2. Death, a vital need

PART ONE: Lifted up – for Death

Lessons in Growth  Meditations: 2. Death, a vital need

Jn 12:24,25  I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

In the first study of this new series I referred to Jesus who said: “when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” (Jn 12:32), and I suggested there are three applications that go with that verse and those applications reveal three phases of Christ’s life and ministry, and can also be seen to be three phases of the Christian life that goes on to mature and bear fruit.

Lifted for Death: Now in fact, John added to this ‘lifted-up verse’ “He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die,” (v.33) so the first application of it, at least, is to do with Jesus’ death on the Cross. So what parallel is there in the Christian life?

The Wheat Example: Well, look at the two verses at the top again. It is the teaching of Jesus, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies and it clearly homes in on this very same application. Now I confess I have always disliked those two verses because whenever I have heard someone preaching on them, it has always been in a cold, harsh, judgmental and legalistic manner. However, the truth is that Jesus is not using them as a teaching with which to slap us, but instead he is simply laying down a very obvious principle. As with much of Jesus’ teaching it is very graphic and almost overstates the situation.

What happens: You have a grain of wheat and you are a farmer. You drop that grain into a hole in the ground and cover it up. To all intents and purposes it is dead and buried. If we didn’t know any better, we would consider this grain dead, utterly inert. In fact if you left it in a sealed jar in the dark, that is exactly what it would remain, but put it in the ground where – yes, it still looks ‘dead’ – it get moisture and nourishment from the soil, it will germinate and sprout and grow and produce more wheat. Now in the verses that follow, Jesus applies this to other people but, the fact that the ‘lifted-up verse’ follows so soon after, suggests he also had in mind what was about to happen to him. He had to die before the kingdom could be fully born with lots of believers. We’ll see what this means in respect of the individual believer later on and in subsequent studies.

Paul’s Teaching: Now the apostle Paul also used death as an analogy of what happens in the life of the person who becomes a Christian; it is very much a direct parallel: “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Rom 6:1-4) There is the picture: when we came to Christ we ‘died’ in respect of our ‘old life’ and that is how we are to view it. But this also has practical implications for living out our day by day lives: “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (v.11)

The Conversion Process: We sometimes make this very complex but in reality it is very simple. When you came to Christ, the process of conviction that the Holy Spirit took you through, included you becoming aware of a need you had. You were dissatisfied with the life you had and, as the Gospel was shared with you, you realised that what was required of you was complete surrender to God so that Jesus could be both your Saviour and Lord. He could be your Saviour to deliver you from your past life with its failures and weaknesses because of all he had achieved on the Cross. He also needed to be our Lord if we were to live out new lives, guided and directed, taught and empowered by him. For both those two things to happen, it required our complete surrender – to let go of the past and receive the salvation he offered.

Now only this morning I happened to be browsing through some short meditations I wrote years ago, and I came across the following statement about the new life we receive at the time of conversion: “Our new way of thinking must not only realise truth for our new lives but also be aware of and reject the ways of our old lives.” That ties in with Paul’s, “count yourselves dead to sin.” 

Differing Experiences: If we are to understand some of the basic lessons about growth, we cannot emphasise this first phase strongly enough. I have heard the expressions a ‘good conversion’  or ‘they were well born’ used of new Christians and what the speaker is referring to is the depth of the conviction and our salvation experience that some New Testament translations refer to as ‘conversion’ and which John 3 calls being ‘born again’.

‘Past Life’ Effect: Now there are without doubt at least two reasons why this experience is different for different people. The first tends to do with nature of the life the person previously had. I have heard those who came to Christ as young children complain that their experience was shallow because they had never known real sin. Well, they had (selfish godlessness is seen in a child as well as an adult) but they hadn’t recognised it and, yes, it hadn’t had time to really develop and be seen in obvious acts of unrighteousness (except disobedience?). The person who has been saved out of a life of unadulterated unrighteousness is often more grateful for what God has done, although the depth of godly life in the childhood Christian is often a lot deeper. Jesus said, he who has been forgiven little loves little.” (Lk 7:47)

The Mystery of the Heart: The second reason is more mysterious. It is a mystery why the human heart responds as it does. For some, conversion is a major changing point, almost a crisis point of life, while for others it is much less dramatic. Some people seem to be able to ‘see’ the truth so clearly that conviction is deep; for others it seems they almost struggle with the truth, although they do accept it, and so the depth of their experience is not so dramatic. The truth is that the Lord knows and the Lord loves each of us regardless of the depth of our experience. It may be that it is something in our past life that hinders clarity and it may be that the Lord will take a long time bringing that thing to the surface because He knows its potential to cause upheaval if dealt with too quickly.

