John Fuller: On a previous “Focus on the Family” radio program, we had historian and Bible teacher, Ray Vander Laan with us and he gave a challenge to those who follow Christ.
Ray Vander Laan: Our mission is to be willing to engage in culture with sinful people. to bring the grace of God to them. So, in that moment, it’s almost as if we have to be willing to run, so that people sense the love of God, not just in the words we say, but they discover the love of God in our willingness to care about them.
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John: And you’ll be hearing more about that mission God has for us, to care about those around us and to love in His name as we continue our program today. Thanks for joining us. Your host is Focus president, Jim Daly and I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, I so appreciate Ray’s sentiment there. That’s probably one of the deepest things I’m feeling right now with the work here at Focus on the Family. How do we engage a culture that literally is fallin’ apart? And we’re not gonna draw them to the Lord or to a better way, a better path without expressing the kindness of God. It’s right there in Romans 2:4: “Don’t you know it’s God’s kindness that leads one to repentance.”
I don’t want to go out of my way to be hated. Let the Scripture be the offense. We need to get our personalities out of the way, and I’m so looking forward to this discussion with Ray, because I trust his insights. We have worked together for over 25 years. We have done the That the World May Know series, which is now in its 14th releaseand we’re gonna talk about that new release today.
John: Yeah, it’s a phenomenal series and we’ve got samples for you to see at www.focusonthefamily.com/radioand this newest release is Mission of Jesus and it was filmed in Israel and in Rome, Italy.
Jim: Ray, welcome back to the program.
Ray: Thanks, it’s an honor to be back with Focus on the Family. This partnership has been absolutely the blessing of my life for the last 23 years.
Jim: Well, it’s a–
Ray: It’s an honor to be here.
Jim: –well, it’s great to have you. It’s like old friends, you know.
Ray: (Laughing) Amen.
Jim: When you get together, sit around the table and—
Jim: –talk about spiritual things, and I know many of you, you do that with friends, and that’s just what this is like and Ray, it’s so inspiring to be with you. When we look at what you’re getting at there in The Mission of Jesus, I mean, there’s no more important area of Scripture than the mission of Jesus, right?
Ray: Amen. You know, behind this is our previous discussion that God had a mission for Israel. Israel was to be a kingdom of priests, that is, a community of people who put on display what God was like, who He was, and His love for all of His lost children. And they were to demonstrate that by their compassion for the stranger, by their righteous living, by their willingness to welcome those who were broken or marginalized.
And in that, others would come to know God. God commanded them, make My name known. Be a light to the Gentiles. But often, Israel was either so like the nations around her, that she had nothing unique to display, or was so determined to be what God wanted that she put off the nations and isolated herself from involvement. So, Jesus came, in a sense, both to fully complete that mission of God, putting God on display in every way, and to teach us how we oughta put God on display in our own lives.
Ray: So, when Jesus was born, He was the Word in flesh, as if God said, “You want to see the whole Bible lived correctly? Here’s My Son. Watch Him.” And the call, then, is for us who follow Jesus, to find ways to put the Word into practice, to be the Word in flesh in the world we live in today.
Jim: Ray, let me ask you this. Set 14 is The Mission of Jesus. The setting is partly in Rome, because as Jesus is born and walks this earth, the Roman Empire is perhaps at its height at that point. Talk about Rome, being in Rome, filming in Rome. What did Rome represent? And are there parallels for us today?
Ray: Well, that’s a great question. The initial part of this next set will deal with Jesus teaching the Jewish people, His disciples included at this point, how they oughta carry out the mission of showing the world what God was like.
So, we started out with Jesus crossing the sea to the pagan area and intersecting with this man that had a legion of demons and discovering that Jesus said, “I don’t approve of someone whose life is in a shambles because of sin, but I love them yet, and I want to engage them, and I want to be involved in their lives. And that was a lesson the First Century Jews needed, because they were so determined to be righteous, they had separated from the very people who needed to know and to see God in them.
