Albert Einstein famously said, “Question everything,” but it was Jesus who practiced what Einstein preached. Contrary to popular assumptions, Jesus was not a robotic Answer Man; he was more like the Great Questioner. According the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), Jesus asks over 300 questions during his earthly ministry. Surprisingly, he answers only three. That’s quite a ratio, but it aligns with the m.o. of Yahweh in the Old Testament. God was known for asking his people lots of questions, too. Like Father like Son.
Now, if omniscience asks questions, it’s not to ellicit information; it’s to reveal it. In everyday life, our responses to the questions put to us have a way of exposing our hopes, fears, values, passions, and aspirations. They unveil our muddled thinking and our gaps in understanding. They demonstrate our innovation and creativity. They uncover our souls, for as Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).
Asking questions can unlock learning and enhance interpersonal bonding, provided they’re not impossible “gotcha” questions designed to intimidate or humiliate (e.g., “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?”). Jesus doesn’t work for cable news. He works for his heavenly Father, who deeply desires a relationship with every human being, his highest order of creation. Since relationships by nature are dynamic and reciprocal, questions are part of the interaction between God and humanity. There’s give-and-take and back-and-forth—a rhythm of geneuine conversation allowing both parties to play the role of a subject, not merely an object.
Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John have noted, “The wellspring of all questions is wonder and curiosity and a capacity for delight. We pose and respond to queries in the belief that the magic of a conversation will produce a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Sustained personal engagement and motivation—in our lives as well as our work—require that we are always mindful of the transformative joy of asking and answering questions.”
God doesn’t ask questions because he needs to know. He asks questions to reveal and relate. Yes, we might have some questions for God in the life to come—who doesn’t?—but God has some questions for us in the life we have right now. Why not spend some time relating to him over some of the questions he’s already asked?
Questions God may ask us about our EMOTIONAL life.
- “Why are you angry?” (Gen 4:6b)
- “Why are you crying?” (John 20:15b)
- “If even the smallest things are beyond your control, why are you anxious about the rest?” (Luke 12:26)
Questions God may ask us about our THOUGHT life.
- “Have you never read the Scriptures?” (Matt 21:42a)
- “Why are you thinking such things in your heart?” (Mark 2:8b)
- “Do you not yet understand?” (Matt 16:8)
- “Are even you likewise without understanding?” (Mark 7:18)
Questions God may ask us about our PHYSICAL life.
- “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (1 Cor 6:19a)
- “Do you want to be well?” (John 5:6b)
- Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? (Isaiah 55:2)
- “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:36a)
Questions God may ask us about our INTERPERSONAL life.
- “What are you discussing as you walk along?” (Luke 24:17)
- “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man?” (Luke 10:36a)
- “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8b)
- “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?” (Matt 5:46)
Questions God may ask us about our SPIRITUAL life.
- “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9)
- “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” (Gen 3:11b)
- “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen 18:14)
- “What is your name?” (Gen 32:27a)
- “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do what I command?” (Luke 6:46)
- “Do you love me?” (John 21:16)
Questions God may ask us about our MISSIONAL life.
- “Whom shall I send?” (Isa 6:8b)
- “What is that in your hand?” (Exod 4:2b)
- “How many loaves do you have?” (Mark 8:5)
- “Are there not twelve hours in a day?” (John 11:9)
- “Do you see this woman?” (Luke 7:44b)
Maybe the most all-encompassing question God could ask us is this one: “Where have you come from, and where are you going?” (Gen 16:8b). Certainly the most important question he could ask was raised by his Son, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt 16:15). The two questions are actually related.
So, grab a cup of coffee, pull up a seat, and “have a little talk with Jesus,” as the old gospel song puts it.
Ever since Genesis 3, it has been hard for people to get along. We’re all so different, and, because of our fallenness, those differences can annoy us, threaten us, and make us suspicious of one another. In jealousy, envy, and pride, we tend to think, say, and do nasty things to each other, making life unpleasant at times.
In the first century, there were two groups of people who didn’t get along very well—Jews and Gentiles. The Jews were descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. The Gentiles were everybody else. Both latent and overt hostility marked their relationship over the centuries. Paul addresses that enmity in Ephesians 2, and he talks about what God has done to rectify it. The solution he offers is still relevant today because the world is more polarized now than ever. In recent years we have witnessed a growing hostility between races, classes, genders, and political parties. The tension is exhausting and disillusioning.
How can God take widely diverse and disparate people and put them successfully into one new group? Paul’s answer is Jesus. Why? Because “he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace” (Eph 2:14-15).
Paul argues that the source of alienation between Jew and Gentile—God’s law—was put on the shelf (2:15a) because the source of reconciliation—God’s Son—was put on the cross (2:13b, 16b). Human beings may be hostile to each other, but God treated his perfect Son as if he were all the world’s hostility rolled into one. And when Christ died on the cross, the Father regarded the hostility itself as having died, too. God’s purpose was to create one new humanity out of the two—a horizontal hostility replaced with horizontal peace (2:15b).
The result is that irreligious people (like the Gentiles, who thought they are “far off”) can now hear and believe the gospel of peace (2:17a). Religious people (like the Jews, who thought they are already near) can hear and believe that same gospel (2:17b). All are “far off” because of sin, but all can “draw near” now because of Jesus. God is wise in this regard. All who draw near to him wind up drawing near to each other, too. Indeed, the only way to fully experience the God who is community is to participate fully in his new community—the church.
That’s not always easy because we’re all different. But believers who draw near to God bear the marks of unity in diversity. That’s why Paul cites the Trinity two times in this passage (2:18, 22). God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are the ultimate model for the church—a community of truth, love, and unity in diversity.
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If you knew that you were going to die tomorrow at 3 p.m., what would you do tonight at 9 p.m.? Who would you be with? How would you spend your time? What would be the final memory you give yourself before stepping into eternity? That’s the situation we find in John 13-17, the account of Jesus and his disciples in the Upper Room.
Jesus knows he’s going to die in about 18 hours. He doesn’t have the privilege of ignorance like we do when it comes to our own departure. Most people don’t usually know when they’re going to breathe their last, but Jesus knows exactly when he’s going to die. He also knows that he’ll be betrayed by one of his followers. He knows he’ll be unjustly tried and rejected by his own people. He knows he’ll be mocked, flocked, and crucified like a common criminal.
In the face of such an ordeal, Jesus decides to spend his last night with his closest friends. He wants to be with them so he can prepare them for his absence. To that end, he will teach them, encourage them, love them, and pray for them. Yes, pray for them! What must it have been like to be the subject of Jesus’ prayer? Many people have heard of the Lord’s Prayer, but John 17 records the Lord’s Prayer for us—not the prayer we pray to him but the prayer he prays for us, his followers. The prayer unfolds in three segments:
- In vv. 1-5 , Jesus prays for himself.
- In vv. 6-19, Jesus prays for his first-century disciples.
- In vv. 20-24, Jesus prays for his future disciples.
Speaking to the heavenly Father, Jesus says, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20-21).
