The two natures of Christ

When Christian leaders met in the Council of Nicaea, they prayed and studied the Bible and discussed its message to determine whether the Son of God is equal to the Father or is less than the Father; whether he is eternal like the Father or created by the Father. Their study and discussions convinced them that Jesus is, as they declared, “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” This was no new teaching; it was a summary of what the Bible says about God. Christians continue to believe that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one God, not three gods; that each is a distinct Person loving the others and speaking to the others, and doing things for the others; that each is almighty, all-knowing, present everywhere, eternal, unchanging, and holy. Yet there is one God, not three gods; one Lord, not three lords; one almighty Being, not three almighty beings; and so on.

When other questions arose about the Christian faith, new councils formed to learn the truth the way the truth about the Triune God was learned at Nicaea. They gathered, they prayed, they studied Scripture, they discussed, and they reached an understanding. Most of the questions they sought to answer were about Jesus. Knowing that he is God and also that he is human, Christians struggled to comprehend and to communicate how the two natures (divine and human) work together in one Christ. Many false ideas were suggested about the two natures of Christ. Some suggested that his body is human but that his mind and soul are divine. Others suggested that the two natures dwell in one Christ without interacting, like two boards glued together. Still others suggested that the two natures combine into something unique, like two liquids blended together to create a drink or a dressing. Some thought that the human nature was something acquired by the Son of God at his incarnation which he can remove at will, leaving it aside when he does not need it, and resuming it when required. Some suggested that the divine nature of Christ so overwhelms his human nature that his human nature must always be controlled by the divine nature; they said that Jesus has one divine will and no human will. By studying the Bible and discussing its message, Christians were able to conclude that all these beliefs are untrue.

Jesus Christ remains one hundred percent God and one hundred percent human, but he also remains one Christ, not two christs. Therefore, anything true about the one nature is true about the entire Christ: the divine nature of Christ experiences humanity, and the human nature of Christ experiences divinity. The test word used at some of these Councils was Theotokos: “Mother of God.” They asked, can Mary the mother of Jesus be called the mother of God, or is she only mother to the human nature? From their study of the Bible, Christians concluded that Mary is rightly called the mother of God, because she gave birth to Christ Jesus, who is fully God as well as fully human.

So if Jesus was hungry, God understands hunger. If Jesus was thirsty, God understands thirst. If Jesus was anxious about what he was about to face, God understands anxiety. And yes, through the human nature of Christ, God experienced suffering and death. Likewise, the human Jesus of Nazareth knows all things, has all power, runs the universe, and has authority to judge all people, because he is the Son of God.

If Jesus was not fully human, his obedience to the Law would be meaningless. God cannot be tempted to sin. God is unchanging, pure, and holy. But the human nature and human will of Jesus were tempted to sin. He resisted temptation, obeyed his Father’s will, and so earned for all sinners the rewards that belong only to those who faithfully obey the entire will of God. If Jesus were not fully human, his death would have been merely a ruse, a trick, meaning nothing. But the human nature of Jesus experienced death; his human soul and human body were separated—the body buried in a garden, the soul committed into the hands of the Father. Any Christian who dies experiences the same separation of body and soul, with the body left on earth and the soul taken to Paradise to await the resurrection.

There are two kinds of death: physical death and spiritual death. Adam was told that the day he ate the forbidden fruit he would die, but Adam lived physically more than nine hundred years after that sin. Adam and Eve died spiritually that day. Their sin created a barrier between them and God, a barrier they could not remove. Jesus died physically, but did he experience spiritual death? Did the barrier caused by all the sins he was bearing on the cross come between him and his Father?

The divine nature of the Son of God cannot be separated from the Father. They are eternal and unchanging, in perpetual fellowship with one another—they are one God. The human nature of Christ can and did face spiritual death. For this reason, Jesus cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Some people say that he was praying Psalm 22, and in a sense he was. But Psalm 22 is a vivid prophecy of what happened to Jesus on the cross. His agony at the separation was so deep that it echoed a thousand years into the past to be quoted by David in the Psalm.

