Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Why I Believe, Part II

In an earlier post, I listed two of the most compelling reasons why I believe in Jesus Christ. My goal is to help you think about why you believe as you do. Our faith must stand up to scrutiny; it can't simply be something we hold because it's comfortable to do so, or that we cling to because of loyalty to our church. That sort of faith won't stand the test. Why do you believe? Here are five more reasons why I do:

The continued existence of the Jewish people. Genesis 12 tells us that thousands of years ago, God chose a Middle Eastern chieftain named Abram, telling him, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you...and all peoples on Earth will be blessed by you.” 25 years later, when Abraham was 100, his wife Sarah gave birth to a son named Isaac. That was the beginning of the Jewish people. If you study the history of the Jews, it’s really the ultimate underdog story. There was one period of their history, the reign of Solomon, when the nation was prosperous and at peace. Otherwise, they had a series of enemies who preyed on them, including (but not limited to) the Philistines, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Persians, and the Romans. At two different points in history, the Jews had no country of their own; the second of these times lasted nearly 2000 years, from 70 AD to 1948. During those two millennia, the Jews were persecuted in virtually every nation in which they lived. The most infamous of these persecutions, of course, was the Nazi Holocaust, but there were countless other pogroms against the Jews. Yet the Jewish people still exist today. Can we say the same for any of the people groups in the Old Testament? When did you last run into a Hittite, a Philistine, or an Assyrian? Those and numerous other ethnicities have ceased to exist. They were conquered by other nations and assimilated into more dominant cultures. But the Jews are still here, in spite of all the odds.

Why does this matter? Because God’s word says that God has a plan for the Jews. They are His chosen people. That doesn’t mean that God loves them more than other people; He loves every person. But God chose the Jews to bless the entire Earth. They were created to be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6) and a light to the nations (Is. 51:4). In other words, Old Testament Israel’s purpose was to show the world God’s love and holiness, so that they might all know Him. Then the Messiah, Jesus, came from the tribe of Judah and became the author of salvation. Even though all that has taken place, God still has a part for the Jewish people to play in His redemptive plan, according to Romans 11, esp. v. 26. You might argue that the Jews have survived because they were simply more resilient than other ancient peoples. But to me, it is an indication that God is preserving them.

The Bible: Yes, other religions have their holy books. So what makes the Bible unique? The Bible wasn’t written by one man, like the Koran or the Book of Mormon. Nor is it the collected teachings of a specific holy man, like the teachings of Confucius or Buddha. It is 66 different books written over a period of thousands of years in three different languages. It was written by Kings and priests and prophets, fishermen and shepherds, Jews and Gentiles, the rich and the poor. It contains historical accounts, poetry, laws, prophecy, and letters. And in spite of all that diversity, it tells one unified story: It is about a God who loved the world so much He’ll do whatever it takes to redeem it. The heroes of the Bible are all deeply flawed. What human being would invent a story in which the main heroes are cowards, murderers, liars and fools? Yet these are the people who God chooses in Scripture. When I read the Bible, God speaks through it to me. And as I apply its words to my life, I become a better person. No other book has ever done that for me.

Jesus: Quite simply, no human mind could invent such a compelling character. I have heard novelists say that it is far easier to write about a villain or an antihero than it is to write about a truly good person. Good people just aren’t interesting, they say. Yet in Jesus, you have the most perfect person who ever lived, and He is fascinating! The more I read about Him, the more I admire Him, love Him, and want to become more like Him. If He were a work of fiction, the person or people who invented Him would be the greatest literary and philosophical geniuses who ever lived. They would have invented the most compelling story, as well as the most winsome vision of the character of God, and also the most effective philosophy of life ever conceived. Yet they would also be fools, because they invented a character who told them to give up all their own rights for His cause. Who does that? No one could have made Him up. And if He was a real person, He was Lord. He made such audacious claims about Himself: “I am the resurrection and the life; He who believes in me, though He dies, yet shall He live.” “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” Either He was a dangerous egomaniac, a cunning con man, or exactly who He said He was. I believe in Him, and it has changed my life forever.