If you are a follower of Christ, be encouraged by the fact that you were on the Lord’s heart and mind the night before he was executed. Moreover, Jesus has not stopped praying for you. Hebrews 7:25 teaches that Jesus “ever lives to make intercession” for his people. What that means for us today is that the Christ to whom we pray is also praying for us. Naturally, we can conclude that the prayers of Jesus work! They get through. They get the job done. James 5:16 says, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective,” and they don’t come any more righteous than Jesus. He was the sinless Son of God!
While the text of Jesus’ prayer is virtually inexhaustible, this particular message focuses on WHY Jesus prays for his followers (17:6-11a) and WHAT Jesus prays for his followers (17:11b-24). It can be a tremendous source of encouragement for believers to know that Jesus is praying for us at this very moment.
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Christians sing it every Christmas season, even though it’s not primarily a carol about the birth of Jesus. It’s much broader than that. The words are familiar to believers in English-speaking countries:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come
Let earth receive her King
Let every heart prepare Him room
And heaven and nature sing
Joy to the world, the Savior reigns
Let men their songs employ
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy
He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness
And wonders of His love
So wrote Isaac Watts, who lived from 1674 to 1748. Significantly, his inspiration for “Joy to the World” was not Luke 2 but Psalm 98. In fact, Watts himself said, “I have formed out of the 98th Psalm…what I esteem to be the first and chief sense of the Holy Scriptures.” In other words, it’s all here—the whole gospel, the overarching message of Scripture, and it leads to jubilant worship. Historically, the church has called Psalm 98 the Cantate Domino (“O Sing to the Lord”). Similar to Psalm 96, it calls for jubilant praise to God, and it provides a compelling rationale.
Psalm 98 divides nicely into three stanzas. In the first stanza, the author instructs the people of God to worship the Lord because he has been a GREAT SAVIOR (vv. 1-3). “Sing to the Lord a new song,” he writes, “for he has done marvelous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.” Over the centuries, Yahweh has been to Israel “the God of rescue,” most prominently in the great exodus from Egypt and the great return from exile in Babylon.
In the second stanza, he tells the covenant people to worship the Lord because he is the REIGNING KING (vv. 4-6). He writes, “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music…shout for joy before the Lord, the King” (v. 4, 6). Moreover, all kinds of instruments are to be used to supplement the music and shouts in order to celebrate the King (vv. 5-6).
In the third stanza, the author says to worship the Lord because he is the COMING JUDGE (vv. 7-9). As the Apostles Creed says, “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” Specifically, the psalmist calls for all of humanity and all of nature to celebrate this Judge and his coming judgment. But that’s what makes this composition seem a bit odd to us in our day. We don’t usually think of divine judgment as an event to be celebrated. Rather, we think of it as an event to be dreaded. Consequently, some people have dismissed the idea of an end-time judgment altogether. But that only leads to other problems we don’t like.
On the one hand, if there is no future judgment, what hope is there for the world? Evil stands, the scales of justice remain unbalanced, and all the horrors, abuse, and trauma inflicted on us during this life go unanswered. It is helpful to remember, however, that one biblical image of the future judgment is that God is the Judge, and we are the plaintiff. He hears our case. He rights the wrongs done to us. He satisfies our deep desire to have all things properly settled in the end.
On the other hand, if there is a future judgment, what hope is there for me? Haven’t I committed certain acts of evil during my life? Haven’t I transgressed God’s law at some point in time? Haven’t I committed sins against God and other people who are made in his image? If so, how can I escape the punishment due me? It is sobering to remember that one biblical image of the future judgment is that God is the Judge, and I am the defendant. The prospect of a cosmic trial, then, can be frightening.
But great relief can be found woven into the psalm itself, not to mention the trajectory it creates. There is hope for the world collectively and hope for me personally precisely because the coming Judge is also the historical Savior. In fact, the ultimate biblical image of the future judgment is that God is the Judge who has taken his people’s judgment himself. It’s the picture of a judge pronouncing the sentence, and then coming down off the bench to take the sentence he just imposed so the guilty party doesn’t have to. As Psalm 98 indicates, the Judge and the Savior are the same God.
When Mary, the mother of Jesus, learns that she will bear the Savior of the world, she hearkens back to portions of Psalm 98 (along with other sections of the Hebrew Bible).
|Cantate Domino (Psalm 98)||Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1)|
|“Sing to the Lord a new song.” (1a)||“My soul glorifies the Lord.” (46)|
|“For he has done marvelous things.” (1b)||“The Mighty One has done great things for me.” (49)|
|“His right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.” (1c)||“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm.” (51)|
|“The Lord has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations.” (2)||“His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.” (50)|
|“He has remembered his love and his faithfulness to the house of Israel.” (3a)||“He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful.” (54)|
In doing so, Mary alerts us to the intended fulfillment of Psalm 98 in her own Son, Jesus Christ—the Savior of the world to whom all final judgment has been committed (cf. John 5:22). The only way to celebrate the God of future judgment is to know him as the God of past salvation. Have you trusted Jesus Christ as your Savior—the one who has taken your judgment on the cross? If so, you have every reason to celebrate.
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The account of Philip and the Ethiopian is one of the great conversion stories in the book of Acts. Luke, volume 2 records how Christianity took hold in the 1st century world—a culture that was as resistant to the gospel as ours is today. In chapter 8, we have the case of an African being converted to Christ. In chapter 9, we have the case of a Jew being converted to Christ. In chapter 10, we have the case of a European being converted to Christ. And that’s just the tip of the ethnic iceberg. These conversions show us that Christianity is transcultural. That is, the gospel is for everyone, regardless of nation, race, people, or tongue. The gospel is for everyone because everyone needs the gospel.
Philip shares this gospel, and the Ethiopian official accepts it, but neither of these figures is the hero of the story. Philip is an obedient servant, to be sure, and thank God for it. But he and the other deacons in Jerusalem aren’t sitting around figuring out where the gospel should go next. They’re not developing strategies based on logic and demographic studies. They’re not having an evangelistic thrust because of some great burden for the lost. Something else gets them moving in a missional direction. Neither is the Ethiopian official the hero of the story. He’s an interesting and sympathetic figure—a foreigner to Israel, a wealthy and educated man, a high court official back home, and a person truly hungry for God—a man who has traveled nearly 2,000 miles to the temple in Jerusalem to worship the God of the Hebrews! But he’s not the hero of the story, either.
The story doesn’t begin with Philip or the Ethiopian. This story, like every story of salvation, begins with God. Verse 26, 29, and 39 all indicate that the Lord is the causal agent of everything good that happens in this encounter. Specifically, it’s the Holy Spirit—the third Person of the divine Trinity—who’s the hero of this story. Indeed, the Holy Spirit is the hero of every conversion story. The Holy Spirit is the life of God on planet earth, accomplishing the divine will. God the Father is in heaven, seated on his throne, ruling the universe. God the Son is at his right hand, serving as High Priest and Advocate for his people. God the Holy Spirit is on earth—executing the plan and purpose of heaven.