As I wrote in my last post, different aspects of the crucifixion reach different people in their needs and in their faith. Some time periods in Church history have gravitated more to one aspect or another of the Passion of our Lord. But none of them is to be rejected. All of them are Biblical, whether their imagery is military or financial or legal. And Christ did indeed bear the burden of our sin and the spiritual death which sin causes, as Paul wrote, “For our sake he [God the Father] made him to be sin who knew no sin [Jesus] so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21). This is an essential part of our salvation, that God loved the world so much that he gave his Son—he even turned his face away from his Son for a time—so that whoever believes in him will not perish but has eternal life (John 3:16). J.

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.

Good Friday

Early in the morning of the Day of Preparation for Passover, the religious authorities met in Jerusalem and affirmed their vote convicting Jesus of blasphemy. They intended to take him outside the gates of Jerusalem and stone him to death, but first they needed Roman permission for an execution. Governor Pontius Pilate was hearing other civil cases that morning, so the authorities brought Jesus to Pilate.

Blasphemy is not a crime in Roman law—especially not blasphemy by claiming to be the Son of God. The Romans had lots of gods, and many of them had sons. The authorities adjusted their verdict to get the governor’s attention. They said that Jesus claimed to be a king, making him a rebel against Roman rule. After a brief investigation, Pilate realized that Jesus was not guilty of rebellion. Three times he publicly announced that Jesus was innocent. (A few hours earlier, Peter had said three times that he did not know who Jesus was.) Pilate attempted several ways to escape the verdict that the local authorities wanted from him. Finally, in desperation, he offered the authorities and the mob supporting them a choice: to observe the Passover, the governor would release one prisoner. Either he would release Jesus, an innocent man, or he would release Barabbas, a convicted terrorist.

No one had mentioned crucifixion up to this moment, aside from the several times that Jesus had predicted how he would die. Evidently, Barabbas had just been sentenced to this form of execution. Now, the authorities and the mob demanded freedom for Barabbas; when the governor asked what he should do with Jesus, the mob shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

Christians know that we are all just like Barabbas. We are guilty of breaking God’s laws. We deserve punishment. The evidence of our wrongdoing is inescapable. Yet we are set free. Jesus takes the punishment we deserve, and we are given our freedom. More than that, we are granted the rewards Jesus deserves for his sinless life.

Jesus was beaten by the Roman soldiers. They mocked him, thinking it laughable that anyone would even want to be “King of the Jews.” They followed orders, having him carry his cross through the streets of Jerusalem. Jesus was crucified outside the gate of Jerusalem between two thieves (possibly partners in crime with Barabbas). Roman soldiers, guarding the place of execution to prevent a rescue, were granted whatever property the condemned men had carried with them. Jesus had only the clothes on his back, but the soldiers gambled to see who would claim that clothing.

Thousands of people were crucified by the Roman government. Some survived the torture up to two days. Many people have suffered other kinds of excruciating pain, and some have endured it for years. Many people have been abandoned by their families and their friends. Physically, nothing is unique or special about the way Jesus died. Yet one thing is different: Jesus, the sinless Son of God, was abandoned by his Father. Always the two Persons had been with each other, loving each other, doing things for each other. Now the Father treated his Son as guilty of all sin. This separation is what sinners deserve—our rebellion against God signals that we do not want to be with him. God’s just judgment against us (“You don’t want to be with me? Fine, then I will abandon you.”) was turned against Jesus. In agony of separation Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus knew the answer to his question. His words are not meant as a philosophical query; they describe the despair Jesus was feeling in his heart. A thousand years before, David had written a Psalm that begins with the words Jesus prayed; Psalm 22 contains vivid descriptions of crucifixion, even the detail of enemies gambling for the victim’s clothing. A possible temporal loop exists here, as Jesus prays the words written a thousand years earlier, words which prophesied his predicament. The beginning, though, is with Jesus. He was forsaken by his Father and endured the cross, and then earlier in time he spoke of his experience to David, who wrote about what Jesus faced.

Judgment Day is coming. Every human who ever lived will stand before the judgment seat of God, and God will express his wrath over every sin that has been committed. The sun will turn to darkness, according to the prophets, and the moon will change to blood. The earth will shake because of the judgment of God. Christians do not need to fear that Day. Jesus has already endured his Father’s wrath in our place. The sun refused to shine for three hours on that Good Friday. The earth did shake. And, if historians are correct that these events took place in Jerusalem on April 3, AD 33, then the prophecy was completed, because the moon that rose at sunset was a “blood moon,” stained by the shadow of the earth.

