Victoria Ruvolo was driving home in November 2004 when a 20-pound frozen turkey smashed through her windshield and almost killed her. The impact was so intense that EMTs could not even tell if she was a man or a woman. Victoria was rushed to the hospital in critical condition. Nearly every bone in her face was broken, her esophagus was caved in, one eye socket was fractured, and she suffered brain damage. Victoria had to be put in a medically-induced coma, and she spent almost a month in the hospital. Her face had to be completely reconstructed. Victoria’s doctors described her survival as a “miracle.”
A teenager named Ryan Cushing was responsible for the senseless crime. He was driving around with some of his friends and the frozen turkey, which they had purchased with a stolen credit card, when Victoria’s vehicle approached in the opposite direction. Ryan then hurled the turkey at her car. It was a moment that changed both of their lives.
Ryan could have faced 25 years in prison for the offense. He probably deserved even more than that. After all, he randomly attacked an innocent woman with no regard for her life. The injuries she suffered were extremely serious. She had to undergo hours of surgery to rebuild her face and endure months of painful rehabilitation. Surprisingly, however, Ryan ended up receiving only six months in jail and five years probation.
The prosecutor wanted to seek a harsher sentence for Ryan, as did members of Victoria’s family. The crime certainly called for far more than six months in jail. Yet that is what the victim wanted. It was Victoria who insisted that Ryan be shown leniency. She had been given a second chance at life and wanted him to get one, too. When Victoria finally met her attacker, she hugged him and said, “I just want you to make your life the best it can be.” That’s grace.
Ryan should have spent decades in prison to pay for what he did. That’s what his actions demanded. The lighter sentence does not seem fitting or fair. Clearly, Ryan did not receive what he deserved and did not deserve what he received. That’s grace.
“Grace” is unmerited favor or undeserved blessing. It is goodwill extended to someone who has done nothing to warrant it. “Grace” comes from the Greek word charis, and is often used in the New Testament of the favor God bestows on sinners through Jesus Christ. He made a way of salvation possible to us, despite our absolute unworthiness. He acted freely and without expectation of receiving anything in return. It was unearned kindness!
Grace can be hard to comprehend in our world of earning. We are used to students earning their grades, scouts earning their badges, players earning their positions, soldiers earning their ranks, and workers earning their paychecks. It is all about getting what is “rightfully yours” based on some form of achievement. That is the opposite of grace. It is not merit-based, but mercy-based.
The older brother struggled to comprehend grace in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. He felt that since he had put in more time, exerted more energy, done more good, and been more reliable than his younger brother, the party should be for him. He earned it. His score was higher. His credentials were greater. What the older brother failed to realize, however, is that he didn’t deserve his father’s goodness either. He may have worked harder outwardly, but he was harboring animosity, jealousy, and pride inwardly. So rather than resenting his father for extending goodness to someone so undeserving, he should have rejoiced in it.
This is not to say that obedience is unnecessary. Jesus declared, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). John added, “…whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36). There are many other passages that make the same point. We must be obedient to please God. However, our obedience constitutes a yearning, not an earning. We are calling out, not cashing in. We should never trust that our own actions merit salvation.
Grace is better experienced than explained. Perhaps that is why the Gospels do not define grace, but rather demonstrate it through the various stories of Jesus Christ. His life was a constant outpouring of divine favor upon an underserving world. The grace He extended to people was practical yet profound. It met them where they were, but never left them as they came.
Gate of Grace
Gate of Grace
Two crowds collided at the gate. One was entering while the other was exiting. The group entering was full of excitement, still buzzing from the miracle Jesus performed 20 miles up the road in Capernaum. The group exiting was full of sorrow, escorting a body to be buried. It was a funeral procession.
Though there were many people in the procession, one woman stood out from the others. She was nearest the stretcher. Her despair was deeper. Her sobbing was stronger. Her tears were thicker. This woman was not mourning the loss of her grandpa or great uncle. It was not the corpse of her father or friend, either. It was the corpse of her son — her one and only son.
“Soon afterward he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her” (Luke 7:11-12).
This was a double tragedy. Not only had this woman lost her son, she was a widow. One would be hard pressed to find someone more pitiful than that. Her husband was gone, her son was gone, her means of support was gone, her family line was gone… can you imagine? When Jesus saw the woman, He felt compassion and uttered three words:
“Do not weep” (Luke 7:13).
Coming from any other person, those three words would have seemed inappropriate. This woman had lost everything. Her world was turned upside down. Parents are not supposed to bury their children. The most precious person in her life had been snatched away, and she was about to place his body next to the other most precious person in her life, who had also been taken. Furthermore, she had to worry about her future in a society that was not exactly “widow friendly.” If anybody had a reason to weep, it was her!
But Jesus was not any other person. He was the Son of God. He was the Creator walking among the created. He knew her thoughts and felt her pain. Her broken heart broke His heart. Those three words (“Do not weep”) stood for another three words (“I love you”). Then, in dramatic fashion, He approached the body.
“Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, arise.’ And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother” (vv. 15-16).
Wow! Jesus halted the funeral procession by walking over to the stretcher and touching it. This would have made Him ceremonially unclean according to the Law (Numbers 19:11-16) and been incredibly shocking to the onlookers. The pallbearers stood still. The crowd fell silent. All eyes were on Jesus. A nervous anticipation overtook the sorrow. “What is He about to do?”