Jim: That’s important, because some of us carry that attitude today.
Ray: It’s huge, and it’s a tension the Jews lived with a lot. In the Old Testament, they were so much like their pagan neighbors that God sent them off into captivity, and they suffered tremendously. They came back and in effect said, “We’re not gonna make this mistake again. Now we’re gonna be so holy, so pure, so set apart that He’ll never punish us again.”
Well, as a result, they wouldn’t engage with sinners, the outsiders, the marginalized, because they said, “We want to remain pure.” And it’s as if God, you know, looked down and said, “But that’s not the point either, because if you’re not engaged with them, what good does it do to be holy and righteous? You’re supposed to be holy and righteous because it shows the world what I’m like.”
Jim: So, it was like a pendulum swinging from—
Jim: –one extreme to the other extreme.
Ray: And Jesus had to bring that pendulum back.
John: Which we do, that pendulum, we do that all the time in our Christian walk, don’t we?
Jim: Oh, I—
John: I mean, we—
Jim: –think we do.
John: –we miss.
Ray: Oh, yeah.
John: Finding the balance is so hard.
John: Why is that?
Ray: Amen, amen. Well, I think there is that normal human tendency that when we become involved with people who do not follow God, our own weakness, our own sinful natures make us susceptible to the very sins we seek to address in their lives.
Ray: And so, in fear of that, we like to find a safe place to raise our kids, is the way I always say it. We want someplace where we don’t have to engage a broken world, because it’s much safer that way, although the devil finds his ways in anyway. But Jesus said, no, no, you are a city on a hill. You have to live your lives before the broken world and in the broken world, so in you, they discover who I am and what real shalom looks like.
Jim: When you studied the Roman Empire at that time of Jesus, talk about the system of the government, what you saw in that, again that parallel today, what it’s like to be under a[n] emperor’s rule. There [are] references in the Scripture about Christians working in Caesar’s court.
Jim: Was that a compromise?
Jim: I mean, think of a Christian working in a presidential administration that doesn’t support life or traditional marriage.
Ray: That’s a question that honestly, I’ve got on the little pad I leave on my desk that I hope I can ask someday when I get to meet Jesus in person.
The second part of this next release is going to deal with the issue of, how did Jesus prepare His disciples, not only to put Him on display in the broken communities among which they lived, but how could they demonstrate to the Roman world who and what Jesus was? Now, there was a historical reality going on in Jesus’ day. Shortly before His birth, it became accepted in the Roman world, and even pushed greatly by imperial Rome, that the emperor himself was the son of God.
Ray: It really started when Julius Caesar was assassinated. His adopted son, Octavian, who will be the Caesar Augustus of Jesus’ birth, had it declared by the Senate, by the priesthood of Rome, by his own imperial decree, that Julius Caesar has ascended to take his place with the gods and was deified. So, there’s an ascension story, which of course is fascinating to me, because our faith has an ascension story, too.
Ray: And they’re both competing. But because Augustus believed or taught that his father had ascended and was deified, not became an eternal god, but was granted the rights and powers of deity, that made Octavian the son of God. And so, the early Gospel had to go out into a world where there was an emperor who believed and an empire that believed that their emperor was the divine son of God.
And they had to proclaim a message that said, “No, the Son of God is the One born in a manger in Bethlehem, who was executed on a cross, and who gave His life for others.” Now, you have to realize what a difficult message that must have been for the early followers of Jesus to bring, because their so-called Messiah, their so-called Savior, Lord and King, had been executed as a terrorist—
Ray: –by the Caesar who called himself “lord and god.” How do you explain to your neighbors that you’re following a God you now know, a Savior you now believe in, who your emperor executed in the name of the state? And so, somehow that message has to be presented in a way that not only is faithful to God’s calling that He had for His people, but it also had to declare to a Roman world that Caesar isn’t Lord, Jesus is.
