Jesus Christ lived on Earth and displayed a life of perfect love, trust, and worship. His example is incomparably great–and it’s unreachable. Part of the validation of the message of Christ is in its unique combination of reality and perfection in the character He displayed. The standard He set is strongly desirable–if being a person who lives for the sake of God and others, and in great joy is attractive to you–and yet it is impossible.
The Example Was Not Enough
This takes us back to the predicament we all started in, covered in the beginning of this series. God created us for relationship with Him, dependence on Him, and rich, full relationships with each other in an environment that didn’t constantly fight back. We haven’t lost the sense of how things ought to be, but we’ve certainly lost the experience of it. We’re told that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Sin is defined in the original context (and also in the original language) as a falling short, a failure to hit the mark.
In other words, if Jesus came just to teach and set an example, we might as well say, “A lot of good that did us! We can’t live up to that!”
But that’s not all he did. Again, going back to earlier in this series, recall that the penalty for rebelling against God was death. Jesus Christ lived to show us how to live, and then He died on the cross for us. We could speak of at least fifty reasons He suffered and died, as John Piper has done (skim the Table of Contents here), but most Christians put this one at the top of the list: he paid the death penalty on our behalf. Because He is God, and because He joined with us as a man Himself, he could do that on behalf of us all.
Rescue From Something That’s Bigger Than We Are
The story is told of a drowning man, whom two men went to help. The first threw him a book on how to swim. The second pulled him out of the water. This is the difference between teaching and rescue. The analogy, like all others, is imperfect; this one understates the real value of teaching. But it does remind us that there are situations where teaching is not what we really need, and one of them is when we’re dying and cannot help ourselves. Most of the passengers on the Titanic were in that situation: even the best and strongest of them needed rescue. The water was too cold, the shore too far.
We can too easily fool ourselves about our need. Once I was chatting with a seatmate on an airplane. He said it was his first flight in over 10 years, but he was okay with that; he seemed quite at home and comfortable. I sensed he was the type who would feel quite at home and comfortable anywhere. Somehow we got to talking about Jesus Christ. He said, “I don’t need that. I’m in control of my life.” I said, “Well, I don’t see you flying this aircraft.” He responded, “Well, I could!”
I don’t know where my remark to him about flying the aircraft came from, but I do know that he had a vastly overrated sense of himself. A friend of mine who flew F-116s and A-10s for the Air Force said even he wouldn’t try to fly a commercial aircraft–not unless the flight attendant came back and said, “The cabin crew have both just had heart attacks, so could somebody please land the plane for us?” Then, he said, he might volunteer, but never otherwise. Every aircraft is different: too different to permit even a fighter pilot to think, “I can fly one, I can fly them all!”
So I told my over-confident seatmate that day, “I understand you don’t feel a need for this right now, and in that case I wouldn’t expect you to respond to what I’m saying about Christ. But I predict someday you’re going to run into something bigger than yourself. I urge you to keep this in the back of your mind until then.” I offered, and he accepted, a written summary of the message of Christ, similar to this.
We’re all going to run into something bigger than ourselves. (Some of us are looking it down the throat today.) The one most certain example is death. That’s why we need rescue and not just good teaching. Jesus’ death for us accomplished a rescue: not that we will never physically die, but that it will not be the end of the story.
A New Life
It certainly wasn’t the end of the story for Jesus! On the third day, He rose from the dead. He appeared first to several women, then to others of His followers, and on one occasion to more than 500 people at once. (Evidences for this abound, here, for example; though in this series my primary purpose has been to explain more than to prove. ) He defeated death for us! The rescue He accomplished was not just to pull us out of the water and into the ICU on life support, but to give us everlasting life with a full experience of love, joy, worship, and yes, also very significant challenge.
We need His example, but beyond that, we need His life in us.
By the way, that life is not just for someday in heaven. What Christ does for us also includes giving us a whole new quality of life on Earth. That will be the subject next time in this series.
Part of a Series: What Christ Does For Us
Related: How To Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions. This post elicited a short question, to which I’m writing a very long answer in the form of this series.