There are three recorded cases of Jesus raising the dead in the Gospel accounts. All of them involved Him issuing a command: To the widow’s son: “Young man, arise” (Luke 7:14); To Jarius’ daughter: “Child, arise” (Luke 8:54); To Lazarus: “Lazarus, come out” (John 11:43). And every time the gates of Hades swung open, life swooped back into the body, and the person immediately obeyed His voice. Interestingly, the same voice that raised these people will one day raise all people from the dead (John 5:28-29).
Jesus never used the word grace, yet no one has ever defined it better. He was grace personified. He was a walking, talking, living manifestation of God’s unmerited favor bestowed on an unworthy world. He was a place of refuge for the weary, teary, and leery. Certainly, we can see His grace at the gate of Nain.
The gate of Nain took on new significance for the widow. It became the gate of grace. It was the place where life was restored, hope was renewed, and tears were wiped away. It was the place she met Jesus, and her life was never the same after that. Have you met Jesus at the gate of grace?
Arrival of Grace
Arrival of Grace
“Are we there yet?” That is an all-too-familiar question on many road trips. You know it’s coming when the kids start growing restless in the backseat. They can’t get comfortable. They can’t get along with one another. They can’t get why dad has to sing along to the radio. It is an irritating inquiry from an irritated inquirer, and once the words come out they have a tendency to reappear.
Though she may not have verbalized it, I can imagine that Mary probably felt like asking that question on the long trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem. After all, it was about an 80 mile journey over bumpy and hilly terrain, she was riding on a donkey, and she was pregnant. Nine months pregnant! If anybody had a right to cry out “Are we there yet?” it was Mary.
Can you even imagine how Mary must have felt being jostled around on a donkey for nearly a week while pregnant? She wasn’t reclining comfortably in a cushioned seat of a spacious SUV. Her ride didn’t have any high-performance tires or power steering, either. It was a rough-riding, slow-moving, fierce-smelling, animal.
There was also the threat of bandits and beasts. Jesus mentioned the reality of roadside robbers in one of His parables (Luke 10:30), and lions, bears, and wild boars were lurking in the woods nearby. In fact, archaeologists have unearthed documents warning travelers of the forest's dangers. That is why people usually traveled in groups.
Octavian was ruling, but God was in charge. He used the edict to move Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem in time for the birth of Christ. This was to fulfill Micah’s prophecy:
“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days” (5:2).
Other prophecies were fulfilled in the birth of Christ as well, including Genesis 49:10 (tribe of Judah), Isaiah 7:14 (born of a virgin), and Jeremiah 23:5 (descendant of David).
As if the arduous journey were not enough, when Joseph and Mary finally reach their destination there was no place to stay. The town was packed with people for the enrollment and the inn was full. Therefore, Mary was forced to give birth where the animals were kept.
“And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (vv. 6-7).
Since shepherds were out in the fields (Luke 2:8), it is likely that Christ was born sometime between spring and early fall. They would not have been in the fields during the cold and rainy month of December. It is also likely that Christ was born in a cave rather than the traditional wooden structure we see today.
“But when the Child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find a lodging in that village, he took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found Him” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 78, 304).
In the second century, Emperor Hadrian built a pagan temple over the cave identified as the birthplace of Christ. Constantine the Great later tore down that temple and built a church over the cave. Today, the Church of the Nativity stands over the cave.
The most significant event in human history up to that point unfolded in a seemingly insignificant fashion: an obscure cave, in an obscure village, to obscure people. There was no pomp or pageantry. There was no celebration in the streets. While it certainly garnered all of heaven’s attention (Luke 2:13-14), few on earth seemed to notice. Yet in a wonderful display of grace, the Creator was born as a creature. God became man. Messiah arrived. Bethlehem, which means “house of bread,” brought forth the Bread of Life (John 6). How fitting!
Few songs are more recognizable to Christians than “Amazing Grace.” It is a fixture in many worship services and funerals. But what exactly is grace, and why is it so amazing? Sadly, some Christians struggle to answer those questions. All they seem to know about grace is that it is something they can fall from. Therefore, it is important that we study this precious biblical concept.
Christianity is a religion of grace. Our God is “the God of grace” (1 Peter 5:10), His throne is “the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16), His Spirit is “the Spirit of grace” (Hebrews 10:29), His word is “the word of grace” (Acts 20:32) and His Son is “full of grace” (John 1:14). Furthermore, grace saves (Ephesians 2:8), calls (2 Timothy 1:9), justifies (Titus 3:7), trains (Titus 2:12), strengthens (Hebrews 13:9), etc. We stand in grace (1 Peter 5:12).
Amazing Grace: WHAT?
“Grace” is unmerited favor or undeserved blessing. It comes from the Greek word charis, and is often used in the New Testament of the favor God bestows on sinners through Jesus Christ. Perhaps the biblical concept of grace can be summed up as “not receiving what we deserve and not deserving what we receive.”
By grace, God did for us what we could not do for ourselves. He made a way of salvation through Christ (Romans 3:24-25; John 3:16; 1 John 4:9-10). This is what makes grace so amazing! God’s goodness toward us was not based on any goodness we had done or would do in the future. He acted freely and without expectation of receiving anything of equitable value in return. It was unearned kindness!
Before we can truly appreciate grace, we must come to grips with the depth of our sins. Our sins separate us from God (Isaiah 59:1-2). Paul said that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). This means that each of us deserve eternal separation from God in hell. It is the appropriate “payoff” (NET). Yet God graciously made provisions to rid us of the horrifying clutches of sin and save us from such misery (Romans 5:8).
