April 2016 Newsletter

Language pictures

            ‘Daddy, what does your heart do?’

Being the parent of a young child is rather like being set examination questions every day in life. Satisfying the relentless probing of a child’s mind is one of life’s great joys, and also one of its profound challenges. In response, often the key to learning (and teaching) is to take someone from the familiar to the unfamiliar.

Back to the cardiac question - what does the heart do? It so happened that we had been in the garden and I had been enlisting the help of the questioning son to fill the water tank of our folding camper. ‘Do you remember how we filled the camper tank with water by using the electric pump?’ So I explained that the heart was a bit like the water pump squirting water into the Camper tank, except that it squirted blood around our bodies. Not surprisingly, there was a barrage of supplementary questions which became more tricky.

My point is that we use the familiar to explain the unfamiliar. It is something we do all the time. Often we use figures of speech (e.g. metaphors) to make connections and see things in a fresh light. Poets do it all the time (‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’). I suppose I used the same style when I compared answering my son’s questions to sitting an exam. Such figures of speech are crucial in the language we use in the Christian faith. In fact, such language is used everywhere, not least in scientific discourse. Richard Dawkins famously wrote about ‘selfish genes’. Repeatedly, scientists will seek to explain the mysteries of gravity and space-time by encouraging us to think of space-time as a big piece of rubber sheet….. you have probably stumbled over that one! The point is that figures of speech are being used to make connections with things, in order to help us gain new insight.  It is therefore absurd for anyone to argue, as some atheists do, that because Christians use such figures of speech then somehow we are not describing anything concrete or real.

  

The Bible gives us a wonderfully rich selection of ‘figures of speech’ to understand what took place at the Cross. Sometimes these different ways of describing the Cross are described as ‘models of atonement’. They each shed light on the crucifixion and what happened when Jesus died. Let me list the main ones.

1. The language of the battlefield. Christ, on the cross, fought against the powers of sin and death and evil for us. He was victorious and shares that victory with us.

2. The language of the slave market. By His death Jesus paid the ransom price of our liberation from slavery. We are set free because He has paid the price. We were enslaved and yet He buys us out of our indebtedness and so rescues us from that enslavement.

3. The language of exile. Christ was banished and cast out on the Cross in order that we who were alienated and cast out might be brought in. He makes possible our homecoming.

4. The language of the Temple. Christ gives Himself as a sacrifice, the perfect sacrifice that purifies us and cleanses us and so makes us acceptable and able to enter into relationship with a Holy God. That cleansing makes us beautiful in God’s sight (think on that!!)

5. The language of the law court. Christ enters the law court, where we stand condemned for our rejection of God, and He accepts the punishment that we deserve. Thus our guilt is removed and we are declared righteous.     

The Bible does not invite us to choose the model we like best and stick with it; but invites us to see how each is an inspired way of helping us understand different aspects of our salvation. That said, I don’t doubt that each of these ‘models’ will speak with particular force to different people at different times. I imagine those who are caught in the horrors of war and injustice and enslavement will find the first two pictures of the battlefield and slavery speak very relevantly to them. Meanwhile, people who have a profound sense of shame and a crushing guilt for past mistakes will find numbers 4 and 5 especially helpful (the Temple and the Law Court). Those who, perhaps, feel adrift in the modern world, rootless and alienated, will probably find number 3 attractive (the language of exile).

However, there is a common theme running through all these models and images and metaphors; it is the key concept of substitution. Regardless of the underlying metaphor, Jesus acts as our substitute; Jesus is the one who battles with the evil powers on our behalf; Jesus pays the price in the marketplace for our freedom; Jesus bears the exile for us that we might be brought home to God; Jesus offers Himself as a sacrifice in our place; Jesus bears punishment on our behalf. Jesus does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.      

However, there is a common theme running through all these models and images and metaphors; it is the key concept of substitution. Regardless of the underlying metaphor, Jesus acts as our substitute; Jesus is the one who battles with the evil powers on our behalf; Jesus pays the price in the marketplace for our freedom; Jesus bears the exile for us that we might be brought home to God; Jesus offers Himself as a sacrifice in our place; Jesus bears punishment on our behalf. Jesus does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.      

However, there is a common theme running through all these models and images and metaphors; it is the key concept of substitution. Regardless of the underlying metaphor, Jesus acts as our substitute; Jesus is the one who battles with the evil powers on our behalf; Jesus pays the price in the marketplace for our freedom; Jesus bears the exile for us that we might be brought home to God; Jesus offers Himself as a sacrifice in our place; Jesus bears punishment on our behalf. Jesus does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.      

However, there is a common theme running through all these models and images and metaphors; it is the key concept of substitution. Regardless of the underlying metaphor, Jesus acts as our substitute; Jesus is the one who battles with the evil powers on our behalf; Jesus pays the price in the marketplace for our freedom; Jesus bears the exile for us that we might be brought home to God; Jesus offers Himself as a sacrifice in our place; Jesus bears punishment on our behalf. Jesus does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.      

However, there is a common theme running through all these models and images and metaphors; it is the key concept of substitution. Regardless of the underlying metaphor, Jesus acts as our substitute; Jesus is the one who battles with the evil powers on our behalf; Jesus pays the price in the marketplace for our freedom; Jesus bears the exile for us that we might be brought home to God; Jesus offers Himself as a sacrifice in our place; Jesus bears punishment on our behalf. Jesus does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.      

Jesus gives Himself to save others. This is the most attractive and compelling of all dramas, and for that reason has burned itself into human consciousness, and appears in the best literature. That is why some of the best stories carry that very plot line; whether it be Dickens in ‘A Tale of two cities’ or C.S. Lewis in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ or J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter series, the underlying plot is the same, the hero gives himself to save others.

Let me recite the last of these. In the first Harry Potter story, we find that the evil Lord Voldemort tries to kill Harry but can’t touch him. When the Voldemort-possessed villain tried to touch Harry, he experiences agonising pain, as if burned. Later Harry goes to his teacher, Dumbledore, and asks, ‘Why couldn’t he touch me?’ Dumbledore replies: ‘Your mother died to save you …. Love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign ….. (but) to have been loved so deeply … will give us some protection forever’

This is the theme that lies at the core of the Gospel. Jesus died for us. We do nothing, but seize hold of Him by faith. Then that love will mark us for life and preserve us for eternity. The great enemies of sin and death cannot hold those who have the grace of Christ in their lives.

            Yours triumphantly

            Martin Thomson

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