“It is finished,” Jesus said before he died. He did not merely mean that his life or his suffering was finished. He meant that his mission was finished. The war between God and evil was finished. Evil’s claim on the lives of sinners was finished. The power of death was finished. Jesus had fought and had prevailed; goodness and love and life had won. For those reasons, we call the Friday when Jesus died “Good Friday.” J.

This post was originally published on Good Friday 2016.

 

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.

James, John, and two cups

Jesus and his disciples were on the road, going to Jerusalem. (You can read about it in Mark 10:32-45.) Jesus was leading the way, setting the pace, even though he knew what was going to happen in Jerusalem. Not only did he know; he even told his twelve apostles what would happen: “The Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”

James and John didn’t get the message. They came to Jesus with a request: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” No parent would fall into that trap, and Jesus was not about to be tricked. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” they responded.

Their eyes were on the glory. They knew that Jesus is the Messiah, the promised Rescuer who would establish the kingdom of God and defeat all his enemies. They wanted to be close to the action. They wanted a share of his kingdom and power and glory. They wanted to freeze out Peter and the other apostles by getting the chief places of honor beside the King himself.

Jesus first asked, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” When they affirmed that they could, Jesus told them that they would, but then he added, “To sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

I used to wonder about the people who would claim those places of glory, at the right hand and the left hand of Jesus. In the history of the Church, who has earned such awesome authority? Would Paul the apostle be given such a place? What about Augustine of Hippo, or Martin Luther, or Billy Graham? Who deserves to be at the right hand of Jesus or his left hand when he claims his kingdom?

Then I learned when it was that Jesus claimed his kingdom. He is not waiting to claim it when he appears in glory; all authority in heaven and on earth has already been given to him. He did not claim the kingdom when he ascended into heaven, or even when he rose from the dead. The kingdom was his when he suffered and died on the cross in the place of sinners. The glory was his when he announced, “It is finished.” Easter and the Ascension and the Glorious Appearing are all results of the cross. Without the cross, we would have no joy in any of these things. Without the cross, we would be excluded from his kingdom, and Jesus does not want us to miss the party.

Who was at his right and his left when Jesus claimed his kingdom and his glory? Two thieves were there, each of them on a cross. At first they both mocked Jesus, but then one came to faith and confessed his faith. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom, Lord,” he prayed. Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth: today you will be with me in Paradise.” From these words, we know when Jesus received his kingdom and his glory.

James and John thought they wanted to be there with Jesus, but Jesus did not want them there. He went to the cross to spare them punishment. He went to the cross to rescue us all from punishment and guilt. He who knew no sin became sin for us so we could be the righteousness of God. The innocent one who should not have been punished accepted our punishment so we can be free. The Author of life gave himself into death so we can live forever.

Why did Jesus tell James and John that they would drink from his cup? Some scholars apply those words to the persecutions they faced as apostles. But the cup Jesus had in mind was the suffering of the cross. It was the cup he pictured as he prayed in Gethsemane, “Father, let this cup pass from me… but not my will; your will be done.”

Imagine a cup before the throne of God with your name written on it. Every time you sin, a drop of God’s wrath falls into that cup—a drop of poison you deserve for your sin. Every time you say something you know is untrue, another drop falls. Every time your mind wanders where it does not belong, into lust or envy or hatred, another drop falls. Every time you neglect an opportunity to help a person in need, another drop falls. How many drops have fallen into that cup? Is it overflowing yet with the wrath of God, wrath you have earned by all your sins?

Yet Jesus comes. He takes that cup that bears your name and is filled with your poison, and he drinks it dry. He did not want to drink it, but he accepted the poison to spare your life. He faced justice for you, because he knew you could not bear to face the justice you deserve.

But Jesus did not leave you without a cup. As in a comic movie (The Princess Bride, or The Court Jester), there are two cups, and only one is poisoned. Jesus exchanges cups with you, not to poison you but to preserve you. He has a second cup, a cup that belongs to him. It is the cup of salvation. It is the cup of the New Testament. It is the cup that is overflowing, not with wrath and poison, but with grace and forgiveness and new life.

