Good Friday: the cross is an intersection

See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet?
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, Isaac Watts

The shape of the cross is the universal symbol of the Christian faith. Geometrically, a cross is two perpendicular lines intersecting. One vertical, the other horizontal.

When Jesus Christ died on his cross nearly two thousand years ago on a hill outside Jerusalem, paradoxes were proclaimed and unlike realities intersected with each other in a way that they never had before or will again.

God + humanity
The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ is the God-man, fully human and fully divine, yet one person with one nature. Simple enough to say, impossible to comprehend. Yet what that means is that when Christ died on his cross, the world of heaven – the vertical beam, if you will – cut into the world of earth – the horizontal beam. Jesus hung there, suspended between the two worlds, bridging the impasse between them. You could say that the cross was the ladder down which God climbed to make peace with humanity, to reach us. Therefore, to reach God, all a person needs is to come to the cross.

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. Colossians 1:20

wrath + grace
Sin provokes the Holy One to ferocious, irrepressible anger. God’s own love provokes him pardon sinners. At the cross, these two elemental aspects of God’s character met and embraced. The wrath of God against human sin inflicted itself on Jesus’ shoulders, back, neck, hands, feet, body, soul, mind and spirit; totally, comprehensively, exhaustively. He took every ounce, for my sin and yours. He absorbed the blow, stepping in as the scapegoat, the sacrifice, the substitute. All that is left over for us, the ones standing in Jesus’ shadow, are the grace, the mercy, the forgiveness, the love.

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. Isaiah 53:4-6

decimation of our pride + affirmation of our worth
The cross gives us a revolutionized way to look at ourselves, one that is painful and profoundly sweet at the same time. I’m using the strong word “decimation” here to mean “totally cancel and destroy.” The cross certainly decimates our pride, or our self-esteem, depending on your vocabulary. It asserts without apology that our self-imposed predicament of sin, death, hell, and alienation from God is so severe that nothing less than the Son of God’s torture and death could hope to address it. An extreme problem – the human condition – called for an extreme solution. No one but Jesus will cut down your pride and self-justification so thoroughly, because no one but Jesus loves you so deeply.

While decimating our attempts at self-worth, the cross affirms with abandon our value to God. It asserts, likewise without apology, that the depths of God’s grace towards us are so unfathomable that he found it worthwhile sacrifice the Son for the rabble outside, in order to turn the rabble into sons! Therefore, you count. You are not a waste. You are worthy. God says so.

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world. Galatians 6:14

suffering + glory
The Bible is chock full of paradoxes, as we should expect from a book claiming to contain divine truth. One of the most essential paradoxes in Christian thought – in my mind, it’s the key to the whole thing – is the one that Jesus expressed a few hours before his arrest:

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once.” John 13:31-32

Now is the Son of Man glorified. Now, as he is arrested, falsely accused, beaten, scourged, stripped, mocked, crucified, murdered. On the cross, glory intersected with suffering. Honor with shame, life with death. I do not understand it, but the brutally disfigured, naked body of Jesus on the cross brought glory to God. It blazed through and through with the glory of God. The Son of Man’s suffering screamed glory! glory! hallelujah!

That is the Christian paradigm. In our lives, that means that suffering and glory are intertwined, and death always comes before a resurrection.

When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. John 19:30

…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:1-2

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18

Advertisements

John M. Perkins

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. James 2:14-17

Christian love engages the world around it. It takes up the real causes of real people and does things about them, in the name of Jesus.

Jesus is the great Rebel, and his revolution revolves around his cross. Cross-like love is always rebellious: selflessly abandoned, extraordinarily costly, loving enemies, turning the world’s tables.

Christian love is deeply involved in the community in which it finds itself. Hedging our bets and staying inside the established circles are not options for people who hold up the cross as their banner. Our churches exist to take the cross, with its million applications, deep into the lives of our communities. Where this is not being done, our churches exist to plant new churches that will do it, whether for Stone Age tribes or for our own suburbs. Complacency kills.