Amazing Grace: HOW?
Though salvation is by grace, it is not by grace alone. Paul said that we are saved “by grace…through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). Grace is God’s part; faith is man’s part. If salvation were by grace alone, then all would be saved since “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” (Titus 2:11). Yet we know that not all will be saved (Matthew 7:13-14). Hence, grace is appropriated conditionally.
There are many examples of grace being appropriated conditionally in Scripture. For instance, Noah was saved from the flood by grace when he built the ark (Genesis 6), the Israelites were healed of snakebite by grace when they looked at the bronze serpent (Numbers 21), the Israelites conquered Jericho by grace when they marched around the walls (Joshua 6), Naaman was healed of leprosy by grace when he dipped in the Jordan (2 Kings 5), and the Jews on Pentecost were forgiven of their sins by grace when they repented and were baptized (Acts 2). In each of these cases, a lack of human cooperation would have thwarted God’s grace.
The household of Cornelius heard, believed, repented, and were baptized (Acts 15:7; 11:18; 10:48). Then Peter said they were saved by grace (Acts 15:11). The same is true with the Ephesians. They heard, believed, repented, and were baptized (Ephesians 1:13; Acts 20:31; 19:5). Then Paul said they were saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8). Thus we see that salvation by grace involves an obedient faith on the part of man.
Amazing Grace: WHO?
By grace, Jesus died “for all” (2 Corinthians 5:14). He tasted death “for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9). He is the propitiation “for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). This means that all can benefit from what God has done through Christ. None are beyond reach! Perhaps this is best seen in the life of Paul. He said to King Agrippa,
“I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities” (Acts 26:9-11).
Yet he was later saved. If Paul could receive grace when judgment was long overdue, anyone can (1 Timothy 1:16)!
Another example is much more recent. Jeffrey Dahmer was one of the most notorious serial killers in American history. He was sentenced to 15 consecutive life terms for the rape, murder, and dismemberment of 17 males between 1978 and 1991. Some of the murders involved cannibalism. Yet he learned the truth and was baptized into Christ shortly before he was beaten to death on November 28, 1994. Below is an excerpt from Roy Ratcliff, the preacher who did the baptism:
“Nearly everyone raises the question about Jeff's sincerity. But I was there, and these questioners weren't…I cannot know the condition of another person's heart unless I listen to his or her words. I listened to Jeff's words, and I watched his eyes and his body language. I listened to the tone of his voice and observed his mannerisms, and I am convinced that he was totally sincere in his desire…Jeff had nothing to gain in this life by being baptized; he had everything to gain in the next life. He was baptized for the same reason anyone else is baptized. In the light of the Bible, he surveyed his life and concluded that he needed to be saved.”
If Paul was the “foremost” sinner of the first century (1 Timothy 1:15), Jeffrey Dahmer was certainly among the “foremost” sinners of the twentieth century. However, neither man was beyond the scope of God’s grace!
David once declared, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the sons of man that you care for him” (Psalm 8:3-4)? It is truly amazing to know that God is interested in us, as weak and wretched as we are, and that He cared enough to send His Son into the world to die as a sacrifice for sin. Who then are we to arbitrarily choose who is and is not “worthy” of such grace? If God extended His grace to all who will accept it, shouldn’t we do the same?
Perversions of Grace
Grace is a wonderful concept. It is the one word that sums up the theme of salvation given to us by God through Christ. However, there are those who pervert the truth about grace. Below are a few examples.
(1) Grace as a license to sin. This idea was apparently being promoted by false teachers in the early church. Jude speaks of those who “pervert the grace of our God into sensuality” (v. 4). However, grace trains us to “renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:11-12). We must live in obedience to the law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:21).
(2) Grace saves all. Some teach that grace will eventually result in the salvation of everyone. Universalists embrace this idea. However, grace must be coupled with faith to produce salvation (Ephesians 2:8). Not all will be saved (Matthew 7:13-14).
(3) Once in grace, always in grace. Some teach that a saved person cannot fall from grace. Calvinists embrace this idea. However, grace can be received “in vain” (2 Corinthians 6:1). It is possible to fall from grace (Galatians 5:4; Hebrews 3:12; 4:11).
(4) Treasury of Merit. Some teach that the good works of the saints can be transferred to the account of others, both living and dead. Catholics embrace this idea. However, nowhere does the Bible teach that God will extend grace by transferring the “merits” of one person to another.
It is impossible for man to save himself. He cannot work long enough, hard enough, or good enough to remove the guilt of sin and earn a home in heaven. He must rely on God’s grace. Though grace is a gift that is available to all, it is not accepted by all. If you have not experienced the “amazing grace” of God, you can do it through an obedient faith (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; Romans 10:9-10).
I Beg Your Pardon
I Beg Your Pardon
Governor Mike Beebe of Arkansas made headlines when he announced plans to pardon his son, who had been convicted of felony marijuana possession years earlier. Some agreed with the governor while others criticized him, but what stuck out to me was his comment to a Little Rock television station. Beebe said, “I would have done it a long time ago if he’d have asked, but he took his sweet time about asking.”
I imagine the father of the prodigal son would have said the same thing in Luke 15. If asked why he put the robe, ring, and shoes on his son and had the fattened calf killed for a celebration dinner, he would have probably said, “I would have done it a long time ago if he’d have returned, but he took his sweet time about returning.”