James and John were rescued from their own pride. They asked for something that was not theirs. Jesus gave them something that was not theirs. He gave them his righteousness, along with his redemption through his own blood. He continues to distribute those blessings today. We will be with him forever in his kingdom, celebrating his victory, because of the cross where Jesus rescued and redeemed us. J.

Prophecy and fulfillment

We people move one direction in time, from past to present and from present to future. Sometimes we forget that God sees all history at a glance and that he can jump into any time as he chooses. When we speak of prophecy, our descriptions sometimes miss the mark because we have forgotten that God is timeless.

We say that God knows everything, including the future. Of course God knows everything, but the future is not something he foreknows as much as something he already sees. Worse, sometimes people picture God fulfilling prophecy as if he was checking items off a list: “Let’s see—born of a virgin? check. Born in Bethlehem? check. Honored by Gentiles? check. Called out of Egypt? Let’s see how I can get him into Egypt so I can bring him home again.”

When God spoke to the prophets about future events, God was describing things he had already experienced. He never had to figure out how to fulfill a prophecy. As far as God was concerned, he was talking about things that had already happened. When God described Judas’ betrayal of Christ, he was not foreordaining that Christ would be betrayed by a certain man. He was telling what had already happened, the betrayal that Judas chose freely to perform. David and Isaiah wrote about the crucifixion of Jesus, and Jesus predicted his own crucifixion, but the priests and elders did not think of sending Jesus to the cross until Governor Pilate offered them a choice—to free Jesus or to free a terrorist named Barabbas. When the crowd chose Barabbas, they then began demanding that Jesus be sent to the cross, which was to have been the execution of Barabbas.

The focus of the Old Testament prophecies was always the rescue mission performed by Jesus. Trying to predict our future based on Biblical prophecies is pointless, not because the prophecies are unreliable, but because they have already been fulfilled. What of Judgment Day? That Day will come, as hurricanes and earthquakes remind us, but the propheciesabout that Day were met nearly two thousand years ago. As the Son of God was hanging on a cross, the sun went dark and the earth shook, even as the prophets had described. The Father’s judgment was poured on Jesus that day, which is why Christians need not fear the coming Judgment Day. Our judgment and our rescue have already been accomplished.

The book of Revelation describes a battle at a place called Armageddon. That name, Armageddon, means the heights of Megiddo. Megiddo is an ancient city built upon a plain. Several key battles were fought upon that plain, including the battle in which King Josiah was killed. The picture of all the nations of the world gathering to fight on the heights of Megiddo (which do not exist) is an image of the world-wide rebellion of sinners. That rebellion began in Eden when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. It still rages today. It will end when Jesus appears in glory, and it will end without a bomb exploding or a shot being fired. That is the case, not because of some future event, but because of the victory Jesus won over sin and evil while nailed to the cross.

All the prophecies of the Bible are fulfilled in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. If he should appear in glory this afternoon to raise the dead and call all people to judgment, no one could say to him, “But wait! You can’t do this yet! Something else has to happen first!” For this reason, Christians prepare themselves for the glorious appearance of Christ every day, even while we make plans for tomorrow and next year and the more distant future. We have one foot in each world—we live in this world and deal with it, while we also are citizens of the kingdom of heaven.

We read the New Testament to learn about Jesus. We also read the Old Testament to learn about Jesus. The sacrifices and holidays of the Old Testament were lessons about Jesus. Moses and the prophets wrote about Jesus. Even the commandments of God are descriptions of the perfect, sinless life Jesus lived for our redemption. It’s all about Jesus, and for us, all the news is good news. J.

Upon the Cross Extended

Upon the cross extended

See, world, your Lord suspended.

Your Savior yields his breath.

The Prince of Life from heaven

Himself has freely given

To shame and blows and bitter death.

 

Come, see these things and ponder,

Your soul will fill with wonder

As blood streams from each pore.

Through grief beyond all knowing

From his great heart came flowing

Sighs welling from its deepest core.

 

Who is it, Lord, that bruised you?