John M. Perkins, a sharecropper’s son from Mississippi who fled poverty and his brother’s murder at age 17, only to return to his home state once Jesus grabbed his heart in 1960, was and is a civil rights activist whose life shows what it means for cross-like love to encounter a world of injustice, oppression, and repetitive, destructive cycles. Imitating Jesus, Perkins loved from the bottom of society up. Currently, his foundation serves and preaches good news to the poor of West Jackson, Mississippi – especially single moms. Check it out.

“The Sound” by Switchfoot is bringing Perkins and his message to worldwide attention.

In a world of chaos and idolatry, the church needs a different set of heroes from the world’s heroes, who are of a different type and caliber, who do not preach themselves, but who preach Jesus as Lord. And him crucified.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

[Jesus said,] “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:27

the cross in a postmodern world

If you hate the taste of wine
Why do you drink it ’til you’re blind?
And if you swear that there’s no truth and who cares
How come you say it like you’re right?

Why are you scared to dream of God
When it’s salvation that you want?
You see stars that clear have been dead for years
But the idea just lives on

We Are Nowhere and It’s Now by Bright Eyes

We live in a postmodern world. Our cultural sense of personal morality is dead and our concept of a morally perfect God outdated. Because of this, the culture we live in feels no need for atonement. The very idea of atonement baffles this culture. It cannot understand it or the need for it and thus dismisses the idea as irrelevant.

Meanwhile, atonement is the thumping heart at Christianity’s core. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). That is the center. That is the fixed point around which the rest of the Bible, the rest of Christian thinking, and the rest of the Christian life, revolves.

Some thirty-five hundred years ago, God gave an ancient collection of tribes known as the Israelites a code of laws which were to dictate their society and religion. In it, he included a complex and detailed system for conducting animal sacrifices – known to us as the book of Leviticus – for one purpose: to hammer into the Israelite mind, as they witnessed the morning and evening sacrifices at the tabernacle and temple every day without fail, the human need for atonement.

Then Moses took some of the anointing oil and of the blood that was on the altar and sprinkled it on Aaron and his garments… “As has been done today, the LORD has commanded to be done to make atonement for you.” Leviticus 8:30, 34

Fifteen centuries after Moses wrote the Pentateuch, Jesus of Nazareth died of crucifixion and a new understanding dawned on a small group of Hebrews concerning the nature of man, sin, and God. One said this: “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins… But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 10:4, 12).

The phrase “sat down” is critical. The tabernacles and temples of the old covenant did not contain chairs, because the work of the priests was never completed. Only when the Son of God himself shed his blood could he say with finality, “It is finished” (John 19:30).

In our day, notions of vicarious atonement and guilt before God are viewed as silly at best and barbaric at worst. I believe, however, that to dismiss these things, which are the heart of the gospel, is not only to believe a lie, but to ignore a truth testified to by our universal human nature.

Any people brave enough to search their own hearts, even without a full biblical understanding of God’s moral law, will see in themselves, perhaps without even being able to name it, a deep wrongness. Such people will know that they are not as they ought to be. They disappoint themselves regularly, sometimes devastatingly. Even the most self-righteous people – or the most postmodern people, completely unconcerned with questions of sin, guilt, and righteousness – will see in their inner being a disjointedness, an incompleteness, an emptiness, a shame. That sense of wrongness that each of us recognizes in our hearts is the remembrance of who we were meant to be, and the longing for who we can be through the scandal of the cross.

Do not stifle the need for atonement that is in your heart. The heart and soul in you knows that you desperately need a stand-in, a rescuer, a sacrifice, a redeemer. Look nowhere else than at Jesus.

repent, believe, repeat

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Mark 1:15

The Bible’s criteria for salvation are beautifully simple: repent, and believe. No mystic rituals, no secret info, no complex systems of moral progression. Simply: turn away from sin, toward God, and trust in Jesus, and what he has done, as your salvation. Repentance and faith are in fact two sides of the same coin, and one does not come without the other.

Repentance means reorienting one’s life, from sin to righteousness, darkness to light, life to death, idols to the living God.  Jesus told Paul at the beginning of Paul’s ministry, “I have appeared to you for this purpose… to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18).

Repentance was the major theme of the Old Testament prophets. For centuries, they pleaded with the people: repent! Your sin is evil in God’s eyes! Do not provoke him any longer. Come back to the God who loves you; humble yourselves and he will receive you. Repent and find life. “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:6-7).

