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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Flashback 1986, part two

You can read part one here.

Two days later Juan was back at his desk in the airport’s private wing. Once again he sat through a gray and cloudy day, as if nature itself wept for Laura Kinser. Once again Juan felt sleepy, since no one came to visit his part of the airport on such a gloomy day.

In his mind Juan could still see the orange fire and the black cloud, as he could still see the yellow airplane peacefully lifting off the ground a moment earlier. He tried not to look outside. At home the night of the explosion, watching the evening news and the memorials to Laura, Juan had finally cried. The tragedy weighed heavily upon his heart.

Juan tried to distract his mind by any other subject: politics, religion, even the Never Again series. He forced his mind to try to puzzle out the secret identity of a character identified only as “the Avenger.” As before, Juan was distracted by the sound of footsteps, but this time the person approaching was running. Moreover, the sound came from a hall that led to an abandoned warehouse—nobody should have been running toward Juan from that direction.

The woman who came around the corner from that hall was about the same height as Laura Kinser, and she had a similar figure. Both these facts made Juan’s heart race, and he felt as if his heart had risen into his throat. The woman’s face was not familiar to Juan. He had little time to react to her sudden appearance, because she ran up to him, saying, “Please protect me! They’re trying to kidnap me! Please help me!” Already Juan heard heavier footsteps approaching from the same hall the woman had just exited.

He had no time to ponder a decision. Juan did what seemed natural at the moment—he took the woman by the arm and swung her around behind his desk, pointing to the space where his chair belonged. At the same instant that the woman’s head disappeared under the desk, a man came around the corner, following the same path she had taken. Juan pointed down the hallway that led to the main terminal. The man nodded and did not stop running. Juan stood by his desk, wondering what he was going to do next.

Two or three minutes passed. Juan looked down at the woman cowering under his desk. “I don’t think he’s coming back,” he said. “You can come out now.” She looked timidly up at the security guard and only reluctantly abandoned the safe shelter he had offered. As the two of them talked, she continued to glance nervously down the hall to assure herself that the pursuit had not returned.

“So,” Juan said, still standing. “What’s all this about?”

The woman shrugged. Juan could see that her hands were trembling. “They kidnapped me—I don’t know why. They didn’t seem to expect any ransom, and they didn’t try to harm me. They never even spoke to me. I don’t know what they wanted.”

Juan frowned. “They locked you in a warehouse for no reason at all?” He wasn’t questioning her; he was trying to solve the puzzle with her. Juan noted that the woman was wearing slacks that were too big for her. His keen eyes even discerned that the white shirt she was wearing buttoned as a man’s shirt, not a woman’s shirt. Her feet were bare. He wondered about the strange outfit, but instead of discussing her clothing, he said, “They never gave you any indication of what they wanted?”

She shrugged again. “They just grabbed me and threw me in there and locked the door. When they brought me here, I had no idea what they were planning to do to me. I still don’t know what they wanted. All I know is that they had a gun. I didn’t bother to ask any questions.”

Juan observed that she was wearing no make-up. Her eyes were large and brown, her nose small, her lips full. Her black hair was tied in a loose bun. Juan found her attractive in a girlish way, even though he could see that she was well beyond her teens. “Perhaps we should formally introduce ourselves,” he offered. Bowing slightly at the waist, he continued, “I’m Juan Rivera, at your service.”

The woman smiled slightly, though her hands continued to shake. “I’m very pleased to meet you, Officer Rivera,” she said, extending her arm to shake his hand. “My name is Laura Kinser.”

Whether she really was Laura Kinser or not, clearly she could not continue to hide under Juan’s desk. Still, she remained close to the desk and ducked underneath it whenever she heard footsteps approaching. Over the next two hours, she hid five times. Twice she was hiding from people walking toward their planes, but the other three occasions were legitimate reasons to hide. The man who had been chasing her went back to the warehouse, then out again, and then back once more. He never stopped to ask Juan any questions, although once he stared hard at the security guard while walking past him. Self-consciously, Juan fingered his badge while he tried to look engrossed in the book he was pretending to read.