God certainly uses his people to share the gospel with others, but it’s the Holy Spirit who’s prepared them to share it. And it’s the Holy Spirit who’s prepared people’s hearts to receive it. From beginning to end, then, it’s the Holy Spirit who orchestrates everything in a person’s conversion to Christ. That’s why churches must renew their dependence on the Holy Spirit for all that they do in seeking to fulfill the mission that God has given them. Including baptisms.
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Psalm 23 is one of the most popular texts in the Old Testament. Charles Spurgeon called it “the pearl of Psalms.” James Montgomery Boice called it “the most beloved of the 150 Psalms in the Psalter.” And J. P. McBeth called it “the greatest poem ever written.” It’s often read at funerals, or during times of profound grief and sadness. That’s appropriate, but King David’s composition is a psalm for life, not just death. Indeed, we likely need this psalm now more than ever.
Stress is a prominent reality of modern life. Never before in history have people been more anxious and overloaded than they are today. Life has always been hard on a fallen planet, but it seems to be getting harder. We live in an age of exploding technology that’s hard to keep up with; information overload that threatens to overwhelm us; political polarization that breeds cynicism and disillusionment; media manipulation that makes it hard to trust anything we see on our screens; a cancel culture that keeps people captive to the fear of other people’s judgments; a global pandemic with widespread disagreement over how best to navigate it. And, as many people have discovered, stress takes its toll physically and emotionally. As one book title says, The Body Keeps the Score.
What is stress? It’s the pressure, strain, and tension we feel whenever a situation or event demands more from us than we think we can give. The tell-tale sign we’re stressed out is when we find ourselves saying, “I just can’t handle this right now!” A well-mannered, kind-hearted young woman can turn into a screeching bridezilla in the run-up to her wedding. A tender, warm-hearted young man can turn into a cauldron of bitterness when there are more deadlines than time to meet them. People routinely suffer chronic stress as a result of financial woes, work pressure, bullying, relationship troubles, or the challenges of parenting. All of it can cause anxiety, irritability, depression, headaches, insomnia, and other serious physical or psychological symptoms.
How do we cope? How do we survive? How do we overcome the taxing stresses of life? How did King David do it? How did he cope? How did he overcome? After all, the “sweet singer of Israel” spent several years of his life being pursued by his enemies. On more than one occasion did a spear whizz by his ear and twang into the boards where he was lodging. Most people have never been on the receiving end of that kind of incoming enemy fire (police and military personnel excepted). And most of us have never spent a great deal of time living as a fugitive, running for our lives. David did. And yet he had a way of rising above the stresses of life.
Psalm 23 gives us a clue as to how he did it. The composition is a declaration of trust and confidence in God despite all that was going on around him. Two main metaphors drive the poem: (1) God as David’s Shepherd (vv. 1-4); and (2) God as David’s Gracious Host (vv. 5-6). Together these metaphors paint a stunning portrait for us: God is the ultimate Shepherd-King to his people. People are the sheep of God’s flock and the guests of God’s kingdom. Now, sheep are essentially helpless and not particularly bright. That’s not a good combination, as the following video clip indicates:
People and sheep have a lot in common! They both desperately need a good shepherd! Thankfully, believers have one in Yahweh, the God of Israel. If David were here today, he might say to us, “Rest in the Lord who is with you and good to you.” Specifically, he might tell us to rest in the PROVISIONS of the Lord (vv. 1-3), the PRESENCE of the Lord (vv. 4-5), and PROMISES of the Lord (6). God is the caretaker and protector of his people, and he will ensure that they do not lack in basic needs as they navigate the stresses of this life. Rather, he pursues them with goodness and covenant love all the days of their lives (v. 6).
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In his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus achieved something that God the Father recognized, namely, humanity’s sin crisis was rectified once and for all. To use longstanding theological categories, the atonement was objective (i.e., directed toward God), not merely subjective (directed toward humanity). The reason the atonement can be viewed objectively is because the New Testament presents Jesus as God’s acceptable representative of—and chosen substitute for—all humanity:
- Christ died for the ungodly (Rom 5:6).
- Christ died for us (Rom 5:8).
- Christ died for our sins (1 Cor 15:3).
- God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us (2 Cor 5:21).
- …who gave himself for our sins (Gal 1:4).
- …who gave himself for me (Gal 2:20).
- Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (Gal 3:13).
- …who gave himself as a ransom for all (1 Tim 2:6).
- Christ suffered for you (1 Pet 2:21).
- Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous (1 Pet 3:18).
Historic Christian orthodoxy has largely understood the “for” in these verses as “in the place of.” That is, the atonement involved the substitution of Christ “for” or “in the place of” the sinner. As the old hymn by Phillip Bliss (1838-1876) puts it:
Bearing shame and mocking rude,
In my place condemned he stood.
This essay seeks to explore the legitimacy of understanding substitution as one facet of the atonement diamond. As N. T. Wright said on a recent podcast, care must be taken when presenting the atonement in such a way. To paraphrase his comment, we preachers don’t want to find ourselves in a position of saying, “For God so hated the world that he killed his only Son.” Such a proposition would be a travesty, which is where we will begin our analysis.
The Cross—A Travesty of Justice?
Substitution is not the only legitimate image of the atonement, but it certainly is prominent in both the Old and New Testaments. An animal in the Garden of Eden dies so that Adam and Eve don’t have to. A ram in the thicket dies so that Isaac doesn’t have to. A Passover lamb dies so that the firstborn doesn’t have to. Two Yom Kippur goats die so that the nation of Israel doesn’t have to. The entire sacrificial system is built on the concepts of propitiation and expiation. Animal substitutes die so that humans alienated from God may live. In Jesus, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), animal sacrifices give way to the ultimate substitute, the Son of God (cf. Heb 10:4).
Nevertheless, this understanding of Jesus’ death has been widely criticized in recent years. The rationalistic Professor at Oxford University, Sir A. J. Ayer once called the idea of substitutionary atonement “intellectually contemptible and morally outrageous.” The common objection of unbelievers usually goes something like this: “I can’t possibly believe in a God who has to see blood before he can forgive sin.” To the contemporary mind, the very idea is offensive, disgusting, primitive, and obscene. Even believers, when we ponder the issues surrounding forgiveness via the cross, we have to admit it’s an extraordinary claim we’re making. In some ways, it’s scandalous (cf. 1 Cor 1:23).
That God should victimize the innocent Jesus in order to acquit the guilty sinner is seen to be a travesty of justice. It seems to attribute to the court of heaven a more monstrous corruption than the court of Pilate. At least Pilate resented the crowd’s cry to execute Christ rather than Barabbas. Even though he eventually yielded to it, he didn’t like it. But the Bible goes out of its way to suggest that God planned the cross as a similar kind of judicial exchange. Isaiah 53:10a says, bluntly, “It was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer.” Indeed, the whole thrust of Isaiah 53:4-6 features substitutionary language:
4 Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
Victimizing the innocent in order to acquit the guilty—that’s what scandalizes people. But it’s not just unbelievers who make this objection anymore. In the last few decades, even some believers have begun to describe the concept of substitution as “divine child abuse.” As such, we can’t understand the cross as “penal substitution,” they say. That which is so predominantly advanced in Scripture has to be re-thought now because people don’t like it, and we’ve gotten it wrong for so long. Consequently, alternative views of the cross have been elevated in our day, including subjective or “moral influence” theories. Why? Because they’re far less offensive to contemporary sensibilities.
