Why the cross?

A year ago I posted the following message about the significance of the cross. Because of an ongoing conversation (which you can find here), it seemed worth repeating. Christians sometimes differ from one another over the theology of the cross and the theology of glory. Those who reach for glory without the cross are mistaken. In this world we need the cross in our lives; only through the cross can we be carried to glory.

What did Jesus accomplish on the cross, beyond his own suffering, bleeding, and dying? The Bible provides several analogies of what Jesus accomplished, explaining it from several points of view. When Christians limit themselves to one analogy and treat it as literally true, they miss the fullness of the gospel message. Moreover, mockers are able to take the analogies literally and extend them beyond the Bible’s intended meaning, twisting the beauty of God’s Word in their mockery.

The most common analogy of the cross is financial. By his suffering and death, Jesus paid the price for sins, rescuing sinners from their debts. The beauty of this analogy is that we understand debt and payment. We understand how our sins place us in debt to God, a debt we cannot pay. Jesus paying in our place is a beautiful image of his love for us. But to whom did he pay the debt? Did he buy us from the devil, or pay his Father for our sins, or purchase redemption from a power higher even than God? Each of these explanations has problems when the analogy is treated literally and left as the only explanation of the cross.

A second common analogy of the cross is military. On the cross Jesus fought a battle against all the forces of evil. These forces include the devil, the sinful world, sins committed by people, and death itself—the ultimate result of sin. Becoming a victim of these enemies, Jesus also defeated them. His resurrection on Easter morning is a declaration of victory, and the Church continues to share that news of victory with sinners who have been enslaved by their sins and by the power of evil. We were prisoners of war in the Great War between God and evil, but the victory of Jesus rescues us from prison and puts us on the winning team.

Yet another analogy of the cross is healing. Through his time on earth, Jesus healed many people, often with just a word or a touch. He never seemed to be harmed by any of his miracles of healing. But in those physical healings, Jesus was simply treating the symptoms of evil. To fully heal the damage caused by sin and evil, Jesus had to bear that damage in his own body. What he endured on the cross gives him the power to heal every consequence of sin and evil: leprosy, blindness, paralysis, and even death. His own suffering and death provides the remedy that reverses all the damage caused in this world by sin and evil.

Still another analogy of the cross is rescuing what was lost. This is why Jesus is called a Savior and Christians describe themselves as saved. C.S. Lewis adapted this metaphor by describing Jesus as a diver who descends to the bottom of a muddy pond to unearth a treasure. The diver becomes thoroughly dirty digging in the bottom of the pond, but when he ascends to the surface he carries his treasure with him. So Jesus humbled himself, obedient to death, even death on the cross, to claim us as his treasure. Though we were buried in sin and evil, Jesus takes us out of the mud through his own suffering and death. In his resurrection, Jesus lifts us also to new life in a perfect new creation.

A similar analogy of the cross is fixing what was broken—which can also be described as reconciling or uniting. Like a shepherd going into the wilderness to find a lost sheep, Jesus comes into this sin-stained world looking for his lost people. He rescues us from the mouth of the wolves. Even in the dark valley of the shadow of death, he finds us and brings us home. We were separated from God by our own rebellion, but Jesus has restored us to the family of God through his expedition into suffering and death.

One more analogy of the cross is adoption. In modern society, the process of adoption is difficult and expensive. In our relationship with God, the process of adoption is even more difficult and expensive. We are not God’s children because he made us. Even if that was once true, it is true no longer. By breaking his commandments, we have forfeited our place in God’s family. Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God, personally pays to adopt us into his family. He gives himself as the cost of our adoption so we can be children of God and can pray to the Father of the eternal Son as our Father. Baptism is the personal ceremony by which this adoption is made certain, just as in baptism each Christian dies with Christ, is buried with Christ, and rises again with Christ.

