Last year more than 23 million people around the world felt that they needed to change dramatically. In fact, they felt so keenly about this that they decided to have cosmetic surgery, ranging from facelifts, eyelid surgery, liposuction, to abdominoplasty, the surgical flattening of the abdomen.¹ That’s the number of all the people living in a country like Taiwan or Cameroon. In the United States alone, the beauty and cosmetics market was expected to exceed US$62 billion.² That’s US$191 per person per year, a staggering number considering what US$191 can buy in many parts of the world. Globally, the beauty and cosmetics markets are forecast to reach US$675 billion by 2020.³
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Ever since the Fall, humanity has longed for transformation. Perhaps it’s the yearning for Eden lost or the realization that we were made for more than just working, eating, and sleeping. Throughout history there have been many attempts to change society. Genesis 11 tells us the story of anonymous tower builders who tried to take their future into their own hands. “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:4). A city, a tower whose top reaches heaven, a name we make for ourselves—these are the ingredients for change. Later, powerful leaders changed their world by conquering neighboring nations and establishing empires. Control and power became the currency needed to make transformation happen. Whether Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Genghis Khan, Napoleon Bonaparte, Stalin, or Hitler—they all tried to establish something completely new by conquering and destroying the old, hoping that it would last a “thousand years.”
They all failed.
Communism has fallen; German Fascism has fallen; and our world is still reeling from all the other “isms” vying to change our storylines. The carpenter from Nazareth, however, took a different route to change. Jesus never tried His hand at power games. He didn’t yearn for control. In fact, He voluntarily made Himself nothing by becoming human and experiencing our lot (Phil. 2:6-8). His road toward transformation led steadily toward a crude cross rammed into the ground outside of Jerusalem. On His way He touched lepers and embraced sinners. He healed the physically sick and the emotionally wounded. He met people where they were—at a well during the hottest time of day, at a pool flooded by people hoping for healing, on the roads and byways crisscrossing Palestine, in the home of a Pharisee. Jesus’ relatively short ministry changed the world forever. When He talked about the kingdom of God those listening felt drawn to the Creator. When He pointed to the heavenly Father His listeners felt their hearts pounding excitedly about a future they could not even really imagine. When Jesus listened to them they felt heard and understood.
Most did not understand the full implications of His words and actions. That’s why they shouted, “Hosanna in the highest” and “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord,” quoting from a well-known messianic psalm (Ps. 118:26; cf. Matt. 21:1-10). They knew that only a king could make Jesus’ radical vision become a reality—so they gave Him a royal welcome as He entered Jerusalem on His last journey.
They didn’t realize that the major battles for this kingdom would be fought on a cross and then, again and again, on the battlefields of hearts.
Their excitement quickly turned to disappointment. After Judas’ betrayal and the unlawful conviction of Jesus by a sham Sanhedrin that did not follow its own rules, many of those who had shouted “Hosanna in the highest” howled “Crucify Him” when Pilate showed them the tortured and stricken figure of Jesus. Their king must look different. Their vibrant elation became murderous frenzy.
Jesus’ disciples didn’t do much better. After more than three years of constantly spending time with Jesus and watching Him up close and personal, one sold Him to His enemies, another denied three times even knowing Him, and most of the others just fled, too terrified to remember what He had told them would happen.
At the Cross
A stranger, Simon from Cyrene, carried the cross (Matt. 27:32). Soldiers nailed Jesus to the rough beams; and Jesus agonized connecting heaven and earth. This was no elaborate show. The God-man, carrying our sins and afflicted by the destructive nature of sin, heard Satan’s dark whispering that this was the end. “Satan with his fierce temptations wrung the heart of Jesus,” writes Ellen White. “The Saviour could not see through the portals of the tomb. Hope did not present to Him His coming forth from the grave a conqueror, or tell Him of the Father’s acceptance of the sacrifice. He feared that sin was so offensive to God that Their separation was to be eternal.”⁴
Darkness covers the sun, and those gathered at the feet of the cross hear the anguished cry “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?—My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46). Silence. Where is God? Where is justice? Where is grace?
God is hanging on a cross. Jesus’ last “It is finished” (John 19:30) reminds us of the plan that was laid long before Creation. “Long before he laid down earth’s foundations, he had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love,” writes Eugene Peterson in The Message paraphrase of Ephesians 1:4, 5. “Long, long ago he decided to adopt us into his family through Jesus Christ.”⁵
Scripture tells us that in this seemingly darkest moment of earth’s history two men decided to stand with Jesus, even though it meant going public for One dying as a criminal. Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy member of Jewish society and secret disciple of Jesus, offered his own tomb. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the one who earlier had come to Jesus under cover of night (John 19:38-42). Neither man worried about ritual impurity as they handled the lifeless body of Jesus on the preparation day before a high Sabbath. Both offered their best—a tomb and 100 pounds of a costly burial mixture of myrrh and aloes fit for a king.