The Cross—Just an Example?
The purpose of the cross, they say, is for God to provoke some sort of emotional impact in us, or moral influence on us. In other words, when we look at the cross, we feel conscience-stricken about our failures, and we determine to live our lives as better people as a result. So, the cross is our example to live well and to do good. It’s our model for living a more selfless, self-sacrificial, and non-retaliatory life. That’s the purpose of the cross, it is proposed, and that’s why, ultimately, it “works.” That’s why God honored his Son’s sacrifice with a resurrection to follow.
There is indeed some truth to this view. Christ’s behavior on the cross is explicitly described as an example for believers in 1 Peter 2:21-23:
To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.
When we look at the cross and see what Christ did there, we can’t help but be moved by the depth of his love and sacrifice on our behalf. It has emotional power in and of itself.
The Cross—More Than an Example
But the cross is much more than an example for humanity. Peter goes on to say of Jesus in the same passage, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet 2:24a). That is, he didn’t just die to show us how to live. Indeed, if the cross is not more than an example, then we have to conclude that Jesus saw his death as little more than a form of emotional blackmail. His intent was to get us to behave in a certain way by making us sad about his ordeal or sad about ourselves. Such a view, however, puts the cross of Christ into the same category as a political hunger strike.
Do we really want to suggest that Jesus intends to manipulate us into being better people by this kind of emotional lever—a histrionic gesture that achieves nothing but embarrassing those of us who have to watch it? If so, that could rightly be considered an immoral influence. Moreover, viewing the cross in this way not only reduces it to a form of crass manipulation, it renders the theory hopelessly incoherent. Yes, the death of Jesus can serve as an example to us, but the cross must first have a real (objective) value in order for it to have any personal (subjective) value. Why is this the case?
Imagine seeing a man standing on top of a tall building, and hearing him yell, “I love you all, and to prove how much I love you, I’m going to jump from this building and die for you.” Would you go home saying, “Wow, I saw a most wonderful demonstration of love today”? Or, “I saw a man die for me today”? No, you’d go home saying, “I saw a mentally disturbed man jump to his death today. How sad.” And you’d be right, because unless some objective benefit flows out of that death to somebody else, it can’t be considered a moral example. It is more rightly considered a tragic display of lunacy. On the other hand:
- If I were drowning out in the middle of a frigid lake, and somebody jumped into the icy water to save me, drowning in the process himself, then I can rightly say, “He died for me.”
- Or if I were a terminal cardiac patient in a hospital and needed a transplant, and someone stepped in and said, “I’ll give you my heart so that you can live,” then I can rightly say, “He died for me.”
- Or if I were on death row expecting execution at dawn, and someone stole into my cell the night before and said, “I’ll take your place on the gallows tomorrow,” then I can rightly say, “He died for me.”
There has to be some real situation of danger in which I am placed, and some real, objective benefit flowing to me out of the other person’s death. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense to say that the other person died for me. In the same way, we can only have a subjective view of Jesus’ death if there’s an objective benefit preceding it. Otherwise, the death of Christ for me is incoherent.
The Cross—Where the Punishment Really Falls
Still, people object to this view of the cross—that it was a substitutionary sacrifice—because they think it portrays God as a spiteful and ruthless monster. He comes across as a deity who punishes an innocent third party in order to satisfy his insatiable lust for revenge that he has somewhere in his heart. He’s like a rogue soldier who executes innocent civilians who aren’t even part of the battle. We’re outraged when something like that happens, and rightly so. Punishing the innocent is no virtue.
Those who criticize an objective, substitutionary view of the cross say it portrays God like that—punishing an innocent third party so that the guilty can go free. But that’s a caricature and gross misrepresentation of what the Scriptures teach. According to the New Testament, and according to Jesus’ own self-understanding, Christ is not a third party. Of course God could not take an innocent man and arbitrarily make him a substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of the world. That would have been a total miscarriage of justice. But what the New Testament dares to suggest to us is that at the cross, God did not arbitrarily punish an innocent third party; he deliberately punished himself.
Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Jesus said, “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30). Jesus is called, “Emmanuel,” God with us—God in human flesh (Matt 1:23). So, Jesus is not some innocent third party. He’s innocent, all right, but he’s not a third party. He’s the first party. Consequently, when we look at the cross, we shouldn’t think of Jesus as being there doing all the work in isolation, with God the Father being somewhere far away—totally disinterested in what’s happening, or totally unaffected by it (cf. Hos 11:8c). No, Paul said that at the cross, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19; cf. Gen 15:17-18a).
The Father was right there “taking it on the chin,” so to speak, as his own Son bled and died for humanity. God in Christ took full responsibility for human sin, even though it obviously wasn’t hissin. That’s why Acts 20:28 refers to “God’s own blood.” In God’s mind, divine blood shed is the price required for divine forgiveness granted. God did not sweep humanity’s sins under the rug, he swept them onto his Son—with his adult Son’s permission (cf. John 12:27; Mark 14:32-42; Matt 26:52-54; Heb 10:5-7). This can hardly be considered divine “child abuse.” It’s more akin to the brave and noble soldier going off to war and giving his life in battle for the sake of his fellow citizens.
The Cross—God’s Instrument of Reconciliation
We sometimes assume it should be easy for God to forgive sin. After all, when does God ever have to break a sweat to do anything? Besides, isn’t it God’s job to forgive sin? It’s just what he does, right? God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Why then can’t he likewise say, “Let there be forgiveness,” and there is forgiveness? In short, why is forgiveness not by divine fiat?
Historically, the former statement, “Let there be light,” has always been seen as entailing no breach of God’s nature or ways. God is creator, and God is light. The latter statement, however, “Let there be forgiveness,” has often been seen as entailing a potential violation of at least some aspect of God’s nature and ways. God is holy, so sin must be punished. God is love, so sin must be pardoned. Herein lies the dilemma, and one that doesn’t seem to have an easy resolution. God must always be true to his own nature; otherwise, he cannot be God.
So, in the end, will God’s justice lead to the condemnation of sinners, or will God’s grace lead to the forgiveness of sinners? Is there a way for God to cut this Gordian knot, admittedly of his own making (by virtue of the fact that he created a race he knew would rebel against him)? Is there a morally acceptable way for him to separate sinners from their sin so that he can judge the sin while sparing the sinner—thus keeping all his attributes perfectly intact?
However the issue is resolved, one can surely say that if forgiveness is by divine fiat alone, it renders the cross of Christ little more than a foolish waste. As Paul writes (in a related but slightly different context), “If righteousness could be attained through the law, then Christ died for nothing” (Gal 2:21). That the eternal Son of God should come to earth and deliberately squander his life in crucifixion—which he had the power to prevent—for no objective gain or benefit is unthinkable.
It appears, then, that there is a divine necessity to the cross. Hebrews 8:3 says, “Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one [Jesus] also to have something to offer.” Moreover, Hebrews 9:23 says, “It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these” (Heb 9:23). In God’s mind, the cross of Christ was objectively essential to the full grant of divine forgiveness.