Finally, an analogy of the cross is cheating justice. We broke the rules. We rebelled against God. We declared our independence from God and said that we wanted to be separate from him. Justice would have God say yes to our rebellion. Justice would have God abandon us to our sinful choices. But God’s love is greater than his justice. He allows the world to be unfair. He allows evil people to prosper, and he allows good people to suffer. By letting evil be unfair, God makes it possible for good to be unfair. Now Jesus can suffer in our place so we can be rewarded in his place. Now his Father can abandon him instead of us so he can claim us for his kingdom.

Each of these analogies is true. All of them are supported by the writings of the apostles and prophets. All of them are enacted in the history of God’s people. When we cling to one analogy and neglect the others, we weaken the message of God’s grace and allow mockers room for their opposition. When we see all these analogies as pictures of the cross from different points of view, we begin to comprehend (albeit dimly) the true glory that Jesus revealed by his sacrifice on the cross. J.

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Advent thoughts: December 20

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1—read Hosea 11:1-9).

According to Matthew 1:15, Hosea was talking about Jesus when he uttered the words, “Out of Egypt I called my Son.” Looking at Hosea’s prophecy, it is not easy to find Jesus. The prophet seems to be talking about the nation Israel, not about Jesus. God speaks of his kindness to his chosen people, describes their sin and the punishment they deserve, but concludes by describing his warm and tender compassion. Though they deserve judgment and punishment, God will not pour out his wrath on his people. He will treat them according to the new covenant of grace and not according to the old covenant.

The new covenant is only possible because of Jesus, but Matthew’s point is more profound than that simple fact. In taking God’s words about Israel and applying them to Jesus, Matthew is showing Jesus to be the new Israel. In the days of Joseph, the great-grandson of Abraham, the descendants of Abraham moved to Egypt to escape famine in the Promised Land. At first, they were honored guests, but they later became slaves. God raised up Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. He brought them first to Mount Sinai, where God made a covenant with the nation. Then they started toward the Promised Land. When they heard about the strength of the people living in Canaan, the Israelites lost their nerve. They doubted God’s promises to give them the victory. Therefore, the Israelites who had left Egypt wandered in the wilderness for forty years until they all had died. The next generation then followed Joshua across the Jordan River and conquered the Canaanites as God had promised.

The journey of the Israelites under Moses and Joshua was delayed because of sin and doubt. God called Israel his son, but Israel was a disobedient son. When the right time arrived, God sent his Son to retrace the steps of Israel. Like Abraham’s son Isaac, and Isaac’s son Jacob, and Jacob’s twelve sons, Jesus was born in the Promised Land. But, like Jacob and his family, Jesus and his parents fled to Egypt for a time. When they returned to the Promised Land, they did not doubt God’s power to protect them. Although they relocated to Nazareth rather than Bethlehem, they did not hesitate in the wilderness.

When he was a man, Jesus returned to the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. The Israelites led by Moses sinned repeatedly against the Lord in the wilderness, but Jesus did not sin. He said no to every temptation from the devil. He remained faithful to his Father, trusting his promises and obeying his commands. Through his obedience, Jesus was able to establish a new covenant between God and his people. Jesus bore the wrath of the old covenant so God’s people could be spared that wrath. Jesus suffered to become victorious over all evil. Jesus died to defeat death. Jesus rose to share his victory and his new covenant with all people.

We are children of God, adopted into his family through the new covenant. In Baptism we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ. We are also his Church, the body of Christ. Therefore, in a sense, we traveled into Egypt with Mary and Joseph and Jesus. In a sense, we retraced the steps of the ancient Israelites out of Egypt to the Promised Land. In a sense, we got it right along with Jesus, even though our predecessors on this path got it wrong.

Because of the new covenant, God’s compassion for us grows warm and tender. He will not execute burning anger at us or come in wrath against us, because that anger and wrath was poured out on Jesus on the cross. Because Jesus suffered and died and rose, we will not be destroyed. Thanks be to God! J.

Why the cross?

Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, an eight-day Christian commemoration of the most important week in the history of the world. On a Sunday nearly two thousand years ago, Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem. There he cleared the Temple of merchants and money-changers, then taught in the Temple and debated his opponents. On Thursday night Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples and give his church the gift of the Lord’s Supper. Then he went to a garden to pray. In the garden he was arrested, and from there he was taken to trials before Jewish leaders and Roman leaders. Accused first of blasphemy, then of treason against Rome, he was sentenced to die on a cross. When Jesus had died, he was taken from the cross and buried in another garden. There, on Sunday morning, he rose to complete the work that he had finished on the cross.

What did Jesus accomplish on the cross, beyond his own suffering, bleeding, and dying? The Bible provides several analogies of what Jesus accomplished, explaining it from several points of view. When Christians limit themselves to one analogy and treat it as literally true, they miss the fullness of the gospel message. Moreover, mockers are able to take the analogies literally and extend them beyond the Bible’s intended meaning, twisting the beauty of God’s Word in their mockery.

The most common analogy of the cross is financial. By his suffering and death, Jesus paid the price for sins, rescuing sinners from their debts. The beauty of this analogy is that we understand debt and payment. We understand how our sins place us in debt to God, a debt we cannot pay. Jesus paying in our place is a beautiful image of his love for us. But to whom did he pay the debt? Did he buy us from the devil, or pay his Father for our sins, or purchase redemption from a power higher even than God? Each of these explanations has problems when the analogy is treated literally and left as the only explanation of the cross.

A second common analogy of the cross is military. On the cross Jesus fought a battle against all the forces of evil. These forces include the devil, the sinful world, sins committed by people, and death itself—the ultimate result of sin. Becoming a victim of these enemies, Jesus also defeated them. His resurrection on Easter morning is a declaration of victory, and the Church continues to share that news of victory with sinners who have been enslaved by their sins and by the power of evil. We were prisoners of war in the Great War between God and evil, but the victory of Jesus rescues us from prison and puts us on the winning team.

Yet another analogy of the cross is healing. Through his time on earth, Jesus healed many people, often with just a word or a touch. He never seemed to be harmed by any of his miracles of healing. But in those physical healings, Jesus was simply treating the symptoms of evil. To fully heal the damage caused by sin and evil, Jesus had to bear that damage in his own body. What he endured on the cross gives him the power to heal every consequence of sin and evil: leprosy, blindness, paralysis, and even death. His own suffering and death provides the remedy that reverses all the damage caused in this world by sin and evil.

Still another analogy of the cross is rescuing what was lost. This is why Jesus is called a Savior and Christians describe themselves as saved. C.S. Lewis adapted this metaphor by describing Jesus as a diver who descends to the bottom of a muddy pond to unearth a treasure. The diver becomes thoroughly dirty digging in the bottom of the pond, but when he ascends to the surface he carries his treasure with him. So Jesus humbled himself, obedient to death, even death on the cross, to claim us as his treasure. Though we were buried in sin and evil, Jesus takes us out of the mud through his own suffering and death. In his resurrection, Jesus lifts us also to new life in a perfect new creation.

A similar analogy of the cross is fixing what was broken—which can also be described as reconciling or uniting. Like a shepherd going into the wilderness to find a lost sheep, Jesus comes into this sin-stained world looking for his lost people. He rescues us from the mouth of the wolves. Even in the dark valley of the shadow of death, he finds us and brings us home. We were separated from God by our own rebellion, but Jesus has restored us to the family of God through his expedition into suffering and death.

One more analogy of the cross is adoption. In modern society, the process of adoption is difficult and expensive. In our relationship with God, the process of adoption is even more difficult and expensive. We are not God’s children because he made us. Even if that was once true, it is true no longer. By breaking his commandments, we have forfeited our place in God’s family. Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God, personally pays to adopt us into his family. He gives himself as the cost of our adoption so we can be children of God and can pray to the Father of the eternal Son as our Father. Baptism is the personal ceremony by which this adoption is made certain, just as in baptism each Christian dies with Christ, is buried with Christ, and rises again with Christ.