Their audiences, however, did not often listen. Israel excelled in showy religion and superficial repentance, imitating all the outward signs without any of the inner change. God said, “…this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me…” (Isaiah 29:13) Israel’s repentance was fake because they did not often take either the holiness of God, or the kindness of God, to heart.

Recognizing God’s holiness motivates repentance because it shows a person the gravity of their sin and the terribleness of God’s reaction against it. The prophets threatened the judgment of God in order to turn the Israelites back to the covenant they had made with him, drilling into their heads: God hates your corruption, injustice, irreverence, and complacency. If you do not repent, he will judge you for your sin, mightily and terribly. Look at the second chapter of Joel as an example. The first eleven verses outline Joel’s wake up call to Israel, predicting the impending judgment of God.

The prophets, and all the biblical authors, understood that something even more fundamental than the fear of God’s judgment motivates heart-level repentance, however. Paul said in Romans 2:4, “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.” The following twenty-one verses of Joel 2 describe the kindness of God, beginning with a character description: “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.” The most stunning display of God’s kindness is at the cross, the place at which the man who is God died for his enemies (Romans 5:6-11). The message of that story brings real change – and it really starts to mean something when the first point, about God’s holiness, is properly grasped.

Faith is the partner of repentance. Faith means trusting in something – Someone – outside oneself for rescue and change. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Faith looks out and up for forgiveness purchased by another person’s sacrifice and righteousness earned by another person’s effort – that other person being Jesus Christ. “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5). Faith does not trust itself. It doesn’t trust its own performance or effort. Faith rests – really rests – in the completed work of Jesus the Savior.

Faith learns from repentance the pervasive presence of sin in the heart and the total inadequacy of “good” deeds and “good” attitudes. Much of repentance is seeing sin for what it is, dragging it out of foggy darkness into penetrating daylight (Ephesians 5:6-14). That knowledge, though, if not coupled with faith which finds its security in Jesus alone, is devastating. Knowledge of our sin is always meant, without fail, to bring us back to simple gratitude for and wonder at the cross of Christ.

Conversion means: repent, believe. Christians too often forget that the rest of their lives follow the same pattern: repent, believe, repent, believe, repeat, repeat, repeat.

As the Holy Spirit opens a person’s spiritual eyes to their own sin more and more, that person will learn to repent weekly, daily, hourly. Life as a Christian is constant war against sin (complacency and apathy so often being the very sins in need of battle and repentance, of course). Turning, re-turning, re-turning from sin, meanwhile always resting, always secure, always satisfied, in the complete sufficiency of Jesus and his cross. That’s your life, Christian. There is so much grace in it. God does not give up on us. Until death or Christ’s return, the battle does not stop – but then neither does the rest.

meditations on Holy Week (3): the Passover lamb

Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 1 Corinthians 5:7
In the book of Exodus, God freed his people the Israelites from viciously oppressive slavery. In order to do so, he inflicted a series of ten miraculous plagues against their masters, the Egyptians, and the false gods the Egyptians worshipped. Each successive plague demonstrated the greatness and the “mighty hand and outstretched arm” of the true God, Yahweh, in comparison to the nonexistent power of the Egyptian idols. The last plague was the worst. In one night, God caused the firstborn son of every idolatrous family in Egypt to die.

Every family, except those who did this one thing: slaughtered an unblemished lamb and smeared its blood on the doorposts of the family’s home.

This ancient event constitutes the extremely important Jewish holiday of Passover, so-called because God “passed over” the houses with blood on them. Jews of all kinds celebrate it around the world today. Jesus and his disciples celebrated it 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem, during the original Holy Week. They ate the traditional Passover meal during the “last supper,” Jesus’ last meal before he died.

Passover meant (and still means) everything to the Jews, because it so incredibly encapsulated the awesome interplay between God’s justice and his mercy, and it so vividly demonstrated his provision of grace. The reality is, though, that Passover absolutely pales in comparison to its true fulfillment at the cross of Jesus.