But how does the cross of Christ effect the final atonement that God accepts? How and why does the cross “work”? The dilemma is acute. If God overlooks evil, it’s as good as saying morality doesn’t matter in his universe after all. His righteousness would be undermined by his own neglect and inconsistency. Moreover, God would be open to the charge of moral apathy. But that is an accusation God cannot allow to pass unchallenged. His moral consistency must remain flawless and unimpeachable. He must always act justly, or the very idea of righteousness loses its meaning.
And that is why forgiveness can be said to be “difficult” for him—if we dare speak of deity in such terms. Forgiveness is “difficult” precisely because it is not easily distinguishable from moral indifference. How could one tell the difference between a God who forgives sin and one who couldn’t care less about it? If goodness is to mean anything in his universe, it is absolutely necessary that God’s righteousness should be beyond dispute. God must, in some way, dissociate himself personally from evil in this world. He must make a clear stand against it. If he doesn’t, then all moral standards and values are themselves called into question. So, how is forgiveness possible if God is to remain righteous? It is possible because no dilemma is bigger than God. Consider a similar dilemma in earthly terms.
Jack and Jill were married. They had been living together for several years, and everything seemed perfect. But then along came Joe, a blond-haired, blue-eyed, muscle-bound boy with an English accent and a bronze tan. Jill became infatuated with him, so one day, quite suddenly, she walked out and left her husband Jack so she could go be with Joe. Six months passed—six months in which Jack spent a good deal of time weeping inconsolably. But eventually, he pulled himself together. He decided that he was better off living alone and tried his best to put Jill out of his mind.
Then, as suddenly as Jill had departed, there she was again—on the doorstep now, luggage in hand. Things hadn’t worked out with Joe. She discovered that her English hunk had a mean streak and a wandering eye, so the infatuation fizzled. She wanted to apologize to Jack and make amends. She wanted things to go back to the way they were. She wanted to come home. All this she communicates to Jack while standing on the stoop.
The question at this point is this: “What is Jack going to do?” What would you do? It’s possible that Jack’s love for Jill has died—murdered by the cruel stab in the back of her betrayal and desertion. Perhaps he now just feels emotionally numb to the relationship. If so, his reaction to Jill’s appeal is going to be one of total indifference. “Well, you can come in and collect the rest of your stuff if you want, but that’s it. I couldn’t care less about you or anybody else anymore. I’m done with women. I’m done with marriage. I just want to be left alone.”
Another possibility is that Jack is still fuming with inner rage, his sense of honor scalded by his wife’s callous infidelity. If that’s the situation, he might well lose his temper and scream, “How dare you come back to me! Get out, you wretched woman! I don’t ever want to see you again! Go to hell!” Both scenarios are real possibilities.
But what if Jack’s love for Jill is still burning within his heart? What if he has long dreamed of their reconciliation? What if he wants to be with her again? How would he react then? He can’t fake indifference; he cares about her too deeply. He can’t pretend he isn’t angry, because he is, and he has every right to be. Yet, he can’t tell Jill to get lost either, because he desperately wants her to stay. So, what does he do?
For Jack to be true to himself, he has to say something like this: “I still love you, Jill. And I do want you back. I’ve longed for you to come back. In fact, it’s my heart’s desire that we be together again. But you have to understand how much you’ve angered me and hurt me by what you’ve done. Your betrayal caused me deep personal pain and great public humiliation. I was devastated by it. And I’ve never felt so dishonored in all my life. You really hurt me.”
If there is to be any chance of their relationship being restored, Jack must find the inner resources to absorb the injury that Jill has inflicted on him. His love must be large enough to overcome his indignation. His grace must be deep enough to swallow his own dishonor. His mercy must be great enough to accept the pain associated with extending the hand of reconciliation toward his wayward wife. For Jack to forgive Jill, he has to be willing to suffer whatever pain there may be in not exacting vengeance, drinking instead the bitter cup himself.
While this may not be a perfect illustration, according to the New testament, something like that is happening on the cross. We have deserted God, as Jill had deserted Jack. We have angered God as Jill had angered Jack. We have dishonored God as Jill had dishonored Jack. We have broken God’s law, and, more to the point, we have broken his heart. We have sinned against him—every one of us. And, as a result, God could have turned the cold shoulder of indifference toward us. Or he could have, with perfect justice, vented his wrath toward us and told us to go to hell.
But here is good news that spells hope for the world. God’s divine heart yearns for reconciliation. He does not want to give us up (cf. Hos 11:8), so he says to humanity, “I love you, and I want you back. My deepest desire is that we have a true and lasting relationship once again. I want genuine reconciliation. But you have to realize how much you’ve dishonored me by what you’ve done. That’s all I ask. Just come back to me humbly, and grace will be yours in abundance—and we can be together again. I am willing to swallow the pain myself to make it happen.”
Do we realize the cost of human reconciliation with God? Do we need to see it spelled out in dramatic form? If so, look at the cross, for it’s there we see the God of the universe allowing his heart to be ravaged by the sin of this world. There we see the cataclysmic collision of divine attributes—holiness and love, justice and mercy, righteousness and grace—all resolving themselves in mutual satisfaction until there is a just and settled peace in the violent death of his beloved Son.
When we look at the cross, no one can accuse God of moral indifference now. As Paul argues in the book of Romans, the cross of Christ demonstrates the righteousness of God, not simply the grace of God. All things are properly settled now. As gruesome as it may be to consider, the bruised and bleeding Jesus—humanity’s perfect substitute—became the focal point of God’s revulsion toward sin. Here, then, is the gospel at its core. For those who embrace Jesus as their substitute, no divine revulsion remains. Humanity’s sin crisis has been rectified once and for all.
Conclusion: The Death of Christ—It Is For Us
On one occasion, Jesus said to his disciples, “Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Additionally, the Apostle Paul wrote, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). The cross, then, is good news for a fallen race. A great transaction took place there that God the Father accepted. He planned it, authorized it, carried it out, and honored it. That transaction is this: God treated Jesus as we deserved so that he could treat us as Jesus deserved.Whatever else the cross may entail, it surely entails the concept of substitution. As Charitie Lees Bancroft (1841-1892) wrote:
When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within
Upward I look and see Him there
Who made an end of all my sin
Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me
Luke Garrett (1959-2016) captured the same theological truth in his song, “Wondrous Exchange”:
The victim on a cross of execution
The Lamb of God that sacrificed his life
And the sky grew dark, and the rain poured down
The price of my redemption was so high
For on that hill was done the great transaction
As God paid out the ransom for my sin
I can walk away; I am truly free
From the prison and the hell my life had been
A wondrous exchange
A wondrous exchange
An offer so great I can scarcely believe
His crown for my shame
His loss for my gain
His death for my life
What a wondrous exchange
The objective dimension of Christ’ redeeming work on the cross opens up a wide variety of legitimate subjective expressions of its efficacy and impact on believers and their spiritual lives.
In his book The Cross of Christ, John R. W. Stott (1921-2011) writes, “I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross.’ In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?” In similar fashion, Edward Shillito (1872-1948) wrote in his poem “Jesus of the Scars”:
The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.