His shift was about to end, and the woman who claimed to be Laura Kinser did not appear to have a plan to get out of the airport. “Do you have a home, or someplace I can take you?” Juan asked. He hoped the question did not sound impolite.

She looked up at him, her large eyes wide with fright. “Oh, no, I can’t go home,” she explained. “That’s the first place they’ll look.”

Juan gazed at her. Under her baggy clothing, she did appear to have a figure resembling that of Laura Kinser. If one imagined the appropriate make-up, perhaps sunglasses, and of course the trademark earrings, he mused, she just might pass for the actress. Then he thought, no, something else was missing. He wasn’t sure what it was. At the same time, even though she was probably not Laura, she was a woman in trouble, and his job was to help her.

“Who are they?” he asked gently. “What do they want from you?”

“I told you—I don’t know.” She looked as though she was about to cry. “They talked to each other as though they had a plan involving me, but I never heard what it was.” She put her hands over her face. “I’m so scared.”

Juan wanted to hug her. He wanted to tell her that everything was going to be alright. Instead, he placed a hand on her shoulder. “I can’t do much to help,” he warned her. “I’m only a security guard. I don’t even have a gun. But if I can slip you out of the airport, I can put you up in my apartment for a day or two. That is, if you don’t mind sleeping on the couch.” She looked up at him gratefully, so he added, “Mind you, it’s only for a couple of days, until you figure out what to do.”

“Oh, thank you,” she said, sobbing, reaching out to hug him.

Juan accepted the hug as he asked himself, “How do I keep getting involved in things like this?”

To be continued… J.

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.

More theodicy, and theocracy

While I wrote about theodicy last weekend, the original conversation was being carried forward here. This gives me more to say in response, but this time I will write in a direct essay form rather than attempting a Socratic dialogue.

The question is asked: If you had the power to prevent a terrible crime from happening, would you act to prevent that crime, or would you stand by and watch and do nothing to stop it? Of course my answer is that I would do anything to stop a crime from happening. I would assume that God had brought me to that place for that reason, and after stopping the crime, I would thank him for giving me the strength and the courage to rescue a possible victim. Moreover, I would notify the police of the attempted crime, and I would be prepared to testify about the event in court if I was asked to testify.

God is almighty, so he could stop any crime from happening. He has the power. Does this mean that I am more ethical and moral than God, since I would prevent a crime if I had the power to do so? By no means! God is working with more wisdom and more information than is available to me. His failure to prevent certain terrible crimes is not an indication of his weakness or his badness; his failure to prevent those crimes is part of a larger plan which leads to good, not to evil.

I already made the point in my previous post that God does prevent some wickedness and evil. He says, “This far you will go, and no farther.” We have no available statistics about how many tragic and terrible things God has limited. He is under no obligation to file any reports. When he chooses, God prevents evil; when he chooses, God limits evil; and when he chooses, God permits evil. In each case, God is in control. No one is overpowering him or deceiving him—that cannot be done. If God chooses to permit evil to happen, he has a reason; again, he has no obligation to tell us his reasons. In the latter part of this post, though, I will offer five reasons that I believe are among God’s reasons for permitting evil to happen.

Before I share those reasons, though, I want to address an important side issue regarding evil and vengeance. InsanityBytes pictured herself as a superhero, sweeping into the potential crime scene and destroying the criminal for the protection of others. She also noted that more bad than good could come from her playing the part of a superhero. God has chosen better options than instant wrath and destruction upon each sinner.

In his creation, God chooses to work through agents. He divided the waters of the Red Sea with a wind from the east. He sent his Son to be born of a virgin and receive his human nature through Mary. Jesus fed the crowds of thousands with a small amount of bread and fish which he then multiplied. In the same way, when God intends to bring justice and vengeance into creation, he works through government employees—police officers, judges, and all the other workers of the justice system. Paul wrote to the Romans that the government bears God’s sword of vengeance (Romans 13:1-7). On occasion a private citizen acts to prevent a crime, because the police cannot be everywhere at once. Vigilante justice should be the exception and not the rule, though, because one of the purposes of government is protect those who are good and punish those who are evil.