Finally, an analogy of the cross is cheating justice. We broke the rules. We rebelled against God. We declared our independence from God and said that we wanted to be separate from him. Justice would have God say yes to our rebellion. Justice would have God abandon us to our sinful choices. But God’s love is greater than his justice. He allows the world to be unfair. He allows evil people to prosper, and he allows good people to suffer. By letting evil be unfair, God makes it possible for good to be unfair. Now Jesus can suffer in our place so we can be rewarded in his place. Now his Father can abandon him instead of us so he can claim us for his kingdom.

Each of these analogies is true. All of them are supported by the writings of the apostles and prophets. All of them are enacted in the history of God’s people. When we cling to one analogy and neglect the others, we weaken the message of God’s grace and allow mockers room for their opposition. When we see all these analogies as pictures of the cross from different points of view, we begin to comprehend (albeit dimly) the true glory that Jesus revealed by his sacrifice on the cross. J.

Christ in Genesis: Miracle Babies, and the Rights of the Firstborn

Some people say that every birth is a miracle. To a certain extent, I suppose that is true. There would be no babies, or flowers, or ears of corn, if not for the God who made everything in the beginning and who still provides for his creation every day. But when everything is a miracle, then nothing is miraculous. When a baby enters the world in the usual way, we thank God for the new life. When a baby enters the world in a special way, we marvel at the miracle.

God told Abraham that his family would become a mighty nation, but Abraham and Sarah had no children. When God first spoke his promise, Abraham was seventy-five years old, and Sarah was sixty-five. As the years passed, neither of them was getting any younger. Twice Abraham tried to help God keep God’s promise. First, Abraham proposed to adopt Eliezer, his chief servant, as his heir. Later, at Sarah’s suggestion, he used her servant Hagar as a surrogate mother. Both times, God said no to Abraham. The promised heir would be born from Sarah, in a manner that would be undoubtedly a miracle.

Sarah was ninety years old when Isaac was born. Only God could cause such a thing to happen. To underline the point, God repeated this miracle every few generations. Manoah’s wife could have no children until Jesus appeared to her and promised a son, who was Samson, the mighty man of Israel. Hannah, the wife of Elkanah, could have no children until she prayed to the Lord for a son, who was Samuel, the last judge of Israel. Elisabeth, the wife of the priest Zechariah, was too old to have children, but Gabriel appeared to Zechariah and promised him a son, who was John the Baptist.

All these miracles happened to prepare God’s people for a different kind of miracle. Isaiah told King Ahaz about the coming miracle: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). While it is true that the word translated “virgin” could simply mean “young woman” in Hebrew, it is also true that the word always designated an unmarried woman. Other words were appropriate for unmarried women who were not virgins. When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, so we might receive adoption as sons (Galatians 4:4-5). Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn (Luke 2:7).

Because Abraham did not trust God to keep God’s promise without Abraham’s help, Ishmael was born before Isaac. In Deuteronomy, it is written: “If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him children, and if the firstborn son belongs to the unloved, then on the day when he assigns his possessions as an inheritance to his sons, he may not treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the unloved, who is the firstborn, but he shall acknowledge the firstborn, the son of the unloved, by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the firstfruits of his strength. The right of the firstborn is his” (Deuteronomy 21:15-17). Clearly this was written long after Ishmael and Isaac were born, but many ancient civilizations had similar rules. A man’s firstborn son was always to be his primary heir, receiving at least twice as much as any other son.

In Abraham’s family, this rule is repeatedly broken. God favors Isaac over Ishmael, even when Abraham pleads for Ishmael, the firstborn son. God favors Jacob over Esau, even though Esau was born first. Jacob favors Joseph, the son of his favorite wife, over all of Joseph’s brothers, most of whom were older than Joseph. Joseph even receives a double portion in his inheritance; instead one tribe of Joseph, there are two: the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. Meanwhile, the promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is passed down to Judah, the fourth son of Jacob. When Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons, he gives priority to Ephraim, even though Manasseh was Joseph’s firstborn son.