Jesus – the Holy One of Israel, the Chosen One, the Messiah – for the sake of love became, himself, the final Passover lamb, the sacrifice for the idolatry of the people. The spotless lamb, the man of perfection, shed his blood on the cross, on two wooden beams so much like doorposts, so that idolaters like you and I may be “passed over” on the coming Day of Judgment, when every hidden thought and deed is laid bare before the piercing eyes of a holy God. Not only passed over, but freed from slavery, redeemed, given an inheritance in the ultimate promised land, adopted as children of the Father.

The love of Jesus on the cross is what Christians celebrate today, Good Friday, and oh how good it is. This love is not clean, it is bloody, and incalculably painful; but it is pure. This love is extended to all who dare to listen, and it is good enough for all who dare to come. This love is what makes life make sense, it’s what quiets a guilty conscience, it’s what humbles the proud and raises the shamed, it’s what changes a life, it’s what saves a people, it’s what brings us to God.

Therefore: paint his blood on your door! Paint his blood on your door daily. There is never a day when you do not need it, and never a day when it is not sufficient for you.

boasting

Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.” Jeremiah 9:23-24

A tough guy pushing his chest out and strutting around like he owns the place – that’s my mental image of “boasting.” As usual, the Word of God tears me apart (in the best way).

You may be wise, mighty, or rich. You may be pretty or well-liked. You may have worked hard for years, with a moral lifestyle and the respect of your peers. Yet – boast in none of these things; in fact, count them as loss (Philippians 3:8). Not one of these things is worth boasting about, finding your identity in, living for. There is one reality in whom you are to invest your zeal, commitment, and life, and he alone will prove trust-worthy in the end.

In Philippians 3, right before Paul makes the famous statement that everything he once counted as gain he now counts as loss for the sake of Christ, he gives a list of convincing reasons to show why he has good cause to do just the opposite – to, as he says, “put confidence in the flesh” rather than in Jesus. Paul had a lot of reasons to boast. He had a lot of reasons to feel confident in himself, before both God and people. And yet…

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Galatians 6:14

“Let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth.” Where is it, Christian, that the relentless love of God, the unstoppable justice of God, and the blazing righteousness of God, converge? Where is it that his love is poured out, his justice satisfied, and his righteousness demonstrated? Where else but at the cross? In the cross, in the gruesomely disfigured face of a man being tortured – boast in nothing else but this. The cross of Jesus alone is our boast, our identity, worthiness, confidence, and calling.

In losing your claims to false identities, find your true individuality. The aimless pursuit of self-gain or glory, which is what life is like apart from “boasting in the cross,” promises to let you be who you really are. In reality, it deadens who you really are. It sucks up every limited resource of self until it finally runs out. The cross, meanwhile, of the crucified and risen Jesus, is limitless in its scope and power. Lose yourself in God and in him find your true personality; lose yourself in you and get nothing but emptiness and limitation.

Because he boasted only in the cross – because Paul’s whole claim on life was wrapped up in how Jesus had sacrificed himself for Paul – Paul boasted also in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9), suffering (Romans 5:3), and the people he evangelized (1 Thessalonians 2:19), among others. Yes, seriously: weakness, suffering, and churchy people. Thus there is no room left for boasting about anything at all which does not flow from a boast in the cross. The Lord of the galaxies, the Lord beyond the galaxies, has died for us. Therefore we are strong when we are weak, rejoicing when we are suffering, joyful when we are poured out and used up for the sake of other people’s faith. Incredibly, that is what the Bible says, unapologetically.

The call of the cross to you and me, then, is the same: come and be crucified to the world. Give up your claims of self, of wisdom, strength, money, morality, plans, likability, because the Son of God gave himself up for you. Let the almighty God who delights in steadfast love, and justice, and righteousness, have his way with you. Boast only in the Lord and in so doing find life so amazing, so worth living, you will never want to go back.

God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” 1 Corinthians 1:28-31

compartmentalizing God

In my personal devotions, I am currently in the Old Testament book of Hosea. It’s one of my favorites. I love it because in it, God is so passionate about capturing his people’s hearts. He addresses Israel as a wounded husband whose wife plays the part of a whore by chasing after other “lovers” – i.e., other gods and the things of this world. He does everything he can – pleads, promises, threatens, woos, thunders, mourns – to get Israel’s attention back on him. The God of Hosea, and of the whole Bible, never submits to being put in a box, never resigns himself to the sidelines, never rests content as one among many (whether among ancient pagan deities or the equally idolatrous modern equivalents of comfort, doing what we want with “our” time, other people’s respect, etc.). And do we really believe that he should?