Let’s look at the parable.
“There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found’” (Luke 15:11-32).
The father in this parable represents God. He is the hero of the story. The prodigal son, who represents the tax collectors and sinners of verse 1, brought great disappointment to the father. He left home, squandered his portion of the inheritance in a foreign country, and ended up working in a pigpen. The average Jew would never work for Gentiles feeding unclean animals, but this boy did. He disgraced himself and the family. Yet when he came to his senses and returned home, the father was eager to receive him.
It must have been incredibly painful for the father to hear his son ask for his part of the inheritance; to see him pack his packs and leave; to know that he was far away in a foreign country. There must have been many sleepless nights, tossing and turning, as he thought about his boy. Though the father did not restrain his son or chase after him as he left, it broke his heart to see him go. And then it happened.
When the father saw his son coming, he ran to meet him with open arms. He embraced him and kissed him. He then called for three items that were of great significance in the household — a robe, a ring, and shoes. Servants did not wear these things, sons did. They were privileged possessions for privileged people. He also ordered the fattened calf to be killed for a celebration dinner. It was time to party!
The prodigal son did not deserve a party. A lashing, maybe. A lecture, certainly. But not a party. He knew that (vv. 18-19) as did the older brother (vv. 28-30). His reckless behavior was simply inexcusable. After all, how dare he demand his part of the inheritance while the father still lived? How dare he go off and blow the money on loose living in a foreign country? How dare he come back now with nothing to show for himself? He deserved banishment, not a banquet! He should be sentenced, not celebrated! But that’s the point. God is willing to extend grace to even the worst sinners when they seek it. It is not based on their merit, but on His mercy.
The father could have put his son on some sort of probation. That alone would have been more than he deserved and a remarkable demonstration of grace. But probation never crossed his mind. He immediately issued a full pardon.
While the first two parables of Luke 15 emphasize God’s part in the salvation process, actively seeking the lost, the last parable emphasizes man’s part of the process. The son had to humble himself and come home. He had to repent and seek reconciliation. If he had not done that, he would have never benefited from his father’s grace. And so it is with us. God will do His part, but we must do our part.
Though the father is the hero and the younger son garners much of the attention, the main focus of the parable is the older son. He represents the Pharisees and scribes of verse 2, who grumbled that Jesus “receives sinners and eats with them.” His self-righteousness was their self-righteousness. His heartlessness was their heartlessness. His criticism was their criticism. Rather than rejoicing in his brother’s return, he was resentful. All he could think about was how much “better” he had been than his shameful sibling.
The older son argued on merit. He was keeping score. He reminded his father that he had “served” longer and “never disobeyed.” Since he had put in more time, exerted more energy, done more good, and been more reliable than his brother, he felt that the party should be for him. He earned it. This was the mindset of many Pharisees and scribes (Luke 18:11-12).
This begs an important question: Which sin was greater? Was the outward action of the younger son more egregious than the inward attitude of the older son? Are sins of the flesh worse than sins of the heart? The older son was guilty of harboring animosity, jealousy, and pride. He was self-righteous and stubborn. The only person he could speak to peaceably was the servant!
Pigpen of Sin
The prodigal son went from living “high on the hog” to feeding them. He was dirty, deserted, dejected, and debased. This pitiful condition epitomizes the state of sinners before they come to God. They are far away and wallowing in a pigpen of sin. They are filthy and famishing. Their only hope is to repent and seek reconciliation. The good news is that God waits eagerly to receive them when they do.
The prodigal son had his speech prepared. He no doubt recited it countless times on the way home. It was locked and loaded. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” Yet before he could even finish those three sentences, he was interrupted. The father had heard enough. It was time to celebrate. I just wonder if the father ever said, “I would have done it a long time ago if you’d returned, but you took your sweet time about returning.”
Rich in Grace
Rich in Grace
There have been some impressive examples of self-sacrifice. For instance, Jordan Rice was thirteen and unable to swim when his family became trapped in a car by flood waters. When crews arrived and tried to rescue Jordan, he told them to help his younger brother first. Jordan’s brother was saved just before a wall of water swept Jordan and his mother away.
Arland Williams was a passenger on Air Florida Flight 90, which crashed into freezing waters in the middle of a snowstorm. When a rescue helicopter arrived and threw him a life line, he immediately gave it to another passenger. When the helicopter came back, Arland did the same thing again and again. When the helicopter returned a final time, Arland was dead. He had used his last ounce of energy to save a stranger.
Jesus Garcia was a railroad brakeman in Mexico. On November 7, 1907, he noticed that some hay on the roof of a boxcar containing dynamite had caught fire. He drove the train at full-steam out of town before the dynamite exploded, killing him but sparing many people. He is now revered as a national hero.
Four chaplains who were aboard a troop transport ship that was hit by a submarine’s torpedo quickly rallied together and began handing out life jackets and directing people to safety. When the life jackets ran out, they selflessly gave away their own. Then the four men linked arms and sang as the ship sank.
Even dogs have left some impressive examples of self-sacrifice. When a drunken man fell asleep on a train track in Kazakhstan, his four-legged-friend pushed, pulled, and nudged him off the tracks just as a train struck and killed the dog.