Now, it’s fascinating to me that the New Testament doesn’t say a whole lot directly to Rome. [It] makes a few comments about the government. Caesar’s name is mentioned a couple of times, but very little that you would say, well there, Rome is being critiqued.
But if you look at the way the Gospel message is framed, you begin to discover that the claims of the early Christians made it clear that they were teaching that Caesar’s claims were fraudulent. Let me show you what I mean.
There were a number of terms that had become legal, official terms in imperial Rome. For example, Caesar is called “lord,” “lord and god.” And if you read the Gospels, notice how often Jesus is referred to as Lord and God. Now that’s a theological statement which Christians believe, but in that world, that was radical stuff, because if Jesus is Lord and God, who is Caesar? That’s a critique of Caesar.
Now, by doing that, the early believers, by their life and their testimony, and the way they lived, made it clear that their claims were in a sense, in conflict with the claims of Rome. They didn’t criticize the emperor. They didn’t say nasty things about him, at least that are recorded either in church history or in the Bible. What they simply did is they criticized by creating an alternative that Jesus was Lord.
John: Well, we’re getting some great insights into the Scriptures, into the claims of Christ and we have historian and Bible teacher, Ray Vander Laan with us today on “Focus on the Family.” I hope you’re leaning in. There’s so much here and as we do this, let me remind you, set No. 14 is The Mission of Jesus and there’s a DVD and discovery guide. We’ve got that, and you can find out more at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio or when you call 800-A-FAMILY.
Jim: Ray, let me ask you this. We’re setting the scene, I think rightfully. I mean, you have Jesus born. You have the Roman Empire, the Roman rulers. And here He is hailed at the Messiah and then He gives His life up.
Jim: And that had to be a twist. I mean, if He’s the King of Kings and the Son of God, how did they feel from Friday, Good Friday to Easter Sunday? I mean, those three days had to be dramatic in that their King, Jesus, was dead.
Ray: Yeah, you know, that was a question. As I began to get more and more into the Roman world, and scholarship today is increasingly aware that while we’ve focused, I think correctly as a church, on the theology and the teaching of Paul, we may have not seen as clearly as we ought, how much Paul’s message, and the message of the New Testament presented conflicting claims—claims of the emperor, claims of Jesus.
Caesar’s claim to power came through victory, violence. It came through the strong crushing the weak. It came through using others for the benefit of the Roman Empire, and there was an imperial lifestyle that communicated values and what matters in life.
Now, Jesus came with conflicting claims, and the early Christians saw that. He is Lord. He is Savior of the world. He is the Son of God. This is the Gospel. But His claims indicate that the kingdom comes, not with legions of angels, but the kingdom comes by living sacrificially, caring and loving the broken folks around us.
So, Jesus comes as this ultimate example to say, the empire doesn’t come with a thunderous military victory. The empire comes when the King is willing to suffer and die for anyone who wants to be in the kingdom. I thought about that a lot, and then I came across a study. In fact, I found it in several places, that is, of the Gospel of Mark. Mark as much or more than any of the other Gospels for sure, and maybe even Paul, frames the message of Jesus in a way that makes really clear that Jesus’ claims undermine the imperial claims of the emperor himself.
And this particular study took a look at the story of the crucifixion, exactly as you described it. How do you explain to your friends and neighbors in Rome, if you’re an early Christian, that your King, your emperor, your Savior, Jesus, was executed by our emperor? How can He be valid?
In the imperial practice, the emperors had seized on an ancient custom as a way of putting their authority, their imperial title, and even their deity on display. In the ancient world, long before there was an emperor, in the Greek world, there was a ritual connected with the worship of the wine god, Dionysus, called a “triumph.”
In that ceremony in the spring, it was believed that Dionysus came back to life. So, they would take the robe that was normally on the statue of the god in the temple. They would put it on the high priest, and he would make a dramatic appearance to say, “Dionysus has returned.”