How is Christ pictured by this anomaly? Jesus Christ is eternally the Son of God the Father; the rights of the firstborn belong to him. Yet he entered the world to provide for our adoption as sons. Jesus trades places with us, taking on himself the guilt of our sins and paying our penalty, while granting to us the rewards he deserves. This is why we are all adopted as sons (not “children,” or, “sons and daughters”). God looks at each of us and sees the righteousness of his Son. He says to each of us what he said to Jesus: “You are my Son. You are the One I love. With you I am well pleased.” The ancestors of Jesus acted out this adoption as, again and again, the firstborn was set aside so a brother could receive the blessing, not by law or because of law, but because of grace.

Christ and the Passover

On Thursday night of Holy Week, Jesus celebrated the Seder (the Passover meal) with his disciples in a borrowed room. The next night, the priests and all the citizens of Jerusalem celebrated their Seder. I have not been able to fact-check this statement, but I have read that at that time thousands of Jews did what Jesus and his disciples did: they came to Jerusalem for the Passover and celebrated the Seder a night early, while the citizens of Jerusalem celebrated on the night of the full moon.

The Seder and the week of Passover commemorated an event that had taken place twelve to fourteen centuries earlier. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt, but God sent Moses to command the pharaoh to release them. When the pharaoh refused, God sent a series of plagues against Egypt, showing that his power was greater than that of the Egyptian gods. The tenth plague was the death of the oldest son in every family, except that God spared those families that trusted him. They were told to kill a lamb, to paint the blood around the doors of their houses, and to roast and eat the lamb. They were to eat quickly, prepared to travel, because freedom was just around the corner. They were to bake bread without waiting for it to rise. That night the Israelites began their journey toward freedom, a journey which would take them to Mount Sinai where the Lord would say to them, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”

Among the instructions God gave the Israelites through Moses was a command to observe the week of Passover every spring. During the week of Passover they would eat bread made without yeast, remembering the bread made during their hurried escape from Egypt, and also representing a life lived without sin. They would eat bitter herbs to remember the bitterness of slavery. They would kill and eat a lamb (without, however, painting the lamb’s blood on their houses), remembering the lamb of the Passover in Egypt and the way God rescued them both from slavery and from death.

God wanted his people to remember how he had rescued them in the past. He also wanted them to know how he would rescue them in the future. He killed the oldest son in every family among the Egyptians but spared the oldest son in every family marked by the blood of the lamb. In the same way, God spares all sinners marked by the blood of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (as John the Baptist described Jesus). Jesus is also the only-begotten Son of God, but he is the first-born son in a family that is filled with adopted children. The sacrifice of Jesus is the price paid to adopt all those children into the family of his Father. Like the bread made without yeast, Jesus lived a life without sin, yet he was broken on the cross so he could make whole the lives that have been broken by sin.

Jesus and his disciples came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. They had their Seder meal on Thursday night. Later that night Jesus was arrested, tried, and convicted of blasphemy. Friday morning he would be handed over to the Romans, who would mock him, torture him, and crucify him. As the Passover lambs were being slaughtered for the Seder meals of the citizens of Jerusalem, the Lamb of God was shedding his blood and giving his life for all the sinners of history.

Through Moses, God commanded his people to celebrate the Passover every year. Some people continue to do so this year. On the other hand, Jesus fulfilled the meaning of the Passover celebration by his sacrifice and by his victory. The Israelites were led out of Egypt across the Red Sea toward the promised land the third day from the Passover. So also Jesus, on the third day, blazed a trail across the valley of the shadow of death to bring his people to a promised land—eternal life in a new and perfect creation that will have no end. J.