In the book of Deuteronomy, God (through the preaching of Moses) described the government he intended for Old Testament Israel. The Levites were to teach the people the Word of God, and all the priests had to come from the Levites. Each tribe was also to have judges to determine legal cases among the people. The Israelites were told to respect the priests and judges and to follow their decisions, not turning right or left, not adding or subtracting anything from what the priests and judges said. God also anticipated that they would one day have a king, and he gave them rules about that king—that he must be an Israelite, that he must not gather great wealth or many wives, and that he must keep the book of Deuteronomy close at hand to guide him in his decisions. God then spoke about prophets who would proclaim the Word of God and bring messages from him. The people were to respect the true prophets, but they were to reject any false prophets, any who spoke for false gods or who spoke falsehood in the Name of the Lord.

In a very important sense, these various jobs all were fulfilled in Jesus. He is the final Judge, the ultimate Priest, the King of kings, and the Prophet who always spoke God’s Word because he is God. Only Jesus could take all these jobs on himself; in fact, kings of Israel and Judah were punished by God for trying to do the job of priests.

Old Testament Israel was to be a theocracy, a nation ruled by God. All the authorities of the nation were to be under God and led by his Word. The people were to respect judges and priests as representatives of God. All these jobs, though, were fulfilled in Jesus, and the apostles did not call for a theocracy in the New Testament. Instead, they urged respect and obedience to worldly rulers accompanied by faithfulness to God in all things. Jesus himself said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.”

The great theologian Augustine wrote about this dual citizenship. He also urged obedience and respect for worldly leaders, but he reminded Christians that our greater citizenship is in the Kingdom of heaven. When we become so involved in earthly politics that we forget the Kingdom of God, our priorities are askew. Our concern for our native land on earth is commendable, but it should never overshadow our concern for God’s reign both now and forever.

Protestant reformers took different positions on dual citizenship. Calvin sought to create a government on earth that was controlled by faithful Christians. Those who follow Calvin’s way still seek to evaluate candidates for public office as much by their statements of faith as by their actual abilities to lead. Luther said he would prefer to live in a land governed by a competent Muslim rather than in a land governed by an incompetent Christian. Luther did not go so far as to speak of a separation of church and state—that language belongs more to John Locke and Thomas Jefferson—but he did speak of the two authorities God uses in this world. One authority is secular rulers. They protect good citizens and punish people who are bad, whether they are criminal citizens or enemies from outside the country. Therefore, as Jesus and Paul both said, secular rulers merit the respect and obedience of Christians even if those rulers are not Christians. Only when their laws conflict with God’s law should Christians oppose the government, and even then the opposition should be to the bad laws and not to the government as a whole. The second authority is the Church, in which God takes away sins, rescues from evil, and promises eternal life to all who trust in him.

The point of these last five paragraphs is that God does work through secular government to protect those people who do what is right and to punish those people who do what is wrong. This is why I wrote at the beginning of this post that, in preventing a crime, I would make use of the local system of justice rather than relying on my own power and ability. I have no desire to be a superhero striking down the wrongdoers; that job is taken by ordinary people, people who have received special training, and those people deserve my support as they do their jobs. Meanwhile, God works through the Church to bring comfort to victims of evil and to bring forgiveness to sinners. This is the greater and more important work, because it has eternal benefits. As a police officer once told a pastors’ meeting in one neighborhood of a large city, “My job is to arrest criminals; I don’t expect you to do that. Your job is to preach the gospel; don’t expect me to do that.” Again, both the police officer and the preacher are doing God’s work, one by enforcing the law and the other by sharing Christ’s forgiveness.