And Us: Summarising where our starting point is, it is to face the things from our past lives which hopefully have been left, dead and buried, and should not be impacting us today – but do! Some of these things we are probably not aware of, and others we just take for granted as normal, but should not be. In this first Part we are going to consider a whole variety of things that should have been covered when we were born again and dealt with by Christ’s work on the Cross, and yet they are still there present in our lives today, and as such, may be hindering our growth. We are about to step on to holy ground.

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35. Christ’s Work

Meditations in 1 Peter : 35:  Christ’s Work

1 Pet 2:24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.

Some think this verse is Peter diverting to the atonement as another subject that comes to mind when he thinks of Christ’s example, but when we look at in detail we will see that it is because of Christ’s work on the Cross that we can now live new lives, lives that will reveal God to the world. This verse is thus an extension of Peter’s ongoing theme here about testimony and witness. Let’s consider it in detail.

“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.” This is without question a reference to Christ dying on the Cross. In the New Testament accounts, the Cross is often referred to as ‘a tree’, e.g. “whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” (Acts 5:30) and “They killed him by hanging him on a tree.” (Acts 10:39) and Paul specifically links it to the Old Testament reference and curse: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” (Gal 3:13 quoting Deut 21:23). So yes, this is a clear reference to him dying on the Cross, but what about the reference to “bore our sins in his body”?

Think about the Old Testament sacrificial system. Within that, when a man sinned, he had to take an animal to the Temple to be sacrificed. He placed his hands on its head, as means of identification, and the animal was then killed. It was a picture of the sins of the man being passed to the animal who then took the punishment (death) for those sins. So the New Testament teaching is that in the same way, when Christ died on the Cross he was dying in our place and took our sins. For it to apply to us, we have to come to God in repentance, believing in Jesus as our substitute and God then declares us forgiven and cleansed. Because he is the eternal Son of God, he acts as our substitute wherever we are in history, even though he died in time-space history two thousand years ago.

Now that is what Jesus did so that two things could then happen to us: “so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness.” We have already explained when and how it takes place (at our conversion) but that is only the start. When we came to Christ, we rejected our old self-centred life of failure and guilt and turned away from that old sin-focused life. Peter uses the same language as the apostle Paul when he refers to this for he speaks about us dying to the old life, dying to sins. The apostle Paul taught, “We died to sin… count yourselves dead to sin.” (Rom 6:2,11)  This teaching says the old life has gone; we no longer live like we used to. Sin no longer dominates us and no longer has power over us.

We have been freed FROM that so that we may now ‘live for righteousness’. Righteousness – living rightly according to God’s design for us, is now the basis for our lives.  Paul’s counterpart teaching is, “we too may live a new life… count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God… offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness.” (Rom 6:4,11,13).

Do you see the link now between what Peter has been saying previously? He was saying, live out lives of witness and testimony, responding differently to everyone else when you suffer unjustly, so that you glorify God, but you also do it and live like that because of what Christ has achieved for you on the Cross and the nature of the life you now live because of that.  You cope with suffering unjustly because you are a new person, a Spirit-energised person, a Cross-redeemed person, a person with the nature of Christ being formed in you.

He closes the sentence with, “by his wounds you have been healed.” In that short phrase he uses two shorthand words, words used to summarise a lot more. When he speaks of Christ’s ‘wounds’ he means all that was done to him before and on the Cross. He is in fact quoting Isa 53:5 exactly: But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Pierced, crushed and wounded are words that do have specific applications but they also apply generally in a spiritual sense. You might like to meditate on how Christ was pierced in his spirit, crushed in spirit and wounded in the spirit. These are all part of what he went through, and the result is that we are ‘healed’. This is usually taken to mean in spirit. Previously we had been sin-sick, our lives deformed by sin, damaged by sin, and by his work on the Cross Christ made it possible for sin to be removed from our bodies, our twisted lives straightened out and the effects or damage done by sin to be removed. Those are the possibilities that we have to claim and take hold of, part of the salvation that is ours through the work of Christ on the Cross, which now enables us to live as people different from the rest of the world. May it be so!