Who has so sore abused you

And caused you all your woe?

We all must make confession

Of sin and dire transgression

While you no ways of evil know.

 

I caused your grief and sighing

By evils multiplying

As countless as the sands.

I caused the woes unnumbered

With which your soul is cumbered

Your sorrows raised by wicked hands.

 

Your soul in griefs unbounded,

Your head with thorns surrounded,

You died to ransom me.

The cross for me enduring,

The crown for me securing,

You healed my wounds and set me free.

 

Your cords of love, my Savior,

Bind me to you forever,

I am no longer mine.

To you I gladly tender

All that my life can render

And all I have to you resign.

 

Your cross I place before me;

Its saving power restore me,

Sustain me in the test.

It will, when life is ending,

Be guiding and attending

My way to your eternal rest.

 

Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676)

Good Friday

Early in the morning of the Day of Preparation for Passover, the religious authorities met in Jerusalem and affirmed their vote convicting Jesus of blasphemy. They intended to take him outside the gates of Jerusalem and stone him to death, but first they needed Roman permission for an execution. Governor Pontius Pilate was hearing other civil cases that morning, so the authorities brought Jesus to Pilate.

Blasphemy is not a crime in Roman law—especially not blasphemy by claiming to be the Son of God. The Romans had lots of gods, and many of them had sons. The authorities adjusted their verdict to get the governor’s attention. They said that Jesus claimed to be a king, making him a rebel against Roman rule. After a brief investigation, Pilate realized that Jesus was not guilty of rebellion. Three times he publicly announced that Jesus was innocent. (A few hours earlier, Peter had said three times that he did not know who Jesus was.) Pilate attempted several ways to escape the verdict that the local authorities wanted from him. Finally, in desperation, he offered the authorities and the mob supporting them a choice: to observe the Passover, the governor would release one prisoner. Either he would release Jesus, an innocent man, or he would release Barabbas, a convicted terrorist.

No one had mentioned crucifixion up to this moment, aside from the several times that Jesus had predicted how he would die. Evidently, Barabbas had just been sentenced to this form of execution. Now, the authorities and the mob demanded freedom for Barabbas; when the governor asked what he should do with Jesus, the mob shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

Christians know that we are all just like Barabbas. We are guilty of breaking God’s laws. We deserve punishment. The evidence of our wrongdoing is inescapable. Yet we are set free. Jesus takes the punishment we deserve, and we are given our freedom. More than that, we are granted the rewards Jesus deserves for his sinless life.

Jesus was beaten by the Roman soldiers. They mocked him, thinking it laughable that anyone would even want to be “King of the Jews.” They followed orders, having him carry his cross through the streets of Jerusalem. Jesus was crucified outside the gate of Jerusalem between two thieves (possibly partners in crime with Barabbas). Roman soldiers, guarding the place of execution to prevent a rescue, were granted whatever property the condemned men had carried with them. Jesus had only the clothes on his back, but the soldiers gambled to see who would claim that clothing.

Over the years, thousands of people were crucified by the Roman government. Some survived the torture up to two days. Many people have suffered other kinds of excruciating pain, and some have endured it for years. Many people have been abandoned by their families and their friends. Physically, nothing is unique or special about the way Jesus died. Yet one thing is different: Jesus, the sinless Son of God, was abandoned by his Father. Always the two Persons had been with each other, loving each other, doing things for each other. Now the Father treated his Son as guilty of all sin. This separation is what sinners deserve—our rebellion against God signals that we do not want to be with him. God’s just judgment against us (“You don’t want to be with me? Fine, then I will abandon you.”) was turned against Jesus. In agony of separation Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus knew the answer to his question. His words are not meant as a philosophical query; they describe the despair Jesus was feeling in his heart. A thousand years before, David had written a Psalm that begins with the words Jesus prayed; Psalm 22 contains vivid descriptions of crucifixion, even the detail of enemies gambling for the victim’s clothing. A possible temporal loop exists here, as Jesus prays the words written a thousand years earlier, words which prophesied his predicament. The beginning, though, is with Jesus. He was forsaken by his Father and endured the cross, and then earlier in time he spoke of his experience to David, who wrote about what Jesus faced.

