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.

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Palm Sunday and Holy Week

Most weeks consist of seven days, but Holy Week—the most important time in the Christian calendar—is eight days long. The first day of Holy Week is Palm Sunday, and the eighth day of Holy Week is Easter Sunday. The Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each devote at least one-third of their volume to these eight days.

As he was approaching Jerusalem to celebrate the holiday called Passover, Jesus sent two of his disciples into the suburbs to get a young donkey that had never been ridden. The donkey was so young that, according to Matthew and Mark, the disciples also brought its mother to Jesus. A donkey is a simple beast of burden, hardly fit for a king, but the privilege of being first to ride an animal is indeed the prerogative of kings. The prophet Zechariah had foretold that Jesus would enter Jerusalem in this way. He wrote, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Thousands of other people had come from Galilee to Jerusalem for Passover. Some of these people had heard Jesus preach and had seen some of the miracles he performed. Maybe the Galilean crowd included some who had eaten bread and fish when one boy provided his lunch and Jesus used the food to feed five thousand people. Maybe some of these Galileans had been healed by Jesus and others had friends or relatives who had been healed by Jesus.

The crowd gave Jesus a red-carpet treatment. They lined the road with their cloaks so the donkey would not get its feet dirty. Others cut branches from the trees to line the road, and still others waved branches in the air. John reports that some of the people waved palm branches, which is why the commemoration is called Palm Sunday. Palms do not grow in the hills of Jerusalem, but their branches can be obtained in the Jordan River valley near Jericho, and many of these travelers had passed through Jericho on the way to Jerusalem. The palm branch is a symbol of Israel, so waving a palm branch is like waving a flag at a parade today for the people of Israel.

The crowd also sang as Jesus entered Jerusalem in their midst. They sang “Hosanna,” a Hebrew word that means “Save us.” It had become a word of praise, since only the mighty can save others. The people sang, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” a quote from Psalm 118 that their teachers said refers to the Messiah. They sang about the King, the Son of David, other labels given to the Messiah. They openly declared their belief that Jesus was going to keep the promises God had made to Moses and the prophets, that he was going to redeem and rule the people of God. Some of the Pharisees in the crowd objected to the parade and the words the people were singing, but when the citizens of Jerusalem asked who was causing all this fuss, the Galileans told them, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”

Jesus chose to enter the city of the Lord on a special day. He entered on the tenth day of the month of Nissan, a day of preparation for the coming Passover celebration. On this day, every family among God’s people was to take a lamb into their household and treat it as a pet for half a week. Then they would kill, cook, and eat this lamb. The death of this lamb would remind these families of the cost of their sins, but it would also remind them how God rescued his people from slavery and death in Egypt at the time of the first Passover. Jesus now began to fulfill the promise John the Baptist made when John pointed to Jesus and said, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” This is what Jesus came to Jerusalem to accomplish that week. J.