The resurrection. Christianity is unlike all other religions in several ways. For one, the doctrine of God’s grace: God saves us in spite of our sinfulness, not because of our good deeds or our religious devotion. In other words, all our efforts to be good enough for God are worthless. Every other religion says “do.” Christianity says “done.” Then there’s the doctrine of the incarnation and atoning death of Christ. Some other religions have the concept of a god becoming a man, like the Hindu avatars. But the God of the Bible becomes a baby in the womb of a poor virgin. He lives a life of poverty, rejected by most people. And He lays down His life for our sins. He DOESN’T say, “Here is my version of the right way to live. Now live that way, and I’ll accept you.” No, He says, “You can’t pay the debt for your own sin, so I will pay it for you, even though it costs me everything.” But the most important distinctive is this: All other religions are a list of rules, a philosophy of life, and nothing more. You cannot refute the teachings of Muhammed or Buddha or Confucius; you can either accept or reject them. But Christianity is based on a historical event. If Jesus didn’t rise from the grave on Easter Sunday, then Christianity is a sham, period. But if He did rise, then He is everything He said He was…He is our only hope for salvation.

So why do I believe that Jesus was literally raised from the dead? There are so many reasons, but here is my favorite: I believe because of the testimony of the eyewitnesses. These were ordinary men and women, but they soon gave up their ordinary lives to go full-time spreading the message that Christ was risen. And this message got them into terrible trouble. 11 of the 12 disciples died a martyr’s death. Some might say, “Big deal. People die for their beliefs all the time.” Yes, but most martyrs die based on their belief in the teachings of another person. These men knew whether or not what they were saying was true. They were willing to die rather than deny Christ’s resurrection.

Look at it this way: Imagine that I and my friends conspire to invent a religion. One of our friends has recently died, and we decide that we will make up some things he supposedly said, then start telling people he has risen from the dead. We dig up his body and hide it. Then we start spreading our new faith. But imagine that most people don’t believe us. We lose our jobs because of this radical, bizarre stuff we’re saying. Then the police show up, wanting to know why we dug up the body. Don’t you think we will very quickly admit what we’ve done, so that we don’t have to go to jail? Perhaps someone out there is crazy or desperate enough to believe our story, and to believe it so completely that they will get in trouble rather than renounce their beliefs, but not us: We know it’s a lie. If the first eyewitnesses were lying, they knew so. And if they were lying, why would they submit not just to ridicule and imprisonment, but death for their testimony? Those eyewitnesses changed the world. If you had been alive in 30 AD, and someone had told you that the Roman Empire would be dead in a few centuries, but that this rag-tag movement of Jesus-worshippers would last forever, and would one day number 2 billion people, you would have though t they were crazy. But that’s exactly what happened.

My own relationship with Christ. The old hymn says, “You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart.” If someone when I was a kid had asked me how I knew that my parents loved me, I would have said, “I just know.” Obviously, I couldn’t prove to some skeptic that my parents’ love was true. If they chose, they could believe that mom and dad were just keeping me well-fed in order to eat me for Thanksgiving Dinner someday, or to serve as slave labor. But I knew, because I lived with them.

It’s the same with Jesus and me. I may not be able to prove His existence or Lordship to someone who doesn’t want to believe. But I am in the midst of a relationship with Him, and that is the most important proof I need…the only proof I need, actually. Christian author Philip Yancey tells the story of buying a multi-volume dictionary in one concise volume. The whole thing is there; but the print is so small it cannot be read with the naked eye. He has to use one of those swivel-armed magnifying glasses like jewelers have. When he puts that glass over the page, then takes a hand-held magnifying glass and puts it over the page as well, in the center of the circle where those two glasses converge, the print becomes crystal clear. However, the words on the fringes of the circle are blurry. Outside the circle, they are illegible. That’s what Jesus is like. When I focus my life on knowing and serving Him, life is clear. When I get on the fringes of religion, on all sorts of side issues, things get blurry. When I take my focus off of Jesus entirely, life makes no sense whatsoever. I urge you to focus your life on Jesus…and the things of this Earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.

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