The Beginning of Something New
That Sabbath must have offered little rest or refreshment to the followers of Jesus. All their hopes had been disappointed; all their expectations dashed; all their dreams vanquished. Jesus was dead, in a cold tomb, surrounded by Roman soldiers.
Slowly the Sabbath hours passed. The grief-stricken followers of Jesus were unaware that the world was about to change forever. A violent earthquake accompanies the angel coming down to roll back the stone covering the entrance of the tomb. Fear-struck soldiers cringe in the dust as Jesus rises early that Sunday morning. When God rises nature bows and roars. Those who find the tomb empty and hear the angel’s affirmation to “not be afraid” (Matt. 28:5) tell the others sitting dejectedly in an upper room. The Lord is alive! And, slowly and nearly imperceptibly at first, hope grows and overcomes disappointment and fear.
I marvel at the transformation that the cross of Jesus works in this world. Crucifixion’s darkness becomes resurrection’s light. Dejected disciples, fearing for their lives, turn into bold proclaimers of the Lord’s resurrection and salvation. Acts of the Apostles becomes a chronicle of these men and women on fire for Jesus. Guilt is covered by forgiveness; death has lost its sting (1 Cor. 15:54, 55). Empty hearts become burning hearts (Luke 24:32).
In the center of all this we see Jesus—standing suddenly in a room full of disciples who had been hiding behind a locked door. “Peace to you,” He says with His melodious voice; and then to Thomas: “Reach your finger here and look at My hands; and reach your hand here and put it into My side” (John 26:27). Believe, just believe!
153 Large Fish
And then, after the resurrection there were the fish (John 21). Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James, John, and two other disciples had gone back to Galilee and had set out to fish. That’s what we often do when confronted with big questions. We go back to what we know; we return to familiar places.
After a long night out on the lake, they had nothing to show for their efforts.
Suddenly they see a lone figure waving on the beach. “Children, have you any food?” Who would use the endearing term children to address strangers? They shake their heads. “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some” (John 21:5, 6). John recognizes the Master instantly. Peter immediately throws himself into the water to make his way to shore.
The rest of the disciples work hard to get the net on shore. John tells us that they caught 153 large fish that day (verse 11). Somebody had to count. Jesus invites them to a hearty breakfast. He takes bread and fish and shares it with them. Then He looks into Peter’s eyes and pops the real question: “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these?” (verse 15). What a question. How can my love for Jesus be in competition with the love of those around me? Three times Jesus asks the same question. Three times He receives an affirmative answer. I like the third one best: “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You” (verse 17). God, I cannot perform before You. You know my heart; You know my past; You know all things.
A Transformed Movement
Following this encounter with Jesus, Peter went on to play a leading role in the early Christian movement. And move they did. Empowered by the outpouring of the Spirit, the small band of (mostly) uneducated leaders preached Jesus fearlessly and unashamedly. They grew in numbers; they grew in grace; they grew in fellowship (cf. Acts 2:42-47; 4:32, 33). This transformational growth also included new theology. Peter and the early Jewish believers still had to cross a huge theological abyss. Could it be that God was not only inviting Israel, His covenant people, to become part of the Way (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; etc.) but was also calling the Gentiles to be His disciples?
Peter’s experience in the home of Cornelius is the beginning of transformed mindsets (Acts 10). God’s grace is inclusive. The Saviour came to save sinners—regardless of their ethnicity or religious affiliation. The work of the Spirit is not limited by borders—even those we sometimes build in our minds and consider God-ordained.
Resurrection morning marked only the beginning of a movement that valued transformation over stagnation. And the transformation continues. Two thousand years later God is still inviting us to be part of this movement that affirms not only that He is risen, but that He is coming to take us home. We wait and watch, and while we wait we become. Sometimes slowly, sometimes dramatically, we are being transformed. It’s an inside job. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:17).
By God’s transforming power we become who we are meant to be—a blessing to those around us who are still searching and wondering.
¹ These numbers are based on the most current statistics provided by the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. See the grim details at https://www.isaps.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/GlobalStatistics.WorldWide.Summary2016s-1.pdf