These examples and many others, like a soldier jumping on a grenade to save fellow troops or a boyfriend taking a bullet for his girlfriend, are all admirable and praiseworthy. However, no story of self-sacrifice in the history of the world is more impressive than that of Jesus Christ. It was planned longer, rings louder, and looms larger than all of the others. In fact, His sacrifice was so great that few people, even Christians, really appreciate its many facets.
The Supreme Sacrifice
The sacrifice of Christ did not begin on the cross, or in the garden, or in the manger. It began in heaven when He laid aside His glory and consented to come to earth. He left the abode of God for the abode of man and exchanged exaltation for humiliation, magnitude for servitude, a radiant crown for a rugged cross, and a hallowed throne for a hollowed tomb. And it was all for us!
Paul put it this way in 2 Corinthians 8:9:
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”
Isn’t that a wonderful thought? Christ was rich and then became poor so we could become rich. But what exactly does that mean? Perhaps we have a divine commentary in Philippians 2:6-8:
“Who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Notice that Christ “was in the form of God” and had “equality with God.” It is in this sense that He was rich. He shared in all the glory and majesty of Godhood (John 17:5) before coming to earth. Then we see that Christ “made himself nothing,” “took the form of a servant,” “was born in the likeness of men,” and “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death on a cross.” It is in this sense that He became poor. And why did He do it? So that we might become rich spiritually (Ephesians 1:3).
Paul refers to this great sacrifice as “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” in the Corinthians text. That is because it was undeserved kindness on His part. He acted freely and favorably toward unworthy inferiors. He didn’t have to become poor for us, He chose to do it. He chose to walk the dusty streets of earth so we could walk the golden streets of heaven. He chose to wear a crown of thorns on His head so we could wear a crown of righteousness on our head. He chose to die physically so we could live spiritually. His grace is our gain!
The culmination of the Lord’s great sacrifice was, of course, the cross. He suffered the most brutal and torturous form of execution in the Roman Empire. In fact, it was so severe that Roman citizens were exempt from it. Only the most degraded offenders, like insurrectionists and slaves, were subjects of crucifixion. Before looking at the cross, however, let’s first consider the horrific punishment that preceded it — scourging. Below is an excerpt from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia:
“It consisted of a handle, to which several cords or leather thongs were affixed, which were weighted with jagged pieces of bone or metal, to make the blow more painful and effective…The victim was tied to a post (Acts 22 25) and the blows were applied to the back and loins, sometimes even, in the wanton cruelty of the executioner, to the face and the bowels. In the tense position of the body, the effect can easily be imagined. So hideous was the punishment that the victim usually fainted and not rarely died under it" (Vol. 4, p. 2704).
Eusebius adds to this graphic image in his writings:
“For they say that the bystanders were struck with amazement when they saw them lacerated with scourges even to the innermost veins and arteries, so that the hidden inward parts of the body, both their bowels and their members, were exposed to view” (4:15, p. 122).
Then Christ faced the nails. He was taken outside the city and crucified for all to see. His hands and feet were pierced (Psalm 22:16). Below is another excerpt from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia:
“The suffering of death by crucifixion was intense, esp. in hot climates. Severe local inflammation, coupled with an insignificant bleeding of the jagged wounds, produced traumatic fever, which was aggravated by the exposure to the heat of the sun, the strained position of the body and insufferable thirst. The wounds swelled about the rough nails and the torn and lacerated tendons and nerves caused excruciating agony. The arteries of the head and stomach were surcharged with blood and a terrific throbbing headache ensued. The mind was confused and filled with anxiety and dread foreboding. The victim of crucifixion literally died a thousand deaths. Tetanus not rarely supervened and the rigors of the attending convulsions would tear at the wounds and add to the burden of pain, till at last the bodily forces were exhausted and the victim sank into unconsciousness and death” (Vol. 2, p. 761).
The high cost of a free gift!
Jesus did not have to do it. He chose to do it. His great sacrifice, which started in heaven and culminated on the cross, brought hope to the hopeless and life to the lifeless. It did for us what we could not have done for ourselves. It made us rich in grace!
Grace at a Party
Grace at a Party
Jesus went to many dinner parties in Scripture. On one occasion, in Luke 7, He was invited into the home of a Pharisee. As they were eating, a woman with a sinful reputation entered and began crying. She got down on her knees and wiped the Lord’s feet with her hair. The Pharisee was utterly offended by this behavior. He was absolutely appalled. In his mind, she was crossing many lines: she was a woman, she was a sinner, she was uninvited, she interrupted, and she let down her hair in public.
The Pharisee could hardly believe that the woman would act this way, or that Jesus would accept it. However, Jesus commended the woman and rebuked the Pharisee. That is because her tears were tears of affection for Him and tears of affliction for sin. My question is, where are our tears?
Celebration of Grace
Celebration of Grace
The holiday season has arrived. Joy is in the air. This is the time of year when many people hang lights, buy gifts, send cards, and celebrate with loved ones. It is a magical moment where the great taste of cookies and the bad taste of reindeer sweaters co-exist in perfect harmony. A true Christmas miracle!
The thought of what takes place at many Christmas parties — the laughter, the music, the food — reminds me of a celebration in Scripture. It was a truly festive affair. However, it was for the last person you would expect, the prodigal son!