Judgment Day is coming. Every human who ever lived will stand before the judgment seat of God, and God will express his wrath over every sin that has been committed. The sun will turn to darkness, according to the prophets, and the moon will change to blood. The earth will shake because of the judgment of God. Christians do not need to fear that Day. Jesus has already endured his Father’s wrath in our place. The sun refused to shine for three hours on that Good Friday. The earth did shake. And, if historians are correct that these events took place in Jerusalem on April 3, AD 33, then the prophecy was completed, because the moon that rose at sunset was a “blood moon,” stained by the shadow of the earth.

“It is finished,” Jesus said before he died. He did not merely mean that his life or his suffering was finished. He meant that his mission was finished. The war between God and evil was finished. Evil’s claim on the lives of sinners was finished. The power of death was finished. Jesus had fought and had prevailed; goodness and love and life had won. For those reasons, we call the Friday when Jesus died “Good Friday.” J.

 

Rejoice with me…

I just had a really difficult weekend. I was anxious almost every moment I was awake, with all the symptoms: racing heart, shallow breathing, shaky legs, shaky hands. In fact, my daughter even noticed in church that my hands were shaking considerably.

I have a good idea what causes this anxiety—it comes from a large package of events all tied together in one weekend. A birthday in the family (not my birthday), family visiting from out of town, members of the family getting ready to go back to school (including me getting ready to teach), members of the family with health issues and with money issues, a big reception where I work tomorrow night for which I am preparing a display, and one or two other things I am not going to mention at this time.

It seems, though, that in the trying times in my life, one small happening always comes to symbolize them all. That one event, no matter how unconnected to the other concerns, becomes the focus of all the anxiety. This weekend that small event was the discovery, Saturday night, that the chain I was wearing around my neck no longer had the silver cross, one that has been on that chain for the thirty years I have owned it and worn it.

Now it’s just a piece of jewelry, a reminder of the true cross, but a silver cross all the same, with no magical or superstitious powers. No doubt it could be replaced. Losing that cross, though, was the final straw in a weekend gone wrong. Of course Sunday morning after breakfast and before church I walked through the house, trying to see where the cross had landed. It has come off its chain before, but I usually find it in my clothing. I searched and shook the clothing I had worn on Saturday. I was pretty sure the cross was still on the chain when I got home from the library and changed clothes Saturday afternoon, so I thought the cross should be in the house. Members of the family were helping me look.

Then I remembered that I had made a quick run to Walmart after changing clothes. Since there was time, I went back to Walmart, checked the parking lot, then asked at the customer service desk. Someone even got a key and checked the locked drawer where Walmart keeps more expensive lost items that have been found in the store. The cross was not there. I walked through the store to the aisles where I had shopped, but the floor was clean everywhere. I looked carefully in the parking lot again, then went home to go to church.

During the Bible readings at church, I remembered that I had spent some time reading Saturday afternoon with a purring cat curled up in my lap. (To add to the irony, that cat entered the family’s life in that same Walmart parking lot last fall.) The time spent reading and petting the cat came to mind in church because it had been the most calming part of the weekend so far. I remembered that I had looked at the floor in that room but had not felt through the cushions of the chair. I did my best to put the missing cross—and all the other worries of the weekend—aside to take part in the service. Then, when we got home from church, I checked throughout and under that chair.

No, the missing cross was not there.

Later Sunday afternoon I was walking through the kitchen—pacing through the house, actually, while trying to do some writing—and glanced toward the pantry. I had looked in that pantry for the missing cross more than once that morning and that afternoon. I even remember searching through a basket on the floor. Now, I saw, next to the basket, a plastic bag filled with plastic spoons and knives that had been there for days. The missing cross was lying right on top of that bag. It must have fallen off the chain while I was getting a snack Saturday night, but I cannot explain the fact that it went unseen. It was in an obvious place, very close where I had looked hard for it earlier in the day.

So now I can say to you all: rejoice with me, for I have found the cross that I had lost. Additionally I can trust that the answers to all the other worries and stresses of the weekend are also somehow lying in plain sight, ready to be seen when I have been prepared to see them.

And, somehow, it seems to me, those answers might also involve a cross.

J.