Finally, the subjective impact of Christ’s objective atonement is illustrated well in the famous hymn by Horatio Spafford (1828-1888), “It Is Well with My Soul”:
My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought—
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
The atonement is objective before it is subjective—and that is precisely what gives its subjective dimension so much power for the church in every age. Because Jesus is our substitute, we love him and want to follow his example.
Image Credits: gettyimage.com; gerhardy.id.au.
Parts of this essay were informed by the writings of John Stott, William Lane Craig, Roy Clements, and others who have written on atonement theory.
In preparing his people for their exodus from Egypt, God instructed the Israelites to sacrifice an unblemished lamb and then apply some of its blood to the tops and sides of their doorframes. God told them, “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn—both men and animals—and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt” (Exod 12:12-13).
Those who applied the blood to their homes were spared divine judgment and free to leave for the Promised Land the next day. God’s dramatic rescue of his people from Egypt was the preeminent act of salvation in the Old Testament, and he had several intentions in the original Passover event: to be faithful to his covenant; to expose the false gods of Egypt; to judge the wickedness and injustice of Pharaoh; to protect his people and deliver them from slavery; and to memorialize his saving power, providing hope for future generations who would keep his covenant.
The entire Passover ceremony centered on a lamb—a very specific lamb that had to meet specific requirements. For example, it had to be: a lamb that is male; a lamb in its prime; a lamb thoroughly examined; a lamb without blemish; a lamb without broken bones; a lamb slain and roasted; a lamb sacrificed by all; a lamb offered at twilight; and lamb that served as a substitute—dying so that others might live. Moreover, all of it had to be eaten family-by-family, such that every time a household walked out of Egypt the next day, a complete lamb “inside them” came out, too. Upon their great deliverance, their calendar started all over again. In essence they got a new beginning in life: “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year” (Exod 12:2).
It was John the Baptist who saw Jesus by the banks of the Jordan River and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The Apostle Paul wrote, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7b). The Apostle Peter wrote, “You know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:18-19). Jesus is the new and greater Lamb for the new and greater Exodus—the exodus from slavery to sin. Indeed, Christ meets all the requirements of the Passover Lamb. He is:
- The Lamb who is male
- The Lamb in his prime
- The Lamb thoroughly examined
- The Lamb without blemish
- The Lamb without broken bones
- The Lamb slain and roasted
- The Lamb sacrificed by all
- The Lamb offered at twilight
Applying his blood by faith to the doorposts of our lives now gives a new calendar, beginning, a new life. And every time a church family walks out of a Eucharistic service, there’s one complete Lamb “inside them” that comes out with them. On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus said to his disciples, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:14-20). He then gave his followers the broken bread of his body, and the poured out wine of his blood. He knew at that moment what believers would eventually come to learn, that God’s judgment passes over believers because it fell on his Son. Jesus was totally consumed by his love for his Father and his love for his people.
The Exodus 12 passage contains an interesting progression. It refers to “…a lamb…” (vv. 3-4a), “…thelamb…” (v. 4b); and “…your lamb…” (v. 5). Perhaps you’ve recognized that Jesus is a Lamb. Great. Maybe you’ve even recognized that Jesus is the Lamb. Even better. But have you ever made him your Lamb by faith? That’s why he came—to be your exodus from bondage to sin. Receive him today by faith, and you will get a brand new start to a whole new life (John 3:3).
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The Servant Song in Isaiah 53 was written 700 years before Jesus came, yet it reads like someone composed it while standing at the foot of the cross on Good Friday. But it was a prophetic prediction, not a historical reflection. Kyle Yates, an Old Testament Professor, has called this passage “the Mt. Everest of Old Testament prophecy.” Charles Spurgeon, the famous 19th-century Baptist preacher called it “a Bible in miniature, the gospel in its essence.” Franz Delitzsch, an Old Testament scholar and commentator called it “the deepest, and the loftiest thing that…Old Testament prophecy…has ever achieved.” That’s high praise for a single passage of Scripture.
Structurally, the passage is a song or a poem of five stanzas with three verses each. Each stanza gets a little longer than the previous one, serving to heighten the dramatic impact of each as they build upon the previous one. Of whom does the prophet speak? Whoever it is, this “Servant of the Lord” experiences deep lows as well as lofty highs. He appears more ordinary than spectacular—even gruesome at one point. He is willing to sacrifice much for the sake of love. Indeed, the Servant of the Lord looks beyond the injustice of this world to the justice of God. And he maintains hope in the midst of it all by clinging to divine sovereignty in hardship. A simple walk through the text paints a portrait of this Servant and what he accomplishes:
- He appeared to be totally insignificant. (1)
- He appeared to be physically unimpressive. (2)
- He appeared to be spiritually reprehensible. (3)
- He bore our sickness and sorrows. (4)
- He bore our piercings and punishment. (5)
- He bore our lostness and lawlessness. (6)
- His submission was total. (7)
- His death was violent. (8)
- His burial was notorious. (9)
- He is crushed by God but is then vindicated by God. (10)
- He suffers internally but is then satisfied by justifying many. (11)
- He dies among the wicked but is then generous in sharing his victory. (12)
The central verse of the composition is v. 5, and it summarizes what the Servant achieves: “But he was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was upon him. And by his stripes we are healed.” That is, he was “pierced through” for our acts of rebellion. He was “pulverized” for our twistedness. The “punishment” that brought us well-being was upon him, and by his “scourgings,” we are healed. In other words, this Servant of the Lord takes our diseases and gives us health. He takes our punishment and gives us joy and freedom. He takes our wounds and gives us healing. In the end, the Servant of the Lord was crushed by sin so that crushed sinners could become servants of the Lord. That’s good news for us, but what about the poor Servant? Fortunately, he is eventually vindicated, too (Isa 53:10-12).
The early church applied this prophecy to Jesus (Acts 8:30-34). That’s because Jesus applied it to himself: “I am among you as one who serves. . . . It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment” (Luke 22:27, 37). On the night before his execution, Jesus was thinking about Isaiah 53 and applying it to his own ordeal and mission. He was saying, “Tomorrow on the cross, I will look totally insignificant, unimpressive, reprehensible—a bloody mess! But it’s all according to plan. It’s all for your benefit.” In that awful rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, when Pilate meets Jesus for the first time, he says:
Oh, so this is Jesus Christ
I am really quite surprised
You look so small
Not a king at all
The rap on Jesus was this: “We know who you are and where you come from. You’re the carpenter’s son. We changed your diapers. We wiped your nose. You’re nothing special.” But this is the wisdom of God. As Bill Lane has said, “Their eyes could not penetrate the veil of ordinariness around them.” Do you know this Servant of the Lord by faith as your Savior and highest treasure in life? Have you ever trusted him—Jesus Christ—for your eternal salvation? Will you be one of “the many” referred to in v. 11 whom God will declare “not guilty”? Believe him. Receive him. Love him. Follow him. He was crushed for you.