We “compartmentalize” God all the time. For me, it often goes something like this: “God is relevant to what I pray about and to what happens after I die, but not to how I spend or save my money. Or to how I treat my parents. Or to my attitude when I get up in the morning. Or to how I drive, what standard of living I live at, my choice of college major, or…” On and on. Fill in the blanks for yourself.

The lie we believe is that we can create a “religion” compartment in our lives, into which God fits quite nicely, and call it satisfactory. We try to “fit” God into our lives instead of fitting our lives into him. The assumptions behind this compartmentalizing attitude can be basically summed up with the title of a J. B. Phillips book I read last year: “Your God Is Too Small.”

Phillips discusses some of the “too small gods” that Christians attempt to worship, such as: the resident policeman; the parental hangover; the grand old man; the meek-and-mild; the managing director; the pale Galilean; the impersonal force. Sometimes God’s holiness gets minimized, leaving him as a friendly, cosmic grandfather-type who just wants people to be happy. Other times his grace is ignored and he becomes something like the cosmic projection of an impossible-to-please, emotionally distant human father. In every way these conceptions of God are lies. The holy, infinite, active, personal, Lover-God of the Bible does not resemble them at all.

God is “above the earth and heavens;” he is “over all the nations” (Psalm 113:4, 99:2, 148:13, and many more). He is beyond the vastest expanses of the universe. He is the king of and provider for every creature that has ever walked, crawled, swum, grown, or breathed on the earth. He knows the full personalities of all people, and he understands every facet of who they, and you, are. His glory is inexpressible and his character is irrepressible. He is a consuming fire, a thundering lightning storm, brighter than the brightest star, deeper than the deepest ocean; he exhausts every metaphor. How else can we respond to him but to join with the psalmist in saying, “Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised” (Psalm 96:4)?

Stop limiting God, and thereby limiting your life with him. Refuse to believe the lies of American culture and your own biased take on things, both of which are so often based on inaccurate, unquestioned assumptions. Look up quietly at the stars on a dark night, embrace your own smallness, and begin to understand the greatness of our God. His creation, his word, and his Son declare him to be so big, so glorious, so much more solid and powerful than us, that the only thing for it is to bow down in worship.

The Israelites in Hosea’s day viewed Yahweh, the true God, as just another deity among many, who, like all the others, would be easily appeased with the religified offering of some dead animals (cf. Psalm 50). We too expect God to be appeased with a nice show of religion, an average-type level of commitment, a half-hearted spiritual life. Thank God we are saved by none of these things, but only by the cross of Jesus; thank him that because of the cross he does not hold our complacency against us. With him, there is inexhaustible forgiveness! Really, truly, God is good.

Do you understand that he demands total allegiance in all things and in every way? He is a “jealous God.” He loves you as a husband loves his wife, yet so much more than any man has ever loved a woman. He loves you as a father loves his firstborn son, yet so much more than any parent has ever loved their child. He is the great Lover, the eternal Giver. His passion concerning you is that he himself will be your beloved, your sole refuge and greatest joy, your closest friend, your one and only. He wants deep, uncompromised intimacy with you. What was the purpose for which he bought us back with his blood? To “dwell among us.” To be, he himself, our God. How breathtaking – we are so foolish and blind to settle for anything less than all of himself.

Allow God to begin breaking out of the compartments you put him into, and witness the changes in how you live. Cling to the cross as your only hope for bringing you close to this God “above the universe,” as your sole salvation, as your greatest proof of the never-running-out love of God. Live in awe, for our God is great; live with confidence, for our God is good.

Who among the gods is like you, LORD?
Who is like you—
majestic in holiness,
awesome in glory,
working wonders? Exodus 15:11

For your Maker is your husband,
the LORD of hosts is his name;
and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
the God of the whole earth he is called. Isaiah 54:5

But with you there is forgiveness;
therefore you are feared. Psalm 130:4

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. Revelation 21:3