The prodigal son did not deserve a party. A lashing, maybe. A lecture, certainly. But not a party. His reckless behavior was simply inexcusable. After all, how dare he demand his part of the inheritance while his father still lived? How dare he go off and blow the money on loose living in a foreign country? How dare he come back now with nothing to show for himself? He deserved banishment, not a banquet! He should be sentenced, not celebrated! But that’s the point. God is willing to extend grace to even the worst sinners when they seek it. It is not based on their merit, but on His mercy.
The father was ready and willing to receive his son. However, it was up to the son to repent and seek reconciliation. If he had not done that, he would have never benefited from his father’s grace. And so it is with us. God will do His part, but we must do our part.
King of Grace
King of Grace
At first, Tina Dwyer of North Carolina thought it was a scam. The letter said that her $615 debt to Everest College was forgiven. “You no longer owe the balance of this particular debt,” it read. “It is gone.” But it was not a scam. A non-profit debt buyer called “Rolling Jubilee” really had bought and then forgiven her debt. And she was not alone. The group claims that it has forgiven $18.5 million in debts.
Wouldn’t it be great to open a letter stating that someone had forgiven your debt? — No more car note, medical bills, student loans, credit card balances, mortgage payments, or whatever the debt might be. To be told you now owe zero, zip, zilch, nada. It’s gone. — I don’t think words could express the joy that news would bring to most people.
Jesus once told a story of a man who had accumulated a debt so large it could never be paid back and then it was forgiven. It is commonly called the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.
Let’s look at the parable.
“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:23-35).
The king in this parable is God. The debt is sin. The debtor who owed much is us. The debtor who owed little is anyone who sins against us. The unending punishment is hell. The parable was prompted by Peter’s question about forgiveness (v. 21) and is designed to teach that those who have been forgiven by God must forgive others (Matthew 6:14-15). However, it is the grandeur of God’s grace that I want to emphasize.
A man owed a king ten thousand talents. Some translations say “millions of dollars.” This was a staggering debt, especially when one considers that the combined annual revenue of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea was six hundred talents. It would have taken him multiple lifetimes and then some to pay back that amount of money.
Since the man could not possibly pay back what he owed, the king ordered for him, his family, and all that he had to be sold. This was a common practice among Gentiles in the first century. The Law of Moses also allowed for men to be sold in certain circumstances (Leviticus 25:39).
As one might expect, the man was devastated. He was about to lose everything. His whole world hung in the balance. Therefore, he fell upon his knees and begged for the king to have patience. He promised to pay back everything, though such was not possible to do. In a remarkable display of grace, the king released the man and forgave his debt. There was no payment plan, probationary period, or alternative penalty imposed. It was gone!
Unlike a bank that may give you a grace period, this was “Grace, Period.” The king acted freely and favorably toward one who did not deserve it. He was under no obligation to forgive the debt and had every right to demand payment. This was solely an act of unmerited favor.
Shortly after leaving the king’s chamber, the man ran into someone who owed him a hundred denarii. Some translations say “hundreds of dollars.” Regardless of the exact amount, it was nothing compared to what he had just been forgiven. The man chocked him and screamed, “Pay what you owe!” He even had him thrown into prison, despite his plea for patience and promise to pay back what he owed. When the other servants saw this, they went and told the king. He was furious.
The king immediately summoned the man back into his chamber and rebuked him for being merciless after having received mercy himself. He then handed him over to the jailors, or torturers, until the debt was paid.
All of us had accumulated a great debt (Romans 3:23). We owed an astronomical amount that we were incapable of ever paying off. There was no way to work long enough, hard enough, or good enough to get out from under this burden. Yet God demonstrated His grace toward us by forgiving that debt. He did what no one else could do or would do.
It is important for us to realize that we were all “multi-million dollar sinners.” Regardless of the nature or extent of our transgressions, the diagnosis, prognosis, and required sacrifice were the same. Until we appreciate that fact, grace will never reach its full potential in our hearts and lives. We must know how far we fell to truly appreciate how far we have come.
Tina Dwyer was being hounded with calls and letters to pay off her $615 debt to Everest College. Then one day she received a letter saying it was gone. She no longer owed the balance. It was forgiven. We too have been forgiven of a debt, but it was far greater than what Tina owed. Let us praise the King of Grace for His exceeding kindness and imitate His actions in our dealings with others. With great grace comes great responsibility!
Master of Grace
Master of Grace
A Bible class teacher told her students about the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector in Luke 18. She explained how the Pharisee was acting self-righteously when he prayed, “God, thank you that I am not like the tax collector.” She then asked a little boy to close in prayer. He bowed his head and said, “God, thank you that I am not like the Pharisee.”
Who among us cannot relate with that little boy? The one who says he can’t just did. Though we may not intend to look down on others and act self-righteously, it just happens sometimes. This was even true of the apostles, and that very thing is what prompted the Lord’s most provocative parable. It is commonly called the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.
Let’s look at the parable.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:1-16).
This parable is the conclusion of a discussion that began a chapter earlier. A rich young man came to Jesus in quest of eternal life, but he left sorrowful when Jesus told him to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and follow Him (Matthew 19:16-22). Peter then drew a self-righteous contrast between the apostles and the man. He declared, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (v. 27). Jesus responded by saying that they and all who sacrifice to follow Him would be greatly compensated. However, He quickly added, “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (v. 30). This led to the parable.
Jesus did not want the apostles to be haughty. Nor did He want them to have an employee mentality. It is not so much for so much. They should focus on work, not wages; service, not seniority; production, not position; trusting in God’s goodness at the end of the day and not comparing themselves to other workers.