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Some of us have had the occasion of ministering to friends and relatives when they took their last breath. We stand by their beds as death approaches, and we usher them into eternity. But how do we do that? If the person is a Christ follower, we often quote the Scriptures to them and sing their favorite hymns. When my father-in-law died, the whole family was gathered around his bed, and we were singing “Victory in Jesus” when he passed away. In fact, he died right at the moment we sang, “I heard about a mansion he has built for me in glory. And I heard about the streets of gold beyond the crystal sea.”
When my mother lay dying, we were singing “O Holy Night” when she passed away. In fact, she died right as we sang, “For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. Fall on your knees; O, hear the angel voices.” It’s a sacred and somber moment to be present when a person is reclaimed by the God who gave him. How do you want to be ushered into eternity? Loved ones can sing for me Isaac Watts’ “It Is Well with My Soul,” or Michael Card’s “Emmanuel,” or Fernando Ortega’s “Give Me Jesus.” That one ends with a simple profundity: “And when I come to die, give me Jesus.” Who could ask for anything more?
When Jesus is dying on the cross, he ushers himself into eternity with the soundtrack of Psalm 22. The Psalter was Israel’s hymn book, and Jesus quotes the first line of Psalm 22 on Calvary. He may have even said or sung the entire composition from his cross after shouting the opening line. If not, he was certainly summoning the whole song to our thinking, not just its opening words. If I started singing, “My hope is built on nothing less,” many believers’ minds will keep going and supply the rest: “Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness….” If I started singing, “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine,” many believers’ minds will keep going and supply the rest: “O what a foretaste of glory divine….” Likewise, Jesus gets us started by quoting Psalm 22:1, and the minds of those at the foot of the cross supply the rest. Amazingly, Jesus is still teaching us from the cross.
Consequently, it’s important to remember that Psalm 22 is a song of victory in the end. It begins in lament, but it ends in triumph. Moreover, David wrote it, but it’s application far exceeds what he was going through when he composed the lyrics. David was never publicly executed; he died at home, surrounded by his family. Nor did his death result in a mass conversion of peoples around the world as the lyrics go on to say. So, on the face of it, there’s a mystery to Psalm 22 when seen only through the lens of David’s historical situation. How do we solve the mystery? Peter does it for us in Acts 2:30: “[David] was a prophet and…seeing what was ahead, he spoke of…the Christ.” Psalm 22, then, is a shadow of the cross.
Now, David was truly suffering when he wrote Psalm 22. In history he was surrounded by his enemies, and he was reflecting on his pain and anguish, pouring his heart out to God in poetry. As he did so, he was moved by the Holy Spirit to write a song filled with typical Davidic exaggeration (e.g., “My tears have been my food!”). In fact, David’s hyperbole turned out to be Messiah’s reality. One line in the song says, “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people” (Ps 22:6). The word “worm” there refers to a creature from which scarlet dye was made. Prophetically, it’s one of the “I AM” statements of Jesus. The Son of Man felt less than a man when tortured by the men he had created.
Despite his ordeal, the suffer says to God, “YOU lay me in the dust of death” (Ps 22:15). It may look like the king’s enemies are killing him, but this king has another perspective: “It is GOD who is sovereign over my dying trial, not my enemies.” Indeed, Jesus overcame the deepest possible trouble with the deepest possible trust. In doing so, he demonstrated that feelings of abandonment by God are not actual abandonments by God. The cross and the empty tomb prove it. As such, the Scarlet Worm shows us how to trust God in our darkest moments.
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If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a drama must be worth a thousand books. And a drama from God must be worth an entire library of divine truth. In Old Testament times, God gave Israel seven dramas to perform each year. They were seven “sacred skits” that—when acted out—powerfully illustrated the love, grace, and holiness of God better than any sermon ever could. They were known as the seven feasts of Israel.
God gave his people seven “dramatizations of doctrine” to instruct them in his ways. They punctuated the calendar of the Jews in order to penetrate the conscience of the Jews. Shakespeare said it well: “The play’s the thing wherein we’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Israel had seven opportunities each year to be “caught” by God—seven high and holy moments that caused Israel to push the pause button on life and “take in a show.” A spiritual show. A liturgical show. A show that highlighted the human condition and God’s provision to remedy that condition.
Weaving together biblical and rabbinic sources, this message looks at the feast or drama known as Yom Kippur (“the Day of Atonement”), the most sacred and somber of all the feasts. The other dramas were marked by great rejoicing, but Yom Kippur was marked by great repentance. The others were marked by great feasting, but Yom Kippur was marked by great fasting. In fact, the ancient rabbis said: “Until you have seen a Day of Atonement, you have never seen sorrow.”
In some ways, Yom Kippur was the most important of all seven. It was the one drama that enabled the people to have great joy and celebration during the other six. That’s why, over time, Yom Kippur simply came to be known as Yoma (“the Day”). The ceremony featured a slaughtered goat and a scapegoat. The former had its blood sprinkled on the ark of the covenant inside the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle/temple. The latter was taken outside the camp and led to its death. Central to the ceremony was the work done by the High Priest, whose emergence from the Most Holy Place alive was the indication that God had accepted his sacrifice, and Israel’s sins could be covered for another year.
Ultimately, Yom Kippur was a foreshadowing of the final atonement made by Jesus Christ on the cross. Indeed, he became the Yom Kippur goats on that first Good Friday. As Jesus is deity in human flesh, we can only rejoice that God does not demand our blood for our sin, he offers his own. After making atonement for humanity’s sin, Jesus, the final High Priest, “sat down” (Hebrews 20:12), something no other high priest could do on Yom Kippur. The atoning work of Jesus is finished forever, and we know God accepted his sacrifice because he came out of his tomb alive.
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In watching Jesus carry the wood of the cross to the place of execution, Christians naturally think of the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22. God said to the patriarch, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” Abraham obeyed God, and Isaac quietly carried the wood up the mountain, preparing to be slaughtered by his own father.
In many ways, the story is disturbing, repugnant, and infuriating. We want to know what it was that drove Abraham up the mountain to take the life of his beloved son. We want to know why Isaac was so passive and compliant in the whole affair. And we want to know why God intervened at the last possible moment, possibly traumatizing Isaac even further. The entire episode is a bit more comprehensible when we understand that covenants often involved the exchange of firstborn sons. But sending Isaac to live in God’s house would necessitate his death. That’s hard to take.
Yet it was precisely because Isaac’s life was on the line that something even more horrendous than child sacrifice was at issue—namely, the possibility that God could be a liar. After all, Isaac was the child of promise, so if he died, God’s trustworthiness would die with him. Isaac has to live—or be resurrected—if all nations of the earth are to be blessed through his line. Abraham knew this, as the New Testament tells us in Hebrews 11:17. Abraham was convinced that God cannot lie, so he raised the knife. Just then an angel of the Lord called out from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham! Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you revere God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Abraham looked up, and there in a thicket was a ram caught by its horns. He took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering in the place of his son. Amazing.
