No more so-called freedom for our flesh to play the fool;
Only crucifixion, setting Jesus free to rule . . .

Harsh and strict, this pathway through the Cross of Christ appears,
Warning all who enter of its dark side’s loss and tears.
Yet, if we have thought it out and in that way have stepped,
We elude what choked our lives, rejoicing where we wept.

Such emancipation on the Cross’s other side
Opens up to us a realm extremely rich and wide.
Heaven’s light unveils a vast expanse where glory shines.
Holy wealth with pure delight and beauty intertwines.
Far beyond imagination, rapture fills our souls.
Endless joy in useful service flows from godly goals.
What were not true friendships in the world we leave behind
Change to new, real fellowship we’d always hoped to find.
On the Cross’s brighter side, our destination’s clear.
Working out His Word and will, we sense His presence near.

Jesus walked the dying side to hellish depths below
To unlock the living side, where treasures overflow:
Mysteries of faith and prayer, His Body’s bread and wine,
Light of Life, a life of Love, and love for Light Divine.
What He purchased when He hung as “nothing” on the Tree
Was to be our everything: His life in you and me.

So, don’t flee the Cross because you see its darker side.
Don’t keep running off to find a wider place to hide.
Stop and leave the worldly highway, choose no more to roam:
Make the Cross of Jesus yours, and it will lead you home.

— David L. Hatton, 4/6/1993
(from Poems Between Darkness and Light ©1994, 2014)

( For a 10-minute, online Holy Communion
 observance, go to https://youtu.be/lWQtfOM3caY )