In the parable, the master of the house is God. The foreman is Christ. The laborers are the disciples. The vineyard is the church. A denarius was the ordinary pay for a day laborer. In Palestine, a man was hired at dawn and paid at sunset (Leviticus 19:13; Deuteronomy 24:15). Just as the physical vineyard is to be a place of work, the spiritual vineyard is to be a place of work.
A master went out early in the morning and hired laborers to work in his vineyard. This would have been around 6 a.m. He hired more laborers at 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m., and 5 p.m. Whereas the first group of laborers agreed to a set wage, the others were merely trusting the master to give them “whatever is right” (v. 4). About an hour after the last group entered the vineyard, the owner sent out his foreman to pay the men. Remarkably, he paid the last laborers first and gave them more than they anticipated — a denarius. When the early hires saw what the latecomers received, they expected to get even more. However, they too received a denarius. This made them quite upset.
The early hires were dirt covered, sweat drenched, energy depleted, hands throbbing, back aching, and denarius deserving — everything the latecomers were not. They had filled more baskets and logged more hours. Therefore, they grumbled to the master for making the latecomers equal to them. To which he replied,
“Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity” (vv. 13-15)?
Like the parable of the prodigal son, this story has those who get more than they deserve, those who think they deserve more than they get, and a jealous reaction. Few things seem more unequal than the equal treatment of unequals! However, no one received less than he initially expected, and some received more. The master had not made the early hires equal to the latecomers; he made the latecomers equal to the early hires.
This is an example of God’s grace. The master did not give the latecomers what they deserved; he gave them what they needed. It was not based on merit, but mercy. Though they had not worked longer, harder, or better than the others, he treated them as equals. And so it is with us. We should all be thankful that God is a grace-giver rather than a ledger-keeper!
No one is too bad to be saved, but some are too good to be saved. That is because they have a self-righteous attitude. They look down on others, think too highly of themselves, and feel that God owes them something. Jesus did not want the apostles or us to develop that mindset. Our God is the Master of grace!
[Note: The latecomers are not a case of people purposely putting off obedience to the last moment. They had not been working because they had not been hired (v. 7). However, they accepted the offer as soon as it was presented].
Falling From Grace
Falling From Grace
While we extol the wonders of God's grace, let us also heed the warnings given in Scripture of losing out on that grace. There are many of them. They are written to Christians, and are not to be taken lightly. This article will look at just some of the passages that warn against falling from grace.
The Hebrews were members of the early church. They were called “holy brothers…who share in a heavenly calling” (Hebrews 3:1). There can be no doubt that the writer of the book was in fellowship with those Christians. Yet he warned them that they could fall away from the living God (3:12), be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (3:13), fail to reach the promise (4:1), fall by the same sort of disobedience (4:11), spurn the Son of God (10:29), profane the blood of the covenant (10:29), outrage the Spirit of grace (10:29), throw away their confidence (10:35), fail to obtain the grace of God (12:15), become defiled (12:15), and refuse Him who speaks from heaven (12:25).
There are examples of actual people who fell away in the New Testament. Hymeneus, Alexander, Philetus, and Demas are all identified as having fallen from grace (1 Timothy 1:19-20; 2 Timothy 2:17; 4:10). Ananias and Sapphira were members of the church at Jerusalem who were struck dead for lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1-10). What about Simon? He was a child of God who was certainly in danger of losing his soul (Acts 8:22-23). These names are etched in history as a vivid reminder that a child of God can forfeit his salvation. He can “depart from the faith” (1 Timothy 4:1).
Some say a person who falls away never "really" believed in the first place. They say he was only a pretender. However, Jesus made a statement that refutes this argument. In the parable of the sower, He said, “And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away” (Luke 8:13). Notice that they “believe” and then “fall away.” No one can say that they did not really believe, for Jesus said they did! Hence, this argument is proven false Furthermore, the Israelites are another example of believers who fell away. The Bible says they “believed in the Lord” (Exodus 14:31). Yet thousands of them later fell (1 Corinthians 10:8).
Probably the most obvious way to determine if a child of God can fall from grace is to look at the word “fall” in Scripture. Is it there? How is it used? What does it teach? We already noted that Jesus spoke of believers who “fall away” when tested (Luke 8:13). New Testament writers warned that Christians could “fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12), “fall away from grace” (Galatians 5:4), "fall away from the living God" (Hebrews 3:12), and “fall under condemnation” (James 5:12). The fact that the word “fall” is used in reference to Christians settles the issue.
Peter, in graphic detail, describes the pitiful condition of those who fall from grace. He wrote, “For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. What the true proverb says has happened to them: ‘The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire’” (2 Peter 2:20-22).
Let us be careful to both extol the wonders and heed the warnings of God's grace.
During the 17th century, Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, sentenced a young soldier to be executed. It was to take place when the curfew bell sounded. However, the bell did not sound. The soldier's fiancé had climbed into the belfry and clung to the clapper of the bell to prevent it from striking. When she was summoned by Cromwell to account for her actions, she wept as she showed him her bruised and bleeding hands. Cromwell's heart was touched and he said, "Your lover shall live because of your sacrifice. Curfew shall not ring tonight!" Cromwell commuted the sentence.
There is no better indicator of love than sacrifice. The more love a person has for someone, the more they are willing to sacrifice for them. Jesus understood that fact when He said, “The greatest love you can show is to give your life for your friends” (John 15:13, GW). And that He did.