Genesis 22 is a story about the costly sacrifice of a father, the willing submission of a son, and the gracious provision of the Lord. “He will provide,” said Abraham. “The Lord will see to it.” No wonder Jesus said to his contemporaries, “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). Jesus was now part of a similar story himself, and Abraham had gotten a preview of it. But what did Abraham see when he was standing on Mount Moriah? What did he hear? What did God show him? Did Abraham see the obedient Son of God bearing the wood of the cross to Golgotha—the Son for whom there would be no substitute this time? Perhaps if Abraham had been standing at the foot of the cross and had seen Jesus die right in front of him, he would have looked up to heaven and spoken God’s words back to him: “Lord! Lord! Now I know that you revere me, for you have not withheld from me your Son, your only Son, Jesus, whom you love.”
This message shows how the hardest thing God could ever ask of us is the very thing he did for us—he gave us his only Son.That Son was a descendant of Abraham through Isaac, and all families of the earth are blessed through him. God kept his word. Again. “What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32). Even more amazing.
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It all started in the garden of Eden. One man—made in the image of God—has the privilege of walking with God, talking with God, and enjoying God. His Hebrew name is Adam, which means “humanity.” He is the fountainhead of the human race, and he represents all of us. In this garden, Adam has a choice to make: Say “yes” to God, and all will be well, or say “no” to God, and all will be lost. As the story goes, Adam says “no” to God. In effect, he says to him, “Not thy will but mine be done.” As a result, his paradise is blitzed, the ground beneath him is cursed, and humanity is born again backwards into the darkness. Weeds of alienation start springing up everywhere. Humans are alienated from themselves, from each other, from creation, and from God himself. They’re naked and ashamed, hiding in fear.
But it’s a gracious God who seeks them out. Though he was the one dishonored, God pursues Adam and his wife to start repairing the mess they had made. He replaces the fig leaves they made to cover their nakedness, giving them instead garments of skin to wear (Gen 1:21), a more suitable covering than what they had crafted with their hands. But in order for Adam and Eve to wear garments of skin, God had to take the life of one of his own creatures to make it happen. Somewhere in Eden, then, there lies a dead animal carcass so that Adam and Eve can be spared the death sentence for their cosmic treason. As such, we are introduced on the earliest pages of the Bible to the theological concept of substitution—one dying so another can live.
If that weren’t enough, God gives them a word of hope, a prediction. He speaks of a man who will someday come to crush the head of the serpent, the creature that enticed the first couple to say “no” to God in the first place. In the process, the man will suffer a devastating wound. It’s the first hint in Scripture of the sacrificial death of Messiah to come, but God is determined to see human sin atoned permanently. And so, we wait. For thousands of years, we wait until we find ourselves in another garden. Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane is “the Last Adam” and the fountainhead of a new human race. In this garden, Jesus also has a choice to make: Say “yes” to God, and humanity will be rescued, or say “no” to God, and humanity will stay ruined. Thankfully, where Adam said, “Not thy will but mine be done,” Jesus says to his Father, “Not my will but thine be done.” Gethsemane, then, is reversing the misfortunes of Eden, as the next day, Jesus goes to the tree of death to give us back the tree of life. He becomes the carcass in the garden.
But why was the cross of Christ necessary for our salvation? Why did Jesus have to die? Why is forgiveness not by divine decree? If God can say, “Let there be light,” and it was so, why could he not also say, “Let there be forgiveness,” and it was so? Historically, the former statement has been seen as entailing no violation of God’s nature or ways. The latter, however, has been seen as a violation of at least some of his attributes. On the one hand, God’s holiness and justice require the condemnation of sinners. One the other hand, God’s mercy and grace require the forgiveness of sinners. Which will it be? Is there not a “divine dilemma” here demanding resolution? Is there a way for God to separate sinners from their sin so he can judge the sin while sparing the sinner—thus keeping all of his attributes perfectly intact?
In addition to connecting the dots from Eden to Gethsemane, this message explores how the cross is God’s crowbar that separates sinners from their sin, allowing them to be forgiven. Indeed, on the cross, God’s holiness and justice are satisfied (sin is condemned), and God’s mercy and grace are realized (sinners are forgiven). God did not sweep human sins under the rug, he swept them onto his Son—with the adult Son’s permission. On the cross, then, God’s attributes “collide” and find their mutual resolution in the death of Jesus Christ. And the restoration of Eden begins.
Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.
God has landed! Right in a manger. Right on top of cow spit and barnyard bacteria. Jesus came a long way to save us. Two thousand years ago, the eternal Son of God stepped across the stars of the universe to become a zygote in the womb of the Virgin Mary. And then he was born as one of us. “Manhood and deity in perfect harmony—the Man who is God,” wrote Graham Kendrick.
Christmas, then, is the ultimate display of meekness and majesty in one person. “Glory to God in the highest,” was the angelic response. They easily could have said, “Glory to God in lowest,” too. God is with us now in the person of Jesus Christ. On earth.
Magi from the east were among the first to welcome him. Following the natal star, they set out on a journey to find the newborn king. I have a hunch it was more than curiosity that drew this caravan of dignitaries and polymaths to Jesus. It was God himself. They saw him at work in the sky—speaking their language—and they wanted to go meet with him.
No doubt they connected the Hebrew prophecies left in their own towns during Israel’s exile with the celestial phenomenon they were observing. God is beautifully sneaky that way. We often hear it said, “Wise men still seek him,” but it was God who was seeking them. Sometimes he stirs things up, even to the point of rearranging his universe because he has something vitally important to tell us.
Are we listening?
The Magi were listening, and that’s why they traveled hundreds of miles across the desert to go see the newborn Christ. They were men of wisdom and learning. They were into math, medicine, astronomy, and human nature. Some of them were superstitious. We get our word “magic” from their title. Call them “wizards” if you like. It was the cast of Harry Potter who came to see Jesus.
For the most part, Magi just wanted to know the Power behind the universe. They pondered the great questions of life: “Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? Why is there something rather than nothing?” And because the Magi were so into the stars, God put a fantastic light in the sky on that first Christmas to get their attention—a star unlike anything else they had ever seen before.
We’re fascinated by the natal star, but a good sign always points away from itself to something else, so Matthew doesn’t go into detail about it. Besides, it’s not the stars that direct the course of history, but the Maker of the stars. He’s the director of the show. And it’s a transformational show for hungry souls on a quest for spiritual reality. Indeed, God tends to meet people at the level of their deepest longings. G. K. Chesterton put it like this:
Men are homesick in their homes
And strangers under the sun…
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where Christmas was begun.
If the Magi teach us anything, it’s that it’s never enough for us to just be amazed at the wonders of God; we have to set out on the journey and follow him. Our calling is not just to stand in awe of creation but to get to know the Creator.
God wants everyone to come and worship his Son. He wants you to worship his Son.
Even if you’re a wizard.
Merry Christmas from This New Life. May God richly bless you this day and always. Feel free to contact me if you’d like to know more about who Jesus is and how you can have a personal relationship with him.
Christmas Bonus. My son Andrew took Coverton’s Christmas remake of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and aligned it with scenes from the 2014 Son of God series. We showed it last night at the Christmas Eve service. The finished product is quite impactful. (Thanks, Drew!) Enjoy!
Image Credits: shutterstok.com; shepherdthoughts.com; countryliving.com.