That was adopted by early Roman military conquerors. A general would win a great victory. He would come into Rome. He would get permission from the Senate. He would put on the robe of one of the gods, and he would be paraded before the Roman citizens to say, “Here he is, the conquering general!”
Jim: The great conqueror.
Ray: The great conqueror! The emperors seized that practice, probably starting with Julius Caesar before he was even emperor and used it to declare, “I am lord.” And later, “I am lord and god.”
Ray: And it followed a number of practices, fairly rigidly. It would start with a gathering of the Praetorian guard, that was this inner group of the best military units in Rome that protected and supported the emperor. They would acclaim him as emperor publicly in the praetorium. They would put a robe on him, probably the robe off Zeus, or Jupiter, in the Roman tradition. They would give him a scepter, put the gold olive wreath on his head as a sign that he was deified.
Then they would process through the city. Incense altars lined the streets of the city, smelled of that incense. There would be a bull led by the emperor himself. I doubt that’s literally true. The one carving I saw, they got an 1,800-pound animal led by this emperor to be. But I doubt he was able to do that.
But next to the bull was a slave, carrying the instrument of death. And they would process on the Via Sacra, the Sacred Road through Rome, through the Forum to Head Hill, no less, Capitoline Hill. When they got to Capitoline Hill, the emperor would be offered a bowl of wine, sweet wine, which he would refuse and pour out.
Then, the bull was sacrificed, and then the imperial candidate, the one who was to be lord and god, would make his way up the steps of the Temple of Jupiter. And they would climb those stairs and stand to the acclaim of the crowd, who would say something like, “Hail Caesar, Lord and God! Hail Caesar, Lord and God!” Somewhere in that process, prisoners would be brought, and Caesar would order them executed to demonstrate that he had the power of life and of death. And then they would wait for a sign from the gods.
Now, as I was reading that and reading those who’ve studied it, it suddenly hit me that I became aware—let’s say it that way; it’s probably a better way to say it—I became aware that if you look at Mark’s account of the crucifixion, he organizes it along the same lines. He has Jesus brought to the Praetorium and the whole cohort gathers. They put a robe on Him.
Ray: They put a wreath, now mocking yes, suffering brutal torture, yes. And then they acclaimed Him in mockery and yet, telling the truth, “Hail, King of the Jews.”
Jim: They just didn’t know they were telling the truth.
Ray: And then there’s a procession through the streets of Jerusalem. There’s a sacrifice being led, which is Jesus Himself. And Simon of Cyrene is stopped and he carries the instrument of death. And they go to a place called “Head Hill?” Golgatha, where they offered Jesus sweet wine, which He refuses. It was the first time it had ever dawned on me that in Mark, the wine is given before He’s crucified. I had always remembered the story of Jesus being offered wine on the cross. Well, apparently it was both.
Ray: And Mark picks up on the former, but not the latter. And then Jesus is executed, a rebel on His right and a rebel on His left. And the crowd hails Him in mockery, “Hail, King of the Jews! If you are God, come down from the cross.” Again, not even realizing what they were saying. And rather than executing prisoners, Jesus turns to the rebel next to him and said, “Today you will be with Me in paradise.” Live! And grants him life, eternal life no less, at least, so it appears.
Ray: So in other words, if you were an early believer, you could say, wow! This march to the Cross wasn’t a defeat. It was His coronation. But notice, God exalted Jesus above every name, above every power, seating Him on His right hand, how? By His willingness to suffer and offer Himself to others, not with military conquest. Not by crushing those who disagree with Him, but by sacrificing Himself for others.
And it’s as if, God says, “Do you see? Do you see? This is who I am? I am a God who loves you so much that I’ve even willing to offer Myself on your behalf to bring you back. Won’t you join Me?” And what’s so powerful to me is not only that idea that now in the early Roman world I could say to my neighbor, this isn’t gonna make any sense to you, but Jesus’ walk to the Cross was the greatest victory ever. Nothing Caesar can ever do will provide what Jesus’ walk to the Cross did.