In order to truly appreciate grace, we must develop a deep and lasting appreciation of the Lord’s sacrifice. The two are inseparable (Romans 3:24-25). Therefore, I would like for us to consider the Lord’s sacrifice from the standpoint of a physician.
"The physical passion of Christ began in Gethsemane. Of the many aspects of His initial suffering, the one which is of particular physiological interest is the bloody sweat. Interestingly enough, the physician, St. Luke, is the only evangelist to mention this occurrence. He says, 'And being in an agony, he prayed the longer. And his sweat became as drops of blood, trickling down upon the ground' (Luke 22:44 KJV).
"Every attempt imaginable has been used by modern scholars to explain away the phenomenon of bloody sweat, apparently under the mistaken impression that it simply does not occur. A great deal of effort could be saved by consulting the medical literature. Though very rare, the phenomenon of hematidrosis, or bloody sweat, is well documented. Under great emotional stress, tiny capillaries in the sweat glands can break, thus mixing blood with sweat. This process alone could have produced marked weakness and possible shock…
"Preparations for the scourging were carried out when the Prisoner was stripped of His clothing and His hands tied to a post above His head. It is doubtful the Romans would have made any attempt to follow the Jewish law in this matter, but the Jews had an ancient law prohibiting more than forty lashes. The Roman legionnaire steps forward with the flagrum (or flagellum) in his hand. This is a short whip consisting of several heavy, leather thongs with two small balls of lead attached near the ends of each. The heavy whip is brought down with full force again and again across Jesus’ shoulders, back, and legs.
"At first the thongs cut through the skin only. Then, as the blows continue, they cut deeper into the subcutaneous tissues, producing first an oozing of blood from the capillaries and veins of the skin, and finally spurting arterial bleeding from vessels in the underlying muscles. The small balls of lead first produce large, deep bruises which are broken open by subsequent blows. Finally the skin of the back is hanging in long ribbons and the entire area is an unrecognizable mass of torn, bleeding tissue. When it is determined by the centurion in charge that the prisoner is near death, the beating is finally stopped. The half-fainting Jesus is then untied and allowed to slump to the stone pavement, wet with His own blood…
"Simon is ordered to place the patibulum on the ground and Jesus quickly thrown backward with His shoulders against the wood. The legionnaire feels for the depression at the front of the wrist. He drives a heavy, square, wrought-iron nail through the wrist and deep into the wood. Quickly, he moves to the other side and repeats the action, being careful not to pull the arms too tightly, but to allow some flexion and movement…
"The left foot is now pressed backward against the right foot, and with both feet extended, toes down, a nail is driven through the arch of each, leaving the knees moderately flexed. The Victim is now crucified. As He slowly sags down with more weight on the nails in the wrists, excruciating pain shoots along the fingers and up the arms to explode in the brain — the nails in the wrists are putting pressure on the median nerves.
"As He pushes Himself upward to avoid this stretching torment, He places His full weight on the nail through His feet. Again there is the searing agony of the nail tearing through the nerves between the metatarsal bones of the feet. At this point, as the arms fatigue, great waves of cramps sweep over the muscles, knotting them in deep, relentless, throbbing pain. With these cramps comes the inability to push Himself upward. Hanging by his arms, the pectoral muscles are paralyzed and the intercostal muscles are unable to act. Air can be drawn into the lungs, but cannot be exhaled. Jesus fights to raise Himself in order to get even one short breath. Finally, carbon dioxide builds up in the lungs and in the blood stream and the cramps partially subside. Spasmodically, he is able to push Himself upward to exhale and bring in the life-giving oxygen…
"Jesus experienced hours of limitless pain, cycles of twisting, joint-rending cramps, intermittent partial asphyxiation, searing pain where tissue is torn from His lacerated back as He moves up and down against the rough timber. Then another agony begins – a terrible crushing pain deep in the chest as the pericardium slowly fills with serum and begins to compress the heart…
"The loss of tissue fluids has reached a critical level; the compressed heart is struggling to pump heavy, thick, sluggish blood into the tissue; the tortured lungs are making a frantic effort to gasp in small gulps of air. The markedly dehydrated tissues send their flood of stimuli to the brain…
"The body of Jesus is now in extremes, and He can feel the chill of death creeping through His tissues. This realization brings out His sixth words, possibly little more than a tortured whisper, 'It is finished.' His mission of atonement has completed. Finally He can allow his body to die.
"With one last surge of strength, he once again presses His torn feet against the nail, straightens His legs, takes a deeper breath, and utters His seventh and last cry, 'Father! Into thy hands I commit my spirit'” (Dr. C. Truman Davis, A Physician Analyzes the Crucifixion, article).
How can one not be brought to his knees in humility and praise knowing that Jesus willingly suffered that torturous treatment for us? Knowing that God the Father allowed it to happen for us? Knowing that we are so utterly unworthy of such love? That, my friends, is grace.
All of us were like that young soldier. The guilt of our sin was exposed and punishment was soon to commence. Then love intervened. It was not in the form of a girl climbing into the belfry and clinging to the great clapper of the bell, but in the form of God’s Son climbing down from heaven and clinging to the old rugged cross. Her bruising and bleeding was nothing compared to His. And just as the soldier was spared by her act of love, we are spared by His act of love. If I may slightly modify Cromwell’s words, “We shall live because of His sacrifice!”