As we well know, police officers and judges and other government officials sometimes make mistakes. Preachers and church leaders sometimes make mistakes. God has given his authority to sinners, working through less-than-perfect people to accomplish his plan in the world. Because God entrusts such authority to sinners, bad things sometimes happen, both in secular government and in the Church. Crimes happen because not every criminal can be stopped. Sometimes criminals escape punishment entirely. Likewise, the Church sometimes fails to comfort the victims of evil and to share with them the hope that we have in Jesus Christ, a hope that far transcends all the problems of this sinful world.

And now I am out of the forest and into the home stretch of this theodicy. Why does God entrust such authority to sinners, knowing they sometimes will fail? Why does God permit terrible crimes and other great wickedness in his creation? I cannot go through the newspaper and tell you God’s reason for each tragic event described there, but I can share some general principles, found in the Bible, that help believers to understand why an almighty, loving, and holy God allows evil things to happen.

First, as I indicated in my previous post on theodicy, God does limit evil. We do not know how often and how powerfully we have been protected from evil and from suffering, but it does happen. God is still in control of the world, and all the evil powers that afflict creation cannot do even one thing that God has not permitted.

Second, God permits some evil things to happen so people see the difference between good and evil. If God stepped into the world and stopped bullets in midair or froze would-be criminals in their tracks, he would prevent some suffering, but he would not make people better. When people see the consequences of evil in tragedy and suffering, they can be moved to reject evil and to prefer the good. When people suffer, they can turn to the God who has defeated evil and who wants to include those suffering people on his winning team rather than abandon them to the enemy.

Third, God permits some evil and suffering to strengthen his people. As the body grows stronger with physical challenges and exercise, so Christian faith grows stronger with spiritual challenges and exercise. Not all problems are intended for the good of the sufferer, but in many cases it is so. Likewise, without bad things happening in the world, there would be no opportunity for people to do good things. When we witness suffering, the godly response is not to seek someone to blame. The godly response is to help the victim. Many times great holy acts are done by God’s people in response to evil. If the evil had been prohibited, the great holy acts could never have happened.

Fourth, God does not idly watch creation while terrible things happen. God entered creation to oppose evil and to rescue the victims of evil. The almighty God chose to be limited as all human beings are limited so he could claim all of us for his Kingdom. He experienced hunger, thirst, loneliness, and the abandonment of family and friends. He suffered under unjust governments of Caiaphas and the High Council and then under Pontius Pilate. He was mocked, beaten, tortured, and finally killed. The suffering and death of Jesus were a terrible crime—theocide, I believe it is called—but God allowed this tragedy to happen to himself so he could defeat all evil and rescue all the victims of evil.

Bad things still happen in the world with God’s permission because God is waiting for more people to learn about his victory, turn from evil, and be his people forever. Jesus, before he went to the cross, healed some blind people and deaf people and paralytics and lepers. He raised to life three people who were dead. At that time, though, Jesus did not heal all the sick or raise all the dead. When he is seen coming in glory, Jesus will raise all the dead. Every eye will see him, and every ear will hear his voice.

On that Day, all those who are found guilty of evil will be punished for their sins, but all who belong to Jesus will be welcomed into his new creation. The new creation is like a wedding reception, except that it will never end. The punishment for sin is like being locked out of the party, spending eternity in the dark parking lot. Yet the people who remain in the parking lot do not want to be at the party. To join the party, they would have to join Jesus and his Kingdom. They don’t want to do this.Therefore, God is just; they are punished for all their sins, but chiefly for resisting the rescue mission of Jesus and remaining stubbornly outside of his kingdom.

Few topics challenge believers and unbelievers as like as much as this problem of suffering and tragedy. Because God does not give us detailed reports on his working, we cannot know many times why a certain terrible thing has been permitted to happen. God directs our gaze beyond all other tragedies to the tragedy of the cross, where horrible injustice, pain, and abandonment were experienced by God and defeated. There is our hope; there is our victory.

J.