Jim: Ray, let me ask you though, as we end today, ’cause I want to come back next time and continue the discussion, ’cause the insights are brilliant. I love it. This is exactly why I enjoy talking to you.
Jim: But the idea of today’s application, it’s almost like we want to fight. How did that Early Church react after Jesus’ crucifixion, His resurrection? They seemed to do those things that drew people’s attention to, I don’t know, to better understand the love of God, not the victory of God in the political arena or wherever it might be. How do we apply that to today’s environment, what you just said?
Ray: And that’s so good. It reminds me of a quote I came across from one author, who said, “They did believe in victory, but it’s victory by suffering and love for the undeserving.” It seems to me that when Jesus said to us, through His challenge to His own followers in His day, “Take up your cross and follow Me,” that, that wasn’t simply an invitation to be willing to suffer for what we believe. For many, that’s exactly what it is, even in the world you and I live in. But it was also a challenge to say, do you realize the way the kingdom comes is when you are willing to selflessly love even those who up till this point have rejected me completely?
Ray: And I think the implications of that are staggering. The Early Church had no choice. It was largely made of up of the lower classes. It was largely made up of the slave class. There were a few wealthy and a few powerful, but not many. They’re the exception. It had no choice. It could not have brought out its influence by the ballot box, or by the army. It couldn’t have. It didn’t have that kind of power, by God’s design.
What did it have? It had a far greater power, that’s far greater than any government, far greater than any economic system. It had the power of the selfless love of God. And when that Early Church was willing to love their neighbor, and even more amazing to the Greeks and Romans, love their enemy, it changed the world.
Jim: Love your enemy.
Ray: And then something happened, and one wonders whether all of that was all that good. Christianity became in many places the majority.
Ray: It got power–
Jim: From the bottom up.
Ray: –from the bottom up.
Ray: And it had now the ability to pressure and force people into certain things.
Ray: And all of a sudden, that world-changing willingness to selflessly love, following the example of Jesus’ selfless redemptive love, begins to fade a bit. And I wrestle with my students and I wrestle together with this right now in the high school classes I teach. It is so tempting to think, if we could just have the right political power, if we could have the right economic power, if we could have the right media power, that somehow the kingdom would come.
Now, we want to reclaim politics, of course. We want to reclaim economics; we want to reclaim the media. Praise God, it should all be used to honor His name. But the key is to realize that the way you change the world is to be the love of God in flesh, even to those we disagree with.
Jim: Oh, man, that is so true, Ray and this is all good teaching and I think people can see why we’re excited about That the World May Know, set No. 14, The Mission of Jesus, and why each of us need to get a copy of that DVD.
You know, here at Focus on the Family, we are passionate about bringing the Bible to life and Ray, you do such a good job with that. We want to help change lives for the sake of Christ. And this series is another way that God is doing that and using it to do that.
And our research shows that in the past year more than a million people have grown stronger in their faith through Focus on the Family. You’re a vital part of reaching others for Christ and strengthening their faith when you support the ministry here.
Would you pray about being on that support team and helping us to continue these efforts? We need your help. It won’t get done without you. And if you haven’t supported us in a while or maybe ever, can I ask you boldly to send a gift today? When you make a donation of any amount, I want to send you set No. 14, The Mission of Jesus. And because of some generous friends, when you give today, your gift’s going to be doubled. So, I if you give $20, it’s $40. And that will extend the ministry here.
Ray again, this has been so good. We’re comin’ back next time and pick up the conversation where we left off here, but thanks for being with us.
Ray: Oh, it’s such an honor, excited
John: And you can learn more about That the World May Know, set 14, The Mission of Jesus and donate generously at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio or when you call 800-232-6459; 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.
Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening. I’m John Fuller, inviting you back next time. We’ll hear more from Ray Vander Laan on the next “Focus on the Family” and once again, help you and your family thrive.